I’m not a fan of Jordan Peterson. I’ve always found his views to be surprisingly disappointing and sometimes downright harmful. Put simply, I just couldn’t see this emperor’s new clothes. He’s also sometimes used irresponsible hyperbole, and some of his followers are cultish and abusive. I know, because I’ve been on the receiving end of their brutal certainty.
There are many people who feel far more strongly, especially those in the trans community. They believe that his writings have caused them enormous damage. Others believe that his self-help theories have transformed if not saved their lives. The latter I simply cannot understand, the former I certainly grasp. As I say, I’m no fan.
But in mid-February Peterson’s daughter issued a video explaining that her father was severely ill, and in trying to withdraw from an addiction to benzodiazepine tranquilizers had developed a paradoxical reaction, had been suicidal, and eventually placed in an induced coma. He was being treated, she said, in a Russian clinic after various hospitals in North America had misdiagnosed him. The background to all of this was a history of depression, an autoimmune reaction to food, and then, tragically, Peterson’s wife’s being diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Some years ago my parents died, too young and also close together. I always regarded myself as tough, but this shook me more than I knew. I was prescribed Clonazepam. It helped a great deal but, as I had been warned, I became dependent. It took me more than six hellish months to come off the thing. I say this as someone who has experienced agonizing rugby injuries, and while reporting from a war zone was shot at and saw a soldier killed two feet in front of me. In other words, I know pain and I know trauma. This was far worse.
I was on a relatively low dose yet when I initially tried to come off cold turkey I went into what I suppose was shock. After that I would cut my tablets by a quarter every three weeks, and each time I did so there would be days of what felt like small electric jolts in my head, lack of sleep, mental turmoil. My wife and children were loving and supportive, and I’m not sure how I would have coped without them. While it was a horror story, I think of it as a lesson in experience, helping me to empathize with those going through the same experience.
And empathy is surely the quintessence of all this. We need to try to feel what others feel, and thus stand with them in an emotional solidarity. That is the Christian way.
Yet as soon as Peterson’s condition was made public, social media was drenched in celebratory and mocking comments: Peterson deserved it, they hoped he would die, this was karma (that’s not really what it means), and so on. The ghouls were out in force, in their dark dance of Schadenfreude.
I understand that there is a certain inconsistency involved, in that Peterson has long emphasized strength and fortitude, and I’m not suddenly saying that I support his views. On the contrary, my point is that his views are irrelevant and that it’s his need that should inform our reaction. How we respond in fact says far more about us than it does about Professor Peterson, and our humanity is measured not by how angry and self-righteous we become, but how communal and caring we grow to be. Mere self-interest makes us kind to those we consider on our side, something far deeper and revealing leads us to be generous to those we find objectionable. The first is instinct, the second is grace — something we must never forget.
This is an edited version of a column that originally appeared in Macleans. The Rev. Michael Coren’s website is michaelcoren.com