Jordan Peterson spoke at a Heritage Foundation event in New York City. We discussed the rise of socialism in America, the importance of personal responsibility, and why his message is resonating with so many people. Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist, and author of the book “12 Rules for Life.” A lightly edited transcript is below, or you can listen to the interview on The Daily Signal Podcast.
Genevieve Wood: People are interested in what you have to say.
Jordan Peterson: It seems that way, somewhat of a shock.
Wood: Or maybe it’s because you aren’t a politician, you are a psychologist and you understand more about what’s going on in the world than many of our lawmakers actually do.
I know we’ve got so many ways that we could go with this interview tonight. We have questions, thank you to all of you in the audience who sent in your questions. I’ve got some of them right here, and we’re going to get into those. But … let’s just start with the socialism piece. Do you think Americans truly understand the history of socialism, and actually what it is?
… You speak to, not just college campuses, you’ve been to events around the world. I think 250,000 people you’ve spoken in front of.
Peterson: People are unbelievably ignorant about history. I would include myself in that. I know what I know about history, say, proceeding the 20th century is very sketchy. It’s embarrassingly sketchy.
What young people know about 20th-century history is nonexistent, especially about the history of the radical left.People are emotionally drawn to the ideals of socialism because it draws its fundamental motivational source from compassion. I mean, how would they know? They’re never taught anything about it, so why would they be concerned about it?
And then, for many of the people in the audience, you’re old enough so that the fall of the Berlin Wall was part of your life. That was really the end of the Second World War… and it was very meaningful. But that’s a long time ago. There’s been a lot of people born since then, and it’s ancient history.
We don’t have that many good bad examples left. There’s North Korea, there’s Venezuela, but we’re not locked tooth and nail in… in a proxy war and a cold war with the Soviet Union.
It’s easy to understand why people are emotionally drawn to the ideals of socialism, let’s say the left, because it draws its fundamental motivational source from a primary compassion. That is always there in human beings, and so that proclivity for sensitivity to that political message will never go away. It’s important to understand that. You have to give the devil his due, unfortunately.
Inequality and Resentment
Wood: You’ve also said that people aren’t as resentful at the success of others as we might think. And I think as you watched a lot of people being interviewed today and you watched some of the students being interviewed, … you hear people talking a lot about inequality, but you say they really aren’t as resentful as we might think as long as they don’t think the game is fixed.
Peterson: Yes, that’s certainly the case. First of all, if you look at the psychological literature to the degree that it’s accurate, which is difficult to ascertain often, people report far more prejudice against their group than against themselves. That’s quite an interesting phenomenon, as far as I’m concerned.The problem with the radical left is that it assumes that all hierarchies are tyrannical, and it makes no distinction between them.
There’s a tendency for people to exaggerate the degree to which the group they belong to is currently suffering from generalized oppression. They’ve been relatively free of it themselves.
I also think that fairness is absolutely essential, and perceived fairness is an absolutely essential component of peace. Because people can tolerate inequality, so to speak, or even revel in it, if they believe that the unequal outcome is deserved.
Look at how people respond to sports heroes. … No one goes to a sports event and boos the star, even though he or she is paid much better and attracts the lion’s share of the attention, hopefully not in a narcissistic manner. People can celebrate success, but they do have to believe that the game is fair. And the game needs to be fair because otherwise, the hierarchy becomes tyrannical.
The problem with the radical left is that it assumes that all hierarchies are tyrannical, and it makes no distinction between them. And that’s an absolute catastrophe because there’s plenty of sins on the conscience of the West as a civilization. But we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and there are far worse places.… People also don’t understand that, and they also don’t understand this is something that’s of particular importance.
The poor in the world are getting rich at a rate that is absolutely unparalleled in all of human history.
They also don’t understand… the knowledge of how rapidly we’re making economic improvements around the world, in the developing world, for example, how fast that’s happening. That is not well-distributed knowledge, that between the year 2000 and the year 2012, the rate of absolute poverty in the world fell by 50 percent.
Now, it’s a U.N. figure. One dollar and 90 cents a day, that was their cutoff for absolute poverty. So, the cynics have said, “Well, that’s a pretty low barrier. It’s not such an achievement to obtain that.” I can tell you it’s an achievement to obtain that if you were living on less than $1.90 day to begin with. But if you look at, if you double the amount to $3.80, or you double it again to $7.60, you find the same pattern.
