♦ JBP speaks about hierarchy
♦ Should we universally reject political correctness or is there a line that can be drawn?
♦ Your conception of truth is tailored to help us how we survive and live, doesn’t that mean that your approach to the meaning of truth is similar to one of a post modernist?
♦ Besides Solzhenitsyn and Dostoyevsky, Is there any other way that Russian culture and history has left a mark on your ideas?
♦ What is the source of meaning?
♦ Pathological chaos (liberals) vs pathological order (conservatives) on hierarchies
♦ Isn’t the classification of liberal and conservative views on hierarchies an attack on individual sovereignty?
♦ JBP speaks about temperamental differences in men and women
♦ Wouldn’t you say that some degree of extreme speech (whether right or left wing) should be curtailed for the betterment of society and for the scrutinised to be able to speak up and contribute their views?
♦ Why people like shutting down others for having different views in the political landscape?
♦ What would you say to Justin Trudeau?
* * *
Peterson: Well, that’s one of the more positive welcomes I’ve had from a university.
Moderator: Thank you for coming. If you’d like to give a few opening remarks, and then we’ll move on to some questions.
Peterson: Ok, so I have about half an hour for this, I guess.
Moderator: About 15 to 20 minutes for opening remarks.
Peterson: Ok, that’s fine. No problem. I think I’m going to talk to you today a little bit about hierarchy. It’s a small talk that I’ve been developing as I’ve been doing my public lectures over the last couple of weeks. It’s an elaboration of some of the ideas I’ve put forth in some of my scientific writings and Maps of Meaning. But more particularly in 12 Rules for Life, in Rule 1, which is “stand up straight with your shoulders back.” It’s in part a meditation on hierarchy. I want to talk about the political significance of that. But you know how I’ve been trying to sort that out in my own imagination. I think it sheds light on the nature of political debate itself, and maybe deeper light on why temperamental factors might contribute to political framing and perception. We know that people tend to vote by temperament, although there are other reasons that influence their political allegiance and voting behaviours.
Let’s start with a couple of simple observations. The first is that complex biological creatures—and even simple biological creatures, for that matter—have to move forward in the world. That’s the case for any creature that’s mobile, and that goes all the way down to one-celled organisms. The idea that approach and avoidance are the fundamental motivations is a very old biological idea, and it seems to apply across levels of analysis in the animal kingdom. And it’s true for us as well. We have to move forward towards things, because we have requirements. There are things that we require to keep us alive, and to keep us wanting to be alive as well, and those are different things. We move forwards towards things that we value.
So there’s two propositions there. The first is that we have to move forward, because there are things to move forward to, and because there are things we need and want. The second is that to move forward towards something is simultaneously to value it. One of the implications of that is that we always live in a framework of value. There’s no escaping that. I detailed this out quite substantially in my book Maps of Meaning, but we’re always at a place, and we’re always moving towards a place that in principle has an advantage over the place we’re at. Otherwise, why move towards it? What that means is that there’s no life without value—at least there’s no human life without value. Not only out of necessity at the physiological level, but also out of necessity at the psychological level. Another thing you might point out is that not only do you have to move from point A to B in life, but point A is often a very difficult place to be, because we’re fragile and bounded and mortal and limited, and because we know that. One of the implications of that, as many great religious traditions are at pains to illustrate or demonstrate or proclaim, is that life is essentially suffering. I believe that to be a fundamental truth. But perhaps not the most fundamental truth, because I think the most fundamental truth is that, despite the fact that life is suffering, people can transcend that. Partly the way they transcend that is by pursuing things of value, so that if there is no value proposition at hand, then you have no meaning to justify the difficult conditions of your life, and that’s brutally difficult for people. Nietzsche said, “he who has a why can bear any how.” I’ve certainly seen this as a clinical practitioner, that people who have no purpose in their life are embittered by the difficulties of their life. They become first bitter, and then resentful, and then revengeful, and then cruel, and there’s plenty of places to go past cruel. That’s just where you start, if you’re really on a downhill path.
All right, so that’s the first proposition. The second proposition would be, “well, if you’re going to pursue something of value, because you’re a social creature, you’re going to pursue that thing of value in a social space. That means you’re going to compete and cooperate with people around you in pursuit of that value.” What that inevitably means is that, given that the pursuit of anything valuable is going to be a collective enterprise, you’re going to produce a hierarchy—or maybe more than one hierarchy, but at least a hierarchy—of competence in relationship to that pursuit. So it doesn’t matter what you decide to pursue. You’re going to find that you and other people vary in your ability to manage that pursuit effectively and efficiently. And so there’s going to be a hierarchy of people from those who are very good at the pursuit. Maybe it’s pole vaulting; maybe it’s delivering massages; maybe it’s delivering groceries; maybe it’s setting up an enterprise. It doesn’t matter. But if it’s a valuable pursuit and you pursue it socially, you’re going to produce a hierarchy, and the hierarchy is going to be one of competence. If you’re going to pursue value, that you’re going to construct a hierarchy. There’s an implication from that, which is that, if you construct a hierarchy, a minority of people are going to be fantastically successful at the pursuit, and a very large number are going to stack up at the bottom. That’s a manifestation of what’s known as Price’s law. It’s mapped by the Pareto distribution. It’s an expression of what’s been known among economists as the Matthew principle, from the New Testament: “to those who have everything, more will be given. From those who have nothing, more will be taken away.” It’s an iron law of the distribution of success and hierarchies. So if you’re going to have value and you’re going to have hierarchy, then you’re going to have inequality. That’s a problem.
Now you have a political divide. The conservative types say, “well, we need the hierarchies, and that’s self-evident as far as I’m concerned, given that set of propositions. If you’re going to pursue something of value, which you have to and need to, then you’re going to produce a hierarchy. So if you demolish the hierarchies, you demolish value itself, and that’s not a tenable move.” The left wing, though, says—and to their credit—”yeah, but you have to be very careful with your hierarchies, because they tend towards inequality of distribution. That’s one problem. Once they’re established, they also tend to a form of tyranny, because once a hierarchy of competence has been established, it can be invaded by people who use power as the means to attain status in the hierarchy. That can corrupt and destroy even the entire hierarchy. So you have to be on guard for that. Plus, if your hierarchy becomes too steep in its distribution”—so it’s too tiny a fraction of people at the top and too great an agglomeration of people at the bottom—”especially in conditions of genuine privation, it’s not only unjust and unfair and producing excess suffering, but the people at the bottom have nothing to lose and may as well just flip the hierarchy on its head, and that’s not a good way to produce a sustainable society. You don’t want to put people in a position where they have nothing to lose, especially if you have something to lose, but also just with regards to principles of fairness and justice, let’s say.”
