There is rejoicing at the thinker's return — and also some sour disappointment
It is good to see him. Peterson, Canadian clinical psychologist cum YouTube guru, has been MIA for over a year amid a cloud of rumours about anxiety, benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome and experimental treatments in Moscow and Belgrade. I am sure that many people did not expect to see him again but he is back and, according to a new video, hard at work on lectures about Exodus and Proverbs. There is much rejoicing — and also some amount of sour disappointment.
“Be not wise in thine own eyes,” says Proverbs 3:7. There has been a certain amount of crowing about Peterson’s struggles, some of it purely malicious and some of it based on the perception that they undermine his status as a public figure. Is Peterson, after all, not the man whose “rules for life” include “set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world”?
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Well, yes. In Twelve Rules for Life, Peterson wrote “things fall apart because we have not paid sufficient attention” and said, “Don’t reorganise the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility.”
So, perhaps he could have taken his advice a little more. In the video, he says that not thinking about the implications of taking benzodiazepine was a mistake. But has he ever claimed to be above it? Not to my knowledge. If some of his followers have deified — or at least beatified — the man that is to their discredit but I do not think he has encouraged them.
Perhaps a steelman of the criticisms of Peterson is that his struggles highlight the limits of individual responsibility. Some problems, like drug withdrawal, make us depend on other people — and some problems, like overprescription, demand a societal and not simply an individual response. In his book, Peterson allegorises with reference to the floods that struck New Orleans in 2005. Hurricane Katrina was a random tragedy but the lack of hurricane preparedness was a sin. That is true, but also illustrates how much can lie beyond a single man’s capacities.
But there is no point in erecting a dichotomy here. Both individual and communal responsibility have their place. Could a mountain climber reach their full potential without a team? No. Could a team of mountain climbers function without its members’ individual courage, skill and hard work? No. The team supports the individuals but the individuals make the team.
Certainly, Peterson knows the importance of his team. His return video is humble and soft-spoken. He salutes his friends and family, saying, “I am certainly not convinced that I would have the character to provide for any of them what they have provided for me.” Perhaps he would, but it is a nice thing to say nonetheless.
So, welcome back, Dr Peterson, and may your troubles trail behind you. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his ideas, it is good to have that argument with the man himself at his strongest.