Jordan Peterson: ‘What the hell’s wrong with self-help books?’

Alt-right icon or incisive psychologist? The Canadian professor says his priority is to help people take charge of their lives

Until recently the name of Dr Jordan Peterson will have been familiar to very few Irish people. But, on social media at least, the Canadian professor of psychology is now one of the most polarising – or polarised, depending on how you see him – figures alive today.

The 56-year-old first came to international attention two years ago, when he said he would refuse to comply with contentious legislation protecting gender expression and gender identity under the Canadian human-rights Act. Peterson’s argument that the new law could result in compelled speech and prosecution for noncompliance resulted in his being accused of transphobia.

His disagreement with feminism on the grounds that there is no patriarchy, his concern that far-left activists have hijacked western universities, and his maxim that we should tidy our rooms before criticising the world have made him loved by some and reviled by others.

Often you'll do something that is difficult in the short term but good in the medium to long run. So how do you calculate that? You don't. You just say what you think

Peterson was in Dublin last weekend for Winning the War of Ideas, at 3Arena, a discussion with the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris and the journalist Douglas Murray. The packed venue – the organisers say they sold 8,500 tickets – was incredibly quiet for a space filled with so many (mostly male) people. Peterson, Harris and Murray were greeted by a standing ovation. The trio's discussion was largely about the difference between facts and values, touching on the concept of borders, and on far-left ideology – a bugbear of Peterson's.

The day before the event I meet him at his hotel. Although I'm early Peterson is already waiting, sharply dressed in a suit. We sit down outside, and I ask him to take me back to the decision that made him a public figure: his release, in 2016, of a three-part YouTube lecture series objecting to the Canadian government's Bill C-16. Some interpreted his position as a refusal to recognise trans people's identities, and consequently as transphobic. Peterson maintains he was purely against compulsion; he would refer to trans people by their chosen gender pronouns but objected to being forced to do so.

Until 2016 he appears to have led a relatively normal, successful academic life: after his PhD, at McGill University, in Montreal, he taught at Harvard University, in the United States, then returned to Canada to take up the professorship he still holds at Toronto University. He also wrote a book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, a dense 564 pages examining the intersection between religious thinking and the psychology of knowledge and belief, which outlines Peterson's complicated philosophical ideas.

In the two years since the legal controversy an academic who some said should have gone on gardening leave – there was strong support for C-16 among university-based activists – has become an intellectual star. Peterson credits his ability to oppose the Bill to his professional standing. “It’s not like you can just leap out into the path of a bus and tell the truth,” he says. “You have to be careful. I was situated reasonably well to take a risk . . . because I was – am – a professor, had a clinical practice . . . I was situated so I wasn’t that easy to push over. That’s actually a prerequisite to some degree for . . . telling more radical and unexpected truths.”

Despite the danger that he might lose his job, Peterson felt that something good might come of his honesty, he says. “The proposition that’s put forth in the early chapters of Genesis is something like, ‘Whatever comes of truthful communication is good.’ It doesn’t matter how it looks. And we know that this is problematic, because often you’ll do something that is difficult in the short term but good in the medium to long run, and vice versa. So how do you calculate that? I think the answer is, you don’t. You just say what you think.”

Saying what he thought has worked out. His YouTube channel has well over a million subscribers, his lecture tour sells out venues, and his second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is a global bestseller.

As we talk Peterson does what might be described as arranging his face. It is what he does in any interview, or what any clinical psychologist will do before a session with a patient, but Peterson has cause to be cautious about engaging with journalists. His now infamous 30-minute interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News, in January this year, has amassed almost 11 million views, and drew attention to Peterson outside of the United States and Canada.

Peterson runs rings around Newman, although she works hard to dictate the pace and direction of their exchange. She does something that is common in Peterson’s interviewers: attempts to catch him out, or expose him. Such interviews tend to make him even more famous, as they can make him look unfairly treated, or more reasonable than his interviewer. And they seldom probe any actual problems with his ideas.

