Learning to Question

Some of the claims made in David Stollar’s article published last November on Professor Jordan Peterson, for example that “Peterson is almost single-handedly transforming the landscape of metaphysics and the significance of their everyday practice for a substantial segment of a whole generation” were so grandiloquent that this prompted me to understand the subject in more detail. Is Professor Peterson a genuine “guru” with entirely altruistic aims or is he a clever social media operator who has capitalised on his increasing on-line fame to exploit the lucrative “self-help” market and make a great deal of money? David Stollar is clearly convinced that Peterson is an impressive, even heroic figure who has single-handedly re-discovered truth which he is using to help the world in uncertain times. In order to test these claims for myself, I have watched a number of Professor Peterson’s films and interviews on YouTube and looked at his web site.

Jordan Peterson had a long career as a clinical psychologist before coming to public prominence on social media platforms in late 2016 after he made a public stand against new Canadian legislation compelling the use of new transgender pronouns. His objections touched a chord with many people who were becoming increasingly concerned about political correctness, and since that time he has voiced opinions on many subjects including Islam, Brexit, and the role of women in society, and appeared on many television and radio shows, including Question Time on the BBC. He is a very effective communicator, knowing how to use down-loadable podcasts and YouTube to reach large audiences, often cited as predominantly comprising white males (although his lectures are attended by an almost equal proportion of men and women). His most recent book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos has become an international bestseller with millions of sales, and his lectures are attended by thousands of people.

In general, his interviews on the internet initially support the impression created by the article – that Professor Peterson is a highly articulate, well-read, intelligent and charismatic speaker who has attracted a huge following of supporters through a passionate advocacy of helping people to help themselves. More specifically, this is a process of self-transformation which is described in terms and concepts assembled from a variety of sources – mythology, the Hero figure, the Bible, Jungian psychology, Nietzsche and the apocalyptic poetry of W.B. Yeats to name but a few. His views are shared using a combination of vivid metaphors, logical arguments and reference to scientific evidence. And certainly, who could argue against the case for people to be more demanding of themselves, to think more for themselves?

It is not within the scope of this article to analyse Professor Peterson’s views on different subjects. However, one example is worthy of note in illustrating his use of broad generalisations which initially sound convincing but do not stand up to closer scrutiny. When asked for his view on Brexit, he compared the European Union to the Tower of Babel (the Biblical story), stating that any attempt by groups of 300 million people to build something would be doomed to failure. This view ignores the inconvenient fact that the United States of America comprises over three hundred million people from an enormous diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Neither does it allow for the possibility of an inner or esoteric meaning which was put forward by Maurice Nicoll (a pre-eminent psychiatrist in the twentieth century) in his book The New Man:-

“The story of the Tower of Babel is very strange and has little meaning if we take it literally. It begins by saying that once upon a time, after the days of Noah and the Ark, all people had a common language. “And the whole earth was of one language and one speech. ” (Genesis xi, i.) Then it is said that they journeyed “from the east” (i. e. away from Truth) and came to a plain, and began to think of building a tower to reach to heaven. Notice how the account continues: “And they had brick for stone and slime they had for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name…. ” Notice that they travelled from the east and they had brick—a man−made thing—and not stone. The east represents, in the ancient language of parables, the source of esoteric Truth. They reached a plain—that is, came down from a higher level—and then began to think that they could of themselves do something, apart from what knowledge of Truth they had gained “from the east”. So they began to build a tower—that is, they thought that they could, out of their own ideas and thoughts, reach to the highest level, here called “heaven” and also called similarly in the Gospel language. “Heaven” means a higher level of Man and “earth” means an ordinary man—the natural man.”

Some of the statements in Mr. Stollar’s article are bold to the point of sounding almost hagiographical. For example, “He is obsessive and impossibly tenacious in his enquiry”, and “we watch him struggling moment by moment to be true to his own deepest understanding”. In watching a number of his interviews, Peterson handles questions deftly, often with a degree of honesty and usually brings the responses back to re-state themes in his writings or lectures. I did not receive an impression of someone struggling in the moment to share his deepest understanding. Rather, he conveys an air of confidence that he knows more about his subject than his questioners.

