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He’s become an accidental icon of the Conservative movement.
Should the Left be afraid of Jordan Peterson?
My guest this week on ‘Firing Line.’
‘Firing Line with Margaret Hoover’ is made possible by… Corporate funding is provided by…
My guest today has been called everything from ‘the most influential public intellectual in the Western World’ to ‘Oprah for men.’
In the blink of an eye, Dr. Jordan Peterson went from being ‘an obscure Canadian psychologist’ to an Internet celebrity known for challenging identity politics and political correctness on campus.
His second book, ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,’ topped best-seller lists and has led to sold-out live lectures around the world.
And, still, he is not without controversy.
To some critics, he is more Dr. Phil than Oprah.
They see his audience and accuse him of stoking anxieties of white, cisgender, heterosexual males, unable to cope with their loss of status in the 21st century.
Apologies, doctor, if those adjectives were triggering.
They were. They were a bit.
In a viral video, Dr. Peterson asserted that in order to be able to think, one must risk being offensive.
Despite the obvious flaw in his logic that a Canadian could ever be offensive, he has clearly struck a nerve, and any professor who makes analysis of classical texts exciting deserves the right to risk offense.
Dr. Peterson, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’
Thank you very much.
’12 Rules for Life’ — stand up straight with your shoulders back, pursue what is meaningful, if its not even expedient, tell the truth, or at least don’t lie, treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping, be precise in your speech.
What is it about these rules that has so resonated in our culture?
Well, I think the fundamental issue is likely my tangling together of responsibility and meaning.
You know, I start with a pessimistic perspective, I would say, although I think it’s realistic, and very straightforwardly discuss the fact that people have difficult lives and that life itself is full of suffering and that we make it worse with our own voluntary stupidity and willful blindness and even malevolence.
And that’s what we contend with.
You know, we contend with suffering and malevolence.
And, as a consequence, it’s necessary to pursue something that has substantive meaning to set against that.
And I think that it’s self-evident — once its articulated, anyways — that most people find deep meaning in their life as a consequence, not of their rights or their impulsive pleasures even, but as a consequence of bearing responsibility for themselves, for their family, for their community.
And the heavier the responsibility, the better.
This resonates universally, but you’ve tweeted that 91% of your followers or that your adherents are men.
Is there a crises in manhood that you’re addressing?
I think — I don’t think there’s a crisis in manhood.
I think what there is, is a very foolish attempt by many radicals in our society to make an association between male competence and patriarchal tyranny, which is a very, very bad idea.
This is a continuing theme throughout time to sort of tell men to sort of buck up and take responsibility and find meaning in their lives.
Well, it’s an anthropological truism that men need to be initiated, in some sense, to mature.
They seem — And I think the reason for that — it’s not as common among women, precisely, and I think the reason for that is that biology matures women and the responsibility that comes along with that, I think.
It’s a built-in punch.
And so — But with men, because they can delay and delay and delay, then, it’s necessary for society to catalyze their development.
It’s more necessary, anyways.
Time might do it, but they’re not as pressured as women, in all sorts of ways.
And, so, that lack of necessity has to be replaced, apparently — this what you derive from the anthropological literature — by a social attempt to foster maturation.
And I think the best way to do that is — Well, I believe that the best way to do that is through appeal to nobility, in some sense, is that, you know, not only will you find meaning if you adopt responsibility, but it takes you away from that stupid suffering and shame and makes you into something that can, you know, look at itself in the mirror without grief and misery.
Do women have a role to play here?
Yeah, well, absolutely.
I mean, it’s also necessary for women to adopt responsibility, find —
But you say, biologically, it’s built in a bit more.
Well, I also think there’s more encouragement, at the moment, for women to take their place in society, perhaps less encouragement on the motherhood side than might be optimal, especially for young women, because I think they’re often sold a bill of goods.
But, certainly, there’s no shortage of encouragement for girls and young women to take their place in the world of career, despite the fact that that’s, apparently, a patriarchal tyranny now.
Maybe it’s not if its run by women.
I don’t exactly understand the logic behind that.
So, let’s go to the radical Left and universities, because that’s — I mean you are a product of university environment.
You were an associate professor at Harvard for five years.
You’ve been at the University of Toronto for almost 20, as I understand it.
And now you have been on sabbatical.
But the the thing that really catapulted you to international fame and really highlighted your voice was your articulation and attack against identity politics in campuses.
That was part of it.
You know, I don’t really think that’s what it is, what it was.
What happened was that my lectures online, before any of this political stuff emerged, had a million views, million-and-a-half views, I guess, by October 2016, which is when I made a couple of videos that were politically oriented.
And that did cause an expanding firestorm in Canada and elsewhere.
And there were a number of — what would you say? — steps in that expanding outward.
