Jordan Peterson: Thinking Clearly In A Neurotic Age

Jordan Peterson: Thinking Clearly In A Neurotic Age

In a small production studio in South Florida Jordan Peterson is sitting alone, motionless as Rodin’s Thinker, on a podcast set lined with bookshelves when he directs a question about sound levels to a crew of unseen technicians.

They are watching him via four different cameras in a nearby control room, tightening shots and adjusting angles on what the kids might describe as his “resting melancholy face.” But with the concern about sound, Peterson’s famously hangdog features spring to life. He’s worried that the volume in his miniscule IFB earpiece will be too low for him to properly hear his guest, Canadian journalist Rex Murphy, who will be linking in digitally from Toronto. He also doesn’t want interjections from producers to derail the natural flow of their dialogue.

What he wants, he emphasizes, is to be able to concentrate on the conversation.

Even Peterson’s fiercest critics must acknowledge his prodigious academic achievements. (Gregory Woodman for DailyWire+)

While Peterson has given hundreds of lectures in sold-out concert venues and been interviewed on numerous high-level productions like Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” a scroll through his five-million-subscriber-strong YouTube channel showcases more stripped-down arrangements. Usually, it’s just him on a webcam speaking directly to someone on the other end of an equally simple set up.

He’s not opposed to bells, whistles, and aesthetic upgrades as such, but he’s cautious with anything that might interfere with his ability to subsume himself in his interviewee’s ideas. The solution he negotiates this time: Two IFBs instead of one, minimal direction from the sound booth. 

The conversation is everything.

How We Think

“I only invite on guests who I want to learn something from and to share that opportunity with other people,” Peterson tells me the next day in his airy, canal-side rental that currently serves as home. “I suppose that is the pearl in the oyster of woke diversity philosophy. You want a range of viewpoints on any difficult topic. There’s no sense talking to people who think exactly the same way you do, because that’s not informative.”

Certainly, it’s hard to find much agreement on who Peterson is and what his rise from obscure psychology professor to intellectual icon represents. Depending on the kind of cultural waters you swim in, you might see him as a self-help guru or a slayer of sacred leftwing shibboleths or an ideologue of patriarchy.

Today, sitting on a white linen couch, he looks like a man out of time and place. His assistant, who answered the door, sports swimming trunks, as befits a Florida forecast of 91 degrees with 68 percent humidity. Peterson is wearing his customary three-piece tweed suit. I can tell when he’s most focused on a question because he stops looking at me and leans forward, eyes fixed on the ground as if to block out any sensory information beyond my voice. The reverse process occurs when he’s listening to his own answers. He straightens up, head tilted back, eyes pinched close as he formulates sentences.

And this, Peterson tells me, is how we think.

“Thought is an analogue of dialogue,” he explains. “The reason that free speech isn’t just a freedom or right among many rights is because we navigate the shifting horizon of the future by thought.”

It’s not much surprise, then, that Peterson came to fame, after a lifetime in academia first at Harvard then at the University of Toronto, for raising the alarm about assaults on public discourse. He refused to follow dictates to use certain words (preferred pronouns) and just as stridently refused to ignore certain topics (struggling young men), seeing such restrictions as assaults on thinking itself, on the autonomy to develop ideas and assess solutions. “I think the biblical phrase would be the ability to test the spirits to see if they are of God,” he says with a wry smile.

Peterson is gratified to meet fans helped by his books and lectures, but he wants to hear what they’ve been through, not simply praise. (Gregory Woodman for DailyWire+)

He goes on to explain that interaction and debate are so necessary for arriving at truth because people aren’t very good at posing questions to themselves, and they’re even worse at listening for answers. Talk to the people who have observed Peterson up close though, and they’ll tell you this is not a problem from which he suffers. 

In 2021, James Orr, professor of religious philosophy at Cambridge, arranged to bring Peterson to the campus for a series of lectures. The effort was, in itself, a reaction to speech suppression. Two years earlier, Cambridge administrators had unceremoniously bowed to protestors and canceled Peterson’s planned visiting fellowship. Orr felt that move had damaged the university’s storied reputation for academic freedom and wanted to try to restore what had been lost. Peterson’s eventual seminars on the Old Testament book of Exodus accomplished that in spades, drawing on everything from neuroscience to theology to opera. Even the acerbic British press was moved to note the “unexpectedly warm welcome” students offered him. But more than the success of the engagements, Orr was struck by how little his friend’s massively expanded platform (a best-selling book, an international speaking tour) had altered him.