It seems to me that’s a decent way of conceptualizing the political landscape, and that gives you a conceptual framework, within which you can put people on the left and right in their proper position. The right, basically, is that portion of the population whose temperamental proclivity is to admire and support hierarchies and work effectively within them. That’s actually the personality traits that make up a conservative, because conservative by temperament are low in trait openness, which is a creative dimension, and it’s associated with lateral thinking. I would say it’s very environmental underdetermined. It’s a biological predisposition, especially with regards to creativity. And they are high in conscientiousness .The conservative temperamental types make very good managers and administrators. That’s how they manifest themselves in the world. Essentially, if you set up a hierarchy, and it runs algorithmically, then the conservatives will do very well in that structure, because they can implement an algorithm—and they’re very good at implementing algorithms—whereas the liberal types are very good at generating new hierarchies. That’s because they are high in trait openness, they’re less conscientious, so they’re not suited as well to within-hierarchy operation. But in a functioning economy—and in a functioning democracy, I would say—you need both types. You need the liberal types to establish new territory and put out new values, so that new hierarchies might be organized, so that effective movement towards those ends might be instantiated. And you need the conservatives to actually implement the processes. So a society of only conservatives becomes static, and that’s not good, because the environment transforms, and you have to keep up with it. A society that’s only composed of the left-leaning liberal types is very good at generating all sorts of new possibilities but very bad at generating all sorts of new actualities. And so we should be first of all cognizant of the fact that hierarchical organization is inescapable, if you’re also going to pursue value. Second, that if you produce hierarchical structures, you’re going to produce inequality inevitably, and there are negative consequences as a function of that. Both sides of that equation, let’s say, need a voice, because both of those functions are valuable, necessary, but also at odds with one another—and at permanent odds, because it is the case that you need hierarchies, because otherwise you have nothing to do, and it’s also the case that if you have hierarchies, then the poor will always be with you. That’s a chronic functional problem that has to be addressed. That’s the proper place, I would say, of the left.
That’s only fifteen minutes, but I’m going to stop there. You can chew on those propositions and see what you think of those. I’m really interested, actually, in having a discussion with all of you. And I’d be happy to start the question period a little earlier than it might have otherwise been necessary.
Moderator: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Peterson: My pleasure.
Moderator: Now we’ll move on to some questions. I will ask two initial questions and then open up to the audience in order to ensure that as many people as possible have a chance to ask some questions. My first question is, “political correctness is a rather vague term that refers to a wide range of issues, from preventing explicitly racist hate speech to calling out someone for wearing culturally insensitive clothes. Do you think that we should universally reject political correctness, or is there a line that can be drawn?”
Peterson: Well, that was the other thing that I was thinking of talking about tonight. I’m actually having a debate in Canada about that very proposition tomorrow. Here’s what I’ve been thinking about that—trying to formulate my thoughts for my six-minute initial opening remarks tomorrow. It’s a very tight time constraint. Think about it this way. Imagine that you need to describe the world in order to perceive the world and to act in it—both of those; not just to act in it, but also to perceive it—and that you need a description at different levels of resolution. You can think about how you use your computer when you’re dealing with images. There are times when what you really need is a thumbnail, because it doesn’t require much processing power and it’s sufficiently representative of the reality. So you can do whatever you need to do with the image, with the thumbnail. You never replace the thumbnail with a high resolution image, if the thumbnail will do. I really like that. I don’t think it’s an analogy. I think it’s a description of a very large number of cognitive operations. Maybe there’s a rule of thumb, which is, “never use a high resolution theory when a low resolution theory will do.” The converse is also true, by the way.
So then let’s say that in order to orient ourselves properly in society we need a general purpose, low resolution, existential theory. Something like that. It’s not precisely a description of the objective world. It’s more like an agreed-upon narrative about how the world is constructed in relationship to human experience, and how we should act in the world—how we should look at ourselves, look at history, look at our social being, so that we can coexist peacefully, so that we can move forward, so that our societies function. And then imagine that that comes in broadly two forms, and I think it does. One is a collectivist form, and I would say that collectivist form is built very deeply into human nature. It’s essentially a tribal outlook. It’s an outlook that you can trace back hundreds of thousands of years, and perhaps more deeply than that. We know, for example, that chimpanzees have a tribal outlook and will patrol the borders of their tribes, looking for chimpanzees who aren’t of the tribe. And when they find them, they will tear them into pieces. That was revealed by Jane Goodall in the 1970s. It was very shocking to everyone, when that was first discovered, because there was a very influential line of thinking—mostly derived from people who were influenced by Rousseau—that human beings were innately good, and only culture made them cruel and capable of atrocity. But the fact that the chimpanzees patrolled the borders and tore apart their enemies really did that theory in, in a very serious way, or at least made it more complicated. So the collectivist view is essentially that the best way to conceptualize what a human being is, is to look at what tribe they belong to. The tribe might be—well, this is one of the problems with the collectivist view: which of your tribal allegiances is to be paramount. That’s actually a fatal problem, by the way, because there’s an infinite number of ways you can be categorized, and it isn’t obvious which of those tribal allegiances should be canonical, hence the rise of intersectionality, which is a dragon that will eat its own tail. But there’s a notion there.
Forget about that for a minute. We’ll say, “the most important thing about you is your group: your gender, your sex, your race, your ethnicity; all of the multiple categories that we’re supposed to be considering as fundamental realities now, and that the best way to construe reality is that it’s a battleground between those groups for dominance, power.” That’s the postmodern ethos, and it’s a pretty decent thumbnail sketch of reality. You can sum it up quite quickly. You can use it as a guide for action in all sorts of domains. It has its consequences, however. One of the consequences is that it’s tribal, and tribal identities tend towards mayhem. Now the alternative low resolution view is the view that I think has been articulated most effectively in the West, and perhaps of all the places where it’s been most effectively articulated in the West, the most effective articulation has come from the U.K. There’s something remarkable about what your country has done with regards to laying out the idea of individual sovereignty in a fully articulated manner, in a way that allows a political system to arise predicated on the assumption that the individual is of intrinsic value. If you need a thumbnail view of the world, the most effective thumbnail view of the world isn’t that you are the member of a tribe—even though in many ways you are, and a member of many tribes. The most effective thumbnail view is that you are going to be regarded as a sovereign individual, and you are to treat other people that way as well. Both with regards to their rights, but even more importantly and often forgotten, with regards to their responsibilities.
