The Jordan Peterson Mask
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.