Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, best-selling author, philosopher and host of the podcast Waking Up. He describes his job as ‘someone who thinks in public’ and has established a reputation as one of the leading lights in both New Atheism and secular spirituality. We sat down ahead of the biggest live event of his career – his upcoming show at the O2 Arena with psychology professor Jordan Peterson and Centre for Social Cohesion founder Douglas Murray – to talk intellectual honesty, the crisis of meaning, and how public intellectualism became the new rock and roll.
What is the background to this event with Peterson and Murray and what are you hoping will come from the conversation?
[Peterson and I] had two podcast interviews, and they were painful to one or another degree. We disagreed about some fundamental things and found it difficult to converge and I am expecting that Douglas’ presence on the stage will make for a far more fruitful conversation because I think Douglas and I go way back and agree about many things but disagree about some others, and I think there will be a very interesting synergy between the two of us and Jordan. So I think for instance Jordan and Douglas are both far more concerned about the importance of maintaining quote “Judeo-Christian values” and think it’s the historical and religious underpinnings of our civilisation that are somehow put in peril by secularism and multiculturalism and other modern trends. And I have some of the same concerns about values and politics that they do but I have, as I think you know, very little concern that jettisoning Christianity and Judaism will undermine our values. So I don’t think our values are anchored to religion in the way that they seem to. But I think that will be an interesting conversation to have. But more generally we share this common experience of touching taboo topics and paying a price for it in the mainstream media and yet these topics are no less important to touch, topics like religion and differences between cultures, the West vs the Rest, race, intelligence, wealth, power, terrorism. These are all topics which when you talk about them, unless your speech is passed through the filter of political correctness, you get a lot of pushback. And I think the time for political correctness is over. So as much as we may disagree, we are of like mind about that, and I think that’s what people are eager to hear more of.
The event is being billed as 'the Woodstock of live speaking and debate', but based on your previous conversations it doesn’t seem like there’s much and peace and love between the two of you…
There is a lot of goodwill, I just think we have to… With respect to Jordan, I think that most of what he’s doing is admirable and I support it, I just think that he repeatedly makes claims that I think are scientifically and intellectually unjustifiable, and he need not make those claims to support many of the things he values, politically and morally. It will be interesting to try to get some agreement about all of that.
With Douglas [Murray], he and I agree about so much, and yet I consider myself a liberal; he tends to consider himself a conservative. It’s interesting that the common bond that we have intellectually and ethically is not at all affected by political affiliation. And we get some of the same pain politically from people who don’t like the way we ignore various taboos. In the case of Douglas, it’s more often the taboo around criticising specific religions, in his case Islam.
How much credence does he give to the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” group that has banded thinkers like you, Peterson and Murray together?
I think it’s an analogy I’ve only paid lip service to in a tongue in cheek way. It really only captures the fact that much of… Many interesting conversations that are finding large audiences are finding those audiences outside mainstream channels now. They are largely on the internet and on podcasts because of the politically correct filters put on so much of public conversation at the moment. So in that sense, the analogy to the dark web is fine. It’s an unfortunate analogy in that, you know, the real dark web is chock full of child pornography and drugs and armaments and whatever else people go there to buy and sell.
There is this non-mainstream series of platforms that have enormous audiences. I mean these audiences compare favourably to television audiences and radio audiences, say, that are considered quite successful. There are blogs where if you post an article on a blog it gets seen by as many people as if it had been published in The New York Times. And the mainstream media doesn’t seem to be so aware of that, so that’s why the analogy seemed interesting.
The people grouped in that loose affiliation show many different commitments politically and intellectually and there’s some people there I have basically nothing in common with apart from the fact that we have been on some of the same podcasts together.
Is there utility in these kinds of groupings?
We are united in that, whatever our views are on certain topics, we are all committed to free speech and not being cowed by taboos, or illegitimate taboos. That unites us. But I don’t know how useful the affiliation is, it’s not something I’m going to self-consciously endorse or wear. It’s somewhat similar to the ‘New Atheist’ thing that wrapped me up with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. It ignored some differences between us, certainly differences in emphasis. But it was a neater affiliation because there was only four of us and we were all atheists. And in that case, it basically named a publishing phenomenon more than anything else. But it’s not something that I ever endorsed or gave energy to myself, it just kept getting put on me. And I don’t know that the Intellectual Dark Web will stick as much as that, but again it’s coming from outside.