I think that polities that are based on the first set of presuppositions, the tribal, degenerate into precisely what you’d expect, which is tribal warfare. The second have the possibility of blooming into exactly what they have bloomed into, which are the most functional societies, the most peaceful societies, the most successful societies, the societies that are the best at generating wealth—along with inequality—that the world has ever seen. So I would say we sacrifice the latter to the former at our great peril. And I would also say that—and this is something I’m very ashamed of—the universities, broadly speaking, are doing absolutely everything they can, as fast as they possibly can, to ensure that we sacrifice the sovereign individual view for the collective tribal view. I think that is appalling beyond forgiveness. That’s what I think about political correctness.
Moderator: Thank you. As a followup question, your conception of truth, as you said, is what helps us survive and live. Doesn’t that also mean that your approach to the meaning of truth is very similar to the one of postmodernists, which are a group of people that you so clearly denounce?
Peterson: That’s a good question. It’s wrong, but it’s a good question. Well, look. You always have to give the devil his due. There’s a central postmodern claim which arises from a very complex conundrum. The conundrum is one that emerged in domains outside of the humanities. Although, it emerged in the domain of literary criticism. What happened in the mid ‘60s was that a very large number of disciplines simultaneously realized that it was actually technically impossible to perceive the world, because there was an infinite number of ways you could perceive the world. That bedevilled artificial intelligence. People thought for a long time that it would be easy to build machines that could see the world, because there was the world, and there were the objects, and figuring out what the objects were wasn’t hard. It was maneuvering in the world that was hard. But that turned out to be wrong. It’s really, really hard to figure out what the objects are, and we actually don’t know how we do it. Now, 50 years later, we have machines that can orient themselves pretty decently in the world, but they really had to be built in embodied form, and I will pursue that. At the same time, psychologists working on perception ran into exactly the same conundrum, because they discovered they couldn’t figure out how we see things, and we’re still sorting that out. The literary critics figured out there was no obvious canonical interpretation for a piece of literature. That raised a spectre, which was, “well, if there’s no obvious canonical interpretation, how do you know that one interpretation is better than the other?” Out of that arose the postmodern notion that there’s no grand narrative.
There’s no justifiable grand narrative. There’s an infinite number of ways of interpreting the world, and there’s no grand narrative. Fair enough. But that raises the problem of value. If there’s no grand narrative, how do you orient yourself in the world? The postmodern answer to that was, “well, let’s forget about the complexity of that problem and sneak our closet Marxism back into the game.” That was completely intellectually untenable. I’ve been accused of failing to notice that there’s a contradiction between postmodernism and Marxism. It’s not like I’ve failed to notice that. It’s obvious that there’s a contradiction, but it’s equally obvious that the postmodernists, broadly speaking—it’s a thumbnail sketch—because they can’t solve the problem of how to orient yourself in the world if there’s an infinite number of interpretations, rely in a completely incomprehensible and paradoxical manner on the dictates of a defunct 19th century philosophy, to provide them with motive force in the world. That’s an untenable solution—apart from being dangerous beyond the belief, as the 20th century bears sufficient evidence to. Now, with regards to my conception of truth and whether it’s postmodern: No. Actually, it’s not. It’s a very complicated thing to sort out, because there is more than one way of conceptualizing truth. There’s truth as it’s manifested in ethics, and there’s truth as it’s manifested in the description of the objective material world. How those two things touch is not something we’ve sorted out well. In the ethical world, what’s happened is that an ethic has evolved over time, I would say. That ethic is reflected in the central axioms of civilized human behaviour, but you can also see deep echoes of it in animal behaviour. It seems to arise out of the fact that the interactions that take place among paired entities that have to interact repeatedly across time follow a set pattern.
One of the things that Jaak Panksepp discovered, for example, is that if you paired rats together to engage in rough-and-tumble play bouts—which you might not think is particularly relevant, but actually happens to be dead relevant, because that’s a special circuitry, and it’s part of the circuity upon which human ethics are based. In that, if you pair them together first, and one rat is bigger than the other, then the big rat wins. So you think, “well, play is dominated by power, and that’s how it works in rats, and it’s a power issue.” But if you pair them together repeatedly—which is a much more naturalistic experiment—what you find is that, when the large rat dominates the small rat, the small rat has to ask the large rat to play. If the large rat doesn’t let the small rat win 30 per cent of the time in repeated play bouts, then the small rat won’t play anymore. You think, “so what?” No, no. Not “so what.” That’s a major discovery. That’s like Nobel prize-winning material. What Panksepp demonstrated is that an ethic of fair play emerges even among rats. All you have to do is pair them together. There are rules that govern iterated ethical interactions that are emergent properties. Those emergent properties are manifest, as far as I can tell, and described in the great mythological stories that we tell, in the great narratives that underlie our culture. They’re not based on arbitrary assumptions. They’re based on observations of what furthered survival and reproduction, to speak in a purely Darwinian manner, over massive spans of time. To point to truth as construed in a Darwinian realm and to use the example of, say, iterated games to buttress that point is by no means similar in any way to participating in the same process that the deconstructionists participate in.
So I would say, “well, on the side of the postmodernists but not only the postmodernists, there are an indefinite number of ways of construing the world.” That’s been demonstrated technically. I don’t think there’s any debate about that. But there’s a very constrained number of ways that you can operate successfully in the world. A very constrained number of ways. It’s not one way, precisely, because it has its scope of variation, say, across culture and across environments. But it’s very tightly constrained. Now, what’s happened across the course of recorded history is that that ethic—this is something Nietzsche observed, when he was critiquing the history of Western philosophy—that ethic manifested itself first at the level of behaviour. We act it out. We don’t understand it, just like a chimpanzee troop acts out the ethic of their hierarchy. They can’t represent it. They can’t articulate it. The structure and the behaviours that are associated with the structure emerge before that is represented, and certainly before that is articulated. So first of all, the ethic that governs repeated interactions at different scales of social interaction—the structure emerges first, and then it’s mapped. It’s first mapped in image and story, and then it’s articulated. I talked earlier about the role that England and the U.K. has played in articulating the political doctrine of the sovereign individual. But the idea of the sovereign individual is far older than those political articulations, and it’s based in a narrative structure that is in turn based on the observation of behavioural patterns that have emerged reliably across time. That’s not postmodern in the least. It’s a very straightforward claim that there is something that approximates a universal human ethic, that’s built deeply into our biological and social structures, and that was constructed in no small part because of Darwinian mechanisms.
Moderator: Thank you. Now we’re going to open up to the audience. If you have a question, please raise your hand, wait for the microphone to reach you, and stand up. Please make sure you only ask one question. For the first question, we will go to the hand about the third row to the right.
