These days, marxist theory is camouflaged as “Critical Theory”, AKA Critical Race Theory, Critical Gender Theory, etc. But the thrust remains the same: every social identity and relationship is redefined as a power struggle between oppressor and oppressed. Thus everything is politicized and civil society is reduced to a jungle where might makes right. Those who seize cultural control of social and economic institutions imperil each individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
Last month Peter Robinson conducted an Uncommon Knowledge interview with Jordan Peterson on the topic The Importance of Being Ethical. The video link is below, followed by my transcription with light editing to produce from the captions a text for reading. Excerpts in italics with my bolds. (PR is Peter Robinson, JP is Jordan Peterson)
PR: If you’re the prime minister of Canada the man is a villain, but if you’re a conservative particularly a young conservative it’s very likely you think of him as a hero. Jordan Peterson on Uncommon Knowledge.
In 2016 the Trudeau government enacted legislation making it illegal to discriminate on the ground of “gender expression”. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist at the University of Toronto objected. In particular he flatly refused to use politically correct gender pronouns, said so in videos and went viral in 2017. He began a series of podcasts called the psychological significance of biblical stories that has been viewed by millions. In 2018 he published a book 12 rules for life an antidote to chaos that became an international bestseller. Last year he published another bestseller beyond order: 12 more rules for life, and then he resigned from the University of Toronto to devote himself to lectures and podcasts. Jordan Peterson welcome. The audience should know by the way that we’re filming today as part of the classical liberalism seminar at Stanford.
PR: All right, question one: The February protest by Canadian truckers. They’re protesting covid restrictions; some of them block border crossings; some of them snarl the capital city of ottawa.
Here’s your quotation made in a message you taped for the protesters. “ I’d like to commend all of you for your diligence and work on accomplishing what you have under trying conditions, and also for keeping your heads in a way that’s been a model for the entire world.”
Now the clip of PM Trudeau speaking in parliament: “It has to stop. The people of Ottawa don’t deserve to be harassed in their own neighborhoods. They don’t deserve to be confronted with the inherent violence of a swastika flying on a street corner, or a confederate flag, or the insults and jeers just because they’re wearing a mask. That’s not who Canada, who Canadians are.”
So here’s the first question: How can discourse in a great democracy have become so polarized that Jordan Peterson and the Prime Minister look at exactly the same set of events and come to opposite conclusions about them.?
JP: Well he’s lying, and I’m not. So that’s a big part of the issue. I don’t believe that he ever says a word that’s true. From what I’ve been able to observe, it’s all stage acting. He’s crafted a persona. He has a particular instrumental goal in mind, and everything is subordinated to serve that.
What’s the motivation? It’s the same motivation that’s generally typical of people who are narcissistic, which is to be accredited with moral virtue in the absence of the work necessary to actually attain it.
Apart from playing a role, from you know the swastika thing is really just untrue about Canadians. Really, we’re going to be worried about Nazis in Canada? First of all that just isn’t a thing in Canada; There isn’t a Nazi tradition, and i don’t know anyone in Canada who’s ever met anyone who’s met someone who was Canadian and who was a Nazi. So that’s just a non-starter
When that sort of thing gets dragged into the conversation right off the bat you know, “Canadians shouldn’t be subjected to the inherent violence of a swastika, ” first of all it’s not even obvious what that swastika was doing there. There’s reasonable evidence to suggest that the person who was waving it was either a plant, or someone who was making the comment about what was characteristic of the government. Now no one knows because the story around that event is messy, and it’s not like there were credible journalists who were going in there to investigate thoroughly. But to use that, and the confederate flag issue is exactly the same thing.
The story in Canada is that our Prime Minister implemented the emergencies act and so the question was why. So I went on twitter when this was trending and read at least 5000 twitter comments to try to get a sense of people who were supporting Trudeau in applying the emergencies act. I wanted to understand what do they believe is happening. As far as I can tell, and maybe I’m wrong, the story was that something like make america great again conservative republicans, the you know pretty far right., were attempting to destabilize Canadian democracy.
And so my question was, well what makes you think they care first of all about Canada and its democracy? And second, why in the world would they possibly do that? You need a motive for a crime like that. At the same time, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which is subsidized by the liberals to the tune of 1.2 billion dollars a year, the CBC was insisting that most of the money that the truckers raised was foreign financed. If it wasn’t the bloody Russians, then it was the American Conservatives. And so that all turned out to be a complete lie.
And so the line was, it’s republican right-wingers trying to destabilize Canadian democracy, except no one has an answer for what’s in it for them.
And then three days later, the emergency act was lifted. i thought, okay now what are they going to make of that? What could possibly be the rationale for that? And the rationale was that it just showed how effective he was. We had this coup ready to go that was financed by Americans apparently, and our prime minister acted so forthrightly that we only needed to be under the strictures of the emergency act for three days.
