It’s funny, the curves are almost completely opposite to one another. This is the decline in violent crime, this is the increase in the reporting of violent crime. And the reason for that is people read stories about violent crime, and then of course, they’re much more likely to believe that it’s on the increase.
The people who are most likely to believe that it’s on the increase are also those who are least likely to be affected by it because to be a victim of a violent crime, it helps to drink too much, but it also helps a lot to be young and male. And those aren’t the people who are particularly afraid of violent crime even though they’re the ones most likely to be implicated in it.
So there’s technological reasons for our concentration on the negative and they’re complex. It’s not easy to figure out how to combat the spiral of outrage and attention-seeking that I think is accompanying the depth of our previous means of communication. No one knows how to handle that, and that’s a big problem.
Wood: … I know so many in this audience—and not just here in New York, but we hear from our members all over the country—they’re so concerned about what their children and what their grandchildren are both being taught. But also what they’re coming back home from college and talking about and saying, “Where are they learning this?” And they know where they’re learning them, but how does this get seeped into them?
You obviously have spoken not just at the University of Toronto, but colleges all over the world. What is it you see today on the campus, or among young people today that’s new? Or is it new? I’ve heard you say that we’re no more polarized today than we were maybe even under Richard Nixon, and the campuses were more on fire then than even they are today. So what are the similarities and differences that you’re seeing?
Peterson: I don’t see any real evidence that your society is more polarized, generally speaking, than it has been many times in the past. And I think the next scenario is a good example. If you think about it, merely statistically, you’ve been split 50/50, Republican/Democrat, for what? Five elections now. And it’s almost perfect 50/50 split, that really hasn’t changed.
Trump, of course, is somewhat of a wild card and so that complicates things. But I don’t think it changes the underlying dynamic. What I do think has arisen again—because it’s made itself manifest many times in the last 100 years—is the rise of this group identity-associated, quasi-marxist viewpoint with this additional toxic mixture and paradoxical mixture of postmodernism.
The postmodernists are famous for being skeptical of meta narratives that might be a defining—that was Lyotard, I believe, who coined that, although I might be wrong. It was one of the French postmodernists.
And that means that they’re skeptical about the idea that large uniting narratives are valid. And it’s a huge problem, that claim, because the first question is, “How big does the narrative have to be before it’s a meta narrative?” Is the narrative that holds your family together falsehood? Is the narrative that holds your community together a falsehood? How big does it have to be before it becomes a falsehood?
So it’s a very vague claim, and it’s a very dangerous claim, in my estimation … and I believe the psychological research is clear on this. What we have, our cognitive abilities are nested inside stories. We’re fundamentally narrative creatures, that’s how our brains are organized. And to deny the validity of large-scale narratives is to deny the validity of the manner in which we organize our psyches, and that’s unbelievably destabilizing for people.
First of all, the simplest story in some sense is that I’m at point A, and I’m going to point B. That’s not as simple a story as it might sound because it implies that you are somewhere and that you know it, you have a representation of it geographically, let’s say, socially, psychologically, you have some sense of who you are. But more importantly, you have some sense of who you are transforming yourself into. So that gives you a direction. The direction gives you meaning.
… I don’t mean that in a cliched sense. What I mean is that the way that our brains are constituted is that almost all the positive emotion that people feel—and it’s also true of animals—it emerges as a consequence of observing that you’re making your way to a valued endpoint.
So you think what makes you happy is the attainment of something, and there is a form of reward that is associated with that that’s called consummatory reward. It’s the satisfaction that you feel say after you have a delightful Thanksgiving meal, but that isn’t the hope and the meaning that people thrive on.
The hope and the meaning that people thrive on is the observation that they’re moving toward something worthwhile and that might be individually, although it really can’t be because we live in collectives. But it should be collective and that isn’t optional.
If you don’t have a goal, a transcendent goal, say something that’s beyond you, then you don’t have any positive emotion and that’s not good because you have plenty of negative emotion.
That’s the problem with fundamental claims of meaninglessness, too, in life. That it’s the philosophical error that’s made by nihilists who say life is meaningless. It’s like, well, if you’re a nihilist genuinely, you’ve lost all hope your life isn’t meaningless, it’s just unbearably miserable and that’s a form of meaning.
Suffering is a form of meaning and you can try to argue yourself out of that with your nihilistic rationalizations, but that is not going to work. You need a transcendent goal in order to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and the destruction of the narratives that guide us individually, physiologically, and that also unite us socially, familiarly and socially. It’s an absolute catastrophe. The question then is, why is it being undertaken?
That’s a complex question and I don’t know if we can even discuss that. That has something to do with this unholy marriage of the postmodern nihilism with this Marxist utopian notion, which makes no sense at all because the postmodernists are skeptical of metanarratives, yet Marxism is a grant metanarrative. …
Wood: It doesn’t have to make sense.
Peterson: In fact, the idea that things make sense is part of the oppressive patriarchy. … People teach that in a dead serious manner that the requirement for logical consistency is an arbitrary and positional and cognitive structure. It’s not something necessary for rational cognition, even if there is such a thing.
You don’t know how deep this war goes in some sense. I can give you an example. There’s a debate about free speech on campus. But what you don’t understand is it isn’t a debate about who can speak, it’s a debate about whether there is such a thing as free speech and the answer from the radicals is that there isn’t because for there to be free speech, there has to be sovereign individuals, right?
Those sovereign individuals have to be defined by that sovereign individuality. They have to have their own locus of truth. In some sense, that’s a consequence of that sovereignty. And then they have to be able to engage in rational discursive negotiation with people who aren’t like them, which means they have to stretch their hands across racial or ethnic divides.
They have to be able to communicate and they have to be able to formulate, and negotiated, and practical agreement, and none of that is parcel of the postmodern doctrine. All of that’s up for grabs.
There’s no sovereign individuals. Your group identity is paramount. You have no unique voice. You’re a mouthpiece of your identity group. You can’t speak across group lines because you don’t understand the lived experience of the other. So it’s not who gets to speak, it’s whether the entire notion is a very classic Western notion and a very deep one of free and intelligible speech is even valid.
This intellectual war that’s going on in the universities is way deeper than a political war. It’s way more serious than a political war. It manifest itself politically but, no, politics is way up the scale from where this is actually taking place.
Wood: So when you’re talking with students both one on one or taking their questions … these are not all conservative students that are coming up to you and they’re downloading your videos and listening to your podcast. Though it is a lot of young men, it’s not all men.
Wood: What do you think drives people to the message and to the things that you talk about?
Peterson: I think I’m believable. That’s why. … I’ve done about 150 public lectures or so in the last year, all over the world and to large audiences, the audiences in Australia were starting to approach. We had audiences of 5,500 people in Australia, which is quite remarkable that 5,500 people would come to listen to a serious discussion about philosophical, theological, and psychological issues and participate in that.