Question: Professor Peterson, in your 12 Rules for Life, you speak very fondly of the influence of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn during your formative years as a student. You also use several examples from the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, to illustrate some points about psychology. I was just wondering, is there any other way that Russian cultural history has left a mark on your ideas?
Peterson: Well, they aren’t the only Russian thinkers who influenced me. I read a lot of Leo Tolstoy, including The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Bulgakov, whose Master and Margarita… I don’t even know what to say about that book. I’ve read it three times, and I think I could read it another ten times. It’s an amazing tour de force. I certainly don’t understand it. It’s like a complex dream. I’ve collected Russian Soviet-era art for a long time. I got very interested in constructivist art and suprematist art. There was a flowering of artistic productivity in the early stages of the Soviet Revolution, which was pretty much clamped down on immediately by Stalin in the 1930s. I have a real affinity for Russian thought that I don’t understand. So those are some of the additional influences.
Thank you very much.
Moderator: Thank you. On to the next question. We will go to the lady to my right.
Question: Thank you for coming to speak to us. I’m a really big fan of yours. I’ve especially appreciated all that you’ve written and spoken about regarding meaning as an antidote for chaos and nihilism. I’ll preface this by saying that Maps for Meaning is on my summer reading list, so if you’ve already answered this question in that book, please let me know. But I’m wondering what you would say about what’s the source of meaning. It seems that lots of religions have answered that question with God, but if there is no God, it seems that humans would have to artificially impose meaning on the world, in which case all the meaning that we reap from the world has already been given to it by us, and there’s no net meaning in the world. So I’m wondering what you would say about where meaning comes from.
Peterson: That’s a really good question. When Nietzsche announced the death of God—which was something he announced, actually, in sorrow and trembling, rather than triumphantly, which is often how that’s read, because people don’t actually read Nietzsche; they just read one half of a quote from Nietzsche. His prognostication was that we would have to become creators of our own values. And then it wasn’t long after that that he died. What that meant was that any further investigations into that idea by him came to an end. Not much later, Freud came along. Freud demonstrated quite clearly—even though he doesn’t get nearly as much credit for this as he should—that there was no evidence whatsoever that people were masters of their own houses; and that we were the playthings of the gods, in a Greek sense. We were driven perceptually and behaviourally, emotionally and motivationally, by forces that were not exactly under our voluntary control—autonomous internal forces. You could think about those as where the gods went when they depopulated the cosmos. That was Carl Jung’s notion. Jung was a very astute student of Nietzsche. He gave a seminar on the first half of Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, that’s 1,600 pages long. It’s actually quite a dense read as well, so it’s not 1,600 pages written in crayon.
Jung’s sense was that Nietzsche’s prognostication had to be wrong, because human beings cannot create their own values. We actually don’t have that capacity. We might be able to participate in the creation of those values, but we have to come to terms with our own nature while we’re doing so. I think the biological evidence for that is absolutely overwhelming. If you don’t believe that, then what that means is that either you don’t know anything about biology or that you’ve stuck your head in the sand to the point where you’re unable to see. Now Jung was very interested in how those internal forces manifested themselves, but also how they organized themselves across time. Ok, so there’s two answers to your question. One is that they organized themselves into a hierarchy, and there’s something at the top. He believed that what was at the top in the West was symbolized by the figure of Christ, and he thought of Christ as a symbol of the self. The self was an emergent consequence of the internal arranging of motivational states into a hierarchy, partly as a consequence of psychological activity—integration, maturation—but also partly as a consequence of social pressure, because how you organize yourself is partly a consequence of who you are and how you organize yourself, but it’s also partly a consequence of how other people demand you be organized. I think that Jean Piaget’s work fits very nicely into that. I think they were aiming in some sense at the same synthesis.
All right, so one place for the derivation of meaning is the consequence of that hierarchical organization of those intrinsic motivational states into something approximating unity that can operate properly across spans of time. The second answer to that is, “meaning is actually a manifestation of a very deep instinct.” It’s an elaboration of something the Russian neuropsychologist—that’s another answer to the question about the Russians. I was a devotee of the Russian neuropsychologist Alexander Luria and his students, Sokolov and Vinogradova, who were arguable the three greatest neuropsychologists of the last half of the 20th century. Vinogradova and Sokolov discovered the orienting reflex, which was probably the biggest discovery in psychophysiology in the last 50 years of the 20th century. It’s an unbelievably important discovery. The orienting reflex is what orients you towards what you don’t understand. It’s the reflex that orients you towards anomaly. What that means is that you have a structure built into you, to help you make sense of what you don’t understand. It’s an actual instinct. When the orienting reflex grips you, that’s when you’re surprised by something or startled by something. That’s the lowest level manifestation of the orienting reflex. It’s actually part of the mechanisms that defend you against predators. But that orienting reflex—and that’s very low level nervous system response; very, very quick, very reflexive. It requires very little cognitive processing—fast enough to have you jump out of the way of a striking snake. Extraordinarily quick and [inaudible], but like many important evolutionary adaptations, it’s echoed at multiple levels of the nervous system.
So the orienting reflex is actually very complex, as it unfolds across time. And so if something startles you, you might spend a year thinking about it, depending on how startled you were. That entire year-long process of thinking is actually an extended manifestation of the orienting reflex, and that’s a deep source of meaning. And so that’s like a second answer to the question. A third answer to the question would be, “your hemispheres are specialized in a particular way.” It’s a low resolution representation, by the way. One of your hemispheres is specialized to operate when you know what’s going on and where what you’re doing is having the results you intend. You could think about that as explored territory. That’s the left hemisphere in most people. The right hemisphere is the hemisphere where the orienting reflex first manifests itself. Its job is to orient you where you don’t know—where things that you don’t know are happening. It’s also the place where imagination first takes roots, because imagination is part of the process by which you make sense of what you don’t understand. That’s where the hypotheses are generated. The right hemisphere tends to think in metaphor, and the left hemisphere is embedded in the metaphorical structure of the right hemisphere. That’s quite well documented in the relevant neuropsychological literature, from a multitude of sources, even from people who aren’t concerned specifically with metaphor. The sense of meaning seems to manifest itself when the systems that are operating in explored territory and the systems that are operating in unexplored territory are operating optimally together.