Despite the fractiousness of such engagements, Peterson gives more interviews than perhaps any other public intellectual. Given what he sees as a degree of bad faith among the media, why does he do it? He smiles. “Some journalists have treated me very fairly, and so it’s a mixed bag. The downside comes when people have not paid any attention at all to what I was saying, or used unbelievably selective editing. It’s stressful, but it isn’t obvious that it’s been counterproductive.”

Without the explosion of alternative and social media Peterson could not be the personality he is. The traditional-media monopoly on the delivery of information has gone – and, with it, universally accepted narratives. The unbridled, context-free dissemination of Peterson’s work, and other people’s online responses, explain in part why some people dismiss him as an advocate for hateful right-wing propaganda, of wanting to shove women back into the kitchen, and of being an existential threat to liberal values and progress. It is also why others embrace him as psychologically incisive, philosophically meaningful, and reassuringly unafraid to admit that biology has a role (not necessarily an unmediated one) in everything we do, including difficult topics like gender.

There are essentially two sides to Peterson. One is the engaging speaker blending psychology, evolutionary biology and philosophy with Jungian archetypes and Christian mysticism to put forward an unorthodox world view that alternately draws criticism and engaged interest from his audiences. The other is the Peterson at the centre of a culture war between old and new media, right- and left-wing allegiances, and an increasingly polarised cultural climate.

Even the potential for 'Jesus smuggling', combined with his distaste for feminism and warnings about far-left ideology, are enough to put many left-leaning people off Peterson

His books and lectures show that he is neither the Christ figure his passionate fans (or, rather, a minority of his overly devoted fans) think nor the sexist, transphobic, tyrannical Antichrist his detractors make him out to be. The reality of Peterson, and his ideas, is blurrier than that, and less polarised. He is both the lecturer and the online persona. After the C-16 controversy Peterson remarked, in a comment that his fans and detractors would probably find equally meaningful, “I hit a hornets’ nest at the most propitious time.”

Some see it as a problem that Peterson thinks Judaeo-Christian values are the only good way to couch our culture in ethics and meaning. He considers this the structure that created the best of our shared values, including liberalism in the classic sense, and is clear that he is “trying to put the Judaeo-Christian substructure back underneath the culture”.

Opponents consider Peterson’s thinking a backward step. He thinks Friedrich Nietzsche was right when he declared that God is dead, implying that the absence of a religious superstructure in our lives leaves us disconnected and in crisis. Peterson suggests that we need a holistic cultural framework, and that it is only through such a framework that we can generate ideas about how to live. “We can’t create our own values . . . we’re bounded in our moral choices – this is one of the things that terrified me in the psychology when I came across the psychoanalysts and started to understand what they were actually saying: you’re not master in your own house.”

Peterson, who is very much a heterodox psychologist, says: "I think that we're more like a receiver for consciousness than a producer of consciousness." That aligns him with early psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and William James and sets him at odds with the modern discipline that treats minds and brains as qualitatively the same.

Peterson is not wholly unorthodox: there is nothing very unusual in a psychologist focusing on the factors outside our awareness that motivate and influence us. And although his work is less controversial than it appears when amplified through the megaphone of social media, there is still something in Peterson’s brand of psychological pragmatism and grand narrative that appears to frighten some people, including its religious overtones. This discomfort, particularly in an Irish context, is understandable when juxtaposed with our history.

This is where what Douglas Murray described at last weekend’s event as “Jesus smuggling” – a central fear of atheists about Peterson’s line of argument – comes in. You can follow what he is saying about archetypes and Christian imagery, and you may even feel that it is just a narrative device to carry his ideas, but there is a part of you waiting for Jesus to be smuggled through a side door, and for you to find yourself listening to a religious argument.

Although Peterson appears uninterested in any literal form of religious interpretation, even the potential for “Jesus smuggling”, combined with his distaste for feminist philosophy and his passionate warnings about the growth of far-left ideology, are enough to put many left-leaning people off him.

By nurturing individuals, he believes, we can avoid the perils of collectivism, in which individual identity is subsumed by racial, gender, national or other forms of wider identity

Peterson is sometimes decried as alt-right. A small number of admirers ignore his vocal condemnation of every kind of collective identity that seeks to restrict others’ freedom to live their lives. He is essentially conservative. A left-wing activist in his youth, he denies any claims of an anti-left-wing bias, insisting that his issue is with totalitarian far-left ideology.