But, really, the reason that this has developed is because people came to my YouTube channel to check out the political debate, but they stayed for the content.
To the extent that viewers are aware of you, they are probably aware of you in the context of the controversy of the bill, which was called the C-16 Bill in Canada, which was an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code.
And it was intended to add gender identity and gender expression to the bill.
Well, that was its stated intention.
That was its stated intention.
And your — Let me just concisely frame this, and feel free to correct me.
Your objection was actually not an objection to LGBT freedom or to being able to identify, in your own life, privately, transgender individuals as he or she, if you, as a background in clinical psychology, determined that that was appropriate for you, but your interest in this bill was the speech-compulsion element.
Right? So you became this —
There was two issues.
One was compelled speech, which, by the way, was made illegal in the United States in the 1940s, by the Supreme Court, right?
Unless its commercial speech.
You can compel certain forms of commercial speech.
‘Compelled speech,’ meaning the government telling you how to speak, what to say, and what is legal and illegal to say.
We have a First Amendment in this country.
Well, even more specifically, what you to say, instead of what you are to say.
So, first of all, there’s all the things you can say.
Then there’s some things you’re forbidden to say.
Then there’s the category of things you to say.
Okay, so the Supreme Court, in the U.S., decided there was no category of things that you had to say, enforced by the government.
That was against the — That ran contrary to the First Amendment.
But they did that in Canada.
And in Canada, what they said is — there was compelled speech around identifiers for LGBT individuals.
Well, for transsexual people in particular, yes, but it was broader than that, without specifying what those pronouns would be or under what conditions they would be used.
So, that was the first thing.
And what I objected to was the fact that the politicians dared to produce legislation that moved out the political domain, as far as I’m concerned, into the philosophical or even the theological domain, by compelling voluntary speech.
And that had never happened in an English-common-law context before.
And, as I said, it already had been made illegal — technically illegal — in the United States.
So, that was number one.
Number two was — And this was more a consequence of the policy documents surrounding Bill C-16.
Okay, it instantiated a social-constructionist view of gender into the law.
So, that’s a no-go, as far as I’m concerned, because the differences between men and women are not entirely socially constructed.
They’re not only a consequence of the environment, and the science is absolutely clear on that.
And it isn’t clear, in Canada, whether it’s even legal to hold that opinion anymore.
You’re a clinical psychologist.
You treat patients, many different kinds of patients.
Have you treated transgender patients?
Although, I have treated people who have had trouble, various troubles, with their sexual identities.
‘Troubles with their sexual identities’ — yeah.
Conflicts and crises and that sort of thing.
But, in your interactions with people that decide to go on self-identifying in the opposite gender that they were born as or as their body manifests, you have no problem, I’ve heard you say, calling them by the pronoun that they choose to be identified with.
PETERSON: Well, it would depend on the pronoun.
I mean, I’ve used ‘he’ and ‘she,’ as requested, as seemed socially appropriate, when requested politely.
There’s a whole slew of pronouns — 70 of them, I think, different sets now — and I haven’t been inclined to use those.
No one has actually asked me, so it’s not like I’ve rejected a student’s claim, which is not to say that I would just kowtow to a student’s claim, either, because that isn’t actually up to you which words I use to address you.
That’s actually up to me.
Now, I might have to pay a price for that, but that’s okay.
And we don’t have our pronouns.
Language is a common mode of communication, and its socially negotiated.
It’s not something that you decide by fiat, especially not if you’re the government.
You talk about social-justice warriors on campus and this bullying effect that they have.
The best way to encounter bullies is to stand up straight and put your shoulders back.
Well, that’s just the best way to encounter the world.
I mean, you know, that chapter, which is Chapter 1, has been subject to a certain amount of criticism.
Apparently, the critics believe that I’m justifying the existence of hierarchies merely by pointing out they have existed for far longer than the West and capitalism, which is not what I was doing.
I was pointing out that they’re far more fundamental than the Marxists, let’s say, are willing to consider.
And this is — See, this is actually a bad thing.
It is definitely the case that hierarchies dispossess people.
It’s definitely the case that the bulk of the spoils, let’s say, from the construction of a hierarchy go to a small minority of people.
That’s an iron law.
But its not a consequence of capitalism.
It’s a way deeper problem.
And so if you want to address the problem of inequality, you have to do it in a much more sophisticated way than the Marxists manage, because they assume that that’s a consequence of capitalism.
That’s just — It’s preposterous.
The critics would say that the social-justice warriors are perhaps binding together in order to stand up straight, with their shoulders back, in order to —
No, they’re not.
They’re binding together in groups to portray the world as a place where people bind together in groups to justify the use of power and to put forward a — What would you call it?
To put forward an ideology that denies the notion that the individuals at the center of the conceptual scheme.
