Twitter is a fickle creature. You can ride it well, if you keep a good seat. But sometimes it can be a bumpy ride. Even those of us with followers in the four or three-digit range (sniff) can attest to this. Now amplify that by a few orders of magnitude, and you’ll have some sense of what Jordan Peterson’s week has been like. And all it took was one tweet: “If confirmed Kavanaugh should step down.”
People Being Upset With Jordan Peterson is not by itself an uncommon occurrence. But this time, the upsetness is not coming from the usual suspects of leftist media and offended white supremacists. It’s coming from people who would have counted themselves among Jordan Peterson’s biggest fans, before he started tweeting about Brett Kavanaugh.
Personally, I thought it was a silly take. Further tweets showed Peterson’s usual humility, flexibility of mind, and openness to being wrong on delicate and complicated questions, but didn’t change the silliness of that first take. However, because Jordan Peterson is not my personal lord and savior, fond as I am of him, I hardly thought twice about it and went about my business.
But other Jordan Peterson fans with (apparently) more time on their hands than I have didn’t see it that way. The backlash was swift and unsparing. Even though he wasn’t the only one in the loose “we’re not a band” band of heterodox thinkers known as the Intellectual Dark Web to tweet against the grain on Kavanaugh, nobody else in that group commands the passionate following Peterson does. This, as Peterson found out, is a double-edged sword. Some fans have been relatively restrained in their dissent, while still pointing out, fairly, that Peterson of all people should know something about (not) kowtowing to a mob. But some have called him a sell-out, a traitor, and more.
I propose a follow-up to the red pill: the chill pill.
The backlash inspired further reflection, an apology for trying out such a touchy idea on Twitter, and a blog post where Peterson organized his thoughts in a much more thorough, systematic way. I actually found myself agreeing with many of his points once he laid them out this way, including his opinion on the likelihood that Kavanaugh might actually have drunk to the point of blacking out in high school. (Youth alcohol abuse is a long-time research area of Peterson’s where I would trust his expertise.) In the course of the post, he lamented not following the sage counsel of his son, who advised him long ago that if something is worth responding to on Twitter, it’s worth responding to in a blog post. Wise words. As a result of this backlash, he is seriously considering that he might be better off saying goodbye to Twitter altogether. Indeed, as I write, his last contentful tweet was on October 11th.
I can hardly blame him for thinking this way. Presumably, Peterson would continue posting (or having someone post) updates to his FaceBook page and his blog. But it’s not clear that he personally uses FaceBook, as opposed to having posts auto-set to be shared from Twitter or shared by someone on his team. It’s doubtful that posts exclusive to FaceBook would have the same unmistakably personal touch in the future that his tweets do now. And demographically, far more young people are on Twitter than on FaceBook. To be sure, the fact that Twitter in general and his Twitter followers in particular skew young is a two-sided coin, as we’ve seen. But those young followers of his who didn’t lose their minds over his Kavanaugh tweets would be sorry to see him go. Herewith, five things I have appreciated about Jordan Peterson’s Twitter feed, the loss or dilution of which I think would be a sad thing:
He shows us who his fans are. Some may find this point ironic, given that a not insignificant portion of Peterson’s fans have “shown who they are” by aggressively spamming his feed over Kavanaugh. This would, after all, seem to vindicate the leftist narrative that Peterson’s followers are mostly aggrieved man-children ready to turn on their hero in melodramatic fashion the moment he “betrays” them. But it may better illustrate the adage that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Anyone who’s been following Peterson in the last few months knows from the fan reactions he spotlights that a diverse array of people have benefited from his work. Somehow I doubt that this thoughtful young woman, or this dad of two, or this disabled journalist are currently obsessing over Peterson’s Kavanaugh hot take. Ditto for the kid on Reddit now pursuing a Ph.D. in cog-sci who thanked Peterson for filling the void after his father committed suicide (Peterson tweeted out the letter with a “You’re welcome.”)
