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Peterson was born on 12 June 1962, in Edmonton, Alberta, and grew up in Fairview, a small town in the northwest of the province. He was the eldest of three children born to Walter and Beverley Peterson. Beverley was a librarian at the Fairview campus of Grande Prairie Regional College, and Walter was a school teacher. His middle name is Bernt (/ˈbɛərənt/, BAIR-ənt), after his Norwegian great-grandfather.
After graduating from Fairview High School in 1979, Peterson entered the Grande Prairie Regional College to study political science and English literature. He later transferred to the University of Alberta, where he completed his B.A. in political science in 1982. Afterwards, he took a year off to visit Europe, where he began studying the psychological origins of the Cold War; 20th-century European totalitarianism; and the works of Carl Jung, Friedrich Nietzsche, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He then returned to the University of Alberta and received a B.A. in psychology in 1984. In 1985, he moved to Montreal to attend McGill University. He earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology under the supervision of Robert O. Pihl in 1991, and remained as a post-doctoral fellow at McGill's Douglas Hospital until June 1993, working with Pihl and Maurice Dongier.
Peterson married Tammy Roberts in 1989; the couple have one daughter and one son.
From July 1993 to June 1998, Peterson lived in Arlington, Massachusetts, while teaching and conducting research at Harvard University as an assistant professor in the psychology department. During his time at Harvard, he studied aggression arising from drug and alcohol abuse and supervised a number of unconventional thesis proposals. Two former PhD students, Shelley Carson, a psychologist and teacher from Harvard, and author Gregg Hurwitz, recalled that Peterson's lectures were already highly admired by the students. He returned to Canada in July 1998 and eventually became a full professor at the University of Toronto.
In 1999, Routledge published Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, in which Peterson describes a comprehensive theory about how people construct meaning, form beliefs, and make narratives. The book, which took Peterson 13 years to complete, draws concepts from various fields including mythology, religion, literature, philosophy, and psychology, in accordance to the modern scientific understanding of how the brain functions.
Starting around 2000, Peterson began collecting Soviet-era paintings. The paintings are displayed in his house as a reminder of the relationship between totalitarian propaganda and art, and as examples of how idealistic visions can become totalitarian oppression and horror. In 2016, Peterson became an honorary member of the extended family of Charles Joseph, a Kwakwaka'wakw artist, and was given the name Alestalagie ('Great Seeker').
In 2004, a 13-part TV miniseries based on Peterson's book aired on TVOntario.
In 2005, Peterson and his colleagues set up a for-profit company to provide and produce a writing therapy program with a series of online writing exercises. Titled the "Self-Authoring Suite", it includes the Past Authoring Program (a guided autobiography); two Present Authoring Programs, which allow the participant to analyze their personality faults and virtues in terms of the Big Five personality model; and the Future Authoring Program, which guides participants through the process of planning their desired futures. The latter program was used with McGill University undergraduates on academic probation to improve their grades, as well as since 2011 at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University.
In 2013, Peterson began recording his lectures for his two classes ("Personality and Its Transformations" and "Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief") and uploading them to YouTube. His YouTube channel has gathered more than 1.8 million subscribers and his videos have received more than 65 million views as of August 2018.
For most of his career, Peterson maintained a clinical practice, seeing about 20 people a week. He has been active on social media, and in September 2016 he released a series of videos in which he criticized Bill C-16. As a result of new projects, he decided to put the clinical practice on hold in 2017 and temporarily stopped teaching as of 2018.
Peterson has appeared on many podcasts, conversational series, as well other online shows. In December 2016, Peterson started The Jordan B. Peterson Podcast. In March 2019, the podcast joined the Westwood One network with Peterson's daughter as a co-host on some episodes. Peterson defended engineer James Damore after he was fired from Google for writing Google's Ideological Echo Chamber.
On 27 September 2016, Peterson released the first installment of a three-part lecture video series, entitled "Professor against political correctness: Part I: Fear and the Law." In the video, he stated that he would not use the preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty, saying it fell under compelled speech, and announced his objection to the Canadian government's Bill C-16, which proposed to add "gender identity or expression" as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act, and to similarly expand the definitions of promoting genocide and publicly inciting hatred in the hate speech laws in Canada.
