Saturday, January 27, 2018

Jordan Peterson, the Nietzschean, Jungian, Tough-Guy Guru for Our Time

Until this week, I had never heard of Jordan Peterson. And then suddenly he was everywhere: hero of the most watched video on Youtube, subject of a David Brooks column, proclaimed by Tyler Cowen to be the most important public intellectual in the world. Controversy swirls around him: various professors have accused him of mounting a dangerous threat to human rights, and a movement has sprung up to strip him of his tenure. Yet he has, people say, a huge following among young men, especially among troubled young men. As the father of two young men who have had their share of troubles, I wanted to find out who Jordan Peterson is, and what he says that so many young men find compelling and so many other people find deeply disturbing.

This is easy to do, because Youtube has dozens of videos of him talking. After spending much of last night and today watching him, I think I can speak to both why he is loved and why he is hated. If you want a five-minute exposure to Peterson, I suggest this clip in which he speaks about how to overcome social anxiety.

I think the most important point to make about Peterson is that he is a therapist. People keep trying to interpret him politically, but so far as I can tell he has little interest in politics. I have written here before about the great divide between the political and therapeutic approaches to the world, and  confusion over the difference is corrupting how people react to Peterson. The world is hard, you know, and full of suffering. To this the politician says, "let's fix things so there is less suffering and less difficulty." The therapist says, "You have to become a tough enough person to endure the suffering and overcome the difficulty." Most of Peterson's controversial statements take the form of "stop complaining and toughen up." This enrages politically-minded people, who say, "You mean we shouldn't try to fight sexism and racism and lift up the poor?" Peterson rolls his eyes and says, "Go ahead and do what you can to improve the world, but meanwhile we all need to toughen up and get on with our lives." "So," say the activists, "you're saying that the suffering of the poor and the oppressed is their fault?" Round and round it goes, a perfect circle of misunderstanding.

The second thing about Peterson is that he is a Jungian in love with myths and archetypes. Like James Campbell or Robert Bly, he is always explaining contemporary things by reference to ancient Egypt or the pyramid on the dollar bill. This includes Jungian ideas about male and female; Peterson firmly believes that men and women are different in ways reflected in ancient stories. One of the best lectures of his I have seen riffs on the story of Peter Pan. The only example of adult masculinity he knows is the toxic one of Captain Hook, so he refuses to grow up, even though that means he can't have a real woman (Wendy) and has to make do with Tinkerbell, "the imaginary fairy of porn."

Like most modern Jungians Peterson draws on evolutionary psychology to buttress his views. He is always referring to dominance hierarchies, submissive gestures, reproductive success, the whole vocabulary of animal behavior. Thus you get passages like this one, from a long explanation of how life is poised between order and chaos:
Chaos the impenetrable darkness of a cave and the accident by the side of the road. It’s the mother grizzly, all compassion to her cubs, who marks you as potential predator and tears you to pieces. Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters. … Most men do not meet female human standards.
And the third thing about Peterson, the thing that gives a hard edge to all his teaching, is his Nietzschean individualism: his insistence that only individuals matter, and that our only mission in life is to be a good and successful one, rather than a bad failure.
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.
Peterson uses this whole structure to carry out what one might call a therapeutic ministry to young western men. He is teaching, he says, "how not to be pathetic." If you want a woman, stop whining about how impossible they are and become the kind of man they want. If you want a job, become the kind of person employers want to hire. If you want anything at all, get out of your basement and get to work. You should, he says, consider yourself on a heroic mission:
Burden yourself with so much responsibility that you can barely stand, and then you'll get stronger trying to lift it up.
The first rule in his new book, 12 Rules for Life, is "Stand up straight with your shoulders back." Posture, he says (with a full dose of both Jungian story telling and ethology) is a metaphor for how you live, and standing up straight means living with confidence, bearing your burdens proudly, treating others well, refusing to bend to bullies, and so on.

Peterson is especially interested in the dark side of our personalities, for good Jungian reasons. Until we confront and incorporate the dark, destructive sides of our natures, we are incomplete. In another video I watched, but have lost the link to, Peterson says you don't want to be the person who can't be cruel. Those people are weak and easily bullied. You also don't want to be a cruel person. You want to be the person who can be cruel but then does not; who is not afraid of his murderous darkness but has drawn it forth and mastered it. Weakness is not virtue; only the strong can truly be virtuous. And Peterson likes to display his "strength," as here, when he questions a call to treat everyone with respect:
You bloody don't get to demand my respect.
Like many psychologists he is fascinated by the people who perpetuate genocide, and wonders what differentiates them from those who refuse to join in the slaughter:
I think I’m someone who is properly terrified. I’ve thought a lot about very terrible things. And I read history as the potential perpetrator – not the victim. That takes you to some very dark places. . . .

