The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

by Glenn on July 22, 2018

I enjoyed 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018) by Jordan B. Peterson so much I went back and listened to the audio version. It is a remarkable work, with lots to think about.

When I first saw 12 Rules for Life in stores, I didn’t resonate with it. I hadn’t heard of the author and, as a rule, I’m not generally drawn to books containing rules. But when I heard an episode of EconTalk featuring Dr. Peterson, I was sold. This, incidentally, is one of the great things about Econtalk and its host, Russ Roberts. Typically, Dr. Roberts will read something (and you get the sense that he has actually read it)—a book, essay, paper, article, etc.—and then talk with its author about it. I think it’s fair to say that Roberts generally interviews people who’ve written things he’s interested in. His curiosity as a host makes his interviews interesting for us as an audience. Roberts has a well-established point-of-view. He approaches the world as an economist who favors limited government and free markets, and as a religious person of the Jewish faith. He is happy to tell you where he agrees with what you’ve written. And he’s happy to object to what he doesn’t think is true, whether on philosophical, religious, or practical grounds. Still, these are friendly interviews (demonstrating how to disagree without being disagreeable)—discussions, really—and this one is no exception. Dr. Roberts makes this comment to Dr. Peterson at the beginning of this discussion about 12 Rules:

“Your book’s very, um–it’s rather extraordinary. It may be the only self-help book that combines the Bible, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Jung, and a lot of Jordan Peterson. I found it provocative, inspiring. Sometimes frustrating. We’ll get to that, I hope. And I hope we’ll also get to some broader issues outside the book, as well, if time permits. I want to start with happiness.”

Roberts opens the interview with this idea: He says he thinks “many people–maybe most–have as their central goal in life to be happy.” Then Roberts asks, “Is there something wrong with that?”

Before you hear anything Peterson says, you notice that his voice is rather constricted. Almost alarmingly (unnecessarily?) so when you consider he’s a university lecturer. I’ve since heard him make self-deprecating jokes about what he describes as a Kermit-like voice. But it’s not long before you ignore the quality of the speaking voice because you a drawn to what that voice is saying. I would call it a voice of wisdom, compassion, and courage. Peterson responded to the question about the pursuit of happiness this way:

“Well, there’s a bunch of things wrong with it. First of all, it’s simply not true. If you look at what people mean when they say they want to be happy, what they actually want is to not be anxious and miserable. And, the reason I’m making a point of that is because you might think of happiness and sadness as opposites. But, they are actually not, because you have a system in your brain, or a part of your psyche, that is responsible for the production of positive emotion. And you have a separate system that is responsible for the production of negative emotion. And when people say they want to be happy, what they really mean, if you do the psychological analysis properly and question them properly and dig in and, and develop a detailed understanding of what they actually mean, they mean they don’t want to be anxious and in pain. And that’s not surprising. So, technically, it’s not incorrect that people are after happiness. But, then, let’s say, metaphysically, and more strictly psychologically, I also think it’s a bad goal. Because, there’s lots of times in your life–there’s going to be lots of times in your life, where you just can’t be happy.”

This opening statement is what convinced me to buy the book. You can tell immediately he’s someone who knows something. Really, many things. I suppose you might label the book as “self help,” but compared to the other books I’ve read in the genre, 12 Rules is on another level because its author is operating on another level. The book is inspiring, even as it deals with life in all its challenges and difficulties. Rather than put our thoughts up in the area with ideas like, “If you can dream it, you can achieve it,” his advice is much more practical, for example, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” or “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” the latter sometimes rendered as “Clean up your room!” (The complete list of the 12 Rules can be found here.) While these admonitions may seem simple, Peterson develops each of them extensively by taking us through a circuitous route of helpful knowledge and  meaningful examples. It seems only too clear that Dr. Peterson has a deep empathy for and desire to help people and that his 25 years of experience as a clinical psychologist and  impressive background in the behavioral sciences provide exemplary credentials and competence. As you read the book, you become aware that he’s lived through some difficult things himself and come out the other side. He knows of what he speaks. And when he speaks, you are aware that he is very, very smart, but somehow unpretentious, too—he has an impressive way of using words and wants to make an impression, but he isn’t showing off.

Later in the interview, Dr. Roberts referred to “The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon.” I had never heard of this because I live in a basement, literally and, perhaps, metaphorically, but once you poke around the internet a little bit, you realize it’s true. Jordan Peterson is everywhere. The Econtalk interview referenced another interview, with a BBC reporter named Cathy Newman. I suppose, arguably, the Jordan Peterson phenomenon begins with this interview:

I found this very frustrating to watch because the interviewer can’t seem to get past herself. She has one fact from which she wants to draw conclusions and set an agenda. In particular, she notes there is a pay gap between men and women and that we need to do something about it. Those who don’t want to do something about it must be against women and equality. Peterson maintains it’s a complex issue and says you need more information and to ask more questions before you draw any conclusions and set an agenda. He wants to look at the reasons for the inequality. The interviewer appears either not to understand the idea of multiple variables or simply does not want to understand. It feels less like an interview than an interrogation. The interview is really good, though, for understanding the idea that questions, which are essential to learning, often are laden with assumptions. And so quite a bit of the discussion consists not of a host trying to learn from a guest, but a guest dealing with loaded questions of a reporter with an agenda.

