ZURICH – What does it mean to be a star in the intellectual world? If an academic is a star in his lifetime, it usually means that he’s invited to lots of conferences, cited in professional journals or even in the public media. Sometimes, more rarely, he also writes books that reach an audience beyond a small circle of experts. Say, someone like Yuval Noah Harari or Francis Fukayama. But Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor from the University of Toronto, has gained fame on a much larger scale. We’re talking rock star, a bona-fide celebrity.
His 2018 book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos” has sold two million copies in 45 languages. The accompanying lecture tour has been selling out worldwide. But YouTube is Peterson’s main platform and his videos rack up tens of millions of views.
We caught up with him in Zurich a few weeks ago where his daughter Mikhaila (named for Gorbachev) had surgery. Mikhaila is also his business manager, which is quite a job. This is an international operation that involves event production, marketing and PR. Haaretz was given a limited window between media interviews and a lecture Peterson was due to give that evening.
The 1,200-seat Volkshaus concert hall is sold out. At 7:45 P.M., 1,200 Swiss men and women wait in an orderly line that winds down the block. Across the street, there is a protest against Peterson, so the Zurich police are deployed there.
The doors open and the hall quickly fills. Security personnel with walkie-talkies roam the aisles, alert for possible disrupters willing to pay $75 a ticket for the chance to interrupt Peterson’s talk. Finally, an unseen announcer intones, “Ladies and gentlemen … Jordan B. Pe-ter-son!!!” and a hearty round of applause erupts. Then Peterson, tall and slim, wearing a three-piece suit, takes the stage, with one of those Madonna-style cheek mics.
Then comes a 90-minute lecture about why, in so many folk tales, femininity symbolizes chaos while masculinity symbolizes order, one of Peterson's main themes. Like many other of his lectures, this one too features his idiosyncratic mixture of evolutionary biology, empirical social sciences research, his experiences as a practicing clinical psychologist and Jungian cultural analysis.
The components are integrated conversationally, with passion, for Peterson comes across as a sensitive and emotional man (at the end of the interview, we had to stop for a moment when he got choked up while speaking about his children).
But ultimately, if you consider his profound respect for religious faith, his dislike of revolutions and social engineering, his faith in meritocracy, and what Unamuno called “the tragic sense of life” – Peterson can be seen as following in the tradition of Edmund Burke: conservatism that is anti-revolutionary but not anti-liberal. And yet, labeling him a conservative, as so many of his detractors do, is also imprecise. In his view we can't make do with order alone. A measure of chaos is essential to innovation, creativity, adaptability.
Peterson has a simple explanation for his extraordinary popularity: In a culture that sanctifies victimhood, he proposes that people confront life’s inevitable pain unflinchingly. So here is Peterson in a nutshell: Life is suffering. We can only bear it if it has meaning. And meaning is created when you take responsibility – by confronting hardship and firmly steering your ship forward, even against waves that will, ultimately, overwhelm it. This is a message people are “hungry for” in our times, he says.
Peterson has focused on the subject of meaning for many years. His previous book was entitled “Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief.” We’ll come to this. But first, I suggested to him another reason for his celebrity:
We're all living under a tyranny of political correctness and not only did you defy it, you also never cede the higher moral ground to its champions. You’re not apologetic in front of the identity crowd.
“No, I’m not. I’m not a fan of the identity crowd people… Learning an ideology that a halfwit could master in two weeks doesn’t make you moral.”
But that’s the spirit of the times. For example, students increasingly begin questions with "as a": "As a member of this group, I am offended that you say this or that."
“I’d say I don’t answer questions formulated in that manner. Let’s say your goal is to tell the truth and someone asks you a question that has a trap in it. I’m not playing that game. That doesn’t mean I would necessarily be smart enough all the time to notice that was happening and to formulate that response; it's happened to me with journalists all the time.”
The American Psychological Association recently published new guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men that says “traditional masculinity" is "harmful.” You were not very happy with this.
“I’m absolutely ashamed to call myself a psychologist in the aftermath. They said it was guidelines for the psychological treatment of boys and men, but that isn’t what it is; it’s a social justice treatise on how you better think if you’re a psychologist if you don’t want to be pursued.”
But is there really nothing to be said for this approach? How about curbing aggressive instincts?