I don’t even know what sort of world exists in which those things are happening, and then why do Canadians buy this to the degree they do.
And I think they’re faced with a hard choice. Because in my country for 150 years you could trust the basic institutions. You could trust the government, it didn’t matter what political party was running it; you could trust the political parties right from the socialists over to the conservatives. The socialists were mostly union types and they were trying to give the working class a voice and honestly so. You could trust the the media, even the CBC was a reliable source of news. You know, none of that’s true now. And so Canadians are asked to make a hard choice in the truckers convoy situation. Either all your institutions are almost irretrievably corrupt, or the truckers were financed by like right-wing republican-americans. Well both of those are preposterous, so you might as well take the one that’s least disruptive to your entire sense of security. And I think that’s what Canadians mostly did.
PR: Coming back to Canadian universities Jordan Peterson was quoted in the National Post this past march: “I had envisioned teaching and researching at the University of Toronto full-time until they had to haul my skeleton out of my office.” Instead you retired. Why?
JP: Well it was impossible to go back. For a long time I couldn’t think clearly about what I should do on the professional front because I was ill. Later when I started to recover and looked at the situation, first of all there was just no going back because I’m too well known and too provocative I suppose. I’ve never really thought of myself as that, but it seems to have turned out that way. I couldn’t just return to the classroom.
And then there were other problems too. There’s no bloody way I’m writing a diversity, inclusivity and equity statement for a grant.
I can’t imagine the circumstances under which i would do that. And that’s become absolutely crucial now in Canada. Also increasingly in the US to get any sort of research grant you you have to write a diversity statement, and it has to be the right kind of statement. I read that the national sciences and engineering research councils frequently asked questions about how to prepare a diversity statement. And you couldn’t write a more reprehensible document from the ideological perspective if you set out with the intent purpose of writing a despicable document.
So there’s no way I could get funding for my research and then what bloody chance would my students have of being hired in an academic environment today? You know perfectly well those who sat on faculty hiring committees your basic decision right off the bat is: Okay who do we eliminate because you have way too many candidates? And so you’re searching for reasons to get rid of people. I’m don’t say this as a criticism, it’s just a reality. If there’s any whiff of scandal of any sort, well we have 10 other people we could look. Why would we bother with the trouble? So I just couldn’t see my students having any future.
Then I also thought: Well I can go lecture wherever I want, to whoever i want with virtually any size audience, with no restrictions whatsoever. Why go back to teaching a small class at university? I did like doing that, but all I could see were disadvantages. Plus it was impossible. Exactly what am I supposed to do when I meet a graduate student or a young professor hired on diversity grounds manifest instant skepticism? What a slap in the face!
The diversity ideology is no friend to peace and tolerance; it is absolutely and completely the enemy of competence and justice.
PR: What happened? How did wokeness take over universities? University faculty poll after poll of party affiliation in this country, I’m sure it’s the same in Canada, shows the university faculty been to the left for a long time. But this wokeness is something new. What’s the transmission mechanism; what happened and how did it happen in a small number of years?
JP: That’s a tough question. I’ve tried to put my finger on the essential elements of what you might describe as political correctness or wokeness and done that in a variety of ways. For example this is one student of mine undertook a quite promising line of research. The first thing we wanted to find out was: Is there really such a thing as political correctness or wokeness? Because it’s vague, can you identify it? And by that I mean psychometrically. Because for 40 years one of the things that psychologists have been wrestling with is construct validation. That’s the technical problem: How do you know when you put a concept forward whether it bears any relationship to some underlying reality? For example, is there such a thing as emotional intelligence? Is there such a thing as self-esteem? Or political correctness?
The proper answer is we don’t know, but there are ways of finding out. You need to find out if the construct assesses something that’s unique and does that in a manner separate from other similar constructs in a in a revealing and important way. There’s a whole theory of of methodology that should inform your efforts to answer such questions. So for example if you’re a clinician you might want to differentiate between depression and anxiety. Keeping the concepts separate is important so they have functional utility, but also accounting for the overlap because they’re both negative emotions. It’s part of epistemological mapping
So we asked a large number of people a very large number of political questions trying to oversample questions that had been put forward in the media and in the public sphere as indicative of politically correct beliefs. Then we did the appropriate statistical analysis to see if the questions hung together. They hang together if question a is politically correct, let’s say you answer it positively. And question b is politically correct and you answer it positively. If there’s a large correlation between those two questions then you think well they’re assessing something underlying that’s holding them together.
In this way we identified a set of beliefs that were observable or easily identifiable as politically correct. So yes, it exists.
The next question is: Where does it come from? We haven’t done empirical analysis of that, but I think if you’re reasonably familiar with the history of ideas you can see two streams, two broad streams of thought.
