The Jordan Peterson Mask

This is a cross-post from Pu­tanu­monit.com


It seems that most peo­ple haven’t had much trou­ble mak­ing up their minds about Jor­dan Peter­son.

The psy­cho-philoso­phiz­ing YouTube prophet rose to promi­nence for re­fus­ing to ac­quiesce to Bill C-16, a Cana­dian law man­dat­ing the use of preferred pro­nouns for trans­gen­der peo­ple. The sort of liberal who thinks that this law is a great idea slapped the alt-right trans­phobe la­bel on Peter­son and has been tweet­ing about how no one should listen to Peter­son about any­thing. The sort of con­ser­va­tive who thinks that C-16 is the end of Western Civ­i­liza­tion hailed Peter­son as a heroic anti-PC cru­sader and has been breath­lessly retweet­ing ev­ery­thing he says, with the im­plied #BooOut­group.

As the sort of ra­tio­nal­ist who googles laws be­fore re­act­ing to them, I as­sured my­self that Peter­son got the le­gal facts wrong: no one is ac­tu­ally get­ting dragged to jail for re­fus­ing to say zir. I’m go­ing to use peo­ple’s preferred pro­nouns re­gard­less, but I’m happy I get to keep do­ing it in the name of liber­tar­i­anism and not-be­ing-a-dick, rather than be­cause of state co­er­cion.

With that, I de­cided to ig­nore Peter­son and go back to my me­dia diet of ra­tio­nal­ist blogs, Sam Har­ris, and EconTalk.

But Jor­dan Peter­son turned out to be a very difficult man to ig­nore. He showed up on Sam Har­ris’ pod­cast, and on EconTalk, and on Joe Ro­gan and Art of Man­li­ness and James Al­tucher. He wrote 12 Rules for Life: An An­ti­dote to Chaos, a self-help lis­ti­cle book in­spired by Je­sus, Niet­zsche, Jung, and Dos­toyevsky. [Let’s see if I can tie all 12 rules to this es­say] And he got ra­tio­nal­ists talk­ing about him, which I’ve done for sev­eral hours now. As a com­mu­nity, we haven’t quite figured out what to make of him.

Peter­son is a so­cial con­ser­va­tive, a Chris­tian who reads truth in the Bible and claims that athe­ists don’t ex­ist, and a man who sees ex­is­tence at ev­ery level as a con­flict be­tween good and evil. The ma­jor­ity of the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity (pre­sent com­pany in­cluded) are so­cially liberal and trans-friendly, con­fi­dent about our athe­ism, and mis­take the­o­rists who see bad equil­ibria more of­ten than in­ten­tional malev­olence.

But the most salient as­pect of Peter­son isn’t his con­ser­vatism, or his Chris­ti­an­ity, or Man­icheanism. It’s his com­mit­ment, above all else, to seek the truth and to speak it. [Rule 8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie] Ra­tion­al­ists can for­give a lot of an hon­est man, and Peter­son shoots straighter than a laser gun.

Peter­son loves to talk about heroic nar­ra­tives, and his own life in the past few months reads like a movie plot, albeit more Kung Fu Panda than Pas­sion of the Christ. Peter­son spent decades as­sem­bling wor­ld­view that in­te­grates ev­ery­thing from neu­rol­ogy to Deuteron­omy, one that’s com­plex, self-con­sis­tent and close enough to the truth to with­stand col­li­sion with re­al­ity. It’s also light-years and meta-lev­els away from the sort of sim­plis­tic frame­works offered by the mass me­dia on ei­ther the right or the left.

When the C-16 con­tro­versy broke, said me­dia as­sumed that Peter­son would meekly play out the role of out­group straw­man, and were ut­terly steam­rol­led. A lot of the dis­cus­sion about the linked in­ter­view has to do with rhetoric and ar­gu­ment, but to me, it show­cased some­thing else. A co­her­ent wor­ld­view like that is a pow­er­ful and beau­tiful weapon in the hands of the per­son who is com­mit­ted to it.

