In just a few years, Jordan Peterson has risen from little-known psychology professor at the University of Toronto to pop cultural icon and bestselling author, boasting millions of followers and just as many haters. His book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” which claimed the “masculine spirit is under assault” and espoused basic tenets such as “clean up your room” and “get your house in order,” became a sensation in 2018, particularly among young men who flocked to hear his lectures worldwide.
In an age dominated by political correctness, Peterson has taken contrarian stances on topics such as “white privilege,” the gender pay gap, and the enforced use of gender-neutral pronouns. He’s been deified as an intellectual superhero by his fans and demonized as an alt-right villain by the left. Just this week, it emerged that the progressive writer Ta-Nehisi Coates may have used Peterson as the inspiration for Nazi supervillain Red Skull in his new Captain America comic book. (Peterson called the likeness “smears” and urged his followers to buy a limited edition poster featuring Red Skull “paired with something I actually said” — and added that 100 percent of the proceeds would go to charity.)
His latest book, “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life,” weaves together a diverse range of ideas, including from Nietzsche, the Bible and Harry Potter, and was an instant No. 1 New York Times bestseller when it came out last month.
And yet, in the past year, Peterson has faced one of the biggest trials of his own life. After his wife Tammy was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive kidney cancer, he suffered from severe anxiety, for which his doctor prescribed a heightened dose of benzodiazepines. The medication gave him a terrible side effect known as akathisia, which causes an inability to stop moving along with a sense of doom, panic and suicidal thoughts. Peterson disappeared for a year as he went to Russia, then Serbia, for treatment. (The Sunday Times wrongly claimed he had “schizophrenia.”) Last summer, he returned to his “regular self” on his daughter Mikhaila’s podcast, where he was welcomed back by millions of fans.
A couple of weeks ago, I met with Peterson, 58, for almost three hours on Zoom, where he appeared in top form, speaking about ideology, our modern culture, spirituality and his own continuous struggle with mental illness. What follows is an edited and abridged Q&A from that session . . .
Many people on the left have critiqued your re-emergence and new book release as fraudulent and hypocritical given the degradation of your own life. How do you respond to the criticism?
Yes, right. Believe me, I’ve tortured myself about that plenty and constantly . . . I was very apprehensive about writing this book or certainly about releasing it . . . But everyone is susceptible to [being] cut off at the knees at any moment . . . You can protect yourself against that, to some degree, by putting your life in order, and by living properly, but that doesn’t mean that you’re fully protected from it. We all die, we all get sick. If we can’t communicate with anyone who doesn’t get sick or die, then we can’t communicate with anyone. Does that mean . . . that we have nothing to offer? No, it means we’re also radically imperfect, that we should be careful, but we’re stuck with our inadequacies. I have my inadequacies.
A healthy dose of self-criticism is a common theme in your work. Have you come to realize any bad decisions you may have made which exacerbated your illness?
Yes, I’ve looked at my contribution to it . . . I took benzodiazepines, and that seems to have been ill-advised. I’m very sensitive to benzodiazepine withdrawal. When I took them, I was really sick. I was insomniac for a long time, weeks, three weeks, I was freezing, I couldn’t get enough clothes on. My blood pressure was so low I couldn’t stand up. I was in absolute terror. I have no idea what happened. Then I went to the doctor and was prescribed this medication. I slept, and I felt better. I didn’t think much of it. My life was very stressful at that point. That turned out to be a very bad decision. I wasn’t aware of how dangerous this could be for some people.
I’m curious how your suffering shaped your outlook on life and human existence.
The last chapter of my new book is “be grateful in spite of your suffering.” It’s the right thing to do, to be grateful. I’m not claiming this for myself. It’s tightly allied with a kind of existential courage. It’s a decision.
If you fall prey to resentment, and anger, and hostility, not even however rationalized, but however justified . . . it’s not helpful.
Many, many days in the last two years, I truly believed that I would die before the end of the day. I just couldn’t see how I could possibly be that impaired and live. It turns out you’re a lot tougher than you even want to be sometimes . . . You’re not that easy to kill.
One of the things one can do in a time of great hardship is to adapt a victimhood mindset. How have you dealt with the temptation to wallow in victimhood?
I’m bitter, I’m angry, I’m resentful, all of those things. I shake my fist at God. What’s the justice in this? Trying to scour my conscience to see what I’ve done wrong. That’s all victim. That’s all victimhood, but it’s not helpful. I’m doing my best to drop that . . . None of the victim responses have been productive for me. I’ve tried to fight them off.
Why is victimhood status so attractive in our culture right now?
The first part of it is people don’t necessarily regard themselves as victims. The activist types, they tend to regard themselves as spokespeople for the victims. They see an altruistic ethical motivation in that and regard it as admirable. To some degree, it is . . . but those are important constraints . . .
First of all, what makes you think that you’re a spokesperson for the oppressed? What makes you think that you have that right? Why should anyone take you seriously? How do you know you’ve got the message right? Why do you think you have the solution at hand? How do you know you’re not more dangerous than the problem itself? How do you know that your dark and unexamined motivations aren’t blinding you? . . .
