FACT CHECK: Is Jordan Peterson ‘Alt-Right’?

David Sivak | Fact Check Editor

NBC News aired a segment about Canadian academic Jordan Peterson that labeled him an “alt-right intellectual.”

Verdict: False

Peterson not only rejects identity politics, including the white nationalist underpinnings of the alt-right – he actively tries to steer his followers away from the political fringes.

Richard Spencer and other alt-right leaders have criticized Peterson for not confronting the “racial issue.”

Fact Check:

Peterson is a psychologist-turned-culture warrior who gained notoriety in late 2016 for speaking out against political correctness in Canada. He found an audience for his views on YouTube, where his videos have been watched over 53 million times.

As his influence on the right has grown, the news media has sought to explain the meteoric rise of a respected, but largely unknown professor at the University of Toronto.

On Saturday, “NBC Nightly News” aired a segment on Peterson saying it must be his popularity among the “Donald Trump-loving alt-right.”

“I think he’s dangerous because of the sorts of people that he enables,” said John Semley, a journalist and critic whom NBC interviewed for the segment.

It’s not the first time that Peterson has been associated with the alt-right. He’s been called a “hero,” “darling” and even “poster boy” for the movement.

NBC News calls him an “alt-right intellectual.”

The alt-right believes in a tribal form of politics that places racial identity above all else. “The Alt Right believes we must secure the existence of white people and a future for white children,” writes Vox Day, a prominent alt-right leader.

Except Peterson rejects all forms of identity politics, which he calls a “sick game.”

“You don’t play racial, ethnic and gender identity games. The left plays them on behalf of the oppressed, let’s say, and the right tends to play them on behalf of nationalism and ethnic pride. I think they’re equally dangerous,” he told Time Magazine.

Peterson can be found making similar denunciations here, here, here and here.

Instead, Peterson advocates for the values of personal responsibility and Western individualism. “The correct game, as far as I’m concerned, is one where you focus on your individual life and try to take responsibility for your actions.”

He describes himself as a “classic British liberal.”

Alt-right leaders have criticized Peterson for refusing to “confront the racial issue.” “He could have been radical,” Spencer tweeted in February. “He ended up as a conservative.”

Day calls him an “integrity-challenged coward” for his views on ethnicity.

“The combination of his sudden success with his observable intellectual ineptitude suggests that he has been elevated by the mainstream media in order to provide a harmless, toothless, and non-Christian alternative to the failed conservative movement of William F. Buckley and the failed neoconservative movement of Bill Kristol and Ben Shapiro,” he wrote in April.

So why the comparisons to the alt-right?

Peterson thinks labels like “alt-right” and “white supremacist” are meant to damage his reputation.

He does acknowledge that part of his fan base comes from the alt-right, but he believes the extent of that support has been exaggerated.

Peterson says the association began, oddly enough, when he wore a frog hat for a video as self-deprecating humor (his voice has been compared to Kermit the Frog). People began to comment how the hat, a gift from a Native American carver, resembled Pepe the Frog, a meme character that has been adopted by members of the alt-right on web forums like 4chan.

“I just about fainted after I posted that and people pointed out the correspondence with Pepe – really, I just about fainted,” Peterson said in one video.

But that shock turned into a fascination with meme culture and why it’s become so popular among young men on the political right. Soon thereafter, he posted a video called “The Metaphysics of Pepe.”

“Because I’ve been, let’s say, identified under many circumstances now with the alt-right, I’ve been doing every bit of investigation I can into its many manifestations,” Peterson said on the “Joe Rogan Experience.” “It’s a very confusing place.”

Peterson believes that, for the most part, the memes are used to troll the far left as a sort of defensive humor. “Most of the people who are using this sort of symbol are using it in a deeply satirical way,” Peterson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

But he doesn’t dispute that it’s been co-opted by some on the alt-right like Spencer, who wears a Pepe the Frog pin. The Anti-Defamation League considers it a hate symbol.

Critics point to a picture Peterson took with two fans holding a Pepe the Frog flag as proof of his affiliation.

However, Peterson argues it would be counterproductive to distance himself from the meme. He frequently touts the number of young men he’s brought away from the alt-right by engaging with them.

Peterson: What do you think should happen in this polarized world? If you’re dealing with people that you think are being attracted by a pathological ideology – what do you think you should do with them? What I do is talk to them and say, “Look, why don’t you make yourself into an individual and get the hell away from the ideology?” And so a lot of these kids are lost in the underworld, let’s say – in nihilism – and they turn to these ideological solutions because they don’t know what else to do, and they’re angry. It’s like, I have something better for them to do. Grow the hell up and sort yourself out as an individual.

While the NBC News segment describes him as an enabler of the alt-right, Peterson, 55, views himself as a father figure of sorts, helping bring “lost boys” away from the political fringes. He released a self-help book in January called “12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos” and previously developed a “self-authoring” program for students.

Peterson follows in the footsteps of other conservative commentators who offer a critique of the political left, including the ideas of white privilege, intersectionality and the social justice warrior mindset.

He’s drawn ire from the left, in part, for his insistence that gender is inseparable from biological sex and that discrimination alone does not explain the gender pay gap. Yet he remains optimistic about the state of discourse in the West.

Peterson: It’s really easy to get into a warfare mindset, especially when you’re peppered on all sides with accusations about your sexism and your racism and your transphobia and your right-wing status. But, if I step back, I think, Jesus, there’s been a lot of discussion over the last year, and a lot of it’s really intense, and some of these issues do seem to be bubbling up to the surface. So, you know, maybe if we just hold our ground and keep stating what seems to be the elements of a proper counter-narrative, then we’ve got some chance of sorting this out without further degeneration.”

NBC News did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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David Sivak

Fact Check Editor
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