The poor in the world are getting rich at a rate that is absolutely unparalleled in all of human history. I think a large part of that is happening in Africa. By the way, here’s another lovely piece of news, the child mortality rate in Africa is now the same as it was in Europe in 1952. That’s an absolute miracle. It’s insane that that’s not front-page news, right? That's within a lifetime. And the fastest-growing economies in the world are also there.
Growing Economies and Negative Media
Wood: But, as you’re saying, why isn’t it front-page news? And when you’re considering social media, and how fast news, and photos, and all that can travel, and that young people are aficionados of all this technology, why don’t they know these things? Or why aren’t they computing what they see as being progress?
Peterson: I think part of it is that things are changing so fast that none of us can keep up. It’s hard to keep the story updated. I had no idea, for example, that most of the world’s economic news and even a substantial proportion of its ecological news was positive until I started to work on a U.N. committee about five years ago on sustainable economic development.
I read very widely, economically, and also ecologically and realized that things were way better than I had any sense of. That these improvements had come at a tremendous rate. But you see partly, it is just that it’s so new that we don’t know and we don’t have a story about it.
And who would be driving the communication of such things? Especially given two other things. One is that human beings are tilted toward negative emotion in terms of its potency. For example, people … are much less happy to lose $5 than they are happy to gain $5. We’re loss averse. We’re more sensitive to negative emotion than we are to positive emotion, and there’s a reason for that.
Television is dead because YouTube has everything the television has, and then an incredible array of additional features.
The reason is, you can only be so happy but you can be dead and right. And I mean dead, that’s not good. And there can be a lot of misery on the way to that end, so we’re tilted to protect ourselves and that makes us more interested, in some sense, and more easily captivated by the negative than by the positive. That’s a hard bias to fight.
And then when you also take into account … and I think this is something that's worth seriously considering because the other thing we don’t understand is the technological revolution that’s occurring in every form of media. No one understands it. But one of the consequences is that the mainstream media, so to speak, is increasingly desperate for attention. They exist in a shrinking market with shrinking margins, all of the leading newspapers and magazines are feeling the pinch. Television is dead because YouTube has everything the television has, and then an incredible array of additional features.
And radio is being replaced by podcasts, so it’s a very unstable time for the mainstream media and what would you expect them to do except to do whatever they can to attract attention in whatever manner they can manage?
The United States is now safer in terms of violent crime than it has been since the early ’60s.
…One very good example of this is you may or may not know that the rates of violent crime in the United States and actually in most places have plummeted in the last 50 years. It’s really quite remarkable. The United States is now safer in terms of violent crime than it has been since the early ’60s. And that was probably the safest time there ever was. But the degree to which violent crime has been reported has increased.
It’s funny, the curves are almost completely opposite to one another. This is the decline in violent crime, this is the increase in the reporting of violent crime. And the reason for that is people read stories about violent crime, and then of course, they’re much more likely to believe that it’s on the increase.
The people who are most likely to believe that it’s on the increase are also those who are least likely to be affected by it because to be a victim of a violent crime, it helps to drink too much, but it also helps a lot to be young and male. And those aren’t the people who are particularly afraid of violent crime even though they’re the ones most likely to be implicated in it.
So there’s technological reasons for our concentration on the negative and they’re complex. It’s not easy to figure out how to combat the spiral of outrage and attention-seeking that I think is accompanying the depth of our previous means of communication. No one knows how to handle that, and that’s a big problem.
Polarization and the Next Generation
Wood: …I know so many in this audience—and not just here in New York, but we hear from our members all over the country—they’re so concerned about what their children and what their grandchildren are both being taught. But also what they’re coming back home from college and talking about and saying, “Where are they learning this?” And they know where they’re learning them, but how does this get seeped into them?
You obviously have spoken not just at the University of Toronto, but colleges all over the world. What is it you see today on the campus, or among young people today that’s new? Or is it new? I’ve heard you say that we’re no more polarized today than we were maybe even under Richard Nixon, and the campuses were more on fire then than even they are today. So what are the similarities and differences that you’re seeing?
