Moving A Complaint from Occlusion to Disclosure: Jordan Peterson's Gambit

Katja Thieme
8 min readJan 22, 2023
College of Psychologists of Ontario: Peterson, Jordan Bernt (Jordan B.), Discipline & Other Proceedings. In a decision released on November 22, 2022, the Inquiries, Complaints and Reports Committee decided to require Dr. Peterson to successfully complete a prescribed Specified Continuing Education or Remedial Program. The substance is a Coaching Program to address issues regarding professionalism in public statements. Dr. Peterson has filed a Notice of Application for Judicial Review.

Jordan Peterson has placed himself in the spotlight of Canadian media again. This time it is with a campaign against complaints that were lodged against him with his professional regulatory body, the College of Psychologists of Ontario. Usually, such complaints processes are kept guarded between the complainant, the complaints committee, and the person whose actions the complaint targets. Sarah Ahmed has written about how complaints are made and handled behind closed doors: they are treated as confidential, participants are discouraged from discussing them with others, and they are processed via internal institutional paths that are designed to be invisible. In rhetoric and writing studies, we think of processes that keep these kinds of doors closed as occlusion and the documents that they produce as occluded genres. While Ahmed captures the experiences of those who have lodged complaints, Peterson describes his feelings and tactics as someone against whom complaints have been lodged.

Peterson has chosen an interesting and quite spectacular tactic for dealing with recent complaints against him. We might call this tactic a deliberate and argumentative form of disclosure. The complaints, as we now understand them (following Peterson's act of publishing his communication with the college), concern statements Peterson has made on his Twitter account and during a January 25, 2022 appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience. None of the complaints emanate from previous clients of his; he has not worked with clients since 2017. They are complaints by members of the public and they are exclusively about his public speech, though at least one of the complainants clarifies that they write as a fellow psychologist and member of the same regulatory body.

The now-published set of complaints spans dates from January 5 to July 14, 2022. I'm not sure if the college forwarded similar complaints in previous years; Peterson notes that his act of disclosure focuses on documentation from the year 2022. We do not know whether there are other complaints that the college received about his public speech, complaints which it didn't forward to either the complaints panel or Peterson. Peterson first commented on the complaints process in a Twitter post from February 16, 2022: "Apparently I'm being investigated by the Ontario College of Psychologists yet again, even though I haven't practiced for five years." He added, "The weaponization of professional colleges will be the demise of competent professionalism." Nearly one year later, on January 5, 2023, Peterson posted the first version of the documentation accompanying the complaints. That version was soon taken down, presumably because the blocking that covered complainants' names and contact information could easily be reversed. Since then, Peterson has re-posted a more thoroughly anonymized file, with more documentation attached.

As regards past complaints against him, Peterson seems to generally have followed typical practices of occlusion. He has kept the process and its documents behind closed doors. We know some of the details of one such complaint lodged against him in 2017 not as a result of his disclosure but as a result of journalistic investigation. In that case, he insisted on keeping his communication with his college out of public view. In an email to Canadaland, he asserted that he had a professional obligation not to discuss the complaint:

“After their investigation, I was instructed to reconfigure the methods I was using to handle my email in the wake of the huge volume of messages I began to receive after the investigation was completed. I had already done so months before, in any case. The College took no other action, and I have a professional obligation to make no further comments.”

In other words, Peterson has some experience in handling formal complaints, has previously followed routine practices of keeping the process occluded, and has managed to respond in ways that have kept his record clear. Perhaps take note here that in the above email he asserts he had already addressed the issues regarding email communication "months before" the college investigated. He didn't need any reminders; it was already handled. But he also claims that these email issues arose "in the wake of the huge volume of messages I began to receive after the investigation was completed." That’s an inconsistent statement. The point to take away is that Peterson has a strong desire to be seen managing his own affairs proactively and conscientiously, without needing to be told that he should adjust them.

Peterson displays that desire again in his response to the 2022 complaints where he devotes several paragraphs to describing how he thinks he has already managed all possible issues in his own way. He then rebuffs the suggestion of social media coaching with these words: “I have already undertaken the remediation of my actions in a manner very much akin to what has been suggested by the ICRC and have done so in an exceptionally thorough and equally exceptionally public and transparent manner.”

