“The Trouble with Normal”: Reading 2 Canadian Bestsellers


Challenging what is normal and the value of order.

trouble with normal



Gabor Maté’s The Myth of Normal1 and Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order2

Canada is the world’s second largest country by land mass and 37th by population of 40 million. For a smallish country, we punch above our weight in education and culture. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013 for her marvelous short stories and Margaret Atwood may well be the most famous Canadian from the celebrity that came with her dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985),3 a worldwide bestseller which has spawned adaptations in film, radio, theater, ballet, opera, television, a graphic novel, a bestselling sequel, The Testaments (2019),4 and a political movement, The Handmaid Coalition. I am waiting for the Broadway musical!

In the 1960s, the unquestioned public voice in Canada was Marshall McLuhan, the media guru at the University of Toronto who coined the visionary term “the global village.” Which brings us to the question, who has that voice today? There are several candidates: Atwood herself, along with McGill philosopher Charles Taylor, Harvard cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, University of Toronto clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson, and independent family physician Gabor Maté.

For this review, I will focus on Maté and Peterson. This is a study in contrasts. Jordan Peterson is a genuine academic (he was educated at McGill University and taught at Harvard University) with all the dressings (he was a tenured full professor and is now professor emeritus at the University of Toronto who conducts and cites scientific research meticulously), a clinical psychologist who gave voice to an unspoken wave of feeling and alienation in Western society, especially among young men. Gabor Maté is a family physician working on the ground, in communities, with no academic institutional affiliations, who uses a combination of personal experience and insight and decades of clinical work as a physician to launch impassioned pleas about health, medicine, and society, citing a wide variety of thinkers and research, from Erich Fromm to evidence-based medical literature to give these personal impressions a patina of credibility.

I am tempted to reverse the titles of their books. Peterson wants to get “beyond order” and enters mythical territory. Maté wants to challenge the “myth of normal” and get beyond it.

Jordan Peterson: The Myth of Order2

Jordan Peterson

For some time since the 2010s, Canada’s public intellectual has been Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist who came to fame for resisting gender pronouns and launching a new career as a social commentator with his internet following and bestselling 12 Rules for Life (2018), followed by Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life (2021),2 another bestseller. For a time, it seemed that Peterson was everywhere, commenting about everything and debating Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek about what Peterson calls “cultural Marxism.”

Despite being labeled a conservative, Peterson calls himself a “classic British liberal” and a “traditionalist.” Here are his new “12 rules for life”2:

  • Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.
  • Imagine who you could be and then aim single-mindedly at that.
  • Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
  • Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
  • Do not do what you hate.
  • Abandon ideology.
  • Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
  • Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.
  • If old memories still upset you, write them down carefully and completely.
  • Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship.
  • Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.
  • Be grateful in spite of your suffering.

My first reaction to Peterson’s title was that it is bold. Most people seek order and stability, while some demand justice and change. Henry Kissinger, who recently died after a formidable career as America’s top diplomat and international relations guru, often quoted Goethe on order and justice. In his biography, Walter Isaacson noted that Kissinger often said: “Given a choice of order or justice, he often said, paraphrasing Goethe, he would choose order. He had seen too clearly the consequences of disorder.”5 Having argued against chaos in his first bestseller, Peterson now cautions against too much order. “Beyond order”—to what? Social justice? A search for a new identity for this century’s “lost generation”? A survival guide?

Gabor Maté’s The Myth of Normal

Gabor Maté: Beyond Normal1

Gabor Maté is known for his previous work on attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)and its relation to trauma (Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder, 1999), stress and health (When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress, 2003), and addictions and their relations to trauma (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, 2008).

Now, there are public intellectuals whose credibility hinges on their stature in mainstream fields and those who are auto-didacts or polymaths, ranging far from either their own or established authority. When he offers palatable, reasonable, and socially shared truths, Maté walks on well-trod ground and when he deviates from established wisdom and medical science, it is not evidence-based. As I outlined in my column on polarization, Maté slides easily from facts to values, conflating description and prescription throughout.

In this volume, Maté wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to grandstand on his social values and undergird it with medical science. It is a tough balancing act. Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now, 2018; Rationality, 2021) does it exceptionally well; most physicians and scholars do not.

