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09/11/2001 WE REMEMBER

"Fear is the foundation of most governments." - John Adams

"Despite the constant negative press covfefe" - Donald Trump

After more than a year of gathering online celebrity, Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist, YouTube star, and culture warrior, has finally burst into the cultural mainstream. Already in 2018 there’s been a viral, adversarial interview with Channel 4’s Cathy Newman (written up in The Atlantic), a sympathetic profile in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a fawning David Brooks column, an interview in New York, a Tyler Cowen blog post naming him the West’s most influential public intellectual, and three denunciations from the socialist left, two of which liken his views to those of the Norwegian mass shooter Anders Breivik. This flurry of publicity is well-timed: Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is currently the most sold and second-most read book on Amazon.

Peterson was a relatively obscure professor at the University of Toronto until September 2016, when, in a series of YouTube videos, he criticized a Canadian human-rights bill outlawing discrimination on the basis of gender identity for being a “politically correct” restriction on free speech. This launched a familiar sort of controversy, as the left labeled him a bigot and the right embraced him as a martyr. Peterson embraced the part — he escalated his rhetorical war on the campus left (which he derides as a “neo-Marxist” assault on Western civilization) and began to attract a large and loyal following on Patreon and YouTube, mostly among young men drawn to his stern self-help advice, polemical assaults on “social-justice warriors,” and expansive lectures on subjects such as the Bible, Jungian archetypes, and Soviet totalitarianism. (Full disclosure: I interviewed him in January 2017 for a profile that never came off.)

Peterson is now a fully fledged cultural phenomenon, and it’s as difficult as ever to know what to make of him. Is the guy a genius, a crank, or a dangerous authoritarian? As a headline for the Globe and Mail recently put it: “high intellect, or just another angry white guy?”

12 Rules for Life is, as its title suggests, a self-help book composed of Peterson’s rules for living. Most are, on the surface at least, commonsensical injunctions about personal responsibility. Rule one is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back”; Rule three, “Make friends with people who want the best for you”; Rule eight, “Tell the truth — or at least don’t lie.” Others are more whimsical: Rule 11 is “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” which, it turns out, is a way of saying that risky play is an important way for kids to develop and test their own limits. (A big theme: Overprotection leads to underdevelopment.)

If you’ve never listened to Peterson talk, this might all sound relatively conventional. It’s not. Each rule is accompanied by a lengthy exegesis in which Peterson unfolds his sprawling theories about nearly everything, digging beneath the surface of his rules to argue that they reflect, variously, our biological evolution, the accumulated wisdom of the world’s religions and mythologies, and the lessons of Western literature. The range of Peterson’s references is at times bewildering, and reflective of the man himself: He is, on the one hand, a psychologist and psychotherapist with a decent grounding in the biological sciences and long clinical experience, which tends to foster a certain pragmatism. On the other hand, he is an autodidact from the Canadian boondocks who, haunted as a teenager by vivid nightmares of a nuclear apocalypse, gave himself a Great Books education in order to cope with his existential dread and obsession with the nature of evil — the sort of person who looks for the meaning of life in Dostoevsky.

The result is that 12 Rules for Life features an eclectic mix of influences, synthesized in a sometimes fascinating and sometimes confusing manner in order to ground Peterson’s more pragmatic advice. The most important of these influences is the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who posited a specieswide collective unconscious populated by “archetypes,” or deeply rooted characters and symbolic motifs that reappear in art, dreams, myths, and religions. Peterson combines the idea of the archetype with modern evolutionary science to argue that mythological and religious stories have evolved over thousands of years to express, in dramatic form, fundamental truths about what it means to be human. Thus traditional, commonsense morality is, for Peterson, not only pragmatically but existentially and metaphysically true. Rule seven, for instance, is “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient,” which advises readers about the benefits of sacrificing short-term pleasures in the pursuit of more difficult yet rewarding goals. Simple enough. But to explain Rule seven, Peterson goes back to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis. The brothers are commanded to sacrifice a portion of their labor to God; Peterson argues that this represents humanity’s real historical discovery that present sacrifice leads to future reward. And when God is unhappy with Cain’s sacrifice, Cain grows jealous of his more successful brother and kills him — an archetypal example, in Peterson’s view, of how our own inadequacies lead to resentment that causes us to strike out at others.