But it wasn’t the charis­matic perfor­mances that con­vinced me of Peter­son’s hon­esty, it’s clips like this one, where he was asked about gay mar­riage.

Most peo­ple are for or against gay mar­riage based on their ob­ject level feel­ing about gays, and their tribal af­fili­a­tion. The blue tribe sup­ports gay mar­riage, op­poses first-cousin mar­riage, and thinks that the gov­ern­ment should force a cake shop to bake a gay wed­ding cake be­cause ho­mo­pho­bia is bad. The red tribe merely flips the sign on all of those.

Some peo­ple go a meta-level up: I sup­port gay mar­riage, sup­port cousin mar­riage, and sup­port bak­ers get­ting to de­cide them­selves which cakes they bake for rea­sons of per­sonal free­dom [Rule 11: don’t bother chil­dren when they are skate­board­ing], and the ready availa­bil­ity of both ge­netic test­ing clinics and gay-friendly bak­eries.

But to Peter­son, ev­ery­thing is a su­per-meta-level trade­off that has the power to send all of Western Civ­i­liza­tion down the path to heaven or hell:

With re­gards to gay mar­riage speci­fi­cally, that’s a re­ally tough one for me. I can imag­ine… [long pause] I can’t do any­thing other than speak plat­i­tudes about it I sup­pose, un­for­tu­nately.
If the mar­i­tal vows are taken se­ri­ously, then it seems to me it’s a means by which gay peo­ple can be in­te­grated more thor­oughly into stan­dard so­ciety, and that’s prob­a­bly a good thing. And maybe that would de­crease promis­cu­ity which is a pub­lic health prob­lem, al­though ob­vi­ously that’s not limited to gay peo­ple. Gay men tend to be more promis­cu­ous than av­er­age, prob­a­bly be­cause there are no women to bind them with re­gards to their sex­ual ac­tivity. […]
I’m in fa­vor of ex­tend­ing the bounds of tra­di­tional re­la­tion­ships to peo­ple who wouldn’t be in­volved in a tra­di­tional long-term re­la­tion­ship oth­er­wise, but I’m con­cerned about the un­der­min­ing of tra­di­tional modes of be­ing in­clud­ing mar­riage [which has always been about] rais­ing chil­dren in a sta­ble and op­ti­mal en­vi­ron­ment.

Few peo­ple be­sides Peter­son him­self can even fully un­der­stand his ar­gu­ment, let alone en­dorse it. And yet he can’t help him­self from ac­tu­ally try­ing to figure out what his wor­ld­view says about gay mar­riage, and from say­ing it with no reser­va­tions.

I think that Peter­son over­gen­er­al­izes about gay men (and what about les­bi­ans?), and he’s wrong about the im­pact of gay mar­riage on so­ciety on the ob­ject level. I’m also quite a fan of promis­cu­ity, and I think it’s stupid to op­pose a policy just be­cause “neo-Marx­ists” sup­port it.

But I don’t doubt Peter­son’s in­tegrity, which means that I could learn some­thing from him. [Rule 9: as­sume that the per­son you are listen­ing to might know some­thing you don’t].

So, what can Jor­dan Peter­son teach ra­tio­nal­ists?

In 12 Rules, Peter­son claims that eat­ing a large, low-carb break­fast helps over­come de­pres­sion and anx­iety. Is this claim true?

There’s a tech­ni­cal sort of truth, and here “tech­ni­cal” is it­self a syn­onym for “true”, that’s dis­cov­er­able us­ing the fol­low­ing hi­er­ar­chy of meth­ods: opinion → ob­ser­va­tion → case re­port → ex­per­i­ment → RCT → meta-anal­y­sis → Scott Alexan­der “much more than you wanted to know” ar­ti­cle. If you ask Scott whether a low-carb break­fast re­duces anx­iety he’ll prob­a­bly say that there isn’t a sig­nifi­cant effect, and that’s the tech­ni­cal truth of the mat­ter.