“It’s not like the left isn’t necessary. People get dispossessed, and someone has to speak for them. So I think when the left is operating properly it speaks for the dispossessed without denying the utility of functional hierarchies, and so there’s none of this ‘the patriarchy is an oppressive entity’ nonsense. It’s like, partly it’s oppressive, but the ‘partly’ is really important . . . Without it, it’s not the voice of the oppressed. It’s the voice of resentment . . .

“If you look at the radical left . . . it’s like culture is tyrannical, nature is beneficial, the individual is good except insofar as he or she is corrupted by the state . . . That’s true, but it’s only half-true, because the individual is also malevolent and corrupt, the state is beneficial, and nature is deadly.”

A radical perspective at either end of the spectrum neither tells the whole story nor has anything good to offer the world, Peterson says. Both are a threat to the Judaeo-Christian ideals he wants to protect. “We haven’t got it wrong by placing the individual at the centre of our culture.”

By nurturing individuals and encouraging them to contribute to society, he believes, we can avoid the perils of collectivism, in which individual identity is subsumed by racial, gender, national or other forms of wider identity. He is optimistic. “You only need one individual to come up with the right solution if they can communicate it, and if there’s 100 million people working on it, maybe one of them will come up with the right solution. People are actually pretty good at adopting a good solution when it comes along.”

It's not surprising that Peterson's focus is on the individual – a collectivist psychologist, he says, isn't a good psychologist. "Can you be an art critic who hates art? Or artists, more particularly? Genuine artists, most particularly." His bestselling 12 Rules for Life is also controversial, but more because of attitudes towards its writer than because of what lies between its covers. If you excise the Christian mystical imagery and narrative that his detractors find so unsettling – which you can do without affecting the practical theme of the book – it is a useful, interesting and, as Peterson acknowledges, not especially original self-help guide.

“Because I’m a clinical psychologist I have a soft spot in my heart for self-help books. They’re often quite helpful to people, and I think about them as introductory ethical philosophy,” he says. “You know, academic and intellectual types, they find it entertaining to be supercilious about self-help books, but . . . people are reading those damn books. First of all they’re reading . . . Second, it’s nonfiction. Third, it’s conceptual and it’s aimed at moral improvement. It’s like, what the hell’s wrong with self-help books? Whether something’s useful to you depends on where you’re situated . . . and people pick the self-help book that’s in their zone of proximal development.”

The people who are coming to my lectures are trying to put themselves together. And there isn't anything about that that isn't good

Before all of this happened, Peterson says, he had a long career in clinical practice, helping people to tease out their problems and figure out how to navigate their way through challenging lives. Now he is doing something similar, but on a much larger scale.

It's hard to take issue with the advice in 12 Rules, which includes to compare yourself to "who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today" and to pursue "what is meaningful (not what is expedient)". Some of this has been dismissed as trite, but the same sorts of ideas can be found in the first book in the genre, Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, published in 1859. Philosophically speaking, there may be weaknesses in Peterson's position, but there is little to take umbrage at in the book, which is essentially a practical guide to Epictetus's maxim to first say to yourself what you would be, then do what you have to do.

Peterson lights up when he talks about his lecture series, which is oriented around the type of ideas he includes in 12 Rules. "The people who are coming to my lectures," he says, "they're not coming for a political discussion." They're "coming because they're trying to put themselves together. And there isn't anything about that that isn't good."

He has regularly spoken about the young men, in particular, who tell him he has helped them to take responsibility for the trajectory of their lives. For a man consistently accused of pushing a hypermasculine, testosterone-fuelled agenda, Peterson tears up a lot and is free with expressing his emotions when he discusses this topic. Now, however, he is perfectly serious when talking about the lecture tour that he says allows him to reach people. “I’ve never done anything more positive in my life.”

This article was amended on July 21st to attribute a maxim to Epictetus rather than Marcus Aurelius.

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