Part Two: Battle Not with Monsters
4. Of Lobsters and Men
“Recently, the dominant political narratives in America have moved so far apart that each is unreadable to the other side.” —T. M. Luhrmann, “Worlds Apart”
So You’re Saying That You’re Ideologically Incorrect?
Let’s flash-forward to what in many ways was the second Peterson moment, his interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 News on 16 January 2018.
This is the interview that gave rise to the “So you’re saying” Peterson meme, because of how Newman repeatedly responds to Peterson’s words by mangling them almost beyond recognition.
[NB: This is a creatively edited version 😉 ]
In the interview (the original version, I couldn’t resist sharing the above for some lulz), Peterson is often not even forming arguments, as yet, but sharing sociological and biological statistics by which he is attempting to make his argument. He is then met with “So you’re saying that. . .” followed by a clumsy recalibration designed to telegraph ideologically incorrect meaning.
This is apparently meant both to signal to viewers how to perceive Peterson and to “bait” Peterson into reacting. Since Newman is at pains to paint Peterson in as bad a light as possible with her “questions,” her primary aim seems to exasperate him sufficiently into saying something stupid (as he did recently in his tweeted response to a New York Review of Books article that made him mad). Perhaps she was even hoping he would reveal his “true colors” as a crypto-fascist misogynist bully ~ or something.
How Ideologues “Think”
Once again, we have a situation of two people attempting to have a dialogue without having agreed on the context, or at least agreed to respect and refer to one another’s contexts. Newman was arguing—or baiting—from a liberal-feminist perspective that presupposes certain ideological axioms, i.e., that women are discriminated against in the workplace.
From here, just like the transgender activists, Newman (or at least the particular mindset she was articulating) extrapolates that, since male-female equality is the correct social reality to aspire to, it must be backed up by the empirical evidence, because: a) it’s ideologically correct; and b) even if the facts don’t support it, the ideological goal is too important—too correct—to let facts interfere with it.
If this is the way Newman thinks (or avoids thinking), it is logical, or rather instinctual, behavior on her part to assume (without thinking) that anyone she speaks to must be operating along similar lines.
The Presumptions of a Polarized Perspective
When Peterson offers up statistics about the biological differences between the sexes having something to do with the pay gap between men and women, since these statistics threaten Newman’s ideological aspirations, she can only assume (or react as if) Peterson is presenting his facts for the same reason, i.e., to push an agenda that revokes the already established equality of women in the work place, etc., etc.
It is not entirely inconceivable that Peterson is doing this.
He certainly isn’t offering up the statistics from a neutral position, independently of the argument he’s making. And it’s fair, necessary even, to suppose that his argument is ideologically based; at the very least, he is trying to refute an ideology he sees as erroneous and using his statistics to do it.
But none of this actually alters the data Peterson is presenting. Rather than wishing to talk about the data, Newman skips over it and goes straight to Peterson’s supposed motives for presenting it. But whatever Peterson’s motives, and however objectionable they might be to Newman (if she ever divined them), the fact remains that, by leaping straight to her idea about his motives and more or less ignoring the data, Newman ensures that no real dialogue happens or ever can happen.
Is & Ought
When Peterson draws parallels between hierarchies in human and lobster society, Newman’s response is, “You’re saying that we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters?”
For Newman, there is apparently no such thing as an observation that isn’t a prescription for action, no difference between an “is” and an “ought.”
Reverse this, and any “is” that goes against the current of her “ought” is at best to be ignored, at worst exposed as insurgency on the part of an ideologically unsound agenda, to be fiercely opposed and if possible destroyed. This is so even—or especially—if it is Nature’s agenda that is acting insurgently.
At least, I am forced to deduce this because, if it were not the case, Newman would surely counter Peterson’s claims about lobster hierarchies with a more reasonable response, such as, “Can human beings really be compared to lobsters without oversimplifying to the point of distortion?” Or: “Can you be sure the scientific-materialist view of social organization isn’t leaving out some essential ‘X’ factor?”
Instead, she straw-mans Peterson and inadvertently (ironically) gives him and his moral Darwinism a free pass.
If human hierarchies run deeper than ideological conditioning, as suggested by our similarities to lobsters, perhaps the most obvious question—even for a liberal—is, “Is there something about human behavior that at least potentially transcends our lobster ancestry?”
The problem with this question is it would open up an opportunity for Peterson to launch into a full description of his salvific project, not to mention give him the benefit of the doubt about his ideological leanings. It is perhaps for both of these reasons that the question never arises.