So why does Peter­son be­lieve the op­po­site? He’s statis­ti­cally liter­ate… for a psy­chol­o­gist. He refer­ences a cou­ple of stud­ies about the con­nec­tion be­tween in­sulin and stress, al­though I’d wa­ger he wouldn’t lose much sleep if one of them failed to repli­cate. It prob­a­bly also helps that Gary Tabes is re­ally play­ing the part of the anti-es­tab­lish­ment truth-cru­sader. Ul­ti­mately, Peter­son is an­swer­ing a differ­ent ques­tion: if a pa­tient comes to your psy­chi­a­try clinic com­plain­ing about mild anx­iety, should you tell them to eat ba­con and eggs for break­fast?

My ra­tio­nal­ist steel­man of Peter­son would say some­thing like this: maybe the pa­tient has leaky gut syn­drome that con­tributes to their anx­iety, and re­duc­ing gluten in­take would help. If not, maybe the link be­tween in­sulin and cor­ti­sol will turn out to be real and mean­ingful. If not, maybe hav­ing a morn­ing rou­tine that re­quires a bit of effort (it’s harder to make eggs than eat a choco­late bar, but not too hard) will bring some needed struc­ture to the pa­tient’s life. If not, maybe get­ting any ad­vice what­so­ever from a se­ri­ous look­ing psy­chol­o­gist would make the pa­tient feel that they are be­ing listened to, and that will placebo their anx­iety by it­self. And if not, then no harm was done and you can try some­thing else.

But, Peter­son would add, you can’t tell the pa­tient all of that. You won’t help them by ex­plain­ing leaky guts and p-val­ues and placebo effects. They need to be­lieve that their lives have fallen into chaos, and mak­ing break­fast is akin to slay­ing the dragon-god­dess Tia­mat and lay­ing the foun­da­tion for sta­ble or­der that cre­ates heaven on Earth. This is metaphor­i­cal truth.

If you’re a ra­tio­nal­ist, you prob­a­bly pre­fer your truths not to be so… metaphor­i­cal. But it’s a silly sort of ra­tio­nal­ist who gets side­tracked by ar­gu­ments about defi­ni­tions. If you don’t like us­ing the same word to mean differ­ent things [Rule 10: be pre­cise in your speech], you can say “use­ful” or “adap­tive” or “mean­ingful” in­stead of “true”. It’s im­por­tant to use words well, but it’s also im­por­tant to eat a good break­fast. Prob­a­bly. [Rule 2: treat your­self like you would some­one you are re­spon­si­ble for helping]

One of the most un­der­rated re­cent ideas in ra­tio­nal­ity is the idea of fake frame­works. I un­der­stand it thus: if you want to un­der­stand how lasers work, you should re­ally use quan­tum physics as your frame­work. But if you want to un­der­stand how a cock­tail party works, look­ing at quarks won’t get you far. You can use the Han­so­nian frame­work of sig­nal­ing, or the so­ciolog­i­cal frame­work of class and sta­tus, or the psy­cho­me­t­ric frame­work of in­tro­verts and ex­tro­verts, etc.

All of those frame­works are fake in the sense that in­tro­vert isn’t a ba­sic phys­i­cal en­tity the same way an up quark is. Those frame­works are lay­ers of in­ter­pre­ta­tion that you im­pose on what you di­rectly ex­pe­rience, which is hu­man-shaped figures walk­ing around, mak­ing noises with their mouths and sip­ping gin & ton­ics. You can’t avoid im­pos­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions, so you should gather a di­verse toolbox of frame­works and use them con­sciously even you know they’re not 100% true.

Here’s a vi­sual ex­am­ple:

Q: Which map is more true to the ter­ri­tory?

A: Nei­ther. But if your goal is to meet Ein­stein on his way to work you use the one on the right, and if your goal is to count the trees on the golf course you use the one on the left.

