Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson has become an internet sensation for his outspoken criticism of what he calls “political correctness” and “cultural Marxism”.
Oracle or kook, Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson is having a moment. You can't escape his video lectures and Ted talks online, suggesting that Western society is being undermined by the likes of “postmodernists and “cultural Marxists”, who push pernicious concepts such as identity politics; turn minorities and marginalised groups into perpetual victims; and use political correctness to deaden thought and threaten freedom of speech.
In his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, published in January, Peterson enjoins the reader among other things to “treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping”; “compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today”; and “set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”.
The rules are somewhat harder to dismiss than the Ted talks; indeed, they have been embraced worldwide. Audiences for his recent lectures in London and Australia spilled into the aisles, and many of the people there personally thanked him for saving their lives.
Your book is an unusual mix of psychology, anecdote, stories from the Bible and famous authors, and rules for life. Some have called it snake oil; others see it as inspiring, despite its challenging and gloomy message – “Life is hard; don’t be a victim”. Do you understand both views?
I think the former view is generated in large part by people who think they don’t care for me because of what they understand of my political stance, which is at best a kind of oversimplified parody of it. It isn’t necessarily the case that the literary style of the book is for everyone. I circle a lot of material then bring it together at the end. I think that style appeals to people who are more creative, generally speaking, in the way they think. The tone of the book overall is either liberal or conservative, depending on how you look at it: it’s conservative in that I make a case that there are traditions worth preserving, and liberal in that I make a case that the proper way of conceptualising human beings is at the level of the individual.
Why do some find it inspiring?
I would say because the book is very pessimistic in some senses. I lay out very starkly the problems that confront people: their fragility and mortality, the fact that human interactions and even our relationships with ourselves are plagued by betrayal and malevolence. All of that adds up to a very dark reality. People find the forthright discussion of such things refreshing, in an odd way. On top of that, I make the case that, despite this bitter reality, let’s say, the human spirit is a remarkable thing and capable of transcending the catastrophe of existence and building something remarkable and noble on that terrible foundation. I do believe most people believe that to be the case, and would say so if they could articulate it. The book is an optimistic call for courage against a background of clear observations of a very dark and dangerous reality. Everyone knows that we have a moral obligation to make things better, and not worse.
Norman Doidge in the foreword says the main rule is that you must take responsibility for your own life, focus less on rights and more on responsibility.
Yeah, and I also think that’s why the book and, perhaps even more, the lectures have become so popular. I’m stating very forthrightly to a society that’s been fed a non-stop diet of impulsive pleasure and infinite freedoms and rights for 50 years that most of the meaning of life is to be found in the adoption of responsibility rather than luxuriating in an ever-extending matrix of rights and privileges. People find meaning in their commitments. Commitments limit. They also enable, obviously. What do you do in life? Educate yourself. That’s a burden. Attempt to make yourself useful to yourself and other people so you can take your place in the reciprocal give-and-take of the broader social world. Establish an intimate relationship and some friendships. Take responsibility for children. Try to live a life that’s of benefit to you and other people. That’s where the meaning in life is. So I’m suggesting to people who are hopeless and desperate and finding it difficult to grow up and all of those things that they have something of benefit to offer in the world. And it’s necessary for them and everyone else that they manifest it. That’s a hopeful message to people who are lost. We’ve been sold casual pleasure and irresponsibility as a doctrine for so long that the whole culture is now starving for a message that says, “Do the most difficult thing you can. Tell the truth. Bear up underneath your responsibilities. Straighten yourself out.” And thousands of people say, “Oh, my God. You can’t believe how much of a relief it is to hear that.”
The gender pay gap was covered in the Channel 4 interview with you in the UK and now governments around the world are addressing it in legislation, as is the Green Party here. You note that women’s general higher level of agreeableness accounts for maybe 5% of the variance in the pay gap – there are another perhaps 18 factors, one of which is gender. So if a woman and man are of similar age, ability, ambition, commitment, conscientiousness, intelligence, education, they should be paid the same, right?
No, actually if they’re under 30 the woman is paid more, if they’re both single. The question is, what do you mean by the same? Should people be paid for the same job? I suppose they should, but who decides which jobs are the same? This isn’t a small problem but an intractable one. The reason we have a free market is because it’s impossible to calculate which jobs are the same. If you run a restaurant and you have two short-order cooks you can be bloody well sure that the jobs they do are not the same. One might be a complete wastrel and a scoundrel you’re barely able to tolerate having on your staff, and the other one does the job of six people. But the job’s the same. Who’s going to determine what constitutes the same? A giant bureaucracy, which would present a far bigger problem than the original? If people aren’t happy with what they’re being paid, they have all sorts of options: negotiate for a raise, look for another job, ratchet themselves up the pay hierarchy with careful strategic negotiation. The only reason the pay gap is trumpeted consistently is to buttress the argument that we live in an oppressive patriarchal society. If we do, it’s the least oppressive and patriarchal society that’s ever existed. I think the entire game is corrupt, that of dividing people up into their identity groups and then comparing them.
You say equality of opportunity is important, but equality of outcome is not possible.
