The year was 2003, and I was a sophomore psych major at the University of Toronto when I came across Peterson’s 2nd-year elective. The class caught my attention in the course calendar: it had a 90%+ re-take rate in a sea of psych classes in the 60–70% range — almost every student would make the same choice again. Encompassing the personality theories of Freud, Jung, Adler and others, it was also the only psych course that even hinted at self-development psychology, which interested me more than research psychology. I went for it.
I went on to take all of Peterson’s courses between 2003–2006, and I can’t overstate the positive impact they had on my life. Being exposed to his work during those years was so formative that it’s difficult to imagine what kind of person I’d be like if that hadn’t happened. For years after I graduated, I eagerly introduced friends to his work whenever a conversation revealed a mutual glimmer of interest in questions of life, purpose, and what it means to be a human being.
When the Canadian media and (my friend bubble) began to characterize him as transphobic, I didn’t have any reason to doubt them. I assumed the years had taken their toll and turned him into a crusty old bigot. A real shame. But then I got curious: what’s his problem anyway? What is he actually saying?
If his position on Bill C-16 was the point you felt inclined to dismiss him, it’s worth investigating his issue with the law before adding to the slander; examine the content of his criticism, not the fact that he’s critical. His position on the virtue of personal responsibility is not a denial of historical oppression as much as it is his practical advice to every individual — regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or economic status — for how to deal with the real problems they’re facing in their lives.
Peterson’s detractors would have you dismiss him as a deplorable who doesn’t deserve your attention, framing his ideas as either “dangerous” or “bigoted” and his defence of free speech as a secret wink to white supremacy. The idea that he “only speaks for white men” is a narrative that will unravel as soon as you dig a little deeper.
Anyone who has given Peterson’s lecture material more than a cursory skim can immediately tell if a journalist has done their due diligence or if they’re just parroting someone else’s opinion of him for the sake of signalling the ‘correct’ allegiances. It’s a bit like hearing someone from out-of-province say they “hated Toronto” after spending four months commuting to Mississauga from Markham, or like hearing someone trash talk Game of Thrones after texting and talking their way through a single episode.
If there’s one thing that I hope you take away from this essay it’s the inauthenticity of those dismissals; they communicate little but the author’s willful ignorance of Peterson’s work, and their preference for virtue-signalling over responsible journalism.
Peterson Beyond Politics
If your first exposure to Peterson was a friend condemning him in your social media feed, you can be forgiven for the mistaken assumption that he has anything against trans folks themselves.
His issue is with forced speech, and using law to force people into voicing any political viewpoint. He’s not anti-trans. He’s resisting an ideological mentality that deals with opposing viewpoints by silencing them. The notion that one person’s right ‘to not be offended’ trumps another person’s right ‘to speak freely’, when taken to extremes, produces the absurd moral panic that swallowed Bret Weinstein at Evergreen College, and Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfred Laurier.
To Peterson fans, his true appeal has much less to do with politics than with personal development & transformation. Peterson’s YouTube lectures are what you’d get if you combined Yuval Noah Harari, Tony Robbins, and Joseph Campbell: a sweeping historical narrative, distilled into a pragmatic and applicable approach to improving one’s life that casts each person as the hero in their own story.
Peterson’s work is primarily about psychological flourishing and self-actualization: how to gain courage and self confidence, how to free yourself of self-doubt, resentment, and regret, and how to live up to your potential. Most of his advice isn’t new: Don’t lie to yourself or others. Be grateful in spite of your suffering. Pursue what is meaningful — not what is expedient. Make friends with people who want the best for you. Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
What makes Peterson especially fascinating is that he elevates those platitudes into transcendent human truths by linking them to both science and thousands of years of human story-telling cutting across myth, literature, and religion. He has a knack for peeling back layers of wisdom in ancient stories, revealing that all they’ve ever been about is “how to act in the world”.
Religion Via Evolutionary Psychology
Peterson is an evolutionary psychologist. We typically understand evolution as acting on only physical components, but there are also group behaviours that lead to the best chance of group survival & reproductive success. While adaptive physical traits are transmitted over generations by natural selection and sexual reproduction, the adaptive behaviour of groups is transmitted (more quickly) through language, ideas, and culture.
Imagine that all human myth, religion, and literature — all the good stories of triumph and tragedy that have stood the test of time —survive precisely because they contain meaningful information about adaptive behaviour. Consider that religion and science are not perpetually at odds, and that every myth or religious story represents the best effort of a cultural group to transmit its version of the most adaptive human behaviours — the most adaptive psychological frameworks at the individual level, and the most adaptive principles of a cooperative human society at a collective level.
Peterson links ancient stories to the eternal struggle of the present and individual psychology to an evolutionary narrative. Watch one of Peterson’s “Bible Series Lectures” with those ideas in mind and you’ll begin to understand why he’s so popular. If you can drop the materialistic view of myth and religion as naive, their underlying value becomes more clear: they aim to teach us how to best function as a human being among other human beings, all dealing with the chaos of existing in the world.