“Definitely not! You just can’t damn instincts. It’s not helpful. You’re going to get rid of aggression? You don’t like ambition? You don’t like purpose? You don’t like persistence? … I think [the authors of the APA article] justify reprehensible weakness by an all-out assault on the idea of strength and competence, and that they clothed that in virtue… It’s a nauseating document.”
Peterson returns to this topic during his talk at the Volkshaus. An excess of masculinity isn’t the problem – that is an “anti-truth,” he says. Because one of the most reliable predictors of criminal behavior is fatherlessness. That is by far “the biggest risk factor for long-term delinquency antisocial behavior and violent criminality.”
No, I won’t shut up!
Jordan Peterson was born in 1962 in Edmonton, Alberta, and grew up in Fairview, in the far north of Canada. The winters of his youth were long, dark and difficult, with Siberian temperatures lasting for days on end. Perhaps that's one key to his tragic outlook on life.
His father Walter, a taciturn teacher, used to go hunting in the Northern Plains and sometimes took his son along. Jordan’s father taught him to read when he was just 3, which he remembers as a pleasant experience. His mother Beverley was trained as a nurse but worked as a librarian. A woman with a good sense of humor, her son liked to make her laugh. Peterson has described her as agreeable, to the point where she often finds it hard to stand her ground.
As he describes his own practice as a therapist, he is out to help his patients learn to do just that: stand their ground.
At college, Peterson became enchanted with literature and philosophy, and was drawn to the works of thinkers with a profound sense of the tragic: Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Carl Jung. The first subject he researched was modern totalitarianism, in an effort to understand how human beings could perpetrate such monumental horrors upon one another. The huge "piles of corpses” in the 20th century immunized him against utopian temptations. Then he turned to other subjects. He wrote his doctoral thesis in psychology on alcoholism, but became increasingly interested in culture and mythology, in the tradition inaugurated by Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico.
For years, Peterson has been filming his courses and posting the videos on YouTube. One can thus join his University of Toronto students in pondering the deep and common patterns of meaning which, he believes, underlay all civilizations.
But he really gained renown following Canada’s passage of Bill C-16 in 2017, which added “gender identity or expression” as a prohibited basis for discrimination, and advanced the demand that transgender people be addressed by their preferred pronoun. Peterson posted an hour-long YouTube video explaining why he wouldn’t agree to be told how to speak. In no time, of course, he was accused of being a transphobe, a misogynist, a racist, and later also an “mean white man.”
It helped little that he said – repeatedly – that he addresses transgender students in his class in their preferred pronoun. He just would not accept a law that dictated how to speak. A huge uproar ensued. But Peterson's tone – at once assertive, unapologetic and patiently polite – effectively withstood the shrill self-righteousness of the guardians of the faith. To everyone's surprise, he never lost his balance.
That took a lot of fortitude. In the dozens of interviews with him on YouTube, many of them hostile, the most recurring theme is probably this: “That’s not what I said.” Since political correctness is largely a game of exposing real and imagined prejudices – Aha! Gotcha! – putting words in someone’s mouth is the name of the game. And so Peterson was accused of thinking, feeling and saying much that he never thought, felt or said.
What was surprising about all this, was that the progressive tsunami failed to drown him. Instead, he surfed it into the limelight. The tsunami actually made him a mega-celebrity.
How is it that something meant to silence him ended up doing the opposite? I think this was, roughly, what was at work: Anyone who has listened to Peterson honestly knew he harbored no hatred of transgender people, gays, women or minorities. This was most obviously a false, and malicious, accusation. Peterson the therapist is against the cult of victimhood – not against victims. Because, in his view, making victimhood the center of identity is bound to backfire. It traps you, and prevents you from overcoming whatever your predicament may be.
This being the case, the attempt to frame his critique of victimhood as a kind of defense of his "white male privilege" smacked of dishonesty. And so the more he was absurdly accused of racism or misogyny, the more it seemed to many that he was right. It became plain that social justice warriors were actually advising us all not to improve our lot, so as not to lose our precious victimhood.
This was no longer just an argument: It morphed into political theater, a scene that repeats itself in numerous interviews as, resolutely and unapologetically, Peterson rebuffs attempts to attribute to him a position that is not his, malice that he does not harbor, mistakes he did not make. Again and again, he patiently corrected his interlocutors: “That’s not what I said.”