Peterson: I don’t see any real evidence that your society is more polarized, generally speaking than it has been many times in the past. And I think the next scenario is a good example. If you think about it, merely statistically, you’ve been split 50/50, Republican/Democrat, for what? Five elections now. And it’s almost perfect 50/50 split, that really hasn’t changed.
We’re fundamentally narrative creatures, that’s how our brains are organized.
Trump, of course, is somewhat of a wild card and so that complicates things. But I don’t think it changes the underlying dynamic. What I do think has arisen again—because it’s made itself manifest many times in the last 100 years—is the rise of this group identity-associated, quasi-Marxist viewpoint with this additional toxic mixture and a paradoxical mixture of postmodernism.
The postmodernists are famous for being skeptical of meta narratives that might be a defining—that was Lyotard, I believe, who coined that, although I might be wrong. It was one of the French postmodernists.
And that means that they’re skeptical about the idea that large uniting narratives are valid. And it’s a huge problem, that claim, because the first question is, “How big does the narrative have to be before it’s a meta narrative?” Is the narrative that holds your family together falsehood? Is the narrative that holds your community together a falsehood? How big does it have to be before it becomes a falsehood?
So it’s a very vague claim, and it’s a very dangerous claim, in my estimation … and I believe the psychological research is clear on this. What we have, our cognitive abilities are nested inside stories. We’re fundamentally narrative creatures, that’s how our brains are organized. And to deny the validity of large-scale narratives is to deny the validity of the manner in which we organize our psyches, and that’s unbelievably destabilizing for people.
Goal-Setting and Purposeful Living
First of all, the simplest story in some sense is that I’m at point A, and I’m going to point B. That’s not as simple a story as it might sound because it implies that you are somewhere and that you know it, you have a representation of it geographically, let’s say, socially, psychologically, you have some sense of who you are. But more importantly, you have some sense of who you are transforming yourself into. So that gives you a direction. The direction gives you meaning.
…I don’t mean that in a cliched sense. What I mean is that the way that our brains are constituted is that almost all the positive emotion that people feel—and it’s also true of animals—it emerges as a consequence of observing that you’re making your way to a valued endpoint.
So you think what makes you happy is the attainment of something, and there is a form of reward that is associated with that that’s called consummatory reward. It’s the satisfaction that you feel say after you have a delightful Thanksgiving meal, but that isn’t the hope and the meaning that people thrive on.
If you don’t have a goal then you don’t have any positive emotion and that’s not good because you have plenty of negative emotion.
The hope and the meaning that people thrive on is the observation that they’re moving toward something worthwhile and that might be individually, although it really can’t be because we live in collectives. But it should be collective and that isn’t optional.
If you don’t have a goal, a transcendent goal, say something that’s beyond you, then you don’t have any positive emotion and that’s not good because you have plenty of negative emotion.
That’s the problem with fundamental claims of meaninglessness, too, in life. That it’s the philosophical error that’s made by nihilists who say life is meaningless. It’s like, well, if you’re a nihilist genuinely, you’ve lost all hope your life isn’t meaningless, it’s just unbearably miserable and that’s a form of meaning.
Suffering is a form of meaning and you can try to argue yourself out of that with your nihilistic rationalizations, but that is not going to work.
Suffering is a form of meaning and you can try to argue yourself out of that with your nihilistic rationalizations, but that is not going to work. You need a transcendent goal in order to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the destruction of the narratives that guide us individually, physiologically, and that also unite us socially, familiarly, and socially. It’s an absolute catastrophe. The question then is, why is it being undertaken?
That’s a complex question and I don’t know if we can even discuss that. That has something to do with this unholy marriage of the postmodern nihilism with this Marxist utopian notion, which makes no sense at all because the postmodernists are skeptical of meta narratives, yet Marxism is a grant meta narrative. …
Wood: It doesn’t have to make sense.
Peterson: In fact, the idea that things make sense is part of the oppressive patriarchy. … People teach that in a dead serious manner that the requirement for logical consistency is an arbitrary and positional and cognitive structure. It’s not something necessary for rational cognition, even if there is such a thing.
Free Speech and Group Identity
You don’t know how deep this war goes in some sense. I can give you an example. There’s a debate about free speech on campus. But what you don’t understand is it isn’t a debate about who can speak, it’s a debate about whether there is such a thing as free speech and the answer from the radicals is that there isn’t because for there to be free speech, there has to be sovereign individuals, right?