One is a postmodern stream that basically emerged out of literary criticism.
It’s predicated on what is actually a fundamental and a valid critique; which is that it’s very, very difficult to lay out a description of the world without that description being informed by some value structure. That’s at the core of what’s useful about the postmodern critique. I actually happen to believe that you look at the world through a structure of value. Well then, what is the structure of value and also what do you mean by a structure value?
And that’s where the post-modernists went wrong,
and where I think our whole society went wrong.
Because the radical left types who were simultaneously postmodern turned to marxism to answer that question. They said, well we organize our perceptions as a consequence of the will to power. And I think that is an appalling doctrine. It’s technically incorrect for all sorts of reasons that we could get into. Partly the issue is: if power is my ability to compel you to do things against your own interest or in your own desire, maybe I can organize my social interactions on the basis of that willingness to express power. That’s a very unstable means of social organization.
So the notion is that it’s power that structures our relations,
but where’s your evidence for that?
There’s no evidence for that, it’s wrong; but that’s what we assumed and that’s what universities teach by and large. It makes no sense to me that this thing that has raged through these great magnificent institutions, these universities that our grandparents and great grandparents sacrificed to give money to, these magnificent citadels of learning. It makes no sense to me to suppose that english departments suddenly took over well unless they’re on to something. As I said before, I don’t think you can look at the world except through a structure of value. So why has literary criticism become so relevant and so powerful?
I believe that we see the world through a narrative framework. If that’s true, you need a mechanism to prioritize your attention because attention is a finite resource and it’s costly. So you have to prioritize it and there’s no difference between prioritizing your attention and imposing a value structure those are the same thing. The mechanisms that we use to prioritize our attention are stories, which means that the people who criticize our stories actually have way more power than you think. Because they’re actually criticizing the mechanism through which we look at the world.
So the post-modernist would say, you even look at the scientific world
through a value-laden lens. I think they’re right, yes you do,
but they’re wrong that the lens is one of power.
Now with a word like power, you can expand the borders of the word to encompass virtually any phenomena you want. And so that’s why I define power as my willingness to use compulsion on you or other people. Because power can be authority, power can be competence, but I don’t mean any of that. I mean power in the sense you don’t get to do what you want, you do what I tell you to do. This is power as coercion exactly. And I do think the marxist types view the willingness to use coercion as the driving force of human history. That’s really saying something, because that means it’s the fundamental motivation.
That’s a very caustic criticism, and it’s easy to put people back on their heels
about that, as we are seeing with capitalists.
I’ve been stunned to see the CEOs of major corporations just roll over in front of these DEI activists. I wonder, what the hell’s wrong with you people? You’re not even making use of your privilege and you are not very powerful if you’re the CEO of a major corporation and you can’t even withstand some interns who have DEI ideology, which is not doing you a lot of good. So why would you produce a fifth column within your organization that’s completely opposed to the entire manner in which you do business and to the capitalist enterprise as such?
One answer would be, well we don’t think much about ideas. Well maybe you should. Or maybe you are cynical about it and say, well it’s just a gloss to keep the capitalist enterprise going while appearing to to meet the new demands of the new ethical reality. Which I think is also a bad argument.
But more importantly it’s that people are guilty and the the radicals who accuse us all historically and as individuals of being motivated
by nothing but the desire for power
strike a chord especially in people who are conscientious.
Because if you’re a conscientious person and someone comes to you, or a little mob of 30 people says, you can be a little more careful in what you say and do on the racist front and the sexist front etc. You’re likely to think, well I’m not perfect. I probably could be a little more careful. And no doubt people have been oppressed in the past and it’s also true that in some sense I’m the undeserving beneficiary of historical atrocity and so maybe I should look to myself.
That’s weaponization of guilt and it’s very effective and it’s not surprising. But it’s not helpful because there’s a resentment that drives this, a corrosive resentment that’s able to weaponize guilt and it’s very difficult for people to withstand it.
PR: Earlier you talked about values and how we see the world through values so here’s a question. If there’s no objective standard of reason outside and above ourselves, if everything is just matter how we think, how can we do science? What do you think of this from C.S. Lewis: If I swallow the scientific cosmology as a whole, meaning all that exists is only what we can perceive through our senses, then not only can I not fit in religion, I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on biochemistry, and biochemistry in the long run on the meaningless flux of the atoms, how the thoughts of minds have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees?
JP: Well that’s a complicated problem. First of all I don’t think science is possible outside of an encompassing judeo-christian ethic. For example, I don’t think you can be a scientist without believing as an axiom of faith that truth will set you free. In fact we don’t know the conditions under which science is possible and we tend to overestimate its epistemological potency. I mean you can stretch it back to the Greeks if you’re inclined, but in a formal sense it’s only been around for about five centuries, and it’s only thrived for a very short period of time. And it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that there were particular preconditions that made its rise and ascendancy possible. It is an historical phenomenon, yes it happened at a specific moment in time and for particular reasons.
