Jordan Peterson joins Tyler to discuss collecting Soviet propaganda, why he’s so drawn to Jung, what the Exodus story can teach us about current events, his marriage and fame, what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong, immigration in America and Canada, his tendency towards depression, Tinder’s revolutionary nature, the lessons from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, fixing universities, the skills needed to become a good educator, and much more.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded January 27th, 2019
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Thank you, Jordan. I’d like to give the audience that kind of rapid-fire overview of your thought and also your life as a human being.
JORDAN PETERSON: I’m looking forward to hearing that.
COWEN: Let me start with a very lateral question. Why do you collect old Communist memorabilia and propaganda?
PETERSON: Well, part of it is dark comedy. Really, I spent quite a bit of time on eBay for a number of years. And I had read this article by a psychologist named James Pennebaker. He said that the past turned into history at 15 years. That’s when you start to see people commemorate events in the past. At that point, it was 2004, and I thought, “Oh, that’s interesting. It’s 15 years since the Soviet Union collapsed. Maybe I can go online and see what historical memorabilia is left over.”
So I went on eBay, looking up Soviet artifacts, and I thought that was so comical because there isn’t anything more capitalistic than eBay, right? Seriously, that was completely unrestrained capitalism. And then all this Soviet-era stuff was for sale. I thought it was absolutely comical that I could buy paintings of Karl Marx discounted on the world’s most intense capitalist platform.
And I’m really interested in the relationship between art and propaganda. So I bought all these pieces. Some of them are of very high quality because the Russians kept the intense training characteristic of late-19th-century European art academies open throughout the entire 20th century. So they had very high-quality artists dedicated to producing Soviet realist propaganda.
Some of it is intensely propagandistic, and I’m interested in that because I’m interested in propaganda. And some of it is actually quite high quality from a purely artistic perspective. So it was interesting to surround myself with these works that were battlegrounds between art and propaganda.
COWEN: What’s the main thing you learned over the years, living with those works, viewing the propaganda, thinking about it every day, every night?
PETERSON: Art wins.
COWEN: Art wins over propaganda. Why?
PETERSON: All the time, yeah. Nothing wins over art. Nothing is powerful enough to stand in the way of art. Whatever artistic merit the canvases have stays as a permanent part of them, and the propagandistic aspect disappears as the context — the political context — disappears. All that’s left, in some sense, is the pure art and the craftsmanship. At some point, some of the paintings I have are just very realistic renditions of working-class people. All the propaganda is disappearing, so it’s very interesting to have those artifacts around.
It was also a reminder to me. I have studied totalitarianism for a very long time, and you want to be . . . See, I’ve always tried to read history as a perpetrator rather than as a hero or a victim. And I’m very interested in trying to understand why these ideas have such a grip on people.
You have to allow them to exert that gripping force on you before you can understand it, not think, “Well, I would have been immune to that.” It’s like, “No, you wouldn’t have. You wouldn’t have been immune at all. And if you think that, then for sure, you wouldn’t have been immune.”
COWEN: Most of the classical liberals I know — they draw their inspiration from Milton Friedman or Friedrich A. Hayek. The major influence on you seems to be Carl Jung. When you have Jungian foundations for classical liberalism, in what way — for you — does that make liberalism stronger?
PETERSON: Well, I am fundamentally a psychologist rather than a political theorist. I’ve been very interested in how people build their models of the world. You look at the world through a framework. You can’t help it because the world is unbelievably complicated. It’s so complicated that, technically, you shouldn’t even be able to perceive it.
Perception is an unbelievably deep mystery. So you interpose a very deep structure between you and the world, and that structure has — what would you call it? You can differentiate it into its subcomponents. And what appears to me to be at the base of that structure, conceptually, is something approximating a narrative. There’s various ways of looking at it. You can think about it as a shared game. But narrative, I think, is the best way of thinking about it.
And I never came across anybody who had a deeper understanding of narrative than Carl Jung. So his work was unbelievably influential for me, partly because it was through Jung that I started to understand the metaphysics of the idea of the sovereignty of the individual, which I think is the great Western idea, that the fundamental perceptual — what would you say? — that the most appropriate perceptual framework for a social interaction at the familial and the community level is to view each individual as unique and sovereign.
When I wrote my first book, which was Maps of Meaning, I was very curious about whether the tension between the communist viewpoint and the Western viewpoint, roughly speaking, was merely a matter of opinion, which is something you might think if you were a moral relativist, or perhaps even a postmodernist — that there’s a multitude of ways that you can set up a society and they’re each equally, arbitrarily valuable. And there’s an infinite set of methods by which a society might be generated. That’s one hypothesis.
As I got deeper and deeper into the analysis of both systems, I thought, “No, that’s just wrong.” There’s some things that the West got. What we designed in the West is a playable game, technically speaking, and what was designed by the communists was a nonplayable game. It was destined to degenerate across time because it couldn’t function in a real-world environment. It was an abstraction that couldn’t maintain itself if it was iterated.
COWEN: You’ve done clinical work with patients for many years, right? From that clinical work, what have you learned about politics and also myth? This is the shaping of Jordan Peterson narrative we’re building here, right?
PETERSON: What have I learned about politics and myth? Hmmm. See, my interest never was precisely political.
COWEN: But it must have shaped how you now understand politics. It was such a formative experience in your career.