“Jordan has a sort of Pied Piper effect on many, many young people, which I don’t fully understand myself,” Orr told me. “But when I’m spending time with him, I can feel a sort of intensity and that sort of raw authenticity that he has. There’s no difference between him speaking privately, one-on-one over breakfast and him speaking to a crowd of hundreds. And I think there’s a power to that.”

The thing Orr noticed most during the Exodus lectures was the extraordinary attunement Peterson gave each student.

“However young or tongue-tied or uninformed, he just had almost an obsessive interest in them and who they were and what their background was,” Orr said. “There’s a kind of self-forgetfulness to him, which I find quite remarkable.”

The empathy Peterson demonstrates for languishing young men, mocked and dismissed in basements and barrooms, has earned him the ire of those who would otherwise respect his rigorous scholarship and breadth of knowledge. Even the patron digital outlet of identity politics, Vox, had to concede his “stellar academic credentials” while still complaining that they act as a “sort of legitimizing device” for his ideas.

I see a glimpse of that fabled Peterson soft side when I ask whether the gratitude and idol worship of these forgotten males places any burden on him.

“I would say responsibility. That’s a better word,” he replies. “People tell me really positive things a lot. But really positive things are not light. Because a really positive thing isn’t, ‘I’m doing great.’ That’s pretty good, you know? But that’s light. A really positive thing is, ‘I was in hell. And now I’m doing great.’ And so when you hear a story like that from someone, you usually get a good chunk of the hell first. And so you get this insight into people’s suffering. And their emergence from that, which, while very positive, is also a lot.”

These rapid stories of overcoming to which he contributed sometimes occur as often as 50 times in a day. “The thing that’s most disturbing about that is the depth of the suffering,” Peterson says, his voice going suddenly hoarse, his eyes welling. “And also the realization of how little encouragement it actually takes to stop that from happening.”

That willingness to offer encouragement has made him, in many ways, half counselor/half father figure to a demographic — young, white, male — that the culture insists needs no compassion by virtue of an imagined privileged. Or as Orr pointed out, “They say every age gets the prophet it needs. And I think for a therapeutic age, it’s perhaps not surprising that kind of our great prophet in the wilderness is a clinical psychologist.”

Indeed, it has been, in part, Peterson’s John-the-Baptist-like commitment to proclaim unvarnished truth as he sees it that has drawn crowds to him while forcing him out of establishment education altogether, though not out of the business of educating.

Since publishing his resignation from the University of Toronto earlier this year due to his “unacceptable philosophical positions,” he’s joined Ralston, a new liberal arts college in Savannah, as chancellor. He’s also making plans with his daughter to launch an online education platform called Peterson Academy.  

“My plan is to steal the best professors in the world from the woke universities and see if I can figure out a way to offer them access to a mass audience at a low cost, but also to provide them with financial independence,” he smiles. “I think that would be very comical.”

What They Don’t Ask

For every emerging celebrity there comes a moment when they hang between the mystery of who they might be and the solidified image of what we, the public, have decided they are. It’s a crucial instant where some go on to become enduring icons, while others retreat back into obscurity. For Peterson, that moment came in 2018.

That year (or soon after) pretty much every major culture journal from The New Yorker to GQ, every national newspaper from The New York Times to The Washington Post, every hip web zine from Vox to Salon, ran profiles explaining to readers who he was and why they should care about him. Really, why they should fear and loathe him. 

Peterson calls these his “slash and burn” profiles, designed to caricature him into irrelevance. Had they functioned as intended, they would have relegated him to the fringe backwaters of the podcasting and publishing landscapes. Instead, thanks to his great attention to speech, the interviews and articles only added to his following.

Peterson has a plan to liberate the best professors from woke academia and give them financial independence. (Gregory Woodman for DailyWire+)

“Every single word she said to me was a trap,” Peterson explains of an interview with feminist Helen Lewis, who was profiling him for GQ. Like an infamous sit down with British journalist Cathy Newman, Lewis had attempted to frame out-of-context slices of his views as extreme. Instead, he quoted her claims back to her, carefully dissecting them, providing fuller context, and unmasking their destructive intent and false logic. The video, like the one with Newman, went viral.