Those sovereign individuals have to be defined by that sovereign individuality. They have to have their own locus of truth. In some sense, that’s a consequence of that sovereignty. And then they have to be able to engage in rational discursive negotiation with people who aren’t like them, which means they have to stretch their hands across racial or ethnic divides.
They have to be able to communicate and they have to be able to formulate, and negotiated, and practical agreement, and none of that is parcel of the postmodern doctrine. All of that’s up for grabs.
This intellectual war that’s going on in the universities is way deeper than a political war. It’s way more serious than a political war.
There’s no sovereign individuals. Your group identity is paramount. You have no unique voice. You’re a mouthpiece of your identity group. You can’t speak across group lines because you don’t understand the lived experience of the other. So it’s not who gets to speak, it’s whether the entire notion is a very classic Western notion and a very deep one of free and intelligible speech is even valid.
This intellectual war that’s going on in the universities is way deeper than a political war. It’s way more serious than a political war. It manifests itself politically but, no, politics is way up the scale from where this is actually taking place.
Wood: So when you’re talking with students both one on one or taking their questions … these are not all conservative students that are coming up to you and they’re downloading your videos and listening to your podcast. Though it is a lot of young men, it’s not all men.
Realistic and Pessimistic Believability
Wood: What do you think drives people to the message and to the things that you talk about?
Peterson: I think I’m believable. That’s why. … I’ve done about 150 public lectures or so in the last year, all over the world and to large audiences, the audiences in Australia were starting to approach. We had audiences of 5,500 people in Australia, which is quite remarkable that 5,500 people would come to listen to a serious discussion about philosophical, theological, and psychological issues and participate in that.
I don’t pull any punches, I’m not speaking down, I would never speak down to an audience. I think that’s a dreadful error of arrogance. But the reason I think people believe what I say is that I’m very pessimistic.
We’re capable of taking up the burden of that suffering and facing the reality of that malevolence voluntarily.Most times when you listen to someone who’s a motivational speaker, … it fills you with a temporary optimism, but you go home and the wiser part of you knows that mostly it’s the painting over of rotten wood with a fresh coat of paint.
I tell my audiences very clearly that their life is going to be difficult and sometimes difficult beyond both imagining and tolerance. That is definitely in your future, if it isn’t in your present, and for many people, it’s in their present.
That can be unbearable enough to turn you against life itself. To corrupt you, to drive you to nihilism, to drive you to suicide, and worse, to drive you to thoughts of vengefulness of infinite scope. To not only be turned against yourself and your fellow men but to be turned against being itself because of its intrinsically brutal, in some sense, nature. That it’s worse than that actually because it’s not only that we suffer and that that will necessarily occur, but that we all make our suffering worse because of our ignorance and our malevolence and everyone knows that to be true.
So the discussions start on an unshakable foundation, but then I can tell people … that despite that we’re remarkable creatures. We’re capable of taking up the burden of that suffering and facing the reality of that malevolence voluntarily.
We can actually do that and all of the psychological evidence suggests—and this is the independence of your school of psychology if you’re a practical psychologist. A clinical psychologist of any sort, the evidence is crystal clear that if people voluntarily confront the problems that face them and the malevolence that surrounds them, they can make headway against it. And not only psychologically.
We do make progress and can thrive under the difficult conditions that make up our lives and we can resist the malevolence that entices us.
So it’s not only meaningful to do that psychologically, which it is to confront the problems that torment you voluntarily. That’s meaningful psychologically, but it’s also practically useful in that you can actually solve some of the problems that beset you.
God only knows how good we can get at that. I don’t know what percentage of human effort is spent in counterproductive activity. I’m not an absolute cynic about that. But when I talk to undergraduates, I ask them, “How much time do you waste every day by your own reckoning?” It’s somewhere between five and eight hours. It’s a lot of time.
I usually walk… the students through an economic analysis of that. I said, “Well, why don’t you value your time at $50 an hour and calculate for yourself just exactly what you’re doing to your future by your inability to discipline yourself?” It’s worth thinking through.
Personal Responsibility and Courage
In any case, people do waste a lot of time and they also act counterproductively a lot of the time. Regardless, we do make progress and we can thrive under the difficult conditions that make up our lives and we can resist the malevolence that entices us. That’s within our power.