By the way, there’s a de­cent chance that “fake frame­works” is what the post-ra­tio­nal­ists have been try­ing to ex­plain to me all along, ex­cept they were kind of rude about it. If it’s true that they had the same mes­sage, it took Valen­tine to get it through my skull be­cause he’s an ex­cel­lent teacher, and also some­one I per­son­ally like. Lik­ing­shouldn’t mat­ter to ra­tio­nal­ists, but some­how it always seems to mat­ter to hu­mans. [Rule 5: do not let your chil­dren do any­thing that makes you dis­like them]

That’s what Jor­dan Peter­son is: a fake frame­work. He’s a mask you can put on, a mask that changes how you see the world and how you see your­self in the mir­ror. Put­ting on the Jor­dan Peter­son mask adds two cru­cial el­e­ments that ra­tio­nal­ists of­ten strug­gle with: mo­ti­va­tion and mean­ing.

The Sec­u­lar Sols­tice is a cel­e­bra­tion de­signed by ra­tio­nal­ists to sing songs to­gether and talk about mean­ing. [Rule 3: make friends with peo­ple who want the best for you] The first time I at­tended, the core theme was the story of Stone­henge. Once upon a time, hu­mans lived in ter­ror of the short­en­ing of the days each au­tumn. But we built Stone­henge to mark the win­ter sols­tice and pre­dict when spring would come – a first step to­wards con­quer­ing the cold and dark.

But how did Stone­henge get built?

First, the tribe had a Scott Alexan­der. Ne­olithic Scott listened to the shamans speak of the Sun God, and de­manded to see their p-val­ues. He counted pa­tiently the days be­tween the sols­tices of each year and drew ar­rows point­ing to the ex­act di­rec­tion the sun rose each day.

Fi­nally, Scott spoke up:

Hey guys, I don’t think that the sun is a god who cares about danc­ing and goat sac­ri­fice. I think it just moves around in a 365-day pe­riod, and when it rises from the the di­rec­tion of that tree that’s when the days start get­ting longer again.

And the tribe told him that it’s all much more than they wanted to know about the sun.

But Scott only gets us halfway to Stone­henge. The mon­u­ment it­self was built over sev­eral cen­turies, us­ing 25-ton rocks that were brought to the site from 140 miles away. The peo­ple who hauled the first rock had to re­al­ize (un­less sub­ject to ex­treme plan­ning fal­lacy) that not a sin­gle per­son they know, nor their chil­dren or grand­chil­dren, would see the mon­u­ment com­pleted. Yet these peo­ple hauled the rocks any­way, and that re­quired ne­olithic Peter­son to in­spire them.

Peter­son is very pop­u­lar with the sort of young peo­ple who have been told all their lives to be happy and proud of just who they are. But when you’re 19, short on money, shorter on sta­tus, and you start to re­al­ize you won’t be a billion­aire rock star, you don’t see a lot to be satis­fied with. Lack­ing any­thing to be proud of in­di­vi­d­u­ally, they are tempted to sub­sti­tute their self for a broader group iden­tity. What the iden­tity groups mostly do is com­plain that the world is un­fair to them; this keeps the move­ment go­ing but doesn’t do much to alle­vi­ate the frus­tra­tion of its mem­bers.

And then Peter­son tells them to lift the heav­iest rock they can and carry it. Will it ease their suffer­ing? No. Every­one is suffer­ing, but at least they can carve mean­ing out of that. And if enough peo­ple listen to that mes­sage cen­tury af­ter cen­tury, we get Stone­henge. [Rule 7: pur­sue what is mean­ingful, not what is ex­pe­di­ent]

A new ex­pan­sion just came out for the Civ­i­liza­tion 6 video game, and in­stead of play­ing it I’m nine hours into writ­ing this post and barely halfway done. I hope I’m not the only one get­ting some mean­ing out of this thing.

It’s not easy to tell a story that in­spires a whole tribe to move 25-ton rocks. Peter­son no­ticed that the Bible is one story that has been do­ing that for a good while. Eliezer no­ticed it too, and he was not happy about it, so he wrote his own tribe-in­spiring work of fic­tion. I’ve read both, cover to cover. And al­though I found HPMoR more fun to read, I end up quot­ing from the Old Tes­ta­ment a lot more of­ten when I have a point to make.

