“Yeah, there’s not a lot of lying in Jordan. That’s part of what I was trying to say with the fact that he doesn’t do small talk. If he wants to talk to you, he’ll talk to you. And sometimes the first thing he’ll ask you is something kind of serious.”
The Rise of Jordan Peterson premiered in September of this year and tells the story of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson’s ascent from a well-respected but locally known professor in Toronto to the international figure he has now become. Praised for its impartiality in storytelling, The Rise of Jordan Peterson does not take a side in the controversy that has surrounded Dr. Peterson’s work and, instead, presents the views of both his admirers and detractors. In this interview, Maziar Ghaderi, the producer of the film, joins Merion West and Kambiz Tavana to discuss the process behind the film—and, more fundamentally, what it has been like to actually know and work with Jordan Peterson. This is part one of the interview.
You are the producer of the film, and your wife is the director. But, to ask you first, for someone who doesn’t know anything about Jordan Peterson—or about the media controversy that has surrounded him for the past couple of years—how would you best describe Jordan Peterson for someone who has never heard of him?
Jordan is a lifelong academic who is greatly influenced by Nietzsche and Carl Jung. Though his PhD dissertation was in alcoholism, a persistent, sometimes torturous curiosity drives him to understand why people to are destructive ideology. He’s always been very popular at the university. Students would line up after class to talk to him. He was seen as kind of a life-changing professor, and that’s partly because he’s a really good storyteller. He loves stories, and he’s able to bring in big ideas in a way that people relate to.
Fast forward to 2016. There was a human rights law that was being proposed by the Liberal Party of Canada to include gender expression into the human rights laws. In Canada, which is similar to most Commonwealth countries, we have hate speech laws which means for example, you can’t legally publicly deny the Holocaust. In the United States, you can. That’s the difference between Commonwealth culture and American culture. Bill C-16 was an extension to the hate speech laws to include gender expression which allows the space for gender nonconforming individuals to be referred to by the pronoun of their choosing, such as “he,” “she,” or “they.” So, that was being legislated. Of course, Jordan works in the humanities in a major urban city which is obviously more left-leaning; a more social justice, progressive kind of culture, while Jordan is a bit more traditional than that, so I think there were some things that were kind of brewing in his head over the years, and it’s all surrounding political correctness.
Jordan took issue with bill C-16 and he made a video called “Professor Against Political Correctness” in the fall of 2016. His argument was essentially that the government shouldn’t tell you what to say, and his interpretation of it was that it was compelled speech. Compelled speech would essentially what the government tells you to say. An example of that would be the government telling tobacco companies that they have to put on their packaging that smoking kills. That’s compelled speech; that’s something that companies have to do to sell their products legally. For Jordan, this bill was another example of compelled speech. Many thought that Jordan has a problem with transgender and non-binary people. That he is transphobic, but this is not the case. He also doesn’t disbelieve in their existence. A non-binary person is somebody that falls out of the male-female category. So, it was a big issue in Toronto, in Canada, and then soon, around the world where people were talking about these changes to one of the most basic ways that we categorize ourselves—and that’s with male and female. Man and woman.
It became very heated and very messy. Some people really loved him for it, and some people really hated him for it. And that was the initial controversy that had everybody talking about him. Then a year or so after that, he released a book that he had been working on for about five years that had nothing to do really with this political stuff called 12 Rules for Life, and it did very well. I think it’s probably the most widely-sold Canadian book ever in nonfiction. It sold more than 3,000,000 copies around the world, and it’s translated to more than 50 languages. It’s fundamentally a book of advice with different truisms that help people navigate their lives, and it’s become very popular with young guys. Jordan puts all of his lectures for free on YouTube, which is where these young guys already are. They heard about him because of the controversy. Jordan was badass to them. It was like, “I won’t use your words. Whether I’m right or I’m wrong, this is how I feel,” and they really respected him for that. So, by the time the book came out, they were very interested, of course. The book is apolitical and well-written, so it did very well.
