Jordan Peterson burst from academic quasi-obscurity in 2016 with a video criticizing political correctness on campus and rejecting gender-neutral pronouns. It went viral, setting him up for constant protests, calls for censure, even firing, while establishing him as a darling of the anti-PC crowd. In his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson draws on everything from neuroscience to the Old Testament to his well-known controversial views. He talks with Christie Blatchford, who has been known to court controversy herself, and who once referred to Peterson as “a warrior for common sense and plain speech.” Their conversation has been edited and adapted.
Christie Blatchford: About this book: It’s hard work, as a proper self-help book should be, and it is a self-help book isn’t it?
Jordan Peterson: It’s help for the self and everyone else at the same time.
For a lot of people like me, who only knew you through the controversy at the University of Toronto and the genderless pronoun issue, it comes as a bit of a surprise that you’re a psychologist, and there’s a lot of psychology in here.Do you define yourself chiefly as a psychologist?
That’s a good question. I’d say it’s half and half, professor and psychologist. I’ve had a very extensive clinical practice, I’ve seen 20 people a week for 20 years.
Are you still doing that?
I haven’t been doing it this year because, well, I folded up my clinical practice because my life has become so hectic that I can’t. I have a rule for my practice, which is when I’m listening to you I don’t think of anything else. And so my life has to be in pretty good order for me not to drift. And I don’t want to drift during a session, because, first of all, it’s your time and second, because you make mistakes that way. And I don’t want to make mistakes.
You mentioned a client who had severe social anxiety. Seems to me that an awful lot of children, way more than I remember as a child, have it now. Is that real?
It’s likely a consequence of being too protected. Our society has become an overprotective mother. If you protect people, you reduce their competence.
There’s a rule of thumb for dealing with elderly people in old age homes: Never do anything for anyone that they can do for themselves. It sounds cruel, but it’s not cruel.
This is one of the pathologies of our culture. A major pathology, and this is associated with a kind of immaturity and a kind of fear and this Oedipal mother problem, which is, ‘I don’t want you to suffer any distress right now.’ Fine, but what about tomorrow and next week and next month? You might have to suffer a lot of distress right now so that you’re better next week and next month.
You talk about your mother walking past you in the schoolyard. Hard for her.
Yeah, because I was about to fight with a friend of mine. And my mum was an agreeable person.
And a good mother. That’s why she walked by you.
Particularly good, because her temperament would have inclined her to intervene. But her character told her no. She was very good that way — both my parents. If anything, they erred on the side of autonomy, which is the right place to err.
I’ve never, ever had a client who came and said to me, ‘My parents made me do too many things for myself.’ That just doesn’t happen. Always the opposite.
Another psychology question then: What about all the people now who are identifying as transsexual, genderless?
We’re in a psychological epidemic. This happens all the time. Freudian hysteria was a psychological epidemic; you very seldom see Freudian hysterics now. Multiple personality disorder is a good example; you don’t see any cases of that anymore.
Have we seen the gender thing before?
Not in living memory.
I remember no people like that in my whole life. I know gay people of course, and drag queens, but they seem remarkably well adjusted.
I think that one of the things the web has done is enable people who have personality disorders to validate their particular pathology, because they find all sorts of people who are like them.
There’s an epidemic of self-diagnosis among young people, there’s a race to multiply pathology, there’s a glorification of disorders like borderline personality disorder, which is rare. When being the most oppressed victim gives you the highest status, then it’s a race to the bottom.
We’re not helping young people figure out a noble and difficult pathway forward, where they bear responsibility and march forthrightly into adulthood. Quite the contrary. We’re saying, ‘Well, the system is corrupt and there’s no point in taking part in it. You’re going to be victimized no matter what you do.’ And so the race is on for who gets to play the victim card with the highest degree of status. And it’s really bad, it’s especially bad for adolescents because they’re trying to sort their identity out, they’re already a mess.
What about little kids? There have been at least two or three stories written in the mainstream press about parents who refuse to even say what the gender of their child is.
Narcissistic parents. They’re seeking notoriety through the sacrifice of their children. You dig into a family like that and you find things that no one in their right mind would ever want to look at.
You’re now a YouTube sensation. How did that come about?
One of the things I’d been interested in doing for a long time is to understand entrepreneurial and creative behaviour. The web has made exposure for creative people easy, but monetization difficult.
I’d already put my YouTube videos online. I hit the million mark and I thought, ‘Huh, I don’t know how to evaluate this. What does it mean exactly to get a million YouTube views?’ People were watching the lectures – they’re long – and they were watching quite a bit of them.