PETERSON: Well, it shaped how I understand responsibility, I would say. I was trained as a behavioral psychologist, although I have familiarized myself with all sorts of other schools of psychotherapeutic endeavor, and I’ve used techniques from other schools substantially when that was necessary. But one of the things you do as a behavioral psychologist is you take problems, and you break them down into their smallest solvable units. That’s actually your job.
It’s like, okay, you come to me and you have a problem. Well, we don’t know what the problem is, so the first thing we’re going to do is have a very long discussion about what the problem might be. And we’ll go through all sorts of blind alleys, but hopefully, we’ll end up with a description of what it is that’s wrong.
Then we’ll have another discussion about how it is that it could conceivably be set right. And then we’ll have another discussion about how to strategize with regards to implementing how it might be set right at a level of resolution that’s sufficiently differentiated, so that you have a very high probability of succeeding when you implement it.
I think that that’s useful with regards to understanding political problems. The first question is, “Well, what’s the problem?” And the second is, “Well, what’s the solution?” It’s a technique. So I suppose what’s happened to me from participating, from doing so much therapy is that I’ve learned how to take complex problems and decompose them down into solvable processes.
COWEN: In your talks and writings, you’ve explored many avenues of personality psychology. It feels to me, as an outside observer, that our politics is much higher in neuroticism than it was five or ten years ago. Do you agree? And if so, why has this happened?
PETERSON: I think partly it’s happened because there’s an insistence that it must be that way. Many of you are probably familiar with Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind. One of the points that they make, which shouldn’t have been up to them to make, was that if you set out to design a conceptual system to make weak and timid people who can’t operate in the world, you couldn’t do a better job than to create what constitutes the safe-space culture that currently permeates university campuses.
They do absolutely everything wrong from a psychological perspective because the fundamental rule — if you’re a psychologist who’s interested in increasing resilience — is that you help people identify what they’re afraid of and what they would like to avoid that’s standing in the way of their movement forward. Then you design techniques to help them voluntarily confront that and learn how to withstand it or to cope with it.
That’s standard exposure therapy. It’s the bedrock of virtually every therapeutic system — that and getting your story straight, let’s say. Well, that’s it. Those are the two most important elements of any psychotherapeutic process.
So when you insist that the right way to view the world is victim versus victimizer, and then you coddle people into exaggeration of their own negative, emotion-centered pathology, you’re going to ensure that the political structure becomes more and more neurotic. If you’re aiming at something and you’re moving rapidly towards it, you’re likely to hit it. And that’s exactly what’s happening on the campuses.
COWEN: How have your own views changed since you were 30? Political views, view of the world, metaphysical view. The nature of reality.
PETERSON: Well, I think the primary transformation is my ever-expanding knowledge of exactly how much I don’t know about everything, and even how many layers there are underneath the things that I know something about. I’ve become almost overwhelmed with the chronic knowledge of how little we really understand the structure of the world.
That’s been an unfolding revelation in some sense. I would say that’s accelerated to a substantial degree in the last five years, but it was certainly there before that.
COWEN: Let’s say I’m a secular thinker, and you’re trying to explain the value of the book of Exodus to me.
COWEN: Because some of your most successful talks have been about the Hebrew Bible.
COWEN: Where would you start using the book of Exodus to explain the predicament of the modern world?
PETERSON: Well, the book of Exodus, I would say, is a story about many things. It’s a story about social and psychological transformation. I would start by reading it primarily psychologically, which is reasonable if you think about it as a spiritual story. There’s not much difference between spirit and psyche.
COWEN: You mean transformation of Moses as a leader?
PETERSON: No, no. I mean that the entire story is a metaphor for psychological transformation. The story is basically the movement from a too tyrannical state of being symbolized by stone, essentially, because the Egyptian state is essentially symbolized by stone in Exodus, and Moses is a master of water, and water is something that flows and isn’t static, unlike stone, which is rigid and has the advantage, let’s say, of permanency along with those disadvantages.
But what you see in the book of Exodus is something that’s very akin to a Piagetian stage transition. Piaget’s idea — he was a great developmental psychologist — was that people organize their perceptions into structures that have a certain amount of internal coherence. You have a structure that’s internally coherent, and it accounts for a set of phenomena in the world.
But then there are phenomena that don’t fit into the structure, and they aggregate, and now and then there’s a process of punctuated equilibrium. Your old theory is no longer sufficient to account, in a practical way, for the array of phenomena that you’re now confronted with. As a consequence, there’s a dissolution of the previous system, and then a state of uncertainty and chaos, and then a reconstruction.
That’s exactly what happens in the book of Exodus. You move from a tyranny. It’s brilliant just on the surface, and it’s brilliant in the depths, but just on the surface it’s brilliant. If you’re in a state that’s too tyrannical, you need to escape from it, and that sounds all well and good, that you should escape from the tyrannical conditions that hold you back. That’s fine.
So do you escape from the tyrannical conditions and enter the promised land? No, you end up in the desert for 40 years. And it’s a mystery, practically speaking, why it took Moses 40 years to wander through the desert because it wasn’t that big a desert.
But if you’ve ever popped out of a system that was maybe somewhat tyrannical but that provided you with structure, you might think long and hard about the fact that you can spend 40 years in the desert.
If you have a bad marriage, or if you have a bad job for that matter, and that comes to an end, that doesn’t mean that you’re immediately where you want to be. You may certainly end up pining for the good old days when the tyrannical structure that you once inhabited gave your life structure and meaning.
