About two years ago the Oxford Union invited Dr Jordan Peterson to deliver an address and Q&A. It was around the time that I had him on the blog before, and having re-read what I said I stand by it. I also see that I resolved to find more of his speeches, and am shamed that it took this long.
The general terms of reference I laid down for myself in this blog eight years ago, and have only occasionally broken, stated that I would focus on talks as distinct from Q&A. That is because most of my work is in helping people to succeed in the one-way traffic of a speech, because technically it differs hugely from the more familiar two-way traffic of conversation. I mention that because a glance at the way the stage was set, with two armchairs but no lectern, suggested that even though a talk was flagged this would be mainly Q&A. That impression was correct, and gloriously so.
He enters to an enthusiastic greeting, and acknowledges it graciously. That is followed by a brief exchange between him and the host. He assumes a 30-minute talk followed by Q&A, but the host suggests 15-20 minute talk. He immediately acquiesces, and launches straight into telling the audience he’ll be discussing hierarchies.
He is pensive, halting, repetitive in laying out his stall, and as he gets into his stride those three adjectives recede but never completely go away. He could have eliminated them completely and had a smooth, beautifully parsed monologue by having a script, but if he’d done so he’d have had difficulties in cutting down the talk from the expected 30 minutes.
Far more importantly it would have been glaringly obvious to everyone that he was sitting there merely regurgitating something he’d written previously, whereas here it is equally obvious that from a baseline of vast learning he is expressing ideas and concepts to which he has devoted a great deal of thought and is continuing to do even as he speaks. What we are seeing is transparent, spontaneous sincerity. What we are seeing, if you will forgive me a metaphor, is a live music recital as distinct from someone miming to a record. What we are seeing is the reason I continue to bang on about proper speakers not using paper, and why I tear paper out of the hands of my trainees. This is proper speaking, and everyone is capable of doing it.
Editing himself on the hoof he gets his talk down to about 10 minutes and then, for more than an hour, he takes questions. The questions are good. They probe and provoke, and he clearly revels in that. I find it riveting, but shall not even attempt to single out any points he makes. How do you précis something that is already academically concise?
Instead I’d like to praise his metaphor for low-resolution versus high-resolution examination of concepts. He speaks of low-resolution being thumbnail sketch overviews, and I like that. Inevitably I try applying it to myself. I am reassured that my habit of collecting masses of thumbnails (he’s got me doing it now) leaves enough space in my brain for high-resolution images reserved for work, family and principal interests, meanwhile enabling me to understand just enough when working with experts in their fields or listening to someone like him.