Have you seen the “men will literally do X instead of going to therapy” meme? It’s funny: Men will literally join 10 improv teams instead of going to therapy. Men will literally teach you how to open a can of beans for 6 hours instead of going to therapy. You get the drift.
Canada’s most famous public intellectual, Jordan Peterson, brought that meme to real life this week when he announced he’d rather never work again than be forced onto the couch.
I don’t blame him.
The College of Psychologists of Ontario has told Peterson that if he doesn’t go to therapy—sorry, a board-mandated “Coaching Program” with a board-issued therapist—it may revoke his license to practice psychology.
What warranted this ultimatum? A few tweets and a podcast.
According to Peterson, about “a dozen people” from around the world complained to the college about comments he had made on Twitter and on Joe Rogan’s podcast, claiming that those statements had caused “harm.”
In March, the college began investigating these complaints. Then, in November, the college informed Peterson: “The comments at issue appear to undermine the public trust in the profession as a whole, and raise questions about your ability to carry out your responsibilities as a psychologist.”
Among those comments: Calling an advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “prik.” Snarking at environmentalists for promoting energy policies that hurt children in developing countries. Using female pronouns in reference to the transgender actor Elliot Page. Declaring a plus-sized model on the cover of Sports Illustrated “not beautiful.” (This Wall Street Journal editorial has a good rundown.)
With perhaps one exception—a comment Peterson made calling a former, unnamed client “vindictive”—the public statements that triggered this whole affair are political snipes that have nothing to do with his capacity as a psychologist. Nevertheless, the College is demanding that Peterson not only go through a re-education program, but also that he sign off on the following statement: “I may have lacked professionalism in public statements and during a January 25, 2022 podcast appearance.”
Now, no one who has followed Peterson—presumably including the higher-ups at the College of Psychologists of Ontario—seriously believes he would agree to such a request. He has confirmed as much on Twitter. (This is a guy who burst onto the scene in 2016 after refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns.) And Peterson is famous enough at this point to be inoculated against the financial consequences of refusing to submit, which the college must know.
The college’s statement, then, is not a message to Peterson, but a message to other would-be dissenters: Comply with our politics, or risk losing your livelihood.
In this, the College of Psychologists of Ontario joins a growing list of institutions of higher learning: The University of Sussex forced Kathleen Stock into exile for challenging the concept of gender identity. Evergreen State College ran out Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, after refusing to protect them from violent student protesters. Portland State did the same to assistant professor of philosophy Peter Boghossian after he dared to question politicized scholarship. MIT canceled a lecture that University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot was set to give, citing an op-ed he’d written opposing affirmative action. UC Irvine fired Aaron Kheriaty, a professor of psychiatry and its director of medical ethics, for refusing the Covid vaccine on ethical grounds. Princeton fired Joshua Katz—supposedly over a decades-old offense he had already been punished for—right after he wrote an essay criticizing anti-racism policies.
I could go on and on. The pattern remains the same: Institutions whose mission is to facilitate open discourse have become shells of their former selves, living off their rapidly decaying legacies to conform to the whims of the mob.
But there is something about the Peterson story that is more chilling. It was not enough for the College to declare his comments offensive. It had to go one step further and imply that there was something about him that was unwell. By referring Peterson to a therapist for daring to speak his mind, the College of Psychologists of Ontario has pathologized dissent. It has made political disagreement into an illness.
There is a long history here—one Peterson is surely aware of, seeing that he wrote the foreword to the new Vintage Classics edition of The Gulag Archipelago by the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. For most of its existence, the Soviet Union, among other authoritarian regimes, used mental illness as grounds for marginalizing countless voices: those who believed in free expression, or liked abstract art, or read the wrong novels, or, worse yet, shared those novels with their friends. There was a certain logic to this: If you were crazy enough not to toe the party line in a country dictated by the party, then likely you were actually crazy. (A reprehensible logic, yes, but not totally nuts.) A similar rationale applies today: Jordan Peterson must need help if he thinks tweeting this blasphemy won’t cost him dearly.
Whether or not Peterson is ultimately penalized for his refusal to comply, the damage has already been done. The public has seen behind the curtain. Within the governing body of a profession that searches out our innermost thoughts, the punishment of wrongthink apparently now takes precedence over the free exchange of ideas.
Neeraja Deshpande is a researcher at The Free Press.