So imagine that what you want to do to adapt properly to life is to stay where you’re adapted. Ok, so that’s a conservative approach: “don’t go where you don’t know how to act.” The problem with that is that things around you will change without your control. So you can’t just stay where you are. You have to be prepared for the next thing that’s coming. Not only do you have to master where you are, you have to master what’s most likely to happen next. And so you have to have one foot in order, and you have to have one foot in chaos. The way you know that’s happening optimally is that you’re imbued with the sense of meaning. So it’s actually the most profound part of what actually orients you in the real world. It’s not a secondary epiphenomenon. The phenomenologists, the philosophical phenomenologists, have actually caught on to this in their phenomenological work. For someone like Heidegger, for example, meaning was the most real manifestation. I actually think that’s true neurophysicologically. That’s how your brain operates. Your brain actually operates as if the most real thing is the meaning of something. The meaning is related—the reason for that is tied back to the Darwinian idea, is that you’re not a describer of the world. Not fundamentally. You’re trying to live in the world; you’re trying to survive in the world and propagate in the world. You have a telos, and the meaning is associated with that telos, within that Darwinian landscape. Then you say, “is it real?” It depends on what you mean by “real.” People say, “well, that’s a postmodern answer.” No, it’s not. It’s not at all, because there is a conflict between the materialist view that’s laid out in the Newtonian sense and the evolutionary viewpoint that’s laid out in the Darwinian sense. The meaning relates to what’s real in the Darwinian sense, not in the Newtonian sense. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not real. Well, it depends on how you sort out your initial axioms. But if you’re interested in surviving and not being too miserable while you’re doing so, then I suggest that you give at least some credence to the Darwinian position. So that’s meaning.
Moderator: For the next question we will go to the hand just there.
Peterson: Don’t forget those poor people, up there.
Moderator: I’ll take a couple questions from upstairs.
Question: Thank you very much for your talk, Dr. Peterson. I have to say that 12 Rules for Life was a great break from revision. As you said earlier in your talk, people who are temperamentally conservative always seek to preserve the hierarchy, and in kind of a healthy society, people who are temperamentally liberal tend to question those hierarchies. Is it inevitable, then, that we will slowly move in the liberal direction, and that eventually those who are liberal minded will question the very foundations of meaning, and we will be in a situation where conservatives don’t want to budge, because there is a fundamental hierarchy, and liberals don’t want to stop, because it’s the logical progression of where they have been going?
Peterson: Well, that’s an eternal danger. There’s dangers on both sides. One is the danger of pathological order, and the other is the danger of pathological chaos. The problem with the questioning tendency is that it knows no limits. That’s actually hard on people. It’s actually very difficult orienting yourself in life, if you happen to be very high in openness, very low in conscientiousness, and very high in neuroticism, because you question everything, and you’re not stable. And you might be wildly creative. That’s a pretty good recipe for wild creativity. But that doesn’t mean that it’s tenable or sustainable, because most creative ideas are not only wrong: they’re actually deadly. But some of them aren’t. Some of them are absolutely vitally important. So part of the reason we have political discussion, or discussion at all, is to separate the wheat from the chaff. The endless proclivity of the questioning tendency of the liberal left is that every axiom is open for infinite questioning. Well, that leaves you bereft. But the problem on the right is, if you tighten things up too much, then you have no adaptive flexibility left, and you’re in a sterile tyranny—a tyranny of stone. The environment shifts around you, and you’re not prepared, and then everyone’s done.
The reason that free speech is so important, as far as I’m concerned—because, well, I don’t really think about it as “free speech.” I think about it as respect for the manifestation of the logos. It’s something like that. That’s the proper way of conceptualizing it. It keeps the balance between those two tendencies. You need the questioning, and you need the order. You think, “how much of each?” The answer is, “the recipe changes day to day.” And so you think, “well, if it changes day to day, how are we going to keep up?” The answer is, “by keeping up! Here we are. We’re alive. We can keep up, but we do that by thinking, and we think by talking, and we think and talk by disagreeing. And we better disagree conceptually, because then we don’t have to act out stupid ideas that would kill us.” The abstract territory of conceptual dispute is a substitute for war and death. It can be a brutal substitute, because conceptual disagreement can be very intense. But compared to war and death, it’s hardly intense at all. So you keep the landscape open for serious dispute, including dispute that’s offensive, obviously; because if you’re ever going to talk about anything that’s difficult—and why talk otherwise—then you’re going to talk about things that are offensive to people, and you’re going to do it badly. You’re going to stumble around, when you’re formulating your thoughts. That’s horrible. It makes people anxious. It alienates them. But it’s better than pain and death, and that’s the alternative.
Moderator: We’ll take a question from upstairs. Please project your voices, as there will be no microphone.
Question: Thank you. As you were talking about hierarchy and the relationship that conservatives and liberals have towards it, I was wondering whether that formulation is also a kind of attack on individual sovereignty, and a kind of tribalism—of saying, “here are these two groups of people, and here’s how they relate to hierarchies, and here are their characteristics.”
Peterson: Well, it would be if I was trying to reduce all the individual variability to that. But to know that people vary across a dimension is not necessarily simultaneously to limit all the variability to those dimensions. There is lots of other variability. Your question, to some degree, is whether the active categorization is in itself a limitation on individual freedom, I think, if you put your question all the way down to the bottom. The answer to that is, “to some degree, yes.” But it’s also a precondition for individual freedom. Is that sufficient?
Question: But when you talk, you have certain predispositions that you’re giving—in the same way in which you go from political correctness to tribalism, saying, “this is what it means to be a woman; these are the kind of things that it is expected from a woman to defend herself.” It seems to me you are making a similar claim about “this is what conservative people do, and this is how they always relate to hierarchy.”
Peterson: I would say that I, perhaps, am doing that, but I don’t see how that’s the same as what the postmodernists are doing. As far as I can tell, the postmodernists aren’t saying that the individuals within those groups are characterized by any stable characteristics whatsoever, except for the fact of their comparative oppression. So I don’t understand the first part of your argument. Part of the reason postmodern types have been going after me is because I’ve dared to say that men and women differ in temperament, which, by the way, they do. Now, that’s actually something that might be worth just differentiating quickly, because it’s actually technically somewhat challenging but also very much worth knowing. I was debating someone on a panel this morning on a T.V. show, The Wright Stuff. This was a woman who led the women’s equality party. She cited some psychological literature that purported to claim that men and women were mostly the same. That’s actually true. We are more the same than different. If you look at our temperaments, there’s more overlap than there is variance, by a substantial amount. And so even on the temperamental dimensions, where there is most difference between men and women, the difference isn’t of massive magnitude at the center of the distribution. For example, women are less aggressive than men, which is, by the way, why they try to commit suicide more often but are much less lethal in their actions. That’s one example, but there are many examples.
