‘Abandoning our past is a very bad idea’: Stephen Fry and Jordan Peterson tackle cancel culture
Two great thinkers on extremism, JK Rowling, and the power of storytelling
Jordan Peterson 15 May 2021 • 5:00am
Stephen Fry: I’m so tired, and distressed, and worried by the great fissure that has opened up: the culture wars, or whatever we like to call it. The assumption that there are your friends and your enemies and no ground in between; no commonality, no cohesion of viewpoint, no shared things that can happen between people who represent different ways of looking at the world.
Some friends of mine, who disapprove of you, would think I was doing something wrong by associating with you. I hope our debate shows that isn’t the case. I think fundamentally, as I do of almost everybody I meet, that we have so much more in common than we have separating us.
Jordan Peterson: Your intellectual position is very interesting to me because you’re a – what do you call those...?
SF: Amateur dilettante?
JP: No, no, you’re like Hermes. Someone who goes into the valley of the gods and comes back. You live on that border.
'I do think that debate is the last, best hope for our society': Stephen Fry Credit: Gareth Iwan Jones/eyevine
SF: Yes, I do – like some snake oil huckster – require the spirit to move me. I find I say things that I didn’t know I was going to say, and think things I didn’t know I was going to think. And I can be mystical about that or just say, “Well, isn’t that an amazing factor and quality of the human mind?”
I do think that [debate] is the last, best hope for our society – the West being able to stand up to the pressures put upon it by China, and Russia, and other countries that are less interested in liberality. If we continue to fracture, and we continue to find enemies among our own kind, then really, it’s very, very sad. I’m hardly the first person to say this.
JP: I’m leery of any attempts to restrict free speech because the only possible solution we have is dialogue about the problem.
SF: I know it sounds like I’m taking on a victim status here – “poor liberals” – when, after all, we’ve ruled the world for 200 years. But part of the political and cultural argument in the world at the moment is that the liberal project, the Enlightenment project, has failed.
In English politics recently, “centrist” was the boo word of the Corbynistas, the more socialist end of the Labour Party; a party I’ve been a member of since I could vote. And I felt very buffeted about and despised for my “Oh dear, but really? Oh, must we?” stance. I do think of myself as a sort of cardiganed, beslippered old fool who is loathed on both sides.
In the 1930s, which is the decade we always go back to when we are very worried about the direction we’re travelling in now, both the Communists and the Nazis were absolutely of one mind when it came to people like me: Jewish, semi-intellectual, soft liberals, you know, who went “Oh no, but shush,” because we didn’t have any positivity, any certainty.
'It’s much easier to make extremism dramatic and romantic': Jordan Peterson Credit: Jesse Dittmar/Redux/eyevine
JP: It’s difficult to make centrism dramatic and romantic. It’s much easier to make extremism dramatic and romantic. And that’s one of its primary attractions. It’s partly why I’m so interested in you, because you are this incredible dramatist. You’re obviously extraordinarily sensitive to the power and necessity of literary accounts and you have an intellectual end that’s not trivial – you were involved with Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins, and the “horsemen” of the atheist movement. But of all those people, you’re the one who has the most connection with drama and fiction.
SF: I’m an empiricist. Drama, and myth, and story, and literature, and history – these are all to do with human experience, testing an idea against what actually happens and how people actually behave, rather than devising a system of reason. These are the things comedians do all the time.
JP: So how do you associate that with literature?
SF: All through my life, I’ve looked at people I don’t know – Margaret Thatcher, or, on the other side, Gordon Brown – and thought, “If only they read Shakespeare.” Why do people read political philosophy and parliamentary history without actually reading about how humans behave, and seeing how evil and good are played out in drama?
JP: With your books Mythos, Heroes and Troy, it looks to me like you’re involved in a philosophical, archeological expedition – to find things of value in the past, and to bring them forward into the future. I know in Britain there are people who say that flying the flag is an imperialist act. And so what are they asking? “Is our tradition so irredeemably corrupt that we have to abandon it wholeheartedly?”
'For those who are obsessed with the flag and the politicians who want to fly the flag, I would urge them to read Rudyard Kipling': Stephen Fry Credit: Culture Club/Getty
SF: So much of it is historical ignorance. For those who are obsessed with the flag and the politicians who want to fly the flag, I would urge them to read Rudyard Kipling, who is supposed to be the poet and bard of the British Empire, of the Raj, the spokesman for this very thing.
There is a scene in one of his masterpieces, Stalky & Co, where a politician comes to the school to give a speech, and he has a flag. And the schoolchildren are outraged – absolutely horrified. This takes place at the absolute height of the British Empire. The queen is on the throne, her crown and flag are fluttering all over the world, and these boys will all be sent out to fight in Afghan wars, and in India, and in the Boer war later on; and Kipling describes how they die.
