Interview

Walking the Tightrope Between Chaos and Order—An Interview with Jordan B Peterson

In January, Jordan B Peterson was in London to launch his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. His lecture tour sold out and was extended twice, filling the auditorium of the Emmanuel Centre, a church-come-conference venue with a capacity of 1,000 souls, to bursting.

Peterson, who only eighteen months earlier was a relatively obscure psychology professor at the University of Toronto, was now being introduced as “one of the world’s foremost intellectuals.”

As Peterson appeared on stage under a ten-foot high image of himself, with halo projected behind his head, the audience leaped to its feet in a spontaneous standing ovation full of affection and admiration. This centrist dad was now filling venues like he was JK Rowling, Jeremy Corbyn, or Bono.

The location for our interview after the event was, of course, suitably private. We met at a tiny flat provided by his publishers, Penguin, in Bloomsbury. Tammy Peterson (Jordan’s wife) was also present, and I began the interview by asking Dr. Peterson about political polarisation.

Q: With voters rejecting the illiberal Left and radical Right, arguably a space has opened up in the center of politics. Is this what you are trying to speak to when you use the term ‘classical liberal’?

JBP: What I have been trying to elucidate is an alternative to ideological possession. And I would say the classic Western values, and they are basically liberal values, are the proper antidote to that, which is why I think our societies have thrived so well.

There is a major conceptual conundrum, which is: what is the relationship of the group to the individual? It really is a conundrum, because in your own life you might think, “Are my personal affairs more important than the affairs of my family? Is my own well-being more important than that of my children?” And so, it’s not easy to figure out how to balance the interests of the group and the individual, even if you are thinking about it from an individual perspective.

But what the West has got right, as far as I can tell, is that there is a very old idea, much older than the West itself. It’s the attentive and truthful individual who serves as the force that revitalizes the state when it becomes archaic and corrupt. And so the reason that the individual has to be regarded as sovereign is that without the sovereign individual, the state becomes corrupt and static.

There is a technical reason for that. Imagine you have a functioning state. And it’s doing what it is supposed to do. The problem is the Red Queen problem, essentially. Which is, the state is a mechanism of adaptation to the environment. But the environment is not static, it’s dynamic. And even establishing a static relationship with the environment can change it dynamically.

So, the problem is that the state cannot stay static because the environment moves away from it. And as the environment moves away, the gap between the state and the environment becomes more and more dangerous until the gap gets so large that the state will collapse as a consequence. So, you need a mechanism to keep the state updated in relation to the transformations of the environment. That mechanism is the sovereign individual. Because individuals are alert, and awake and attending, especially to an anomaly, when things don’t go right. They generate solutions to the anomaly.

So when you talk about doing the right thing for yourself, your family, and society, there is a hierarchy there? Yourself comes first?

The individual comes first because of its proximity. You are more informed about what is happening locally. Like, you are more informed about what is happening right here, than you are about what’s happening in India. You have to take your proximal concerns seriously. But the idea I have been putting forward, derived in part from Piaget, is that if you get your proximal concerns right, then you simultaneously take care of the distal concerns.

There is a reason for that. The reason has to do, in some sense, with people’s discovery of the future. Now, animals, for example, are very impulsive, they are not good at planning for the future. So, in order for you to behave properly towards yourself, you have to do what is right for you right here and now, but you also have to do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with you tomorrow, or you next week, or you next month, or maybe even you ten years from now.

So you’re actually an indefinite sequence of “you’s” stretching into the future. That means you have to regulate your behaviour now so that all those indefinite “you’s” also benefit.

There is almost no difference between having them benefit, and having people around you benefit, because the same game that will work for you in your indefinite reiterations will also work for the people around you.

You have individualism at the core of classical liberalism. What other values are there? 

Private Property. One of the classic Marxist claims is that “Property is theft”. So, let’s take that seriously first. Well, yes, sort of. It’s like: “I get to have this thing and you don’t get to have it.” And so why isn’t that just theft?

Well, the first thing we might point out is that under some circumstances, the law, even the English Common law, does regard it as theft. If you have a property that you abandon, and it falls into disrepair and someone squats and starts to fix it up and they are there for ten years, if you try and evict them the court will say, “Wait a sec; you didn’t keep up your end of the bargain.” You were not abiding by your responsibility to that property, and there is a good chance that the squatter’s moral claim will be substantiated.

You have the right to property, but you also have the responsibility that goes along with that to facilitate the development of the property, and so that would be partly to hold it in trust for the next generation, but also partly to interact with it in such a manner that the property is also a benefit to other people.

Those are two things we really, really got right. And they are not the only things that we got right speaking as Westerners, they are not arbitrary axioms that we invented—they are articulated reflections of much deeper natural laws. So that’s why I am interested in evolutionary biology and also to some degree in religious thinking.

So, with property comes with a responsibility, and if you fail in your responsibility you can forfeit the property, yet I am sure there are lots of people that run estates really badly that don’t forfeit their property.

Sure, it’s not easy to determine, except in extreme cases, when someone is being so irresponsible with their property that they should have it taken away. And I would say the law errs on the side of property rights, and it does that properly. Because you have to make an error on one side or the other, and it’s better to err on the side of preservation of property rights. But that underlying idea that you are justified in the ownership of your property in accordance with the responsibility that you take for that property, that’s a very good principle.

I would say that the recognition of private property, rather than being a merely arbitrary axiom of Western capitalism is a reflection of a much deeper natural law, and that would be a natural law that says if you’re a bird, you have a nest, and if you’re a wolf, you have a den, and you have the right, so to speak, to protect it. It’s already encoded in animal behaviour. So, we’ve articulated that properly.

So, we have individualism and private property as core values of classical liberalism. Also freedom of speech?

Well, it isn’t only that you have freedom of speech. Again, there is a commensurate responsibility that goes along with that, and that would be the responsibility to speak truthfully. And so there is a deep idea in the West, and I think its the central idea of Judeo-Christianity, actually, that spoken truth shapes the world in such a manner that that shaping is good.