Neuroscience & The Language of Archetypes
In order to understand how a Mesopotamian myth might inform your current struggle to move forward in life, it helps to break things down into the simplest possible categories: what you know, and what you don’t know.
It’s easy to think about the things you know that you don’t know — for example, you’re aware that you don’t know how to fly a helicopter. If you wanted to, you could learn. But what can you do about the things you don’t know that you’re not even aware of?
These “unknown unknowns” are our blind spots. They are the things we don’t see coming at all, either personally or culturally. They’re the hardest to deal with and the most distressing. And yet they’re also where our biggest transformations occur; personal breakthroughs often involve a courageous departure from your comfort zone. Likewise, the breakthroughs that evolve a cultural paradigm are usually found outside, or on the fringes of, the existing paradigm.
To Peterson, who prefers the language of myth, the “great unknown” is represented by a dragon (or cat-snake-bird). If you consider the predators that would pose a danger to pre-linguistic humans, they were primarily snakes, large carnivorous cats, and raptors — as well as violent natural dangers like fire. The fire-breathing cat-snake-bird (eventually, dragon) adequately captured the undifferentiated danger of “the great unknown”. To take the imagery further, the fire-breathing dragon of myth also traditionally hoards gold, and holds virginal females captive (think St. George and The Dragon, Smaug from Lord of The Rings, and Bowser from Nintendo’s Mario stories).
Let’s forgive, for a moment, the patriarchal frame of this image and focus on the core meaning applicable to human action (regardless of gender): despite being dangerous and unpredictable, “the great unknown” is also the source of all opportunity. We experience the broad set of “things we don’t understand” as threatening and promising at the same time, depending on the frame of mind we’ve adopted when we encounter them.
Peterson connects these mythical narratives to research in neuroscience. In the second chapter of Maps Of Meaning, he demonstrates that our brains’ right and left hemispheres are essentially built for grappling with this low resolution way of organizing the world: Unknowns (Right-brain) vs. Knowns (Left-brain). Chaos and Order. Yin and Yang. There’s your bio-evolutionary mandate to get out of your comfort zone.
On Tyranny & Free Speech
Peterson’s fight for free speech is essentially a defence of the mechanism we use to deal with our collective blind spots as a human society. Having spent his whole career studying the atrocities perpetrated by totalitarian forces on both the right and left in the last century, he takes the fight seriously. Peterson is an expert in understanding the capacity inside all of us to to do evil deeds in the name of doing good, and to lie to ourselves in the process. When one does a meta-analysis of mass murder committed in the name of an ideology, it turns out that freedom of speech is one of those levees we should never let break.
To Peterson, freedom of speech is the crucible by which the monsters of tyranny are slain, regardless of whether those monsters come from the right (fascism) or the left (communism).To suggest the “right to not be offended” is a matter of politeness, or that it corrects some historical wrong in the name of social justice, is to naively assume that the power to compel or restrict speech, once granted, will always be wielded with integrity. History would suggest otherwise. Human nature such as it is, it’s only a matter of time before someone abuses that power in pursuit of their own ends.
To Fix The World, Fix Yourself
To be human is to be in a place, psychologically-speaking, that is less desirable than the one you envision for your future; in varying degrees unique to each one of us, we humans are perpetually suffering and we can all legitimately describe ourselves as a victim of someone or something. Your ego is wired for self-preservation, and will leap at every opportunity to blame the external world for your troubles.
We thus arrive at Peterson’s maxims to “sort yourself out” and “get your own house in order”. Although it’s politically expedient (and, frankly, trendy) to be a victim of oppression these days, adopting a mentality of victimhood as a core part of your identity will ultimately undermine your sense of personal agency, regardless of whether the oppression is real or not. This is not a political opinion, but a pragmatic psychological truth.
The more you blame the world for your circumstances, the harder it is to see your own ability to affect change on those circumstances. When you give up responsibility for something, you also give up your power over that thing. When you accept responsibility — even for things that aren’t your “fault” — you activate an inner fire of resourcefulness. In the long run, the world is re-made by people with a mentality of radical ownership: “it may not be my fault, but it is my problem.”
I’m grateful for Peterson. For me, he was that university professor that I couldn’t have had anywhere else. I’m grateful that I chose to study psychology at UofT because of the way he taught me to see the world. It was a privilege to be exposed to his ideas at that time in my life.
And on behalf of many others — in the present and future — whose life circumstances didn’t put them at UofT between 1998 and 2012, I’m grateful for the tornado of notoriety that led to his ideas achieving escape velocity from academia. Most of all, I’m grateful that his core message to humanity— now immortalized in many hours of internet video — will continue to echo from the digital stratosphere: before we rush to conclusions about who to blame for the world’s problems, before we look outward and lay responsibility at the feet of everyone else, we would all benefit if we each started by examining the chaos within ourselves.