So do you escape from the tyrannical conditions and enter the promised land? No, you end up in the desert for 40 years. And it’s a mystery, practically speaking, why it took Moses 40 years to wander through the desert because it wasn’t that big a desert. But if you’ve ever popped out of a system that was maybe somewhat tyrannical but that provided you with structure, you might think long and hard about the fact that you can spend 40 years in the desert.
You see this in the broad political scale. There’s tremendous — what do you call that pining for the past? What’s the word for that? Nostalgia. Nostalgia for the former Soviet Union in Russia. You see that in Eastern Europe as well. “Well, the good old days were much better than what we have now.” It’s like, “Well, yeah, the tyranny had its advantages.” And now you’re cast out into horrible, horrible freedom. And that is a desert through which you wander.
And then the other thing you see that’s so lovely, in the book of Exodus — it’s so accurate — is that, what happens when you’re a fractious group of people who’ve been freed from the previous tyranny? And the answer is, well, you immediately turn to the worship of false idols. And that’s part of the fragmentation process that characterizes people who are no longer united by an overarching narrative. That’s the chaotic element, and of course, that’s happening in our society. That would be reflected in the consequences that both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky prophesied when they talked about the death of God.
COWEN: The Quran has a take on the Exodus story, right? What can we learn from comparing the Quranic take on Exodus and Moses to the take of the Hebrew Bible?
PETERSON: I don’t know enough about the Quranic take to make any intelligent commentary on that. That’s one of the places where I’m staggeringly ignorant and hoping to do something about that over the next five or ten years.
COWEN: If you’re thinking about our current situation in terms of some sort of universal myth or archetypical story, what comes to mind from the history of mythology, 2019?
PETERSON: Oh, I think the Exodus story is a good one for us.
COWEN: You think it’s a good one?
PETERSON: Yeah, because we are definitely in a period of chaos. And a tremendous amount of that is a consequence of the fact that we keep upsetting our previous useful tyrannies with technological transformation.
One of the things I think — who knows if this is true, because things are changing so rapidly, I’m not sure that we are more polarized than we were five years ago — but I think that one of the things that’s happening is that the illusion of polarization is being driven by the death of the mainstream media because these new media forms have emerged: video killing television; podcast killing radio; the net, for written content, killing print journalism. That’s three massive sets of technological transformation.
As the mainstream media institutions disappear, they’re increasingly desperate for attention. And of course, they’re going to be because that is what happens when your system starts to come apart. So I think they’re concentrating on the extremes to a much greater degree than they were 10 years ago, and that all of that might be a secondary consequence of technological transformation. That’s chaos.
That’s only a tiny bit of the chaos that’s coming because we’re in a condition, now, where technological transformation is so rapid that we can’t even tell what the revolutionary transformations are.
I look at an app like Tinder, for example. Tinder is that app where you can rate people and swipe them. Tinder is an app that reduces the degree to which males are rejected in their attempt to find sexual gratification. That’s never happened in the history of mankind. I’m dead serious about that. And it’s just one thing that happened. And people don’t even pay much attention to it. But it’s an absolutely revolutionary technology.
And it’s one of God-only-knows-how-many revolutionary technologies. There’s so many revolutionary technologies being produced right now, you can’t even tell which ones pose the worst threat to civilization.
On marriage and fame
COWEN: Here’s a reader-request question. What is it like being married to you?
PETERSON: Oh, it’s dreadful.
COWEN: But you tour a lot, right? You give talks?
COWEN: There can be a hall of 2,000 people.
COWEN: It will sell out. The tickets can go for, goodness, how much?
COWEN: Scalp for $2,000.
COWEN: You’re married. What’s that like for your wife?
PETERSON: Well, I really like my wife.
And so far, she seems to like me. She’s been unbelievably helpful. She’s really good at touring, better at it than me. She really enjoys it. She’s been an absolute rock through this last tumultuous two years. We were able to collaborate very carefully and negotiate very well with regards to the raising of our kids, which was unbelievably gratifying for both of us.
She’s incredibly trustworthy, so we have a good relationship. I think she has to put up with a lot because my life has always been strange, I would say. First of all, she had to put up with the fact that I bought 300 pieces of Soviet-era art.
People were calling her and saying, “What’s up with Jordan? It’s like he’s bought 300 pieces of Soviet art. There’s something that’s a bit off about that.” Which was definitely true, but she’s willing to take the risks and she trusts what I’m doing. And I think I do what I can to listen to her, and to make sure that she gets what she needs and wants, and that we have a good vision together, a joint vision together. And we do have fun together, too. So that’s a plus as well.
COWEN: The extreme celebrity of your last three or so years, how has it changed you?
PETERSON: Oh, it’s made me way more careful.
COWEN: About what?
COWEN: Careful what you say?
PETERSON: Yeah. I’ve always been careful in what I said, but I’m way more attentive to what I say now than I was because, well, for about a year and a half, I was one slip away from disaster. There were a perfectly large number of people who were combing through absolutely everything I ever said and recorded to find exactly that one slip.
And it came close a couple of times, more than a couple of times. I’ve always watched what I said, but I really watch it now. And now also, when I’m in public, I’m very, very careful about how I conduct myself. So increased self-surveillance is probably the biggest difference.
