What I’ve Learned from Jordan Peterson

After I interviewed Jordan Peterson on EconTalk, I received a number of unusually thoughtful and civil emails from listeners asking why I hadn’t asked him about ______. These listeners had a couple of different things to put in the blank but they were all quotes from one or another of Peterson’s innumerable online videos or interviews. The listeners wanted to know why I didn’t challenge Peterson the way I do other guests.

My answer was that the focus of the interview was on the book, 12 Rules for Life which didn’t have very many of those fill-in-the-blank passages that offend people. I hoped (and hope) to have Peterson on again and perhaps we’ll talk about some of his more controversial ideas and claims. But I also noted in responding, that Peterson has hundreds and hundreds of hours of video up online. To cherry-pick the three or four times he said something offensive seems a bit strange — almost all of what he says I find interesting and thought-provoking rather than offensive. I’ve learned a lot from him and I was trying to get some of that across in the interview.

I thought it might be of interest to share what I’ve learned and why I find Peterson so interesting. This essay is also prompted by Scott Alexander’s insightful and delightful take on 12 Rules for Life that captures a good chunk of Peterson’s appeal but not all of it.

When I checked out some of Peterson’s lectures online — on equality, suffering, the Bible, the culture wars — one thing stood out above all that went well beyond the specifics of any of the content in these lectures. Peterson reminded me that civilization is fragile. He reminded me that it’s easy to think that everything is going to keep going the way it always has, getting slightly better and better, not just for a small slice of the population as is often claimed, but across a wide range of the population — more income, less poverty, more access to incredible technology. I’ve been an optimist for a long time based on my understanding of innovation and competition and the way they spread prosperity thoughout the world as freedom has grown.

Peterson is not an optimist. I wouldn’t call him a pessimist, but he has adopted the persona of a prophet as Scott Alexander points out. He is sounding a bell exhorting us to remember that human beings have a very dark side, that the veneer of civilization is thinner than we like to think, and that humankind’s worst excesses are often justified by the noblest of motives.

On election night of 2016 I found myself rooting for Hillary (and I will call her Hillary here to distinguish her from her husband) despite having voted for Gary Johnson. No matter how hard I pinched my nose, I still could not vote for her. But surely Trump was worse. Very little that has happened since that night has changed my mind. While I am honest enough and non-partisan enough to concede that Trump has done some good things, his impact on our civility and his lack of integrity are deeply disturbing. Some of his policies are reckless and horrify me. But surely he is better than Hillary say some of my friends. Yet the vehemence of their hatred for her seems way out of line with the reality. She seemed more conservative (OK, less liberal) than Obama. Why the visceral response?

After watching Peterson, I started to wonder whether I had underestimated the threat of four more years of Obama-lite, which would have been the result of a Hillary victory. Not on the policy front — surely had she won the Presidency government spending with a Republican Congress and Democratic President would be smaller than what we’re in for, but on the cultural front.

I was recently at a panel discussion of the state of political and cultural life in America. All of the panelists were from what I would call the gentle left — good people to the left of center with a different world view from my own but full of compassion and good intentions. It was something of a smugfest — how sad it is that misguided people found Trump appealing. How sad it is that the right has no interest in the left while the left has been reaching out to understand how Trump voters could possibly exist. They chalked up the stupidity of Trump voters to global capitalism that had hollowed out the middle class and driven so many sheep into the arms of the Republican wolf who would only shear them and make a lovely blanket for himself.

Despite their best efforts at anthropology, the panelists were like fish in water unable to imagine what water is. The reason the right is less interested in the left than the left is in the right, is that the left is everywhere. You don’t have to take a trip to Kentucky or to a church to understand the left. The left dominates our culture — Hollywood, the music scene, the universities. And the left can’t seem to imagine that anything they are pushing for might be problematic. In particular, the radical egalitarian project is not everyone’s cup of tea. By radical egalitarian agenda, I mean equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. Or that gender is a social construct.

And this brings me back to Peterson. Peterson stands athwart that radical egalitarian agenda. He’s not an elitist, particularly. But he refuses to say that 2+2 = 5. He refuses to say that gender is a choice divorced from biology, for example. But he goes further — he argues that the radical egalitarian impulse is part of a larger impulse to remake humanity according to various ideals. And he goes further still. He recognizes that this urge isn’t just unnatural. It’s dangerous.