“The idea was that if I had put my unwary neck into one of those verbal nooses successfully,” Peterson now says of the Lewis interview, “that would be the end of me. And that was 100% fine with her. So it was a very stressful interview, to say the least. And she was hostile to me the second I set foot in the hotel room, her goal to elevate her own status at my expense.”

Like so many other journalists, Lewis focused on the political. She wasn’t interested in what draws thousands of people to Peterson’s lecture tours. She didn’t care why millions buy his books. She was simply interested in debating him. How else to explain her going into the interview wondering if Peterson would “win”?

“[The media] thinks everything’s political. So they just assume that the people who are coming to my talks are disaffected on the political front,” he says. “That’s just not true. I hardly talk about political issues at all.”

Carl Trueman, professor of religious studies at Grove City College and author of the seminal work of cultural analysis, “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,” believes that, in fact, the most striking thing about Jordan Peterson is that anyone considers him controversial at all.

“The storm that surrounds him is as much an indicator of how far the elite establishment in our culture has shifted,” Trueman told me. “The things that Peterson is saying 30 or 40 years ago would have passed without notice. Or they would have been regarded as common sense and good manners. The fact that he’s now the center of a storm is a remarkable sign of the times. And, to be honest, a rather depressing and disturbing one.”

Tough Conversations

Since fellow podcast star Dave Rubin first interviewed Peterson in November 2017, he has served as his opening act for the “12 Rules for Life Tour” (based on Peterson’s best-selling book) at 125 shows in 20 countries.

“There is no modern thinker or public figure that comes anywhere close to Jordan in terms of the real impact he has had on people’s lives,” Rubin texted me. “Through his own search for truth, and his personal quest to add order to a chaotic world, he has given a blueprint for millions of people to do that in their own lives.”

That goes for Rubin as well, who recently revealed on social media that he and his same-sex partner will soon welcome two babies into their  home via surrogacy. Part of the reason he decided to take this life-altering step? Hearing his friend Jordan extol the virtues of parenthood.

Rubin’s announcement sent shock waves through the conservative political world, with many sending congratulations, while others, including some at his own professional home, Blaze Media, sounded warnings. There was much social media speculation about how Peterson, on record regarding the importance of children growing up with nurturing maternal influences, might respond.

Like a physician proverbially following his own prescription for healing, Peterson decided to do his thinking out loud. He invited Rubin to be his first guest after announcing that he was bringing his eponymous podcast under DailyWire+’s umbrella. It would be no puffy, promotional interview, but a tough conversation between friends wrestling through the emerging landscape of gay family formation.

Peterson acknowledged to the crew before Rubin arrived that it would be a difficult subject that explored the moral contours of a decision to bring children into the world who will be raised by two dads rather than a mother and father. As Peterson pointed out to Rubin in the course of filming, “You can’t just blow out the confines of the ideal of [male and female and a heterosexual parents] without destabilizing society at the level of the family.”

But given that the U.S. has now bestowed a right to marriage upon gay couples, he also acknowledged that part of the understanding of what marriage does is create a “multigenerational permanence stretching indefinitely into the future” through children. Parenting, he points out, provides a “longevity of view, which helps to mature you and gives you the opportunity to become more fully fledged as a psychological being.”

And so, they sifted their observations through dialogue, testing to see where their views align and diverge.

Midway through the discussion, Rubin stumbled over his thoughts. “Even as I’m sitting here now,” he said, “I partly don’t want to have this conversation, because like, I don’t know the answers to all of these things.”

That’s when Peterson made a rare interruption. “You’re supposed to talk when you don’t know the answers. Because then maybe you can think it through and you can exchange views with other people. You can expand your knowledge.”

The reaction to the podcast from other public figures across the political spectrum was pointed and wide-ranging. Theologian and Ethics and Public Policy Center fellow Andrew Walker argued that the interview failed to represent principled conservatism.  Bethel McGrew, contributor at First Things and The Spectator, disagreed with Peterson’s conclusions but applauded him for bringing a framework to the issue no other public intellectual would. Various figures on the left felt Peterson claimed only straight couples make good parents and that Rubin was selling out the gay community by entertaining the questions.

What no one said they doubted — that Peterson and Rubin’s conversation allowed the debate, the thinking, to continue.

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