Professor Peterson’s web site is highly professional and commercialised in its presentation and content. The biography on the site overtly portrays Professor Peterson as one of the mythical heroes that he alludes to in his lectures. He was “raised and toughened in Alberta”, before trying his hand at an enormous variety of jobs and activities which are listed in extensive detail. The tone of this section clearly implies this was a planned preparation to give insight into the human condition before he became a clinical psychologist. There is little mention of his academic/scientific research but there is a lengthy section detailing his substantial social media profile, which includes over 2.8 million subscribers to his YouTube channel.

It then goes on to describe how Professor Peterson has, with two colleagues “developed two on-line programs to help people understand themselves better and to improve their psychological and practical functioning”. These are called UnderstandMyself and the Self-Authoring Suite which cost $9.95 and $29.90 respectively. The biography goes on to state that “Tens of thousands of people now know themselves better, as a consequence of completing this 15-minute program. His original self-analysis program, the Self Authoring Suite, (featured in O: The Oprah Magazine, CBC radio, and NPR’s national website), has helped over 200,000 people resolve the problems of their past, rectify their personality faults and enhance their virtues, and radically improve their future. Research documenting the program’s effectiveness can be found here and here.”

There are two major problems with this section of the web site. Firstly, there is no mention of how the tens of thousands of people have benefited from the UnderstandMyself or how the Self Authoring Suite has helped over 200,000 resolve their past and rectify their faults. The two links to the research cited to support these claims in fact point to the same scientific paper in which the programme was tested on a very small number of undergraduate students. The “benefits” in the scientific paper are claimed to be a reduced drop-out rate and improved grades. Neither of these criteria can be applied to the general claims of “helping people” on such a large scale. The simple fact is that there is no way for anyone to measure in a reliable way any benefit of these programs on those that have purchased them.

The web site advertises a large variety of products for sale, including posters, mugs, pillows, t-shirts, hoodies, leggings, even phone cases displaying one of the 12 Lessons for Life. Unlike the books and the programmes, it is difficult to justify that these products are anything other than an attempt to capitalise on Professor Peterson’s high public media profile to make money. To be fair, perhaps this additional revenue is being used to help research and/or charitable institutions but this is not clear on the web site.

One of Professor Peterson’s films is titled “How to Know Yourself Better”. In it, he describes a process by which an individual can look in a “cold” way at themselves as if seeing someone else. The film has quietly meditative music playing in the background whilst Professor Peterson speaks. What is this way of looking? W.B. Yeats, the Irish poet is known to have influenced Peterson and the following words from his poem Under Ben Bulben are engraved on Yeats’s tombstone:-

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!

This expression is understood to mean to look at life realistically and expect to face challenges. “Know Thyself” is an ancient term which is referenced in many religious ways, including the Bible and by thinkers such as Socrates.  Is it possible to “look” in the way that Peterson describes by our own volition, as if at the flick of a switch? That is certainly not the experience of anyone who has genuinely tried to follow this deceptively simple instruction from spiritual ways.

Maurice Nicoll spent years writing a number of commentaries on esoteric Christianity and the ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff based on his own experience. In these, it becomes abundantly clear that the aim “to Know Thyself” is in fact a very great aim for a man or woman and requires enormous individual effort with support from others. The only approach to this is to search for a finer quality of inner attention which can take uncritical impressions of how we are at a given moment. Anyone who has sincerely tried to “Know Thyself” can attest wholeheartedly to the difficulty of taking these impressions, but of their deep effect when one is able to let go sufficiently to allow them even for the briefest period. Far from being a “cold” look, this taking of impressions, whilst not having any form of judgement is really an act of submission to serve something higher in oneself and is always accompanied by an openness and warm acceptance.  Anyone who implies that this is something we can “do” at will is simply wrong and misleading.

For someone who has claimed to have discovered a higher power or authority within himself, it is striking how Professor Jordan’s talks, whilst emphasising the “journey” of personal self-transformation, singularly fail to make any distinction between differing qualities or levels of consciousness within ourselves. Peterson speaks frequently about developing “character” and “potential” in the form of self-discipline (e.g. to start the journey by cleaning and tidying your own room) and setting external goals. Everything is explained as being on the same level. In itself, setting outer goals is, as I’m sure most people would agree a positive thing, but what is the inner goal here, which is constantly referred to in the major religious traditions?

