Last night I travelled to Sydney to see Jordan Peterson live. Peterson spoke in an absolutely packed theatre at the International Convention Centre in Darling Harbour. While the crowd skewed to a younger male demographic, it was quite diverse. It felt like the theatre had met the football.
I took a lot of notes during Peterson’s talk. I’m going to put in a summary of the notes below and put in some of my own reflections. Note that I was typing these notes quickly, and so there are parts of his talk I missed out. I also found it quite difficult to take notes as Peterson is a bit rambly and has a tendency to go off on tangents. I’d be taking a note from his previous sentence and then realise he’d gone off somewhere completely different and I’d lost the thread. This to me makes his appeal even that more fascinating as, in all honesty, while he has moments of hilarity and conciseness, he’s not the most coherent speaker.
Note that nothing here is a direct quote (except for a few I’ve put in inverted commas), just my reading of what he was saying. If anyone was there and thinks he was saying something different please let me know, I’d love to hear from you.
After an early detour talking about Socrates Peterson started by reflecting on his appearance on #qanda. He said he didn’t really enjoy his appearance as these shows are often too political, and you’re stuck trying to answer big questions in a minute, which is really impossible. But he says that while it may not have been a productive conversation it was not an unproductive one, which is something.
He wanted to reflect on one of the questions from #qanda. To do so he was going to use notes, as he hasn’t figured all this out. He opened up his computer and it made the Windows sound, and everyone laughed.
The particular question he was interested in was topic of human dignity. This is not a topic you hear a lot about any more, he says. There are a lot of topics we don’t talk about much — nobility, responsibility, values etc. The particular question was: “do you believe in God?” As he said on #qanda Peterson says that he doesn’t like this question, but he wants to figure out why. And so the evening was going to be structured around the responses from other panelists, and then he was going to talk about what he said and then fix what he said.
He starts of by talking about Terri Butler’s answer. Butler had said that she’s agnostic, and that “people are inherently valuable because they’re people.” Peterson says, quite bluntly, “no” (this is where he is sharp and to the point and gets the audience). The reason is, he argues, that while you can argue that people are inherently valuable because they’re people, you can make the opposite, equally logical case that humans are destructive and are a catastrophe for the planet as a whole. In doing so he says he doesn’t find that answer particularly satisfying. It’s self referential. You don’t really get anywhere with that. It requires more depth to be convincing. He also says that it’s often the case that people don’t see themselves as valuable at all — when they’re depressed, or upset with life etc.
Another point he makes is that you also notice that some people are more valuable than others. Like animal farm, some animals are more valuable than others. No matter where you look in society there are rank orders of hierarchy. Its not obvious therefore when you look at the world that people are inherently valuable. It’s not obvious where this idea that people are inherently valuable comes from.
In fact Peterson argues that it’s one of the least obvious concepts that human beings have ever come up with that everyone is equal or inherently valuable.
Here Peterson started to talk about the nature of value and meaning.
He goes on to Nietzsche, who spoke about the death of god. Nietzsche argued that the collapse of the judeo christian structure will lead to huge catastrophes, which Peterson agrees with. In turn Nietzsche argues we have to create our own moral/value structure. We have to turn to ourselves to create our own values
Jung argues that we turned to fascism and communism to deal wifh this loss of value. Jung also argues that Nietzsche’s argument that we would have to turn to ourselves to create our own values was wrong because we as humans cannot do that. Peterson says that we know that human beings have biological structures. There is a strong biological component of us, which we share with everyone. This goes against what the social constructionist argue, and which are trying to enforce through legislation. Biology is fundamentally important.
It is the case, Peterson argues, that human beings have a nature and we have to contend with that nature. We cannot create our own values. We have a radical inability to command ourselves as if we are our own. We are subject to inherent moral laws. We’re not exactly masters in our own houses.
Try controlling yourself, Peterson says. Trying acting to your own values without adhering to some transcendent ethical structure. Try it for a week. You can’t do it. Here he uses Crime and Punishment as an example (one of my favourite ever books). In it, the main character, Raskolnikov commits the perfect murder.
But in doing so Raskolnikov is not the same person before and after the murder. There’s certain actions you can’t take back. Raskolnikov tortures himself because he cannot tolerate breaking the great moral code.
No Peterson turns to Van Badham’s answer. Even at the mention of her name there are chuckles in the crowd. On #qanda Badham was described as a ‘Twitter queen’, so Peterson went on her Twitter to find out how many followers she had, but he couldn’t find out because he’d been blocked. Which he found odd because he’d never tried to follow her before. I couldn’t help but laugh at this, as did everyone else.
Banham said that she’s a Christian and a Marxist. And he thought: “no”. Peterson argues that there’s a few ways you could believe such a thing, you want to be all good things at once, you don’t know enough about Christianity or Marxism, or you compartmentalize.
On the last point he says that we’re all full of contradictions. He knows this because he reads undergraduate essays — students make a claim in paragraph one and then make an opposite claim in paragraph seven. You only straighten out your thought when you have two contradictory impulses at the same time, he says. You iron them out and put your ideas into a hierarchy. You do this by acting in the world.
I couldn’t help but think at this point that he is also a contradiction: some times very sharp and funny, sometimes a bit rambly and going on tangents that seem to lose the crowd a bit.
Let’s go into Marxism and Christianity he says. Marx believes that we are basically socially constructed. We’re blank slates and are shaped by our social class. Our group identity is paramount. There is nothing about that is vaguely Christian. The judeo christian tradition is fundamentally focused on the individual. These things are fundamentally not the same.