Peterson has flourished on YouTube because he is an excellent lecturer: In speech, his tendency to pursue interesting digressions seems natural, his emotional authenticity is contagious, and he has a personal charisma that can lend seemingly anodyne bits of advice (don’t lie, clean your room) the authority of divine injunctions. On the page, however, his flights lack the same coherence and emotional depth. Still, he produces nuggets of real insight. For instance, a favorite theme of Peterson’s is the “dominance hierarchy,” or the stratified social arrangement in which we all inevitably live. He has a riff, reproduced in chapter one, about how hierarchy emerged way back in our phylogenetic tree. He cites as evidence the fact that humans and lobsters, which diverged perhaps 800 million years ago, use similar neurochemical systems to track their social position: a high-status lobster, like a high-status human, will have elevated levels of serotonin, which translates in both animals into greater calm, confidence, and subjective well-being. Our brains, in other words, have evolved in hierarchies over a very long period of time, and much of our behavior is concerned with maximizing our position within them. All that makes perfect sense, given how much our ancestors’ ability to survive and reproduce would have depended on their status. Part of what Peterson is saying is that we have to understand our own actions and motivations in the context of our existence within the dominance hierarchy; part of it — and this is where he sometimes gets himself into trouble — is to kick at the left for a supposedly naïve, egalitarian social constructivism.

This is one of those arguments of Peterson’s that critics tend to ridicule — he “justifies existing structures of social dominance by deferring to the hard-wiring of ancient crustaceans,” in the words of John Semley. Yet Peterson’s point is simply, inarguably true. Nonhuman primates have hierarchies, birds have hierarchies, revolutionary egalitarian societies have hierarchies; hierarchy isn’t going away. The real political questions are, which hierarchies are legitimate and fair? Which ones incentivize good conduct and allow individuals and societies to flourish? Which ones minimize suffering? It’s an almost banal point that can nonetheless provoke violent reactions, which is something of a theme with Peterson: Despite his eccentricities, he gets some big things right that others insist on getting wrong. (For instance, though social-justice ideology isn’t leading to the gulag, its worst forms have an obvious family relation to communism, complete with internal purges and hostility to dissent.) He is a specialist in baroque arguments for moral intuitions that often lack articulate public defenders.

For, in fact, beneath all the talk of the Bible and Jung and Being with a capital B, the rules and lessons in 12 Rules for Life are fairly simple. Peterson’s basic points are that life is hard, you will suffer, and in order to handle that suffering, you will have to be prepared. Preparing means taking responsibility for yourself. That’s hard, too, so you may try to avoid it. You may use all manner of evasions and rationalizations to convince yourself that things will sort themselves out on their own, or that others will bail you out, or that if they don’t, it’s their fault and not yours. But that’s a lie. So stop lying. Accept responsibility for your fate. It’s a harsh line of thought. It’s also good practical advice.

Some will dismiss Peterson’s personal-responsibility gospel as “bootstrapping pablum,” a way of deflecting attention from structural and political problems by throwing everything back onto the individual. There’s something to the accusation: Peterson inveighs against attempts to change the world as, essentially, a way for people to distract themselves from the much harder work of changing themselves. “Don’t reorganize the state,” he writes, “until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?” This is obviously a limited social philosophy — even if your goal is to promote individual flourishing, some political arrangements do so more effectively than others, as Peterson’s own strident anti-communism implicitly recognizes. But as a personal habit of mind, it’s worth remembering that you are just one dumb person among millions who is unlikely to have the final answers for anything.