And I thought, ‘What is this YouTube anyway?’ It’s not cute cat videos anymore. It’s like a Gutenberg revolution, because now the spoken word has the same reach as the written word, and permanence.
(With Patreon) it’s a strange model for capitalism, because you get the item free and you can pay for it if you want. The thing is, people have a pretty strong interest for reciprocity. So they feel if they’re getting something of value, they actually like to reciprocate. It’s the basis of society, right?
… So back to Patreon. I set that up. And within a month I was receiving about $500US in support, and I thought, ‘Oh well, that’s worthy of note.’ So that was all in place when this Bill C-16 emerged about five months later.
Where does the alt-right accusation start?
Oh that’s easy. It was there right from the beginning.
I released all three of those videos and then I also took some potshots, when I talked about the unconscious bias training, at Black Lives Matter. Because of that, I was called a transphobe and a racist and a bigot. Alt-right. And that there were Nazis at the bloody rally.
There’s a radical leftist playbook which is, if you stand up against us you must be the worst of all possible people and here’s the names we think the worst of all possible people deserve and so if you are not of the radical left, then you’re anywhere along the remaining spectrum. And you’re in a group with everyone in the remaining spectrum. So Nazis are also against the radical leftists.
Therefore you’re all Nazis?
Yeah, therefore it’s plausible that you might be one, even though of course it isn’t plausible because there are hardly any Nazis, especially not in Canada.
You take a very strong anti-lying position throughout this book — say you have to tell the truth all the time.
It’s the sacrifice of the future for the present, and lies by omission are far more pernicious and damaging than people think. It’s like, ‘Oh, I just won’t pay attention to that’. Anything that you don’t pay attention to turns into a dragon.
The other thing I found surprising about your book is there’s a lot of religion, a lot of the Bible, in here. And you say your founding principle is that we are going to suffer.
Suffering is built into the structure of being.
That’s your cornerstone belief?
Starting point. It’s an incontrovertible truth, and that’s a good place to start.
It’s a wonderful comfort too.
It’s also really useful to know that it’s built in, you know? Because we’re finite creatures confronting an infinite reality, so suffering is built into that. There’s a point to be made there, and the point is: Life is suffering and that can be unbearable.
So then the next issue is, what can you do about that? And one is to fold up and go home; that’s the suicidal gesture, right? Sometimes it’s the homicidal gesture. Sometimes it’s the genocidal gesture, and that’s the problem with that line of argumentation.
That’s where you end up?
That’s where you end up. That’s exactly it. You end up there, even if you don’t start there, and that’s really not good.
Are you a Christian? Do you believe in God?
I think the proper response to that is No, but I’m afraid He might exist.
You say you’re ‘a tragically minded and pessimistic person’; I say you’re a hopeless optimist.
Well, that’s right. You got the phrasing right: I’m a hopeless optimist. That’s because I actually believe that despite the fact that I believe that suffering is an ultimate reality, I do believe that there’s a mode of being that allows people to transcend it.
I’ve done a lot of studies, neuroscience studies, trying to figure out and trying to understand how the brain works functionally. We have two hemispheres. One seems to deal with the unknown, that’s the right hemisphere. And the other seems to deal with things we already understand — say unexplored territory and explored territory. You know things: Order. You don’t know things: Chaos.
So now the question is, how do you know if you’re handling the constant interplay between order and chaos properly?
I have a chapter called ‘Do What’s Meaningful Not Expedient.’ If everyone decided they were going to allow their sense of meaning to be their guide, what would they become?
One of the most radical things Christ tells His followers is that if they embody His mode of being, they will be able to do greater things than He did. What it means is that people have an infinite potential and they can manifest that infinite potential in a manner that allows them to withstand the tragic conditions of being.
I worked with a company for a while that did consulting for law firms, and their rule was you send us your most productive people and we’ll produce a five per cent improvement in productivity.
Were you able to do that?
Oh, always. The basic rule was, and this is the right rule, let’s get your life together and when that happens, you’ll be more productive.
What is it that you want? Clarify your damn aims. And then differentiate that down to the point where you have practical, implementable actions you can take on a day-to-day basis.
And start small, that’s your other rule. If you can’t manage something this big, you should start small.
Yeah, I think part of the reason my lectures are popular, and hopefully the same will be the case for this book, is that I take the highest of abstract ethical principle, the most profound principles I can contemplate, and then differentiate them into something that’s absolutely prosaic.