Jordan Peterson during a lecture at the University of Toronto.
© Rene Johnston/Toronto Star via Getty ImagesJordan Peterson during a lecture at the University of Toronto.
Dr. Jordan Peterson, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, is the author of the best-selling title, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. He's very active in public life: He lectures frequently, engages in televised debates, and produces YouTube videos on a range of political and cultural issues. This week, we spoke about contemporary politics, the psychology of school shooters, and human longing.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Adam Rubenstein: To what degree is our politics driven by tribalism and identity? Would you say it's human nature to associate in tribes? How does one operate under these conditions?

Jordan Peterson: Well, there's this idea in Canada, for example, we have this ideal of multiculturalism, and there's a reason for that ideal. But the problem is that people nest themselves within a shared identity because a shared identity is actually what makes people peaceful.

It's not just human nature to associate in tribes. It's deeper than that. See, that's the other thing that's so interesting about a biological perspective, is that a lot of the problems that we have in our society -- the intractable problems -- the Marxists like to think about as socio-cultural constructions. And well, they're serious problems, but they're socio-cultural constructions. We could say inequality is one of those. We could say hierarchy is another of those. We could say tribal identity is another of those. Or gender identity. Very fundamental elements of human identity.

But the socio-cultural explanation is wrong, or at least radically incomplete, because those problems or phenomena, depending on how you look at it, are even more real than the Marxists even dare to imagine.

You can't have a value structure without a hierarchy. They're the same thing because a value structure means one thing takes precedence over another. The problem with not having a value structure is that you can't act without a value structure. You won't act unless one thing to do is better than another thing to do.

AR: So you would say this is an extreme form of relativism?

JP: Yes, a form of relativism that eradicates not only the possibility of action but of perception, because you can't even look at the world unless-and I try to concentrate on that in chapter 10 -- you can't even look at the world without privileging one thing over another. That's what you do when you look at something, you privilege it over all the other things.

AR: So you'd say identity politics makes way, or allows for the privileging of one group over another?

JP: Well, the identity politics types, they fail to grapple with the problem that we cannot coexist peacefully without a shared set of values. Those two things are the same thing.

They tend to presume that we can each maintain our tribal identity independently and yet somehow have peace. Well we can, as long as we never disagree but to the degree that we're actually different, and if we're not, then why bother with the group identity to begin with; to the degree that we're actually different, we will disagree. Then we at least need a mechanism for solving the disagreements.

You know, if you live with someone, if you're in a relationship with someone, you have a superordinate narrative. That's why you call it a relationship. The idea that you have a relationship is the superordinate narrative. And you know if you're going out with someone or married to them, you're always talking about your relationship. Well, why?

It's because you're trying to maintain and update the superordinate narrative that enables you to coexist peacefully in the same place and time. So, to say we don't need a superordinate narrative, first of all it implies that we don't have any differences, which is wrong. Of course we have differences. And second, that we don't need a shared system of values, which is wrong, because that's what constitutes peace. It's completely incoherent.

AR: It seems based on your explanation that many who subscribe to this sort of postmodernism would be lost.

JP: Well, that's the thing. Look, if you're relativistic to the core, you can't have part of the meaning in your life because there's no up and there's no down.

And you need an up in order for there to be meaning. Now unfortunately, that also means that there's a down. That's the price you pay for up.

AR: This is more contemporary rather than general. I want to talk a little bit about what happened in Parkland, Florida, about the school shooting. You actually wrote in your book about the psychology of school shooters, and mass shooters in general. You write about them as people who "think that they're the judges of the human race."

JP: It's deeper than that even. They're not the judges of the human race. They're the judges of being itself. They believe that the conditions of being are intolerable. There's an anti-natalist you might want to look up. His name is David Benatar. I did a debate with him a while back. He believes that human existence -- conscious existence, not just human existence but conscious existence, is so intolerable in its fundamental aspect that we should stop propagating it. We shouldn't raise animals. We shouldn't have children. We should just cease to be, because being in itself is a positive evil.

AR: So you think that's the mentality, the psychology in which these school shooters operate?

JP: Oh, for sure that's it. Yes, absolutely. But it's more than that. They take it a step further. Benatar just said, well, we should stop reproducing ourselves. The only possible proper language to describe what's happening with the school shooter types is that they're out for revenge against God. It doesn't even necessitate a belief in God for them to act that out. They're so angry that they're taking revenge on the source of being itself. That's their aim.

AR: So what would you do in education -- you are by profession an educator -- what would you do in education to help prevent these things from happening?

JP: Well, the first thing is to have a serious talk with people about -- and this is what I did in the sixth chapter of my book -- I made a case for why these positions exist. There's no doubt that life is suffering, and dreadful suffering, often, and there's no doubt that that suffering is compounded by malevolence and that makes it even worse. So, you can see why people become resentful. They become resentful because life is tragic and they're tainted by evil. You have to take that seriously. You can't brush it off. And people won't take it seriously. Because there's a certain moment-to-moment security to be found in naivety.

