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Understanding Jordan Peterson: Why Bother?

I’m convinced that among the many people who talk about Peterson, very few of them ever bother to examine what he’s actually up to. I started writing this piece for all the people who care to form their own opinions about things. I finished it for all the people who I admire and whose opinions I value, but who I respectfully disagree with.

I was a psychology major at the University of Toronto and I took all of Peterson’s courses between 2003–2006. I can’t overstate his positive impact on me at that time in my life, and I want to suggest to anyone certain he’s a bigoted mouthpiece for the alt-right that there might be something you’re missing about Dr. Peterson.

Granted, there is something about the way Peterson communicates that alienates some people. He can be a tad direct and doesn’t sugar-coat things. He’s prone to hyperbolic statements about postmodernism. He starts uncomfortable conversations and risks offending people. However, he’s also recently shown himself to be a model of how to maintain composure in the face of an aggressive opponent who is constantly misconstruing your words.

“So what you’re saying is…”

If the transphobe thing was the point you felt inclined to dismiss him, it’s worth investigating his issue with Bill C-16 before adding to the climate of labelling and slander; examine the content of his criticism, not the fact that he’s critical. In today’s world of soundbites and twitter headlines, his views make him an easy target for an opportunist critic — someone who is more than willing to skip over the nuance of his position for the sake of tarring him as a deplorable that doesn’t deserve your attention.

To transgendered people, the LGBTQ community, progressives, activists, and allies alike, I will say this: Peterson is not your enemy. The suggestion that he is alt-right and only speaks for white cis males is a narrative that will unravel as soon as you dig a little deeper. His injunction to “pick up your suffering” is not a denial of historical oppression as much as it is his practical advice as a clinical psychologist to every individual — regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or economic status — for how to deal with the real problems you’re facing in your life.

Peterson’s stubborn defence of free speech has absolutely zero to do with the alt-right and is absolutely not a secret wink at racist white supremacist pseudo-intellectualism. It might be true that some people in the alt-right mistakenly think that’s what he’s doing. This is aided in large part by the lazy caricatures of Peterson perpetuated by people who value virtue-signalling over responsible journalism.

The latest trend among Peterson detractors has been to label him “uninteresting” or a “boring thinker” with nothing significant to offer, as if the quests to understand optimal psychological health vs. totalitarian thinking, or the human capacity for genocide in the name of an ideology weren’t topics of concern to literally everyone on earth right now. If there’s one thing that I hope you take away from this piece it’s the intellectual dishonesty of that dismissal, communicating little but the person’s willful ignorance of Peterson’s work, and their ready willingness to spew out a preconceived notion under the guise of an informed opinion.

What Are His Actual Views?

As a case study in journalistic bias, Dr. Peterson is illuminating. Anyone who has actually given his lecture material more than a cursory skim can immediately tell if a journalist has done their due diligence or if they’re just parroting someone else’s opinion of him. It’s a bit like hearing someone from out-of-province say they “hated Toronto” after spending four months commuting to Mississauga from Markham, or like hearing someone trash talk Game of Thrones after texting and talking their way through a single episode.

A visual aid for non-locals.

If your first exposure to Peterson was an angry re-post from a friend condemning him as a bigot, you can be forgiven for the mistaken assumption that his issue with Bill C-16 has anything to do with trans folks themselves. His issue is with forced speech, or with any government using law to force people into voicing a political view. He’s not stoking fear about trans people. It’s more accurate to see it as resistance to an ideological mentality that deals with opposing viewpoints by silencing them. He’s saying maybe let’s not arm them with the force of law. The idea that one person’s “right to not be offended” trumps another person’s “right to speak freely”, when taken to extremes, leads directly to the climate of absurd moral panic that brought us the college campus scandals surrounding Bret Weinstein at Evergreen College, and Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfred Laurier.

To his fans, the true appeal of Peterson is not his politics, nor his opinions on pronouns. His real contribution is in the domains of philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science. What his fans get out of his lectures on YouTube is closer to what you’d get if you combined Yuval Noah Harari, Tony Robbins, and Joseph Campbell: a sweeping historical narrative, distilled into a pragmatic and applicable approach to improving one’s life that casts each person as the hero in their own story.

Peterson’s work is primarily about psychological flourishing and self-actualization: how to gain courage and self confidence, how to free yourself of resentment and regret, how to make decisions without doubting yourself, and how to live up to your own potential. Most of his advice isn’t new: Don’t lie to yourself or others. Make friends with people who want the best for you. Pursue what is meaningful — not what is expedient. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. Be grateful in spite of your suffering. Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

What makes Peterson especially fascinating is that he elevates these platitudes into deep-seated human truths by linking them not only to science, but also to thousands of years of storytelling cutting across myth, literature, and religion. Give him a few hours of your attention and he will peel back layers of meaning in those old stories to show you that all they’ve ever been about is “how to act in the world”. On top of that, at a meta-level they’re all pretty much saying the same thing (even the contemporary ones).

Beware the flood.