But the idea, to them, that anybody would dare to wave a flag, and claim to own it, and ask them to value it, was so disgusting, they could barely speak. It’s an extraordinary passage. Kipling makes the point that one’s relationship to one’s country is intensely private. And it may be that one has great love for it, but it’s a love that is complex and confounded with all kinds of disappointment, and hatred, and fear, and shame. But to fly [the flag], and to say “It means this” is a lie, and an imposition on the personal experience of those boys in that story. I would urge everyone to read that because it comes from a surprising source.
JP: These problems are complicated. And they have to be sorted out very carefully. But it seems to me that abandoning our past is a very bad idea – you kill one god and another emerges, and it might be much worse than the one you dispensed with. I know what’s happening in the broader public landscape is bothering you. You’ve got tangled up, for example, with J K Rowling.
SF: Yes. She’s a friend and will remain a friend. But I’m also sorry that people are upset. You know, the two things are not incompatible. I endorse the efforts of trans people everywhere to live the lives that they feel they want to lead. I recognise the courage it takes. And I hate how they are often treated.
'She’s a friend and will remain a friend': Stephen Fry on JK Rowling Credit: REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
JP: Yes, and you’ve put your money where your mouth is on that front over the course of your whole life. But you’re disturbed, none the less, at something that’s happening in our culture that’s not sitting right with you. How do you defend against it without making the claim that we do have something of, let’s say, higher value, that is the consequence of following a particular tradition? Because, without that, you lose the argument instantly.
SF: We have to remember that morality is a question of manners. Our parents and grandparents had a very, very different and very firm sense of what was immoral. If the word “immoral” was used in a newspaper, or by a person, “that person is immoral”, it would have a sexual meaning. It would mean that they lived with someone to whom they weren’t married, or they lived with someone of the same sex, or that, in some way, they were philanderers. “Loose in their morals” was entirely to do with the bedroom. These were the unforgivable behaviours for a generation so close to us that we can still hug them in the garden, when Covid allows. That’s how quickly morality changes.
So the idea of “the culture” is a false one. There is no “the culture”. In 1400, God was answerable for everything. A couple of hundred years later, a few things have been taken away from him – we were discovering how the stars actually were not holes in a black cloth. Cosmos used to mean a very small sphere of the section of the solar system, and now it’s some infinite thing. Everything is redefined in each generation. So what is left that is absolute?
JP: There’s a core tradition that remains intact. I’ve looked for what might be regarded as eternal verities in the moral domain. So let me put a few forward:
1. The beautiful is more valuable than the ugly.
2. Truth is to be sought after in opposition to falsehood.
That’s particularly true in relation to the spoken word. The spoken word brings about remarkable transformations of reality itself.
'Literature, and the art of wit, zooms to the truth so much more quickly': Stephen Fry cites an Oscar Wilde parable Credit: Roger Viollet Collection/Getty
SF: This brings us back to the importance of myth and parable, and reminds me of a great one told by Oscar Wilde, which illustrates how literature, and the art of wit, zooms to the truth so much more quickly, it seems to me, than so many other attempts to rationalise.
Once, someone at dinner was being rather envious of someone, rather unpleasant, and Wilde said: “The devil was walking one day in the Libyan Desert and he saw a monk being tormented by some of his demons. And he approached, and the demons bowed in front of him and said, ‘Master, for 39 days and 39 nights, we have tried to tempt this holy monk away from his god, and his religion. We have offered him powers and principalities, we’ve offered him the joys of the flesh, we have offered him wine, and food, and riches, but he has turned us down. There’s nothing that we can do to win this holy man to our cause.’ And the devil said, ‘Out of my way,’ and he whispered in the monk’s ear. And instantly the monk took the pectoral cross around his neck and snapped it, and filled the air with hideous curses against his god, and his church, and his religion, and swore he would never follow Christ again. And the demons fell down in front of the devil and said, ‘Master, what can you have said in one second that we could not?’ The devil said, ‘Oh, it was very simple. I just told him his brother had been made Bishop of Alexandria.’ ”
That seems to me (a) very funny, and (b) profoundly truthful about how envy and resentment are so much a part of who we are. It’s a model to me of how to express yourself if you want to say something, if you want to change minds, if you want to burn people with the flame of love, and hope, and connection that we all secretly believe in, that makes us gasp when we read poetry, or makes us feel what love is, and joy, and all the things that we’re mostly too embarrassed to talk about because they’re a bit soppy.
The way, I think, to bond people to ideas is not to talk abstractly. If you can tell a story instead, especially if it’s funny, or it’s sexy, then you bring people to a connection. But, unfortunately, most of the world who use the art of rhetoric and persuasion do it for nefarious purposes.
Maybe that’s the key – to try to build up the value of story and look deeply into the nature of characters within stories. Even though it’s just a story, it might actually be a portal to something profound that will touch you, and change your life.
JP: That’s just exactly the right place to stop.
The Jordan B Peterson Podcast with Stephen Fry is now available at jordanbpeterson.com/podcast. Beyond Order is published by Allen Lane at Ł25. To order your copy, call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop
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