Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, has a mind like a diamond. He’s a beacon of reason. And his message is exactly what college students around the world need.
It’s a happy thought, then, that a bunch of brash, loudmouth college students trying to shut him down is the only reason most people around the world know about him.
He’s been called every name in the book for his opposition of Bill C-16, Canada’s absurd criminalization of improper gender pronouns usage.
“Great news,” tweeted Justin Trudeau last month, “Bill C-16 has passed the Senate – making it illegal to discriminate based on gender identity or expression. #LoveisLove.”
For anyone who believes in free speech, this is absolutely terrifying.
“Compelled speech has come to Canada,” Peterson said to the Senate before the vote. “We will seriously regret this.”
“[Ideologues are] using unsuspecting and sometimes complicit members of the so-called transgender community to push their ideological vanguard forward,” he said. “The very idea that calling someone a term that they didn’t choose causes them such irreparable harm that legal remedies should be sought [is] an indication of just how deeply the culture of victimization has sunk into our society.”
Tragedy vs. Evil
Fortunately, there’s a lot of people who agree with Peterson that compelled speech in any form is a very bad thing. And this kinship leads them, like it did for me, to watch his Youtube videos.
Roughly twenty hours into his collection, I can tell you they’re worth it.
We can never understand our capacity for good, says Peterson, until we’re honest about our capacity for evil. Ignorance of this fact is detrimental.
And armed with that consciousness, every strong moral choice you make brings us all one step away from the brink. And for every pathological choice? We become one step closer to complete annihilation.
Tragedy vs Evil
I teach [my students] about Nazi Germany and I try to make them understand there’s an overwhelming probability if they were in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s, that they would’ve been perpetrators and Nazis.
An overwhelming probability.
And if they can’t accept that, because it’s a historical fact, they have absolutely no idea who they are. Now, imagining yourself as a Nazi perpetrator is an unbearably terrifying thing to do.
But I don’t think you have any insight whatsoever in your capacity for good until you have some well-developed insight into your capacity for evil. Because people can tell you until they’re blue in the face about your capacity for good, it just sounds like wishful thinking.
It sounds like the sort of thing that an advertiser might tell you on TV. It’s just too good to be true. And I don’t think people believe it.
But I think that if you tell people that, you know, in the cold dark corners of their mind there are motivations that are so terrible they would traumatize themselves if they were ever revealed… that everyone knows at some level of analysis that that’s absolutely true.
You think… there’s evidence throughout history that it’s possible for people to be enlightened. And you’d think, since enlightenment is viewed as the medication for vulnerability and death, that everybody would be struggling as hard as they possibly could to be enlightened — if such a state exactly and precisely exists.
But if the barrier to enlightenment is the development of self-consciousness of the individual human’s infinite capacity for evil then you can be immediately convinced about why enlightenment is in such short supply.
When I finished my first provisional examination of the sorts of motivations that drove people to set up concentration camps and to torture people terribly in those camps, I came to a terrible conclusion. It was a conclusion that I think in some ways the worst thing that’ve ever happened to me maybe intellectually and morally. I came to understand why it is that people depended on their group identity and their cultural identification. Because that helps them protect themselves from their own vulnerabilities.
You have to believe things.
Because you just don’t know everything. The beliefs fill in the gaps. If the beliefs are stripped from you, then your defenses against the infinite are stripped. Then it’s no wonder people will defend their beliefs. I thought well, if you’re too involved in defending your beliefs, you’re going to be willing to kill other people in their defense. And we’re so technologically powerful now we can no longer be willing to kill other people in defense of our own beliefs. The time for that has passed!
And I realized if you don’t stand up for your own beliefs, you leave yourself bereft. You’re open up to the depredations of the infinite, that’s equally intolerable, it seems to leave no way out.
So there is a way out you know.
And I think it’s the way out that genuinely religious people have tried to offer humanity for thousands and thousands of years. And the way out of the conundrum posed to you by your reliance on ideological beliefs and your vulnerability in the face of the unknown is the development of a truly integrated and powerful character. And that’s an individual development. It means constant confrontation with things you don’t understand and constant attempts to ensure that your character is composed of truth and solidity rather than deceit.
And to make of yourself something that’s built on a rock and not predicated on sand.
And the thing is, it’s one thing to tell people that because maybe they should take care of themselves but I don’t know it that’s enough to to tell people. Because they don’t take care of themselves that well.
But it’s a completely other thing to say look, you know every time you make a pathological moral decision you move the world one step closer to complete annihilation… and I absolutely believe that.
I think the historical evidence is crystal clear and I also think that every time you make an appropriate moral decision, and you manifest moral courage in the face of your own vulnerability, then you move the world one step farther from the brink and that’s the case for every single person you know.
Solzhenitsyn said, drawing on his Eastern Orthodox Christian background, every single person is a center of the world. A center of the world, not the center of the world.
The world’s a complicated place. It can have all sorts of centers, it’s hard to believe that you might be one of them but everything about human existence is hard to believe. The fact that it’s here at all is hard to believe. The nature of it’s hard to believe everything that humans beings do is so ridiculous and remarkable that it’s like it’s a consistently and constantly unfolding miracle. The idea that each of you might be a center of the cosmos in that infinite admixture of ridiculousness and absurdities is hardly more than one more ridiculous thing to swallow.
I’ll summarize I guess and say that tragedy is a precondition for being… being is the interplay between the finite and the infinite and in that interplay, this tragedy there’s no way out of that. Evil is something different. Evil is the conscious attempt to make the conditions of existence more pathological than it has to be. And it’s motivated by conscious intent. The motivations arise because people pay a terrible price for their self conscious awareness. And that awareness is their awareness of their vulnerability and that is a terrible thing to be aware of.
That vulnerability can be confronted, forthrightly accepted, and the appropriate decisions and the appropriate decisions made. Alternatively, people can retreat into their own rationalistic arrogance in an attempt to deceive themselves and everyone else about the nature of their own existence and the nature of their own reality.
That pathway leads to nothing but destruction.
I think that there’s good reason to assume that it’s too late in our development as a species for that path to be acceptable anymore. We’re too powerful. And if too many people stay on that path, we’re going to do ourselves in.
So I would say as we become more technologically powerful, an increasing moral burden is being placed on each of us. It matters to the destiny of the cosmos whether or not you get your moral act straight. And I don’t mean that in a trivial way. I believe that’s as close to an empirical fact as anything that can be demonstrated and I also believe that’s as terrifying thing to consider as anything you can possibly imagine. And maybe it’s too much to ask of people. But our great religious traditions do continually remind us that inside every human being there’s a spark of divinity and that idea is a precondition for our entire system of law.
There’s always the possibility that it’s true.
And if it’s true it means that there’s an infinite avenue of potential that lays open to every single person. And that the ability to transform the terrible conditions of reality into something not only acceptable but worthy of celebration actually lies within our grasp.
The alternative to that is the continual generation of a kind of hell that’s so incomprehensibly awful that, by any reasonable person’s standards, it has to be regarded as something to avoid.