These endlessly repetitive verbal battles also illustrated the growing gap between the literal meaning of words like “racist,” “transphobe” and “misogynist,” and their function in popular discourse. They’ve become a means of silencing, rather than labels for actual opinions. As Israeli political scientist Dan Schueftan has quipped: The new meaning of the word “racist” is "I have no answer to your argument, but I demand that you shut up."
And as the progressive attacks increasingly seemed less like arguments and more like attempts to silence Peterson, more and more people came to feel that his opposition to C-16 and his insistence on freedom of speech were not just necessary but actually urgent. After a while the subtext subsumed the text and it all boiled down to this: "Shut up!" and then, "No, I won’t shut up."
Political correctness is a direct and steep slope from politeness to dishonesty and lies. And Peterson esposed the fact that we have begun to swear at truths we don't like, rather than facing them.
And so between one “That’s not what I said” and another (“I didn’t say women are chaotic, I said that in many mythologies femininity symbolizes chaos”), Peterson has exposed the shame of self-censorship, the depth of conformism, and the lack of honestly and courage in our academia, our press, our political discourse. Which explains the tremendous hostility that he elicits.
Capitalism vs. serotonin
The social media era has spawned the horror of online witch hunts, where anonymous accusations fly and virtual public executions proceed at lightning speed without anything like due process. But it has also opened up new options for defending oneself. When you have an audience like Peterson’s and the ability to reach it over the heads and under the noses of established media, when you’re borne aloft on huge waves of popularity – you can’t be easily silenced. Even a petition signed by 200 faculty members in 2017, calling for his dismissal from the University of Toronto, couldn’t budge him from his job.
Not that he doesn't invite trouble, as with his recurrent attacks on the very heart of contemporary hegemony. For example, the feminist axiom that we, in liberal democracies, live under an oppressive patriarchy. I didn’t ask him about this since it was a shame to waste our time on this conversation, which, I think, I can fake reasonably well by now, having heard him go through it so many times. It usually goes something like this:
Peterson: Western society is not an oppressive patriarchal structure.
Journalist: But don’t you agree that men hold most of the political power and most of the property?
Peterson: A small group of men hold it. Most men have little power, if at all. In fact, they are more disproportionately represented at the bottom of the social ladder. Nearly all deaths on the battlefield are of men. The vast majority of fatal workplace accidents – men. The vast majority of suicides, of homeless people, of prisoners – men. You want equal representation? How about equal representation in jail, or among coal miners or repairmen working with high-voltage wires?
Then the journalist would ask: What about the gender pay gap?
And Peterson would respond: There is no gender pay gap. That’s a statistical fiction.
Journalist: Are you denying the fact that women earn less than men?
Peterson: There is a discrepancy because women work fewer hours on average, in professions that pay less, in less senior positions, and because they devote more time to their family. Very few men, and even fewer women, are prepared to sacrifice everything for the single-minded pursuit of a career.
Journalists: Because our education system creates gender bias.
Peterson: No. As freedom of choice increases, women turn more, not less, to "female" professions, as studies in Scandinavian countries have repeatedly shown.
Journalist: So you’re saying that women are less talented.
Peterson: That’s not what I said.
And so on.
The anger Peterson arouses derives in part, undoubtedly, from his rejection of the idea that gender roles are wholly the result of social construction. The insistence that they are to a large extent biologically determined strikes at the heart of progressive optimism. That optimism presumes that anything can be changed with the aid of enlightened social engineering, that nothing about us is immutable.
Peterson is, of course, not the first to note that such utopian visions have spawned some of history’s greatest atrocities. Anyone who thinks that Marx's egalitarian utopia can be realized without Stalin's or Mao's violence, he thinks, is unbelievably arrogant and foolish. Though any decent person, Peterson thinks, should strive for equality of opportunity, equality of outcome can only be achieved with brutality. Hierarchies are natural, and are not just older than capitalism, they are far older than humanity.
If you want to understand their origin, you must go back some 350 million years at least, before the dinosaurs, to serotonin-based nervous systems, like that of lobsters, which react to relative social standing: Climbing up the social ladder, via competition, causes a release of serotonin and boosts the lobster’s vitality, like it does to us. And like us, lobsters respond to treatment with medications like Prozac. Hierarchies emerge from our most basic and natural strivings. We cannot eliminate them, nor should we try. We should only aspire to keep them based on competence, not domination.