For others, Peterson’s advice will seem obvious, and they may wonder why anyone needs to say it at all. Shouldn’t everybody already know that they need to be responsible? But Peterson has become a celebrity by telling young people to get their act together, which suggests that there are a lot of them who need to hear it. In a society that tends to eschew limits and presents an illusion of infinite choice, he offers a sense of direction, order, and authority — the “antidote to chaos” promised in the title of his book — that many frankly lack. It’s religion for atheists; Protestant Christianity remixed for the age of YouTube and Reddit. And as Peterson’s wild popularity shows, there are plenty of people out there looking for a prophet.
So much for not making threads about the culture!

With everyone offering their hot take on Jordan Peterson the last few weeks I thought I'd share one of better pieces I've found on the subject. He is too relevant not to talk about, and with that in mind there are a few obligatory points that need to be made. The first is that it is self evidently absurd that this man should be a controversial figure. Complementing that observation is the likewise easily demonstrated reality that Peterson's political opponents simply cannot help but spread misconceptions and other assorted lies about the things he says or does; usually to the effect that he is some kind of far right ideologue. Such is the price one pays for rejecting compulsory gender pronouns, I suppose, but I take these egregious falsehoods as evidence that Peterson is moving with a strong tailwind and his most vocal critics are well aware of this. A toxic mixture of cognitive dissonance and desperation are used to rationalize the dishonesty with which they defend the crumbling vestiges of their scientifically bankrupt social theories.

The more I listen to Peterson (as I've made a point of doing lately) the more I'm left with the impression that his otherwise valuable, commonsense life advice is supported with a foundation of... sketchy psychobabble that I have trouble getting behind. Sometimes a lobster is just a lobster. But setting that aside, there's the question of the uncounted number of young men that have built up his cult of personality. They do so with motives no more sinister than wanting to find some direction for their lives. I happen to think there's something genuinely wonderful in that.

And I also think this gets at the heart of the reflexive opposition that Peterson faces. It's not really about the pronouns, because there are all sorts of conservative figures that have much worse to say about that subject and they don't face the pushback this man has seen. The real taboo is his acknowledgement that there is a significant proportion of young men that feel listless, powerless, worthless, and so on, and what they're looking for is for someone to tell them to "man up" and take control of their lives. They often come from broken homes where, as likely as not, the father figure was either not present or not a positive force in their lives. There are all manner of possibilities and suggestions that follow from this that terrify those that subscribe to feminist dogma. For one thing it suggests that men have a particular role to play in the raising of children, and even more so with regard to their sons. Therefore single motherhood may not necessarily provide an ideal environment for young men as they grow up. There's plenty of evidence to support the notion that children without a father are far less likely to find success in life.

But the sacrilege doesn't stop there. After all, isn't it incredible that a community has built itself around a figure that gives them such directives as to put order to their living spaces, to stand up straight, to be courageous, to be virtuous, to have integrity, to be there and provide for their family, and to accept responsibility for their actions? I am describing what are (or once was) traditionally understood as positive, typically masculine traits. It is this masculinity that society rightly benefits from, or so Dr. Peterson argues. Men want it for themselves and women want it in men, and it is for the benefit of no one that men are actively discouraged from fulfilling this role.

I don't know how right Peterson is with regard to the degree or the origin of this problem (though the statistics on broken families are certainly compelling), and having spent so much time on the internet myself it is possible that what otherwise seems broadly apparent among message board misfits will not have the same representation among the general population. But the solutions he offers speaks to something deep within myself that I want to be true. His fans also want it to be true, and in this way it serves as a self fulfilling prophecy. Rather than, as many others do, blame external forces for their unhappiness they instead look within themselves and find the solution there. It is to the extent that they succeed in this endeavor that they prove Peterson right.

I started writing this yesterday, which might explain why the timing of this post seems odd in light of yet another mass shooting, the horror of which only managing to distinguish itself from countless others by virtue of a higher body count. A minimum of 17 dead so far, and it reminds me that if we are indeed caught in a crisis of masculinity there may be more at stake than underemployed, apathetic twenty-somethings playing too many video games.

