I can vividly remember my first public confrontation after having fallen into the alt-right pipeline. A transgender classmate at Augusta University spoke up during a class discussion, and I saw an opportunity.
By this point in my life, watching untold hours of videos with titles like “WOKE FEMINIST OWNED BY STOIC LIBERTARIAN” had trained me to pounce. Once called on, I launched into a tirade, repeatedly denouncing “wokeness” and attacks on “Western Civilization.” What’s hardest for me to recall now, though, is the cruelty I gleefully expressed toward my classmate. More than once, I made a point to purposefully refer to this peer as a woman, despite the fact that he had clearly stated his identity as a man (and had surely suffered immensely along his life path toward that decision). “Despite what she says, she’s not a man,” I told the class.
When I finished, my classmate responded succinctly: “It’s ‘he,’ and you’re an asshole.” But in my mind, I’d done it: I had mounted a simultaneous attack on political correctness and defense of Western values. I had waded into the marketplace of ideas, done battle against progressivism, and that was all that mattered.
More than anything, I was trying to emulate the man I’d grown to idolize: Dr Jordan Peterson.
My obsession with Peterson began in a seemingly nonideological place. In the summer of 2015, my parents told my sister and me that their marriage was ending. As I grew up in a military, evangelical household, my father often worked long hours or was deployed to other countries. When he was back, we lived under his rigid law. When he was gone, my mom was a church-grounded disciplinarian. I grew up to fear both God and the rod, attending Methodist and Baptist churches of my mother’s choosing as we moved from military base to military base.
From a young age, I heard stories at home and in the pews about the God-given roles for men, women, and children. I learned that the outside world contained countless temptations that should be avoided or challenged at all costs. We floated from congregation to congregation as we moved between military stations. I can’t remember a time through high school and college when church or the military was out of the picture, with my family attending service twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays. But all that religion wasn’t enough to stop my parents’ marriage from falling apart.
At the same time, I discovered the online right-wing media sphere known today as the “intellectual dark web” (IDW). Reacting to “politically correct” currents in academia and public life, figures like Peterson and orbiters who had gained celebrity during the “Gamergate” episode — a vehemently anti-feminist, “anti-woke” online campaign that started in the video game community but soon spread far beyond it — like Mark Meechan (“Count Dankula”) and Tim Pool saw a meteoric rise in popularity among a growing swathe of disaffected, intellectually curious, but socially inept right-wing audiences.
Few people then or today knew much about it, and maybe most who heard tell had no interest in learning more. But I was one of those young men who, during Gamergate, glommed onto figures like Peterson.
At the time, the University of Toronto psychology professor had publicly denounced Canada’s Bill C-16, an amendment that would add discrimination based on gender identity and expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act’s criminal code. According to Peterson, his opposition was rooted not in bigotry but a belief in basic rights of free speech and antiauthoritarianism.
While the university did not condone Peterson’s charges, it never leveled formal disciplinary measures against him. He later resigned from his post of his own volition. Still, almost overnight, Peterson somehow successfully portrayed himself as a martyr for free speech, “Western values,” and men’s issues.
Feeling vulnerable and alone because of my parents’ dissolving marriage, I decided to follow these preoccupations. Peterson offered me, at a time of personal strife, the kind of principled fatherly guidance and direction that had been absent in my life following my parents’ divorce.
During one particularly rough month in late 2018, for instance, Peterson’s interviews and lectures gave me a reprieve from my parents’ chaotic postdivorce spats. Made to split my time between two homes and two lives, I felt that the only constant was the steady stream of advice and empathy that Peterson offered me via lectures and interviews on YouTube.
In one standout interview, Peterson was asked why he was brought to weeping over the issues impacting men. His response, delivered through tears, hit home for me: according to Peterson, at the end of public speeches, college-aged men would approach him in droves to thank him for his advice. In Peterson’s estimation, these men had been forgotten about. I agreed: I had been forgotten about.
