Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Jordan Peterson’s year of trauma

Health problems.  A great mind in a frail body

Interviews with the Canadian academic, clinical psychologist and culture war belligerent Jordan B. Peterson can go badly wrong, sometimes for the interviewer, sometimes for Peterson. Sometimes for both.

His most infamous encounter was with Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4 News last year, an interview that has been watched more than 16 million times. Although Newman’s approach seemed designed to confirm Peterson’s reputation among the liberal left as a misogynist, most think she was worsted by him.

After that, however, she received such violent abuse online that Peterson intervened on Twitter to ask his supporters to stop threatening her.

Eighteen months on, he is not exactly extending the hand of friendship. “I thought it was very underhanded of her to come out and play the victim. It wasn’t like I was attacking her,” he says from his home in Toronto.

The problem, I think, is that Peterson and his interviewers assume the lobster position when they meet. Those who have read the first rule of his bestselling 12 Rules for Life will know what I mean. “Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” it orders, citing in support the claw-waving, boxer champ-dancing, chemical-spraying crustacean and its visceral fights for hierarchical advantage. “Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom,” his first chapter concludes.

Family turmoil

When I ring him at 3pm his time, I deal him a real zinger. “How are you?” I ask.

“That’s a complicated question. I’ve some very bad health in my family,” he says in a weak, scratchy voice that is far distant from that of the irritable layer-down of laws with whom I have familiarised ­myself.

“We’re all rather devastated at the moment. My wife is very ill. She’s had two surgeries in the last two months and is suffering from severe complications from the last one, and the prognosis overall is uncertain.”

Peterson and Tammy Roberts knew each other as children growing up on the same street in Fairview, northern Alberta, and have been married for 30 years. This spring she had a rare kidney cancer diagnosed. Surgery determined that the cancer had not spread, but her recovery did not go as planned.

“We got hit by lightning twice, let’s say. It’s not the ideal circumstances to have a positive interview, I’m afraid,” Peterson says.

Although 12 Rules is subtitled An Antidote to Chaos (chaos somewhat unhelpfully being symbolically identified by him as feminine), it is really about human suffering and what to do when, as he puts it in his grimly vivid way, “your leg is clamped firmly in a crocodile’s jaw”.

If anybody knows how to approach suffering, it’s him, I say. “Well, you’d hope so, but this has still thrown us through a massive loop.” At the beginning and at the end of our 90-minute discussion, Peterson’s voice breaks and he sounds close to tears.

Fans and enemies

In the year after its publication in January 2018, 12 Rules sold about three million copies, but Peterson is known by millions more for his podcasts and online lectures. Introduction to the Idea of God has been viewed 4.1 million times on YouTube.

On book tours he attracts audiences of a size more usually enjoyed by stand-up comedians, although his act is short on laughs. He wins ecstatic reviews, many friendly comment pieces and the gratitude of thousands of mainly young men who felt lost.

It is his critics who tend to get noticed, however, invading his lectures, taking him down in print by pointing out his more bizarre utterances and turning interviews into gladiator fights.

The hostility started not with 12 Rules, let alone his previous opus, Maps of Meaning, but with his opposition in 2016 to an amendment to Canadian law that, he claimed, would compel him to refer to transgender students and colleagues by the pronouns of their choice. Academe and other realms in which the latest received wisdom prevail spotted a traitor.

His greatest heresy was to insist on gender being a biological fact, not a social construct. (And I do mean insist. In 12 Rules he writes: “This isn’t a debate. The data are in.”)

What he does not claim is that the average woman is any less intelligent than the average man, and when I ask him to confirm that he believes in the equality of opportunity between the sexes he replies: “You’d have to be a fool not to believe in the equality of opportunity. I mean, it’s not like we have an excess of talent.”

Has he ever called himself a feminist? “I wouldn’t say so, only because of the connotations, let’s say, of the term, but I have a wife and a daughter, and I have a sister and a mother. It’s not like I’m not hyper-concerned about their progress through life and doing everything I possibly can to ensure that they have all the opportunities they possibly can.”

Strange company

He is a suspect public figure for another reason: the company he not so much keeps as is photographed beside. The latest example was a snap of him with an arm around a man wearing an “I’m a proud Islamaphobe (sic)” T-shirt. When this became public in March, Cambridge University rescinded a visiting fellowship for Peterson to study theology there, a decision he calls “extremely unfortunate and shortsighted”.

