Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules: #9) Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

We’ve got up to Rule #9 of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. As usual, here’s a link to where he begins talking about it. It should be Rule #8, “Tell the truth”, but he forgot it, despite checking his notes.

A curious thing happens at this point. The tone has got more and more disturbing since he began talking, but now Peterson suddenly leaves the mass murderers, Gulags and Nazi death squads to give a half-decent mini-lecture on the benefits of listening to people. This poses an editorial decision, because it would seem perfectly normal to criticise psychobabble, pseudoscience, imprecision and poor logic in the work of someone more “normal” – less worryingly disturbed, emotionally driven, absolutist and paranoid – but with Dr Jordan Peterson the same level of criticism looks like nitpicking.

I’ve erred on the side of a fairly close analysis, and – it has to be said – despite the blunders, exaggerations, contradictions and manipulations, this is genuinely a good “rule”. Jordan Peterson got something right!

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He begins by saying this chapter is about conversational forms and humility, and then he introduces the importance of humility.

It took me a long time to understand why there are religious injunctions supporting humility, or even to understand what the word means in that technical sense, and it means something like this: it means, “what you don’t know is more important than what you know”. Then what you don’t know can start to be your friend, you see? People are very defensive about what they know, for the reasons we’ve already discussed, but the thing is, you don’t know enough, and you can tell you don’t know enough because your life is not what it could be, and neither is the life of the people around you.

Okay, nitpicks:

  1. I think I had a pretty good understanding of humility by the time I was about twelve, and it has much wider value in human society than Peterson seems interested in here.
  2. Although Peterson took “a long time” to understand religious injunctions for humility, these are often oppressive in intent, or at least in effect, keeping believers from questioning too much. He doesn’t mention that.
  3. Peterson’s earlier rules have emphasized almost the opposite of humility, and here there’s also a suggestion of using the word to denote a technique for improving one’s life, so still rather self-centred, which is not humble in the wider sense (and again often not in the religious sense). He does talk later about how it helps others, at least, therapists’ clients, but he fails to see it has a profound implication for politics at every level. How does humility fit into a “competence hierarchy” one climbs by adopting a dominant posture?
  4. When he says “what the word means in that technical sense”, this is basically bluster, one of his little expertise-signalling tricks to make him sound clever. He hasn’t introduced any technical sense to which to be referring, and there isn’t a default technical sense of “humility” absent of that. He does this quite a bit: it’s almost as though he realises what he’s just said sounds too banal and adds, “technically speaking” or “in a deep sense”.
  5. While there is some link between the quality of our knowledge and the quality of our life, here he draws far too direct a causal relationship. Ignorant people can have wonderful lives, and well-informed people can have very difficult ones. This attitude fits with his general view that the good and clever get rewards, leaving behind the lazy, stupid, lower-level lobsters to their just deserts.
  6. He gives no indication that there is any other condition than not knowing enough, despite advocating learning. If “you just don’t know enough,” as he says emphatically, one might wonder why it’s worth learning at all. You still won’t know enough (though obviously Peterson thinks he does, because he’s thought about all this so much and is lecturing you on it).
  7. There’s little reason a lack of knowledge should make the lives of those around you sub-optimal, so if they are, that isn’t evidence that you don’t know enough. Besides, if it was the case, you would never know whether their sub-optimal lives were because they didn’t know enough or because you didn’t.
  8. [Edited to add: I missed another one – I don’t think “we already discussed” reasons “people are very defensive about what they know.”]

I really had no idea I’d be at the first paragraph and have seven eight nitpicks already. I’ll have to be less critical or we’ll be here all day. His general thesis is good, if I’m to take it as, “We learn partly by listening to people.” It’s true. One of the surprising things I’ve learned from listening to Dr Peterson – listening carefully enough to transcribe his words – is just how much garbage there is in there.

He makes the point that people can tell us when we’re wrong, and if we’re open to that we don’t have to be wrong anymore. He tells us that listening to people gives us tools we can use. Good points, if fairly obvious ones.

But then he demonstrates his poor grasp of philosophy by asking,

Do you want to be right or do you want to be learning?

Well, that’s easy. I want to be right, obviously. Being right in and of itself is almost without negatives, as far as I can see, and, although learning is interesting and fun, it’s a lot of work. (I realise, of course, this is the “wrong” answer!)

And it’s deeper than that.

Of course, it would be deeper, wouldn’t it? In what way is it deeper, o wise one?

It’s, do you want to be the tyrannical king who’s already got everything figured out, or do you want to be the continually transforming hero – or fool, for that matter – who’s getting better all the time?

I’d like very much to have everything figured out, please, and not be a fool of any kind. Cheers. (I fear I may have just failed “How to be a Pseudo-Intellectual New-Age Jerk”.)