So let me give you an example. In Genesis, the state of the world before the Creation. There is an idea that there is a state of potential and that there is a mechanism by which that state of potential is transformed into actuality, and that mechanism is logos. And that’s the word of God. So at the beginning of time, God uses The Word to pull habitable order out of potential. And the habitable order that he pulls out of potential is good. He says that repeatedly, day after day in the Creation. Lays out the Creation… and says it is good.

Two things emerge from that. One is the idea that men and women are made in the image of God, and so that suggests we also have the capacity to interact with this potential and to generate inhabitable order as a consequence. The other idea that comes out of that is the idea of The Word itself, which eventually finds its incarnation in the figure of Christ. And Christ is the embodiment, or incarnation of truthful speech. That’s one way of thinking about it.

Now, He is also the incarnation of the truthful speech that forces death and rebirth. And here’s what that means psychologically: let’s say you have a conceptual state and you manifest the conceptual state and it produces an error. Which is to say you do something, you want something to happen, and it doesn’t happen. Something pops us that says it doesn’t happen— that’s potential, that’s formless potential.

Now you can interact with that and you can figure out what went wrong. That means you have to kill off a bunch of your conceptual schemas, and that can be really, really painful. So you have to let that die; that’s a sacrifice. You have to let that die and let something else emerge in its stead. So, there is this dying and resurrecting deity idea that’s associated with The Word, and that’s associated with truthful speech. And that’s associated with the idea that that is how potential is cast forth as good order and that’s at the deepest level of our religious conceptualisations. And that was conceptualised before we understood it.

Classical liberalism is not an ideology because it’s reflective of something that is deep and that is real. The books that I have written, both Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules for Life are an amalgam of a Jungian psychoanalytic approach to narrative and evolutionary biology. And so, they are also an amalgam, in some sense of theology and evolutionary biology. But that’s sort of via the psychoanalytic interpretation of literature.

The reason for that, in part, is that I think that our religious preconceptions evolved. They are deeper than rationality, by a large margin. They reflect a reality that’s deeper than that which we have been able to apprehend rationally so far.

I want to ask direct questions about Christianity. Firstly, do you believe Christ existed as a man?

Yes.

Do you believe Christ existed within the conception of the Trinity?

That’s a harder question, because it starts to depend on what you mean by the Trinity. The problem with a question like that is that it assumes that the questioner, and the audience, and the answerer share the same conceptualisation of the categories.

So, I would say yes, but it’s a bounded yes because I have a particular conceptualisation of what the Trinity means.

Do you believe in the resurrection?

[Sigh, pause] That’s… I am going to eventually finish my [voice slightly falters] lecture series on the Bible, and I hope I can delve into that with the depth that it requires.

You call yourself a Christian?

I don’t; other people do.

Do you object to that?

I don’t object to it, but it’s complicated.

So, it’s not unfair?

It’s not unfair, but I’m not sure that what I mean by that is generally what is meant by that. I could give you a more specific example of that. You have an ethical responsibility if you are a Christian to imitate Christ. So, you think “What the hell does that mean? It’s not the Middle East two thousand years ago. What are you supposed to do? Put on a robe and parade around on the street?” That’s not what it means. It means something like you need to take responsibility for the evil in the world as if you were responsible for it.

That’s part of it. That’s the idea of taking the sins of the world unto yourself. And you need to understand that you determine the direction of the world, whether it’s toward heaven or hell, by your actions of speech, and you need to take responsibility for that. I would say that if you do those things then you’re a Christian, but I don’t think that that’s the way people generally conceptualise Christianity.

Let’s delve into the shadow. Typically, when people consider themselves as taking part in the Second World War, it’s as heroes. But that’s not what you want them to do: you want people to meditate on the possibility that they may have been a Nazi concentration camp guard. Why do you do that, and what is the danger of falling into the shadow?

There is a terrible danger of falling into it [the shadow]. The danger of confronting the shadow is post-traumatic stress disorder; that’s why people won’t do it. You know, even Horus, the ancient Egyptian God who decided to confront evil head-on—that was his uncle Seth—lost an eye as a consequence. This is no joke. It’s no joke, and no wonder people don’t do it.

So you say, “If that’s the cost, then why bother?” Well, the question is, is the consequence of not doing it worse? That’s the only question. And I think maybe for much of human history the answer was, the cost of not doing it was less. But we don’t have that luxury anymore, because we are so technologically powerful that unless we get our act together—which means to understand our predilection for evil, not just our capacity for it; but our desire for it—that we are not going to manage to last through the next twenty years.

How do I go about meditating on my shadow?

I think you consult your resentment. I think you can do it in the normal confines of your life. There are things that confront you, that disappoint you, frustrate you and cause you grief, and make you resentful and bitter and angry. So, the first thing you have to do is notice that that is the case. That is the first step: just notice. Well, then you think: “This goddamn lousy planet is stacked against me!” It’s something like that, and then you might think: “Well…OK, whose fault is it? And what would I like to do with the people whose fault it is?” Well, that would lead you down some dark pathways if you are willing to go there, and all you have to do is watch your fantasies to some degree, because you will have very nasty fantasies. Because if you’re in the middle of an argument with even your wife, who you hypothetically love, or your brother or your father, and you have a real argument if you watch your spontaneous fantasies… You think, where do those go? One of the things Jung would say is: “Let them go.” You’re angry, you have a fantasy: don’t suppress it, let it manifest itself fully and you’ll be quite shocked at where it goes.

Those kids who shot up the Columbine High School, that’s what they did.

But no-one wants to do that?

No, but the thing is you can’t understand that or stop it until you know it. And you can’t know it unless you’re willing to notice what happens in your own mind. And the mere fact that you notice a fantasy doesn’t mean you have to act it out. In fact, it’s the case that if you notice it, you know detach yourself and notice it, you’re much less likely to act it out. Because a fantasy actually is a template for future behaviour, that’s the whole point of a fantasy.

And you might say, “Well, I would never act that way”. Well no, if you had a vengeful fantasy and you let itself play out in your imagination you might see that it’s murderous in its intent. And it might even dramatize itself and fairly dramatic murderous fantasy. But if you don’t notice it, it will just play itself out as a murderous fantasy in slow-motion across decades.