A number of things are going on here. One is that some pretty weird alt-righters project their prejudices on to him and that Peterson has a mischievous side to him that objects far too little to this. Another is his naivety. He is a clinician and an academic used to rooms of two or lecture halls of 70. Encountering in his 50s (he is 57) the wider world of what passes for thought, he is a little awed by it and a bit unsure how to treat it.

Staring into abyss

I ask if I may make an observation about 12 Rules. Lobsters aside, I mostly agree with the rules, but the picture he paints is of life as a struggle, a battle, even a 70-year war. His prose style is matchingly combative. Even his humour can be violent.

Now “Being”, as he grandly capitalises it, has its sorrows, but I don’t regard it as a constant fight. Have I lived a particularly fortunate life? Or has his been so difficult that it has delivered him to this vision of life red in tooth and claw?

“I think that’s a good question,” he says. “I’ve studied totalitarianism for many decades and I would say that isn’t a study that predisposes you to a particularly rosy view of the world. What did Nietzsche say? If you look too long into an abyss, the abyss looks into you. It’s certainly possible that that’s happened to me to a degree.

“It might also have something to do with my temperament. I have suffered fairly chronically from depression, and you never know how that colours your worldview. It’s certainly made things have a greater impact on me emotionally than they might have.”

I say that from the book I was also struck by how tough his Canadian childhood was, just the weather for one thing. “Well, there’s some truth in that,” he says. “It’s not like I failed to see the beauty also, but, especially in the winters, the absolute harshness of the environment was right at hand, every morning for months.”

In adulthood, ill health encroached early on his young family. His daughter, Mikhaila, suffered severe juvenile arthritis from infancy and had hip and ankle replacements at 17. In January the ankle replacement was redone in Zurich.

“So it has been one hospital trip after another for the last six months.” Like her father, she suffers from depression, apparently ameliorated by eating a beef-only diet, a regimen that her father has adopted to some effect and mockery.

“Do I feel I’ve had a hard life? There’s been some of it that’s been hard,” he says. “It’s by no means been hard compared to many people’s lives, but there’s a strong familial streak of depression that runs through my family.

“That’s been hard. My daughter’s illness was hard, very hard at times. It was very difficult to see her in pain for so long.

“On the other hand, I’ve had great good fortune. I have wonderful children (a son too). I love my wife. I have a great extended family. I’ve had a wonderful career. I’ve had this strange streak of unparalleled success, but I’m distraught currently because of this unexpected occurrence in my family, which is quite devastating to everyone concerned.

“I’m having a difficult time reconciling myself to it, my own good advice notwithstanding. That was a shock and it’s conceivable that I wasn’t in the best psychological state to have received that news because the last three years have been, let’s say, exhausting.”

Behind the armour

The public demands on his time have meant him abandoning his teaching at the University of Toronto and his psychologist’s practice. Nevertheless, over the past three years he has been “terrified” of being “one slip of the tongue away from genuine and permanent trouble” (Rule 10: Be precise in your speech).

What has been “entirely surreal” is not being able to walk down a street unrecognised.

“My mother was here a couple of weeks ago, helping take care of things while my wife was in hospital,” he says. “I was sleeping in the hospital and I would come home and my mother would walk back to the hospital with me, which is only about five blocks away.

“Generally speaking, along the way, five or six people would stop me, sometimes more. This was usually in the morning and they’d tell me some heartfelt story about how they’d married their girlfriend or made peace with their father or quit drinking. They’re very emotional stories and it brought her to tears several times.

“And then the scandals: that adds an additional level of strangeness to it. So much of the scandal has been political, and yet virtually everything I do, certainly in my public lectures, is psychological and philosophical, and very little of it political.

“It’s not like I’m opposed to the left. I understand that people are dispossessed and they need a voice. I’m not a winner-takes-all guy. I know that life has an arbitrary element and that it’s best to set up a society so that people can’t fall too far and not get back up.

“I see a role for the right and the left because the right stands for what’s good about what is and the left gives a voice to those who aren’t served by it.

“The reason I’m a free-speech advocate is because a dialogue has to take place between those two positions in order for us to maintain an even keel.”

He sounds as if he is swallowing back tears. “You caught me at a rather emotional time, I’m afraid. That’s not particularly rare, but, yeah, it’s been rather brutal here.”

It is not the first time he has described himself as an emotional person, but it has been hard to accept the claim because of his adamantine Old Testament public face.

Now I see that facade as an armour that protects him from himself as much as from his enemies. Life’s a battle, but his emotions count among the hostile insurgents. Peterson’s fans will not want to hear this any more than his ­enemies.

Nor can I imagine him accepting what I mean as a compliment. Right now, however, Dr Peterson is nothing like a lobster.