I’ve always been careful in what I said, but I’m way more attentive to what I say now than I was because, well, for about a year and a half, I was one slip away from disaster. There were a perfectly large number of people who were combing through absolutely everything I ever said and recorded to find exactly that one slip. And it came close a couple of times, more than a couple of times. I’ve always watched what I said, but I really watch it now.
On what the Intellectual Dark Web gets wrong
COWEN: Your peers in the Intellectual Dark Web — the best of them — what is it they’re wrong about?
PETERSON: Oh, they’re wrong about all sorts of things. But at least they’re wrong in all sorts of interesting ways. I think Sam Harris, for example — I don’t think that he understands. I don’t think that he’s given sufficient credence to the role that religious thinking plays in human cognition.
I think that’s a huge mistake for someone who’s an evolutionary biologist because human religious thinking is a human universal. It’s built into our biology. It’s there for a reason. Although Sam is an evolutionary biologist, at least in principle, with regards to his thinking, he’s an Enlightenment rationalist when it comes to discussing the biology of religion, and that’s not acceptable.
It’s the wrong time frame. You don’t criticize religious thinking over a time frame of 200 years. You think about religious thinking over a time frame of 50,000 years, but probably over a far greater time span than that.
COWEN: So if that’s what Sam Harris doesn’t get —
COWEN: If we turn to senior management of large American companies, as a class of people — and I know it’s hard to generalize — but what do you see them as just not getting?
PETERSON: I would caution them not to underestimate the danger of their human resources departments.
COWEN: Say more.
PETERSON: Yeah, well, because I see that the social justice etiology that’s destroyed a huge swath of academia is on the march in a major way through corporate America. And if the corporate people think they’re immune to it, they’ve got another think coming. It’s not like they’re any smarter than the universities.
COWEN: And who gave the HR department so much power? How did that happen? What myth did we follow that led us wrong?
PETERSON: That’s a good question because they had virtually no power to begin with, right? HR departments have always been underpowered, so to speak.
COWEN: Sure, of course.
PETERSON: Yeah, well, all of a sudden now, they’ve become ethics departments. And people who take to themselves the right to determine the propriety of ethical conduct end up with a lot more power — especially if you cede it to them — than you think. And that’s happening at a very rapid rate.
The doctrines that are driving hiring decisions, for example — any emphasis, for example, on equity, or equality of outcome — it’s unbelievably dangerous. You don’t just pull that in and signal to society that you’re now acting virtuously without bringing in the whole pathological ideology.
And look out when you do, because it’s like, there are elements of it that are extraordinarily old, and that would be the resentful element in terms of patterns of thinking. But the collectivist ethos is very, very attractive to people, so you have to be very careful of it.
COWEN: Let’s say one is of the view that men and women are intrinsically different on average, but one still recognizes there’s a great deal of unjust discrimination against women.
PETERSON: Yeah, I don’t recognize that. I don’t think there is a great deal of unjust discrimination against women in comparison to the degree of unjust discrimination against men. I think that hasn’t really been true for probably, well, at least 10 years. And I know that’s not very long. But then, I also don’t buy the argument that throughout history, men have, what would you say? Singularly oppressed women? I think that’s absolute bloody nonsense.
I think that nature has oppressed men and women terribly, and that men and women have struggled together valiantly to scrape out some possibility of security and happiness from that. And mostly, they’ve done that cooperatively under conditions of privation that were so extreme that modern people like us, who are fortunate beyond belief, can’t even begin to fathom. So I think all of that’s just complete bloody nonsense.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who still make stupid decisions about how to promote based on, what would you call it? Qualities that have nothing to do with competence. But that brings with it its own punishment.
On America and Canada’s ability to assimilate immigrants
COWEN: Do you think we are underrating or overrating America’s ability to assimilate its immigrants? And what would a Jungian perspective bring to bear on that question?
PETERSON: Oh, in the United States, I don’t really see that there is a problem with immigration policy. You guys haven’t had to face the same sort of, what?—crisis over the last five years that Europe has as a consequence of the trouble in the Middle East. It isn’t obvious to me at all that you have an immigration problem in the United States. Not as far as I can tell.
We don’t really seem to have an immigration problem in Canada, although our immigration policy is somewhat looser than your immigration policy is. In Toronto, for example — the city I’m from — I don’t know what the stats are. I think 40 percent of the people who live in Toronto were foreign born, and the city is doing extraordinarily well. I think it’s a better place than it was 20 years ago.
For some reason, the immigration policy in Canada seems to be working. I think the same thing in the United States. That just doesn’t seem to me to be one of your problems. Isn’t obvious exactly what your problems are.
I was at a dinner a while back with a variety of people who are interested in political issues. So the first thing I wanted to know is, “Well, okay, what’s your problems?” Nobody could agree on what the problems were.
Well, it’s hard to formulate a problem statement properly, right? I mean, if you’re looking at what constitutes difficult cognitive work, answering a question is difficult, but formulating the question properly is even more difficult.
I’ve been working with Democrats, at least to some degree, trying to formulate policy that would constitute an alternative to the idiot radical leftist ideology that dominates most of the discourse with regards to democratic politics and the politics of the Democrats. And it’s not obvious what the rank order of the problems might be. But I certainly wouldn’t say that immigration is top of the list.
COWEN: Will anti-immigrant populism come to Canada at the national level? And if Canada has populism at the national rather than provincial level, what will that look like?