“Back in the old days, say­ing that the lo­cal re­li­gion is a work of fic­tion would have got­ten you burned at the stake“, Eliezer replies. Well, to­day quot­ing re­search on psy­chol­ogy gets you fired from Google, and quot­ing re­search on cli­mate change gets you fired from the EPA. Ep­pur si muove.

Jews wrote down com­men­taries sug­gest­ing that the story of Jonah is metaphor­i­cal a mil­len­nium be­fore Gal­ileo was born, and yet they con­sid­ered them­selves the Peo­ple of the Book. The Peter­son mask re­minds us that peo­ple don’t have to take a story liter­ally to take it se­ri­ously.

Peter­son loves to tell the story of Cain and Abel. Hu­mans dis­cov­ered sac­ri­fice: you can give away some­thing to­day to get some­thing bet­ter to­mor­row. “To­mor­row” needs a face, so we call it “God” and act out a literal sac­ri­fice to God to ham­mer the point home for the kids.

But some­times, the sac­ri­fice doesn’t work out. You give, but you don’t get, and you are driven to re­sent­ment and rage against the sys­tem. That’s what Cain does, and the story tells us that it’s the wrong move – you should pon­der in­stead how to make a bet­ter sac­ri­fice next time.

When I was younger, I went to the gym twice a week for a whole year. After a year I didn’t look any sex­ier, I didn’t get much stronger, and I was sore a lot. So I said fuck it and stopped. Now I started go­ing to the gym twice a week again, but I also started read­ing about food and ex­er­cise to fi­nally get my sac­ri­fice to do some­thing. I still don’t look like some­one who goes to the gym twice a week, but I can bench 20 pounds more than I could last year and I rarely get sore or in­jured work­ing out. [Rule 4: com­pare your­self with who you were yes­ter­day, not with who some­one else is to­day]

Know­ing that the story of Cain and Abel is made up hasn’t pre­vented it from in­spiring me to ex­er­cise smarter.

There’s a prob­lem: many sto­ries that sound in­spira­tional are full of shit. After listen­ing to a few hours of Peter­son talk­ing about archetypes and drag­ons and Je­sus, I wasn’t con­vinced that he’s not full of it ei­ther. You should only wear a mask if it leaves you wiser when you take it off and go back to fac­ing your mun­dane prob­lems.

What con­vinced me about Peter­son is this snip­pet from his con­ver­sa­tion with James Al­tucher (24 min­utes in):

If you’re try­ing to help some­one who’s in a rough situ­ta­tion, let’s say with their re­la­tion­ship, you ask them to start watch­ing them­selves so that you can gather some in­for­ma­tion. Let’s take a look at your re­la­tion­ship for a week and all you have to do is figure out when it’s work­ing and when it’s not work­ing. Or, when it’s work­ing hor­ribly and when it’s work­ing not too bad. Just keep track of that.
“Well, my wife ig­nores me at the din­ner table,” or “My wife ig­nores me when I come home.” Then we start small. How would you like your wife to greet you when you come home?
“I’d like her to stop what she’s do­ing and come to the door.” Well, ask her un­der what con­di­tions she would be will­ing to do that. And let her do it badly. Do it for a week, just agree that when ei­ther of you comes home you shut off the TV and ask “how was your day?” and listen for 10 sec­onds, and see how that goes.
Carl Jung said “mod­ern peo­ple can’t see God be­cause they won’t look low enough”. It means that peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate the im­por­tance of small things. They’re not small. How your wife says hi to you when you come home – that’s not small, be­cause you come home all the time. You come home three times a day, so we can do the ar­ith­metic.
Let’s say you spend 15 min­utes a day com­ing home, some­thing like that. And then it’s ev­ery day, so that’s 7 days a week, so that’s 105 min­utes. Let’s call it 90 min­utes a week. So that’s 6 hours a month, 72 hours a year. So you ba­si­cally spend two full work­weeks com­ing home, that’s about 3% of your life.
You spend about 3% of your life com­ing home. Fix it! Then, fix 30 more things.