If You Can't Beat 'Em, Call 'Em Racist

Trump's tweets about the America-haters did NOT MENTION race

Veteran journalist Brit Hume weighed in on the uproar over President Donald Trump's latest bomb-throwing: "Trump's 'go back' comments simply do not meet the standard definition of racist, a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost."

Hume even cited the Merriam-Webster's definition of racism to show that Trump's comments had nothing to do with race. Hilariously — and pathetically, in a sign of the times — Merriam-Webster replied with a lengthy explanation about how "the lexicographer's role" isn't to define "how some may feel [words] should be used," while warning that "it is prudent to recognize that quoting from a dictionary is unlikely to either mollify or persuade the person with whom one is arguing."

In other words, words have no meaning if facts conflict with your triggered feelings.

Trump said what he said poorly, leaving himself wide open for the very assault he's facing. He said what we think he meant far better in defending himself later. "These are people that hate our country," he said. "If you're not happy in the U.S., if you're complaining all the time, very simply, you can leave."

Oddly enough, leaving wasn't his idea. Are we the only ones who remember the scads of leftists pledging to flee America altogether if Trump were elected president? Instead, they're all still here, still hating our country, still undermining the "democracy" they claim to be defending, and still trying to impeach its president.

That brings us to the press conference Monday involving the four radical leftist congresswomen who are members of what has been dubbed "The Squad" — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley.

Omar, the anti-American, anti-Semitic refugee from Somalia — and thus the only one of the four women resembling Trump's original description — was the worst, calling Trump "blatantly racist" and decrying his "agenda of white nationalists." She rehearsed a slew of false charges against Trump. Among them:

Trump was "credibly accused of ... colluding with a foreign government to interfere with our election." (A team of Democrat lawyers spent two years and $35 million to determine that it was NOT a credible accusation.)

He has "pursued an agenda to allow millions of Americans to die from a lack of health care while he transfers millions of dollars in tax cuts to corporations." (Both charges are BIG Lies and/or tinfoil-hat conspiracies. Millions have not died for lack of health care. And no money was "transferred" to corporations because it wasn't taken via taxes in the first place. Democrats are the ones bent on transferring wealth and basing their platform on envy.)

"This is a president who has called black athletes 'sons of b—es.' This is a president that called people who come from black and brown countries 's—tholes.' This is a president who has equated neo-Nazis with those who protest them." (No, he didn't. No, he didn't. And no, he didn't.)

She falsely blamed Trump "for the deaths of children on our border," and she accused him of "committing human-rights abuses" like "keeping children in cages and having human beings drinking out of toilets." (Children and the traffickers who bring them might not be trying to illegally cross the border without Democrats' open invitation. And while no one is drinking from toilets, Border Patrol detention facilities wouldn't be overwhelmed without, again, Democrats' open invitation.)

Omar accused Trump of making a "mockery out of our Constitution," something Democrats do all day every day, while concluding, "It's time for us to impeach this president."

There was plenty more, but that should suffice.

The Democrats' clear agenda with the "racist" charge is a craven political calculation to send Republicans scrambling for cover. It's working, too, as elected Republicans distance themselves from the president while much of the conservative commentariat piles on Trump. But they're succumbing to the relentless drumbeat of the Democrats' Leftmedia super PAC. For example, a Washington Post story today is titled, "White identity politics drives Trump, and the Republican Party under him."

How to put this politely...? That's horse pucky. Buried under Trump's garbled prose is a legitimate point, and it has nothing to do with race. It has to do with loving or hating America and the political party guilty of the latter.

Finally, as we observed yesterday, Trump's strategy is to unite Democrats behind these four radical socialist faces. "Trump doesn't play tic-tac-toe. He plays chess," said Newt Gingrich. "He wants the Democratic Party to identify with" these four women. "Pelosi in a sense was trying to draw a line and say, 'We are not them.' After Trump's tweet, she said, 'Oh, we really are them.'" Pelosi is indeed standing with the four to push a new resolution to condemn Trump.

Likewise, Rush Limbaugh said, "Trump obviously is attempting to have these people become the face of the Democrat Party. It's a brilliant political move." No less than DNC Chief Tom Perez said that of Ocasio-Cortez last year. And a new poll says swing voters do indeed consider AOC to be the "definitional face" of Democrats.

So, we'll see if Trump's strategy really is brilliant.



For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCHPOLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated), A Coral reef compendium and an IQ compendium. (Both updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten. I also put up occasional updates on my Personal blog and each day I gather together my most substantial current writings on THE PSYCHOLOGIST.

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