During Jordan Peterson’s recent Q&A at the Oxford Union Society, one attendee asked him about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:
I’m Canadian and we have a leader who is probably the most — attempting to be the most politically correct leader in the world. I’d love to hear your response if you had his ear for five minutes and could present very simply to him where he might be going wrong.
After a long pause, which caused some laughter among audience members, Peterson replied:
Well, I guess I would ask him to consider the possibility that his emphasis on tribal inequality might — if there’s any possibility that he could see any way that that might do more harm than good. Because my sense is that the idea that harm might come out of that is never an idea that’s even considered. I certainly don’t see it in our provincial government, for example.
See, I see the initial low resolution act of dividing people into their tribal groups in that manner as something that can do nothing but bear evil fruit in the long run. And the people who do that think, “No, that’s how we’re going to rectify historical inequities.”
It’s useful if you have a theory to think through the worst possible consequences of its application, right? It’s a good antidote to ideological possession. It’s like, well, just for a minute, imagine that your theory could go spectacularly wrong. What would that look like? This is one of the things that’s so great about the way the Americans set up their political system — because it was never utopian. Their idea was, “Look, we are probably going to be governed by halfwits who are not any smarter than we are.” It wasn’t, “We’re going to set up the perfect system.” It’s like, “How can we ensure that if we are governed by halfwits that are no smarter than us that we won’t end up in hell?” Right, and hence the balance of powers and all of those things.
So, they were very sophisticated — as good Englishman should be because they were basically good Englishme. … America’s freedom is a manifestation of the deeper freedom of Great Britain. Anyone with any sense can see that. It’s just true historically. I mean, maybe the Americans codified it in a creative manner — and good for them — but the fundamental traditions were already laid down. They had enough humility to think through how things could go terribly wrong even if they had good intentions. That’s the mark of someone who’s wise because it’s way easier for things to go wrong than it is for them to go right.
And maybe it’s even more important that we are careful about how things don’t go terribly wrong than we are to be too concerned with making sure that they go right — because hell is a long way down and we can only make things so much better. So, I guess that’s what I’d ask him. Just think it through.
We’re tribalizing our perceptions. Can you think of any ways that might not work out so well? And then how would you mitigate against that?
… One of the things that wise social scientists know and attempt to transmit to their students is the probability that you’re well-meaning intervention, say, at a clinical level or an epidemiological level, will have the positive outcome you intend and no other is zero. In fact, the highest probability is that it will kick back against you and make things worse. So you bloody well be sure when you implement your well-intentioned intervention that you lay out a measurement strategy to determine what the consequences of that intervention are because they’re very unlikely to be an improvement.
That’s especially the case if the system is already working well. Because if it’s already at 85% optimal capacity, moving it up another 5% is really hard, whereas making it work 50% worse is, like, any fool can manage that.
So, when things are working, be very cautious about what you do radically to fix them because you don’t know what the consequence of your intervention is going to be. And so that’s another thing I might suggest — caution. And to the degree that I’m a conservative, I’m a conservative because of my apprehension of my own ignorance. It’s like, first, do no harm. …