The series of videos drew criticism from transgender activists, faculty, and labour unions; critics accused Peterson of "helping to foster a climate for hate to thrive" and of "fundamentally mischaracterising" the law. Protests erupted on campus, some including violence, and the controversy attracted international media attention. When asked in September 2016 if he would comply with the request of a student to use a preferred pronoun, Peterson said "it would depend on how they asked me.… If I could detect that there was a chip on their shoulder, or that they were [asking me] with political motives, then I would probably say no.… If I could have a conversation like the one we're having now, I could probably meet them on an equal level." Two months later, the National Post published an op-ed by Peterson in which he elaborated on his opposition to the bill, saying that gender-neutral singular pronouns were "at the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century."
In 2016, Peterson had a severe autoimmune reaction to food and was prescribed clonazepam. In late 2016, he went on a strict diet consisting only of meat and some vegetables, in an attempt to control his severe depression and the effects of an autoimmune disorder including psoriasis and uveitis. In mid-2018, he stopped eating vegetables, and continued eating only beef (carnivore diet).
In January 2017, using funds received on Patreon after he became embroiled in the Bill C-16 controversy in September 2016, Peterson hired a production team to film his psychology lectures at the University of Toronto. His funding through the crowdfunding website has increased significantly, from $1,000 per month in August 2016 to $14,000 by January 2017; more than $50,000 by July 2017; and over $80,000 by May 2018. In December 2018, Peterson decided to delete his Patreon account after the platform's banning of political personalities who Patreon said violated their rules on hate speech. Following this, Peterson and Dave Rubin announced the creation of a new, free speech-oriented social networking and crowdfunding platform. This alternative had a limited release under the name Thinkspot later in 2019, and remained in beta testing as of December 2019.
In May 2017, Peterson began The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories, a series of live theatre lectures, also published as podcasts, in which he analyzes archetypal narratives in Book of Genesis as patterns of behavior ostensibly vital for personal, social and cultural stability. In October 2020, Peterson announced plans for a lecture series on the Book of Exodus and the Book of Proverbs.
Peterson says that "disciplines like women's studies should be defunded", advising freshman students to avoid subjects like sociology, anthropology, English literature, ethnic studies, and racial studies, as well as other fields of study that he believes are corrupted by "post-modern neo-Marxists". He believes these fields to propagate cult-like behaviour and safe-spaces, under the pretense of academic inquiry. Peterson had proposed a website using artificial intelligence to identify ideologization in specific courses, but postponed the project in November 2017 as "it might add excessively to current polarization."
In response to the controversy, academic administrators at the University of Toronto sent Peterson two letters of warning, one noting that free speech had to be made in accordance with human rights legislation, and the other adding that his refusal to use the preferred personal pronouns of students and faculty upon request could constitute discrimination. Peterson speculated that these warning letters were leading up to formal disciplinary action against him, but in December the university assured him he would retain his professorship, and in January 2017 he returned to teach his psychology class at the University of Toronto.
In February 2017, Maxime Bernier, candidate for leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, stated that he had shifted his position on Bill C-16, from support to opposition, after meeting with Peterson and discussing it. Peterson's analysis of the bill was also frequently cited by senators who were opposed to its passage. In April 2017, Peterson was denied a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant for the first time in his career, which he interpreted as retaliation for his statements regarding Bill C-16. However, a media-relations adviser for SSHRC said, "Committees assess only the information contained in the application." In response, Rebel News launched an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign on Peterson's behalf, raising C$195,000 by its end on 6 May, equivalent to over two years of research funding. In May 2017, as one of 24 witnesses who were invited to speak about the bill, Peterson spoke against Bill C-16 at a Canadian Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs hearing.
In November 2017, Lindsay Shepherd, the teaching assistant of a Wilfrid Laurier University first-year communications course, was censured by her professors for showing, during a classroom discussion about pronouns, a segment of The Agenda in which Peterson debates Bill C-16 with another professor. The reasons given for the censure included the clip creating a "toxic climate," being compared to a "speech by Hitler," and being itself in violation of Bill C-16. The censure was later withdrawn and both the professors and the university formally apologized. The events were cited by Peterson, as well as several newspaper editorial boards and national newspaper columnists, as illustrative of the suppression of free speech on university campuses. In June 2018, Peterson filed a $1.5-million lawsuit against Wilfrid Laurier University, arguing that three staff members of the university had maliciously defamed him by making negative comments about him behind closed doors. As of September 2018, Wilfrid Laurier had asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying it was ironic for a purported advocate of free speech to attempt to curtail free speech.