“Nietzsche pointed out that most morality is cowardice. There’s absolutely no doubt that that is the case. The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”

So if “nice people” get the chance to disguise their dark impulses from themselves, are they likely to indulge those impulses? “Yes. And a bit of soul-searching would allow them to determine in what manner they are currently indulging them.”

The fact of our essential darkness may, perhaps, be seen transparently in the flood of hatred, abuse and rage that is now clearly visible on anonymous Twitter feeds. It was “so-called normal people”, not sociopaths, who were responsible for the atrocities of Nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. We must not forget, says Peterson, that we are corrupt and pathetic, and capable of great malevolence.
So here comes this white guy telling young men that they need to get in touch with their dark sides and move up the dominance hierarchy and learn how to get what they want from life, including women; who believes men and women are very different for the most profound possible reasons, and rolls his eyes at trans people; and who has besides a suspicious fascination with Hitler. No wonder he infuriates leftists, despite his support for national health care, high taxes on the rich, strong environmental protections, and other liberal causes.

Peterson is a reactionary in some ways, especially about several key questions that are prominent on college campuses. He hates identity politics because his main focus is the therapist's preoccupation with the healthy individual. He hates the whole movement to treat gender as something to be de-emphasized or changed at will because he believes that the eternal masculine and feminine are fundamental to our souls. He hates whining about the 1 percent because he thinks it is envy. He hates post-modernism because he thinks it subordinates truth to politics, and he believes very firmly that certain things are true whether you like them or not.

Plus – and this is the thing that gets the most exclamation points from his Youtube-posting fans – he hates big parts of contemporary progressive discourse because he believes they are hurtful to the young men he is trying to treat:
Women are structured differently from men, for biological necessity, even if it's not a psychological necessity, which it partly is. . . . Women know what they have to do. Men have to figure out what they have to do. And if they have nothing worth living for, then they stay Peter Pans. And why the hell not?  . . .  Why lift a load if there's nothing in it for you? That's another thing that we're doing to men that's a very bad idea, and to boys. It's like, you're pathological and oppressive. Well, fine then, why the hell am I going to play? If that's the situation, if I get no credit for bearing responsibility, you can bloody well be sure I'm not going to bear it. But then, you know, your life is useless and meaningless, you're full of self contempt and nihilism, and that's not good. . . . You're like a sled dog without a sled to pull, and you're going to tear pieces out of your own leg because you're bored.
This I could not agree more with; if your idea of progressive politics is saying that all men or all white people are evil oppressors, then I want nothing to do with your agenda, and I hate it when people say things like that to my sons.

When Peterson does talk about politics directly he is much less compelling than when he talks about myth or psychology. In this interview he takes student activists to task for trying to change systems they do not understand. Why, he asks, do students who can't even clean their dorm rooms think they know how to make the country better? It's a strange, managerial approach to politics, as if these things could be done without any ideology or any passion. It is probably true that student activists would make a complete hash of running the government, but without the passion of activists, would anything ever change? Peterson thinks about students from a psychological perspective, and he sees them acting out rebellions against their parents and finding their identity through joining the cool club and so on. All of which is important and true, but still leaves out something vital about political activism in our age.

But as I said, Peterson rarely talks directly about politics. And yet – and this is what fascinates me –he has ended up in a political storm anyway. Politics and psychology are, I suppose, different ways of looking at the same thing: how people live together. So a way of understanding psychology necessarily has some political implications, and vice versa. I don't think, though, that we understand at all how to make them work together. Right now we have politics that demand we act rationally and psychology that explains why we never do; does that make any sense? Can we imagine a political system that both promotes mental health and draws realistically on the strengths and weaknesses of our minds?

For now, no.


pithom said...

Thank you! This is the first actually good piece on Peterson I've seen! I tend to run in political circles, and I've never seen any reason to have listened to anything Peterson says. So I haven't, and never understood what all the fuss about him was.

G. Verloren said...

"Yet he has, people say, a huge following among young men, especially among troubled young men."

Gee, a Niethzschean who appeals to troubled young men? No! Tell another!

The culture of Toxic Masculinity carries on the same as ever, because society continues to leave far too many young men without proper guidance on how to be emotionally healthy creatures. And in their ignorance and confusion, they turn to people and philosophies such as these, and mold themselves into callous and selfish wretches in their image.

This is going to continue for as long as a large enough proportion of young men see their lives ruled by fear, suffering, and rampant testosterone. The system self-perpetuates as troubled young men grow up and go on to raise their own sons to be just as troubled as they were.

JustPeachy said...