There is definitely a lionisation of the super well-known academics underway at the moment. Do you accept the term ‘academic’ to describe yourself?
There’s an even more pretentious term to describe me, I guess, which is ‘public intellectual’. Which is at least more accurate in a sense that I’m not affiliated with a university, I’m not a professor. So I guess I’m not an academic. Even though much of my writing and speaking may sound pretty academic to people.
While describing oneself as a public intellectual can sound kind of pretentious, I think this is a role that we recognise in society that we want to value and validate and it’s often filled by scientists who are trying to communicate science in as broad a possible way to the public. So having the mode of being educators, but it also puts them in the mode of debating public policy when relevant.
Much of my work has been talking about the conflict between religion and science, and so the generic term ‘public intellectual’ is probably the best we’ve got.
It’s a seemingly new moment for intellectual conversation where we are not dumbing it down, and yet we are finding an appetite to have these conversations staged in large venues and promulgated to large audiences on (mostly) podcasts, given the freedom of the medium.
You’re about to appear at the busiest music venue in the world; your event is billed in the O2’s calendar between Justin Timberlake and Iron Maiden. There has never been a neuroscientist, a clinical psychologist, and an associate editor filling an arena of this kind. Is this a special moment for you personally? Is there something culturally significant taking place for this to happen?
It’s interesting. I have never been to the O2, so I don’t actually know what I’m walking into, but I will resist doing an Iron Maiden impersonation.
But yes, it’s something that several of us have been experiencing. I have been experiencing it on my own, just touring the US (as has Jordan) doing venues that are explicitly rock star venues, or where very big comedians do their shows. It is interesting. There is clearly a new format for public conversation that has been found, and we have all just kind of stumbled into it. There was really no model for it that I was aware of a couple years ago. We just started doing it, testing the waters. But there seems to be the appetite for it.
What has been driving that astronomical surge in demand for speakers such as yourself, Peterson, and Murray?
I think live events are unique in that they are in the real world and they are instances of real scarcity. In the case where you’re either in the room or you’re not, and there is no video alternative, it is an occasion of real scarcity unlike anything that seems to exist now. Everything else that exists is basically being digitised and you can get it whenever and wherever you want it, usually for free. And in some ways that’s even happening to books. Insofar as it’s becoming harder and a rarer thing to even read books, people are opting to just listen to someone’s TED talk, or listen to their interviews on YouTube, or listen to a podcast, and there are very few things where it’s just the tangible moment is only available at a specific place and at a specific time. And I think there is a kind of hunger for that because everything else we’re consuming, we’re consuming in a kind of isolation and we’re all just getting siloed with our smartphones and I think there’s a hunger for people to come together and all hear the same thing in the same place at the same time. There’s nothing but a live event to achieve that.
You’ve risen in prominence in part through podcasting. Do you think people are going to a preference for the long form presentation of ideas?
I agree that the medium has an extraordinary influence on what gets said and how it gets said and the kinds of things that get said, so I would fully agree with that thesis. It also sort of goes back to Marshall McLuhan, if not earlier. And so the influence of podcast in my mind there has been all to the good. What’s amazing about the podcast as a format -- which is not entirely intuitive to people -- is that it is just totally different from every other format including radio. Most people think about it as being indistinguishable from radio, or it’s just radio on demand. In both cases, they’re audio, and a podcast is just audio whenever you want it. But it’s different from radio in that most podcasts, when they get recorded, have no time limit, and all radio shows have a time slot that they have been recorded for. And having no time limit totally changes the nature of the conversation. There’s no rush to make your point. Most of these things don’t get edited to conform to any kind of timeframe and certainly mine doesn’t. And there really it’s all about getting to the bottom of whatever the ideas are. The unnatural constraint of having a time limit changes a lot, even if it’s a long time limit. Even if you have an hour for a radio programme, you can feel the burden of that hour coming to a close in way that just doesn’t exist in a podcast. And there’s the fact that in a podcast, a disagreement can be a conversation and need not be a formal debate no matter how much disagreement is actually happening. These live events are to some significant degree extensions of a podcast. I started with a podcast, then I started doing live podcasts, and while these events with Jordan and Douglas aren’t going to be podcasts per se, it is very much informed by the ethic of having a long conversation, in this case because it’s in front of a live audience is allows for a Q&A with the audience. And having it not structured like a debate, having it be a real-time investigation of what is true and what is good and what is reasonable. In that case, unlike a debate, the burden really is on the participants to change their minds if they are shown to be in error. The expectation is if the other person makes a good point, it will matter and you will have to either adopt it or give good reason for why you’re not. And it’s not a performance, whereas in a public debate there is no pretense that either side will change its view. You are trying to effect the views of the audience but it really is a performance: I’m speaking in defence of X, you are speaking against, and it’s totally clear that with each volley it’s just a matter of each side trying to win, and that’s not at all what I’m doing on my podcast and that’s at all what I expect to be doing with Jordan and Douglas at these events.