PETERSON: Well, it will come to Canada if we insist upon, what would you call it? Gerrymandering our immigration rules. Our current prime minister has made a huge mistake by not putting down firm policies about what happens when you cross the border illegally. All that does is mess things up. But there wasn’t anti-immigration sentiment in Canada before that, even though, as I said, there’s tremendous amount of immigration into Canada.
There’s some destabilization. The real estate market in Vancouver has become completely overheated because of all the money essentially coming in from, first of all, Hong Kong, and then China. That’s more of a globalization problem than an immigrant problem. But I’m not worried about anti-immigration populism in Canada. I think the probability that’s going to become troublesome is extraordinarily low.
On exercise and depression
COWEN: What is the role of exercise and weight lifting in your view of the good life?
PETERSON: [laughs] I didn’t expect that as a segue.
COWEN: There is a manliness movement which stresses the importance of a certain kind of physical activity.
PETERSON: Well, it is unbelievably important. One of the things I was interested in for the longest period of time was in the processes whereby you might maintain your cognitive function because — I don’t know if you knew this — but your fluid intelligence declines linearly from the age of 20 onward. It’s a pretty vicious curve, and it hits zero, by the way, when you die.
But your crystallized intelligence, which is a measure of how much wisdom you’ve accumulated, how much knowledge, rises. But it doesn’t rise as much as your fluid intelligence declines. That’s a rather unhappy proposition, so I was interested for a long time in technologies that would enable people to maintain their cognitive function.
There were those companies, like Lumosity, that promised that if you did their exercises, that you would maintain your cognitive function. That’s wrong, by the way; that doesn’t work at all.
One of the things that we found in the literature on cognitive function is that if you practice cognitive exercises, and you get very good at them, there’s no crossover effect to other cognitive exercises. We don’t know a set of cognitive exercises that you can do that make your cognitive function better generally. No one’s been able to find that. It’s like the holy grail for intelligence researchers, and no one’s had any success with it.
But one thing we do know is that if you exercise — and weightlifting and aerobic exercise both work — that you can restore your cognitive abilities at age 50 to approximately what they were at age 30. That’s almost all a consequence of increased physical fitness. It’s because your brain is an incredibly demanding organ, so if your cardiovascular system is in good shape, then it works better.
It’s so cool that the best way to keep yourself smart is to keep yourself strong and fit. That’s really worth knowing because you don’t want that cognitive decline if you can stave it off.
COWEN: You’ve spoken several times online about having had a tendency toward depression earlier in your life. Looking back, do you feel that gave you insight you wouldn’t have had otherwise? Or it motivated you? Or how has it shaped the last three years?
PETERSON: It’s a good question. Well, a lot of it was mere impediment. I think that there’s lots of forms of depression, right? It’s a catch-all condition, and we’ve known for a long time that there are endogenous forms, let’s say biological, and exogenous forms, and those would be crisis initiated. And there’s some interplay between them.
There’s association to some degree, too, with seasonal affective disorder, another biological variant. And there is evidence that various forms of depression are associated with autoimmune dysfunction and inflammation. And it looks to me like the variant of depression that’s characterized my family is an autoimmune variant.
And it’s had some extraordinarily detrimental effects, I would say, in some ways, because I’ve had periods in my life where I couldn’t do what I’m doing tonight. I couldn’t lay out a long string of associations, and then come back and continue making the point — made it very difficult to lecture.
I thought it made it very difficult for me to move physically, like I felt many times in my life that I was sort of embedded in molasses. I wouldn’t recommend that, by the way. It’s very, very annoying and was very difficult to move. So that’s the downside, apart from the fact that it’s also very bitter, that kind of depression.
My daughter had a very serious autoimmune condition that destroyed two of her joints and affected 40 others. She was in extreme pain as a consequence of that for many years, and also had this proclivity towards depression. Arthritis destroyed her hip when she was 16 and her ankle at about the same time, so she basically walked around on two broken legs for two years. It was unbelievably painful.
I asked her one day — it’s like, “Hey, kid, here’s a choice: you can either have the arthritis or the depression. Which would you pick?” And she said she’d pick the arthritis.
COWEN: Here’s another question from a reader: “Are you Christian? And if it takes you a long time to answer that question, doesn’t it mean you are a postmodern Christian?”
PETERSON: [laughs] Well, no, I don’t think that you can do a pause analysis and come up with a definitive reason for that.
From a narrative perspective, let’s say, I don’t think that the West has formulated a higher value than the idea that the imitation of Christ is associated with divine value. I think that’s true.
Now, what it means that that’s true is unbelievably complicated. The thing about these questions is that you can embed an unbelievably complex idea in a very simple question, and then you can presume that the person that you’re talking to is going to produce a low-resolution answer to that question that actually suffices.
It’s not that straightforward when you’re thinking about things in a sophisticated manner. If you asked me, am I a Catholic? No, not a Catholic. I’m not a Protestant in any straightforward manner either. I can answer that question, yes or no.
The whole Christian thing . . . My attitude — it’s something I told Sam Harris. If you ask Sam if he’s religious, he’d say, “No.” I’d say, “Well, yes, you are. You just don’t know it.” And I actually believe that’s the case because I don’t think that you have the option of being not religious. You might think that you’re not religious. It just means that you don’t understand how your cognitive structures work very well.