“There cannot be greater rudeness than to interrupt another in the current of his discourse.” - John Locke
There are 9 Replies

It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that western society is moving in more and more of a conservative, traditionalist direction. These things are cyclical --traditionalism stagnates and causes great social injustice, while liberalism turns into disorganized madness.

Posted Wednesday by Xhin

Amusingly that interview was edited to about 5 mins long when I caught it broadcast. Would've been a different story had Channel 4 not uploaded the full footage. Nearly all their interviews are adverserial, so Peterson isn't the first, but he was certainly the most adept at dealing with it. Apparently the Channel 4 execs thought it went quite well...

I can't add much more to your post, other than to agree with pretty much all of it. Criticism of Peterson is mostly pretty bizarre objections and a lot of projection by the usual suspects. But, as they say, if they start throwing these things at you, it means they are somewhat taking you seriously. I think what is so refreshing about Peterson (where so many other commentators are lacking) is his solid practitioner and academic background, which he utilises to great effect and means his articulation is many times better than other fellow travellers of the anti-identity politics (whatever you want to call it) sphere. Cathy Newman was, as my Dad said after he watched the interview, category error personified. She simply couldn't understand in full what Peterson was saying.

His analogy about lobsters is a very salient and important one though.

Posted Wednesday by Arch

I genuinely have no idea who Jordan Peterson is... I don't have much to say about that, but for the sake of some form of discussion:

It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that western society is moving in more and more of a conservative, traditionalist direction.

See, I find this antithetical to the idea of individual liberty. The more society tries to push for a conservative, traditional, and clearly defined social structure, the less freedom individuals will ultimately have. I understand people want to feel comfortable and will enforce whatever structures or systems they can to accomplish that, but the more traditional we push our society, the less it could be argued individuals have freedom.

Therefore single motherhood may not necessarily provide an ideal environment for young men as they grow up.

Right. Do you know many women who actively want to be a single mother? Can't imagine that's the plan for too many of them. Can't say I know too many feminists or progressives who are riding the "single motherhood is preferable" train, even in the age of the dreaded internet "SJW." Supporting single mothers, not pressuring women to stay in bad relationships just to avoid single motherhood, and not shaming women who wind up single mothers isn't exactly the same thing as preferring single motherhood or thinking it's necessarily the best thing.

There's plenty of evidence to support the notion that children without a father are far less likely to find success in life.

I've seen such studies, as well as ones that suggest that children are noticeably more likely to "succeed" when they have two parents, regardless of the gender make up of that couple. But I have to admit that I find these studies a little skeptical, and do more to suggest correlation rather than causation. Few studies make it a point to note the economic climate of where fatherless kids are raised, for example. If we're finding that in poor areas with high rates of crime, few job opportunities, and an under-funded school system see higher rates of fatherless children "underperforming," how much should be blamed on simply not having a father? To be clear, I'm not suggesting it has no impact. Rather, I think there are a lot more factors at work that, collectively, go into it, and thus, don't believe that any significant conclusion could be made. (If you have examples of studies that take some of these other factors into account, obviously link them. I haven't seen any that really appear to think about it.)

But also, this is probably a good moment to advocate the end of prohibition of - at a minimum - marijuana. If we are so concerned about what having no father will do to kids, we probably shouldn't imprison their dads (and moms) for possession or even distribution of marijuana, and - I'd argue - even shrink the list that constitutes jail time. (Alternatively, abolish "mandatory minimums.")

(This is obviously not the only reason kids wind up without a father figure or in single parent households, but it is a sizeable factor, especially for black and hispanic communities.)

to stand up straight, to be courageous, to be virtuous, to have integrity, to be there and provide for their family, and to accept responsibility for their actions? I am describing what are (or once was) traditionally understood as positive, typically masculine traits

Can I ask what exactly it is that makes these traits masculine? I know I'm just a stupid leftist SJW here, but how is any of that specific to any male or female trait, and not just a vague, all-encompassing human trait? I have to admit that I can't tell exactly how those traits aren't ones we desire in women as well. Even if we wanted women to just be stay-at-home mothers after childbirth, they are still providing for the family, albeit in a different fashion than simply working for a paycheck.