Newman is not interested in Peterson’s data, much less in Peterson as a human being, only in an ideological position which she sees in negative terms compared to her own. She is conjuring an imaginary dragon which she knows exists “out there” in the world, and that exists (in her paracosm) only to be confronted and destroyed.
Peterson is the strawman she gets to set on fire, as a symbolic offering on her soapbox altar, to appease the media gods she serves. Is it any wonder that this dramatically backfired and became the second Peterson moment, one that created an exponentially greater spike in his bell curve towards becoming the world avatar of ideological incorrectness? It could hardly have played out better if he (or someone) had planned it.
What it did not succeed in achieving (even less than Peterson’s “Gotcha” achieved, when he at least rendered Newman speechless) was a significant step towards bridging the ideological gulf and bringing about a reconciliation of opposing perspectives.
Once again, responsibility needs to be assigned to both sides.
Ideological Entrenchment on Both Sides?
Superficially, it may appear—at least to the relatively non-possessed, ideologically—that Peterson is the voice of reason battling with an inchoate cacophony of self-righteous liberal-leftist indignation. That he is making cogent and very specific points that are being met with an increasingly irrational and desperate stone-wall of ideological generalizations—starting with ones about Peterson himself.
But Peterson also makes sweeping and, I think, often equally entrenched generalizations, and he may suffer from a similar sort of ideological blindness to his opponents.
Admittedly, he has a more sophisticated—or at least traditional and ancient, hence profound—set of rationales, or rules, with which to prop up his generalizations. But if anything, this may only make any errors or oversights all the more catastrophic in potential.
5. The West is the Best
“Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That’s the great discovery of the west. That’s why the west is right. And I mean that unconditionally. The west is the only place in the world that has ever figured out that the individual is sovereign. And that’s an impossible thing to figure out. It’s amazing that we managed it. And it’s the key to everything that we’ve ever done right.” —Jordan Peterson
Group Identity Vs. Individualism
In the above quote, Peterson creates a surprisingly naïve dichotomy between group identity and individualism.
Considering how astute he is in pointing out the ways in which the depth of apparent social injustices extend far beneath merely social structures, it seems strange he would make an error of this sort. Has he never heard of Americanism?
Group identification has very little relation to the avowed beliefs, or even biological characteristics, of the group in question. It has everything to do with the submergence of an individual with weak central coherence in whatever group ideology he or she finds sufficiently appealing to order their internal chaos.
One of the foremost “tricks” of group identification is that it fosters a belief in those possessed by it that it strengthens their individuality, not strips them of it. No one in a cult believes they are in a cult.
Peterson’s Prejudice for Progress
The other—closely related—generalization Peterson makes in the above quote refers to the superiority of the West. He has made this claim throughout his career (and it pays to remember that his career, ever since he had “Timothy Leary’s old job” at Harvard, has always been as a public speaker).
Peterson sees present-day Western society not just as being superior to previous social systems, and to ones in other countries, but even to how it was in the Western world just a few decades ago.
Peterson appears to base this view on things like poverty reduction, improved medical care, and individual freedom of choice (albeit for consumption, mainly).
Frankly, it boggles my mind that an intellect as ferocious as Peterson’s could really believe this.
Peterson seems to be willfully ignoring things like mounting suicide rates, including younger and younger people; epidemic levels of despair and corresponding addiction to anti-depressants and other pharmaceutical cures (not to mention street drugs); the erosion (if not inversion) of traditional values and the rise of nihilism; the decay of the humanities (a problem central to his own project); the privatization (or eradication) of morality; and the ongoing fragmentation of identity, all of which (arguably) has led to the most neurotic, narcissistic, and self-destructive human beings in history, trapped inside the virtual gilded cage of an ideologically possessed, algorithm-regulated and thought-policed techno-monoculture.Moving Borders of Relevancy
There are perhaps hundreds of different statistics Peterson could cite to show how the lives of average Westerners have not improved, at all, and that this is not despite the general improvement of living standards, but inseparable from it. Where are the borders of relevancy when you’re laying out the landscape of your argument, Jordan?
The point here, however, isn’t whether I agree with Peterson’s unqualified praise for Western individualism and progress or not; the point is that at the very least it’s an open question, not a foregone conclusion that requires no solid arguments to support it.
In his unqualified admiration of Western individualism, Peterson is merely expressing an opinion; there is nothing scientific about making a correlation between improved living standards and a truly meaningful engagement with the problem of being human. On the contrary, it is a distinctly Western—and modern—bias that comfort, wealth, and freedom of choice amount to the highest good. (It is also entirely non- and even anti-Christian.)