Something about his sincerity clicked. He spoke, as no others would or could, to my station, my concerns. Especially in those dark moments, Peterson felt present for me, ready to field my complaints and champion my value and future. He appealed to a growingly antisocial and pessimistic group of young men like me who were almost certain that a decades-, even centuries-long culture war had debased the primacy and value of men’s experiences. For this reason, I, and many other men like me, ate up Peterson’s videos, articles, and books, and became deeply personally invested in niche micro-celebrities like him and the sense of catharsis they offered.
Peterson’s videos addressing his supposed martyrdom appeared to focus more on abstract principles of freedom of expression than overt misogyny or homophobia. The accoladed professor seemed interested in the ideas, not the fake drama that I felt characterized most politics at the time. I was hooked. Here, with perfect timing, was the father figure that I so dearly wanted and desperately found myself searching for.
Down the Rabbit Hole
I worked through Peterson and co.’s back catalogue of videos as YouTube suggested more alt-right clips for me to watch. In one case, the algorithm recommended that I watch a podcast interview from the channel h3h3. Its hosts, Ethan and Hila Klein — who brushed with courting alt-right fans, but to whom I had been subscribed for their nonpolitical content — had Peterson on their show in 2017. (They have since removed the episode after their public shift from center-right toward more left-leaning interviewees like Hasan Piker). Peterson’s numerous appearances on Joe Rogan’s podcast were next.
Soon, almost all the videos I watched, podcasts I listened to, online forums I frequented, and books I read were shot through with right-wing ideology, guiding not just my thinking but my actions in the digital world and everyday life. I repeatedly found myself interjecting at work, in class, and in comments sections online, playing my part as the self-appointed reactionary devil’s advocate.
My interventions weren’t always in person, like my misgendering episode in class. Many of them unfolded in the venue where I felt most comfortable: online. In one prolonged episode, I remember arguing in the comments section, using an anonymous account, under a YouTube video about the #MeToo movement’s progress in 2019. For longer than a week, I antagonized what I deemed to be “woke” commenters who posted their support for the movement. Seeing Peterson’s interactions with feminists and women in general as a guide on how to interact with progressive arguments, I checked in daily to refute and debunk all the flak that I was getting for bringing vitriol into the discussion.
Another time, I spent an afternoon at work berating a coworker who celebrated our employer’s weekly practice of donating soon-to-expire food to soup kitchens and homeless pantries in the area. Having recently watched a video of Peterson denouncing such activism, I repeated the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” narrative that online conservatism encouraged. I was convinced that poor and homeless families in the area and across the country were in precarious situations due to their own lack of responsibility — a belief that had been incubated in me implicitly by Peterson’s self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which espoused individualism in practice. It’s a common-enough argument on the Right, but I’m struck now at how needlessly cruel it is in suggesting that fellow human beings seeking life’s most basic necessity, food, should be denied it.
I had become needlessly disruptive and antisocial, launching into vitriolic arguments with those around me. My personal life suffered greatly. During this period, I distanced myself from family and close friends whom I suspected of “wokeness.” I lashed out at anyone — friends, family, partners — who wasn’t part of the alt-right or alt-right-sympathetic bubble I’d discovered and constructed around myself.
I shut down discussions with friends of color who tried to convince me that racism was a problem. None of their stories of discrimination or marginalization — not even those stories of encounters with police, or mistreatment by teachers or managers who we all knew personally — swayed me. I was certain that these were stories from people wedded to making excuses for their lot in life. Transgender friends steered clear of me because of my comments. My intolerance was not limited to screens — I was driving people away from me in the real world.
Flash forward to the spring of 2019, the end of my third year at Augusta. I’d remained on a steady diet of Peterson’s content: he uploaded more lectures, appeared on more programs, and continued promoting his self-help book to wider audiences. I, meanwhile, became more seriously devoted to my studies while also reading and watching more from Peterson, including his first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. At this point, I even began dabbling with sites like 4chan, where I identified with the post-ironic right-wing meme figure Pepe the Frog. I was probably on track to become, if not an active member of a far-right group like the Proud Boys or Three Percenters, at least a strong sympathizer.