Many are interested in what Patricia, my wife and the director of the documentary, was originally interested in which was Jordan’s first book, Maps of Meaning. It was about helping people navigate our post-religion world. Akin to modern man’s search for meaning. From mythology to the physiological significance of the biblical stories, Jordan is formulating a worldview that helps a lot of people in the West that have a distaste for religion in the traditional sense. Others like Jordan for the fact that he stood up against what they see as overreaches of the Left and progressive culture. The common thread for the people in the IDW is that they are speaking out publicly against mainstream, progressive culture. That would be my 101 on who Jordan is, his body of work, how he became well-known, and how have people reacted to him.
Thank you for that. Jordan Peterson is widely covered in different mediums with many lenses, perspectives, and biases, but you actually know him. You knew him before his rise in mainstream media. Can you tell me who he is for someone who reads a lot about him from different media—but still doesn’t really appreciate who he is?
We met Jordan and this family in 2015. At that time, we lived in the same neighborhood. Patricia met him just by going to one of his classes and asking him if he’d be interested in having a film be made about him. So, that’s how I met him. I would say that my first impression with Jordan is that of an intelligent, serious guy, quite Anglo—a bit distant I guess you could say, and a little bit formal and reserved at first. He, his father, and his daughter have all had depression, so that’s something that they’ve always battled with. It affects his mood a little bit here and there, but for the majority of the time we spent together I found him to be an attentive, curious guy interested in different walks of life. Jordan is kind of like a xenophile. He’s interested in new things, and he’s interested in new people. He’s also very attracted to creatives and artists. I’m also an artist, and he would always be curious about coming to my shows and what I was up to. It makes sense why he likes Jung so much because Jung is kind of like that: the kind of guy who goes and experiences different cultures to bring back philosophies that interest him.
What question everybody wants to know about Jordan is, “I watch Peterson’s videos, but I want to know what he’s really like.” Honestly, I would say that the way Jordan is on stage is a lot like how he is in real life. He’s not much of a small talker. He goes right into things that are deep. He’s also a clinical psychologist and that speaks to the fact that he’s always interested in what people are going through and how he could help. I guess socially I would say Jordan likes people that are authentic, even if they’re a weird outlier. He likes people that are individuals and carve out their own space. Jordan’s sort of a non-conformist, yet quite open-minded. He would wear a cape sometimes. He would dress a little bit differently. The direction that he would take his courses and lectures was different from the mainstream because, like in psychology, from what I understand, Jung isn’t someone that clinical psychologists bring forward that much in their practice. But for Jordan—because he places a lot of importance on mythology and story—he brings that into his work a lot, more than most mainstream psychologists or professors and he’s been criticized for that.
Could you share anything that happened between the two of you that is not said or written about anywhere?
A few years ago, I got a grant to go to Tehran to do projection mapping workshops for theater students. So, projection mapping, in case you don’t know, is when you use light to distort light and images with a projector onto 3D objects to create a scene. You see it a lot in buildings—when they make the building look like it’s on fire for example. Tehran has a cool theatre scene, and I wanted to bring to expertise for artists out there. This is what I do in Toronto as well. Jordan asked me what I was up to and I said: “Yeah, I’m going to go to Iran to do these workshops” and he was always very curious about that. Honestly, every time I would see him, he’d always ask about when I was going to Iran. It’s a part of the world that he’s been curious about, and I’ve been his open connection to it – especially it’s pre-Islamic Zoroastrian theology – that’s been made accessible to him by Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra!” He really respects art and creativity, and he’s always been interested in any kind of work I wanted to do such as my interest in Zoroastrianism, and how its emanations can be found everywhere from pop culture, Japanese cars to the formation of the basis of the Abrahamic religions. Every time I bring that up, his eyes kind of lit up. I think he’s a bit of a Manichaeist himself!
Another thing that is going to come out more in the second film is that Jordan places a lot of importance on his dreams, especially his wife’s dreams. What do you mean?
Jordan and his wife, Tammy, would analyze her dreams in a very earnest way. They would take their dreams very seriously as symbology—or what the inner heart is asking for. I thought that was very unique; it wasn’t some sort of trendy horoscope or: “Let’s get a little book about what dreams mean.” There was a clinical component to the way they would talk about dreams.