What would you suggest, Verloren? Chemical castration? Have you ever watched any of Peterson's talks? He's advising men to take responsibility for their lives, actions, and the condition of the world around them. To become competent, useful people who make the world a better place instead of a worse one. Is there something toxic about that? Or are you sizing Peterson up by what his critics say, instead of going directly to the source?

David said...

To me the question is, is Peterson as limited in his view of how individuals can be as a capsule description of him must imply? Clearly he is famous because of his get-tough archetypes-based ideas about men. But is he really as limited as all that?

My point is that he seems to be a projecting a one-size-fits-all vision of what a man is, and if you're a man, and you become his patient, he's going to spend all his time trying to turn you into one certain kind of person. To me that seems (a) bad practice, (b) stupid, and (c) probably in most cases hopeless. He seems to want all his male patients to become clones of c. 1958 Spartan virility, and that's really just one (highly specific) way of being, and, like it or not, for better or worse, it's probably not most men's way of being. Most of his male patients who tried to conform to his strictures would end up as either fairly slipshod, unhappy analogues of what he has in mind, or masters of fakery. Note that I am NOT saying most men deep down inside are tearful, sensitive, and wimpy. That would be just as bad, just another extremely limited cookie-cutter approach.

FWIW, among the successful or at least well-adjusted males I know or have watched, some are straight-backed lone-gunfighter types, and some are Peter Pans, and some are quiet and withdrawn, and some are mainly socially awkward, and many are other things entirely. (And yes, deep down inside some of the tough guys are angry, frustrated, and miserable.) Likewise for the long-term couples that seem happy and very much together after many years. Some conform to Jungian gender archetypes, and most do not--"most," not because the archetypes are flawed, but because they're just one way to be, and one of the things that most characterizes human psychology, IMHO, is its huge, huge range and flexibility.

My point is any psychological theory or therapeutic approach that does not allow for the obvious differences in individuals is simply rubbish. And if that's really what he's got, then his pretense of individualism is likewise rubbish.

David said...

Just to Bogart the comments page a little further: I suspect that there's a public, TED-talks Peterson, simplistic and obsessive, and Peterson the actual practitioner. If his message really in practice devolves to "get up and do something" that may be all to the good.

I will say, I'm just as skeptical of the sort of self-hating, penitential model of white masculinity that sometimes gets preached by the left. A few weeks a piece appeared in the NYT arguing that, with the election of Trump, all white people basically stand convicted of racism and evil. A few might get out of it if they can be observed (being observed was key) working for the resistance, going to many demonstrations, staying up all night stuffing envelopes, etc., and generally learning to be an "ally," which is apparently a particular sort of discipline that you can read about and follow. I was reminded of Luther's first thesis: "When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."

Shadow said...

I don't know much about Mr. Peterson. In fact I hadn't heard of him until yesterday when I watched his interview with Cathy Newman. As soon as I saw it and listened to the hubbub about it, I wondered how long it would take for him to be mentioned here. He is a lightning rod.

Since I don't know that much about him, I won't be commenting on his ideas, but I do want to say something about the Cathy Newman Interview. Newman performed poorly. She twisted his words then responded to what he didn't say rather than to what he did say. This boomeranged in two ways. First, she ended up appearing evasive (even though she was the interviewer), unable to engage him fairly or to address his comments head on. Second, this diverted the listener's attention away from what he did say to what she said (intentional misrepresentations of what he said) so that what he did say was often not critiqued. He just got to restate them to correct her. Also, he was patient and thoughtful, while she was impatient and deceptive.

He couldn't of had a better interviewer if had paid for an infomercial with script.

David said...

On a different point, I would say I can't quite embrace your therapy-politics distinction. You're taking one approach to each and universalizing them. Actually, in my experience, plenty of therapists take a "how do we reduce suffering?" approach to therapy, and plenty of politicians aren't that interested in reducing suffering or solving problems as such--except in the same anodyne, Aristotelian sense that one can say that all human actions aim toward some good, etc., etc. After all, the people-should-get-what-they-deserve political stance that we've talked about isn't really about reducing suffering--it says, if most people deserve to suffer, let them suffer.

Perhaps more apposite in Peterson's case is to point out that, when it comes to individual patients, he has a pick-yourself-up approach, but on the societal level, he supports things like progressive taxation and Canada's national health service (as, according to Wikipedia, he does). This is a personal approach of Peterson's, and one can easily imagine someone like Arthur Brooks or Paul Ryan using Petersonian psychology as a rationalization for a laissez-faire "sucks to be you!" policy toward society's non-winners.

John said...

Here's a question that just occurred to me: what is the psychological model of contemporary progressives?