Marx was a materialist. He argued that if you give people material wealth then that is problem over. No: wrong, Peterson says. Dostoevsky argues against this, arguing that if you give people “their bread and circuses” they’d immediately take their hammer and destroy things to create something new. We cannot be satisfied by material possessions and comfort. The more material resources you get and the easier they are to come by the more likely you are to go out and find trouble. We are not all looking for lots of material possessions. (I couldn’t help but notice how this idea lines up with a lot of environmental thinking at the moment).
Peterson says that all of us in this room are about as well off as we are going to get. Research shows that once your needs are met additional money is not going to add to your well being. You’d still have lots of the same problems that people in general have. You’d still have the problem of “what is life for?”. Material possessions are not enough.
Marx has believed that history has been transformed through the war of social groups. That has now been transformed into identity groups, which is basically the same thing. He believes that the overthrow of the bourgeoisie is necessary, which is not what happens in Christianity. In the judeo christian tradition there is no group guilt. Guilt is between you and god, not between a group and god.
Marxism and Christianity therefore are not just different, they are opposite.
Peterson says that for Marx, religion is the opiate of the masses. Jordan always says that religion is the opiate, but communism is the meth of the masses.
At this point he actually quotes Marx and critiques it, which is surprising for me. It’s refreshing, even though I don’t agree with him, to see someone go to source material about Marxism to make their disagreements.
Now Peterson turns the question on himself: “do I believe in God?” He says he doesn’t like that question, but he’s never really known why. He has three hypotheses. 1. It’s none of your damn business. 2. What do you mean by ‘believe’? He says that has gotten him in trouble as people believe asking for clarification on words is a way to try and avoid the question, when it’s actually about narrowing the question. 3. He’s afraid God might exist, which is the most comical of answers.
Decided he wanted to go into this more. Say you do believe in God. That’s actually quite impressive, Peterson says.
What does believing in him mean? Are you all in? Or are you in the same situation as the Catholic church right now. The endless paedophilia scandals are very serious, he argues. Are all these people committing these heinous actions and covering them up, do they believe in God? You’d think they’d say yes as they’re priests, and yet, what’s the evidence? Do their actions show that they believe in God? The statement itself in believing in God is not enough, it’s not enough evidence that you do.
As far as Nietzsche was concerned, Peterson says, there was only one true Christian, and he died on the cross. What are you called upon when you believe in God? You’re called upon to see god as your guide, you’re called upon to make the appropriate sacrifices, to do whatever is necessary. Peterson goes into detail of all the sacrifices you have to make, claiming that believing in God is a really big deal. If you can make these sacrifices then you may have the right to say you believe in God, but if not you should think twice about it.
Peterson quotes from Genesis, which said (something along the lines of): “Not all those who say lord Lord will make it into the kingdom of heaven.” Just making a claim that you believe in God doesn’t mean you’ll get into heaven — the statement is not enough. Peterson says that he can’t see one making a higher claim to moral burden than saying you believe in God. That’s why the question makes him uncomfortable — you cannot make a higher claim that believing in God.
What characterises a true relationship with God is a willingness to wrestle with him (speaks about a story of Noah wrestling with god and how Israel means to wrestle with God). You need to be able to contend.
We don’t know. We contend, we wrestle. And in doing so we may find our purpose or our destiny. We have peace when that contending and that wrestling has been successful. And when you’ve been deeply and thoroughly involved in that then you have the right to say you believe in God. Peterson says that he’s not 100% like that, so that’s why he won’t say he believes in God. He doesn’t have the right to say he believes in God.
That was pretty much it. Again, this is a very shorterned version of what Peterson spoke about and I have certainly missed some of the nuances. So it may come across as a bit disjointed. But I think he was also figuring this stuff out himself, which may account for some of the disjointed nature of it. But I hope it gives some greater insight into what he is saying.
The talk was also interesting as he largely avoided all of the topics that surrounds him with controversy. Apart from his critiques of Marxism he did not attack the left or feminism, he did not talk about trans rights, he did not advocate for compulsory monogamy.
I feel there’s two sides to Peterson. There is the individual moral philosphy of his lectures and his book, 12 Rules for Life, and then there’s his more reactionary political side, which seems more likely to appear in interviews and on shows like #qanda. Last night we saw the former. I’m doing a lot of thinking about how he connects these two, but I’m also interested as to whether everyone in the crowd is interested in both parts, or just one, or the other of them?
But back to the question of why does he appeal to people? While I am still developing this I think I filled in one part of the puzzle last night, and that was his focus on meaning. I came out asking myself, what is the role of ‘meaning’ in our lives, but also in our political moment? Peterson spends a lot of time talking about the meaning of life, and talking about how we develop our moral guidelines and values. He argues very strongly that we cannot create this moral philosophy from within ourselves, it comes from somewhere else.
I wonder, can we link some of his popularity to this broader search for meaning? People are always searching for meaning, whether it is in religion, social movements, cults, work or even in diets and exercise regimes. Is Peterson just another part of this search for meaning, one located in moral philosophy and ancient texts? I think possibly so. In an insecure world, both economically and socially, he gives people something to cling on to, and he does a very good job of it.
Coming out, I’m still not sure. But this need for meaning makes more sense to me. I disagreed with him a lot last night, in particular his critiques of Marxism. I think he got them wrong. But he is frustratingly convincing at times, and that makes him a fascinating figure.