You mentioned that chimpanzees can tear each other apart. Their violence is natural. Are human impulses also inherently bad?
“Human beings are inherently good and evil and society is inherently good and evil and nature is inherently benevolent and rapacious, and that’s paradoxical and it’s terrible, but you’re stuck with it.”
How would you describe the kind of therapy you do?
“Mostly behavioral. I’m a very practical person so I always look for the simplest possible approach to a problem.”
Suppose I came to your office for the first time. What would that first session look like?
“The first thing I’m going to do is assume the position of rather radical ignorance, which is what behavioral psychologists do… I’m going to listen to you for a long time before I dare to specify what the problem might be, and we’ll decide that together dialectically.”
Stand up straight
At first glance, Peterson’s book “12 Rules for Life” – which just came out in Hebrew translation (Shibolet Press) – looks like a natural follow-up to behavioral therapy. Ostensibly, it’s a self-help book full of practical advice, some of it quite banal. The rules range from “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” (Rule 1), to the more surprising “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them” (Rule 5).
Reviews, predictably, run the full gamut: from fans who view Peterson as a guru, to detractors who see him as evil, a charlatan, a reactionary or the opposite – just another optimistic and sentimental North American psychologist telling you to listen to others, think positively and set small achievable goals for yourself. “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today,” Rule 4 suggests. And “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street,” says Rule 12 (which obviously wasn’t born of experience with Israeli felines).
But the rules really act as pegs on which to hang discussions that, as usual with Peterson, combine various disciplines and genres. So we get neurology and hermeneutics blended with free association, literature, evolution, politics and philosophy. They are highly accessible and mostly popular without being dilettantish.
Every chapter is like a sermon, or a conversation. The depth is not uniform, but the prose flows and exudes the author's clear, friendly voice. But above all, here too, Peterson is preoccupied by the question of meaning and how it makes us see life as worth living, despite suffering. This is, for him, the ultimate question. And on this subject he has a wealth of fascinating thoughts and surprising associations, alongside logical (or faith-based) leaps. It is still a work in progress, with many tributaries still in need of being worked out.
Your argument that we need meaning to cope with suffering – is it a philosophical argument or…
“No, it’s a theological argument.”
I’ll rephrase then: Is it a theological or a psychological argument? Do we need meaning or do we need a sense of meaning?
“We need real meaning; meaning is real.”
The illusion will not help.
"No, the illusion will hurt. Illusions don't help."
But can’t the sense of meaning stem, for example, from belonging to a group?
“Yes, definitely. What I'd say is: The sense of meaning or the purpose is implicit [in the group's activity]. You don’t know what it is, but it’s in there. It’s like, you’re a member of a wolf pack and the pack is doing something; you don’t know what it is, you’re just a wolf. But if you’re a person and you’re associated with a bunch of other people, you find meaning [but] it doesn’t mean you can articulate it.”
It’s not certain that that’s enough for making the leap from the subjective feeling to the objective answer. But for Peterson, in a profound sense, there’s an answer, and it can be called “God.” In any case, it is inseparable from faith, which in his opinion is essential, for both meaning and in order.
In “12 Rules for Life,” he writes that faith is the understanding “that the tragic irrationalities of life must be counterbalanced by an equally irrational commitment to the essential goodness of Being.” I was sorry after meeting him that I did not cite this in answer to his argument about the harmfulness of illusions of meaning.
So do you – like Rousseau, or Kant, or even William James – in effect offer a pragmatic argument for God’s existence? Do we have to believe in God because it’s beneficial?
“That question always stops me,” he says, after a silence. “You need to aim at some transcendent ethic, you have to do that, and the reason is that the transcendent ethic is the way that things are put right. It’s not an illusion, it’s not a mere rational construct, it’s not an invention, it’s none of those things. It’s something that you discover, and you discover it despite yourself.”
Because the concepts Peterson uses are taken from a host of disciplines, they are not easy to place. But they are what his intellectual project has been based on. Its aim: to come up with a shared pattern of meaning, which the biological, the psychological and the cultural-theological all reflect in different ways.
