I recently went to a lecture in Seattle by Jordan Peterson. Peterson, 60, is the Canadian psychologist who during the past six years has made a splash on YouTube, in his books, and on the lecture circuit, by damning the spread of tyrannical wokeness.
The Left hates him. Because in this town the woke are always awake, I was expecting protesters. And there they were at the theater’s entrance — a militant handful chanting, “He’s a fascist! He’s a fascist!”
They have hung that label on him because he objected to a Canadian law making it illegal to call someone by a pronoun (“he,” “she,” “they,” “them”) that they don’t like. Peterson argues that Canada’s government has no right to tell him what pronouns to use. For that, the Left makes him out as Mussolini.
Peterson is a classical liberal. He has studied fascism and other totalitarian movements — the psychology of them. His home is a virtual museum of Socialist Realism — propaganda art. But he likes the stuff, I think, for the same reason I like Seattle’s statue of Lenin — as examples of the grotesque, like monster gargoyles on medieval cathedrals.
And there they were at the theater’s entrance — a militant handful chanting, “He’s a fascist! He’s a fascist!”
The crowd at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre was his fanbase: whiter than the Seattle average, though not entirely so, and perhaps two-to-one male. The age ranged from 25 on up, mostly below 50, some of them well-dressed and some of them Seattle sloppy. When Peterson strode onto the stage in a charcoal-gray double-breasted suit, his fans gave him a standing ovation.
“A fine bunch of Left Coasters you are,” he said, and they loved it.
On the stage were two overstuffed chairs, bright white. He did not sit in them for 70 minutes of his talk. During that time, he paced back and forth, speaking dramatically and fluidly. His topic was his new book, 12 More Rules for Life, and particularly one such rule, “Be grateful in spite of your suffering.”
He spoke of his own suffering. His career as a public intellectual was interrupted in 2019–20 by hospitalization for benzodiazepine (sedative) withdrawal. He went to Russia for treatment, and Serbia for recovery, and had a difficult time of it. “It took three hours before I could stand up in the morning; then I couldn’t keep still,” he said. He told the audience he walked with a friend three hours a day for three months — about 1,000 miles. He remains thin to the point of gaunt.
Life is a struggle, he said. As a clinical psychologist, he has advised all sorts of strugglers. The important thing, according to him, is that you face it with a smile. Negative people, he said, “make everything they’re complaining about worse . . . The right response to suffering is to become good. But you have to forgo the pleasures of martyrdom and bitterness and resentment. And we all know how difficult that is.”
He talked about the story of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve and the temptation of the snake. “What the hell’s up with the snake?” he said.
As I listened, I thought, This is a sermon. It’s not explicitly Christian (though he is), but it’s a sermon nonetheless.
He peppered his talk with aphorisms:
“Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.”
“There’s no hitting a target you don’t aim at.”
“You won’t work hard unless you know where to go.”
And a line beloved by all good preachers, “Who’s perfect? We all fall short of the mark.”
He admitted, for example, that he had a fondness for alcohol. “I really like to drink,” he said. “That’s why I quit. I had better things to do.”
He talked about the story of the Garden of Eden, of Adam and Eve and the temptation of the snake. “What the hell’s up with the snake?” he said. The snake, he said, represented reality outside the Garden. The snake brought trouble, but there is always trouble that cannot be ignored. “The secret is not to get rid of the snake,” he said. “The secret is learning how to deal with the snake.”
The audience applauded.
In 70 minutes, Peterson made a couple of digs at the Marxists (for their “appalling doctrine” of class struggle) and the wokies. His most libertarian moment was when he denounced the idea that individual rights are a gift of the state. (People applauded that, too.) But his focus was on the individual, and about how individuals can live better lives.
After his talk, Peterson sat in one of the white chairs and took two previously submitted questions. The first was by a woman who said she had a thousand blue-collar employees and was frustrated that so few of them seemed to think about their futures.
Peterson started out by saying, not what the employer could do for the workers, but what the workers could do for themselves. They could imagine the future they wanted, five years hence, and think about what they would have to do to attain it. And I thought: I like this guy. He’s an individualist. He doesn’t make every problem political. If it’s a problem in the minds of individual people, even millions of individual people, it’s their problem, and they need to sort it out. He allowed that today’s culture is “bad — appallingly bad” at getting people to do this. Maybe the employer could encourage them (doubtful, I thought), but it’s still their job.