But at the same time, do you consider it to be a bit odd too because you don’t want to become a professional psychologist examining someone’s dreams all the time? What is mean is—yes, it’s interesting that they have this approach, but, at the same time, I think it looks odd if you are a professional psychologist but you are examining the dreams of your partner-in-life in that detail. It’s a bit different for, I think, most people in the degree to which they want to know their partner in that way.
Yeah, but for them, it’s something where they get a lot of insight, which really speaks to Jordan’s personality. Jordan isn’t just somebody talking about political issues or things of the Earth—practical things of what happened and what did not. He goes a lot deeper. And, of course, for some people they get weirded out; they don’t like that or don’t agree with that. This was shown in his conversations with Sam Harris. Some found it enlightening, others embarrassing.
Would you say that he’s a typical person? Would someone have to be really qualified to deal with him. Would that be a correct statement?
Maybe—Jordan’s a pretty eccentric guy. As I said, he wears capes; he listens to Björk and collects indigenous masks. He’s hardly ever said anything usefully critical of Trump in public. He’s a complex guy, like us all I suppose.
In some ways, I understand, and I appreciate the effort that Peterson makes regarding dreams and their interpretations—because it really gives you a great understanding of who you are and who you are dealing with. Jordan Peterson, in one of his lectures, talked about one of Jung’s books called Aion. He said this is one of the scariest books you can read, and it’s because it gives you a deep dive into your own self—and apparently no one wants that. I understand what you were saying about the interpretation of dreams and obviously life and going through the details—and how that helps someone understand Peterson, who he is, who he’s living with, which is a profound power in having a marriage or relationship. That’s what I see.
Yeah, Jordan is very different from anyone else I’ve met, and I’ve met my share. When I have a dream, I think about it a little bit—or feel about it. Then when I’m in the shower, it just kind of goes away, and I go on with my day. Jordan and Tammy—they’re not really like that. They look to a dream as a window to tell them something about themselves, and I think there’s some truth to that. When you have been dreaming about something, it means that there’s something that your unconscious is trying to tell you, and that’s the best way it tries to do it. We have some of these reflections of theirs recorded actually from our early shoots with Jordan and Tammy.
Or maybe something you’re trying to do to suppress and not pay attention to, but it comes up in other forms?
There you go. And I think I can relate to that. I think that there are certain things that you think about when your mind is free. The second before you go to sleep—then it translates into a dream using visual imagery, and then it lingers and gives you a weird feeling in the morning. I do think that dreams can haunt you. And I think that’s something that Jordan has always struggled with in his depression. In the film, there’s a scene from Tammy where she talks about how in the whole time of being married to Jordan, for 30 years, his first moments of waking up were always very difficult and almost painful. I think that tells you a lot about how there’s kind of a tortured soul in there, and I think that’s very common with great thinkers like Nietzsche for example.
So I have depression that runs deep in my family, generation after generation, and I have it too. I think this is one of the usual symptoms that comes out, and it’s one of the hardest things anyone could ever face.
To be honest with you, I’m speaking from my point of view, and I don’t know that much about depression in a practical sense. It’s not in my family and I’ve never really had it. Jordan is the first person in my life who goes through that. I’ve seen how it manifests and how important diet, exercise, and how you start your day are.
I think one of the things that people like about Peterson is that he embraces who he is. Most people with that level of pain try to come up with an image of themselves. He embraces what he is, and he doesn’t care. I think this makes him very authentic, and it makes people drawn to him.
Yeah, there’s not a lot of lying in Jordan. That’s part of what I was trying to say with the fact that he doesn’t do small talk. If he wants to talk to you, he’ll talk to you. And sometimes the first thing he’ll ask you is something kind of serious. He doesn’t warm up to it, like he goes right for it, and I like that about him. That’s always been something that I have in common with him because I’m kind of like that too. When I’m having a meeting with people, I like to jump right into it, and some people don’t like that. They like a little bit of flirting around the issue until people feel comfortable. Jordan’s not like that at all. He’s more abrasive, more direct, and more assertive than that. That speaks to how he doesn’t like to conform, and I guess that speaks to his personality a little bit more—and what it’s like to spend time with him.
The obvious question that I have is that when you spend time with someone at length like you did with Peterson—and still do (shooting the documentary, interacting and socializing), there will be apparent moments of disagreement where the defense of ideas and views comes up. Did this come up between you two, how was it, and how did you handle it?