For fun, I reduced the interview down to its essential character:

Conor Friedersdorf wrote a fascinating postmortem of this interview in The Atlantic. While his piece is focused on this one interview, it speaks to the larger point that political debate in our culture should not involve  mischaracterizing what others are saying.  I love his closing paragraphs:

“Lots of culture-war fights are unavoidable––that is, they are rooted in earnest, strongly felt disagreements over the best values or way forward or method of prioritizing goods. The best we can do is have those fights, with rules against eye-gouging.

“But there is a way to reduce needless division over the countless disagreements that are inevitable in a pluralistic democracy: get better at accurately characterizing the views of folks with differing opinions, rather than egging them on to offer more extreme statements in interviews; or even worse, distorting their words so that existing divisions seem more intractable or impossible to tolerate than they are. That sort of exaggeration or hyperbolic misrepresentation is epidemic—and addressing it for everyone’s sake is long overdue.”

It’s rather perverse what people are doing these days. (Or, maybe it’s always been this way.) Someone will say they don’t agree with what someone else says, but what they say the other person is saying is not what they’ve actually said. Are they not listening? Are they trying to make themselves sound more righteous? Are they trying to take advantage of someone else’s fame to make themselves appear more significant? The New York Times featured a really twisted piece about Dr. Peterson that was quite illustrative of this very point. It was good to see National Review try to set the record straight. I think the broad consensus is that Jordan Peterson came out the winner in the exchange with Cathy Newman and the “phenomenon,” in a way, begins with it. The most remarkable moment in the interview is where Peterson rendered the host literally speechless.

There’s the old cliché of how it takes years and years to become an overnight success. I think that’s true of Peterson. His lectures have been on YouTube for years. He reports that it took three years to write 12 Rules. But it comes out of his previous (and only other published) book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, which I haven’t read, yet, which involved three hours of writing per day over a period of fifteen years. That’s a lot of thinking things through. I’ve heard Dr. Peterson describe the way he writes. It’s obsessive. But it’s tough to argue with the results. He has codified his writing advice for students here.

I mentioned Dr. Peterson’s background as a clinical psychologist. He is an unusual scientist, though, in that while he acknowledges that data, facts based on scientific inquiry, are an important kind of knowledge, science isn’t the only thing that is real or true. He believes stories are true, maybe “more real,” in that the good ones contain distilled values that tell us how to live and act in the world. A bad story is simply a recounting of one thing after another whereas good stories take out the uninteresting elements and give us the essentials of the dramatic action. They are a form of reduction, to borrow a term from the kitchen.

Dr. Peterson’s own story as an academic begins in the 1980’s with the threat of nuclear annihilation. I have some of the memories that he does about the fear of that time (for example, I’ve heard him talk about the film The Day After, which I remember well), but I don’t think it hit me as hard and I certainly didn’t take the path he did to deal with those fears. He read widely, studied hard, and wrote to think things through. There were a couple of unavoidable facts that he had to wrestle with. One was that the 20th Century had a number of murderous regimes that killed, literally, tens of millions of people. The extreme right gave us Hitler and World War 2. The extreme left gave us Stalin and Mao. Both extremes were pathological and used belief systems based on group identity politics to horrifying ends. The other unavoidable fact was that two large empires (U.S.S.R and the U.S./West) were capable of destroying each other (and the planet) with nuclear weapons because of their respective belief systems. (We had already come close during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

From Dr. Peterson’s intensive study, which he says included some deep soul-searching within himself, came some conclusions about belief systems: In the West you had the tradition of individual rights rooted in the Enlightenment—the individual is sovereign. In the East you had the philosophy of Marx. The East and the West produced radically different societies and his judgment was that the West, for whatever problems we might enumerate, was better than the East, beginning with the fact that Marxist regimes in the U.S.S.R. and China were responsible for murdering tens of millions of their own citizens.

Dr. Peterson talks a lot from the Bible—sharing stories from the Old Testament, particularly the book of Genesis, and quotes of Jesus. His way of interpreting the Bible is not necessarily like you might hear in church, though. For example, he explains Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:12 (“Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.“) in economic terms, as the practical working out of the Pareto distribution. He is deeply interested in the psychology of the Bible as an explanation for how we are to live in the world. In the Econtalk interview, for example, he speaks of sacrifice in economic and not spiritual terms. For me as a Christian, it’s both encouraging to hear a scientist take such a high and serious view of the Bible, but somewhat challenging in that I don’t think he is what you might call an orthodox person in terms of traditional Christian belief. More on that, perhaps, another time.