Liberty is about more than economics. It is about allowing people to have satisfying lives.
Peterson talked about himself. He was born in a small town in Alberta where few people had gone to college. His parents were exceptions, and it was a given in his household that he would leave town and go off to college. “I just absorbed that, like the water I drank,” he said. But his blue-collar friends didn’t think that way. For most of them, he said, “life happened, and they reacted.”
As a teenager, Peterson was drawn into the Left and joined the New Democrats, Canada’s democratic-socialist party. He has said that he turned against the NDP because of the people in the movement. Another influence was George Orwell’s book The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). One of my favorite statements in that book occurs when Orwell, a socialist, argues, “The worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.”
One of the problems of antisocialists is that too many of their prophets are economists wielding supply-and-demand curves. Don’t mistake me. Economics is good; as Paul Heyne wrote (in “Moral Misunderstanding and the Justification of Markets”), “Economic theory is in large part an elaborate justification of commercial society.” And I’m for that. But there are other roads that lead to a classical liberal position, and the more such roads there are, the stronger that position is. Peterson imbibed much of his psychological theory from Carl Jung, and his knowledge from research and clinical work with troubled patients. He got his politics from his study of the psychology of totalitarians, and by reading Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. (“Each of us fashions his soul himself,” wrote Solzhenitsyn in his novel In the First Circle.) I appreciate that. Liberty is about more than economics. It is about allowing people to have satisfying lives. To make use of their liberty, they need to think and act.
I think of Peterson as a psychological libertarian. His approach is to prod individuals to take responsibility for themselves. In his talk in Seattle, he made few political statements, but many about individual life.
The second audience question was about how women should choose between family on the one side and career and individuality on the other. Peterson immediately perked up. “Career is not individuality,” he insisted. “That’s why they pay you. You wouldn’t do it if you weren’t paid.”
Peterson is a psychological libertarian. His approach is to prod individuals to take responsibility for themselves.
For most people, he said, family is more important than career. I thought, “You’re going to be really conservative now,” but he wasn’t. Women can have both children and a career, he said. “Be wise about it, and not too guilty.” Kids don’t have to have adults hovering over them all the time. “It won’t hurt them to see that adults have important things to do, and that it’s better to be an adult than a child.”
And if women feel that nature has given them a bad deal, Peterson said, “remember that you live seven years longer than men.”
Back to the rule: be grateful in spite of your suffering.
The third audience question was a complicated one about how much obligation people here should accept for the people in Ukraine. This was at the hour and a half point, and Peterson tossed it aside.
The last question was a softball: “What do you think of Seattle?”
“It reminds me of Canada.”
What a disappointment! I was hoping for some of Peterson’s eloquent reasoning condemning wokeism or at least highlights from his skirmishes with protesters and his government. Instead, like Bruce says, he delivered a self-help “sermon” consisting of banal platitudes. What a waste of an evening (and of Ramsey’s talents).
I must take issue with Peterson’s statement that our rights don’t come from the state. If they don’t come from the state, i.e., the people in a constitutional republic through the deliberative process culminating in legislation, where do they come from? Certainly not from an imaginary friend up in the sky. To those of us who consider ourselves rational empiricists, we must depend on a different origin story. Perhaps our “rights” are inherent in our humanity?
Either way, our rights need to be formally enumerated or we lose them. Our founding fathers hotly debated this issue until finally compromising with our constitution’s Bill of Rights and its 9th Amendment. One side argued that enumerating any rights would result in the loss of those rights not listed; while the other side insisted on listing what they perceived to be absolutely fundamental rights. Guess who ended up being right?
We the people have had to fight determinedly just to keep our enumerated rights. Good luck keeping those that weren’t listed such as the right to make a living, the right to life, the right to privacy (no, I don’t mean abortion), the right to travel, the right to marry, etc.
Finally, there are unenumerated rights—such as the “right” to abortion (imagine that one coming from a so-called creator)—that are not universally agreed upon. Let’s stop appealing to religious beliefs to justify our civil and criminal justice system. Only the legislative process, in all its contentious messiness, can clarify what is or isn’t a right.