The mythopoetic truth in folk tales is found in archetypes in the unconscious, which are in turn based on our biological makeup. In other words, within our nervous system, subconsciously and beyond our control, meaning is embedded, grafted onto our hardware. And that meaning assumes narrative patterns in the psyche, expressed through archetypes that reflect our system of urges. They in turn find an echo, a reflection in the formative narratives of every culture, throughout generations. Peterson's quest for the underlying maps of meaning is by no means a modest one.
Peterson: “One thing Nietzsche proposed when he talked about the death of God and the potential for catastrophe that would emerge as a consequence was that people would have to create their own values. We would have to replace the external valuation scheme that religion provided with something that was psychological, let’s say. And Jung knew where Nietzsche was wrong because of what he learned from Freud.
“What Jung learned from Freud was that we weren’t masters in our own house. That we’re beholden to psychological phenomena that are beyond our voluntary control. We have a nature and that expresses itself within us, in ways that we cannot control rationally. It’s phenomenological reality, but it’s reality nonetheless, like the reality of a dream. You don’t invent your dreams. Like an involuntary sense, they manifest themselves in the field of your imagination.”
But Freud was secular. Freud thought God is a childish invention of those who refuse to grow up and give up their father.
“Yes, he thought religion was a grand wish fulfillment. But it’s a very shallow criticism and that’s why Jung and Freud broke and Freud produced what’s essentially a religious system as a replacement [in the guise of his psychoanalytic theory].”
According to Jung, says Peterson, you don’t just discover your own values: “They manifest themselves to you. Jung felt that the religious instinct is operating within the psyche. You can understand this if you start to watch yourself. You’ll see that you’re guided by forces that operate within you that you do not control. You can bargain and negotiate with them like Abraham negotiated with God in the Old Testament [about the fate of Sodom]. You’re not passive, you’re not the passive puppet of your own intrinsic desires. But you’re not the master of them by any stretch of the imagination, so you have to cooperate with them.”
So between the archetypes and culture, on one hand, and natural impulses on the other, is there room for free will and agency?
“It’s bargaining. It’s a struggle. You’re contending with Titans.”
I want to end on a personal note. Is there a moment that you particularly remember that represents your fatherhood, your way of being a father?
“All the time.”
That was when we paused. His eyes welled up and his voice cracked.
“A sensitive subject this week, because I was in the hospital … with my daughter, and we were not sure how the surgery would go and… it’s kind of an overwhelming experience.” (The surgery was an ankle replacement, which was being done for the second time.) "My daughter was unbelievably ill for like decades. It’s been brutal.”
Mikhaila Peterson has an autoimmune disease with very serious symptoms and psychological effects whose origin is also partly physiological. The disease, which attacks the joints, is accompanied by paralyzing depressions. During certain periods she could stay awake only with the help of Ritalin, for a few hours.
Her parents went crazy, her father recalls. “We used to give her hell: ‘Why the hell can’t you get up?’ ‘You’re sleeping your life away.’ It’s like while she was sleeping 18 hours a day, we didn’t know exactly where the weakness of character ended and the physiological degeneration began; neither did she. You fight to find that line. One of the terrible things about having a chronic illness is that you also get hell for it all the time because people mistake it for weakness of character.”
In a podcast interview with Joe Rogan, Peterson said that the family were convinced Mikhaila was dying. But she didn’t give up. She began to experiment with nutrition, and reached a curious conclusion that's been mentioned in interviews with Peterson ever since: After a roller coaster of skin rashes, depression, paralyzing infections and other symptoms, she found a solution on her own: a diet of only red meat and water. Nothing else. Not even salt.
The symptoms disappeared. Peterson, the scientist, is awestruck because there is no explanation as to why this works as it does. But Mikhaila convinced even him to try the diet. He’s been on it for some months, but is less strict than she: He salts his meat and drinks sparkling water, too. It has had a great effect, he reports. His proclivity to depression, the unreasonable difficulties he had getting up in the morning, the extra weight – they've mostly disappeared. Still, he stresses that he doesn’t recommend the diet to anyone.
But the struggle to restore Mikhaila’s health also opens a window on Peterson’s battle against victimhood as a basis for identity. The entire issue seems much more personal when you think about a parent fighting for his daughter’s life, who's realized that in order to continue the battle, she must not sink into an abyss of self-pity, at the bottom of which there can only be despair, perhaps even death.
So here is your first rule for life: Stand up straight with your shoulders back.