One time we were at a Chinese restaurant and were getting some food, and I brought up the Washington Redskins. At the time—and I guess still now—indigenous groups were pressuring them to change their name because they felt it was insensitive to their heritage. The same thing with the Cleveland Indians and the Edmonton Eskimos sports teams that have references to things that are—for some people and some groups—offensive or racist. So, I was saying, “What do you guys think about that?” Jordan and Tammy said, “They shouldn’t change their name. Why should they change their name? That’s the name of the team.” For me, I was like, “Redskins, what does that mean?” Then, looking into it a little bit more, the articles that I found were saying indigenous people don’t like to be called, “Redskins.” So, for me, it was like, “Yeah, well maybe they should change their name because times change. Like how people don’t say a nigger anymore, but they used to.” It’s not the same thing as Redskins because it’s harsher, but it’s the same category; language changes. ‘Gay’ meant something, and now it means something else. Same thing with ‘queer.’ Anyways, we were just talking about it, and we had that disagreement. Jordan and Tammy come from a different generation, two generations away from me, and they are originally from a rural area. They’re from Fairview, Alberta, a very small town, where the culture is very different from my urban liberal upbringing in an immigrant context. We were taught to say “Native” then, we were taught to say, “First Nation.” Now, the word for everybody, more or less, is “Indigenous.” But for Jordan and Tammy, they always just say “Indian”, “Native American Indian”, or “Native Indian.”
Have you ever seen anyone ever get offended by that way that Jordan and Tammy speak? I’m not saying in the media. In real life when he talks, is anyone getting offended by, say, his use of the word “Indian”?
A funny thing about that is that the Native people that I’ve met through Jordan call themselves ‘Indian’ because they’re also older. They’re from a culture where they just call themselves ‘Indians.’ So, it was a generational thing. That’s an experience I remember off the top of my head where we had a disagreement, and it foreshadowed a little bit of what was to come: the political correctness stuff that we didn’t talk a lot about in person. The story we were originally pursuing with Jordan was about his friendship with an indigenous carver from Vancouver Island. I’m sure you’ve seen some videos where you see a lot of Native art in Jordan’s house. All of that art has been done by a guy named Charles Joseph whom Jordan met around fifteen years ago at a hippie art fair on Vancouver Island. Jordan bought his art, and, for Jordan, he looked at this guy and said, “You know, this guy isn’t just a craft guy or a carver. This is an artist.” So, this is somebody that he starts to have a relationship with, and they stayed in touch throughout the years. Jordan continues to buy his art from him, and Jordan is, of course, very interested in stories, mythology, and symbology, and this was the perfect kind of friendship. They got to know each other, and then, eventually, it got to a point where Charles and his family actually adopted Jordan and his family into theirs. Patricia flew to Vancouver Island to film the ceremony. Jordan was given an indigenous name and blanketed. This was part of a ceremony in a longhouse, a pot-batch ceremony, where he’s dancing around the bonfire with these indigenous wisemen wearing wooden masks.
That was the original film we were doing, and when we would meet these people from Charles’ family, they would always refer to themselves as ‘Indian.’ So, it all comes from a rural background and boomer generation that doesn’t really identify or conform to political correctness that’s has burst out of the urban, progressive culture that I’m more used to. So it was a little bit like a culture clash at that Chinese restaurant, where it was like, “Okay, so you call them Indians?” “You don’t think that the Redskins need to change their name, even though it’s offensive to indigenous people?” That was my thinking. I still think that there should be a serious conversation about those names: Cleveland Indians and Washington Redskins. But at the same time, I think we have bigger problems. It seemed like Jordan and Tammy didn’t get at all why those people would be offended by that name of the team, or that maybe they thought it was more of a power move? So that was the disagreement. I’m generally more understanding of the progressive mindset and Jordan’s more distrustful of them.
But there was resolution?