Men want it for themselves and women want it in men, and it is for the benefit of no one that men are actively discouraged from fulfilling this role

I guess it's a good thing literally no one is actively discouraging men from fulfilling these roles. I can't honestly think of a single person who has ever implied that men shouldn't own up to their actions or having integrity (I mean, that's kind of literally what this entire #MeToo movement is about). And I don't know that I've ever heard a single person argue that men shouldn't be trying to provide for their families. If being accepting of non-traditional family structures is interpreted as suggesting men are being actively discouraged from exhibiting such traits, then I don't even know what we're doing here anymore. Burn it all down.

And while I'm sure you exclusively blame progressive thought for this apparent decline in masculine value in society, I can't help but wonder - in a world where many families need both members to work because so few can actually afford to have a family on a single income - how a simple capitalistic society isn't exactly ideal for promoting those traditional family values. With worse public schools than ever, higher cost of rent and home ownership, increasing prices of pretty much everything, and stagnant wages of everyone, I can't help but wonder at what point this version of capitalism we have in the west should be considered problematic for a society that will claim to care about family values.

(I'm also going to take a moment to mention that I still think we have warped ideas of "success," which is another reason I am skeptical of the studies indicating how much worse kids of single parents are. Some metrics - like trouble with law - ok, I get that. But I have a hard time with that define success by grades in school or total income earned.)

Posted Thursday by Jet Presto
Jet Presto

Conservative integrity, oxymoron.

Posted Thursday by Psygnosis

Can I ask what exactly it is that makes these traits masculine?

In an abstract ethical sense? Nothing. In a physical and cultural sense? Well...

The term "virtue" literally descends from the Latin word "vir", meaning "man". Same root as "virile". An interesting correlation is how the ancient Sumerian word for "battlefield" literally meant "place of manliness". But why were these connections made?

The reason these terms grew the way they did is because early civilizations relied on protection provided by the warrior class and men tend to be larger and stronger than women, meaning that men were much more likely to be warriors. The role was considered quintessentially male - I don't think that you can really argue against that, given how ingrained it still is in our world. It is that association that gave rise to the idea of strength, reliability, virtue, courage, etc. as male values because those are the values that were most pertinent to the quintessentially male role of the warrior. Being able to repel an enemy, being there for the men standing shoulder to shoulder with you, not faltering and letting your allies down, not being a lying traitor, etc. are the basics of primitive combat. And, seeing as how it is that protection, mainly provided by men, that allowed their respective civilizations to flourish, the values associated with that role naturally propagated.

In modern times, when combat is less physical and more about knowing how to operate machinery, with all the amazingly complex diplomacy, economics, propaganda and cultural interaction that comes with the more global-oriented society today, with the over-civilized horror at the prospect of war leading people to disparage and discourage (ha, literally "dis" + "courage") the role of the soldier, we see the role of warrior as less quintessentially male in and of itself and we see the role promoted as something awesome much less overall.

That's why "virtue" is "manly". Is it relevant? Not necessarily, because we no longer live in a society with a true warrior class and the modern equivalent functions so differently that women are able to carry it out adequately. But that's why.

Edited Thursday by nullfather

Conservative integrity, oxymoron.

Do yourself a favor and avoid low-effort shit-flinging.

Posted Thursday by nullfather

Do yourself a favor and don't worry about me.

Posted Thursday by Psygnosis

This thread, so far, is an example of the calm and civilized discourse between those of left and right persuasions that I was hoping would follow in the wake of Peterson and a few others I've noticed lately who have sat down to talk cordially, yet firmly, with those with whom they disagree.

I have few real quarrels with Peterson as a person and I very much admire the way he presents himself. There are a few areas, however, where I would like to see people press and prod him a little more. Jet already touched on the pitfalls of a purely traditionalist conception of society. Peterson is right to call out the abysmal pitfalls of collectivist thinking. Even now, for example, you'll still find people who earnestly make excuses for Stalin.

