Jordan Peterson continues to delight for he eschews trite pop culture and politics and, instead, speaks about deep truths that go to the human condition.
I have wonderful friends. So wonderful that one of them invited me to join her and her family to see Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin last night. It was a delightful evening from start to finish. I could tell you all about the enjoyable conversations in the car (lots of driving), but I won’t. Instead, let me tell you about the main event.
As some of you may recall, I attended a Rubin/Peterson evening in San Francisco last year, so I knew the general outlines of what was to come. I knew that the crowd would be large (the auditorium was filled); that I would see a broad spectrum of people, covering all ages (including teens), races, and sexual orientations; that Dave Rubin would be witty, charming, and accessible (there’s a deep sweetness to that man); and that Jordan Peterson would be intellectually dazzling. The evening met each of those expectations.
As before, Rubin opened the show with some light humor and with an homage to the Intellectual Dark Web, which sees intelligent people of good will, and markedly different beliefs, come together to celebrate true intellectual diversity and free speech. Then he introduced Peterson. The crowd, predictably, went wild.
Peterson takes the stage almost hesitantly. He has no script and no shtick. Instead, he pauses to ruminate a bit and then, drawing from his capacious brain, announces that he thinks he’ll start the talk by looking at the centuries’ long struggle between science and religion. He speaks hesitantly at first. There are long pauses during which he plays an invisible piano while he gathers his thoughts.
For the first ten minutes or so, it’s easy to believe that, after last year’s grueling schedule (100 touring days, more than 100 talks), Peterson has burned out. Then, he slowly starts gathering speed. The words come faster, the literary, psychological, sociological, and scientific data flows in an unending stream of fascinating data. As he gains momentum, Peterson balances the data and in-depth analysis with merely funny asides, which he follows with profoundly funny asides and conclusions.
By the end of the talk, Peterson is, as I said above, dazzling. He’s given the audience, not Oprah-esque pabulum, but an intellectual tour de force about the human condition, about man’s search for meaning, about the Leftist war on competence, about the nature of power, and about universals traits in both humans and animals, to name just a few of the topics he covered. Despite both the sheer breadth of information he offers, Peterson never loses his main point. He wraps everything up in a truly profound package that speaks, not to partisanship, but to core human needs, both personal and societal.
To be honest, Peterson’s speech was so information rich that I’m struggling to remember precisely what he said. I haven’t forgotten it at a core level. His insights exist in my mind and (I hope) my mind will draw upon them at appropriate times, especially when I speak with my children. For that reason, what follows is a scattershot delivery of those points I do remember. It probably represents less than a twentieth of what Peterson offered to the audience.
One of the things that really struck me was Peterson’s attack on Foucault, the mid-20th century French philosopher who is a staple of intellectual Leftism. If I understood Peterson correctly, Foucault believed that human society is always ordered around raw power. Peterson contends (and provides evidence to support this contention) that Foucault is absolutely, completely wrong.
Raw power, says Peterson, is inherently unstable. He points to studies showing that chimpanzees are, overall, cooperative creatures, with the grooming rituals functioning an especially important way to order the chimp community. While an individual chimp can rise to dominance through brute force unrelated to communal give and take, his reign will be short-lived. He has no friends and, sooner or later, two or more chimps with lesser power will ally themselves and overthrow him. (Think of the Aztecs for a human corollary.) In power-based societies, the end, when it comes, comes fast. (Speaking of which, I expect to see a swift implosion in Venezuela, especially now that Trump has turned his gimlet eye on that failing socialist nation.)
The real power in any community, says Peterson, is competence. He pointed out that all of us attending his talk were there was a result of competence: the competence behind functional cars, navigable roads, working light fixtures, etc. Nothing in the evening was a result of power.
And then Peterson came out with what was (to me) a startling insight: Leftists are drawn to power, not just because it’s the nature of the beast, but because of their relativism. Power negates competence and, for a Leftist, competence is a dangerous reminder that incompetence exists as well.
Leftists have abandoned the Founders’ belief that all humans are created equal in the eyes of the law, even as they maintain their individual differences. Instead, Leftists insist upon a mandate that all people (notwithstanding their insistence on external hallmarks of diversity) must be perceived as identical. This mandate makes the entire idea that incompetence exists untenable — especially because those mostly loudly seeking power may do so because they lack competence in anything other than power seeking.
Next, Peterson pointed to humans’ inherent notions of fairness and cooperative play. For the former, he spoke about an experiment in which someone is given $100. That person is then told that he must share some portion of that money with the person sitting next to him. If the second person agrees to the offered share, both get to keep the money; if the second person refuses the share, both lose it. When I heard that proposal, I instantly thought to myself, “I’d give the second person 50%. For me, the money ‘found’ money, as I did nothing to earn it. Anything I keep is a gift and the best way for me to ensure that I retain the largest gift is to give the person next to me an equal share.”
Even as that thought passed through my mind, Peterson said that economic theory holds that the smartest offer to make is $1, so that both people come out ahead, but the person dispensing the money has the greatest benefit. “Darn,” I thought. “I got that really wrong.”
But, added Peterson, that theory doesn’t work in the real world (which reminded me of other failed real world theories). The most successful offers range from 50% to 60%. It turns out that people’s inherent sense of fairness, coupled with pride, means that the second person, if offered a dollar, would rather starve than accept the inherent inequity in the offer. My first instinct, then, placed me perfectly within the bell curve of actual human behavior, rather than academic theory.
Moving along, Peterson talked about the mammalian love for play, something that exists in all warm-blooded animals. (He didn’t say “warm-blooded animals,” but I inferred it from his examples.) This love of play is part of the socializing and fairness process that enables human societies to function. Indeed, said Peterson, drawing a big laugh from the audience, humans are so attuned to the socializing lessons we learn from play that we’ll pay large sums of money not to play ourselves but to watch others play. It’s not just that we admire their athletic prowess; it’s also that we need to see repeated over and over the societal virtues of rules, fairness, and good sportsmanship.
From that concept, Peterson moved to rat studies, which have shown that rats also love to play. Just as a rat will repeatedly press the little bar in those experimental cages to get food, it will also do so if it gets the opportunity to play with another rat. That brought Peterson right back to the whole notion of power versus competence and collegiality.
You see, if Rat A is a big guy and Rat B is a little guy, Rat A will quickly pin Rat B and the play ends. The Leftist, seeing this, will say, “Foucault was right. All that matters is raw power.” However, if the Leftist had the patience to watch the process repeatedly, what he would see is that, despite that first loss in play, little Rat B still wants to play again. And so does big Rat A. Here’s the amazing thing: If Rat A really wants to play, he must abandon his power at least 30% of the time and let Rat B win. If he does not do so, Rat B will refuse to play and Rat A will no longer be able to play.
By the way, if the above reminds you of something, it’s because you have children or have worked with children. When they’re little, you must periodically let them win Candy Land or catch or T-Ball, or whatever else you’re playing with them or they too will refuse to play. Our inherent sense of both fairness and playfulness demands occasional victories for the little guys if everyone else is going to continue to play. This doesn’t mean “trophies for everyone.” It means socializing people in an age-appropriate way.
I wish I could tell you more about the evening, but I didn’t take notes, so all I can do is what I did above: try in some way to replicate a couple of the main points Peterson made. The best advice I can offer is (a) to attend a Jordan Peterson/Dave Rubin evening if you possibly can and (b) if you can’t attend an event, surround yourself with some Peterson videos. They are enriching. (I also recommend Dave Rubin’s interviews. Although he does have a political ideology, in his interviews he truly is a searcher for truth, which makes what he elicits from his guests interesting and often enlightening.)