Religion Through The Lens of Evolution & Psychology

Peterson is an evolutionary psychologist. We typically understand evolution as acting on only physical components, but it’s also true that certain behaviours lead to the best possible chance of survival, procreation, and success. While adaptive physical traits are transmitted over generations by natural selection and sexual reproduction, adaptive behaviour is transmitted (more quickly) through language, ideas, and culture.

Now imagine that all human myth, religion, and literature — all the good stories of human triumph and tragedy that have stood the test of time — have survived precisely because they contain meaningful information about adaptive behaviour. Although they register at an unconscious level in our brains, they teach us something important: how best to function as a human being among other human beings, all dealing with the chaos of existence.

Rather than seeing religion and science as opposing forces, consider that every myth or religious story represents the best effort of that culture to transmit its version of the most adaptive human behaviours. The most adaptive psychological framework at the individual level, and simultaneously, the most adaptive principles of a cooperative human society at a collective level. Watch one of Peterson’s “Bible Series Lectures” with that thought in mind and you’ll begin to understand the real reason Peterson has so many Patreon supporters and fans on the internet. He links ancient wisdom to the eternal struggle of the present and individual psychology to an evolutionary narrative. The blowhards who told you he has nothing interesting to say just straight up lied to you because it served them to do so and they phoned it in.

Count it.

Neuroscience, Transformation, & The Language of Archetypal Symbols

In order to understand how a Mesopotamian myth might inform your current struggle to move forward in life, it helps to break things down into the simplest possible categories: what you know, and what you don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote from a 2002 Pentagon briefing is a useful starting point:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.”

The “unknown unknowns” are our blind spots. They are the things we don’t see coming, personally and culturally. They’re the hardest to deal with and the most distressing. But it’s also in the unknown where transformations occur; personal breakthroughs often involve a courageous departure from your comfort zone. Likewise, the breakthroughs that elevate and revive a cultural paradigm are usually found outside, or on the fringes of, the existing paradigm.

A brave soul venturing into the unknown.

To Peterson, who prefers the language of myth, the unknown is represented by a dragon (or cat-snake-bird). If you consider the predators that would pose a danger to pre-linguistic humans, they were primarily snakes, large carnivorous cats, and raptors — not to mention violent natural dangers like fire. The fire-breathing cat-snake-bird (eventually, dragon) adequately captured the undifferentiated danger of “the unknown”. But the fire-breathing dragon of myth also traditionally hoards gold, and holds virginal females captive. Think St. George and The Dragon, Smaug from Lord of The Rings, and Bowser from Nintendo’s Mario stories.

“I am fire. I am death.”

Let’s forgive for a moment the patriarchal frame of this image and turn our focus to the core meaning that might be applicable to human action (regardless of gender): despite being dangerous and unpredictable, “the unknown” is also the source of all opportunity. We experience the broad set of “things we don’t understand” as threatening and promising at the same time, depending on the frame of mind we’ve adopted when we encounter them.

Peterson connects these mythical narratives to research in neuroscience. In the second chapter of Maps Of Meaning, he demonstrates that our brains’ right and left hemispheres are essentially built for grappling with this low resolution way of organizing the world: Unknowns (Right-brain) vs. Knowns (Left-brain). Chaos and Order. Yin and Yang. How’s that for a bio-evolutionary mandate to get out of your comfort zone?

I thought this one was pretty good to illustrate the point.

On Tyranny & Sorting Yourself Out

Peterson’s fight for free speech is, at its core, a defence of the mechanism by which we collectively deal with our blind spots as a society. He’s deadly serious about it because he has spent his whole career studying the atrocities perpetrated by totalitarian forces on both the right and left in the last century. As a result, he has also spent his career examining the capacity inside every single one of us to lie to ourselves, and to do evil in the name of doing good. When one does a meta-analysis of mass murder committed in the name of an ideology, it turns out that freedom of speech is one of those levees we should never let break.

To Peterson, freedom of speech is the crucible by which the monsters of tyranny are slain, regardless of whether those monsters come from the right (fascism) or the left (communism).To suggest the “right to not be offended” is a matter of politeness, or that it corrects some historical wrong in the name of social justice, is to make the naive assumption that the power to compel or restrict speech, once granted, will always be wielded with integrity. History would suggest otherwise. Human nature such as it is, it’s only a matter of time before someone abuses that power in pursuit of their own ends.

Thus, we arrive at Peterson’s credos to “pick up your suffering” and “sort yourself out”. To be human is to be in a place, psychologically-speaking, that is less desirable than the one you envision for your future. Peterson would not say that your undesirable situation is 100% your fault. He might say that it’s worth asking if some of it could be your fault. He would definitely say that even if it’s 0% your fault, adopting a victim’s mentality will not help you. In fact, it will only make things worse. This is not an injunction against any particular identity; it’s a human truth that applies to every single one of us.

The truth is that we can all legitimately describe ourselves as a victim of someone or something, but when has that ever done anyone any good? Before we rush to an answer about who is to blame for the world’s problems, before we look outward and lay responsibility at the feet of everyone else, we would all benefit if we started by examining the chaos within ourselves.