You’ve had several famously difficult conversations including with Noam Chomsky, Jordan Peterson on your podcast, and most recently with Vox editor Ezra Klein. Is there a danger of that happening with this live event and, if there is, is there value in these conversations nonetheless?
Well, I think there is value in it. It’s frustrating and I hope we don’t fall into that. I think Douglas’ presence there will help ensure that we don’t. I think having a third person there who can kind of follow the plot and help moderate a little bit… I mean Douglas is not there as a moderator, he’s a participant in his own right. But I think just having him on stage can keep Jordan and I from getting bogged down. Douglas and I will never get bogged down, we just agree about too much and are so familiar with one another’s views. At a few of my other events with Jordan I have an actual moderator there, so that really is the role of a moderator: to keep everyone accountable to the last thing that got said.
I think we’ll probably go out to the audiences in advance to get topics that they really want us to address and then just kind of move through them and address them each in our own way and talk about what has been said. So it will be structured to some degree along the lines of the interests of the audiences that we poll in advance. And that will ensure that we don’t cover precisely the same ground at every venue. So the event in Dublin I think will be significantly different from the event in London because we’ll make sure we hit some different topics at each event.
Your event in London is three days after Trump’s first official visit to the UK. Your criticisms of him are so well-known now – are you sick of having to think and talk about him?
I don’t say much about it now because I’m just repeating myself. If I have any disagreement with Jordan on this front it does come down to (as far as I know) he has said very little in criticism of Trump which may signify nothing, but it strikes me as peculiar. And I know his fan base is filled with Trump supporters and he’s done far less than I have to make it uncomfortable for the Trump supporters in his fan base. And that’s a choice I don’t totally understand, that’s a choice I don’t support. I think if you are at all committed to the truth, scientific or any other form of truth, to not have noticed that the current occupant of the oval office has done more to harm the public notion of truth than any person in living memory… That seems a strange omission. So it will be interesting to discover if there’s any daylight between the two of us on the topic of Trump when we’re there.
“Intellectual honesty” is something which is very important to you. What is it and why is it important to you?
It’s a slightly misleading phrase because it’s not quite the same thing as honesty. It’s not to say that every instance of intellectual dishonesty is a case where somebody is lying. When you are saying that somebody is being intellectually dishonest, that’s not the same thing as calling them a liar. It’s often misinterpreted as that.
To be intellectually honest requires that you apply the same standards to your own thinking that you would apply to others’. You’re holding yourself to the same standards of reasoning and consistency and evidence-based thinking that you hold others to. You’re not pointing out fallacies in other people’s arguments that you don’t notice or are unwilling to see in your own. So it’s a consistency across the board in how you judge the merits of arguments. It’s the only way of thinking about the world that scales and becomes universalisable, and it’s the only way of thinking about the world that’s not dependent on you being you and me being me. It’s one of those things where if I gave you a series of claims and their justifications, a page of claims about the environment, say, or the dangers of technological innovation, and I gave you those arguments and you read them, and you found them valid, but then you turn the page and you see that this is a long quotation from the Unabomber, right? You can’t suddenly say that they are invalid because the Unabomber said them. This is an experiment that many people have done. There are at least two books I’ve seen where you see a long quote that makes a lot of sense and then you turn the page and you see it’s attributed to Ted Kazinsky, the Unabomber, and then all of a sudden you’re brought up short and the effect that’s achieved is that the reader is left thinking “Jesus, I was just agreeing with the Unabomber! What does that say about me?” But what it can’t say is that the arguments are illegitimate because the Unabomber said them. And that’s the move that’s so often at the back of what we’re calling intellectual dishonesty.