The background image of Jordan Peterson’s book tour event held in London on January 14, 2018

When you walked out into the lecture hall in London, there was a massive image of your face with a halo behind it. What did you think of that?

We asked about that. That’s not me. This was also one of those places where the literal and the metaphorical stacked, and when that happens, I watch. The first thing was, I didn’t know I was in the Emmanuel Centre.

Which is a church, obviously…

Right, and it’s a huge circle. So, I’m in the Emmanuel Centre in London, isn’t that interesting? And then I walked out there, and there was this Wizard of Oz thing and there was a halo, and I thought, “Jesus Christ, what the hell is up with this, man? There is something going on here.” So I said, “Look, Tam, I need to figure out how this happened, because I need to know.”

Because your enemies will crucify you for that. They will say you have a messiah complex and you have gone full ‘Tony Blair’… 

Oh definitely, yeah.

I also have to add, there was a weird moment in your talk when one of the questions you received was someone just saying you were “a prophet.” Is that worrying?

Of course. For anyone sensible, that would be worrying. First, of you have to consider the fate of prophets. It’s not necessarily a category you want to be tossed into. No kidding. So, obviously it’s worrisome. 

Anyways, Tammy [Peterson] went and talked to the [organiser] guy yesterday. You see the “How to” [the event organiser’s] graphic is a circle with “How to” on top of it. It’s already a circle, and what I saw was that they had superimposed my head on that circle. But what he [the organiser] said was that the photograph was grey and the background was grey so he just put a white circle around it to separate my photograph from the grey background. Then he said [motions to Tammy, who answers: “He said my parents collect Russian icons, and maybe that had something to do with it.”] It was a very strange thing. He took it off, and actually, I didn’t want him to take it off because I didn’t want him to muck about with it.

Do you think you’re in danger from your fans as much as your enemies?

You know when Martin Luther comes back from the Wartburg to Wittenberg and says, “What have you done in my name?”

Right. Of course. I mean, I don’t know if you can distinguish. There is no simple way of distinguishing. Let’s say that a group is responding to you and some of them are hypothetically your enemies and some are hypothetically your friends. The whole thing is the group, and you’re going to get the full range of expression from that group. And those who are your allies can flip into those who are your enemies and vice-versa very rapidly. So, I would say that the fundamental conundrum is how to conduct yourself in relation to the group with that full variability as part of the group, and of course that’s a danger.

I mean, for the last year—I can give you an example because I have been an opponent of the radical Left. Those on the radical Right think that I am on their side, and we do share the commonality of being opposed to the radical Left. I mean, I have lectured about the dangers of the radical Right probably more than I have lectured about the dangers of the radical Left.

Well, about two months ago I took the radical Right to task for playing identity politics, and I did that mostly on Twitter. And they [the radical Right] were instantly—and I’m not complaining about this—they were immediately disenchanted with me. And so, because people formulate their opinions of people who are public figures very rapidly, it’s easy for those impressions to be transmuted.

I think the one advantage that I have is that the material I have on YouTube is being watched and is being understood. And it’s not easy material, so the people who are supporting me that have put the time in, actually understand with reasonable depth what it is I am trying to do and why.

That’s makes [the fan group] more solid than it might be. I think I have evidence for that, and the evidence is that I have had my reputation attacked, probably as brutally as it can be attacked, short of actual physical violence over the last year and a half. And what’s stopped that from having a lasting effect is the fact that four hundred hours of what I have said have already been online and that people know it very deeply.

On the blurb of 12 Rules for Life Camille Paglia says you are “the most important and influential Canadian thinker” and you were upgraded at your London lectures to “one of the world’s foremost intellectuals”. How do you keep humility active?

The first thing is, I have lots of people advising me and watching me. Tammy is one of them, and my children and my parents. Her [Tammy’s] feet are firmly on the ground.

I’m also pretty old. I’m fifty-five. [*Interviewer looks quizzically*] Yeah, but I’m not twenty. The fact is that this acclaim, let’s say, has a different effect on you when you’re older than when you are young. The temptation to take it egotistically is stronger when you’re young than it is when you are old. Partly because you have been bashed around by the time you are old. You have some sense of what life is really like and what’s really important, and all of those things.

Part of the humility that’s necessary to make this sort of thing work is the proper terror of making a mistake. I have been far more terrified of making a fatal error in the last eighteen months than I have been thrilled about my newfound notoriety. I have been walking a very thin tightrope. I only have to say one thing, in all the things that I have said since September, and I have come close!

The social justice types who have been trying to bring me down have focused on three or four things that I have said and tried to make them into a cause celebre. So far, they haven’t been able to make it stick, but believe me, I’m not counting on that to continue. And I also understand that, well, you know, the Yin and Yang symbol. Let’s say that I’m in the white serpent at the moment, and things are all going swimmingly. But there is the black dot that can always manifest itself, and things can shift for you very, very rapidly, and I’m very aware of that.

Outside of my immediate family, I have a circle of advisers who are not the sort of people who are swayed by fame. Not because they don’t understand its utility, not because they are contemptuous of it, none of that, but because some of them have had their fame, and some of them have had the kind of power in the world that is sufficient so they are no longer star-struck by that sort of thing, and they can see the dangers. I talk to them and I say, “OK, here is what I said. What did I do wrong? Where did I go overboard? Where wasn’t I clear? Where did I wander into egotism?” And they are brutal. They tell me, “Here is what you did wrong; don’t do this again.” There are five of them. And, plus, I pay attention to the social media comments. Not obsessively, but if I have made a video that doesn’t get fifty-to-one likes to dislikes, I have made a mistake, because that seems to be about the [right] ratio.

This isn’t a moral virtue on my part. This is desperate instinct for self-preservation. It’s like if you’re in a piranha tank, you don’t want to get a speck of something delicious on you. How would that be?

Let’s talk about the political implications of the problems you have identified in universities throughout the Western world. You have articulated some pretty fundamental problems, so what do you suggest can be done about it? Because we can’t exactly purge the universities. 