One of the bunch of conditions is for example, there’s an intense insistence in the Christian tradition that the mind of god in some sense is knowable, and yes including the structure of the cosmos. And you have to believe that’s the case before you’re going to embark on a scientific endeavor. You have to believe that there’s some relationship between logos or logic. But logos is a much broader concept than logic, that’s for sure. You have to believe that there’s some relationship between that and the structure of the cosmos.
You have to believe that the pursuit of truth is in itself an ethical good,
because why would you bother otherwise.
You have to believe that there is such a thing as an ethical good and those are not scientific questions. Which is why i think the arguments of people like Hitchens and Dawkins are weak. People like that have a metaphysic which they don’t know and they assume that metaphysic is self-evidence. Well sorry guys, it’s actually not self-evident. And they assume that it can be derived from the observations of empirical reality and the answer to that is no. There’s going to be axioms of your perceptual system that aren’t derivable from the contents of your perceptual system.
And you might think, well that’s not very scientific and i would say you can take it up with Roger Penrose about say the role of consciousness and and the structure of consciousness. And it’s by no means obvious that the materialist reductionists have the correct theory about the nature of consciousness. And not surprisingly we don’t understand the relationship between consciousness and being at all.
You know these are hard hard questions. One hard question for consciousness researchers is: Why is there consciousness? Why aren’t we just unconscious mechanisms acting deterministically? I don’t think that is the hardest question.
The really hard question is: What’s the relationship between consciousness and being itself?
Because I can’t understand what it means for something to be in the absence of some awareness of that being. There’s an awareness component implicit in the in the idea of being itself. Consciousness is integrally tied up with being in some mysterious manner and so I also don’t believe that the the most sophisticated scientists are by necessity reductionist materialists. It’s occam’s razor clear if you can reduce and account deterministically no problem. But don’t be thinking that accounts for everything because I don’t think there’s any evidence that it does.
PR: From science to to politics to quotations. Jordan Peterson this is a tweet of just last month: Does anything other than the axiomatic acceptance of the divine value of the individual make slavery a self-evident rule, right? That’s a good one. I’m going to put you in an august company. Here’s G.K. Chesterton: The declaration of independence bases all rights on the fact that god created all men equal. There is no basis for democracy except in the divine origin of man so these are very similar thoughts.
JP: I’ve been talking to my audience about what is the right to free speech and and how that might be conceptualized. Because you can think about it as a right among other rights, so it’s just one on a list of rights. And you can also think of rights as being granted to you in some sense by the social contract.
That is a different theory than the notion that rights originate in some underlying religious insistence of the divine value of the individual.
There’s a bunch of problems with the rights among other rights argument i don’t think free speech is a right among other rights. Speech has to be free because if it’s not free it’s not thought. So imagine if everything’s not going all right, you have problems, and you have to think about hard things. If you have a problem the thinking is going to be troublesome because you’re going to think things that upset yourself and upset other people. It’s part of the necessity, part of what will necessarily happen if you’re thinking.
PR: You said something that just stopped me so completely cold that I missed some of what followed. To repeat: There is no difference between speech and thought; if you have free thought you must have free speech. That’s the argument.
JP: Yes. Well I’ll unpack that first and then return to the other. First of all, mostly you think in words now. People also think in images but I’m not going to go into that, we’ll just leave that aside. But mostly we think in words and so we use a mechanism that’s sociologically constructed– the world of speech to organize our own psyches. We do that with speech and basically when you think there’s two components to it that are internal. In a sense when you think you have a problem, you ask yourself a question and then answers appear in the theater of your imagination. They are generally verbal so that’d be like the revelatory element of thought. And that’s very much prayer in some fundamental sense.
It’s very mysterious the fact that you can pose yourself a question and then you can generate answers. So why did you have the question if you can generate the answers, if the answers are just there. Where do the answers come from? Well you can give a materialist account to some very limited degree, but phenomenologically it’s still the case that you pose a question to yourself in speech and you receive an answer in speech. Now it can also be an image but forget about that for this discussion.
The next question is what do you do once you receive the answer? The answer is, well, if you can think then you use internal speech to dissect the answer. This is what you do, for example, you encourage your students to do if they’re writing an essay. You know they lay out a proposition and then you hope they can take the proposition apart. Essentially in this way they’re transforming themselves into avatars, speaking avatars of two different viewpoints. So you have the speaker for the proposition and then you have the critic. Maybe you lay out the dialogue between them and that constitutes the body of the essay.