It’s that you are attacking the person rather than the evidentiary or logical claims being made as though that were a surrogate for having a better argument against your opponent. Just calling someone a racist is not an argument, right? It’s not even proof that they’re a racist, and it’s certainly not an argument against whatever they’re claiming about the dangers of immigration or having an open borders policy, right, in Europe, say, or whatever the case may be.
So intellectual dishonesty is very often a case where pseudo-argument and just mere stigmatizing of certain views or smearing of certain people is standing in successfully for real arguments about facts. And it’s always dysfunctional; the tables always turn. Next week you’ll be the one smeared or misrepresented or…
And that’s the other thing. It’s happening more on the Left than the Right. You’re often encountering people who claim to essentially have powers of telepathy and will tell you what you’re really thinking and why you’re really saying what you’re saying and then hold you accountable to what they imagine is going on in your head, despite the fact that you are making impressive efforts to take their feet out of your mouth. And you’re claiming no, I’m not saying any of that, and here’s what I’m actually saying. So it’s intellectually dishonest not to deal with the best version of your opponents’ arguments that they will sign off on. If you’re actually arguing against someone you have to be arguing against a version of their case that they agree with, and so often that test is not being met. You are arguing with a version of somebody’s world view that they don’t recognise and never endorsed themselves, and that’s not successful communication and it’s certainly not a way of winning a debate.
You seem to privilege logic in debates, but it’s actually not that rhetorically effective in changing minds…
This is what’s so dysfunctional, and this is why intellectual dishonesty is so common. It is effective in swaying public opinion to just merely call someone a racist. When you call someone a racist, you’ve convinced at least half the audience that there’s probably some serious concern with that person, and then the burden is now on them prove that they’re not a racist. That’s why it’s done, it’s effective. Just by taking that path, you have announced to your audience that you’re the noble one who’s concerned about racism, and you’ve alleged that your opponent isn’t. He’s not concerned, he’s part of the problem. So you’ve put a lot of points on the board for the unthinking part of the audience and that’s considered a success, but it is what’s so dysfunctional about our public conversation about hard topics at the moment.
Do you hear from people whose minds you have changed?
Oh yeah. It is a widely subscribed myth, that is just a myth, that you can’t reason people out of their cherished beliefs. I have received now tens of thousands of emails from people who by virtue of reading some of our books (and now I’m speaking of the various New Atheist best sellers) or hearing us debate, or just considering the matter more closely themselves, people have come out of one or another religious fundamentalism or religious cult. I have heard from people who had never met another person on Earth who had ever betrayed the slightest doubt about God. They were living in a religious cult, for lack of a better word, but I mean this could be just mainstream evangelical Christianity or Mormonism or fundamentalist Islam, and they are sending me an email from their total intellectual isolation in this community saying “Listen, I no longer believe any of this crazy stuff, and it’s by virtue of having read your books or watched your debates on YouTube, and I don’t know what to do.”
It is a myth that that doesn’t happen, that happens all the time, it’s just you have a lot of people saying it doesn’t happen and a lot of people for whom it’s not happening because they’re so offended that you are criticising their cherished beliefs. So that tends to be more visible and these changes of mind tend to happen in private.
Is changing minds the raison d’etre of your work?
Well on certain points it is although in extreme cases I’m always surprised and I’m never really thinking about changing those particular minds. But when I’m talking about the conflict between religion and science or the specific problems with a religion like Islam I’m rarely thinking about changing the mind of someone who’s a jihadist or who’s a religious extremist. I’m not generally considering those people reachable but I do find that even they are reachable because they have told me they have been reached. But generally it’s more about changing the minds of people who are closer to viewing the world the way I do and especially about changing the minds of people who view the world exactly the way I do but who are holding their tongues because they have been convinced that certain ideas are sacred and can’t be criticised. There are secularists and there are atheists who are no more religiously dogmatic than I am, who still view it as taboo to say anything about religion, and that’s what’s so dysfunctional. I’m definitely trying to change those minds because we are in zero sum conflict between good ideas and bad ones and it’s time for us to admit it because there’s nothing more potent than ideas that are winning the credence of millions and even billions of people.
