Jordan Peterson: Eastern Europe might avoid the Western scenario

Jordan Peterson. Foto: Jordan Peterson. Foto:

Former Soviet bloc countries were bit hard enough for seven decades to have learned. People in Eastern Europe can see through the blandishments of the postmodern neomarxists, says Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson in an interview with

You are working on a new book called We Who Wrestle with God. So, how is the wrestling going during the Christmas time?

It’s going great. I’m about three quarters down the last chapter, and then I have some serious editing to do. But I’ve been walking through the Biblical corpus in the same way that I did with my Genesis lectures in 2017 and with the Exodus seminar that I released last year, incorporating a much wider variety of stories into my thinking and exposition than I have in the past, and I’m very excited about that.

I hope to offer people a comprehensible explanation of the underlying narrative structure of the Biblical corpus and to contrast that with the doctrines of hedonism and power that have arisen as substitutes in the Western world. We know now that we see the world through a story, or more accurately, that a story is a description of the structure that shapes our perception. Once you know that and you understand that you have to live in a story, the only relevant question becomes then, what is the appropriate story? And that’s what I’m trying to answer with this book.

The book is coming during a time when we’re constantly hearing the pessimistic story, which says that we are destined for failure or even for apocalypse. Is that your motivation behind the book?

There’s always reason to adopt a stance of apprehension with regard to the future, because people are fragile and so are societies, and things can go cataclysmically wrong. But that’s an eternal truism. That doesn’t mean that the appropriate attitude to take towards that is one of faithlessness and pessimism. It also doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate to turn to immediate gratification to salve your wounds, so to speak.

The book of Job, for example, insists that it’s the moral duty of human beings to maintain faith, no matter what, in some ways even in spite of the evidence. And you might think, well, what do you mean, in spite of the evidence? And I would say, well, in everyone’s life, there’s enough despair to justify hopelessness and to motivate bitterness and resentment. But all that does is make it worse. It’s not helpful. And so, despite the catastrophe of life, you have to hold your head up high and climb uphill. All claims that the contrary view is justified by the evidence are misguided, to say the least.

Regarding the concept of faith, you once stated that wrestling with God means finding the right path and that is, fundamentally, what belief is all about. But many people equate faith with blind belief.

I think that’s a deep misapprehension regarding the Christian tradition. In the gospels, which I’m writing about now, Christ continually upbraids the Pharisees and the scribes and the lawyers and even the secular authorities and the mob for blind obedience to idiot dogma. The idea that that’s somehow identical with Christianity, or Judaism for that matter, is patently false. And it’s an Enlightenment conceit. The Enlightenment conceit is that the religious enterprise was nothing but a superstitious pack of lies that could be circumvented by the rational intellect and transcended. And while we’ve seen the consequences of that, and that was predicted by people like Nietzsche and Dostoevsky, that if we demolished the metaphysics of value, if we killed God, so to speak, that we would turn to the worship of power and the pursuit of hedonic pleasure.

And that happened immediately with the dawn of the Enlightenment, both of those things with cataclysmic consequences, and they’re still unfolding and so there isn’t anything in that that’s appropriate. The notion that the religious enterprise is nothing but faith in superstition, that even flies in the face of biological evidence. It’s obviously the case that people have a religious instinct. You can elicit religious experiences pharmacologically. What other proof do you need? Not that there’s any shortage of additional proof. And to identify the entire domain of sacred experience with superstitious, prescientific belief is an appalling misreading of the progress of man and of history itself. There’s no excuse for it. And I think most of that can be laid at the feet of the French Enlightenment rationalists.

As the saying goes, when people believe in nothing, they are capable of believing anything. We see it in modern politics, which has changed into this „religious” conflict, where both sides have their saints and martyrs.

Well, there’s a couple of reasons for the separation of church and state. And the fact of that separation has its origin in the gospel doctrine that there are things that should be rendered unto God and things that should be rendered unto Caesar. And what that really means is that things need to be put in their proper place. So, there is a domain of the sacred, and what’s sacred is what is most fundamental. This is a definition. For example, the commitment you make to your wife to remain faithful to her in your marriage is a sacred vow. And the reason that it’s sacred is because everything in the marriage rests upon that. So, there’s a level of analysis that is deepest, let’s say. And that’s the religious depths.

Again, that’s by definition. Now, if you fail to attribute the existence of those levels to the religious, it collapses into the political. And then what happens is the political becomes sacred. And then what happens is people go to war over what’s political. They can no longer talk, because instead of talking about the merely political, they start transgressing upon sacred norms. And then, well, then all hell breaks loose, and we’re definitely heading in that direction.

And that’s what happened to you, when you attacked the new sacred dogmas. You’re known in Slovakia for your book 12 Rules for Life, but also for your fight against cancel culture. However, your story is just one among many coming from Canada. It’s fascinating, because for most Slovaks, Canada seems like this promised land with freedom and prosperity and reindeers. How did things get this bad in Canada?