We don’t know the limits to that and we also know that it’s better to … live courageously than cowardly. Everyone knows that. That’s what you teach people that you love. We know that it’s better to live truthfully than in deceit and you can tell that, too, because that’s also what you tell people that you love and we know that you should pick up your damn responsibility and move forward.
Everyone knows that. It’s part of our intrinsic moral nature and that nature is there. It’s not difficult to communicate to people about this. Everyone knows that you wake up at three in the morning when you’ve let your life go off the rails and that you berate yourself for your uselessness and your cruelty and your failure to take the opportunities that are in front of you.
Moral failings have consequences and they’re not trivial, they destroy you. They destroy your family, they destroy your community.
If you are the master in your own house, in some sense, the captain of your own destiny, if there was no intrinsic nature, that would never happen. You’d just let yourself off the hook. There’d be no voice of conscious tormenting you. But no one escapes from that and what that indicates to me is that at least psychologically we live in a universe that’s characterized by a moral dimension and we understand that well.
Moral failings have consequences and they’re not trivial, they destroy you. They destroy your family, they destroy your community. You can tell people that and they listen because they know. They don’t know they know. That’s the thing and maybe that’s the thing about being an intellectual. You have the opportunity to articulate ideas that other people know, they embody, but they can’t articulate and that’s what people tell me.
They say, “Well, you help me give words to things that I always knew to be true but couldn’t say.” Or they say, “I would be trying to put some of your precepts into practice, responsibility being a main one, vision another, honesty.” … It’s the remarkable part of doing all this.
But what emerges out of the reality of suffering properly conceptualized is a remarkable appreciation for what human beings are capable of.
I have people tell me constantly wherever I go—it’s so delightful that they were in a pretty dark place and they tell me why, and there are plenty of dark places in the world, and they decided, well, maybe they were going to develop a bit of a vision and take a bit more responsibility and start telling the truth and putting some effort into something and they come up and they say, “Wow, you can’t believe how much better things are.”
It’s like I got three promotions. I had one guy tell me—this was a lovely story. Fifteen seconds. He came up after a talk, he said, “Two years ago, I got out of jail, I was homeless.” He said, “I own my own house. I have a six-figure income, I got married, and I have a daughter, thank you.” And that was the whole conversation. It’s like he decided he was going to put his life together.
So you can look at that pessimism that constitutes … I think, the core religious message, really is the tragic nature of the world, the reality of suffering. It’s part of the core religious message. But what emerges out of that properly conceptualized is a remarkable appreciation for what human beings are capable of. We are unbelievably resilient and able creatures. We do not have any conception of our upper limits.
You're Not Always OK the Way You Are
Wood: … Is that hope that you’re talking about, that you’re giving people hope, young people hope, is that one of the secrets to reaching them?
Peterson: It’s a funny kind of hope and it’s such a perverse sort of hope because I would say for the last 45 years we’ve told—psychologists have been certainly to blame for this, at least in part—”You’re OK the way you are,” that’s what we tell young people. “Oh, you’re OK the way you are.” … There’s nothing worse … you can tell someone who’s young than that, especially if they’re miserable.
Lots of them, if they’re miserable and aimless, it’s like, “Oh, I’m miserable and aimless and sometimes I’m suicidal and I’m nihilistic and I don’t have any direction … in my life.” It’s like, “Well, you’re OK the way you are.” It’s like they don’t want to hear that. They want to hear, … “You’re useless. You know nothing, you haven’t got started. You’ve got 60 years to put yourself together and God only knows what you could become.”
If you’re a parent and you love your child, your son, your daughter, what you’re trying to foster is the best in them.
That message is so… funny because it’s such an attack but it’s so positive because there’s faith there in the potential that makes up the person rather than the miserable actuality that happens to be manifesting itself at the moment. Young people respond extraordinarily well to that.
…If you’re a parent and you love your child, your son, your daughter, what you’re trying to foster is the best in them. You want that to manifest itself across the course of their life. You want them to become continually more than they are to see what they could be.
And I think that’s part of the great message of the West is that that’s the ethical requirement of individual being, in the proper sense, is to constantly know that you’re not what you could be, to take responsibility for that, and to commit yourself, body and soul, to the attainment of that ideal.