Do you feel that there’s a bigger problem with the political left or right? Angela Nagel has argued that the problems with thinking on the left are of less concern because that has not put someone in the Oval Office. Would you agree with that?
Well no. Even if you followed that argument to its conclusion you’d have to admit that the right is being massively empowered by what’s happening on the left. I blame the left in large measure for the ascendance of the right wherever it’s ascendant, and I think Trump’s presidency would be unthinkable without the left and its failures. Just on a single point the left’s failure to honestly talk about Islamism and jihadism and what Barrack Obama and Hilary Clinton didn’t say in a reasonable vain about jihadism, that alone determined Trump’s presidency. Trump’s victory in the election was overdetermined, impressively overdetermined. It was a narrow victory, but there 4 or 5 things that won him the crucial extra 70,000 votes that got him into the white house, and one of those things certainly was that Clinton seemed unable to utter a single honest sentence about Islam. And I heard from these people: I know at least one Muslim who voted for Trump because she just couldn’t tolerate being lied to about this particular issue.
The left’s swing into identity politics and multiculturalism and a denial of reality has massively energised the right and has given us a kind of white identity politics, and in a worse case white male identity politics. And that is a large part of Peterson’s audience and whether he’s said enough to point out what’s wrong with that, I doubt. Perhaps I haven’t heard it. At the end of the day you can’t hold any one of us responsible for our stupidest fans. I get docked because I’ve got some crazy fans who say some stupid things on Twitter and I can’t control that. But what I can control is that periodically I will make it absolutely clear what I don’t have in common with those people, what i think any reasonable person arguing on my side should be saying, and how they should be saying it. I’ve done a lot to try to purge my audience of the dummies on both the left and the right and so if there’s someone in my audience who’s still extremely unreasonable and extremely uncivil in a political vein, it’s not that I haven’t worked long and hard to distance myself from that. I’m not sure Jordan has worked quite as hard with respect to the Trump-loving, green frog-wearing, MAGA hat-wearing people in his tribe. And he should. There will be a bit of a mutiny, but the fact that there isn’t a mutiny to be had there means there’s a problem to be addressed.
Isn’t your work doing the same thing that you argue identity politics does (namely, strengthen the convictions of people it aims to oppose)? Isn’t your speaking out against it, and your association with Peterson, going to give fuel to people who oppose you?
The people who are just unreachable, the people for whom the fact that I had a conversation with Charles Murray is proof enough that I’m a racist, that there’s nothing that I could ever say to suggest otherwise, and there’s no number of people who are the antithesis of Charles Murray who I could speak with that would the stink off of me… There are people who are unreachable. But generally speaking… To take the case of Jordan, thus far most of my conversation with Peterson has been about disagreeing with him on specific topics. It’s not that we agree about everything, we just agree that these topics need to be discussed, and we agree that Identity Politics is poison. The real concern with me and Peterson is whether we can have a long conversation that doesn’t spiral into a truly intractable kind of disagreement.
It’s all a matter of grey here, there are no really bright lines. Guilt by association doesn’t make any sense until it does, right? If you are sharing the stage with a grand dragon of the KKK and finding nothing to disagree with him about, well then that begins to look kind of fishy. Yet, if you’re sharing the stage with someone who once shared the stage with someone who did that with the grand dragon of the KKK, well then it’s hard to know how far that reputational contamination has to travel. And that’s a problem I haven’t worked out for myself, I just don’t know how accountable people need to be for who they’re talking to. I think everyone has to tune this machine to their taste and I think we all do it a little differently. Douglas and I spoke about this on a podcast we did. Douglas will more or less talk to anyone. There is a strength in that. He’s confident in what he has to say; if he agrees with you he will agree with you, and if he disagrees with you he’ll disagree with you. And the burden is not on him to keep track of all the other podcasts you did or who you might be following on Twitter, he’s just going to say his piece given the opportunity. But it’s true that if you’re on stage with the wrong person, you can be sullied by association. I’ve felt like I’ve needed to curate this a little more carefully than Douglas has, and there are people who Douglas has shared the stage with or shared a podcast with who I’m inclined not to talk to because I’m aware of some of their other crazy associations. I’m not confident there’s a right answer here.
For some people, Peterson seems to be an alt-right darling. Is this something that concerns you?