No, you can’t, and you can’t even put political pressure on them through the political channels, because the consequence of doing that will be worse than the problem. Because then the universities fall prey to political control. Well, that’s the problem now! OK, it’s a different form of political control.

So has Jonathan Haidt got it right? That is, it needs to be made clear what business universities are in (pursuit of truth or social justice) and give people the free market choice to choose to go to which university they prefer?

I think that’s right. I had talked to a web designer about producing a website that would identify postmodern courses by their content, and people got all up in arms about that, because they thought it might be turned into a hit list for radical leftist academics, so we pulled back on that. But what we are going to do instead—this is the plan, not set in stone yet—is to establish a website which identifies courses which are definitely not postmodern neo-Marxist, then to tell the student, like, “Look, you can make your own bloody decision. If you want to go to university and take the activist route, it’s open to you. But if you are interested in a classical education, a more scientifically orientated education, or a more classic humanities education, then here are the courses you can take that will lead you down that pathway.” The only solution is to dry up the supply of new students [for the activist route], as far as I can tell.

Might some people argue that is you trying to put people out of jobs?

Well, I think there should be some consequences for assuming that the purpose of university education is to produce social justice activists. It’s like, sorry! I don’t believe that is the purpose of a university education. And if you believe that and you’re acting it out, and I can put in place mechanisms that will disabuse you of the utility of that notion, I feel no compunction in doing so, and a moral obligation to inform students in particular about just exactly what game is being played here. So, you might say, well, “I’m threatening your job.” Yeah, I am, direct!  This is a direct threat to your job. It’s the most direct threat that I can think of that won’t produce catastrophic consequences.

Let’s talk about the gender pay gap…

It doesn’t exist. How about we do some multivariate analysis? That’s the answer to that. Men and women get paid differently. What’s your point? Do you want to add some more variables? How about we do that? Which variables?

Well, we can have an intelligent discussion about that. If you do a reasonable multivariate analysis, there is no gender pay gap. And the objection to that was, [*Peterson at this point assumes a higher pitched voice*] “Well, we don’t need a multivariate analysis.” It’s like, yeah, you do.

Is that your woman’s voice? That’s my radical feminist voice, yes.

What other variables do you add to the analysis?

Age is one, personality is a big one, and interest is a huge one. This is where James Damore comes into the picture, because people accuse James Damore of utilising pseudoscience. Like, one of the things that people need to understand is that the science that Damore used is mainstream psychology and evolutionary biology. It’s not pseudoscience. That’s wrong!

The other thing I should say is that personality psychologists, who are pretty damn careful with measurement and are quite non-corrupt as a sub-discipline in social science, have figured out how to measure personality over the last thirty years. And they measured other things as well, like interest. So, we can measure cognitive ability, we can measure personality and we can measure interest reliably. They are real things and they are powerful, too.

There was a question amongst psychologists. There are gender differences in personality. How do they manifest themselves cross-culturally? And more specifically, how do they manifest themselves in those countries where the biggest steps have been taken to establish gender equality socially and according to the law? It’s an empirical question.

But it’s better than that: because intellectuals have a left-wing bias because they are high in openness, that’s one reason. They are much more inclined to find findings that are favourable to the Left than they are the Right. Now, the fact that the scientific process is so goddamn powerful means that they will find findings that are desirable to the Right now and then merely because the evidence is so goddamn overwhelming. IQ would be a good example of that.

The hypothesis, for sure, if you would have polled personality psychologists twenty-five years ago, would have been: “If you flatten out the social-cultural differences between men and women, the personality differences will minimise.”  That’s not what happened. They maximised. So, the biggest differences in the world between men and women are in Scandinavia. Everyone is shocked by that!

Well, the paper that originally revealed that has a lot of citations. It’s [probably a] ninety-nine point nine percentile scientific paper [in terms of its citations]. So, it was shocking. It was shocking to me. I didn’t expect that [result]! Now I know why.

What happens is, is there are two sources of variance determining the difference between men and women. One is biological and the other is cultural. If you eradicate the cultural differences, the biological differences maximise. So that’s what happened. And the biological differences are, by the standards of psychological and social science research, actually quite large. Especially the difference in interest between people and things. It’s one standard deviation.

See, even at one standard deviation, there is a big overlap between men and women, but that doesn’t matter because a lot of selection is done at the extremes. So, let me give you an example. Men are more aggressive than women. OK, but not that much more aggressive, so that, if you go by the general population and grab a woman and grab a man and say: “Place a bet on who is more aggressive?” If you bet on the man, you would win only sixty percent of the time. OK, so it’s there, but it’s not ninety percent of the time. But then you ask a different question. Take all the people out of that group, which, let’s say, is a group of ten thousand. Take the top first percentile of most aggressive people and they are all men. Then you put them in prison, which is what we do. The most disagreeable people are in prison, and they are pretty much all men.

But when you select for extreme engineering prowess, and you only select the top one hundred people, as you would do at Google, for example, you get all the people who are interested in things, who are really interested in things, and pretty much all of them are men.

OK, but is it still reasonable to think that there is still a little bit of sexism going on?

Oh, of course, there is. It’s a multivariate problem. That also why these arguments are difficult. So, the question is “Is Western culture tyrannical?” Well, it’s a multivariate problem, so, yeah, partly, because that’s an archetypal truth because every society is also the Tyrannical King. It’s old its archaic, it’s out-of-date, it has its prejudices. Like, it’s not perfect. But that’s not the issue. It’s like: “Is Western society the Wise King or the Tyrant?” It’s like, no it’s kind of a mixture of both, but its tilted quite nicely towards the Wise King.

Is there prejudice in hiring? Yeah, but we should also point out that it’s highly counter-productive [for there to be so]. Because if you are a greedy capitalist, let’s say, you’re an idiot not to hire the most qualified person. It will do you in across time because you are giving these people [you’re not hiring] to your competitors.

Given this, do all-female shortlists for political candidates make sense?