I was headed down that path when, as part of my college’s English program, I had to take courses on African-American literature, Shakespeare, and book history and print culture.
The course on African-American literature covered familiar, canonical names: Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and more. Here, for what seemed like the first time since I’d discovered Peterson, I was tasked with a true liberal education, including hearing out and engaging with the plights and imaginations of people who saw their most basic rights suppressed.
The defining feature of the course was the insistence of the professor that we ought to reflect upon our own position relative to the texts and their authors. I found this exercise to be deeply uncomfortable: practicing self-reflection in the presence of a black professor and a social justice–oriented group of peers was not something I did often.
It was Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave that helped me to embrace the discomfort necessary for change — mainly by way of tackling the texts with my peers in class. Douglass was a figure whose name I had heard often but whose story I hadn’t read in full by that point, which, in retrospect, seems like part of the problem behind the ease with which I fell down the alt-right rabbit hole. The narrative turned a mirror onto me and, in upsetting detail, showed me that my inclinations toward antagonizing those who looked, acted, or believed differently than myself was the selfsame attitude, albeit less severe and a century later, that led to Douglass’ dehumanization.
Douglass’s texts confronted another core tenet that fueled my beliefs: the notion that I was the victim. Until this point, I had convinced myself, by spending days consuming all kinds of alt-right propaganda, that I occupied a position at the bottom rung of the social ladder — which led me to justify my bigoted thoughts and actions. In truth, the Narrative showed me that the opposite was true, historically speaking. Not only that, but also that I could, and should, use my station for good. Douglass et al. were, in some sense, counting on sympathetic readers to aid in making their world better rather than wallow in the individualistic, self-made vision of the world that I’d built up because of thinkers like Peterson.
In assigning the book and asking us to discuss it or read it out loud in class, the professor, in my mind, was harsh but ultimately fair in his methodology. By challenging me and my peers to address our preconceptions of the world, he helped us grow to see the parallels between our moment and the past, while also considering how our thoughts and actions inevitably create or prevent the creation of the kinds of institutions that led to Douglass’s tribulations in the first place. More than anything, this professor recognized the importance of taking us to task to learn and grow, rather than to put us down and keep us there. To that point, I had not encountered such patience or responsibility from the likes of Peterson et al.
In a class I took with another professor, history wasn’t merely shaped by the whims of powerful men who looked, acted, or believed as I did. I was again encouraged to contemplate the lives and experiences of everyday people, downtrodden people, people on the margins — people who had lives far harder than mine, yet lived lives worth learning from.
One of the standout examples of this professor’s influence on my thinking was her required read of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms. The text follows Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Italian miller and peasant, as he faces charges of blasphemy levied by the Roman Catholic Church. Ginzburg’s historical storytelling and the professor’s insistence on allowing the “little guy” to speak through time helped me see history from new angles. The idea that I could, as part of a collective group of people, make or shape history was a revelation.
Quite quickly, Peterson’s stories about the primacy of individualistic and powerful men, as well as his insistence that people like me were being displaced in society, left my thinking almost entirely. In being made to encounter discomforting media and, eventually, in seeking it out to challenge my own views, I had developed a new understanding of my own beliefs and how they were shaped. This changing worldview prompted a change in the YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit algorithms feeding me new ideas.
Much has been made in recent years of the role those algorithms have played in guiding angry young men into the open arms of the Right. That was certainly true for me. But those same algorithms steered me in another direction when I was ready.
I watched a debate on YouTube between Peterson and the Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Žižek. The first thing I remember thinking about the video was that it couldn’t have been a better visual juxtaposition of ideology and charisma. Žižek was slouched and slobbish. Peterson was well dressed, far more consistent in his cadence, and reliant upon what I thought was a more developed vocabulary.
But once the debate began, my impressions of the two men flipped. I saw the artifice of my stand-in father crumble before the arguably simple procession of facts and sporadic rhetoric that characterized the goofy leftist’s arguments. That Peterson hadn’t even bothered to read Marx’s Communist Manifesto before the debate, despite carrying himself as well read and always informed, was a revealing admission, I remember thinking. This video was one of many that would come to demolish my perception of Peterson as a figure worth emulating.