So people say, “Well, are you Christian?” It’s like, well, I don’t know what you mean by that, and I don’t think you do either. I’m Christian in a way that’s — I don’t mean you personally.
But I would say that I am Christian in the deepest sense that I can manage. But I would also say that isn’t what people would typically expect. The way that I think about that isn’t what people would typically expect when they’re answering that question.
And mostly, the reason people ask me that damn question is because they want to put me in a box. Then they don’t have to think about what I’m saying. It’s like, I’m not hopping in that box for your bloody convenience.
COWEN: What do most other smart people not understand about talent search that you do, having done psychological research work and talent search work for decades?
PETERSON: I don’t think that people want to understand the rule of raw general cognitive ability because it’s such a determining factor, and it’s hard for people on the right and the left to accept it. People on the right think there’s a job for everyone if they just get off their lazy ass and do it, and people on the left think anybody can be trained to do anything.
Both of those things are seriously wrong. One example that I often use is that the American military decided a couple of decades ago that it was illegal to induct anybody into the armed forces who had an IQ of less than 83. That’s an unbelievably important thing to know because that’s about 10 percent of the population.
You’ve got to understand what this means. It means that a very large organization that’s desperately hungry for manpower, especially under circumstances of extreme crisis, is unwilling to accept 10 percent of the population because they have determined — after 100 years of doing absolutely everything they possibly could to the contrary — that there isn’t a single thing that they can train someone like that to do that’s not counterproductive. Right.
That’s terrible. It’s terrible. Because if the armed forces is approximately as complex as general society is — which I think is a reasonable supposition — it means that 10 percent of the population cannot find meaningful, productive, and engaging work in a modern society. And that proportion is probably, although not inevitably, expanding. That’s a huge problem. That’s a huge underclass problem.
It’s terrible. Because if the armed forces is approximately as complex as general society is — which I think is a reasonable supposition — it means that 10 percent of the population cannot find meaningful, productive, and engaging work in a modern society. And that proportion is probably, although not inevitably, expanding. That’s a huge problem. That’s a huge underclass problem.
People who hire also don’t understand the role of temperament, and how that can be assessed and measured, and how different temperaments really do predispose people to different areas of skill.
COWEN: J. R. R. Tolkien — do his works interest you?
PETERSON: Yes, and so does his thinking. I just read his translation of Beowulf. I’m about two-thirds of the way through it. And I know that he was very influenced by that document when he wrote The Lord of the Rings. And The Lord of the Rings is obviously a quasi-religious document. Now Tolkien knew that perfectly well.
PETERSON: But it’s one of those quasi-religious documents that’s so interesting. It’s like the Harry Potter series. It’s like, “Well, people aren’t religious.” It’s like, “Yeah, well, that’s why how many tens of millions of copies of the Harry Potter series sold?” That woman could pack stadiums of young people to listen to a read, and it was an absolute . . . She went from welfare mother to richer than the Queen. You can’t ignore those sorts of things. And she has an unbelievably accurate mythological imagination.
COWEN: What should we learn from Tolkien?
PETERSON: Go out and confront your dragons.
COWEN: What should we learn from Harry Potter?
PETERSON: Voluntary death and rebirth redeems.
On fixing universities
COWEN: If we’re going to fix higher education, what is actually the point we should start at?
COWEN: Simple question.
PETERSON: I think a lot of it’s going to be a consequence of supplanting it. This is my hope, anyways. I’ve hired some people to start an online education project, which is a project likely doomed to failure because it’s an unbelievably complicated thing to do. But we’re trying to figure out what it is that an education system should do and then make that accessible to the largest number of people possible. I think the way to fix higher education is just to build a better system. I think that’s the way to fix most things.
COWEN: But certification seems to be a kind of natural monopoly. A list of the best schools in 1920 looks remarkably like the best —
PETERSON: Yeah, but they’re doing everything they can to destroy their brand as rapidly as they possibly can. That’s going to have an effect over time, and it already is.
COWEN: So in which year is Harvard not Harvard anymore?
COWEN: And what does that process look like?
PETERSON: Gerrymandering the curriculum and the grading criteria. I mean, Harvard’s still Harvard because they have extremely stringent acceptance criteria.
COWEN: But doesn’t that keep all the rest in place? Employers are not turning away from Harvard grads, as far as I can tell.
PETERSON: No, they’re not. And look, you don’t want to sound the death knell for the universities. They’ve been thriving institutions for a thousand years, so they may have more life in them than might be expected. But they are contending with an unbelievably rapid technologically transforming world, and it isn’t clear to me that they’re doing a very good job of keeping up with that.
But I think, generally speaking, if you want to improve something, rather than criticize and change what already exists, it’s easier, especially now, it’s easier just to build a parallel system and see if you can put something in that’s a competitor. The Khan people did that with the Khan Academy. And they ended up actually not supplanting the standard education system so much as augmenting it.
PETERSON: That would be a lovely thing. So I just put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. And if I’m not happy with what the universities are doing, I’m going to go try to figure out if I can figure out a way of doing it better. And if I can’t, well then, tough luck for me. And if I can, well, that would be a good thing.
COWEN: The alternative vision — is there anything to that you would care to describe? Or are your thoughts too preliminary?