You have to be bloody sophisticated to manage that because it means that you have to divide yourself in some sense into two avatars that are oppositional. And then you have to allow yourself to be the battle space between them that. People have to be trained to do that. It’s what universities are supposed to do.
But it’s really hard; so instead of that, people generally talk to other people.
And that’s how they they organize themselves, by talking to other people.
So the additional reason you have the right to free speech, isn’t that you can just say whatever you want to gain a hedonistic advantage, which is one way of thinking about it. You have a right to say whatever you want like you have a right to do what you want, you know subject to certain limitations. It’s like it’s a hedonstic freedom. No, that’s not why you have a right free speech.
You have a right to free speech because the entirety of society depends
on this ability to adapt to the changing horizon of the future
on the free thought of the individuals who compose it.
It’s like a free market in some sense, a free market argument in relationship to thought. We have to compute this transforming horizon, and we do that well by consciously engaging with possibilities. Doing that is mediated through speech. So societies that are going to function over any reasonable amount of time have to leave their citizens alone to grapple stupidly with complexity. So that out of that stupid, fraught grappling that’s offensive and difficult and upsetting, we can grope towards the truth collectively. This before taking the steps to implement those truths, before they’ve been tested. So that’s the free speech argument.
The divinity argument is while you are that locus of consciousness,
that’s what you are most fundamentally.
The reason that’s associated with divinity is a very very complicated question and part of the reason I outlined this in my biblical series on genesis. This divinity of the individuals rooted in the narrative conception is part and parcel of the judeo-christian tradition. You have god at the beginning of time in whose image men and women are made acting as the agent that transforms the chaos of potential into the habitable reality that is good. And he uses the word the divine word logos to do that, which implies that the word that’s truthful is the word that extracts habitable order out of chaos.
What characterizes human beings is that capability.
To those who don’t believe that, I say try acting another way, try basing your personal relationships on any other conception and see what happens. You know people are so desperate to be treated in that manner that it’s their primary motivation. You want other people to treat you as if you have something to say that you’re worth attending to. You have the opportunity to express yourself, no matter how badly you do it. And if they’re willing to grant you their attention and time to help you straighten that out, there isn’t anything you want more than that. If you try to structure your social relationships on any other basis then that respect for their intrinsic value, it’s going to fail.
PR: We’ve talked about faculty and students. A couple of statistics: According to Gallup the proportion of Americans who claim no religious affiliation, among Americans–over 76 years old is just seven percent. 93 percent of the oldsters claim a religious affiliation. The youngest group that Gallup tested is Americans between 26 and 41–almost a third claim no religious affiliation.
Item two and I’m reasonably certain this is the same in Canada at least in eastern Canada, but certainly in the United States, poll after poll shows that young people are far more open to socialism, or to farther not just left of center but farther left political aims. They’re the ones who most fervently support this. By the way This is an inversion from the Reagan years in the 80s when the kids were more conservative than the older. That’s not the case now, add in my personal observation that during covid, during the lockdowns, personally almost more shocking than any other aspect was the supineness, the passivity of the kids. This despite it was established very very early that if you’re young you’re at no serious risk of this virus. You’ll get sick, perhaps it’ll be a flu, but you’re more likely to die in a car accident up to the age of 20 something than you are to die of covid. That was established right away and yet universities shut down and they made kids go on zoom to take exams or take their classes. I could detect no pushback. No kid was trying to diss the man; in general they were saying, Yes Master.
It’s like they were Igors to Dr Frankenstein. This is all really bad news.
After listening to you talk with such a sophistication for a while now, here’s the crude point, the crude suspicion I take away:
If you don’t have some notion of the transcendent; if you don’t have some notion of the divine, then you’ll believe any damn thing.
JP: I think that’s right and that’s what the kids are doing. Dostoevsky commented on that: if there’s no god everything is permitted you know. And he did a lovely job of analyzing that in Crime and Punishment and the Brothers Karamazov. I do think it’s true that if you believe nothing, you’ll fall for anything. People like to ask me if i believe in god, and i always think well, who are you to be asking that question? First of all you have some notion of what you mean by believe that you think is just accurate because you know what believe means. And so you have a prior theory about belief and now you’re asking me if my belief in god fits into your a prior theory.
How about we start by questioning your a priori theory of belief?
Because I don’t even know what you mean by believe, and neither do you especially when we’re asking a question that profound. You know, do you believe in god involves three mysteries there, and all three of those are subject to question.
I think people act out what they believe. So when people ask me if I believe in god, generally I say that I act or try to act as if god exists. And they’re not very happy about that because they want me to abide by the rules, the implicit rules of their question. Which is, do you believe in the religious view as a pseudo-scientific description of the structure of reality? I don’t know how to answer that question because it’s so badly formulated i can’t get a handle on it.