If you draw a random woman and a random man out of the population, the probability that the man will be more aggressive is 60 per cent. If you bet on the man, you win 60 per cent of the time. That’s not a walloping difference. It’s not 95 per cent of the time. It’s a difference that is substantive. It’s significant. It’s measurable. But it’s not large by the standards by which such things are judged. But that’s not the point. The point is that most of the activity takes place at the extremes. So out on the tails of the distribution—so here’s an example. About 9 out of 10 people in prison are male. Why? To be in prison, you have to be the most aggressive person, let’s say, in a hundred. Ok, those differences at the midpoint are large enough so that, if you go out to the extremes—1 in 100 people—you have an overwhelming preponderance of men. And so you can have your cake and eat it too. You can say, “yeah, broadly speaking, men and women are more the same than different. The overlap is greater than the disjunction.” But that’s not relevant, if what’s being selected is often at the extremes, and it often is. So, for example, with regards to engineering, there’s a fair bit of evidence that people who are more interested in things than in people become engineers. Now that’s not really going to be—what, is that shocking? Are you shocked by that? You shouldn’t be shocked by that. You can tell that not only by what engineers do, but you can tell that by how they think, and you can tell that just by talking to them, if you know a bunch of engineers. It turns out that the largest temperamental difference that’s known between men and women is actually interest in people versus interest in things. And so it has nothing to do with competence, but it as a lot to do with interest. Because you have to be very interested in things to go be an engineer—because that’s all you’re going to be doing, if you’re an engineer—then only those people who are extremely interested in things tend to become engineers, and most of them are men. That’s why even in places like Scandinavia, where a tremendous amount of effort has been put into flattening the sociocultural landscape—and successfully, by the way—there’s still a preponderance of male engineers, and there’s a preponderance of female nurses. No matter how much sociological gerrymandering goes on, those statistics have remained quite intractable over about a 15-year period.
And so there are differences; they’re not massive. Then you might ask, “well, are those sociocultural or biological?” Well, that’s a hard question to answer, because it depends on how much variability there is in the sociocultural landscape. The proportion by which something is biological versus sociocultural varies with the sociocultural landscape. That’s a complicated thing to digest, because you think of those things as fixed, but they’re not. But what we have demonstrated, quite clearly—and this is mainstream science, despite the fact that people don’t like it. This test has already been done. We developed a personality model that’s pretty stable across cultures, purely derived from statistical processes—an atheoretical model, if there ever was one, and quite an unattractive model because of that, conceptually. But that’s besides the point. Then we saw, cross culturally, whether there were differences in the fundamental temperaments of men and women, and the answer was “yes, cross culturally, quite robust.” Women are higher in the experience of anxiety and emotional pain, and they’re more compassionate and agreeable. Those are the big differences. They are differences of a magnitude that I’ve already pointed out. Then the next question is, “well, to what degree is that biological or sociocultural?” It’s complicated, because that variable depends on the sociocultural landscape. But we’ll put that aside. You can determine that by stacking up countries from those who have done everything they possibly can to flatten out the sociocultural landscape in relationship to gender, to those who haven’t, that are still very stratified by sex. Then what you do is look at the magnitude of the temperament differences in keeping with the variability that those countries have in terms of their sociocultural egalitarianism. The sociocultural types, the social constructionists, their prediction is, “as cultures become more egalitarian, men and women become more the same, because it’s environmental.” That isn’t what happens. Exactly the opposite happens: as you flatten out the sociocultural landscape, men and women become more different. The data is in. The experiment is done. Tens of thousands of people; multiple countries; and it’s not what anyone expected. You might think, “well, it’s all the right-wing psychologists.” It’s like, “all the right-wing psychologists are in this room, sitting in this chair.”
Moderator: Thank you. On to the next question. The gentleman in glasses.
Question: I just want to first thank your comments on things like political correctness, and your obsession of certain elements of the left on campuses to screen out discourses. I genuinely think that is an issue and unconscionable. But I just want to pick your thoughts on what you said about freedom of speech and discussions and gender. You basically said, in your answers just then, that freedom of speech has a fundamental purpose. It’s there to help us find truth—correct me if I’m wrong—to identify the correctness or the logos against the possible consequence of blood and death. So here’s the question. If I, as an individual, am affected by discourse in a way that doesn’t cause physical violence, so that’s not bound by hate speech laws and whatnot, but makes me feel so deeply so [inaudible]—I don’t belong to society or this community, or whenever I try to say something, I’m ridiculed because of my race or the way I talk or because of my gender… Surely that means that my valuable insight to contribute towards logos, towards the pursuit of truth, is shut out, but other people’s more vociferous speech and more dominant speech—and this is what we see in cases of campuses, whether it be from the right or the left, of people using very violent and loud language to drown out dissent, to drown out those who oppose them on campuses, in society, and whatnot. To Donald Trump to people in Swarthmore, we’ve seen this happen. So wouldn’t you say the attempt to claw back—or the right of freedom of speech isn’t so far absolute as instrumental, when based on that therefore, there are some cases where freedom of speech of some individuals can be curtailed, and we want to get a better appreciation of the logos and a better inclusion of more voices that are currently being shut out as a result of the extremity and radicalism of those select people. Wouldn’t you say that’s the case? Thank you.
Peterson: Well, there is a very simple answer to that, which is “yes.” But I’ll elaborate. The first thing is, I’m not an admirer of hate speech laws, but that doesn’t mean that I’m naive to think that there’s no such thing as hate speech. Obviously, if you’ve ever been involved in an extremely heated argument, you know perfectly well that there’s such a thing as hate speech, because you’ve probably uttered some. There’s also no doubt that there are forms of speech that are utterly reprehensible, and some of those are actually already punished by law. You can’t incite to violence; you can’t libel someone. So we have some restrictions already on what’s acceptable discourse. Whether it’s the case, typically speaking, that some people have more privilege—access to free speech than others, well, that’s obviously the case. That’s part of power, and power is one of the means by which people climb hierarchies. Although, the more you can climb a hierarchy by exercising power, the more that’s an indication of the fact that that hierarchy has become corrupt. So there’s no doubt that these structural impediments to the free exchange of discourse exist. There’s also no doubt, as you already laid out, that that’s not in everyone’s best interest, because what you want, if you have any sense in your society—and this is also why I think that we put proper emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual—is that you want everyone’s logos to have the opportunity to clarify the unknown and reconstitute the world. If you shut that down, then you risk not getting access to the unique insights that that individual might bring. I agree with your diagnosis completely; and I think that, even in the West, to ignore the fact that many of our hierarchies tilt towards tyranny, and that prejudice still exists in multiple forms, is a mistake—although it’s still one factor among many, and it shouldn’t be identified as the primary causal determinant of each individual’s life. I think that’s a dreadful error. The question is, “what do you do about it?” The devil’s in the details. As I said already, I’m not an admirer, for example, of hate speech laws, even though there’s plenty of hateful speech. I think the best thing to do is to leave free speech alone as much as you possibly can. Not because that will result in the perfect conditions for free speech, but because anything else that you’re likely to do is going to make it worse, rather than better. That’s how it looks to me.