Well, I think it probably started in Canada back in the 1970s, when we were forced to take extraordinary measures to keep the country together because it was splitting apart on linguistic lines. And so, Canada made a pact with the devil to remain intact. And the pact was the attribution of rights to groups. And we did that first on linguistic grounds. So, the French and the English had rights as linguistic groups, and that opened the door to the notion of group rights – that was 40 years ago. And so, Canada moved down the group rights path very quickly and deeply, enshrining it even into our constitutional documents. And that’s just been a bloody catastrophe.

Once you allow the notion of group rights to enter the domain of your political conversation, there’s no end to its proliferation. I think that’s why Canada has been almost uniquely susceptible to invasion by the postmodern, neomarxist doctrines of group identity, because it’s literally part of our constitutional framework. I knew this was a mistake back then, because you can’t attribute rights to anything that can’t take responsibility. And groups, obviously, what are you going to do? How are you going to make a group responsible? Well, even if you try, you end up punishing whole groups of people for their hypothetical group fostered sins, and that’s just a complete bloody catastrophe.

And then Canadians – I think our country was so highly functional for so long, that people, number one, took it for granted, and number two, refused to notice that that reality is seriously threatened. And I don’t think Canadians also understood that the Trudeau government, which was elected as a centrist liberal enterprise, was actually far to the left, even of the socialist party in Canada. That had never happened historically. And a lot of that came in as a consequence of outright falsehood and deception on the part of Trudeau and his pathetic, narcissistic minions.

You said at the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) conference, that if humankind wants, it can turn the desert blue. Few weeks after your speech a well known Canadian professor Gaad Saad wrote an article saying that he’s not sure that the West can recover from its multifront civilizational suicide, and that it will probably be the first society in recorded history to fully self-implode. You are not necessarily that pessimistic.

I think that it’s within our power to determine our direction, and that as much catastrophe as we have immediately at hand, we have an equivalent or greater amount of opportunity. We’ve made unbelievable progress in the last 40 years, staggering, miraculous progress. And I see no reason whatsoever that that can’t continue if we develop the proper vision. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the ARC enterprise, is to develop that vision. And that’s a vision of psychological transformation, I suppose, and a return to the notion that the responsible individual has a sovereign role to play in the creation of a better future that also gives people dignity and meaning and a genuine identity, as opposed to this, whatever it is they’re being offered by the narcissistic hedonists and the power worshippers on the other side.

Identity as sexuality or identity as ethnicity or race or identity as unearned moral virtue, all of that’s hollow and dangerous because of that. If you abide by a hollow doctrine, you get resentful because there’s no sustaining meaning in your life. And then when you suffer, it turns you against the world itself. And so, we’re hoping to offer an alternative that’s grounded not only in the deepest of traditions, but I would say now also in the most sophisticated of modern biological inquiry, because I can see them dovetailing in a way that hasn’t been the case in the past.

We see pushback and also polarization all around us, when people tend to look for news in their favourite media, which basically develop these biased business models, with which they aim to address only certain groups. Can you actually conduct a reasonable conversation in such an environment?

I guess my head is absolutely stuffed full at the moment of the things that I’ve been reading. You don’t cast pearls before swine. If the person you’re talking to isn’t listening, you should just shut up. You should find someone else to talk to, or you should understand that you’re not where you think you are and you’re not talking to who you think you’re talking to. And so, we’ve noticed, too, at the ARC, that it’s actually rather pointless – and I think this is becoming increasingly obvious – to engage in partisan dispute. I think that what we need is a competition of competing visions that you can lay out what you would like the future to be in front of people as clearly and starkly as possible, and let them freely choose what direction they want to travel in.

What I see being offered by the globalist utopians is an increasingly totalitarian future justified by fictional emergencies. And we saw exactly how that plays out with the COVID tyranny. And I don’t believe that any of that is necessary. I think that insofar as we are confronting emergencies, they’re no greater and probably lesser than those that confronted us in the past. And there’s absolutely no reason to assume that if we got our act together that we couldn’t surf the giant waves that are heading towards us like we always have in the past. And so, I think it’s best to disengage from tit for tat political argument and to concentrate on what can be offered as solution. And what we found with the ARC speeches is that all of the speeches that tilted in the political and partisan direction were quite unpopular and unwatched when they were released online. And all of the ones that were visionary and invitational went viral. I think that’s an indication of what kind of hunger is gnawing in people’s bones at the moment.

In our part of the Europe, we have an advantage – we can see into the future. We can just look at Canada and understand what the progressives have in store for us. You didn’t have that opportunity. But at the same time, there are many people in Slovakia and in other countries in our region who equate western prosperity with modern progressivism and with all its excesses. Do you think that we can avoid this western scenario or are we just downstream?