So, I have a question about, then, at Harvard, for example.
There are a group of Asian-American students who are suing because they feel that, as a group, they have been discriminated against, specifically on competency or in merits, right?
That’s because — The reason for that, though, is because the whole game became about identity politics to begin with.
But then they have to use identity politics in order to use that as a tool to combat —
Exactly what the right-wing collectivists say, especially the white-supremacist types.
‘If there’s gonna be identity politics, we better gather ourself together in our group and get ready to defend ourselves.’
It’s like, ‘Yeah, you play that game and see what happens.’
It’s not a good game.
I see your passion and enthusiasm for this, and I think —
It’s more a terror.
Well, yes, but you’re motivated and you’re focused and you’re directed at this problem.
And I notice that you’ve been on sabbatical for two years.
I sense that the place to fight this is in universities.
You’ve identified universities as creating this problem.
And why not go back and fight it at its genesis?
Yeah, I think its better just to take it directly to people.
I think the new media forms — video and podcasts — allow people like me, let’s say, to communicate with the broader public in a way that’s never, ever been possible before, and that’s actually much more effective, in many ways, than the classical university.
In a lot of ways, I understand that.
I mean, you reach more people, certainly.
And you’re talking to people who are interested and might not hear your message otherwise.
Well, and the ‘interested’ part is really relevant.
I mean, the lectures that I’m doing now, for example, which average about 2,500 people, the only people that come are people who want to be at the lecture.
So that’s the real university.
The flip side of going to YouTube is that while you have millions of people, tens of millions of people seeing you, in a world of 7 billion people, is it an echo chamber, a very narrow and intense niche audience and it doesn’t have, maybe, the reach or the downstream effect that fighting back at the university level has?
I think it is better.
Well, our estimate, so far, is that one slice of my videos or other have been viewed 500 million times.
So — And that’s in a very short period of time.
That’s only across a couple of years.
I also don’t exactly know what’s possible in the universities.
I think they’re making so many mistakes that it isn’t obvious to me how they can be put right.
And the mistakes are compounding.
And I’m still at the University of Toronto.
And, by the way, the University of Toronto is a fine institution, as far as institutions go.
It’s not particularly radical, and they were confused, at the beginning, when all of this started to happen and went after me, partly as a consequence of confusion.
And they’ve been good to me since then, so…
William F. Buckley, who is the original host of this show, was the prominent television personality of the modern American Conservative movement and hosted the show for 33 years.
One of his guests was Billy Graham, and I’d like to show you a clip from one of those appearances and then get your response.
Let’s take a look.
Today, we propose to focus on Christianity, specifically, and the reasons for its decline.
I should like to begin by asking Dr. Graham whether any scientific finding or development during his lifetime has either strained his faith or rendered it more difficult for him to preach the Christian gospel.
No. I would rather say it has been the other way.
I think that the scientific achievements of our generation have tended to confirm the Christian faith.
And I think that this is true and can be substantiated by statistics among polls that have been taking place among scientists.
You know that 75% of all scientists that have ever lived live now, and of that 75%, about 60% say that they believe in a personal God.
And when you have scientists like Dr. Elmer Engstrom, of RCA, and you have Dr. Wernher von Braun, and many of these scientists who are out teaching the Christian faith.
This was not true when I started.
When I started, the number of scientists believing in God at that time was estimated to be about 25%. And I think many of the great scientific achievements have tended to confirm the fact of God in the minds of many scientists and lead many of them to a personal faith.
I want to ask you about your personal faith.
Christians who watch you have listened closely, over the last two years, about whether you self-identify as a Christian or not.
And the which was also the publication that William F. Buckley founded, has written, about you, the following.
Why not take on this question of the existence of God?
Because it’s not something to reduce to a sound bite, fundamentally.
But your lectures are two hours long.
This is true, but when you’re talking about the most important questions that people have ever asked, then two hours isn’t very long, apparently.
People will watch them.
So I’m not prepared to… I’m not prepared to say things in any other way than I’ve already said them.
You know, it isn’t obvious what belief means.
People think that what they believe is what they say they believe.
I don’t believe that.
I believe that what people believe is what they act out.
And so I said, ‘I act as if God exists.’
That’s a sufficient statement, as far as I’m concerned.
You know, what’s the old saying?
‘By their fruits, ye shall know them.’
Same idea, right?
It’s a matter of action and a matter of commitment.
It’s not a matter of me parading out my explicit statements about a metaphysical reality that’s virtually impossible to comprehend.
You risk when you reduce, and I’m not willing to do that.
And I’m not interested in providing people with easy answers, including me.
There’s a question of whether you’re working it out yourself.
And everyone who is honest is working it out themselves.
None of us have incontrovertible knowledge about what transcends our understanding.