Moderator: Very quickly.
Question: I just want to pick your brains on hate speech laws. It seems that you agree that the pursuit of logos and logic and some sort of achievement of individualization, individual autonomy, is the end goal of discussion. So let’s assume—correct me if I’m wrong, again—that’s the end objective.
Peterson: No, I wouldn’t say that, exactly. I think that’s too individualistic. I would say that what you want is two things, happening simultaneously. You want to maximize individual development, but you want to do that in a way that brings the greatest amount of harmony simultaneously possible to the familial unit, and also to the broader social unit. So those interests have to be stacked. So it’s what’s best for you, but it’s also in a manner that’s best for your family and for your community. It’s not purely individual.
Question: So on that basis of achieving communal harmony and individual freedom at the same time, wouldn’t you say that there’s certain forms of hate speech that are so vehement and so undignifying that it disrupts both local harmony within communities but also makes individuals feel as if they can’t really engage in retaliatory discourse against them, because they feel the potential repercussions? Even if it doesn’t lead to violence, they just fear it so much that…
Peterson: Oh, it happens all the time. In fact, it’s the standard situation. If you look across the world, most societies don’t do a good job of either promoting or allowing free speech. I don’t know how we ever managed it. It’s so unlikely, because it’s so hard on people, and harder on those who occupy positions of power in tyrannical hierarchies. I can’t believe that any society’s ever managed to figure it out at all. So those dangers are always there. I also think the highest likelihood, often, is that societies that do put high value on free speech will lose that, because it’s so difficult to maintain. But with regards to hate speech, for example, let’s say that things would be much better if there was less hateful speech. Seems highly probable to me, especially if you look at the more egregious forms of hateful speech. How best to regulate it? Well, my sense is that you let those who wish to utter hateful things do so, and let everyone hear them. That’s the best way to ensure that what they’re saying will be understood and rejected. Now in order to posit that, you have to assume that the population, composed of sovereign individuals, is wiser than it is foolish. That’s a hope. You might think of it as an axiom of faith, but I do believe it to be the case.
I think that if you put the evidence in front of people, by and large, they will do the right thing. I think that the problem with regulating hate speech is very simple. Who defines “hate?” The answer to that is, “over any reasonable period of time, exactly the people you would least want to have define hate.” And so the consequences of the regulation become incalculably worse, as a problem, than the problem that they were designed to deal with. To think otherwise is to think in a sort of utopian manner. It’s like, “well, we have a problem: hate speech. Well, we can come up with a solution, and there will be no problems with that solution.” It’s like, “no, no, no. That isn’t how the world works.” When I’m negotiating with my clinical clients, one of the things I always tell them is—often because they’re in difficult circumstances; often not for psychological reasons—”you don’t understand: you’re screwed both ways. You don’t have an option, here, where you’re not going to suffer. That’s what it means to be in a bad situation. You’re going to pay a price both ways. You can pick your price.” So we’re going to have hate speech, or we’re going to have the consequences of the arbitrary regulation of hate speech. Well, I know what the consequences of the arbitrary regulation of hate speech are: things get a lot worse, because “hate” is very difficult to define. That’s actually a real problem, when you’re trying to regulate it, because you have to be able to define it.
We’re already at a point where—well, you made someone uncomfortable. Why isn’t that hate speech? I mean, I was basically asked that by one of your more outstanding, most popular journalists. “Why should you have the right to say something that’s offensive?” We can think that through. Let’s think that through for a minute. My response to her, essentially—this wasn’t it, directly—was, “that’s not a very smart question for a journalist to be asking,” right? Because of all people who should never ask that question, well, it would be standup comics and journalists, because that’s all they ever do. That’s what it means to be a journalist: to ask a question that’s going to be offensive to someone. Who the hell wants to hear about what you’ve discovered, unless it’s about something contentious and important? It was a jaw-dropping question, as far as I was concerned. The fact that it was a jaw-dropping question was part of the reason why that video went viral. Ok, so now let’s think about offensiveness as part of hate. The first thing we might say is that you really need to think when you have a difficult problem. A difficult problem is one where there’s something at stake. It might be your life; it might be your wellbeing. And then we might say, “well, there’s going to be a diversity of opinions about that particular conundrum, if it actually happens to be difficult.” And so even to discuss it—because if you discuss option A, it’s going to annoy all the people who want option B. Or are you going to discuss option B, and that’s going to annoy all the people who want option A? And maybe there are ten options. And so, if you’re going to discuss anything of any real significance whatsoever, you’re going to make people hot under the collar, and you’re going to risk offending them. “So then what? You’re just going to stop talking about difficult things?” The answer to that is “yes,” and that’s what’s happening.
But then there’s another problem, which is—there isn’t anything I could conceivably say about anything that isn’t going to offend someone, if the crowd is large enough. So you might say, “well, if you’re talking to two people, you can’t offend one of them.” So you don’t get to offend 50 per cent of the population. It’s like, “ok, let’s say I’m talking to 1,000 people, and 1 person finds what I’m saying offensive. They say, ‘well, that’s hateful.’” Well, that’s 1 in 1,000. Should I stop? What if it’s 1 in 10,000, or 1 in 1,000,000? Where’s the cutoff? You might think, “well, we’ll work that out.” It’s like, “no, no, no. You don’t get it. The devil’s in the details. You work it out now, when you formulate your restrictions on free speech. You don’t shunt that off into the future, so that it’s a problem that will be solved.” Who defines hate? Insoluble problem. Don’t regulate it, because you can’t define it. That’s how it looks, to me. So you have the free marketplace of ideas, so to speak, where the collective can render a judgement on the acceptability of an idea, on an ongoing basis. That isn’t a great solution, because we don’t have great solutions. We have partial, fragmentary solutions that make us somewhat less abjectly miserable than we might be. That’s what we have. If we try to eradicate that kind of risk completely, all we do is magnify a different kind of risk.
Moderator: Thank you. We have time for one or two more questions.
Question: You talk on a very high level, for me. I operate on a kind of quiet, ordinary, street level. The sort of thing that really annoys me about this whole thing is—for instance, I was listening to Any Questions? on Friday evening. The Republican person abroad in Scotland—well, the audience had decided that “this man can’t ever say anything that I’m ever going to agree with, so I’m going to disagree with everything he says.” Well, I disagree with him on some things—I don’t like fracking—but I thought some of the other things he said were quite sensible. But it seems to me that most people suddenly get a prejudice about a person—for instance, even Donald Trump, who I’m not a mad fan about, but one or two things he said I think were, you know, not quite that stupid. So why can’t people start talking about issues instead of getting these sort of prejudices about people? “Oh, well, you know, if they’re on the so-called demonstration in London on the day of freedom, oh, they must be all fascists and right-wing-goodness-knows-what!” Nobody actually listens to what they’re saying or what they’re doing. They just made up their mind, and then you get your tribal warfare. That’s what we’ve been getting so much of.