He is not wholly inaccessible. Wisely, Peterson virtually never enters the fray of the comments underneath his social media posts. However, when a fan offers a useful piece of advice, like the fan who suggested that Peterson make an Amazon affiliate link for his great books recommendations, Peterson will take it. In general, he proves that he is lurking and reading comments even when he doesn’t engage, by highlighting typical reactions as in his longer blog about Kavanaugh. While those of us interacting in his Twitter feed will never know if his eye has alighted upon our particular bit of scintillating wit, he has indicated that it is at least a possibility. And, on very rare occasions, he will speak directly to that one fan who really, really needs it, like the kid he talked out of suicide last summer. After the lecture, where they met briefly at the after-show VIP session and Peterson sternly adjured the lad “Please take care of yourself, man,” the kid tweeted his thanks to Peterson. He told Peterson he was planning to take his advice and check into a hospital. Peterson tweeted back: “I’m absolutely thrilled to hear it.”
He keeps his finger on the pulse of the academy for us. Peterson keeps his followers reliably informed about the encroachments of left-think in academe and the clinical professions. Those of us who are in the academy, myself included, would like to keep abreast of this news but lack the time to do so consistently on our own. In particular, it can be easy for American academics to ignore Canadian university politics. But Canada’s political landscape deserves our careful attention, because it could well be showing us what America will look like not so far down the road.
He promotes and encourages good writers. This is what I will miss most if Peterson leaves Twitter: His feed is a running hand-picked buffet of some of the best cultural commentary you won’t get from mainstream media outlets, particularly when it comes to thoughtful commentary on the phenomenon around Peterson and his peers. Moreover, he always adds a brief comment in his distinctive voice, as a fingerprint to show that he is personally culling through articles instead of delegating the task to someone else. Not only does this edify and educate his followers, it also encourages writers. We take pride in our craft. When we put genuine care into a piece, and the subject of that piece proves he read it with equal care, it makes our week. I experienced this firsthand when my analysis of Peterson’s debates with Sam Harris went viral after he tweeted it out. The extra pay-per-view cash flow didn’t hurt, but the encouragement of Peterson’s personalized thumbs-up was priceless.
He provides a forum for (inter)action: Peterson’s Twitter feed is not the only Peterson-related water cooler for Peterson fans, but it’s still been the place where I’ve had some of my most interesting encounters with folks whom I may or may not have bumped into on Reddit or FaceBook groups. Believe it or not, there are people on Twitter who actually want to talk about ideas.
In addition to creating catalysts for fan interaction, Peterson’s presence on Twitter also helps facilitate interaction within his peer group. Granted, hosts like Dave Rubin periodically arrange for the Dark Web to share long-form conversations, but Twitter is an ongoing conversation, allowing us to eavesdrop on how some of the platform’s best minds are playing off each other up to the minute. Sometimes we even witness give-and-takes like those that have transpired between Ben Shapiro and fellow “Dark Web” cohort Eric Weinstein, where Eric will frankly critique Ben if he thinks Ben crossed a line, Ben considers it, they exchange mature dialogue, and all their followers are enriched thereby.
Finally, as an extension of my last point, a good article Peterson tweets out might only cross his peers’ feed because he shared it, particularly if it’s not from a major media outlet. If it piques their interest too, and they retweet it, this is yet another bump for the author. I got a second bump like this when journalist and debate moderator Douglas Murray retweeted Peterson’s tweet of my debate analysis. Knowing Peterson had seen and appreciated it was encouraging enough, but knowing Murray had too was doubly so.
Ultimately, Jordan Peterson must decide what is best for Jordan Peterson. He has expressed that quitting Twitter would take a tremendous strain off of his mental well-being, and that’s a very serious consideration indeed. However big a fan I am, if it comes down to a choice between himself and his fans, I hope Jordan chooses himself. Whether or not we see him around on Twitter, we’d like to keep him around.