This is why the radical left hates Peterson. Not because he is transphobic (I don’t think he is) but because he is saying no to the whole intellectual urge of the radical left to remake human beings and identifying that urge as fundamentally totalitarian leading to the Gulag and Auschwitz. The left hates him because the left holds the moral high ground. They’ve lapped the field and can see the checkered flag. And what the heck is that cop car doing parked sideways as the left comes down the final straightaway? Peterson’s the cop standing outside of the car with a verbal bazooka on his shoulder saying not so fast. No wonder they hate him.

Of course, Peterson’s talk of the Gulag and Auschwitz is grossly unfair to much of the progressive agenda. And being a Cassandra about the dangers of the left ignores the growing threat from the right as nationalism, populism, and xenophobia grow fiercer. But Peterson is important because he reminds us of the dangers of radical egalitarianism and the overconfidence on the left because they are winning so much of the cultural debate. Peterson is right — egalitarianism is a dangerous urge when taken too far. He’s right that universities must be open to diverse ideas on the left and the right or they cease to be universities. He’s right that the demonizing of one’s intellectual or ideological opponents leads to violence. And we’re seeing that violence manifest itself on campus and in the streets to some extent already.

The veneer of civilization is thinner than we would like to think. This moment in history may actually be significant. Maybe there is more at stake than it appears. And yes, I will say it again, Trump and the right are also dangerous. I think Peterson understands that, too. If he doesn’t, he should. But he’s talking about the danger coming from the left because all right-thinking people who hold the cultural high ground — in our universities, in Hollywood, in most of the traditional media — are very focused on the menace of Trump. They can’t imagine there is danger on their side. But there is, and Peterson is right to remind us.

Peterson isn’t a pessimist. He’s a realist about the crooked timber of humanity. Because of that realism, Jonah Goldberg’s The Suicide of the West (coming soon to EconTalk) resonated with me in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. I’ve also discovered John Gray who I would call a pessimist but who is deeply thought-provoking. (Also coming soon to EconTalk to discuss his new book, The Seven Types of Atheism and The Silence of Animals if we get to it. Peterson also led me to Iain McGilchrist who is also coming to EconTalk to discuss the divided brain and The Master and His Emissary.)

Peterson has forced me to confront my optimism about progress. He has forced me to remember the dangers of egalitarianism when it is taken too far.

Another thing I have learned from Peterson is the value of the humanities and the liberal arts. The sciences have been culturally crushing literature and philosophy in the 40 years or so since I graduated from college. That has seemed like justice to me as English departments have become increasingly in the grip of postmodernism over that time and science seems to continue to flourish and improve our lives. Peterson decries postmodernism and suggests we are mistaken to underestimate its influence. He urges his viewers and listeners to return to the classics. He cites the wisdom of Doestoevsky and Nietzsche and Jung and the Bible. He suggests that these works that have survived the test of time have something to teach us about our nature and about the quest for meaning in the face of human suffering.

Again, he is onto something. Because of Peterson, I read The Brothers Karamazov, a big hole in my reading history. What an extraordinary book. Part of me is amazed and ashamed that I’d never read it. The other part of me is thrilled. I don’t think it would have nearly the impact on me in my teens and twenties as it did reading it now. Deeply thought-provoking on questions of good and evil and theodicy, on the dark side of human nature and on the potential for goodness to be redemptive despite that dark side. I’m thinking of inviting Peterson back to EconTalk just to discuss The Brothers K.

I just had my parents send me my books of Nietzsche from college. I’m hoping to get back to Kierkegaard. And Faulkner. I’m thinking of re-reading Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle. I may even re-read Memories, Dreams, and Reflections by Jung. Before encountering Peterson, I couldn’t imagine writing that previous sentence. I may even read some Freud thanks to Peterson and John Gray. Peterson reminds us that great literature and philosophy and psychology can help us think about how to live. He is right. And his focus on how to live got me to craft my own 12 Rules.

There are things I don’t like about Peterson. He’s not a real prophet, just a flawed human being. He’s awfully grim. I wish he smiled more, showed more empathy and made a case for joy even though yes, the world is full of suffering.

There are some scary things about him. The near certainty with which he expresses himself is a huge part of his appeal, I suspect, but that kind of certainty is dangerous in its own way. His seeming confidence in his mission rubs me the wrong way. But I have to concede that there is a danger in my epistemological humility, my eagerness to confess my uncertainty. I am so glad to be increasingly able to say I don’t know. But perhaps this is a time for some intellectual risk-taking. That requires a certain level of overconfidence I no longer aspire to. I even have trouble respecting it. But one more thing I have learned from Peterson is how refreshing it is to see someone stand up and speak their mind without fear of the personal consequences. That’s what prophets do.

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