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Dr. Peterson, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Onions

I have, in my memory, an old Archie comic. I must have read it 25 years ago. I haven’t been able to find it, or else I’d include it here. In the comic, get this, Betty is trying to “get over” Archie. She’s tired of being in love with him. He’s a two-timer and so on. Her method is to eat raw onions, which she detests, while looking at a picture of him. It seems to be a psychologically sophisticated method: Her idea is that her brain will come to associate Archie with the horrible onions, and eventually she will come to dislike him as much as she dislikes them. It doesn’t work, though—the comic ends with Betty’s revelation that, horror of horrors, she has grown to love raw onions!

As I’ve kept my interest in a certain widely-vilified Canadian psychologist-slash-public intellectual relatively hidden from most people I know, I’ve wondered about what meaning Betty’s onion project might hold for me. If people I know learned that I not only took Jordan Peterson seriously as an intellectual, psychologist, and clinician, but had become a Jordan Peterson fan, would their hatred of him cause them to hate me? Or would it all twist around like Betty’s onions, encouraging people to give Peterson more considered thought on account of having some degree of respect for me? I expect it depends on the person, as well as on the pre-existing degree of respect they actually have for me.

Something akin to this dynamic is actually how I got interested in Peterson’s work initially. At first, I was content to ignore him and assume he was some kind of demagogic dog-whistle alt-right fascist, as the media seems determined to paint him. There was something that was amiss to me, however, in the wildness of the claims about him compared with the little I’d seen—something like Trump derangement syndrome, a term which describes “a reaction to United States President Donald Trump by liberals, progressives, and anti-Trump conservatives, who are said to respond to Trump's statements and political actions irrationally and with little regard to Trump's actual position or action taken” (from Wikipedia, thank you very much). Regardless of this intuition that something was amiss, I thought I’d just rather not do the work of looking seriously at what he was saying, and trying to parse it from what people were saying he was saying.

A person I really, deeply trust—a real mentor, and a psychologist as well—emailed me a video of Peterson one day. I was a bit taken aback. Here was someone that I hold in very high regard “eating onions”. I could no longer avoid the work of developing an informed response to him. I couldn’t assume that this mentor was a backward, white supremacist, incel whatever, because I knew that not to be true. Could she have simply failed to do her research, and developed a poorly-informed opinion of him? Well, no, that was a pretty untenable idea as well.

As I watched different videos—Peterson’s own lectures, the Munk debate on political correctness, TV interviews, and so on—it became clear that there was a lot that didn’t fit with the media narrative. I could see, without much difficulty, that sentences, phrases, and individual words were being absolutely abducted from their context, and misconstrued to serve some predetermined narrative. What I saw was somebody speaking honestly, grounded in his principles as well as in a massively broad, eclectic, and esoteric base of knowledge. He was saying things that dared to seriously dialogue with the current acceptable orthodox view of various topics.

I say “dared” because, well, it was obviously dangerous. It seems to have brought him a great deal of trouble, the great deal of money and fame that came along with it notwithstanding. While his supporters have treated him well, his detractors have treated him, in my opinion, absolutely abominably. It’s very difficult for me to imagine myself entering interview after interview in good faith, intending to have a conversation, and being intentionally misrepresented in the subsequent article if not directly attacked in the interview itself. Actually, scratch that--I can imagine it because I, like him, have experience as a psychotherapy clinician—and I think we therefore share some common experience of having to hold our own centered presence while the person we are talking with projects their own psychology onto us. I saw Peterson, in many moments, acting partially as a therapist: Communicating and keeping grounded, no doubt with great effort, while remaining embodied and emotionally present in the room. I can imagine doing it on the scale that he has been doing it, and it is extremely difficult. I’ve seen criticism of the fact that he, from time to time, seems to get angry during a conversation—why the hell shouldn’t he? People get angry about things they care about, and if they’re in touch with their own emotional life they own it and deal with it, rather than suppressing it or letting it take over the conversation.

A close friend and I had a conversation about him one night—I had started reading 12 Rules For Life at this point. This friend posited the question: What might I be willing to lose as a result of being interested in this man’s work? With the very real implication that people I know might treat me differently; perhaps I would even lose friends; perhaps it would affect my career. What a situation! That being interested in the work of a psychologist could potentially have such extreme consequences! I didn’t even dare read the book in public. Reading a book felt as if it was somehow too dangerous! What the hell was I living through, the Spanish Inquisition? Or simply as part of a relatively liberal social bubble in Edmonton, Canada? It was at Peterson’s 2018 lecture in Edmonton that something really hit home—someone, I can’t remember if it was the host Dave Rubin or an audience question, but someone mentioned the idea of being a “secret fan”. A significant portion of the Jubilee Auditorium, with nearly 2500 people in it, clapped in apparent acknowledgement of this widespread phenomenon. Jordan Peterson was seen by many as being too dangerous to publicly acknowledge interest in.

Oh, how keenly I felt my weakness through this realization! If he could withstand hate mail, thousands of vitriolic internet comments, aggressive protestors, and mainstream media savagery, what was I doing hiding my opinion? It’s not just that I like the man’s work—it’s that I think it’s very important. 12 Rules, to me, appears to be a “culture-bearing book”—a term used by Robert Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, to describe a book that speaks a necessary truth for the spirit of the time in which it is written, and moves the conversation forward. In addition, I think Peterson himself is doing an excellent job modelling what it is to possess integrity, and to be honest, authentic, emotionally present, embodied, and a serious thinker and scholar. None of those are small things.

So I wonder, now, what the repercussions of saying these things might be, if there are any. For those who know me, will they now lump me in as a deplorable, an alt-right incel white supremacist fascist? Or will they, like I was forced to do, take on the seriously hard task of figuring out the difference between the media portrayal of Jordan Peterson, and what the reality seems to be? That is—will Betty start hating Archie, or start liking onions? The analogy is a little thin, but I think it gets the point across.