The 2017 complaint — by a client of his — resulted in an “Acknowledgement and Undertaking,” which means that Peterson did not dispute the basis of the complaint and agreed to follow the requests that the college put to him. He was asked to manage communication with his clients in a more privacy-preserving manner, to prevent the kinds of boundary issues that resulted from his previous communication patterns, and to prioritize clinical work over competing interests. This complaint remained at the level of an allegation rather than a finding of professional misconduct. The existence of the “Acknowledgment and Undertaking” was noted in the college’s public registry for the 90-day period that it was active. It was then expunged and Peterson’s record has remained clear. A more severe step might have been for the college to refer the matter to its disciplinary committee where a full hearing on professional misconduct should have occurred, where findings of fact and credibility would have been made, and where forms of discipline could have resulted. There were no grounds for that step, however, and there was no official form of discipline.

A few things have changed from the 2017 complaint to this 2022 set of complaints. The previous process involved an actual client during a time when Peterson's clinical practice was still active. Whereas now there are no clients involved and Peterson is no longer a practicing clinician, though he makes clear he very much would like to retain his licence. As he explains in an episode of his eponymous podcast, he spent "a decade of extremely hard work" qualifying as a clinical psychologist and asserts that should not be taken away from him: "I believe that I earned my licence and I'm also a good advocate on the clinical front." It is important to note that the college itself has not threatened his licence, rather it has asked him to receive social media coaching from one of its experts with no record of formal discipline kept. The image of Peterson losing his licence is an imaginary escalation of the situation that he has drawn up and propagated in multiple media, not unlike when in 2016 he eagerly conjured the impossible idea of facing jail time for not using his students' correct pronouns.

Dr. Jordan Peterson @jordanbpeterson Jan 4: Take note @CPOntario, I am making what is happening public. If the public believes I’m guilty then I will take the required course of communication and then resign. If, however, your allegations @CPOntario are revealed publicly to be both baseless and politically motivated then a public apology and the resignation of everyone involved in the process on your side is appropriate. Let the games begin.
Some of Jordan Peterson’s tweets addressed to the College of Psychologists of Ontario, Jan 4, 2022.

Since resigning from his position at University of Toronto and closing his clinical practice, Peterson has dedicated himself more fully to his very public and political pursuits. There are now much fewer reasons for him to honour his regulatory body's practices of occlusion. He is open about imposing an activist frame on his refusal of the college’s demand for social media coaching. He rallies himself for a big battle via publishing these complaint documents: "Let the games begin," he announces to his college on his Twitter account. His disclosure of the complaint file is a political move which, in his mind, he makes on behalf of many others:

"The regulatory boards that govern professional conduct in Canada particularly, in the US as well, and in the West more broadly have become so corrupted by the woke ideology that the professionals you depend on in moments of crisis for legal advice and medical advice and psychological counseling — some of which can be life- and reputation-saving — they can no longer be trusted because they can be required by their professional bodies to lie to you in the service of this warped radical leftist ideology that's now become mandatory."

In that same podcast episode he also speaks of how "the radical leftist types…weaponize these investigative processes," how he thinks regulatory bodies are staffed "pretty much uniformly with social justice oriented politically correct full compassionate narcissistic commissars" who, he claims, "do everything they can to make life miserable for everyone who doesn't share their political opinions." Through his disclosure he wants to showcase the college's demands "in a way that has larger significance" because it is "about a broader social problem" that he sees. That problem is that universities and accrediting bodies are run by a "social justice full woke critical racist theory oppressive patriarchal narrative feminist left" which he asserts will not allow psychologists and physicians to be trained if they have conservative political views. "You bloody well listen to this, people!", he calls to his audience, or "[his] country of Canada" will never be the same as he thinks it once was.

In a recent paper about processes of occlusion and disclosure, I have argued that we should pay more attention to how occlusion is achieved, maintained, and challenged. I want to say the same about disclosure: when and how does it happen, what moves does it enable, how is it taken up. My paper emphasized that occlusion and disclosure happen within structures of power and are not neutral processes. Disclosure, in particular, is often used for specific argumentative purposes. These argumentative and political purposes go beyond the particular issues of the complaint. They are a way of bringing the pressure of other, not directly related networks and audiences to bear. In my paper, I looked at the way Peter Boghossian and Stephen Hsu disclosed and requested support letters to be written when their universities were in the process of responding to complaints about the ethics of their work.

Peterson's intention is highly argumentative and openly combative. By his own description, Peterson is on a broader campaign against current practices in which regulatory bodies treat complaints and on a narrower campaign against his own college. Whereas routine practices of occlusion preserve and limit audiences, disclosure activates new ones. For many years now Peterson has been trying to take institutional problems he perceives— within his former university, throughout current post-secondary education, and inside his profession — and transform them into very public and political ones. Often, existing paths for institutional critique and change appear insufficient for him and his goals — his ambition is large and his temper is volatile. In this new situation, too, he prefers the escalating path of strident disclosure. It offers him high public exposure and a broad basis for attack. Inside his profession, however, it will only sideline him further.