We’re going to have to deal with it because I don’t know if we’re on the same page on this topic, but I think if there’s an issue to be spoken about we will talk about it at the event. I will certainly want to know how he thinks about the pathologies in his fan base. You can only ask someone to repeat these kinds of declarative statements so many times but I’m aware of him at least occasionally having said, “Listen, I think right wing identity politics or white identity politics is ridiculous.” So if the white supremacists in his audience aren’t that getting that message, at a certain point you can’t blame him for it. But there’s something else that explains the attraction to him by that wing of the largely white, largely male community and it is that he is addressing a crisis in…
There’s two things. He’s addressing a crisis in the lives of young men that very few people are acknowledging and he’s relentlessly criticising leftist identity politics, and when you combine those two things you get a very powerful appeal to young white men who feel like their whiteness and their maleness has been unfairly stigmatised. And they’re right: it has been unfairly stigmatised. So insofar as that’s all true, that’s a very deep and steep basin of attraction for white young men, and it will pull in a lot of people who are now practicing their own version of identity politics.
What do you think of the legitimacy of that crisis?
Well, I think there’s a legitimate crisis that’s not limited to white young men. There’s a crisis of identity, there’s a crisis of meaning. Everything seems to be conspiring to fragment human life now. Just what we’re doing to ourselves with social media and smartphones, and the way in which advanced economies are stratifying with respect to skills and educational attainment. You’re getting a massive spread in with inequality and job prospects based on all that. It’s a difficult time to find a durable sense of what your life is for. Confidence that you’re living your life in a way that is guaranteed to be meaningful is hard to come by now. There’s sort of ready-made ways of pacifying these concerns and religion is the classic one. Insofar as Peterson’s making an overt appeal to religion, he is (in my view) pandering to ancient fears and modern instability in a way that is intellectually dishonest, and he should know that much of what he’s saying is bullshit. That’s the stuff we’ll disagree about. Everything he says about the Bible and its primacy or the necessity of grappling with Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky… I don’t agree with any of that, but it’s easy to see how that’s landing with people who feel that their lives are a boring story and Peterson is providing an interesting one, or a grandiose one. People who can’t figure out what they’re doing with their lives between playing video games and checking Instagram, and Peterson is telling them “no, you don’t understand, you really should be slaying a dragon and rescuing the maiden and returning with untold riches, and that’s your birthright.” And it’s a compelling story for some people, but on that level, I don’t think it’s an especially interesting one.
But the problem he’s unmasked in the largely secular world of this crisis of meaning and purpose, I think that is a legitimate problem and I think his unmasking it has been a very important sociological phenomenon. That’s why I’m doing these events with him: not because I think that our podcasts together suggest that we have much more that we need to keep talking about, I just think that there’s a need that needs to be served here in the secular community which is being badly served. The success that he is having at the moment is unmasking that need, and showing that there’s a need for a rational conversation about meaning and value and human flourishing and the defence of civilisation. We have to have this conversation better than we’ve been having it.
What is your view on where meaning is to be found in the secular life?
It’s much more in line with the kinds of arguments I’ve made in my books Waking Up and The Moral Landscape. Ironically, or at least ironically with respect to Peterson, I don’t think we have to believe any myths or anything on insufficient evidence to connect with what is sacred and profound and truly transformative in this life. I think that it’s the very nature of the human mind and human consciousness to allow for states of self-transcendence and ethical insight and, to use a loaded word, spiritual insight. It has to be talked about in truly rational 21st-century terms to not be divisive. There’s absolutely no reason to be paying lip service to ancient religious identities or iron age philosophy. Insofar as Peterson is pandering to religious sectarianism, trumpeting Judeo-Christian values, I think that’s retrograde, I think that’s a political dead-end. It’s just unnecessary. If Jesus said anything worthwhile, we can say those things again and measure their value, and we don’t have to believe anything crazy about the historical Jesus. And so it is with Buddha or anyone else who had various insights, ethical or contemplative or otherwise. We need to use our best ideas and jettison the bad ones. Sentimentality about religious traditions is a bad way of equipping yourself for that game.
Do you think there is any value in the Bible as Peterson clearly does?
