Jordan Peterson and the Surrender of the Cultural Gatekeepers
What a new documentary about the controversial professor tells us about the state of the arts
On a recent Sunday evening I squeezed into a tiny movie theater tucked inside a residential neighborhood in Brooklyn to see a documentary film. The space was a bit musty and the radiator was spitting out too much heat, but there was something delightfully retro about it, right down to the occasional technical glitch with the film. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought I was back in college, watching films like Godard’s Alphaville and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu on 16-millimeter projectors that were forever breaking down or slipping out of focus.
The reason for the random location was that back in October, another Brooklyn venue cancelled — with mere hours notice — the second of two screenings of the same film. That might seem strange, considering that the previous showing had attracted a sold-out crowd, but the subject of the film was Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist-turned-guru and philosopher. Though there was no sign of audience distress during the film, some of the venue’s staffers said they had felt uncomfortable while watching it. So their boss called off the show.
The Rise of Jordan Peterson has become a prime example of the same kind of distortions and informational silo-ing that fuels the discussion around its cantankerous subject.
The Rise of Jordan Peterson, the debut feature by Toronto-based filmmaker Patricia Marcoccia, officially premiered in September. But its rollout has happened in fits and starts, mostly because the deeply polarizing nature of its subject has made theaters reluctant to show it. Peterson had a long career as a relatively obscure academic until a few years ago, when he became hugely popular for sometimes troubling reasons. In 2016, he posted a YouTube video in which he explained his opposition to a parliamentary bill that he said could potentially punish people who refuse to use gender neutral pronouns like “ze” and “zir” or the singular “they.” The video went viral and made Peterson a hero of the anti-P.C. crowd.
At that time, filmmaker Patricia Marcoccia happened to already be more than a year into the process of making a documentary about a very different side of Peterson. She’d first become interested in his work when she read his 1999 book, Maps of Meaning, as an undergraduate more than a decade earlier. In 2015, she approached Peterson about shooting a film about his friendship with Charles Joseph, a woodcarver from the indigenous Kwakiutl people of British Columbia. That film, which Marcoccia says she intends to go back and finish, chronicled the process of Peterson working with Charles on a Kwakiutl-inspired renovation to his Toronto house. It also showed Peterson and his wife participating in Kwakiutl ceremonies to which they’d been invited as guests. It was about the farthest thing imaginable from a scandal spawned by YouTube.
The scandal came out of nowhere and as a left-leaning progressive, Marcoccia recoiled from it. Nonetheless, she kept the camera rolling. By then she was working with her producing partner and eventual husband, Maziar Ghaderi, and the two remained embedded in Peterson’s life as the project took a radical turn.
I’m not going to devote a lot of space here trying to explain what Peterson stands for (insofar as anyone can explain it.) I wrote about him earlier this year regarding his and other YouTube figures’ algorithmic proximities to the white nationalist who murdered 51 people and injured 49 others at two mosques in New Zealand and that is still pretty much the extent of what I have to say on the man. What I will say is that The Rise of Jordan Peterson is as clear a depiction of the culture’s current resistance to complexity of thought as any I’ve seen. That goes not just for what’s shown in the film, but also how the film was shown — or in some cases not shown — to the public. Quite by accident (though perhaps it was actually a self-fulfilling prophecy) The Rise of Jordan Peterson has become a prime example of the same kind of distortions and informational silo-ing that fuels the discussion around its cantankerous subject.
The original Brooklyn venue wasn’t the only one to cancel screenings of the film. In September, the Carlton Theater in Toronto axed what had been scheduled to be a weeklong run. Another theater in Toronto bowed out as well. And in Portland, Or., a pastor received death threats after arranging a screening in his church. He hired extra security and went ahead and showed the film anyway.
In and of itself, the (literal) cancelation story only goes so far. Marccocia and Ghaderi have said they’re tired of talking about it and wish the press would engage with the film artistically (like, for instance, by reviewing it) rather than just report on its controversy. There’s also the fact that the film, unsurprisingly, is doing quite well on streaming services. It hit number one on an iTunes chart in the United States and Canada, in addition to being in the documentary top five on Amazon for weeks. But the real story, to me at least, has to do with the ways cultural gatekeepers in the film world and beyond seem to be falling down on the job. Whereas we once entrusted our arts institutions to highly trained specialists whose authority lay in their expertise and taste, today’s cultural arbiters often find themselves going along to get along. In the process, they risk defeating the very purpose of their job, which is to discern good art from bad art and to know what’s propaganda and what’s not.
The Rise of Jordan Peterson is not a propaganda film. It’s a film about propaganda. It’s about the way facts have become helpless in the face of distortive framing. Moreover, it’s about the way Peterson, consciously or not, has become complicit in his own distortions. “I think he doesn’t see that when he’s fighting this battle [against those who mischaracterize him] he’s actually falling victim to the exact same things that he’s accusing them of,” Peterson’s friend and colleague, University of Toronto psychology professor, Wil Cunningham, says at one point.
That sort of point is made enough times in the film so that anyone in the job of programming movies in an art house, regardless of their preconceptions about the subject matter, should be able to see that it’s up to something far more ambitious than promoting a particular figure. Moreover, anyone who’s in that job should be able to tell junior staff members who can’t make that distinction to look a little closer and maybe learn a thing or two about cinema since they happen to be working at one.
But in many ways that’s the old school version of cultural gatekeeping, a relic from when we looked to cultural gatekeepers for connoisseurship. Today, much of gatekeeping involves knowing how and when to cover your ass. In the fall of 2018, New Yorker editor David Remnick learned this the hard way. When it was announced that Remnick had invited former Trump advisor Steve Bannon to the New Yorker Festival with the intention of interviewing him on stage (and, presumably in his mind, to use highbrow enhanced interrogation techniques to peel back the layers of Bannon’s odiousness as never before) the backlash from many magazine staffers and festival participants was so swift and vociferous that Remnick reversed course and rescinded the invitation.