In a 2017 interview, Peterson was asked if he was a Christian; he responded, "I suppose the most straight-forward answer to that is yes." When asked if he believes in God, Peterson responded: "I think the proper response to that is No, but I'm afraid He might exist." Writing for The Spectator, Tim Lott said Peterson draws inspiration from Jung's philosophy of religion and holds views similar to the Christian existentialism of Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich. Lott also said that Peterson has respect for Taoism, as it views nature as a struggle between order and chaos and posits life would be meaningless without this duality.
Regarding the topic of religion and God, Bret Weinstein moderated a debate between Peterson and Sam Harris at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver in June 2018. In July, the two debated the subject again, this time moderated by Douglas Murray, at the 3Arena in Dublin and The O2 Arena in London. In April 2019, Peterson debated Slavoj Žižek at the Sony Centre in Toronto over happiness under capitalism versus Marxism.
In January 2018, Penguin Random House published Peterson's second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, in which abstract ethical principles about life are provided in a more accessible style than his previous Maps of Meaning. The book topped best-selling lists in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the US, and the United Kingdom. As of January 2019, Peterson is working on a sequel to 12 Rules for Life.
In March 2019, Peterson had his invitation of a visiting fellowship at Cambridge University rescinded. He had previously said the fellowship would give him "the opportunity to talk to religious experts of all types for a couple of months," and that the new lectures would have been on Book of Exodus. A spokesperson for the University said there was "no place" for anyone who could not uphold the "inclusive environment" of the university. After a week, Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope explained that it was due to a photograph with a man wearing an Islamophobic shirt. The Cambridge University Students' Union released a statement of relief, considering the invitation "a political act to…legitimise figures such as Peterson" and that his work and views are not "representative of the student body." Peterson called the decision a "deeply unfortunate...error of judgement" and expressed regret that the Divinity Faculty had submitted to an "ill-informed, ignorant and ideologically-addled mob."
In April 2019, his prescribed dosage of clonazepam was increased to deal with the anxiety he was experiencing as a result of his wife's cancer diagnosis. Starting several months later, he made various attempts to lessen his intake, or stop taking the drug altogether, but experienced "horrific" benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome, including akathisia, described by his daughter as "incredible, endless, irresistible restlessness, bordering on panic." According to his daughter, Peterson and his family were unable to find doctors in North America who were willing to accommodate their treatment desires, so in January 2020, Peterson, his daughter and her husband flew to Moscow, Russia for treatment. Doctors there diagnosed Peterson with pneumonia in both lungs upon arrival, and he was put into a medically induced coma for eight days. Peterson spent four weeks in the intensive care unit, during which time he allegedly exhibited a temporary loss of motor skills.
An article published in 2020 in the International Journal of Jungian Studies, entitled ′Carl Jung, John Layard and Jordan Peterson: Assessing Theories of Human Social Evolution and Their Implications for Analytical Psychology', offers a sustained critique of Peterson’s thought as outlined in 12 Rules for Life. In this critique it is claimed that Peterson fails to take account of research in paleoanthropology, evolutionary anthropology and ethnographic studies of egalitarian societies. Such societies, which are believed to represent the ancient forager adaptation of H. sapiens, are both matrilineal and lacking in social hierarchy. The author argues that a major sociocultural transformation occurred from this ancient adaptive complex with the onset of agriculture giving rise to modern patrilineal and hierarchical cultures. This view contrasts with Peterson’s which postulates modern social and economic structures are an outgrowth of the hierarchical impulses of our premammalian, mammalian and primate ancestors. This led the author to conclude that Peterson seems to have ‘projected his own cultural biases back into the deep past.’
Several months after his treatment in Russia, Peterson and his family moved to Belgrade, Serbia for further treatment. In June 2020, Peterson made his first public appearance in over a year, when he appeared on his daughter's podcast, recorded in Belgrade. He said that he was "back to my regular self", other than feeling fatigue, and was cautiously optimistic about his prospects. He also said that he wanted to warn people about the dangers of long-term use of benzodiazepines (the class of drugs that includes clonazepam). In August 2020, his daughter announced that her father had contracted COVID-19 during his hospital stay in Serbia. Two months later, Peterson posted a YouTube video to inform that he had returned home and aims to resume work in the near future.