It’s vital. Any society that doesn’t conduct itself along lines of equality of opportunity denies access to the talents of its individuals.
There is prejudice in society, you accept, but less than people claim.
It’s not always obvious where the prejudice is. In academic circles, and it’s been this way for decades, the prejudice is all in favour of minority candidates. I am sure that there are minorities who face prejudicial attitudes, and impediments to moving forward. The question is, what proportion in the difference in their life outcome is attributable to straight prejudice?
Surely countries such as those in Scandinavia are proving that a free-market system is not better at reducing inequality?
Well, there’s far less unemployment in the US, especially among young people. America is an unbelievably diverse and complex society and the problems that they face are massive compared to the problems the relatively homogeneous Scandinavian countries face. And it’s not like they’re not without their problems. Inequality is somewhat flattened in Scandinavian countries but it also depends on your metric of inequality. It doesn’t look like there’s much evidence it can be flattened to any great degree in the long run without decreasing a degree of economic productivity.
Regardless of whether you thought Channel 4 journalist Cathy Newman oversimplified or mischaracterised your views, you’d have to agree that the hateful abuse she apparently got was deeply wrong?
Well, yeah, but there was empirical analysis of the hateful abuse done and I received a lot more proportionately than she did. And there was no indication whatsoever that any of the threats she received were serious to the point of genuine investigation.
Your fans include Christian conservatives, atheist libertarians, the hard right and neo-Nazis. Do you disown any of your followers or their actions?
Well, the Christians are somewhat ambivalent about me. I’m a bit too much on the gnostic side for most of them. I wouldn’t agree [that I have neo-Nazi followers]. The hard-right people aren’t very thrilled with me. I’ve said very forthrightly that I don’t care who’s playing identity politics, whether it’s on the right or the left. It’s reprehensible. I haven’t gone after the hard right as much politically, although I have in my lectures, but the reason is the hard right doesn’t occupy the university – the hard left does. Alan Dershowitz, an extremely liberal lawyer at Harvard, said last week that the hard left in the universities posed a clear and present danger to free speech, and that the alt-right is mostly a figment of their imagination.
You do believe in universal healthcare and wealth redistribution to some degree, right?
I believe that inequality is a terrible problem and that it’s something that societies have to constantly address. The Canadian public healthcare system seems to function pretty well by comparison with the US public health system. But Canada’s a small country, and a lot of countries that have put in socialised medical systems are relatively small. I certainly believe the dispossessed deserve a political voice. It’s not a good idea to let the people at the bottom stack up – it destabilises your society. The problem is how the hell do you get the money down to people at the bottom without producing more harm than good? Education’s a good way of doing it.
I don’t think we do have a better solution to the problem of distribution of resources than the free market. There’s a book recently published by a professor called Walter Scheidel called The Great Leveler. He was very interested in the issue of inequality. This is why there is a left wing: because inequality is a real problem. And it’s a way bigger problem than the idiot left generally realises. The Marxist types like to lay inequality at the feet of capitalism and the free market. But there isn’t a system of governance that human beings have ever invented, on the left or the right, that fails to produce inequality. Scheidel did an empirical analysis trying to determine whether governments on the right or left produce more inequality. The hypothesis he was testing was that left-wing governments would produce less inequality. He found absolutely no evidence for that. No evidence that anything short of war or pestilence can reduce inequality. In the free-market system you get at least with inequality a general increase in wealth and a lot of that gets distributed to the lower end.
You’ve famously argued against Canada’s mandated use of preferred pronouns for trans people. New Zealand’s recent census had only male or female. Do you accept there should be an “other” category?
No, I don’t think so. I think the damage done by destabilising that category system will far outweigh whatever benefits might accrue. I think this is already happening. One of the things you’re seeing now across the West is skyrocketing rates of rapid-onset gender dysphoria and referrals to gender-reassignment clinics. It’s like a psychological epidemic. It’s really a bad thing. We’re going to pay for it in a big way over the next 10-15 years.
You have said both that you “act as if God exists” and that there is a “good case for atheism”, but it’s not going to lead to a rational society; that society needs a basic religious underpinning; and that atheist thinker Sam Harris has fundamental Christian metaphysics. But isn’t human “morality” just a consequence of evolutionary psychology?
Harris thinks we can generate a morality based on rules. I don’t think it’s reducible to a set of rules. We guide ourselves with stories. The great stories are the religious stories, the archetypal stories. They provide us with guidance in ways that we don’t really understand. Just like great literature provides us with wisdom in ways we don’t understand. I don’t think there’s any escape from the fundamental requirement of wanting a unifying narrative, and that brings you into religious territory. There’s no evidence that atheism has led to a rational, ordered society.
What’s your view of Donald Trump?
I think that he hasn’t brought the world to an end yet, and everyone thought he would. It isn’t obvious to me that his first year in government is any more catastrophic than the typical president’s. Thank God for that. He isn’t the total horror show that everyone was dreading.
12 RULES FOR LIFE: AN ANTIDOTE TO CHAOS, by Jordan B Peterson (Allen Lane, $40)
This article was first published in the April 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.