The capitulation led to a whole new round of criticism (for my part, I was sorry not to have the chance to see Bannon publicly flayed) but given the current rules for cultural arbitration, Remnick probably did the right thing. After all, look what happened at the Whitney Museum. Plagued by controversy stemming from a board member’s business interests in tear gas manufacturing, things got so heated that by the time the Whitney Biennial rolled around last summer, more attention was paid to which artists were dropping out than to the art itself. (This is not to be confused with the Whitney Biennial’s 2017 dustup, in which controversy over racially charged painting dominated dicsussion of the whole show.) Similar discussions have taken place over the numerous arts institutions funded by the Sackler Family, whose philanthropy is made possible in no small part by investments in the pharmaceutical companies that many blame for the opioid crisis. Like the Whitney artists, celebrity participants in the New Yorker Festival were promising to drop out if Bannon stayed on the bill.
Given the way the digital landscape has made legacy cultural institutions more precarious than ever, you could argue that bowing to pressure in order to preserve the kinds of revenue streams generated by big ticket festivals ultimately helps the arts more than it hurts them. That is to say, Remnick made a fiscally responsible decision that sought to protect the magazine. Fair enough.
But it’s one thing for stewards of the arts to respond to consumer pressures and quite another to use politics as an excuse not to showcase material that doesn’t fall neatly into an ideological camp.
“Theater programmers told us there is no market for nuanced films,” Gadheri told me when I met with him and Marcoccia at a diner near Columbia University last week before they showed their film to a student group on campus. He explained how one theater considered showing the film with a roundtable discussion afterwards in which both sides would be represented. But the committee decided that having both sides present made it an unsafe environment.
“Incidentally, this was all decided without even seeing the film,” Ghaderi said.
Marcoccia noted that a major influence for the film was Capturing the Friedmans, an acclaimed 2003 documentary about a Long Island family that was investigated for sexual abuse of children both in and outside of the family. The film is structured as a Mobius strip of uncertainty and moral ambiguity. To watch it is to change your mind on a moment-to-moment basis. Back in 2003, this was considered an artistic strength. Critics overwhelmingly praised the movie — “this is a film about the quagmire of mystery in every human soul,” said the Washington Post — and it won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival that year.
“Could a film like Capturing the Friedmans be made today?” Marcoccia asked.
Ghaderi brought up another documentary, Errol Morris’s The Fog of War. Also released in 2003, it’s essentially one long interview with Robert S. McNamara, the secretary of defense under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and therefore the guy most responsible for the carnage of the Vietnam War. As in just about all of Morris’s work, the film doesn’t tell the audience what to think but instead lets the subject matter speak for itself. It won the Oscar that year for Best Documentary Feature.
“Is that film considered acceptable by today’s standards?” Ghaderi asked.
There’s a pretty good test case for that question. In the fall of 2018, just around the time Remnick was disinviting Bannon from the New Yorker Festival, Morris premiered a new documentary at the Venice Film Festival. Entitled American Dharma, its subject was — wait for it — Steve Bannon. And for the first time in his nearly 50-year career, Morris was not hailed as an artist who was exposing monstrous acts by letting the purported monster speak for himself. Instead, it was decided that giving a monster any platform at all was tantamount to endorsing it — and maybe even being one yourself. Theaters refused to screen the film. Many critics seemed to take the view that the film was dangerous because audiences couldn’t be trusted to think for themselves — possibly because they didn’t have the required attention span. Writing in the Atlantic, David Sims said the film was “too dominated by Bannon’s monologing.” In the Daily Beast, Cassie DeCosta chalked up Morris’s unconfrontational style (otherwise known as let-them-hang-themselves-by-their-own-rope) to “befuddlement” before declaring “this is not a documentary that anyone needs.”
Technically, no one needs any documentary. No one needs art or culture at all. But as long as we’re stuck with it, we need people who are willing to hold it to a high standard. We’re going to need people who can tell the difference between engaging with a subject and endorsing it. Otherwise, we’re going to miss a lot of good stuff.
After screening their film to a crowd of 40 or so students (and a handful of adult interlopers) in a Columbia Physics Department lecture hall, Marcoccia and Ghadheri held a conversation with the audience. It was animated yet respectful. If anyone felt uncomfortable, they didn’t show it. People wanted to know all sorts of things, but I noticed that there were several questions about how to handle a subject you keep changing your mind about. To watch the film is to be intrigued by Peterson one minute and appalled by him the next (at least that was my experience watching it). Weren’t the filmmakers worried, the students asked, about not sending a clear enough message? And what if the only people who see the movie are Jordan Peterson diehards who’ve already made up their minds?
“There’s a difference between making a film about someone and giving someone a platform,” Marcoccia told them. “We give a lot of space in the film to people who oppose Peterson, especially to trans activists who were hurt by his pronoun campaign. Even if it were only Jordan Peterson fans that see the movie, they are still sitting through the parts that show the sides they don’t want to see.”
The questions went and on and on. The conversation felt like it could have gone on all night. Once again, I was reminded of the films I watched on the 16-millimeter projectors in college and the times we were lucky enough to have the filmmakers come talk to us about them. (Not F.W. Murnau talking about Nosferatu, alas.) I also thought about how you shouldn’t have to attend an Ivy League university or find your way to an underground screening room to be the beneficiary of such conversations.
But that’s the thing about gatekeeping that turns it into ass covering: It quickly leads to barricade building, meaning only the bluntest instruments — the loudest and most literal interpretations — can break through. If you ask me, that’s an unsafe environment. As well as a profoundly uninteresting one.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that the Portland pastor had canceled the screening.