In many of his interviews, Peterson repeatedly states his conviction that the main crisis of the Western world is a lack of meaning during a time of chaos and on this point we can perhaps agree, if he is referring to inner meaning. There is a recurring theme in his lectures and responses to questions, that humanity is living in a period of unprecedented and potentially apocalyptic chaos, echoing the ideas of Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning”. This in turn requires people to “wake up” to a reality implied by the ominous ending of another W.B. Yeats poem, The Second Coming:-

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The basis of Peterson’s teaching on meaning is summarised in Mr.Stollar’s article as:-

Being is suffering, tainted by malevolence.
So what is the meaning?
There is pain to alleviate.
There is chaos to confront.
There is order to establish and revivify
And there is evil to constrain, not least in our own hearts,
And that’s meaning enough for everyone.

Terms such as “Being”, “suffering” and “evil” are used imprecisely here. Isn’t Being really a combination of understanding and knowledge? Suffering certainly plays a part in gaining understanding but are there not different qualities of suffering? Is not feeling a lack of meaning in oneself, realising that one is a long way from completeness or awareness of a completely different (finer) energy actually an enormous step in the inner search for Truth, and completely different in its nature from useless self-pity and self-criticism, both of which could be regarded as lower levels of suffering? Having studied several religions over a lifetime, I am more convinced than ever that at their heart, the great traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam) offer different ways to the same ultimate goal, to lead humankind to a higher state of consciousness, to be more attuned with a higher energy, in service of which gives meaning.

If one looks at the Twelve Rules for Life, which constitute the essence of his best-selling book, these are described as:-

1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
10. Be precise in your speech
11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Most people would probably agree that there is some merit in all of these statements but they are (of necessity in pitching self-help messages to a wide audience) so poorly defined that each will have many different meanings to different people and in essence are a re-packaging of common-sense ideas and behaviours that are already known. In asking readers to passively accept such bland principles, the author is actually encouraging people to not think for themselves.

So, whilst books such as this can perhaps “help” people in bringing some self-discipline into their lives, for any genuine seeker of a spiritual path do they not also reinforce the illusion that we can “do” anything that we put our minds to, without recognising the need to search for something deeper in ourselves? Is this not pandering to an almost slavish desire in Western society for instant “fixes”, in an age where at the click of a mouse button we can order literally anything on the internet? Paradoxically, isn’t it just when we are in difficult situations and admit inwardly that we don’t really know, that something opens in us – a real inner question arising?

There is also a sense that Professor Peterson himself may also be a “victim” of his on-line success – where his views on wide-ranging subjects are mis-quoted and, in many cases, appropriated by individuals and groups for their own ends. Towards the end of 2019, Peterson disappeared from public view. It has since been announced that he has been undergoing a radical treatment in Russia for a physical dependency on benzodiazepines which he was taking for the treatment of anxiety triggered by a serious allergic reaction to food. One can only imagine some of the pressures that he must face in maintaining and expanding his huge social media profile. Professor Peterson is apparently working on a sequel to the 12 Rules for Life.

In conclusion, Jordan Peterson’s rapidly increasing social media profile up to 2019 illustrates how a combination of re-packaging and synthesis of pre-existing ideas and concepts into something which sounds fresh and plausible enough, together with clever repeated messaging to targeted audiences can, in this “connected” age (using podcasts and YouTube films which are constantly available), result in these ideas becoming viewed as “Truth” with little factual evidence to support them. In consequence these ideas exert enormous influence across unprecedentedly large numbers of people across the world. He is not alone in using this phenomenon to “ride the one hundred foot wave” (his own words from an interview in April 2018) of social media fame and opportunity whilst it lasts. Indeed, when asked during this same interview about where he was going next, his response was …”I have created an immense multi-media platform but I don’t know what to do with it…….but it is becoming too much…….and generally the result of riding a 100 foot wave is that you drown.”

Researching this article has certainly made me question how readily I accept information and how opinions are formed in me. More than ever, there is a need for all of us to rigorously question our inner state and those around us who purport to be pedlars of Truth. What can I rely on and test for myself, in this life? Surely this needs clear thinking, but also our instinct and feeling to work together?

Geoff Butts