PETERSON: No, there’s some things I would like to describe. I can tell you the problems that we’re trying to solve. The first problem we ran into was that — because the original idea was to build an online university — but as soon as we started thinking about that deeply, we thought, “Well, that’s like building a horseless carriage.” Because when cars first came out, that’s how people conceptualized them, but they weren’t horseless carriages. They were something else. Right?
And whatever you do online to educate people isn’t going to be a university because you don’t know what a university is. And it isn’t obvious that it can be duplicated in the virtual world. One of the things we immediately ran into was the problem of, “Okay, well, what does the university do?” And the answer to that was, “Well, we don’t know.”
You might say, “University educates people and accredits people.” It’s not that obvious that it educates people. It is obvious that it accredits and that the accreditation has some value, and it might be that the primary goal of university is, in fact, accreditation.
But universities give young people a four-year, socially sanctioned identity that they can adopt while they’re experimenting and trying to mature. That’s a big function. Universities give students, young people something to do when they leave home first while they grow up. Right? Universities give people a chance to reconstitute their peer network and emerge as different people.
Universities give people a chance to contend with the great thought of the past — that would be the educational element. To find mentors, to become disciplined, to work towards a single goal. And almost none of that has to do with content provision. Because you might think, how do you duplicate a university online? Well, you take lectures and you put them online, and you deliver multiple-choice questions. It’s like, yeah, but that’s one-fiftieth of what a university is doing.
So we’ve just scrapped that idea, and what we’re trying to do instead is to figure out, how can you teach people to write in a manner that’s scalable? That’s a big problem because teaching people to write is very, very difficult, and it’s very labor intensive and expensive. So that’s one problem we’d really like to crack. How can you teach people to speak? And can you do that in a scalable manner as well?
Then we’re trying to figure out how we could bring content to the largest number of people in the most efficient manner possible, so one of the projects that we’re working on right now is, we’d like to do an introductory overview. We’re going to start by concentrating on humanities courses.
Our vision at the moment is that we’re going to make a history humanities timeline, something like that. Maybe that might encompass somewhere between 50 and 100 topics. We start 10,000 years ago, and move forward up to the present time. And we’re going to commission contests, to have people generate three- to five-minute videos for all 500 topics, and that would give people a walk through the entire course of Western civilization.
The people that we’re aiming at — my target market — would be intelligent, working-class people. That’s the target market. That’s the right level of focus, as far as I’m concerned.
COWEN: Does this online university . . . does it need virtual reality? After all, we’re here talking to people live. We’re not doing this by Skype. Will online education solve that problem? Are we waiting for the tech world to solve it for us?
PETERSON: No, I can’t see, at the moment, any particular reason for virtual reality. But the dividing line between animation, say, and virtual reality is somewhat blurred. We use virtual artificial realities all the time.
COWEN: But it’s very important to meet people, right? You give live talks all around the world. They see you maybe from some distance.
COWEN: They would have a clearer view of you on YouTube, but there’s something emotionally vivid about the imprinting, psychologically speaking.
PETERSON: Yeah, well, that’s right. That’s one of the things that’s hard to duplicate in a virtual world. I don’t know the degree to which occurrences like this are necessary. There’s something about the personal immediacy of live interaction that can’t be fully duplicated online, and we’re not exactly sure what to do about that. But we might be able to solve 90 percent of the problem of educating people in a virtual environment —
COWEN: Will the role of personal tutors go up or down in your vision?
PETERSON: Oh, I think it’ll go up.
COWEN: It’ll go up?
PETERSON: I think so. One of the things that we want to do is accredit people for serving as tutors because part of the process of getting educated in our online system will be educating other people. So we want to give people credit for doing things like grading and for peer assessment. What we envision is that your power as an operator in the online education system will increase in proportion to the amount of the material that you’ve mastered.
We want to make people responsible for the education of others as rapidly as possible. Now, that happens in the universities too, right? It’s slightly slower. Once you’re an undergraduate, you’re a graduate student, and then you’re immediately involved in teaching. We’d like to speed that process along.
On becoming a good educator
COWEN: Two final questions. Let’s say a young person comes to you and says something like, “I’d like to be Jordan Peterson of the next generation, not doing exactly what you’ve done, but something broadly analogous.” I’m sure this happens to you. What advice do you give that person? Let’s say you think they’re quite smart. Maybe there’s some chance they could aspire to this. What do you say?
PETERSON: Well, don’t underestimate the utility of reading. Look, one of the things I did when I went to university was, I chose my peer group. And partly that was a network of friends. I picked people who are ambitious, who wanted to become educated, and who felt that was important, so that was very helpful. And it was very liberating to me to have that happen.
But then I started reading people. Every time I read something that I thought was great, I tried to read as much as I could of everything that person had read. I’d read everything they wrote and then I looked for their sources.
COWEN: Yes, that’s what I did.
PETERSON: Yeah, that was unbelievably useful.
COWEN: I reread some Jung to have this talk with you.
PETERSON: Aha. So when you go to university, you can pick your peers, and you can pick peers throughout history. Or mentors, let’s say, because they’re certainly not peers, but they at least serve as a peer group. So I would say you go to university to familiarize yourself with what’s great about the past. Maybe you go to university with the attitude that there was something great about the past, too. That’d be a good start.
And that’s one of the things that I think the universities have fallen down on in a terrible way. Because they don’t separate the wheat from the chaff. And they make the presumption that the past is nothing but brutality. And believe me, the past is brutal. There’s no doubt about it. But to think about it as nothing but brutality is a major error.