As a nonpsychiatric physician, Maté wants to have a major voice on what are key psychiatric matters, from addictions and stress to ADHD and trauma. While we do need to work across disciplines, we must also affirm that psychiatry has a body of knowledge and achievements and just setting them aside with a dismissive and cavalier attitude is not convincing (see Peterson’s first new rule: Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.). I have always held that we need critics of our field—but one must know the tradition well before criticizing it. R.D. Laing (The Divided Self, 1960; The Politics of the Family, 1969, the latter based on his Massey Lectures in Toronto) comes to mind as a classically trained psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who held up a mirror to the gaps and errors of our field. And I consider myself a mainstream academic psychiatrist who is also critical of the state of psychiatry in the footsteps of Laing and others.6

Maté addresses trauma here as something that affects everyone. Well, no. That approach has cheapened trauma as something exceptional, a rupture, to describe the vicissitudes of life from “daily hassles” of stress inventories to what psychiatric curmudgeon T.S. Szasz airily dismissed as “problems in living.” British writer Will Self has taken this on forcefully7:

I shall be advancing the heretical notion that trauma as we now understand it is not a timeless phenomenon that has affected people in different cultures and at different times in much the same way, but is to a hitherto unacknowledged extent a function of modernity in all its shocking suddenness.

Self grounds this modern phenomenon in “the ubiquity of traumatogenic technologies in our societies: those of specularity and acceleration, which render us simultaneously unreflective and frenetic.”7 To get around this, Maté suggests “two types of trauma”—“small-t trauma” and “big-T trauma.” I know this territory well, having dedicated my career in great part to trauma. Maté’s notion is not new and we have had attempts to talk about type I and type II trauma (US child psychiatrist Lenore Terr), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD (ICD-11), and PTSD and dissociative PTSD (DSM-5). In the face of devastating incidents that cause debilitating reactions, clinicians have been trying to maintain trauma as the new generic term for stress while invoking something distinct for more impactful incidents.

In fairness, Maté does address “What is Not Trauma,” but he nonetheless sees a lot of trauma, everywhere: “Trauma pervades our culture,” in every sphere of life. I agree with Self that the preoccupation with trauma is pervasive.7 How to take stock of whether that reflects the extent of actual trauma is very complicated, but I recommend the critical work of Fassin and Rechtman8 and my own.9 I have argued not just for 2 types of trauma, but discern 2 trauma communities—the clinical trauma community and the cultural trauma community. Although they use similar terms and cite some of the same sources, their goals and conclusions are radically different. The source of much confusion in society and in Maté’s work is the conflation of these 2 trauma communities. Self’s essay is closer to the truth about trauma than Maté and others involved in “trauma-informed care.”

Here are the 5 sections of Maté’s book:

  • Part I: Our Interconnected Nature
  • Part II: The Distortion of Human Development
  • Part III: Rethinking Abnormal: Affliction as Adaptations
  • Part IV: The Toxicities of Our Culture
  • Part V: Pathways to Wholeness. It ends with a vision for a “saner society”—echoing Erich Fromm’s classic The Sane Society.10

Now, the entire 20th century project of modernism is founded on 2 ideas: (1) what Australian art critic Robert Hughes11 called “the shock of the new,” or new art and new sciences and (2) the idea of progress (surveyed in American historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch’s masterwork12), or improvements to society. Both books find the world wanting in some way, reflecting today’s social discontents, looking for a “saner society” (Maté), “beyond order” (Peterson).

Yet another Canadian, Bruce Cockburn, one of our finest songwriters, had an album in the 1980s called “The Trouble with Normal” that bristles with anger and outrage:

“It’ll all go back to normal if we put our nation first”
But the trouble with normal is it always gets worse

Maté, is aligned with Cockburn in his critique of “normal” as complacent. The normal that Maté perceives is a “toxic culture”1:

the entire context of social structures, belief systems, assumptions, and values that surround us and necessarily pervade every aspect of our lives.

As a social psychiatrist, I subscribe to a broader view of psychiatry—and where possible the kind of “encompassing” vision (his word) that Maté reaches for. So much in his book is congruent with my own writing—from my sociopolitical essay on the Global South13 to my critique of development (see my review of Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary14).