There’s definitely some value in it. I think Jesus is a fascinating person. I think he really existed; I’m not one of those atheists who thinks Jesus was a mythological character. I think there’s much in both the Old and New Testament that is worth reading and reflecting on and some things are beautifully put there. But some of it is just sheer theocratic barbarism, you know? Of the sort we see lived out in much of the Muslim world and places like Afghanistan under the Taliban. The moral genius that brought us Leviticus and Deuteronomy is precisely what we see on display in Afghanistan under the Taliban. You should acknowledge that if you want to live in the 21st century as a rational person who claims to have a scientific world view. So that completely undercuts the unique stature of the Bible if you acknowledge that. There’s just no way the Bible is perfect or inerrant or born of omniscience if you believe that about some of its books. It’s not only [not] the best book we have on morality in those cases, it’s among the worst books we have on morality. It’s no better on morality than it is on economics or biology. Acknowledging that is just necessary. Then you talk about the Bible in the same breath as you talk about Shakespeare or Homer or any other literature, and you just use or enjoy what is useful or enjoyable in either case. Our world is the way it is largely because we have two categories of literature. We have literature, and then we have a few magic books, or books that are imagined to be magical. That’s a problem, and that’s a problem that Peterson, as far as I can tell, is not doing much to correct for. If there’s a difference between us with respect to the Bible it’s on that point, I think.
What has it been like for you getting to this level of stardom in public intellectualism? It can’t have been pleasant receiving death threats, or having to abandon holidays to deal with Twitter storms. What has the journey been like to where are you now, personally?
It’s always changing. It’s never been one thing. It’s evolved on the basis of each of the books and the changes of topic, and it’s evolved through different mediums. So the podcast period for me has been quite different from just being an author of books, however many people read them. It is a different medium and rather than me sitting alone and writing all day it is largely a matter of me finding people to talk to and it gives me an excuse to reach out to somebody whose book I love and form a connection and have a conversation with them. It’s similar in that I’m trying to advance various arguments and explore different ideas and I’m doing it in front of an audience in each case, they’re very different occupations. Live events themselves are quite different from either of those things because with writing and with podcasting it is still me alone in a room virtually always, and then you’re talking about being on stage in front of thousands of people and responding to feedback from a live audience. So it’s always changing.
One constant has been that I, to a degree that seems fairly unique, manage to encounter opponents for whom it’s a major part of their strategy to misrepresent my actual views. Everyone falls into this to some degree and I know Peterson and Douglas have experienced their fair share of this, but it seems to me that this happens to me to an extreme degree. So much of my career has been spent wondering whether I should respond to this kind of thing, responding sometimes, and mostly not being able to find a clear policy on how to deal with this. Because it is effective just to lie about somebody’s views, to say “Oh yeah, he’s a white supremacist” or “He’s in support of X” when he actually isn’t. Spreading that kind of misinformation is genuinely harmful to people’s reputations and it at least has the effect of winning over some percentage of your audience who doesn’t care your consistency, or just can’t follow the plot. Now, in the age of Trump, we’re finding an appetite for just no concern for consistency. There are people who have audiences, and Trump is one of them, where there is no stigma associated with lying. In fact, lying is just a technique. You can slant the truth, you can disavow the truth, you can contradict yourself, and nobody’s keeping score in that way on your tea, as long as you’re making the right emotional claims, or claims that trigger the right feelings in your audience. Whatever the context, you’re winning their support. That’s a total breakdown of rational conversation, and it’s happening on the right and the left simultaneously. But my career has been thus far one of continually discovering that my response to all that seems less than optimal. I keep finding myself…
The Ezra Klein thing was yet another case where this seemed largely like a confection of my engagement with social media and now I’m rethinking how I use Twitter, in particular. It amplifies a certain kind of noise in your life that you take to be a signal, and then you’re left wondering whether or not you need to respond to it and largely I feel like I’ve erred on the side of responding too much rather than too little, even while responding at all often seems hopeless. It’s something I’m continually recalibrating, but it’s always changing.
How do you stop yourself falling into despair?
The master move there is to continue to focus what you think is both interesting and consequential and to realise that the results of your focusing on it are not up to you. You can’t control the results, you can only control what you’re doing and whether or not it is intrinsically satisfying or seems like it’s worth doing. I’m just continually trying to stay where I’m most engaged, whether from the point of view of what I’m worried about or what I’m curious about, or both. That’s intrinsically motivating. As frustrated as I can get about the response to some of these efforts, to realise that the response is not actually up to me and certainly not under my control.
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