You know, like, I certainly do think — Well, I’ve learned things.
I’ve learned that the deeper I go into the Biblical stories and into religious mythology, in general, cross-culturally, the less I see any bottom.
You can go into it forever.
And I’ve learned an immense amount doing that, and much of it has transformed my life.
And I also believe that the West is grounded on the metaphysical presupposition that human beings have a spark of the divine in them, and I don’t think there’s a truer way of saying that.
And I also believe that it’s true.
Now, what that means with regards to the ultimate metaphysical realities that ground the entire world, I dare not say, because I don’t know.
So I tend to try to say what I know and to leave the rest alone.
And there’s plenty I don’t know and plenty I can’t talk about.
But I’m talking about what I can.
I’m not interested in joining a club, regardless of what the club is.
So I’m not going to make statements of reflecting a certainty that I don’t have, so…
What is your approach to truth?
I try to — My approach to truth.
I try not to say things that make me weak.
All right, and I didn’t know this, but, you know —
What does that mean?
If you pay attention to what you say — And I mean pay attention to it.
If you pay attention to how the words make you feel, then you can tell when you’re saying something that is founded on a rock and not on sand, and that’s what you should do.
And it means you have to pay attention to every word you say.
And, so — And there’s a rule here.
The rule is something like this.
You can plot your way through life.
You can plot and scheme your way through life.
You can do what’s expedient, let’s say, instead of what’s meaningful.
Or you can say what you believe to be true and you can take the consequences.
And that — As far as I’m concerned, that’s the fundamental call to responsibility.
Why are you afraid of being weak?
Well, the weakness that I was referring to — Well, it’s fear.
It’s essentially fear of hell.
If you make yourself weak, life is very hard.
If you make yourself weak and you suffer stupidly because of it, you will become bitter.
And once you become bitter, you will become vengeful.
And after vengeful, there is no limit.
That’s one of the things I learned from studying totalitarianism in 20th century.
Because I studied it from the psychological perspective.
I wasn’t interested in the mass movements.
I was interested in the motivations of the cruelest Auschwitz guard.
What was he up to?
Or the person who went and shot up the elementary school in Connecticut.
What was he up to, exactly?
Just exactly where did he dwell and why?
It’s like, ‘Well, weakness made him suffer, stupidly, and that made him cruel,’ and that was just the beginning.
And, so, that weakness — that’s just — If you make yourself weak by engaging in deceit, if you fail to take responsibility, then you transform yourself into something that cannot bear to endure the structure of existence.
And you will torture yourself, and that leads to very bad places.
Very bad places.
You’ve said that you don’t and didn’t self-identify as a Conservative as recently as five years ago, but I think it’s fair to say there are many on the Left who are fearful of you and your message now.
And I wonder if you have a reflection on why that is.
They have every reason to be.
I am not a fan of collectivists.
I’m not a fan of people who put group identity first.
I’m not a fan of people who would dare to identify as Marxists, after what happened in the 20th century.
I’m not a fan of university professors who think their job is to take impressionable 18-years-olds and turn them into political activists, despite the fact that they’re not educated.
So, the collectivists — And I don’t care whether they’re on the Left or the Right, by the way, because I’m no fan of right-wing collectivists, either.
So, the right level of analysis is the individual, and that’s what the West got right.
Are you a political centrist?
I’m not really political.
That’s the thing is that — And what I’ve been doing —
Well, you’re talking about Marxism and fascism and the Left versus the Right.
Yeah, well —
And you talk about yin and yang and women and men and this sort of balance.
And Taoism and Buddhism.
And I wonder if —
Well, at some point, the political gets so out of hand that it’s no longer political.
It’s philosophical or theological.
But there’s lots of places where the political level of analysis is the right one.
People who analyzed — Deep people who analyzed what happened in the Soviet Union, people like Viktor Frankl — Of course, he concentrated more on Nazi Germany, but it doesn’t matter.
And Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted that one of the reasons those societies could manifest themselves the way they did was because individual people were willing to lie about almost everything.
And they considered that the fundamental issue, that it was the moral failings of each person at the level of the individual that was actually the cause of the totalitarian catastrophe, and that’s not political.
That’s psychological or philosophical or theological.
It’s not political.
It’s a matter of your relationship not only to your conscience, but to your soul.
And we don’t teach that properly, and that’s why I addressed this as a psychologist.
I only got dragged into the political because my idiot government thought it was okay to demand a certain form of speech in the name of compassion, and that was a no-go zone, as far as I was concerned.
So I’ll take responsibility for my words, but — And I’m not willing to have someone wave a moral flag and then tell me what I have to say.
That’s not happening.
Dr. Peterson, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line’ and thank you for sharing your views.
Thank you very much for the invitation.
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