“There are many reasons for optimism”
Jordan Peterson, an admirer of Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung, is making the case for individualism rooted in responsibility. He is urging people to improve the world by putting their own house in order.
I first heard of Jordan Peterson through my father, with whom I’ve discussed and debated political issues since I was a teenager. It was 2017, shortly after Peterson went viral in his response to Canadian bill C-16 regarding gender pronoun misuse. My father sent me a link to Peterson’s now infamous interview with Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4 news. Having worked in television news for the last 8 years in New York City, I’ve heard enough of people yelling unintelligibly at each other via satellite for a lifetime; this interview was different. I was blown away by Peterson’s calm demeanor, his handling of difficult questions by pointing to the research first, and his calling for rational debate on taboo topics. I disagreed with some of his points, but admired very much the way he presented them.
The more I have read and followed his work, the more I find voices like Peterson’s so valuable and refreshing. We live in a time of incredible wealth, prosperity and hope, and yet our societies face some deeply philosophical, psychological problems that need to be talked about, openly. While it is his political positions that attract the most YouTube views and clicks, the thrust of his work has more to do with helping the individual find meaning and value. He is pre-eminently a psychologist. In my work now in the field of mental health, I know and see that it is strengthening and empowering the individual that is the building block of societies.
Peterson's natural environments are Youtube, his podcasts and television interviews. He rarely gives interviews to printed press and employs one of the finest California-based PR bureaus as a gatekeeper. When Die Weltwoche learned that Mr. Peterson was coming to Zurich, the magazine tried to reach out via the PR agency and the organizer of the Zurich event but learned that Jordan Peterson was not giving interviews. In the name of Weltwoche, I reached out to Jordan Peterson directly and asked him for an interview.
The 1200 seats at “Volkshaus” were sold out in virtually no time. Switzerland is giving Mr. Peterson the rock star kind of welcome. Why do you think that is?
Most of the places I've gone so far, the lectures have been very well received because it's salutary for them to have some of the fundamental beliefs upon which freedom and autonomy are founded so deeply articulated. It helps integrate people, and I certainly assume that the same thing will be true of the Swiss. I'm also a great admirer of Carl Jung, who was Swiss to his bones. A lot of Jung’s thinking permeates mine, and to the degree that Jung's ideas were reflective of the substrata of Swiss culture, that produces substantial resonance. The Swiss value autonomy and independence and have a strong national identity, and I talk a lot about responsibility and the meaning to be found in individual autonomy. I would say the Swiss haven't forgotten that.
What is your motivation, the meaning of your work?
My fundamental motivation is to articulate the substructure of Western culture so that we understand it and have our faith in it restored. I think that the fundamental presuppositions upon which our cultures are based are as close to correct as any ideas that human beings have ever generated. I believe that we don't have a better idea than the sovereign worth of the individual, but that worth is associated more with responsibility than with rights. The meaning that people need to find in life is not a consequence of continually demanding their rights, but to bear the responsibility that goes along with being a sovereign individual. It is to be found in the contention and contending with the world.
One central element of your message is that life is suffering. What do you say to critics who say that maybe in your passion, you can be overly pessimistic or critical?
I don't think there is more pessimistic a message than the one that has been promoted on the radical left for the last 150 years: that society is best construed as a power game between the privileged economic class and the oppressed, that our culture is fundamentally corrupt in an almost irreparable manner and everything we've accomplished is a consequence of oppression and exploitation. My stance is different. I understand that life can be very difficult and that it's necessary to understand that, but the attempt to contend with that voluntarily can strengthen you psychologically, minimize the suffering of biological vulnerability, set institutions straight, strengthen people as individuals and set their families right. You can't get more hopeful than to face what's darkest and then say, despite that, you have hope and efficacy and power, authority and competence. It's realism with an overlay of encouragement.
Is there a time that you look back and say, "This was better" or "This is a culture we can learn from" or "Here's one time where corruption was not as bad"?
Not self evidently. I'm not stating that there was some optimal time when none of these problems existed. What disturbs me is that we can let that all go just as so much of the world is radically improving. At the beginning of the 20th century, famine was a fairly common occurrence, even in Europe. It's increasingly the case that there isn't anywhere in the world that famine is an occurrence except where it's caused consciously for political reasons. There are lots of reasons for tremendous optimism, but at the same time we're in a state of philosophical crisis. It's so strange that this is happening just as the ideas that characterized the West - honest institutions (by and large), individual integrity, private property, have spread throughout the world and everyone has become much better off in terms of their freedom and their economic possibility and security because of them. Yet, we're having a crisis of faith about what we believe. It's a deep problem.
There is this phenomenon of businessmen committing suicide, also in Switzerland. Europe has some of the highest suicide rates among men in the world. Why do you think affluent men who appear to most people to “have it all,” experience such despair and depression?
Well, they say that man does not live by bread alone…
“but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God…”
Well, yes, precisely. There's something about that that's very deep. We have what we need to be materially secure, but that's not enough. People who are well off still have the existential problems that characterize human beings. There are many, many problems that money won't solve and a fair number that it actually makes worse. There has to be a balance between material security and psychological purpose or, let's say, spiritual purpose, in order for people to live.
