Why I made a film about Jordan Peterson

A documentary filmmaker does not turn away from a difficult topic, but grapples with the questions and challenges it presents. Patricia Marcoccia, director of Shut Him Down

Where to start? Should I break the ice with a joke about how awful it is to associate my name with that of Jordan Peterson’s in an attempt to appease those who feel indignant that I’ve made this film? Or should I boast about how cool it is to have hundreds of hours of Jordan Peterson footage that no one has seen before? It’s suffocating to think between these walls.

There is certainly a spectrum of perspectives in between these two, but while making this film over the past couple of years, my mind couldn’t help but fluctuate between these opposing vantage points. This topic has been a very polarizing one.

The truth is that I didn’t chase this divisive story; it came to me. 

I discovered Jordan Peterson's book, Maps of Meaning as a young adult studying psychology at McMaster University, in about 2004 or 2005. I was intrigued by his lectures on TVO that provided insights into what makes life meaningful and grappled with questions about virtue and the nature of evil. I was in my early 20s after all and consumed with the big existential questions of life.

I even attended some of his classes at the University of Toronto with a friend who took some of his courses. I learned that he was quite popular among students and that he had a reputation of being a “life-changing professor.” My interest in these ideas later grew into a feeling that I should make a documentary about him someday.

Before Jordan Peterson became a household name, I approached him in the spring of 2015 about making a different documentary. After learning more about what was happening in his life, I decided to make a film that followed his friendship with Kwakwaka’wakw carver, Charles Joseph, and his adoption by Charles’ family. But then the story transformed before my eyes.

Peterson published a series of videos called Professor Against Political Correctness. I was BCC’ed in the group e-mail he sent out on the morning of September 27, 2016.

“I have made and posted Part I of a soon-to-be three-part lecture series on political correctness,” the subject line read.

“The first part covers the climate of fear surrounding political correctness in private and public organizations alike,” the email began, “as well as the legal ramifications stemming from politically correct activism.”

The video was quickly picked up by the news, and reaction to it spiralled into a social media frenzy. I filmed the consequent rallies on the University of Toronto campus and soon realized that I needed to put my initial documentary on hold so that I could delve deeper into understanding this dispute.

It’s been conflicting, challenging and often uncomfortable working on this documentary.

Some thought this film was unequivocally unethical. They said the act of drawing more attention to Peterson and his criticisms of human rights legislation, Bill C-16, would be harmful to the trans community. I gave this perspective serious consideration, and I do understand where it is coming from. This controversy made waves and emboldened those with genuine intolerance towards trans people.

But did that mean I should walk away from the project altogether? Or did it mean that the film demanded a great deal of care in how I moved forward? After all, there has certainly been no shortage of attention to Peterson and this issue. Hundreds of thousands of news articles, podcasts, Youtube videos, and newscasts have covered this topic.

I decided in October 2016 that my initial film had to be put on hold; the controversy around Peterson took centre stage in his life. As this issue erupted, there were rumours that the dispute arose because Peterson refused to use a gender-neutral pronoun for a student in one of his classes. This did not happen, as he wasn’t teaching in the fall semester.

What did happen was that he raised a hypothetical situation in his video criticizing Bill C-16, saying that he did not recognize someone’s legal right to insist upon the use of a particular pronoun. This statement is controversial in its own right and demands unpacking, but there is an important distinction to be made.

Many also asserted that Peterson dismissed the existence of non-binary people. In a video he released in October 2016, he states that he does not deny their existence, but this clarification got very little attention from his critics or from those supporters who misrepresent his views. Wouldn’t it be useful to get clarity on these controversies rather than walking away from the project?

Then, on the other hand, some people who support Peterson’s cause have asked me: “If Jordan criticized the law as an example of political correctness, then why bother covering the trans issue in this documentary? That’s not what this is about.” But to them, I ask: If you are covering a dispute, who gets to decide what the dispute is about?

This film covers a pivotal period beginning in the fall of 2016 with a series of events that centred around Peterson’s criticisms of human rights legislation for the protection of gender identity and expression. He argued that this law, Bill C-16, together with the policies used to interpret it, crossed a dangerous line with regards to freedom of expression. While he raised other issues as well, it was this criticism that set the foundation for the controversy that continues to surround him today. A lot has happened since then that the film simply does not have space to include, but I thought it would be important to cover this foundational period in this documentary. It is what propelled Peterson into the public figure he is known as today.

As Peterson continued to state his case that fall, he gained hundreds and then thousands of supporters, and those numbers continue to grow. People are drawn to his message of finding meaning in life by taking on challenging responsibilities, and they’ve been inspired by his courage to take a stand against political correctness. I also understand where these people are coming from. I’ve encountered many circumstances in which the pursuit of social justice mutates into misplaced authoritarian overreach in the name of fairness. To be honest, I was not very awake to these stories before this film came into my life.

Despite the ethical dilemmas and discomfort that came with making this film, walking away was never really an option. I think it’s a mistake to view documentaries as mere platforms that deliver messages. Documentary filmmaking is a process of exploration that requires open, yet critical curiosity. It demands that a documentary filmmaker does not turn away from a difficult topic, but grapples with the questions and challenges it presents.

This film is my attempt to do just that.

Watch Shut Him Down: The Rise of Jordan Peterson.