Maté’s stated task is “to lift the veil of common knowledge and received wisdom” using “science and watchful observation” aiming to unfasten “the myths that keep the status quo locked in place.” I thought that Socrates did that in the 4th century BC! The Enlightenment was an update in the 18th century—with Immanuel Kant and his series of “critiques” as it’s era’s new Socrates. Then the Frankfurt School came along with Critical Theory in the mid-20th century to update that critique.

We can throw in a lot of thinkers into that box, from social philosopher Erich Fromm,10 cited by Maté, to Brazil’s Paulo Freire15 on the “pedagogy of the oppressed” and Judith Butler16,17 on “gender trouble” in the US. It would not be an exaggeration to say that much of Western culture has been laboring in the same vineyards, harvesting much the same fruit, and pressing the same wine. Is there any new wine here? Again, what is of use here is a reliable wine of European stock, rebottled and relabeled in Canada for our consumption. On the other hand, many argue that we need to update our understanding of the world in the language of each generation.

Both of these Canadian authors are offering—whether in the clinic or as general advice—an update on Atwood’s18 guide to Canadian literature where she argued that Canadian identity was reflected in the theme of survival. Both Maté and Peterson are arguing that the received wisdom of their professions and society is failing us and offer a guide to surviving contemporary life with its “traumas” and its “chaos.” Read for yourself what these gurus from the Great White North have to say and come to your own conclusions.

Note: There will be no “Second Thoughts” column next week as both the author and the editor will be attending the APA Annual Meeting in New York City.


Dr Di Nicola is a child psychiatrist, family psychotherapist and philosopher in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where he is Professor of Psychiatry & Addiction Medicine at the University of Montreal and President of the World Association of Social Psychiatry (WASP). He has been recognized with numerous national and international awards, honorary professorships and fellowships, and was recently elected a Fellow of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences and given the Distinguished Service Award of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr Di Nicola’s work straddles psychiatry and psychotherapy on one side and philosophy and poetry on the other. Dr Di Nicola’s writing includes: A Stranger in the Family: Culture, Families and Therapy (WW Norton, 1997), Letters to a Young Therapist (Atropos Press, 2011, winner of the Camille Laurin Prize of the Quebec Psychiatric Association), and Psychiatry in Crisis: At the Crossroads of Social Sciences, the Humanities, and Neuroscience (with D. Stoyanov; Springer Nature, 2021); and, in the arts, his “Slow Thought Manifesto” (Aeon Magazine, 2018) and Two Kinds of People: Poems from Mile End (Delere Press, 2023, nominated for The Pushcart Prize).


1. Maté G, Maté D. The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness & Healing in a Toxic Culture. Alfred A. Knopf Canada; 2022.

2. Peterson JB. Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Random House Canada; 2021.

3. Atwood M. The Handmaid’s Tale. McClelland & Stewart; 1985.

4. Atwood M. The Testaments. McClelland & Stewart; 2019.

5. Isaacson W. Kissinger: A Biography. Simon & Schuster; 1992.

6. Di Nicola V, Stoyanov D. Psychiatry in Crisis: At the Crossroads of Social Science, the Humanities, and Neuroscience. Springer Nature; 2021.

7. Self W. A posthumous shock: how everything became trauma. Harper’s Magazine. 2021;12:23-34.

8. Fassin D, Rechtman R. The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood. Gomme R, trans. Princeton University Press; 2009.

9. Di Nicola V. Two trauma communities: a philosophical archaeology of cultural and clinical trauma theories. In: Capretto PT, Boynton E, eds. Trauma and Transcendence: Limits in Theory and Prospects in Thinking. Fordham University Press; 2018:17-52.

10. Fromm E. The Sane Society. Henry Holt; 1955.

11. Hughes R. The Shock of the New. Alfred A. Knopf; 1980.

12. Lasch C. The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. W.W. Norton & Co; 1991.

13. Di Nicola V. The Global South: an emergent epistemology for social psychiatry. World Soc Psychiatry. 2020;2:20-26.

14. Di Nicola V. Development and its vicissitudes – a review of Pluriverse: A Post-Development Dictionary. Global Mental Health & Psychiatry Review. 2023;3(1):17-19.

15. Freire P. Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th anniversary ed. Bloomsbury; 2000.

16. Butler J. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge; 1990.

17. Butler J. Who’s Afraid of Gender? Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 2024.

18. Atwood M. Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature. House of Anansi; 1972.

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