I'm curious about your interest in the Bible and theology, as it makes frequent appearances in your book, 12 Rules For Life, and in your lectures. In Europe, it is a much more secular culture than in the United States.
Well, that's what the Europeans think but they're wrong. For better or worse, the foundational document of Western culture is the Biblical Corpus. Of course, some assume that our political institutions are a consequence of our freedom from the superstition that characterized the pre-scientific past. So they truncate our historical development and set a demarcation line of about 250 or 300 years ago. But for all the admiration I have for people like Steven Pinker, who I think does a fine job of standing up for enlightenment values like clarity of thought, rational argumentation and the scientific method, I see all that as nested inside something far more ancient. Our culture is fundamentally Judeo-Christian, so we need to understand the stories that are at the bottom of our culture. That is the dream in which our very ability to think is nested. Each of us as moves between the fully articulated, conscious state that characterizes waking life, and the dream. Every night we disappear back into the dream. Without that, we can't maintain our psychological integration. If you disrupt people's dream life, they lose their mind. Our societies are built, are nested inside the Judeo-Christian mythos and we can't lose that. All that will happen is that it will be replaced by nightmares. If you've lost faith in the foundation of your being as a consequence of excess pseudo-intellectual rational criticism, then you become open to nihilism and hopelessness. You become liable to possession by ideologies, which are partial religions. We risked the destruction of Europe twice in the 20th century because of that opening for possession.
A frequent theme of your work is opposing identity politics; why, in your view, is it so dangerous?
Jordan: The first problem is the notion that your group identity is your most salient feature over and above your individual identity. Deeper than that even is the criticism of the idea the individual identity itself, which is something I think we can lay at the feet of the French intellectuals of the 1970s. Those criticisms are shallow because the idea of the individual is not a mere construct. Then, the idea that your group defines you is fallacious. You can take the typical person and define them as members of a group along at least 10 relevant dimensions. The problem with that is that you multiply the number of dimensions of potential group identity, you end up back at the individual.
What is your view of Donald Trump almost two years into his presidency?
I think Trump is the Joker in the deck of cards and that is part of the reason people elected him. Maybe part of the rationale was some belief that it would force the Republicans and the Democrats to get their house in order. I'm loath to prophesy about the consequences of his presidency. I look at what he's done. I think he hasn't embroiled the Americans and the West in any additional stupid wars. Given what's happened over the last 20 years with the mass destabilization in the Middle East and the catastrophic consequences of that, not least for Europe with the migration crisis, I'm quite happy he seems to be relatively cautious about embroiling the West in yet another pointless conflict. His imperial ambitions appear rather restrictive and that's a very good thing. I know he's engaging in trade disputes with his trading partners on the world scale like China, even Canada for that matter. But compared to the imperial ambitions of those who put themselves forward over the last 20 years in the U.S. as less bombastic and narcissistic figures, he's been markedly restrained in his actions.
What are your views on the EU and what's happening now with Brexit? Is the EU doomed to failure?
The first thing that we should note is that this is not a simple problem. It's the sort of problem that's probably solved over decades and decades, rather than years and years. How do you get the balance between local identity and transnational identity correct? The answer is, "We don't know.” The Americans, though somewhat more homogeneous than the Europeans, have implemented a system of federalism where people have multiple levels of identities simultaneously. The EU hasn’t arranged itself in hierarchy that's acceptable so far, so there's a huge battle between local identity and transnational identity. The disadvantage the local identity is the fragmentation into tribalism. The disadvantage of the transnational identity is essentially something like the death and disappearance of God. It's like, "Well, these people in Brussels are so far removed from me as a citizen that I feel no allegiance towards them and positively alienated by their distance.” I understand why people have no desire to turn their sovereignty and autonomy over to faceless bureaucrats over whom they have no sovereign control and with whom they have no relationship, especially given the additional proclivity of the detached elites to make what they feel are good decisions in their wisdom on the part of their constituents. When the European Union began its formulation, the people who were attempting to create an overarching structure of governance had good reasons they didn't want Europe to degenerate into national conflict yet again. Twice was enough for one century. Those governance structures are important, but it's very difficult to get them right and we haven't been at it for very long.
What is your message for the Swiss that are reading this and in particular young men?
It's very straightforward. The best way to make a better world is to put yourself in order, to adopt mature responsibility and to face the problems of the world. The fundamental answers are not political. The fundamental issue is psychological, or spiritual, which is the same thing. That is the secret of the West: the fundamental responsibility is on the shoulders of the individual and that is where nobility and meaning is to be found. The world is very complicated and we don't know how to progress properly through it. What we can say, is the more that people are prepared to be honest, ethical, responsible, straightforward and clear-headed, the better our chances and it would be good for each person to strive to become one of those people.
Kirsten Haglund is an American political analyst regularly appearing on major outlets such as MSNBC, CNN International and Fox News. Her Op-Eds on politics, culture and non-profit advocacy have appeared in the New York Daily News, Forbes.com, Huff Post and in industry journals. In 2008, she served as Miss America. She is currently based in Zurich, Switzerland.