Peterson's Polarized Support
Wood: We’re going to get a question here from our members, right here in the front row. Bob Grantham had a couple good questions right here. He asked, “Much of your effort today is trying to help people improve their lives.” You’ve just been talking about that. “Why does the establishment attack you, rather than try to support your efforts?”
Peterson: We should be nuanced about that. A group of newspapers in Canada called Postmedia—that’s 200 newspapers strong—they supported me. I’ve had a lot of support from journalists, and I would say I’ve had more support from the higher quality journalists, which I’m quite happy about. So, it’s polarized.
I have a dedicated coterie of people who regard me as an enemy. There’s no doubt about that. And I think it’s because I am absolutely no fan whatsoever of the radical left. I think the fact that you can actively present yourself on campus as a communist … the fact that that’s allowable is as mysterious as it would be if it was allowable to present yourself as a Nazi.
It’s a catastrophe to take young people in their formative years and to tear the substructure out from underneath them and leave them bereaved.
I am not a fan of the radical left. And I understand the motivations on the radical left, both on the postmodernist end and on the more Marxist end. Because of that, I’m a relatively effective critic, and that makes me very unpopular. And that’s fine because … because what people are being taught, that’s emerged from that brand of absurd and surreal philosophy, is of no utility as a guiding light to anyone.
It’s a catastrophe to take young people in their formative years, when they’re trying to catalyze their adult identity, and to tear the substructure out from underneath them and leave them bereaved. I do believe that that’s what the universities—on the humanities end, and to some degree on the social science end—fundamentally manage to achieve.
I don’t admire that. I think there’s something deeply sadistic about that. There’s something deeply anti-human about that, and it presents itself in the guise of moral virtue, which makes it even worse. Well, that’s why people don’t like me.
Meaningful Community and Connection
Wood: All right. … So, this was [Adam from Vassar College’s] question. He said, “Given the liberal political order bends toward automatization of individuals, e.g. automation and urbanization, how can meaningful community be assured?”
Peterson: You build that for yourself, in part. I mean, Adam, get a girlfriend. People aren’t doing that. That’s falling by the wayside, right? And it’s because it’s trouble… Life is trouble. And it’s trouble to establish a permanent relationship.
We’ve told young people for far too long that they should be happy in their relationships. And it’s like, that’s weak. … God, most of you are married. To be married for 40 years, that’s not a triumph of happiness. It’s a triumph of character. It’s a triumph of negotiation, right? It’s a triumph of will to do that. And that should be celebrated.
Find someone. If you’re lucky, you’re going to have the opportunity to sort of sift through about five people in your life.
But to children today, it should also be pointed out, that no matter who you find, they’re no better than you. And that’s not so good. So, there’s going to be problems.
But that shouldn’t stop you. Find someone. If you’re lucky, you’re going to have the opportunity to sort of sift through about five people in your life. That’s about it. And then you’re going to have to stake yourself on one of those people. It’s a hell of a risk, but with any luck, it’ll make you a better person, that wrestling.
… I did a series of biblical lectures in 2017, which have turned out to be crazily popular of all the insane things to be.
Wood: And I was supposed to ask you, why do you think that is?
Biblical Moral Substructure of Life
Peterson: … Well, one of the things I learned in those lectures—and should’ve known before—was that the word Israel, so the chosen people of God, the people of Israel, are those who wrestle with God. And that’s such an interesting idea. It’s a fascinating idea because it indicates at least—even in our deepest religious texts—that there’s something about existential conflict and engaging in that that’s actually part of the moral substructure of life.
That simple belief, let’s say, whatever that might mean in a deity, isn’t sufficient. There’s an active engagement with the infinite. And it’s a battle in some sense. And I think that’s the proper way to conceptualize. And I think it’s the proper way to conceptualize a relationship. It’s a battle. It’s a battle toward a positive end. It’s a battle toward the transformation of both of you into more than you could’ve otherwise been.
You need your friends. And you need to develop a network of friendship. And you need to put your family together and to act responsibly toward them.
So, you need that. And you need your friends. And you need to develop a network of friendship. And you need to put your family together and to act responsibly toward them. And then you need to move out from that into the broader community. And that’s on you.
