Jordan Peterson’s Demons

As I write, Jordan Peterson is in Russia, recovering from a near-death brush with legal drug addiction, and excessive exposure to Canada’s health system. Which helps explain his unimpressive performance in a debate with Slavoj Zizek a year ago.

The Conservative commentator Stefan Molyneux — a fellow Canadian — has an excellent, long discussion of Peterson’s condition up in Youtube. If you, like myself, admire and respect Peterson and his very relevant contributions to modern discourse, I highly recommend listening to this:

I’m not going to add much to Molyneux’s remarks (I should clarify I agree with almost everything he states about Peterson, but not with his silly remarks on socialized health care, which doesn’t really work as he thinks it does). But I will say this: Peterson is not only an overworked man; he’s, quite obviously, a deeply ethical man who was making tons of money on his work just before he broke down.

This is not an insignificant fact. Even though I’m someone who does not make tons of money on his work, or even much money at all, I can tell there’s a responsibility attached to worldly success, when you’re not the average psychopath one easily finds in academia, government or media, but rather a person who considers himself bound by ethical considerations.

In short, Jordan Peterson stood up to the ruling ideology, and shouted: “You’re evil, you’re despicable, you’ll destroy everything good we and our ancestors ever built.” And the ruling ideology responded: “You’re funny, here’s tons of money. Have your best shot. We don’t give a fuck. We don’t even care if you’re right. You may be, but it doesn’t really matter. The likes of you will never comprehend.”

This, mind you, is a very emotional man. A man of great intelligence but a sentimental man. This description of his mental state as a young man is in the preface to his great work, “Maps of meaning” (1999):

At the same time, something odd was happening to my ability to converse. I had always enjoyed engaging in arguments, regardless of topic. I regarded them as a sort of game (not that this is in any way unique). Suddenly, however, I couldn’t talk—more accurately, I couldn’t stand listening to myself talk . I started to hear a “voice” inside my head, commenting on my opinions. Every time I said something, it said something— something critical. The voice employed a standard refrain, delivered in a somewhat bored and matter-of-fact tone:

You don’t believe that.

That isn’t true.

You don’t believe that.

That isn’t true.

The “voice” applied such comments to almost every phrase I spoke. I couldn’t understand what to make of this. I knew the source of the commentary was part of me, but this knowledge only increased my confusion. Which part, precisely, was me— the talking part or the criticizing part ? If it was the talking part, then what was the criticizing part? If it was the criticizing part—well, then: how could virtually everything I said be untrue? In my ignorance and confusion, I decided to experiment. I tried only to say things that my internal reviewer would pass unchallenged. This meant that I really had to listen to what I was saying, that I spoke much less often, and that I would frequently stop, midway through a sentence, feel embarrassed, and reformulate my thoughts. I soon noticed that I felt much less agitated and more confident when I only said things that the “voice” did not object to. This came as a definite relief. My experiment had been a success; I was the criticizing part. Nonetheless, it took me a long time to reconcile myself to the idea that almost all my thoughts weren’t real, weren’t true—or, at least, weren’t mine.

All the things I “believed” were things I thought sounded good, admirable, respectable, courageous. They weren’t my things, however—I had stolen them. Most of them I had taken from books. Having “understood” them, abstractly, I presumed I had a right to them—presumed that I could adopt them, as if they were mine: presumed that they were me . My head was stuffed full of the ideas of others; stuffed full of arguments I could not logically refute. I did not know then that an irrefutable argument is not necessarily true, nor that the right to identify with certain ideas had to be earned.

Just watch and listen to this speech on the importance of free speech, in which he has to stop at several times — just so he won’t weep on the podium:

I believe that, ultimately, this is what broke Peterson down. He was bribed, he was given the trappings of mundane success and fame and adoration; he was given rooms full of people who would clap and sigh and adore him; and he could see that all was for nothing, that he would have only a moderate impact at best: for all his work, he could feel that he would maybe get a few hundreds of young people in the West to do their beds every morning and stop masturbating all day. And these young men would go on to be coopted by the ruling ideology, and become Goldman Sachs bankers, New York Times reporters or NGO staffers. 

Peterson knew he was failing miserably. I’m glad he’s survived his troubles. Maybe he can have another go.




About David Roman

Communicator. I tweet @dromanber.
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