The conversation on Econtalk turned to the universities. Dr. Peterson has some strong views about what’s not going well:

“You know, these–we take 18-year-old kids, we put them in Ivy League universities, and we tell them to criticize the system and to act as political activists. And I look at that and I think, ‘God, you kids, you don’t anything. You don’t know anything. You’ve never had a job. You’ve never taken care of anyone, including yourself. You can’t organize your own household. You’ve never read anything. You don’t know how to write. You don’t know how to think. But, it’s okay: Your professors can tell you that, now you are in a position to criticize the foundations of Western civilization. It’s like–it’s horrifying. So, best to operate in your domain of competence. And try to extend it. And I think that’s the way to set the world straight. I do believe it. After thinking about it for decades.”

Dr. Peterson is especially hard on the humanities:

“The Humanities are completely corrupt. … Eighty percent of Humanities papers now go uncited. And there’s no moderates or, heaven forbid, conservatives, in the Humanities. They are completely gone. And all they are trying to do is produce post-modern, neo-Marxist activists. It’s dreadful. And we’re going to pay for it.”

In contrast, the host, Roberts, takes a much more measured approach. He wondered if this was a bit of an exaggeration. But as the conversation continues he and Dr. Peterson agree that ideas from the left are so pervasive in the culture, that they are often treated as the only ideas to be accepted. As Roberts phrased it, “There’s some sides you don’t have to represent: ‘There is no other side.'” Two significant stories were referenced in this discussion. One was the story of Lindsay Shepherd. Her interview with Dave Rubin tells the story and can be seen here. Dr. Peterson has come to her defense, and is suing Wilfred Laurier University. Dr. Peterson’s take on the situation can be seen here. The other story is about Google, where an employee was fired for saying that men and women are different.

Political issues like these were what brought Dr. Peterson into the national spotlight. In the opening of a presentation he gave at The Mill Series at Lafayette College, he offers a more or less condensed history of the chain of events that brought him to national prominence. I’ve spent considerable time listening to Dr. Peterson giving lectures and being interviewed. This one contains some of the thorniest questions. The subject of IQ came up, and his response was fascinating and enlightening. It’s a difficult subject to get into because race and ethnicity get mixed up in it.

I enjoyed 12 Rules immensely, both in its written and audio forms. Dr Peterson gave an overview of the book at how to: Academy in front of a very friendly audience. He appeared here in Portland on Monday, June 25, 2018 at Keller Auditorium with an equally supportive crowd. It was a delightful evening and I’m happy we were able to attend. Dr. Peterson is not talking about an infinite number of things. He has some themes (most of them contained in the book) that he riffs on. It wasn’t long after his talk here in Portland that he spoke with Joe Rogan in a studio. They covered some of the same issues he talked about that night. I’ve heard him talk about not wanting to repeat himself and that while he is enjoying his speaking schedule and the opportunity to meet people he is looking forward to reading and writing and learning some new things. (I recall him mentioning a thousand books he has waiting at home. I don’t think that’s hyperbole.) Dr. Peterson is quite serious about his work and can get emotional about it. A recent interview conducted by Theo Von showed a lighter side.

Among the things that I appreciate about Dr. Peterson is the fact that he’s not trying to sell you anything. This is not to say that he doesn’t have things for sale. Obviously, there are his books. And he has a personality assessment and a program called The Self-Authoring Suite for sale. But they are reasonably priced and he’s not constantly referring to them. He’s pushing ideas, not sales, which is refreshing. Those who wish to support him voluntarily can do so through a website called Patreon, which includes some perks. But the opportunity to learn from the man comes without a lot of strings.

Russ Roberts offered a criticism of the book. He says,

“[O]ne of my few complaints about the book is that it’s a little short on joy. And love. I would call it a stern book. It’s a bit of a lecture.”

Hearing this criticism, Peterson is not defensive. He concurs, “It’s a lot of a lecture.” And then explains how he was lecturing himself and didn’t want to come across as “finger-wagging.” The point Roberts wants to make is that Peterson is focused on “the dark side of the human heart.” Peterson replies,

“Well, I think it’s a corrective–I would say. Because, everyone knows it, but no one will talk about it. And it’s a relief to people. I’ve really noticed this in my public lectures over the last year and a half. And I’ve talked [?] thousands of people in the last year and a half, now, about the themes that are developed in the book. And I say these things that are really rough–you know, that life is fundamentally tragic, and ridden with suffering, and touched with malevolence and evil; and that goes for you and everyone around you. And that’s harsh. And it’s a relief to people, because they think, ‘Oh my God! I thought I was supposed to be happy.'”

My own conclusion is that when Dr. Peterson says he’s looked into the darkness of history and his own heart, he really means it. Peterson is no mere provocateur trying to say things that will bring him publicity. He has some things to say about the malevolence that lies in each of our hearts.