I think you guys might be able to avoid it. You were bit so hard for seven decades that the memory of that still exists even among people who were born after leaving the Eastern Bloc. My stance, from having travelled fairly extensively through Eastern Europe, through the former Soviet bloc countries, is that – you were bit hard enough by the progressives to have learned. You see evidence in places like Hungary and Poland, that the blandishments of the postmodern neomarxists are not attractive – people can see through them, people are sceptical of them.

I’m often optimistic about things on the Eastern European side. You guys still have plenty of corruption to deal with left over from the Soviet era and that’s a problem, but things are a lot better than they were 30 or 40 years ago. That’s another example of the general proclivity of the planet to have improved in every way on the human side since the early 1960s, probably since the end of the second world war.

We can see several people from former atheist circles going on a path towards faith. People like Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Niall Ferguson come to mind. At the same time, the share of irreligious people is increasing across the Western world. Do you think that this trend towards irreligiosity has to continue?

This is a certain part of what I’m trying to do with my work – we’re at a point where we can’t merely abide by the traditional dictates of the past, we have to understand them. That means we have to unite our enlightenment rationality with our traditional stories. But I think that that opportunity is now at hand. We know the great neuroscientists, ones I’ve interviewed for example, have indicated very clearly their belief, their realization, that the implicit structures that underlie our perception are basically narrative in essence, that we do see the world through story. This is a radical discovery because the empiricists believe that we could just construct a model of the world as a consequence of pure science and data. And the rationalists believe that we can reason our way to an appropriate model – none of that is true. It also can be demonstrated on the scientific side, the AI researchers, the literary critics, the theorist perception, affective neuroscientists, cognitive scientists. They’ve all realized that motivation and emotion are integrated into perception and that the whole integration takes place within the story.

That’s a radical transformation of viewpoint. As I said earlier, that means that we have to get our stories straight and what we’re going to find, is, that deep inside the traditional stories that have always guided our culture is a guide to an appropriate and meaningful future. And you know, if you’re not entirely pessimistic and cynical, then that makes the simplest kind of sense. Is it really the case that we can assume that our ancestors were nothing but bumbling buffoons who were blind to the nature of reality? They contended with challenges that certainly equal or exceed the things that we’re all called upon to deal with on a day-to-day basis, and they’ve managed for hundreds of thousands of years in a form identical to our current form. It’s time for us to drop the foolish supposition that somehow, we’re wiser than the entire history of the human race, and to turn our attention back to the great stories of the past and to rediscover their essence. And that’s an unbelievably exciting thing to do when stories start to open themselves up and you realize what they’re pointing at.

That started to happen to me by reading people like Carl Jung and Mircea Eliade who are great interpreters of ancient stories, Joseph Campbell is a good populizer on that side, and people can’t live without those deep narratives. We’re obsessed with fiction – regarding our entertainment, we’re so obsessed by fiction that it’s intrinsically motivating, well, that points to something, that’s profound. Even on the biological side there’s an instinct for story that has to be taken seriously, that’s not a secondary consequence of some more fundamental cognitive process. It’s a precondition for cognition itself. And I believe that, insofar as settled science goes, which is not a phrase I’m very fond of, this is all settled science. As I said, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Now I think we’re going to see an acceleration of polarized conflict over the next while as these things sort themselves out, but my hope is that enough people will pit the goal path forward so that the least amount of damage has to be done while things sort themselves out.

Next year is just around the corner. Do you have a prediction? There’s the upcoming American presidential election and the war in Ukraine will probably reach a boiling point. What do you expect from 2024?

I don’t have a prediction. I think the future is approaching at such a velocity and with so many possibilities of transformation that a truncated temporal horizon is appropriate. The more things are happening, the shorter the distance you can look. The shorter the distance, the more you can apprehend the future. Even in my own life, my plans are formulated about six months out and I really can’t see much beyond that, because there’s so much up in the air.

There’re not only all the geopolitical issues that you raised, but the rate of technological transformation, you can’t even keep up with it, you can’t even track it. I’ve been using ChatGPT as a research assistant for the last few months and it’s unbelievably smart. Those AI systems are proliferating so madly, we have no idea what they’re going to do. I saw a trailer for a new news programme with AI generated newscasters – perfect, indistinguishable from real people. They proclaimed the dawn of the new and more reliable news – I thought, it’s the exact opposite – you now have the technology to produce any account of any occurrence. How the hell are we going to tell the difference between truth and falsehood when every video is suspect. Well, who the hell knows? So, what is the solution to all this complexity?

I thought this through, and this is what made me a psychologist and not a politician – when things are changing rapidly, it’s time for everyone to learn to dance more effectively on their own two feet. Because that distributed awareness and willingness to take deep responsibility is the antidote to change that’s too rapid and destructive. And there’s no other antidote. So, when things are moving too quickly, then people have to be more awake and alert and ready on their feet and that’s partly what I’m attempting to communicate to people as I’m traveling around with my wife speaking to all these audiences. Get prepared now. Put your life in order. Because it’s really the time for that. And do it now.

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