You know, this Vice guy that interviewed me. He talked about the epidemic of rape on campus -- those were his words. And then when he talked a bit longer and I made some comments like the ones I just made he said, well, that's a very dark view of the world. I thought that was very comical because I would say, first of all, he had no idea how dark a view that is. It's far darker than he thought. But it was him that brought up the rape epidemic. It's like, well, do you have a dark view of the world or not?

If you talk to people seriously, about the problems they have, the fact that they're suffering, the fact that they've been betrayed and touched by malevolence, sometimes their own and sometimes that of other people, they understand that. Especially people who are hurting. And then you can say, look, it's bad. It's worse than you think even, but there's more to you than you think. That's the thing. It isn't that everything is good and It's getting better. So there's an element of that.

AR: So you'd recommend techniques to actually contend with the real world rather than shudder from it?

JP: Yes -- well, it's full circle confrontation. You know, that's what I was trying to get at in chapter 1, which is kind of a comical chapter: You know, talk about crustaceans and the contrast I would say at least semi-comically with human beings, but the idea is that of course you're hurt and miserable and things have gone wrong in your life and people have been mean to you. Of course! Obviously. And maybe you even have it worse than other people do. That's certainly possible. On some dimension, there's no doubt you have it worse than most other people. Highly probable. Okay. Fair enough. And too bad for you. That sucks. What are you going to do about it? Cast yourself as a victim? No. That isn't the right way forward. First of all, it's cringing and weak.

AR: So, in Rousseau's terms, you'd advocate amour de soi rather than amour propre; love of one's self in a way that's not vain and dependent on others. A sort of self-contentedness.

JP: Well, I wouldn't even necessarily say that. It's not to be content, because I think that life is striving. If you want an image for that: There's a cathedral, it's an oratory actually, in Montreal called St. Joseph's. It's one of the largest religious buildings in the world, and it was built in the 1960s, and it's quite a remarkable place. Anyways, there's hundreds of steps leading up to it. It's built on a hill. So, it's the city on the hill. It's an image of the city of God. It's an image of "up." That's what it is. And pilgrims climb up the stairs on their knees towards it. People struggle up those steps towards the city on the hill. Towards "the good." And that's what we do in life. The cathedral is the symbolic representation of the ideal place. That's what you do in life.

AR: So, what you're describing is process of dialectic and personal understanding rather than something contingent on another being. It's an inward rather than outward facing process?

JP: Yes, it's an inward process. You have enough to do to straighten yourself out. It is more difficult to rule yourself than to rule a city. It is a metaphor, but it's also literally the case. It's very difficult to regulate yourself and if you learn to do that, well, it starts to spill over.

AR: What is it that you're hoping to accomplish both personally and professionally, with your bestselling book, your speeches, your public appearances, and your presence on YouTube? What do you think is so revolutionary about your message? What are you really trying to do?

JP: Well, I'll tell you what's happening to me. So, when I go give my public talks, and this also happens on email, but we can talk about that separately. When I went to Los Angeles, for example, I spoke to about 2,500 people, and after that about a third of them stayed to have a book dedicated and to say a couple words to me. And about a quarter of them would say, "Look, I've listened to your lectures and you're telling me things I knew but didn't already know how to say." Okay, so that's the advantage of providing some knowledge to people about the archetypes, about the reality of archetypes, let's say, because it provides them with images and words to express universal human experiences. That's what culture does. Real culture does that. It gives you images and languages to understand and express the universality and particularity of your individual experience. So, it's necessary. That's about a quarter of the people. And then, the other three-quarters come up and say, "Look, here's the dark place I was in. I was overweight, I was depressed, I was suicidal. I was nihilistic. I was drinking too much. I was addicted. I wasn't moving forward with my relationship. I wasn't getting along with my parents. I was fighting with my family." Whatever. Or some variant of that story. Then the next part is: I've been watching your lectures and I've been trying out some of the things that you've said. I've been trying to tell the truth. I've been trying to aim up and it's really working. It's often, though not always, couples that say that and tell me that their relationship is much better that they're getting along better.

Well, we just don't need the extra misery, you know? So, that's the hope. I don't want people falling down in an ideological abyss. Jesus, we went there already in the 20th Century on both sides, right? We went there on the left. All that was, was hell. We went there on the right. All that was, was hell. How about we don't go there again?

This is the essential message of the West. What's the essential message of the West? Pick up your cross and carry it up the hill. Right? That means something. It means something terrifying. It means that you have to accept the essential tragedy of your life. The death and mortality that's associated with your life. You have to accept your entanglement in evil. You have to open your eyes and see that and then you still have to walk up the hill.

AR: Would you say you've tapped into a certain human longing?

JP: It's the longing for a noble resistance. Look, it is the case that you have every reason to be ashamed of yourself. And so, you need something to set against that. You have to think, well, as a lowly creature, let's say, with all of my flaws and insufficiencies and inadequacies, at least I'm struggling uphill under my load. That's good. You can go to sleep. You can sleep on that.