If you can just be a good person because you believe the right three things, how convenient is that? . . .
You don’t have to look at yourself and you have an enemy. That’s the part that scares me the most . . . Now you have an enemy and that enemy is the cause of everything you hate. Now you have all moral justification to go after them, to hurt them, to stop them because they’re evil, and to elevate yourself morally as a consequence.
You have this unearned pathway to moral superiority that’s actually dependent on your willingness to unfairly persecute based on your ignorance. It’s terrible. Universities promote this, “Well, you should be an activist.” That’s essentially what every 19-year-old is taught. It’s like, no, you shouldn’t be an activist. You should get your own house in order, and then you should cautiously proceed to more difficult things if you dare.
Victimhood culture is most pronounced along the racial dimension. This is why perceptions like “white privilege” and “oppressed minorities” are so popular.
This is something that really bothers me about the radical left, you get your privilege, and you get to be morally superior because you’re standing up for the victim. It’s like you get to be privileged and a victim at the same time.
It’s terribly socially divisive and it’s unbelievably hypocritical.
Anybody who stands up and says, “I’m a professor, the system that produced me was so racist or was so prejudiced that it’s racist,” you just admitted [that] you have no moral claim to your position. Resign now.
If . . . the system that produced you say, as a professor, is so systemically prejudiced, you don’t have a valid claim. You’re actually an incompetent fraud.
Why do you think people in positions of influence are so quick to call our society as oppressive and bigoted when our society is one of the most free, liberal, open-minded, inclusive societies that has ever existed?
A lot of it’s ignorance. People don’t know, for example, that up until 1880, 95 percent of the Western world lived below today’s UN-established poverty line. We have no idea how much dramatic improvement has been made in the last 150 years and how absolutely godawful things were before that. We don’t know that because we’ve never been hungry, for example, not for one day.
You look around and you see, well, things could be better, so they’re bad . . . Well, bad compared to what? Certainly bad compared to a hypothetical ideal, but not bad compared to all extent historical comparisons.
Why is religion increasingly unpopular in society, particularly among the young?
Let’s say you’re an ideologue, and you’ve decided that the patriarchy needs to be smashed. What do you do? You go to protests. That’s smoke and fire. It’s dramatic. If you’re a young Christian, what should you do? “Be good.” It’s a little vague . . .
There’s danger in confusing your political beliefs and your religious beliefs, not noting that there’s a difference between them.
What are the biggest ways your life has transformed over the past few years?
It’s funny because since I’ve been launched into the public eye, let’s say, or launched myself or whatever, since I’ve become notorious, my life has been very complex. The levity has declined, the playfulness has declined, and it’s really unfortunate. I’m a very playful person. All I did with my kids was play with them, and laugh with them, and joke with them . . . but since 2016, things have been complicated. To say the least. My daughter was extremely ill, my wife was extremely ill, and we thought for sure she was going to die. She had a cancer that only 200 people, only 200 cases have ever been reported, and every single one of those people died . . . She lived on the edge of life and death for five months.
At the same time, I had this meteoric rise to public notoriety, fame, which hasn’t slowed down at all. In fact, it seems, in some sense, to be accelerating . . . My reputation was on the line in an international way, dozens of times. Generally, what I’ve observed in people’s lives is if something like that happens to them once on a local scale, that’s enough to traumatize them. That happened to me like every week. It’s happened to me every week essentially, in multiple countries, for like five years.
People can look at that and think, “He should have managed it better.” It’s like, “OK, fair enough, you try it. See how you do.” I don’t even want to say that, because I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. I’m not complaining. You might also ask, “Why do you think you have the right to continue?” Because really, that’s the question, “Why do you think you have the right to continue?”
I certainly doubted it profoundly. I thought, “I’ll get back on my feet,” so I did some podcasts first. It’s like, do people find this useful? Will they find it useful? How will they respond? Positively. OK, I’ll do another one. How will they respond? Positively, so I think, “I’m either going to curl up and die, or I’m going to continue,” and so I’m continuing.
Despite all your mental and physical struggles, how have you managed to return? What has helped you pull through?
That I was forgiven by my audience. Here I am this guy, I’m a clinical psychologist, I got tangled up with benzodiazepines. I’m talking to people about getting their house in order, and things collapse around me. The irony, it’s almost unbearable.
That was part of what made this so difficult . . . not only the physical pain, but this absurd paradox. Yet, people have forgiven me. I’m amazed. We say that culture has no capacity for forgiveness. You hear that about cancel culture and about people being eradicated for making one mistake . . .
I’ve been attacked in the press when people have gone after my reputation with all guns blazing . . . being compared to Hitler, etcetera, etcetera. Yet, the support that I’ve received has been continuous. Why that is, I have a hypothesis: I include myself in the audience of reprobates to whom I’m lecturing. I don’t assume that I abide by all these rules. There are targets for attainment, and hopefully, that has protected me at least to some degree, against the perception of undue moral superiority . . .
The general public — my viewers, readers, and listeners, let’s say — have been unbelievably loyal and supportive. I’ve seen this outpouring of love at the micro-level within my family, and from my friends, and from people I don’t know, but who I communicate with. It saved my life for sure.