I don’t want to be a tyrannical king or a fool – maybe a hero sometimes – but these have little to do with the original question. If he’d asked a chess player, “Do you want to win or lose?”, and then added the same bollocks to each condition, the mistake would be more obvious. And besides, he might also ask it about his favourite social structure, the hierarchy: “Do you want to be a top lobster (tyranical king), or somewhere lower down (continually transforming hero)?” Presumably that doesn’t fit his political agenda.

Learning is important, and sometimes it’s really surprising. You have to think, though, not just let somebody else’s thoughts have you. While writing that, I just learned. I watched the video a few times already and assumed the obvious answer was the one he expects everyone will provide. It is, after all, a rhetorical question. I just didn’t think about it until I transcribed the words.

Having thought about it, I imagine we pretty much all want to have everything figured out and always be right, if we’re honest with ourselves, unless it’s just from some desire to avoid embarrassing those around us if they’re not as knowledgable, and there’s nothing in the question that says they’re not as knowledgable as we are. In fact, given his own formula, if I had everything figured out, we’d all live perfect lives! It’s not intrinsically better to be relatively ignorant and learning things, is it? It’s better to know as much as possible, preferably everything. What the fuck does he think science and philosophy is for, just the fun of learning?

So what should he be saying? He should be saying that, since unfortunately we can’t know everything, as we desire and would probably be very good for us, then it’s good to accept that fact and be sufficiently humble to listen and learn, not pretend we know it all. But he’s too stupid (or arrogant) to figure that out, having “thought about it for a long time”.

And that’s actually a choice,

Again, strictly, it’s not. We can’t choose to know everything, which was the question. We can choose to pretend we know everything, but he didn’t ask that. Be precise in your speech!

It’s a deep choice.

Argh…a deep choice! No, it’s not even a choice, and even the choice between pretending to know everything and not doing so isn’t a “deep” one. What does that even mean? The only sensible meaning I can attach to “a deep choice” is an unconscious one – or possibly “one that affects a lot of other things”, and then “important” or “one that affects a lot of other things” would be better words. “Deep choice” here is just like “technical humility”, pretentious trumpery.

Even when this man is talking about humility, everything he says has to be given this “deep” spin! Isn’t this a perfect demonstration of his failure to apply his own advice? Thinking he knows the answer to this question already, and therefore asking it rhetorically, he actually gets the wrong answer (or asks the wrong question). The irony here is that he fails to realise that because he thinks he knows more than he does!

Let it not go unsaid also that the “tyrannical king” and the “self-transforming fool” (Jungian archetypes) are just metaphors he has blithely attached to complete knowledge and humility, respectively, for no apparent reason. There’s no reason full knowledge would make you tyrannical, and plenty of reasons why you would not be, not least that tyranny makes you hated and increases the likelihood of revolution. It also contradicts his earlier assertion that knowledge makes your life better, and that of those around you.

Anyway, he tells us his answer directly (but without any supporting argument): self-transforming fools are better.

He goes on to talk about how listening to people can be transformative for the listener and the speaker, and he segues into the use of listening in therapy. People discover things about themselves by talking to someone who is listening with a certain quality of attention. Through this they find things out that can help them improve their life. Finally, he imparts some reasonably useful information (for anyone who’s been living under a rock).

Then he goes a bit stupid again.

Now and then you have a meaningful conversation right? […] You really connected, and I know more than I did when I came away from that conversation, and during the conversation you’re really engrossed in it. And that feeling of being engrossed is the feeling of meaning, and the feeling of meaning is engendered because you’re having a transformative conversation, so your brain produces that feeling of meaning for you.

There isn’t any such thing as “the feeling of meaning”. Psychologists (that is, scientific, experimental psychologists as opposed to “clinical psychologists”) do not yet know precisely what emotions are or if they are of clearly defined types. I’m pretty confident one of them isn’t “the feeling of meaning”. Of course, I’m not saying we don’t sometimes think, “Ooh, that felt meaningful“, just that this is an example of how approximate our normal thinking is. Meaning isn’t a feeling; it’s more like a correspondence, a mapping of one set of things to another, or a communication of such a mapping. It applies to propositions. Statements convey particular meanings (or none).

Secondly, the idea that your brain produces a feeling “because you’re having a transformative conversation” suggests that your brain is analysing the conversation and knows that it is going to transform you in some way, perhaps in the future, for which I’m pretty sure there is no evidence. There is also the odd suggestion that you and your brain are distinct and in some kind of relationship. He is just spinning out the fact that some conversations are more interesting or exciting than others into something that sounds “deep” again, and he really doubles down on that next. Looking intently at the audience close to him and stabbing the air, he says,

[Your brain] says, “Oh yeah, it’s exactly where you should be, right here and now. It’s the right place and time for you!” And that’s a great place to occupy. And so, a good conversation where people are listening has exactly that nature, and the reason it has that nature is because it is in fact transformative.