Peterson’s avocation of individualism and Western progress is especially odd for a follower of Jung, someone who is, at the same time and sometimes in the same breath, advocating journeying into the darkest places of our nature, becoming monstrous to battle monsters, and extending our roots all the way down to Hell (a Hell he insists is literally real, though Peterson’s idea of literal is more Jungian than Christian).
Are Christian (Moral) Values Compatible with Petersonian (Scientific) Values?
This is even more curious seen in relation to his reliance on a Biblical ethic for structuring our perceptions and finding better ways to live: neither Old nor New Testament places value upon personal wealth, worldly comfort, social reform, or even, at the end of the day, free will, unless it be God’s will, or else the prerequisite for original sin.
Peterson’s position, then, is very far from a scientific one; it is essentially ideological—or at least it directly intersects with ideology, and not only by clashing with it.
At this point in his career, Peterson is primarily a moralist, a self-made philosopher offering structured—often very canny—advice on how to live in the world. But unless you are part of a social engineering think tank, how to live in the world is a question that lies outside the domain of science.
If Peterson’s goal is to discover, embody, and teach an optimal way to be in the world, all his arguments are now nested within that project. They are formulated to develop and disseminate a value-set that is itself non-scientific, just as all value judgments are non-scientific.
Defying Hume’s Law
This is presumably why he has more recently placed his focus on religious texts to extend his project. Now Peterson wants us to be grateful for how well-organized Western society is, and for how much opportunity it gives us. He wants us to give ourselves more credit as human beings for the many amazing things we have accomplished, both in our everyday existence and collectively.
Conversely, he also wants us to recognize how we are monsters on the verge of creating Hell on Earth if we don’t straighten up and put our shoulders back (like lobsters).
These may all be reasonable suggestions; but they have nothing to do with science, except insofar as he is using scientific data to support them.
Peterson wishes to defy Hume’s law—that the is cannot determine the ought—by extracting statements of value from statements of fact, using logic to do so, thereby turning descriptive statements into prescriptive ones. But the problem with scientific data being coupled to a moral value-set (much less a social agenda) is it quickly turns into scientism.
This takes Peterson and his project dangerously close to the sort of “ideological possession” which he has set up his Ministry in opposition to.
6. What Jordan’s Shadow Knows
“Starting from unlimited freedom I arrive at unlimited despotism.” —Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
2 + 2 = 5
If Peterson is using his Logos-given power of articulation (in part) to praise the distinctly modern Western value of individual freedom, even while setting himself up as a benevolent dictator of rules for those inspired—by his status as much as his virtue—to follow his example, the question of cui bono again rears its hydra heads.
Peterson’s status rocket from relative obscurity to celestial prominence was ignited by his (I think genuinely heroic) stance against the encroachment of Canadian law onto individual freedom of expression (see part one). Bill C-16, and the tenets it advocates, specifically the right of individuals to demand an affirmation from other people regarding their own chosen sexual identification, regardless of biology, represents an unprecedented advance in such an encroachment, at least in the specifics.
In its implications, Bill C-16 comes as close to the Orwellian conditions of totalitarian thought control as anything in recorded history, and I think this is precisely what Peterson is taking a stand against: the legal (and “moral”) enforcement of “2 + 2 = 5.”
The Tyrannically Subjective
Because of this, it makes sense, up to a point, that Peterson’s platform is one of individual sovereignty. Except for this: it is also the platform from which his opponents are calling forth, out of the chaos of patriarchal oppression, the illegitimate order of the tyrannically subjective.
Isn’t it logical to suppose that Bill C-16 did not spring spontaneous and fully-formed out of the deranged forehead of a single individual, or even a nefarious group of individuals, but that it was the inevitable, in some sense logical, development of ideas, beliefs, policies, and sociopolitical trends (including ancient myths) observably at play, not merely for decades (as I have attempted to map elsewhere), but for centuries, even perhaps millennia?
It is, I think, the natural end-point of a cultural progression that can fairly easily be tracked back, not to its inception, because history doesn’t go that far, but at least to the metaphorical Garden of Eden.
So how exactly does this square with Peterson’s “The West is the best, bucko, and it just keeps on getting better”?
The answer is that it doesn’t, and if Peterson wants to make his own specific case for right-living within the larger context of a belief in Western progress and individual sovereignty as the supreme good, he is aiming to have his cake and eat it.