Aside from the Jung quote, that’s the most Pu­tanu­monit piece of life ad­vice I have ever heard on a pod­cast, com­plete with un­nec­es­sary ar­ith­metic. If Peter­son can put on a Pu­tanu­monit hat and come up with some­thing that makes deep sense to me, per­haps I could do the same with a Peter­son mask.

The ra­tio­nal­ist pro­ject is about find­ing true an­swers to difficult ques­tions. We have a for­mula that does that, and we’ve tracked many ways in which our minds can veer of the right path. But there are profound ways in which a per­son can be un­ready to seek the truth, ways that are hard to mea­sure in a be­hav­ioral econ lab and as­sign a catchy moniker to.

I have writ­ten a lot about ro­mance and dat­ing in the last two years, in­clud­ing some mildly con­tro­ver­sial takes. I could not have writ­ten any of them be­fore I met my wife. Not be­cause I didn’t know the facts or the game the­ory, but be­cause I wasn’t emo­tion­ally ready. When I read pri­vate drafts I wrote about women from years ago, they are col­ored by frus­tra­tion, guilt, ex­u­ber­ance or fear, all de­pend­ing on the out­come of the last date I’ve been on. Those emo­tions aren’t ex­actly con­ducive to clar­ity of thought.

I think this was also the rea­son why Scott Aaron­son wrote The Com­ment that led to Un­ti­tled only when he was mar­ried and had a child. Then, he could weather the re­sult­ing storm with­out back­ing down from his truth. It is hard to see some­thing true about re­la­tion­ships when your own aren’t in or­der, let alone write some­thing true. [Rule 6: set your house in perfect or­der be­fore you crit­i­cize the world]

The flip­side is: when you wear the Peter­son mask, you are com­pel­led to spread the word when you’ve found a path that leads some­where true. There is no higher call­ing in Peter­son’s wor­ld­view. The Kol­mogorov Op­tion be­comes the Kol­mogorov Man­date (and the Scott Alexan­der mask mostly agrees).

Let’s go back to the be­gin­ning: Peter­son made noise by re­fus­ing to com­ply with a law that doesn’t ac­tu­ally do what he claims. How is that con­tribut­ing to the truth?

For starters, I would have bet that Peter­son was go­ing to lose his job when the let­ters call­ing for his dis­mis­sal started rol­ling in, let­ters signed by hun­dreds of Peter­son’s own col­leagues at the Univer­sity of Toronto. I would have bet wrong: the only thing that hap­pened is that Peter­son now makes sev­eral times his aca­demic salary from his Pa­treon ac­count (if you want me to start say­ing crazy things you can try click­ing here).

This is crit­i­cal: it cre­ated com­mon pub­lic knowl­edge that if free speech is ever ac­tu­ally threat­ened by the gov­ern­ment to the ex­tent that Peter­son claims, the sup­port for free speech will be over­whelming even at uni­ver­si­ties. Speak­ing an un­pop­u­lar truth is a co­or­di­na­tion prob­lem, you have to know that oth­ers will stand with you if you stand up first. [Rule 1: stand up straight with your shoulders back]

Now, more peo­ple know that there’s ap­petite in the West for peo­ple who stand up for truth. This isn’t a par­ti­san thing, I hope that Peter­son in­spires peo­ple with in­con­ve­nient leftist opinions to speak up in red tribe-dom­i­nated spaces (e.g. the NFL protests).

Peter­son was tech­ni­cally wrong, as he is on many things. But he sees the pur­suit of truth as a heroic quest and he’s will­ing to toss some rocks around, and I think this helps the cause of truth even if one gets some tech­ni­cal de­tails wrong.

Be­ing wrong about the de­tails is not good, but I think that ra­tio­nal­ists are pretty de­cent at get­ting tech­ni­cal­ities right. By us­ing the Peter­son Mask ju­di­ciously, we can achieve even more than that.

[Rule 12: pet a cat when you en­counter one on the street], but don’t touch the hedge­hog, they don’t like it.

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