Nonsense. You may have conversations where you have thought that and you’re virtually unchanged. Conversely, you may have a conversation that bores the tits off you, only to find that it was actually “transformative”. Brains telling their owners it’s the right place and time for them is New-Age daydreaming! This passage is also probably more of his fluff, designed to give listeners “the feeling of meaning”, and telling them it’s going to be “transformative”. It may, but I doubt it’s in a good direction. This is all standard scam-artistry.

I should also clarify that human “transformation” isn’t a thing, separate from other types or degrees of change. It’s like saying you “levitated” when you just bounced on a mattress in the lotus position. If Peterson has any intention of suggesting it’s a thing, he’s peddling psycho-babble. What he says next suggests he might be doing just that:

It’s one of the truisms of clinical psychology. If you’re a clinical psychologist, a huge part of what you do is just listen to people.

I wonder if there’s a name for this communicative slight-of-hand. It’s like a deepity using two disjoined sentences. The first sentence suggests that it applies to the earlier passage, i.e., that “one of the truisms of clinical psychology” is that your brain tells you to be where you are, with a feeling of meaning, because it’s a transformative conversation. But that’s false. I doubt any psychologist other than Peterson has ever thought that was true, let alone a truism. But cleverly running this on to the next, entirely different, trivial and true claim makes you forget that a piece of unsubstantiated bullshit was just underscored with an irrelevance. A huge part of clinical psychology is indeed listening to people, but it is neither the same as the first statement, nor evidence for it. It’s like saying, “Exceptionally well-trained dogs can turn into unicorns. It’s a truism of dog-training. If you’re a dog-trainer, a huge part of what you do is just train dogs.”

He explains more of the process of listening therapy, which is fine, and then says,

The listening will straighten them out, because people think by talking, and in order to think you have to have someone to listen, because it’s very hard to think. Hardly anyone can think.

Hmm – shall I dissect this as well, or just let you think about it? I think we all know what he means, but it’s arrogant, potentially demoralizing and imprecise speech. It’s arrogant, because it assumes he has a superior ability to judge the numbers of people who can think. It’s potentially demoralizing, because people can learn to think better, and if they think “hardly anyone can think” they might not bother trying. It’s imprecise speech, because he probably wouldn’t defend most of those statements literally, or reasonable implications drawn from them. He’s demonstrated his appalling thinking throughout this talk very well.

It’s even misleading to say, “the listening will straighten them out”, like it’s magic. Listening to people doesn’t always “straighten them out”. There is a danger for therapy clients that they become unhelpfully habituated to being listened to and never manage to make the changes required to leave. That’s actually a truism in the listening professions.

As usual, he’s exaggerating a simple fact, “Sometimes people find it really helpful to tell their thoughts to someone else; it helps them think better; lots of people think rather poorly.” He spins it into an absolutist piece of personal aggrandisement and insult to almost everyone else, including the audience. One wonders why certain people enjoy listening to someone on stage telling them they’re stupid, applaud and get a book signed. Ah yes, I remember.

Sure, he makes some good points. Talking to someone else means you can use them as a “foil” to see how your communication is coming over. He talks about Carl Rogers’ advice to reflect back what someone has said to check you understand them properly. They can then correct you or say you’ve understood. As well as summarizing, which can be helpful, he says:

So you don’t get to make them into a straw man. If you’re arguing with your wife, let’s say, or your husband, a big part of you’s gonna win, and that’s stupid, because if you win, you get to be top lobster, but they get to be bottom lobster – and if you want to live with bottom lobster, then more power to you, but I wouldn’t recommend it!

Wouldn’t it be good if this little vignette about winning an argument informed his political views? When talking about hierarchies (in Rule #1), climbing them was presented as an unmitigated good, and he failed to mention having to live with all the “bottom lobsters” lower down. He delighted in his students “getting one over” on each other with a “put-down”. Does it never occur to him that this is one of the consequences of too pronounced a social hierarchy, that it causes a large number of relatively dispossessed people, struggling wage-slaves or unemployed, simmering with righteous indignation and ready to wreak havoc on the democratic process? In this situation, and in dealing with his own child, there isn’t a down-side to oppression, you just have to say, I’m going to WIN! “More power to you” has broken another irony-meter.

But here, in this interpersonal scenario, he sees it, and he’s right. He advocates listening instead, checking you understand,

so that you get the damn argument right! Because you don’t want to win, you want to fix the problem. That’s the winning.