Incidentally, this is a phrase Peterson has used in a positive context when addressing his audiences: as in, “Ye shall have thy cake and eat it.” (Peterson’s 13th commandment?) But the problem with having your cake and eating it is that it is only possible via a self-willed act of doublethink.
Psycho-philosopher, know thyself? At the very least, Jordan’s shadow knows the score.
The Necessity of Criticism
I offer all of this up as what I hope is a valid and necessary criticism of Jordan Peterson—one that may throw his entire project into question if followed through diligently enough, but that is very far from a condemnation.
That Peterson’s stated goal of cultural revivification and social stabilization is at best naïve, at worst hubris, does not mean it isn’t worth serious attention. On the contrary. At this point, a person has to dig deep into Peterson’s video output (300 videos, lasting perhaps twice that many hours) to find the stuff of substance. (I would recommend “2017 Maps of Meaning 6: Story and Metastory (Part 2)” as a place to start).
But I think the problem goes deeper than this.
In laying out his Maps of Meaning thesis (over two decades), Peterson was asking high-level questions, the sort of questions most people don’t have the tool-set to formulate but that, once understood, become relevant to everyone (questions like “What ethic structures your perception?” which essentially sums up Peterson’s entire project).
World Avatar of Ideological Incorrectness (Peterson’s 12-Step Program)
The ability to ask truly meaningful questions is a rare gift; it may even be the modus operandi of articulated wisdom in the world (think of Socrates). Only now, with his Bible series and his 12 Rules, Peterson is not only asking profound questions but providing the answers, Moses-style.
This may seem like a natural shift, but it’s the kind of shift that threatens to undermine the carefully worked-out structure of his question set, and turn it into the train wreck of a cultural phenomenon. (To give an obvious example: Peterson persistently equates psychedelic use with religious visions, thereby implicitly advocating them. This isn’t just incorrect—an overlap does not equal an equivalency—it’s dangerously irresponsible.)
Peterson began by articulating his inner chaos in such a way as to bring some order to his “room.” The questions burned from within. My concern now is that, by moving into prescriptive and proscriptive mode, by using articulation as a weapon and attempting to bring order to the chaos of the world, he has ended up creating his own ethical-ideological engine.
Next thing you know, Socrates is running for office.
Peterson has said of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death: it “is actually quite a good book even though it is wrong. You know, sometimes a book can be very useful; it can be usefully wrong, and Becker’s book is usefully wrong.”
The same thing might be said for Peterson, that, so far as he is getting it wrong, he is usefully wrong, and we could do a lot worse than to learn from his mistakes.
It is only by identifying what Peterson gets wrong, and why, that we can see what he has got right. And for the naysayers, many of whom practice the cardinal scientific sin of condemnation without investigation, the reverse also applies: if you want to pick apart what Peterson is getting wrong, first own up to what he has got right. So what if it turns out to be a tiny percentage of his total output, when these particles are of such atomic weight?
You don’t find gold without panning through a shitload of dirt. Or without facing one hell of a dragon.
Jordan says, “The fundamentally important element of knowledge is to describe how knowledge is sought.”
The opportunity of extreme disagreements is that, out of the chaos, out of intolerable ambiguity, comes not the answers we have prescribed for ourselves by logic, but answers that are truly unexpected.
The only thing more disagreeable to us than a fire-breathing dragon, is knowing he’s sitting on the gold.
Dear Dr. Peterson: We need to talk.
 “But we know that the first step in loosening the grip of an extreme culture is developing a relationship with someone who interprets the world differently. . . . If the presence of people with whom we disagree helps us to maintain common sense, then perhaps the first step to easing the polarization that grips this country is to seek those people out. That’s the anthropological way.”
 In passing, his reliance on prescription medication to deal with depression, which he admitted to in 2012 & 2016, also seems rather at odds with the no-holds-barred shadow-integration he is proposing to his listeners.
In this interview (15 minute mark), Peterson’s daughter says Jordan is now off the meds.
That Peterson sees his depression as biological/hereditary uncouples it from the Jungian viewpoint, that of unconscious material that is trying to become conscious. Perhaps he is too busy for that. If (as he suggests in the first video) JBP sees depression as a result of under-achieving (not being active enough), it would also become an obstacle to it, hence to be treated mechanistically, as purely physiological.
The depth psychological view is that depression is not an obstacle but a necessary opportunity for “deep rest,” i.e., introspection and eventual shadow-integration. JBP’s materialistic, gung-ho approach to his “illness” suggests (to me) that his recent worldly success may only exacerbate the problem.