The recommended tab and, by extension, the algorithm as a whole — apparently influenced by my rare jaunt into something other than an antisocial and academized version of racism, transphobia, or elitism — slowly introduced me to Cornel West. Like Žižek, West presents himself as an opposite to Peterson. Though both figures are engaging orators, West’s articulation of history, theory, and politics was incredibly compelling to me.
In contrast to Peterson’s sternness, West brought a deep sense of warmth and caring to his message. West also has an ability to challenge his audience to dig deeper, making his intellectual work feel accessible and relatable. For me, this helped break the spell of the Petersonian worldview I’d concocted.
Whereas Peterson et al. never once encouraged me to take my politics to the streets in a way that made my life better, these new thinkers were always touting the importance of making politics less about online appearances and more about in-person action. I decided to take their suggestions and became active in real-world politics.
As a result of the progressive show and podcast the Majority Report’s coverage of the Kellogg workers’ strike in 2021, as an example, I made a vow to be part of a union when I entered my PhD program — a promise I’ve kept, joining with the Boston College Graduate Employees Union as soon as I could. And I made a concerted effort to be involved with Democratic Socialists of America. In other words, I’ve become everything Jordan Peterson has spent his career trying to destroy.
Learning for a Better World
When I look back at my sojourn on the alt right, I feel the need to talk about it. For at least four years, I spent my time learning how to be bigoted and antagonistic. My insecurities and prejudices were fostered and accepted by a group of alt-right figureheads, especially Peterson, something I desperately needed in my life. I was guaranteed community with people who were just as jaded and antisocial as myself.
But that train led nowhere fast. The right-wing rabbit hole took me to places I now deeply regret. Ultimately, what pulled me away from the terminally online alt right was left-leaning spheres of content and engagement that helped to keep me challenged and informed when I was not in the classroom or library.
Undeniably, I would not have moved leftward — at least not as quickly — had it not been for my liberal arts education. Unlike online spaces, where I curated the information that I wanted to see, and the algorithm fed me more of the same bigoted, hateful content, college was perhaps the first time I was required to engage with media outside of my usual diet. There, I read, watched, and listened to stories from people who could not have been further afield from me in their appearances, nationalities, beliefs, and so on.
In reflecting on the impact that this liberal arts education had and continues to have on me, I realize why the Right, including Peterson to this day, is so hell-bent on dismantling liberal arts education. Without being exposed to people and media from disparate places, I would have been allowed to let yet another facet of my life become consumed by my disgusting fascination with the antisocial content pumped out by the likes of Peterson, Tim Pool, and Ben Shapiro.
From my experience, once you get a taste of learning — genuine, complicated wrestling with philosophies and histories different from your own — it’s hard to leave it and its lessons behind.
Because the right-wing saturation of platforms like YouTube was so central to my becoming a reactionary, I believe that creating a competing left-wing presence in online spaces should be a priority for the Left. Currently, conservatives enjoy a nearly unchallenged role in grabbing young men who may very well be supportive of progressive movements, but whose lack of community drives them away from collective politicking. This needs to change.
Leftists shouldn’t view sites like YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit as implacable strongholds for the Right. Social media and online platforms need to be viewed as battlegrounds. Leftists can win on them.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we need to treat “severely online” individuals and groups as approachable. While I do not think that good, left-wing media alone would have changed my thinking, at least not in as short a time, having videos, books, podcasts, and shows in the wings when I eventually got called out in the real world meant that when I was ready to embrace the curiosity that eventually led me out of conservative thinking, resources were waiting for me. If my story has indicated anything, it is that there are swathes of politically curious people out there who, with some help, can be turned onto a path of self-discovery that promotes a better world.
The Left should see producing politically informed media as paramount to capturing the minds of people who, without intervention, may very well wander down the alt-right pipeline. If this is done, we can prevent people from losing friends, families, and even themselves to harmful ideologies — and grow our movement in the process.
If not, the path looks a lot darker. Trust me, I’ve been there.