Do you believe that there’s something divine? Well let’s try to define divine here, we can do that for for a moment. Most of us have some sense that literary stories differ in their depth. I don’t think that’s an unwarranted proposition: some stories are shallow and some stories are deep; some stories are ephemeral and some move you deeply, whatever that means. It’s a metaphor but we understand what it means. Imagine there are layers of literary depth and one way of conceptualizing the layers is that the deeper an idea is the more other ideas depend upon it. So you have ideas that are fundamental because if you shake that idea, you shake all the ideas that depend on them.
And then I would say the realm of the divine is the realm of the most fundamental ideas.
That must be so because the alternative is to say well all ideas are equal in value. Okay well, try acting then and you can’t, because you can’t act unless you prioritize your beliefs. And if you prioritize them you arrange them into a hierarchy, and in that arrangement you accept the notion of depth. And so when we use language of the divine we’re talking about the deepest ideas.
And so I believe the notion that each individual is characterized by a consciousness that transforms the horizon of the future into the present.
That’s a divine idea–it’s so deep and our functional cultures are necessarily predicated on that idea. It’s not just a western idea since you can not have a functional culture that in some sense doesn’t instantiate that idea. Because you interfere with the mechanism of adaptation itself, by not allowing it free expression.
Suppose you are like my prime minister and you say, “Well I really admire the Chinese Communist Party, because when it comes to environmental issues they get things done.” So many things are wrong with that statement, it’s hard to know where to begin. It is the posture of an inexcusably narcissistic idiot. But we can start with the idea that, if you know what you’re doing and you have power, maybe you can be more efficient in your exercise of in your control over movement towards that goal. Fair enough but what about when you don’t know what you’re doing. Where then do you turn because it means your ideology failed you and you have no mechanism for operating when you don’t know what you’re doing.
The regime is based on believing we always know what we’re doing
because we’re totalitarian and we have a complete theory of everything.
And don’t say anything to the contrary or else.
In free societies, when we don’t know what we’re doing, we let people talk. And out of that babble, out of that noise, (American culture is particularly remarkable in this regard) you have this immense diversity of opinions. Most of them are completely useless and some are absolutely redemptive. As a Canadian observing your culture we see you guys veer off in weird directions fairly frequently and things look pretty unstable. And then there’s some glimmer of hope somewhere that bursts forward in in a whole new mode of adaptation and away you go again. And that just happens over and over and over as a consequence of real diversity.
It’s definitely a consequence of freedom of association and freedom of speech
because it enables all that expression of possibilities.
PR: Sure that’s optimistic and I always like to end a show on an up note. But first let me put a pin in the optimism balloon. You mentioned Trudeau and Trudeau’s admiration for the Chinese communist Party. Ray Dalio billionaire on china points out empires rise when they’re productive, financially sound, earning more than they spend and increasing assets faster than their liabilities. Objectively compare China in the US on these measures and the fundamentals clearly favor China” Jordan Peterson writing about communism in your introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of the Gulag Archipelago:
“No political experiment has been tried so widely with so many disparate people in so many different countries and failed so absolutely and catastrophically.”
The question is: How much proof do we need and why do we still avert our eyes from the truth? Why why do we still feel tempted. Dostoyevsky in the legend of the grand inquisitor has the grand inquisitor speaking to Christ and he says to Christ: You’re all wrong. Receiving their bread from us the people will clearly see that we take the bread from them to give it back to them. And they will be only too glad to have it so long as we will deliver them from their greatest anxiety and torture: that of having to decide freely for themselves. Never was there anything more unbearable to the human race than personal freedom.”
What do you think: Canada had a good run, the United States had a good run but sustaining free societies across the decades and across the generations is just too hard for human nature to bear.
JP: No you should not agree with that for two reasons. The first is that man does not live by bread alone so that’s the first rejoinder. And the second is regarding difficulty: the only thing more difficult than contending forthrightly with existence is failing to do so. I’m not suggesting for a moment that this isn’t difficult. What the western religious tradition has done, what religious traditions in general do to some degree, is to try to provide people with support from what’s divine in their incalculably difficult efforts to deal with the unknown. If you orient yourself ethically in the most fundamental sense, then in some sense you have the force of god on your side and then maybe you can prevail despite the difficulty.
I try to ask these questions seriously you know and I would also say that I’ve been driven to my religious beliefs such as it is by necessity not by desire. What do you want to have on your side when you’re contending with the unknowable future and it’s vagaries? How about truth? How about beauty? How about Justice? You want allies, those powerful allies that the university is supposed to be teaching young people
You need some allies for the pursuit of truth when the scientists are having their say. On the economic front, how about the free trade between autonomous individuals, the free trade of goods of value between autonomous individuals. That’s not such a bad thing to have on your side these eternal verities. They share something good in common as all good things. For all intents and purposes that’s god. You might say well i don’t believe in that. How is possible you don’t believe there’s any such thing as good, and don’t believe there’s any such thing as ultimate good. I’m not trying to make some ontological claim about an old man living in the sky, although i think that’s a lot more sophisticated concept than people generally realize.