Peterson: Some of it’s a technical problem. People don’t like it when you force them to think at high resolution, and it’s no wonder. Let’s say you’re driving your automobile along, and you think, “this is my car, and I understand it.” Your evidence is that, as you move the steering thingy, it stays on the road. That’s your understanding of your car. As soon as it breaks down, you realize you don’t understand your car at all, not even a bit. So you actually don’t even perceive the car until it breaks down, and then you’re very unhappy that you have to perceive it; because it’s a whole nest of snakes, and you have no idea what to do with any of them. People don’t like having to think at a high resolution. And so if someone says on a contentious issue, “you know, it’s complicated, and we have to differentiate it like this,” then you have to go through all the God-awful process of realizing you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about in that circumstance and you have to evaluate all those differentiated issues. It’s way easier to say, “well, you’re probably a neo-Nazi, so I don’t have to listen to you.” That’s often what people do.
It’s particularly the case if they have a low resolution ideology that they’re trying to protect, because that gives them every extra reason to do that kind of instantaneous labelling. It’s a very bad strategy, if you’re dealing with an individual one on one. So if you’re in a long-term relationship with someone, and they bring up their annoyance with something that you do, a very bad response to them is, “well, I don’t have to listen to you, because you’re a terrible person.” Your relationships are going to collapse completely, if you do that every time. What you want to do is differentiate the argument to the point where a solution might be generated and have the argument at that level. But it’s very hard for people to do that, so you end up with these radical oversimplifications that manifest themselves, unfortunately, in the political polarization that we see.
Question: We’re not going to solve our problems unless we can be a little bit more open to issues, rather than sort of immediately thinking of a prejudice to say about someone.
Peterson: Right, which is part of the reason why I’m not a fan of political correctness. If we make the general diagnosis that the world is a landscape of competing power groups, that the fundamental narrative is “oppressor versus oppressed,” and that everything is to be viewed through that lens, then we won’t solve our problems. We won’t. We just have a bunch of new, horrible problems.
Question: I’m much older than all these people, and I tend to think, “oh, students have these ideas: ‘oh, that man’s homophobic, so I’m not going to listen to any other thing that he has to say.’” You know, Brendan O’neill, who came here, for instance—they just think, “oh, that’s a wrong idea, so you can’t possibly have any right ideas.” That isn’t going to help, is it?
Moderator: Thank you. We have time for one final question.
Question: I am Canadian, and we have a leader [Justin Trudeau] who’s probably attempting to be the most politically correct leader in the world. I’d love to hear your response, if you had his ear for five minutes and could present very simply to him where he might be going wrong.
Peterson: I guess I would ask him to consider the possibility that his emphasis on tribal inequality might—if there’s any possibility that he can see any ways that that might do more harm than good. My sense is that the idea that harm might come out of that is never an idea that’s even considered. I certainly don’t see that in our provincial government, for example. I see the initial low resolution act of dividing people into their tribal groups, in that manner, as something that can do nothing but bear evil fruit in the long run. The people who do that think, “no, that’s how we’re going to rectify historical inequities.” It’s useful, if you have a theory, to think through the worst possible consequences of its application. It’s a good antidote to ideological possession. It’s like, “just for a minute, imagine that your theory could go spectacularly wrong. What would that look like?”
This is one of the things that’s so great about the way the Americans set up their political system, because it was never utopian. Their idea was, “look, we’re probably going to be governed by halfwits who are not any smarter than we are.” It wasn’t, “we’re going to set up the perfect system.” It’s like, “how can we ensure that, if we’re governed by halfwits that are no smarter than us, that we won’t end up in hell?” Hence the balance of power and all of those things. They were very sophisticated, as good Englishmen should be, because they were basically good Englishmen. Well, they were. They absolutely were. I mean, America’s freedom is a manifestation of the deeper freedom of Great Britain. Anyone with any sense can see that. It’s just true historically. Maybe the Americans codified it in a creative manner, and good for them. But the fundamental traditions were already laid down. They had enough humility to think through how things could go terribly wrong, even if they had good intentions. That’s the mark of someone who’s wise, because it’s way easier for things to go wrong than it is for them to go right. Maybe it’s even more important that we are careful about how things don’t go terribly wrong than we are to be too concerned with making sure they go right, because hell is a long ways down, and we can only make things so much better.
So I guess that’s what I’d ask: “just think it through. We’re tribalizing our perceptions. Can you think of any ways that might not work out so well? How would you mitigate against that?” One of the reasons that I’m a traditionalist, let’s say—because I’m not really temperamentally suited for being conservative, despite the fact that I’ve identified as the only extant right-wing psychologist. That was a joke, primarily. It’s because one of the things that wise social scientists know and attempt to transmit to their students is, “the probability that your well-meaning intervention”—say, at a clinical level or an epidemiological level—”will have the positive outcome you intend and no other is zero. In fact, the highest probability is that it will kickback against you and make things worse. So you bloody well better be sure when you implement your well-intentioned intervention that you lay out a measurement strategy to determine what the consequences of that intervention are, because they’re very unlikely to be an improvement.” That’s especially the case if the system is already working well, because if it’s already at 85 per cent optimal capacity, moving it up another 5 per cent is really hard, whereas making it 50 per cent worse—any fool can manage that.
So when things are working, be very cautious about what you do radically to fix them, because you don’t know what the consequence of your intervention is going to be. That’s another thing that I might suggest: caution. And to the degree that I’m a conservative, I’m a conservative because of my apprehension of my own ignorance. It’s like, “first, do no harm.” That’s also why, in my public lectures, I council people, let’s say, to put their own house in order. You’re not going to hurt anyone by doing that. All it’s going to do is make you a little less chaotic and horrible. And then, maybe you’ll be of a little more benefit to your family. That might be a nice thing, too. And then, maybe you could dare to extend a tentacle out beyond that and tap something in the real world gently. Well, that isn’t what we’re taught in universities. We’re taught, “well, you’re eighteen, and you can see what’s wrong, and you should think up some ways of radically transforming the economic system.” Right.
Moderator: Thank you. I would like to remind everyone that there’s a book sale going on in the Goodman Library following this talk. Please remain seated until we’ve left the chamber, and please join me in thanking Dr. Peterson.