That’s how you foster it. You make it a part of the ideal that you’re pursuing, and then you realize that that’s up to you to do. And maybe then you realize that you can do it as well, if you’re willing to make the right sacrifices—which usually means burning off a fair bit of dead wood. And that’s not something that people are particularly excited about doing. And no wonder.
Wood: … Thinking of our theme of standing up against socialism, what have I not asked you about? What have other interviewers not asked you about that would be beneficial for us all to know?
Meaning over Duty and Happiness
Peterson: Well, you asked a little bit about these biblical lectures, and what was interesting was I rented a theater in Toronto. I rented it 15 times. It was a theater of about 500 and sold out every time. And I lectured about Genesis. It was mostly young men who came. They weren’t all young, but they were mostly men, which was very surprising because that’s just not what happens.
The reason that the lectures worked was because I put together something that I don’t think liberals or conservatives have done a good job of putting together. The liberals are more on the happiness and freedom end of things, and the conservatives are more on the duty end of things. And those both have their place.
But I’ve been attempting to develop an argument that’s centered on meaning. And I believe that our most central religious symbols—like the symbol of the cross itself, for example, the bearing of the cross, is an embodiment or a symbolic representation of this idea that you have to have a meaning in life that sustains you. Life is a serious business. You’re all in.
God only knows what terrible things happened to you, but by taking on the heaviest load of responsibility you can conceptualize and bear it.
It’s a fatal business, right? Everyone’s in it up to their neck, and it’s dreadful in some sense, in the classic sense. And you need a meaning that can sustain you through that, and that’s to be found in responsibility. And that’s something that we have not communicated, I don’t think, well to ourselves. But we certainly haven’t communicated it to young people. It’s like, “Well, you’re lost? There’s reasons that you could be lost, and they’re real.”
God only knows what terrible things happened to you in your life. It’s like, “How are you going to get out of that?” Well, not by pursuing impulsive happiness. That is not going to work. Not by thinking in the short term. Not by thinking in a narrowly selfish manner, either. But by taking on the heaviest load of responsibility that you can conceptualize and bear. That will do it. It’ll do it for you.
It’ll give you a reason to wake up in the morning. It’ll give you a balm for your conscience when you wake up at night and ask yourself what you’re doing with your life. It’ll make you a credit to yourself and to your family, and it’ll make you a boon to your community. And more than that. There’s more than that.
Sovereign Individuals of Value
It’s said in Genesis that every person is made in the image of God. And there’s an idea in Genesis that God is that which confronts the chaos of potential with truth and courage. That’s the logos. If we’re made in the image of God, that’s us. That’s what we do, we confront the potential of chaos, the future, the unformed future.
We confront that consciously, and we decide with every ethical choice we make what kind of world we’re going to bring into being. We transform that potential into actuality. And we do that as a consequence of our ethical decisions.
So, it’s not only a matter of putting yourself together and putting your family together, putting your community together. It’s a matter of bringing the world in its proper shape into being.
I truly believe that that’s the case. I believe that we all believe that. We hold ourselves responsible. You know, that if you’ve made a mistake with your family because you were selfish or narrow-minded or blind in some manner that you regard yourself as culpable. You could have done otherwise. And now you’ve brought something into the world that should not be there. And it’s on you.
God stops repeatedly and says, “And it was good.” And that’s a mystery. Why is it good?
We hold ourselves responsible in that manner. So, what that indicates to me is that in a deep sense, we believe that we are the agents that transform the potential of being into reality. … If anything, [that] links us with divinity. It’s our capability to transform what is not yet into what is.
The other thing that happens … is that as God conducts himself through this enterprise of the transformation of potential into actuality, he stops repeatedly and says, “And it was good.” And that’s a mystery. Why is it good?
The answer is something like, “Well, if you conduct yourself with the courage that enables you to accept your vulnerability—which is no trivial matter—and if you’re truthful, then what you bring out of potential is what’s good.” And that sets the world right. And that’s up to us.
And we need to know that to take ourselves seriously and to act properly in the world.
To me, that’s the great story of the West. That’s why we regard ourselves as sovereign individuals of value, is that’s what we are. And we need to know that to take ourselves seriously and to act properly in the world.
That’s what I said in the biblical lectures in many hours. And that’s what’s made them popular because people, at the level of the soul, people know these things to be true.
Wood: Ladies and gentleman, please help me thank Jordan Peterson.