I couldn’t agree more. All my relatively major nitpicks aside, this is a geninuely good and important “rule”, and now, finally, he has demonstrated something that is equitable, a win-win, a socially responsible, wise and valuable aspiration. As the vernacular has it




He ends this section of the talk by reminding us that such disputes are often because the other person has a problem with something we’re doing, and if we listen carefully and establish that it is something we need to change, that can be difficult, but if we don’t, we may end up having the same problem repeatedly. As usual, he makes this over-dramatic, calling it something we’re doing that is “stupid” and we need to “stop”, when a resolution can be much more nuanced and involve both parties.

He also says we know we’re doing this stupid thing we’re doing (as in, we already knew before it was pointed out), which may be the case, but it may not, and – credit where it’s due – the wording of the rule indicates that condition. Listen to other people, because often they see things we can’t. Here’s hoping Peterson learns it.

boston terrier wearing unicorn pet costume


Up next time: Following this, JP checks his notes and misses yet another rule, Be precise in your speech (you couldn’t make this up), so we’re on to Rule #11, Do not bother children when they are skateboarding. As we have come to expect, this doesn’t mention skateboarding, or even children much. It argues for the fairness of Western culture, with a piece of evidence that shows Peterson, more than ever before, to be almost incapable of thinking anything through.

About lettersquash

White, male, heterosexual, left-leaning, almost-vegetarian blogger, musician, ex-psychotherapist and ex-mystic, now philosophical naturalist (atheist) ... somewhere near his sixtieth year on the freaking planet, trying to counter some tiiny fraction of the magical thinking and lies of his culture.
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2 Responses to Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules: #9) Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

  1. Yakaru says:

    Interesting, how — as you point out — he doesn’t think of relating “humility” to his lobsters & hierarchies stuff, and also doesn’t think to relate the oppressive aspects of religious injunctions. And this “technical sense” of being humble is a wonderful red herring. I assume all of his readers/listeners also skipped over it like I did, unwittingly feeling a bit ignorant for not knowing wtf he is talking about.

    I’ve heard some of JP’s critics saying that ‘while he does have a some good practical self-help advice’…. But it looks like when one looks closely at even his most simple self-help stuff, then that falls apart too, having been infected by his poisonous psychological problems.

    I can’t imagine him actually listening to anyone. He doesn’t even listen to himself!

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi Yakaru, yep all good points. You’ll be well used to these snake-oil sales tricks, I’m sure – I think he’s got that knack of saying so much in so many different ways, and rarely giving a full picture of it, that people can hear parts they think are fine. Westerners are a bit spoilt and have a sense of entitlement and don’t make enough effort (we might agree), so “clean your room” (not one of the rules, I’m surprised to find, but something he’s famous for saying), get your shit together, take responsibility for yourself – that can all seem to make sense if you live in certain places, high unemployment, men moping around (actually being disempowered by the system). But of course it’s intended to have a less good side. Another day he’ll say “stop complaining” (as is one of the rules), and then taking responsibility means something more like “fight it out to get to the top, and may the best man win”. Some of those same dispossessed think, “Hey, yeah, I’ve been moping around – if I just buy a suit and tie and apply for a job…thanks for the kick up the ass, that’s all I needed, my dad is such a wimp…” They might improve their lives a bit, but they and all their peers aren’t suddenly going to become high-fliers.

    But he takes this mealy-mouthed-ness to the extreme – sickening hypocrisy – one minute saying he has no problem with gender fluidity, the next asserting in his professorial chalk-down-the-blackboard voice that there are just two sexes, male and female, “and that’s that!”

    “I can’t imagine him actually listening to anyone. He doesn’t even listen to himself!” – Exactly. And then he says he wrote this book partly to work out advice to give himself, and he’s still listening to nothing except his own voice echoing. I know you’re not into youtube much (and probably can’t bear to watch JP) but I watched a discussion between him and Matt Dillahunty, and it was insane – the latter could hardly get a word in edgeways, and JP was constantly, visibly, uncontrollably doing that thing where you know someone is only listening to work out what they’re going to counter it with. JP is also just blathering in that non-committal way pseudos do about god, trying to persuade us all that there is one and he understands it, but it’s complicated and subtle and you obviously won’t understand it unless you’re me or you kneel down and suck my balls…vacuous garbage from start to finish. Matt meanwhile is calm and friendly and seems genuinely like he wants to understand JP’s position, then responds to it absolutely on point. It’s also quite a good bit of fun in places (and JP does show a bit lighter side, almost likeable? … nah…) and they have a running joke about throwing Sam Harris off the stage. I’ll post a link anyway for you or anyone else who’s interested:

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