Look, here is what happened in Canada. This is one of the most appalling things our new Prime Minister did. So, twenty-five percent of MPs at the Federal level were women, and he extracted half the Cabinet from the women. By definition, he did not hire the most qualified people, just statistically. It’s like, that’s a big mistake because they are actually Cabinet Ministers. You don’t say: “You have a vagina; therefore, you have a preferential shot at a Cabinet chair.” Not unless you’re too damn dumb to analyse people for their competence. It’s a catastrophic mistake. And if you insist upon equality of outcome when you don’t have equality of candidates or when you don’t have the same numerical range of candidates, you decrease the quality of your candidates. And that can be devastating, like, really devastating. It’s catastrophic to put a potential failure in an important position, but it’s equally catastrophic to put in someone mediocre; because A) if they are just mediocre you can’t get rid of them. And B) there is a massive difference between mediocre and excellent (that’s a Pareto distribution difference). There is a huge difference in competencies at the upper end.

Changing the subject to your speaking style. Your story about the Café from Hell is very amusing…

I was very happy with that.

Have you done any stand-up?

Only in my classes.

Could I compare your style in part to Billy Connolly? The way he shoots up into the air four different threads and then he kills you at the end because he brings them all back together. Is there a bit of that in the way you lecture?

Yeah, definitely, that’s fun. There is actually a technical description for it, and I learned that from Carl Jung. It’s called circumambulation. It’s going a whole bunch of places before you make the point. So, what you do is you go out and you gather a bunch of information and you say “Here’s how that stacks”. And comedians do do that because they lead you down a blind alley and they say: “Hey, that’s how this works” and you go, “Wow that’s so cool!”

When I was a kid, a teenager, in particular, I hung around with some people, I detail them a bit in the book, who were unbelievably funny. Like we had competitive humour contests all the time, and you won by being the funniest person. And we did that for hours and hours.  And the competition was really intense, and I do think that’s kind of a working class thing. Because working-class guys can be extremely witty and caustic and biting and vicious and all of that. The guys that I hung around with had developed that into a high art, and so that was really fun.

This is interesting because half my family is from Canada and my opinion of Canadians up to now had been ‘very straight’, but you’re not like that, you’re changing the way people look at Canadians…

Well, Canadians have produced a disproportionate number of Hollywood comedians. Like if you go down the list of Hollywood comedians a tremendous number of them are Canadian. John Candy, [Tammy: Jim Carrey…and the Star Trek guy] James Kirk, the whole SATV crowd was Canadian. Second City has been operating in Canada for forever. Ten of the hottest young comedians in Hollywood are Canadian. [Tammy: Russell Peters!]

Here is something strange that has happened to me over the last year. First of all I have been interviewed by and talked with a tremendous number of comedians; Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Duncan Trussell, Brian Callen. It’s just one stand-up comedian after the other. So that’s really interesting.

Then there is the whole issue of “the King [society] is a tyrant if he persecutes his own jester.” That’s how you know when tyranny is afoot—they go after the comedians. And that’s starting to happen. John Cleese has already commented about that. Seinfeld won’t tour university campuses and Seinfeld is about as inoffensive a comedian as you can possibly be. It’s, it’s like “You don’t get to be funny. You don’t get to say that.”

And that’s all coming from the Left, not the Right?

It’s all coming from the Left.

OK, so moving on. When trying to explain to people your ideas, one drops in the term ‘postmodern neo-Marxism,’ and they just look at you and go,” What on earth are you talking about?” Can you not come up with a more accessible term? 

Well, there are analogies. “Social Justice Warriors” is a pretty good one. It’s a bit more pejorative. But the thing is, we are at a point where people have to actually understand what these things are. Because we are in a war of ideas, and if it’s solved at the level of ideas then there won’t be a war.

Is “cultural Marxism” better?

It’s an oversimplification because it doesn’t take into account the effect of the postmodernists. And I actually think the postmodernists were worse that the cultural Marxists, because they identify the cultural Marxists within the Frankfurt School, and there is some utility in that although its complicated.

There was far more excuse for the cultural Marxists than there was for the postmodernists. Because the cultural Marxists were reacting to Nazism. They had their reasons for being terrified of the radical Right and they had their reasons for trying to set the Left straight. Now, I think they did all sorts of perverse and corrupt things but it’s kind of like the original revolutionaries in the Soviet Union. They didn’t know it was going to be a century-long bloodbath. So, there was a little bit more excuse for their revolutionary utopian fervour.

Are you familiar with Daniel Farber and Suzanna Sherry? They wrote a book: Beyond All Reason: The Radical Assault on Truth in American Law in 1997, which attacked critical race theory. They faced much of the same criticism that you have: that they were bigoted and so on. Part of their argument was to ask the question: “Do Jewish people enjoy white privilege?” because if they do, then the concept of white privilege begins to sound anti-Semitic, doesn’t it?  What do you think of that argument?

How about Asian people, do they enjoy white privilege? There is a major problem with [the privilege] argument, especially with regard to Asians. Asians are the fly in the ointment for the identity politics types because the Asians are suing universities all across the United States for discriminating against them. Which they do! You have to do way better as an Asian to get into an elite American university. Otherwise, the Universities would be just full of Asians.

So what do we do about that? Nothing! You select on merit and you let the bloody cards fall where they are going to. And then they say, “Well your mechanisms of merit are polluted by your patriarchal presuppositions.” And the answer to that that is, partly! But you don’t have a better solution! So you use objective measures despite the fact that they are flawed because they are not as flawed as whatever other things you’re going to use.

One of the ways that left-wing ideologues seem to be winning is through Wikipedia. If you go to the “White Privilege” page you will find that it’s effectively postmodern propaganda… 

It is a very intelligent point of entry for someone who is activist-minded. Why the hell wouldn’t you go on Wikipedia and gerrymander the contents? You have an ethical duty to do so.

And one of the ways this is entrenched is that the sources that underpin these misleading Wikipedia pages are professors who are peer reviewed…  

Ha! Peer-reviewed…that’s such a lie! First of all, 80 percent of humanities papers are not cited once. That’s fraud! That’s what that is, right. 80 percent, that’s a very bad number. “Peer-reviewed” means you have conjured up a specialty journal that only you and your friends publish in. You each review your own publications. Then you go the library, and say “You have to buy this.” And the library says, “Because you said so we have to buy it, because that’s our mandate.” And the publisher says, “Oh good because we will sell it to the libraries at a price so inflated that the mere fact that no-one ever reads it is irrelevant.” Right, and so then the libraries buy it. And that’s your “peer-review”. 