Marx had a psychological model, which is that our psychologies are entirely determined by the societies we live in. There are still some leftists who go a long way in that direction, like those anarchists who think that after the revolution we will all find it easy to govern by consensus. But I have the sense that most progressives have no particular psychological model in mind. I have seen lots of left-wing critiques of Peterson's politics, but not a single example of a leftist grappling with his psychology and its implications. Why is that?

Can you have a rational politics that is not rooted in a model of human nature?

David said...


That's something I've noticed as well. The conservatives have the philosophy, whatever one thinks of it. Liberals seem to take the basic stance, "well, we can't tell what the nature of humanity or knowledge or anything else is, but meanwhile let's muddle through." I remember Bill Clinton's basic slogan was, "we can do better." This lacks a certain umpf of conviction, though to me it has an appealing simplicity (in the old sense of a sort of plain, truthful directness).

I can see how this shows that liberals have some work to do getting their own house in order. But I'd have to say it's where I am in terms of the nature of humanity and knowledge and most everything else. To adopt a version of your frequent formulation, understanding things is hard.

G. Verloren said...


The problem is that, despite all our wishes otherwise, some things are just beyond our current ability to know or understand. Perhaps in the future we will have a better picture, but for now, we really are kind of fumbling in the dark.

But this isn't new. We've been grappling with how to understand the world forever, and we've been coming up short forever. And during all that time, we've always had people coming along and trying to tell us that they have it all figured out. Confident sounding people with strongly fleshed out philosophies. They take bold actions, typically violent and destructive ones, and people flock their banners because they think "How could someone be so confident unless they were right? How could they dare to do such terrible things unless they have God / Nature / The Universe on their side?"

But they're just as lost as the rest of us. They don't have some special insight into the nature of reality handed down from on high - they just are so terrified of a world beyond our comprehension that they reject it out of hand, and tell themselves and others comforting fables and lies. They feel weak and insignificant, and so they dedicate their lives to trying to feel powerful and relevant.

Instead of accepting that the universe is absurdly complicated, messy, ugly, and arcane; they insist that the world is actually simple, pure, beautiful, and easily understood. They claim that everything is right and good in the world - or that it's supposed to be, and only isn't because of the work of nefarious enemies. "The universe isn't bigger than us and indifferent to our very existence! It just seems that way because has sabotaged the perfect world that is our birthright! We are actually the rightful lords of creation! And we need to reclaim that birthright, with unquestioning confidence, unbridled self interest, and unflinching violence!"

But the truth is that we're a bunch of barely evolved apes in business suits. We're a cosmic accident in the backwaters of existence. We don't matter one iota. And we need to come to grips with that, and be at peace with that.

We've spent millennia telling ourselves confident tales about the nature of the universe, but it's only in the past century or so that we've even begun to scratch the surface on the truth of the matter. But religion and myth kept us alive through the long dark, and we find it hard to set them aside. And so we cling to them, use them as a crutch, take comfort in their familiarity, and keep trying to make the world make sense through variations on their theme. And then we take that comfortable crutch, and use it as a weapon against others, to justify our ape-brained tendencies toward violence and cruelty.

But it's never worked. Not once, in all of human history, has this way of thinking about the world succeeded in achieving the perfection it longs for. The universe resolutely refuses to care about our screaming into the void. And so religion after religion, philosophy after philosophy arises. The modern vogue among those who need comfort in an indifferent universe is for Fascism, but it is only the most recent inheritor of an office that has existed since the dawn of civilization and before. We continue to savage each other, and brim with confidence in doing so, just as our cousins the chimpanzees have done for untold ages. Rape, pillage, war, murder, hatred, squabbles over territory and resources, or even just pride and ego.

And the only way out is to stop clinging to that crutch. We will never walk on our own so long as we insist that the crutch is necessary for us to walk at all.

G. Verloren said...


So apparently I goofed on the formatting in one spot, rendering a sentence somewhat garbled. It should read:

"It just seems that way because -Insert Hated Ethnicity or Culture Here- has sabotaged the perfect world that is our birthright!"

szopen said...

Actually I think I've first saw Peterson videos in December 2016, when linked on one of the blogs I frequent. He really make a huge impression on me. He had a rare gift of saying things which quickly summarize the intuition people have. You either live to fulfill your obligations and your duties, or you just wallow in self-pity. Your happiness is in living up to the standards you set for yourself.

It's hard to believe that so many of you have heard about him only few days ago. He was being talked in so many videos, blogs and articles around the net.

I am not a young male, mind you, I am already married with two children and - I think - quite successful compared to a lot of other people my age (though I know a lot of them much more successful than me). But I know that if I would be 20 y/o or something, I would worship the guy. THe thing is - even when he says to them "you suck" it's from position when they know he cares about them, when they know he is saying that not because he despise them, but because he wants to help them. There is a video when he almost cries during one of his talks.

I just've actually googled that video: