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Hannah Gal
Hannah Gal

Jordan Petersons triumphant return to Cambridge

Photo by Jonathan Castellino
Jordan Peterson photo by Jonathan Castellino

When Jordan Peterson speaks people listen

When Jordan Peterson speaks people listen. They do so with rarely seen intensity and focus. Attentive and alert, they watch his every move and hang by his every word.

Peterson’s triumphant 2021 Cambridge University talk saw the Toronto professor pause for thought several times. Nearing the end of the talk, the clinical psychologist paused as he tried to tie together the multitude of strands he presented thus far. He stood still, deep in contemplation for a good few seconds, as the audience fell dead silent – and I mean dead, not the slightest, faintest sound was heard in the hall.

This is a regular occurrence at Jordan Peterson‘s lectures but it is not a given.

After all, Peterson is far from easy listening. He speaks of complex matters that even the most capable minds could find challenging to follow. During his talks he goes on long trails-of-thought excursions that demand great concentration from the listener, while his staggeringly rich vocabulary alienates many by virtue of its sheer sophistication.

Peterson’s is a uniquely brilliant mind. He has an astounding power of articulation, stunningly refined vocabulary and an uncanny ability to convey complex matters in a manner that most listeners can comprehend. What sets him apart from other luminaries however is his ability to think deeply, profoundly and comprehensively about any given subject – for Peterson, to borrow Einstein’s phrase ‘everything is a miracle’ – every object, act, word or sight is telling of human behaviour and the universe at large. I argue that any word, idea, object, person, work of art, period or phenomenon you put before Peterson, would generate a fascinating and most probably, long reflection – guaranteed to be not just thoroughly engaging, but book-worthy. Other luminaries put ‘on the spot’ in this manner, will simply run out of steam, unless the subject put before them falls within the very remit of their field.

It is no wonder Peterson’s replies to post-lecture questions last for 8, 10 and even 15 minutes. One such question was presented to the noted clinical psychologist after his recent Cambridge talk. The question concerned the future of Western civilisation to which Peterson replied “I’m optimistic about the future”,  quickly adding “but if we want hell, we can certainly have that.”

Photo by Jonathan Castellino

Peterson spoke of his two year engagement with the UN where he read texts on environmental problems and opportunities that left him feeling “way more optimistic” about the fate of humanity. There he became aware of “radically positive“, hugely successful efforts to better humanity, that remain largely hidden from the public eye.

“Starvation is pretty much absent across the world”, he explained, “more people have been lifted out of abject poverty over the past fifteen years than at the entire course of human history, no major wars plague us at the moment” and there has been no war in the western hemisphere for decades.

“If we got our act together instead of wanting to burn everything to the ground in an orgy of guilt-ridden self destruction”, he asserted, “we can set up a world in fifteen years where everyone had plenty to eat.” In fact, in a hundred years’ time, he stated, the world’s problem will be under population, rather than over population as is the wider claim.

“If you want to control the population” concluded Peterson, “all you have to do is educate women – the best predictor of a society’s future economic development is the attitude that they hold towards the education of women. The fastest way out of a given environmental conundrum is to make absolutely poor people richer as fast as possibly can so they don’t burn wood anymore” – according to Peterson, 1.6 million children die every year “because of the indoor pollution that wood burning costs.”

Peterson’s optimism came as a surprise to many as it neglected to note his ominous warnings to the world about progressivism’s erosion of Western values, leading to the decline of Western civilisation. Indeed, the audience member who posed the question repeated it, stressing that his interest was in Peterson’s take on the fate of western society.

Peterson went on to explain that his positive outlook stems from his rejection of the premise that “our fundamental motivations are that of a corrupt will” –  a viewpoint he considers to be “wrong factually” and “an appalling claim philosophically”, that is ethically demoralising enough to hurt people “to the deep recesses of their soul.”

Here he recalled a mind boggling quote he attributed to the church Fathers – “god is the circle whose centre is everywhere but whose circumference is nowhere.” We interact with one another as if there is a spark of the divine within us, he told the captivated audience, “as if there is something about them that is transcendent and in some sense of eternal value”. He reiterated his belief that truth is more powerful than deceit and that love is more powerful than hate, by a large margin.

“It is possible for us to rise above the resentment of our suffering, and extend a hand to our enemies” – truth is the handmaiden of love, and “that is something everyone can practice at every moment”. Do your best to not lie and see what happens”, he concluded, “what happens are wonderful things.”

In a reply to another question, Peterson himself asked the audience the question “why feed a baby who is crying if the sun will envelope the earth in four billion years time? – if we are all doomed to ashes and decay then why bother?”

His question triggered laughter from the audience to which he quickly responded with a reassuring “that laughter, that’s a sign of wisdom.”

It shows that members of the audience have not picked a “time frame of evaluation” that makes all their present efforts seem futile ,”you know that’s preposterous” he told the audience, “but why?”

This is a real existential question that many people, including many of Peterson’s clients have wrestled with – clients whose immediate emotional and often physical suffering, has made them lose sight of the worth in their every day deeds and actions. They sink into a deep state where ‘in the greater scheme of things’, all their ’earthly’ tasks are perceived by them to be futile and unworthy of the slightest effort – but they are wrong.

“If you are adopting a time frame that makes what you are doing appear trivial” explained Peterson, “the problem isn’t necessarily what you are doing.. the problem is that your mind has picked a timeframe inappropriate for the task.”

The solution to this problem is meaning. This can be found in the sheer joy derived from busking in the company of a person we like, revelling at a captivating work of art, listening to music or engaging in deep conversation –  these moments of joy are in fact meaning, explained Peterson.  The enjoyment you feel is your mind and body’s way of telling you that this is a positive endeavour that is worth pursuing. When we engage in an activity with a person we enjoy, he explained, we lose our “sense of temporality” – deep enjoyment is therefore a “profound neurophysiological signal that you are in the right place at the right time – if it is accompanied by a sense of deep wellbeing, that is literally an antidote to suffering”. Meaning is the antidote to suffering, he concluded, the question is where is it to be found? “you have to look in your own life and see where meaning glimmers”

Peterson’s return to Cambridge was unanimously hailed as a reiteration of the university’s commitment to free speech and open debate.

In early 2019 a fellowship offer extended to Peterson was famously rescinded by the university. Not due to his actions or words, but because a photograph of him has emerged where he stood next to a fan wearing a T shirt bearing an islamophobic message. The university’s action at the time caused great uproar, reverberating well beyond the realm of academia.

With this invitation, Cambridge University has shown that it is ready to put the 2019 episode behind and bestow Peterson with the honour and respect he deserves – unlike some, the professors who fought for his return seem to know before whom they stand.

About the Author
Hannah is a London based journalist covering culture and current affairs. She writes about photography, film and TV for outlets in the UK and US, and covers current affairs with particular interest in the Jewish world. She is also an award-winning filmmaker and photographer. Her films were screened in festivals worldwide and parts of her documentary about Holocaust survivor Leon Greenman were screened on the BBC.
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