So it becomes a circular argument on Wikipedia because when you want to introduce criticism, say, by a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, and they say, “Well he isn’t a professor of critical race theory…” 

Exactly, they say, “He’s not qualified”. That’s what they keep telling me. They say: “You’re not qualified to comment on that’ and I say, “Well, you’re not qualified to comment on anything!’” This is part of the reason why I am unpopular in Canada: because I keep saying that these are pseudodisciplines. They bear no resemblance whatsoever to a [scholarly] discipline. And that would be all of the “Critical Studies” areas. They have no intellectual credibility whatsoever. They do far more harm than good.

This is what Janice Fiamengo keeps saying, and she deserves more attention because she is quite the character. She is Professor of English Literature at the University of Ottawa and she was deep into Women’s Studies for a long period of time and then learned that it was fraudulent from top to bottom. She has been making videos and going around campuses ever since, to quite vicious opposition. But she is a tough cookie, man.

Yeah, so, Sociology? It’s done. Social work? It’s corrupt. Faculties of education? They are so done they are not salvageable, as far as I can tell. Anthropology, history, literature, the humanities, generally speaking, they are done [Tammy: law!]. Law is the worst of the bunch.

We are finished then, aren’t we? If the lawyers are against us?

The law is really bad. I had no idea how deep the corruption in law had gotten until last year. I have been talking to law students and professors and it’s absolutely unbelievable.

*   *   *

At this point, the interview ended. Time was against us and, as Peterson’s publisher explained, they had to walk to the studios of Channel 4. Peterson was off to swim in the piranha tank: his sensational interview with Cathy Newman.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is published by Random House and is on sale now through Amazon.


Andrew Kelman is a Scots-Canadian writer living in London. Follow him on Twitter @theukdemocrat.

 

34 Comments

  1. You hit a few points I haven’t heard elsewhere. Great work.

  2. What a mind blowing interview. There’s a lot to unpack.

    The part on private property, if explored as the corner stone of human rights, will hopefully get the PoMo monsters back into their den. Unless their heads explode before that.

    I really liked the section about how he seeks counsel, which is often what’s missing from his talks (a little bit man against the machine).

    If JBP was to produce two other opus, sort of ‘the human rights to private property’, and ‘ethics of cooperative behaviours’, I can’t even begin to imagine what this will change.

    As an atheist, I have no shame to admit that Language is truly divine, thank you Mr Peterson.

  3. The professor is great as always – really, really looking forward to the end of the Biblical Series and the question of Christ (which will really be peak Carl Jung in the 21st century, can’t wait)

    One point about private property – what if someone purchases land, keeps it running well, burns coal, but is destroying the air quality of the community, while doing perfectly fine with their own individual plot of land? This question will find resolution in the fate of industrial India and China, and with climate change, the results will be even more drastic if it turns out that the hyper-individualism of liberalism actually led to mass environmental catastrophe…

    • JackbeThimble says

      I suspect that that’s more or less exactly the scenario he was imagining where irresponsibility would result in revocation of property rights. That or a poorly maintained property being used as a hideout for criminals or something.

      • andrewnwest says

        The problem is, how would you measure it? There’s no (current) market mechanism to track externalities like burning coal. By comparison, you can track someone’s house becoming run down.

    • Taupe Pope says

      There’s already loads of common law and regulation concerning usage and pollution. It generally comes from the idea that your enjoyment of your property must not infringe on anyone else’s enjoyment of their private property and vice versa.

  4. John V says

    I’ve been listening so much to Jordan lately that I was reading this with his froggy voice in my head.
    He doesn’t strike me as the type of person susceptible to a Messiah complex.I would hate to see that happen.

    • He absolutely does have a messiah complex, and you’re too stupid to see that. Stupidity is typical of Jordan Peterson followers.

  5. Les S. says

    I like this article. JBP is helping to educate the public about what is going on in society and he is able to explain complex issues in simple language, for the most part.

    I’m disappointed that there are several grammatical errors here. This is not up to Quillette’s usual high and mostly impeccable standard. Andrew Kelman needs a proofreader. Thanks for putting this together but you can do better at the tiny details. Appreciate your thoughtful content.

    • Na.com says

      I believe this is a transcript, and we don’t always speak in grammatically perfect sentences…

  6. Andrew Roddy says

    In answer to the question about prioritising focus on the individual rather than family, society etc. Peterson says, ‘ The individual comes first because of its proximity.’ But proximity to what? Surely he can only mean proximity to the individual in which case the circularity renders the answer meaningless – though perhaps telling.

    Regarding his link with individualism and private property as the happy cornerstones of a stable Western society let me offer a couple of quotes…..

    [The Indian] must be imbued with the exalting egotism of American civilization so that he will say “I” instead of “We,” and “This is mine” instead of “This is ours.”

    –J.D.C. Atkins, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1886

    The allotment system [of deeding land to individuals and families] tends to break up tribal relations. It has the effect of creating individuality, responsibility, and a desire to accumulate property. It teaches the Indians habits of industry and frugality, and stimulates them to look forward to a better and more useful life, and, in the end will relieve the government of large annual appropriations.

    — Hiram Price, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1881

    Of course we don’t have to agree with people who found themselves at odds with a culture that sanctified private property but we can hardly call them post-modern neo-Marxists.

    Thanks for the interview. I always find Jordan B Peterson interesting and challenging. He desperately wants to encourage more thinking and less ideological knee-jerking. He has to be applauded for that.

  7. “The individual comes first because of its proximity.”

    I take that to be a postulate or axiom, not something that is demonstrably true or false.

    Peterson’s discussion about the individual, culture and property is best viewed in the context of the longstanding Anglo-American debate about the proper role of private property in a commonwealth. On the Digger, Leveller and Grandee continuum, which has persisted in our common culture since the 1640s, Peterson seems to be a Leveller. The Diggers have long been recognized as collectivists, some say proto-Marxists, and, rather late in the game, the Levellers did begin to adopt Winstanley and Everards’ view that property that benefits only an individual and does not contribute to the commonweal should not enjoy much legal protection.

    • Andrew Roddy says

      Perhaps but when comparisons with other animals are invoked there is an intimation that we are being invited to understand it in the context of our evolutionary biology.

      • Well, his reference to the Red Queen Hypothesis and his reference to lobster hierarchy being controlled in their nervous system in the subsequent interview with Cathy Newman do suggest that Peterson has been influenced by EO Wilson’s “Sociobiology” (1975). The Red Queen Hypothesis suggests that it takes all the evolving any living thing can do just to avoid extinction.

        I was an undergraduate about the same time as Peterson in the late 1970s. I have a degree in biology and took several courses in evolutionary biology. Later, after law school, it occurred to me that Sir Edward Coke’s defense of the common law over positive law could also be defended with concepts from sociobiology. Here it is interesting to note that the English Reformation was contemporaneous with Coke’s restatement of the common law of England. It all happened between 1628-60. It is also easy to view the enormous cultural and political changes associated with Puritan Revolution in England as an evolutionary leap.

        Of course there has been a lot of water over the dam since 1980 so I cannot say what the present state of affairs is in sociobiology.

        My impression is that Peterson views culture and religion in the same terms; that is to say we are evolving as fast as we can culturally and morally as well as physically and intellectually.

        Above, I referenced the Diggers, Levellers and Grandees because Peterson strongly reminds me of the puritan Independents of the 1640s. Unlike the Presbyterians, the Independents were naturally heterodox and Independency was, as the Presbyterians put it, “the mother of heresy.” It is a common observation amongst historians of religion that rationalist puritan Independents who are also attracted to stoicism exhibit a marked tendency towards non-trinitarian and non-Neicene expressions of Christianity.

  8. andrewnwest says

    “[*Peterson at this point assumes a higher pitched voice*] “Well we don’t need a multivariate analysis“. Its like, yeah, you do.”

    It’s fine to attack someone’s arguments, but to imply the arguments are only from women is not a good look.

    • Peter Kriens says

      True. But it was rather prescient just having seen the interview with Cathy Newman.

  9. Clean up your room, Quillette! Or, in this case, your spelling.

    Otherwise, excellent as always.

    PS: I would have like to have JBP pressed harder on being more discriminant about scholarship in the problematic areas of the academy he rightly takes to task. There is some good and important work being done in gender and race studies, but it is, unsurprisingly, drowning beneath the waves of socialist activism and propaganda that surrounds it.

    • Deafening Tone says

      And sociology. (Sigh) But it’s hard to argue with him that these disciplines aren’t “done.”

  10. Regarding the idea of the website for determining “postmodern neomarxist” (one may reasonably argue about that label but setting that aside) course descriptions, I don’t know why Jordan hasn’t considered the option of having it up but not saving the results. It should be reasonably simple. You input the course description, it gives the result but doesn’t save it in a database.

    I don’t see why that would be a problem.

  11. Why are these clowns always too afraid to just use the term “Libertarian?”

  12. Robin Whittle says

    Jordan Peterson is reputed to have said: “And Christ is the embodiment, or incarnation of truthful speech. That’s one way of thinking about it. Now, He is also the incarnation of the truthful speech that forces death and rebirth.”

    Five decades plus of being polite when people speak without qualification of Jesus’ teachings as truthful is my limit – so here goes: a mini-critique of the veracity of Jesus’ theological and cosmological teachings. The value or veracity of his generosity, tolerance etc. material is another matter, but no-one would have taken much notice of a carpenter speaking about these things. The only reason he had lasting influence is that a critical mass of people believed him when he portrayed himself as divine.

    I am not sure that Jordan Peterson portrays the statement as being true, or whether he is referring to widespread belief in Jesus’ truthfulness as an important factor in the development of Western culture. (The capital H is perhaps not his intention.) The idea that truthful thoughts and words are a good, or the best, technique for refashioning ourselves and society is important. But if examples of truthful speech are to given, in the midst of a complex debate, without excessive distraction or dispute, someone more truthful than Jesus could be cited.

    Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who taught a variation of Judaism’s One Creator God theology, which has its basis in the Torah – Genesis to Deuteronomy. It is now established beyond reasonable doubt that the characters and events of the Torah – Abraham, Moses, the Exodus etc. – are fictional and that the final form of the Torah was put together around the 6th century BCE as part of a political effort to unify the people of the recently vanquished Northern Israeli kingdom with the smaller and still intact Southern kingdom. (“The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts: by Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman; “Who Wrote the Bible?” by Richard Elliott Friedman.)

    Jesus clearly believed in the veracity of his teachings – he chose being tortured to death over recanting them. He and his colleagues might have figured out that the Torah was a crock just by looking at its contradictions and erratic writing style. If he had been divine, then he would have known that it contains zero historical truth – and that its portrayal of Yahweh the creator as an obsessive, genocidal, self-promoting deity who wanted people to fuss over the fabrics and form of his Temple is utterly at odds with the characteristics of any entity with the imagination and power to create the Universe.

    Likewise the apocalypse. We know the Universe is at least 13 billion years old (from the apparent distance of galaxies) and that it is vast beyond ordinary comprehension. The observable 26 bly diameter sphere contains far more stars and therefore planets than there are grains of sand on Earth. (https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/09/17/161096233/which-is-greater-the-number-of-sand-grains-on-earth-or-stars-in-the-sky)

    Apocalypticism developed naturally, I think, as people tried to reconcile their belief in a creator God who cares for humans with the profound and general absence of any practical assistance from such a God, which might reasonably be expected, when it is most desperately needed. It is one – perhaps the only – way of coping with the Problems of Evil and Suffering. (Arguments about an all-powerful creator losing his powers are equivalent to him being grossly irresponsible and not caring for his pets.)

    According to “The Continuum History of Apocalypticism” page 60 (Google Books) Zoroastrian apocalypticism was crucial to the full development of Jewish apocalypticism – which Jesus believed in.

    The idea that Earth – or the Universe – will soon be transformed, instantly and miraculously, into a state where no humans suffer from cruelty, neglect, disease, mental illness, developmental disorders or natural disasters is quite mad. Apocalypticism also makes the believer think less of life as it is at present, and dependent on God to get on with it.

    Apocalypticism is a bizarre belief, disrespectful of life and reality, which is downplayed in much of Christianity, but it was central to Jesus’ teachings. It is 100% BS and, I think, offensive to believers’ earnest search for truth. Yet it was plausible for people in a humanocentric religion, knowing nothing of evolution, the scale of the Universe or of vast species extinctions over hundreds of millions of years.

    This is not to say that there’s nothing of value in what Jesus (as best we know from the gospels) taught, or that there’s no moral or social value in the Torah or more generally in the OT and other scripture.

    This is an argument against Jesus’ divinity – against him being the Christ – because most conceptions of such divinity involve the deity unerringly speaking the truth.

    I understand Jordan Peterson’s meteoric rise to prominence (trends.google.com) in terms of his extraordinary, open, truthful, self-exposing, here-in-the-moment, boldness, coupled with deep knowledge of people today, and of history and the role of myth (including religion) in the development of societies. He tackles the great big stinking pomo-political social justice warrior pile with vigour, erudition and humour.

    Its such a stinking pile that most of us have been keeping a distance from it for years, holding our noses, hoping it will go away. Yet it has grown to monstrous proportions.

    The belief in Jesus’ truthfulness is close to 2,000 years old. I think it is a similarly stinking misconception that played an important part in the development of Western civilisation – and that it is a mistake to behave as if this myth might be true.

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  14. We live in the best time in history yet at the same time we are fighting the same devils that inspired the carnage of the last century (leftists using identity politics). This century is shaping up as a David vs Goliath where individuals like Peterson go up against the media, corrupt politicians and violent radicals on both the left and the right.

  15. Carl Sageman says

    Another amazing article. Both Quillette and Jordan Peterson are at the top of their game.

    People have often described me as very Christian, despite me having nothing to do with the church. Peterson nails this in my mind when he talks of recognising evil around us and accepting responsibility for it, which I absolutely believe (although evil is a simplistic word). His prediction of 20 years before we implode is a WAG (wild assed guess) but it’s the same timeframe I’ve been working on, based on the last decade of devisiveness, particularly under the banner of words like “equality” and “diversity”. It’s ironic that diversity would be used to drive wedges between groups of people, despite the opposite intent.

    Peterson often talks about violent thoughts, especially against one’s enemy. I may be unique in this respect as I do not share this view. I see divisive groups like antifa, black lives matter and feminism as extremely destructive. However, I also recognise their motives come from a place of good intentions. While I strongly oppose the significant damage they inflict on society (eg. I consider feminism to be the most concentrated and intolerant sexism I’ve seen), it doesn’t mean that I want these people dead. Clementine Ford (a high profile feminist) publicly humiliated a mentally disabled man who was on a Melbourne tram. Her equally intolerant followers lashed out with their torches and pitchforks with a range of emotive and vitriolic responses, fuelled by some of the more extremist media outlets. It deeply frustrates me that no media outlet or government official will condemn such disgusting behaviour, but I don’t want Clementine dead. It is this endorsement of evil (for want of a better word) that’s tearing our society apart. Through our inaction, we justify extreme intolerance. We saw similar behaviour from the media when they endorsed and/or praised violence from antifa, especially against peace protesters. But it doesn’t make me want these people dead, no matter how destructive they are. It’s the lack of acccountabiliy that’s the most harmful to us all.

    There was a very interesting article on reason dot com
    about the next US election. It identified that Hillary made her politics both female and black focussed, hoping to capitalise on the post-Obama wave and the “first female president”. It ultimately ended up in driving significant wedges in our society, a new high of intolerance and divisiveness if you will. With blind media backing we saw the rise of BLM and the “everyone is a white supremacist” and “punch a nazi” trope, all directly attributable to Hillary (eg. the labelling of PEPE as a hate symbol was from Hillary). The reason article suggested there has been a shift in the female demographic away from the Republicans and that this shift would ensure a victory for the DNC in 2020 if the DNC played the same divisive cards. What I read was a clear message: the 2020 election by the Democrats will be even more divisive: more racism, more sexism and more propaganda. No wonder why anxiety levels and depression have skyrocketed in recent times. Our politicians are deeply committed to dividing our societies at any cost (and I absolutely include Trump in that, but I emphasise Hillary because of the media free-pass that she’s been granted).

    How do we bring people back together? If we don’t stop these devisive groups, western society will tear itself apart. Peterson is a prophet of potential doom (and I believe him), but, I also believe it’s not too late. We simply need to ask which group is the most intersectional and intolerant and expose it to send a message that divisiveness isn’t acceptable. Peterson describes this group in the interview above (Q: who initiated and fraud that Janice Fiamengo is fighting and why did that unnamed group propagate fraud?). If we aren’t willing to tackle this intolerant ideology, we are doomed because all others will follow the template knowing they will not be opposed and may even be actively encouraged by main stream media and government.

    Peterson’s work is invaluable. Reason and logic must prevail over devisive ideologies if we are to survive as a society. Apathy is no longer an option. 2020 will be a call to arms for the western world: truth, logic and reason vs intolerance, divisiveness and “post truth”. Irrespective of which party you support, it’s the ideals that we must decide on and defend.

  16. “Why the hell wouldn’t you go on Wikipedia and gerrymander the contents? You have an ethical duty to do so.”
    I do not uxderstand this.

    • Keith Johnston says

      Left wing activists gerrymander to contents of Wikipedia and feel morally superior as they do it.

  17. Dave J says

    I’ve seen a fair few Peterson videos and read a lot of articles about him. This interview comes pretty near the top of the list as a way of learning about some of his core themes and ideas.

  18. “So, the biggest differences in the world between men and women are in Scandinavia. Everyone is shocked by that!

    Well, the paper that originally revealed that… ”

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think there are no Scandinavian countries mentioned in the paper. It lists 55 countries, but there’s no Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Iceland among them.

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