My point is you do have a belief system whether you know it or not, a system of ethics whether you know it or not. There’s either something at the bottom that unifies it or it’s not unified. In which case means you’re aimless and hopeless and depressed and anxious and confused because those are the only other options. And maybe you don’t know what that unifying belief is, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not there. It just means you don’t know what it is.
I can give you a couple of examples very very briefly. I already mentioned the story in genesis that associates god with the force process that generates habitable order out of chaos and attributes that nature in some sense to human beings. The next part in the story of adam and eve, god is what people walk with unself-consciously in the garden. So adam doesn’t because he’s now ashamed and he doesn’t walk with god anymore. So what is god? Well that’s what you walk with when you’re unself-conscious, so that’s an interesting idea. And then you have the god that manifests himself in the story of noah. That’s the intuition that hard times are coming and that you better get your house in order. If you have any sense, the nature of the intuition is a spirit that animates you. Well obviously because there you are acting and you’re acting out a pattern. it’s a spirit that animates you. And then there’s the story of the tower of babel, what’s god there? Well god is that which you replace at your peril because everything will come tumbling down. That’s the tower of babel. It’s like definitely if we put the wrong thing at the top, like Stalin for example then look out. We’ve done that a bunch of times in the 20th century.
I think you know Milton conceptualized Lucifer as something like the spirit of unbridled intellectual arrogance. Something like Lucifer is the light bringer and he is engaged in a conflict with god attempting to replace the divine and that’s pretty explicit in the story. That’s a poetic intuition of the of the battle between the secular intelligencia and the religious structure that’s milton’s pro-droma. He sees happening the intellect has become so arrogant that it will attempt to replace the divine and rule over hell. Well that’s the soviet union man; that’s Mao’s China— we know we’ve got our theory, it’s total, we’ve solved the problem and nothing’s going to change
Fair enough if you want to rule over hell and you think these societies are successful. Pretty odd definition of success as far as I’m concerned. If you want to be successful like china, you know that’s why it’s true that man does not live by bread alone. You know that a wealthy slave, that’s no life.
PR: I’m going to stumble along toward o setting up my last question. I’m thinking back to the 1970s.
Canada is part of this, but i know the American story better, and in the 1970s everything goes wrong. Economic stagnation, loss of morale in this country because we lose in Vietnam. Watergate scandal. We’re on the defensive as the soviets advance in Africa, Latin America. And then in the 1980’s, we go from 1979 with the national humiliation of the Iranian hostage crisis and this Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and then 1989 one decade, just 10 years later, the Berlin wall comes down.
So the question here is: the loss of freedom of speech, the corruption of the universities, the rise of
china which is in all kinds of ways a more formidable opponent than the soviet union was. In all kinds of ways one could argue that we’re in a worse position now than we were in the 70s. Are you speaking to those few who have eyes to see and ears to hear? Do you believe that we are capable to prompt another kind of restoration? Or is Jordan Peterson the fascinating eloquent compelling champion of a lost cause?
JP: When I spent a lot of time at the various universities, I was associated with studying motivation for atrocity. Because i was very curious about that as a psychologist; not as a sociologist or an economist or a political scientist. If you’re an Auschwitz guard, what’s motivating you as an individual? I wanted to understand it well enough so I could understand how I could do that. Some say, well that sort of behavior is so far beyond the pale that it’s completely incomprehensible. It’s just a manifestation of say, intense psychopathy, and a normal person can’t even imagine it.
I think the evidence doesn’t really suggest that. Because it is not obvious that all the people involved in the Nazi movement for example were criminally pathological, that they were incomprehensible deviations from the norm. It’d be lovely to think that and it would make the world a lot simpler. But the evidence mostly suggests that you can get ordinary people to do that sort of thing, and maybe even to enjoy it. So that’s pretty bloody terrifying and so i tried to understand, and think i did to some degree. Without getting deep into it here, we can say a fair bit of it is a consequence of envy. It’s the spirit of Cain if you had to sum it up in a phrase.
But that isn’t the issue; rather the issue is how do you stop it from happening again? Because that’s what we’re supposed to be concentrating on. In the aftermath of the second world war, we said, “Never Forget.” That should mean something like, How about we don’t do this again? So my question was: how do we best go about ensuring we don’t walk down that road again? My conclusion was that it was fundamentally an issue of individual psychology, most fundamentally more than economics, more than sociology.
For all of that, the cure is individual people have to act
as ethically as they are powerful or else.
And so I’ve been trying to convince people to do that. I suppose not to convince them precisely, but to put forward an argument about why that’s necessary and why it’s on them. You have to understand this problem because if you don’t get it right, it isn’t gonna work. How you start is with what you have under control in your own life. Where else are you going to start but to look to yourself. Put your house in order, not to be worried about some other person walking the satanic path. That’s what activists do all the time. They’re protesting it’s you, it’s the corporations, like it’s someone else. No, it’s you and I think also fundamental to the judeo-christian doctrine is that it’s you. it’s on you.
Redemption’s an individual matter and so my hope is that if enough people take themselves with enough seriousness, then we won’t end up in hell.
Because we certainly could, it’s a high probability. But I also don’t think that you can be motivated enough to put your house in order to the degree that’s necessary merely by being attracted, let’s say to the potential utopia that might emerge as a consequence of that. So that’d be a vision of heaven, let’s say you need also to also be terrified of hell. Just because you haven’t been there doesn’t mean there’s no such thing. You have to be pretty bloody naive to think there’s no such thing, how much evidence do you need? It comes about at least in partial consequence of the sins of men.
PR: What about incoming freshman next year at University of Toronto or Stanford University, 18 year old kids coming into all this, we’ve been through three years of covid. I won’t rehearse it all in one sentence. What would you say to them as they begin university at the age of 18 or 19? What’s the restorative, redemptive sentence? What should they do?
JP: What should they do is: Don’t be thinking your ambition is corrupt. Because that’s part of the message now: we human beings are a cancer on the planet. We’re headed for an environmental apocalypse. The entire historical structure is nothing but atrocity. etc etc. Anyone with any ethical
aim whatsoever is just going to pull back; you don’t want to manifest any ambition, support the patriarchal structure, exploit the environment. You’re supposed to crush yourself down, you shouldn’t even have any children.
There’s no excuse for that there’s zero excuse for that I saw a professor at an event something like this who came out and trumpeted this bloody environmentally friendly house he built. Fair enough, it was a pretty interesting house. But not everybody had the four million dollars that that it took him to build it. I’m not criticizing his money, good for him he built a house, okay. But then to trumpet that as a moral virtue well you’re pushing it there. Then he came out to all the kids and he said my wife and i decided that we’re only going to have one child. I think that’s one of the most ethical things we could have possibly done and I would strongly encourage you to do the same.
I thought, you son of a . . . , you get up in front of these young people, a lot of these kids children of first generation immigrants from china, and he showed all these images of these terrible factories in China, these endless rows of sterile mechanism that were subordinating all the chinese people to this terrible capitalist machine. And I thought you don’t understand half the audience is looking at those factories and thinking that’s a hell of a lot better than struggling through the mud under Mao buddy.
I don’t know where he thought he was but to come out in front of all those kids and basically tell them that the whole human enterprise is so goddamn corrupt that the best thing they could possibly do is limit their multiplication, and to think of himself as a scholar and an educator. I did say something, by the way it was rather uncomfortable and he stomped off the stage. But that’s no message for young people: that’s no there’s no excuse for that.
You think we’re going to destroy the planet, so we have to do this:
we have to demoralize the youth to be ethical
I’m passionate about this because you have no idea how many people that’s killing. I see people everywhere all over the world they’re so demoralized especially young people especially young people with a conscience, because they’ve been told since they were little that there’s nothing to them but corruption and power. How the hell do you expect them to react? You know they will say. OK, I shouldn’t do anything.
So I go around and say to people: Look there’s not only more to you than you know there’s more to you than you can imagine. You have an ethical responsibility to act in that light. You might claim not to believe that, but i would say your whole culture is predicated on that belief. Insofar as you are an active member of that culture and a believer in its structure, then you believe it. You might not be very good at believing it, you might be full of conflict and doubt, and you might not be able to articulate it. But it’s still right at the bedrock of your culture: this notion of what the divine sovereign individual is. Your culture is predicated on that idea the logos is inherent in each person.
I’ve never seen a credible argument made to show that it’s anything other than that. You can say, well rights are attributed to you by the state. Sorry that’s a weak argument, because the state’s dependent on your actions. In effect you are believing that the state is the entity, and that individuals are just subordinate in some fundamental sense to the state. No, the state is dependent on the individual to exactly the same degree. So we’re the active agent of the state in some sense we are the seeing eye of the state, the speaking mouth of the state, because the state’s dead without the individuals that compose it.
Jordan Peterson’s Critical Analysis of Marxist Theory, synopsis at Why Marxism Always Fails
Five part series of posts on themes from Peterson’s Maps of Meaning, beginning with Cosmic Dichotomy: Peterson’s Pearls (1)
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