For sure. I mean, how we handled it was basically like, “Okay, we’re eating chow-mien. Oh, you think that? Well, here’s what I think. Well, I think you’re a little bit wrong, and you thinks I’m a little bit wrong.” And that’s okay because, again, we come from different parts of the world. Pass the sriracha please. We come from different cultures, even though we both speak English and have Canadian passports. He comes from a rural Alberta background. Anglo. Two generations before me. I come from an immigrant-refugee family. Very urban. I come from an arts background, so a lot of my friends are progressives. Generally, they’re more progressive and more left-wing than I am, but I understand their view and am more trusting that it’s coming from a good, honest place than Jordan is. I find that generations before us feel it’s more important that things don’t change too quickly: for example, the name of a sports team. But for me, I tend to be a little bit more loose. I kind of think, “What’s the big deal? It’s just a sports team.” But for them, it means something else, and it’s an ongoing conversation.
Do your progressive friends try to boycott the film—or distance themselves from you because you’re hanging around with Jordan Peterson?
To be honest with you, the people that have done that in my life are the people that I thought were my friends. They’re really just putting me in the same box as actual bigots. And they’re doing the same thing with Jordan. It’s this annoying guilt by association thing without listening to what I have to say. They’re talking about him—and sometimes me—behind our backs because it’s safer to do that. So, yeah, there has been this tension that doesn’t really exist because, frankly, those people aren’t in my life anymore. The Left has changed a lot in the past decade, and, by choice, I just haven’t changed it.
I think that every time you have an actual, genuine conversation with someone where you can see eye-to-eye with and talk in a civilized way (where you can make your argument about what you believe in and what you don’t believe in), it’s a very unique thing. I think it exists, but we don’t see it that much. But we see these fake ones happening on social media where you make a point, and you are either with it or against it. I don’t think it’s possible to have genuine, constructive conversations on any social media platform because there’s no way that you can make your argument and understand what the other side says.
Yeah, I think that’s true. The thing about social media is that it’s like having a conversation with everybody watching. Like in a schoolyard. So, when people watch you it changes the way you behave. And the economics of it promotes tribalism. Partisanship pays, and it pays well if you consistently cater to your target market.
I don’t think it’s even a conversation. It’s a very slight part of a conversation—because we speak with body language, and what we mean can be seen through our body language, as much as through our words. But on social media, it’s up to people to put a face to what your words are. You can say one sentence, and it could have 100 interpretations; so you can’t just go along and continuously say, “This is what I meant.” I don’t think this is a good medium for any kind of conversation. So it surprises me that Peterson is even on social media. I don’t get it.
I know what you mean.
I want to ask you this because you’re an artist; you deal with lots of media, and you’re the producer of the documentary. Tell me what drives Jordan Peterson’s approach to media. I don’t understand, for example, some of the interviews that he gives—and why he gives interviews to publications where he knows exactly what they’re going to do with him. And he’s angry afterwards. Did this come up in your conversations with him, and what do you think about it?
An example would be the Cathy Newman interview or something like that?
No, I mean, I think the Cathy Newman interview was a good one because it showed the world exactly what Peterson means by what he says. I’m thinking of, for example, something like the one he did for GQ. He felt bad the entire interview, I mean—you could see it. And the interviewer and Peterson had no common interests or knowledge. I mention this because I met Peterson at an event in Baltimore, and he kept saying he had this GQ interview, and it was impossible to do an interview like that. Another occasion would be when he spoke to The New York Times reporter, and it ended up becoming about this takeaway on “enforced monogamy.” He knew who he was dealing but went anyway and was unhappy afterwards.
My impression of it would be that part of it is also that Jordan is an entrepreneur. If a big name publication wants to interview him, he’s going to say, “Yes,” and it is hard to know who they send out to interview him and how that reporter approaches the interview. He likes talking, and if somebody is going to ask him questions, he’s going to answer them. He doesn’t pick and choose for the most part, though that is changing. But let’s be reminded that much of Jordan’s following liked that GQ interview. It was like UFC. They liked how he was aggressive with the interviewer because they thought she was being unfair. I thought she was challenging. I liked when she asked about why historically women are expected to take their husbands last name. I’ve always thought this to be silly and regressive tradition—and not common with my culture at all. He didn’t really have any sort of response to that. In the end though, her fans thought that interview was a win for her—and his fans a win for him. Welcome to the Internet!.
Editor’s note: This is part one of the interview. Part two will be released shortly.