I think it’s unbelievably useful to take time to write. The reason that I’m able to speak fluently, I would say, and to lecture the way I do is because I spent a tremendous amount of time writing. And that’s given me a corpus of knowledge that I have at hand. It’s not just recognition knowledge, right? It’s a recall. I know the stories. And then, of course, I’ve practiced that a lot.
So I would say if you want to become a good educator, which perhaps might mean that you were following in my footsteps, for better or worse, is like, well, you have to learn to read, and you have to learn to think critically, and you have to learn to write, and then you have to learn to speak. You have to get good at all those things. And they’re all worth getting good at. They’re unbelievably powerful skills.
This is one of the things that’s so sad, in some sense, about the degeneration of the humanities, is that pragmatic people, practical people, think that there’s nothing more useless, in some sense, than a Bachelor of Arts degree. And that’s exactly wrong. If you can communicate, there’s nothing more powerful than the ability to communicate, period.
So what a Bachelor of Arts degree should do is make you a great communicator, someone who can really formulate an argument, and who can do that in writing, and who can do that in speaking. And that makes you — powerful isn’t the right word — it makes you authoritative and competent. And that’s a good thing to be. I mean, how is that going to not work out well?
COWEN: Final question, and you have three minutes to answer. Then you must leave for your plane. Let’s say you’re speaking to outside parties, and they want to support the creation production finding of more disruptive public intellectuals in a positive way. What is your advice for them?
PETERSON: Oh, man, you don’t want to do that. I mean, how many of those people do you want?
I guess the answer to that would be, “Watch the people who you find compelling, and find out whatever avenues might be available to support them.” But just watching them is a big part of it, and sharing their ideas, and discussing them. All of this so-called Intellectual Dark Web — that’s all come about organically in that manner. These are people who are putting forward ideas that they believe to be useful. And people are paying attention. That’s good enough. That’s working out just fine.
I’ve tried to figure out why that nomenclature came about. Eric Weinstein came up with that term. Obviously, he’s pretty good at coining a term because it stuck. And it’s not easy to formulate a word. Well, it is, but it’s very difficult to get other people to use it. And that has worked. I’ve spent some time with some of the people who are in that putative group, trying to figure out why that term stuck and what everybody in that group had in common.
And I think that the first is that everyone in that group is independent. They all have their own independent source of funding. So there’s no bureaucratic master at all, which is one of the things that’s extraordinarily interesting about YouTube and the podcast world: you need no bureaucratic intermediary.
So that’s really something, right? That you have a television station at your disposal with no bureaucratic intermediation. And people have barely begun to take advantage of this. I’ve talked to politicians in Canada and said to them, “You guys, you just don’t have to talk to the press anymore. You can just go right on YouTube and tell people what you’re up to.” And there’s no reason not to do it.
Now, they’re slow, I would say they’re slow on the uptake. And that’s actually not an insult. I mean, it’s not that easy to note that that sort of technological transformation has taken place. But I would say it’s the same for all of you. If you have something to say, and you think it’s useful, you can just tell people on YouTube.
One of the things that’s so cool about the new media technology is that people want . . . They just want direct communication. They don’t like high-level production values, all to people on YouTube, and they’re very savvy media consumers. A highly produced television show just looks like a lie. If you’ve got something to say, they just want you to sit down and say it. They don’t even want you to edit it so that it’s smoother because that just looks like you’re spinning the content, and you probably are.
The other thing that characterizes the people in the IDW is that none of them think their audience is stupid. I’ve thought a lot about that, too. The reason that the classic television stations thought that their audience was stupid — and I’m being a little harsh there because that’s not universally true — was because the technology made the audience look stupid, and here’s why.
If you were making a series of shows, you could never assume that your audience had watched any of the previous series. And if they hadn’t, they didn’t get to because there was no archive. So if you hadn’t watched the 10-part series from the beginning, you weren’t going to get to. Well, that problem’s solved. Now, you can assume that your audience is up to speed with whatever you’re talking about. So that’s pretty cool. You don’t have to think of your audience as devoid of knowledge or memory.
You don’t have a bandwidth restriction anymore. For a long time, television bandwidth was unbelievably expensive. It’s really interesting now, going into a classic television studio and being interviewed by an old-school television journalist. It feels like stepping back into 1975 because the journalist isn’t actually there. Because the bandwidth is so expansive that everything they do is scripted. So you’re not talking to a person, you’re talking to a puppet. They’re the puppet of the news organization, almost by necessity, right?
They have to stay on script because they can’t afford to make a mistake. They’re scripted by their crew, and if they’re not the sort of people that accept scripting by their crew, then they don’t succeed in the job. But that’s all gone, too, because you just don’t need it because bandwidth is free.
Now, all of a sudden, it turns out that people will watch three-hour podcasts or 50-hour epics like Game of Thrones, which is way more than 50 hours now. It turns out that people are way smarter than we thought because the bandwidth restrictions are gone, and we’re not viewing them through this tiny, tiny narrow portal that was characteristic of both radio and TV.
The IDW types figured this out first. We’re a fortunate group of people who managed to — what would you say? Use a new technology early when people still thought it was mostly a place for cute cat videos.
COWEN: Jordan Peterson, thank you very much. A big round of applause.
PETERSON: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been very nice to be here and very good to talk to all of you.
Thumbnail and header photo credit: Gage Skidmore