However, so many of the people who are pushing back against traditional hierarchies aren't doing so because they have some gleeful desire to burn the world and replace it with a "cultural Marxist" hellscape. They are pushing back because there are deep-seated aspects of these hierarchies that do indeed hurt people. Peterson talks a lot about how our present systems of power exist because they are built on competence, and that means that whatever their failings the builders of those systems must be acknowledged as having done something right otherwise they wouldn't have gotten as far as they did and they wouldn't have been able to competently manage their affairs to the extent that they have.

I hope in saying this, however, that Peterson and his fans do not fall into the trap of supposing that just because someone is competent in some areas of life that they must be competent in all areas. And to his credit I don't think I've heard Peterson actually make this mistake. But it should be said that competently managing your place in the dominance hierarchy does not mean that some other parts of it haven't been mismanaged badly. Sometimes, very badly. So badly, in fact, that great suffering has been the result, either by accident or design. Suffering that we must strive to rectify in both an individual and a collective capacity. Suffering that some benighted souls, operating under a very uneducated appeal to nature, even delude themselves into believing we need more of (and to his credit, Peterson has denounced such tribalists and nationalists as being vile and regressive).

Collective thinking in this regard, at least, shouldn't be seen as the complete abnegation of the role played by the individual in human affairs, but rather an acknowledgement that there is much human beings do that is best explained by looking at the big picture, and a purely individualistic conception of things would leave us alienated, atomized and wandering in a fog where macro-level trends (both good and bad) would pass us by without proper analysis or scrutiny. The individual often needs such analysis in order to make better sense of his or her situation.

Another point on which he should be challenged is on the issue of IQ and the nature of its heritability. As I said in a previous thread some time ago, Bret Weinstein (who seems to agree very much with most of Peterson's positions) did confront him with the many things that are fatally wrong about the IQ twin and adoption studies, studies which Peterson has been known to confidently defend. And to his credit, Peterson was open to hearing him out and learning more. Therefore, I think he should be challenged on that topic more often not so much because I think Peterson is refusing to hear it, but because I think many of his fans would benefit from it. It would be unfortunate if too many of them fell into the "human biodiversity" crowd. I've seen fans of his go down that rabbit hole and it isn't addressed enough.

My last concern is not so much with Peterson but, again, with some of his fans. This isn't a shot at any of you, for I see very few people here who fall into this category (85 might honestly be the only one, along with one or two other occasional users), but a woefully large number of Peterson's fans are 4chan types who seem to enjoy him solely because he represents the first prominent, academic, intellectualized stand against "SJWs" that they have seen, and it excites them very much that he sat down with Joe Rogan and mentioned "Kekistan" and Pepe the Frog, and that he has taken a keen interest in investigating their online culture. I've seen too many people who have joined his personality cult on this basis alone, totally ignoring the messages about personal responsibility and morality and being willing to investigate and face your Jungian Shadow.

If you're of the sort who likes Peterson because you think he gives you license to call people you disagree with "cucks" and "degenerates," if you somehow think he is giving your online bullying, sexism, and antisemitism an intellectual justification, if you think he is giving benediction to your self-proclaimed titles as the guardians of the realm of chaos, then you're really missing the point. He deserves much better fans than this, so I hope such people are willing to stop wallowing in their nihilism and irony long enough to realize that they are behaving antithetically to the ideas he is expounding upon. Again, I'm not saying such an atmosphere is prevalent here or in all of the forums and comment sections where he is being discussed. But I've seen it way too often, and I hope we can preempt it by adhering to basic respect and a willingness to listen and to reevaluate our own convictions.

Posted Thursday by Just Because
Just Because

It shouldn't be surprising to anyone that western society is moving in more and more of a conservative, traditionalist direction. These things are cyclical --traditionalism stagnates and causes great social injustice, while liberalism turns into disorganized madness.

I'm not sure that's actually happening. I don't think there is any teleology involved in that the developments we see are cyclical - the modern conception of liberalism is just that; modern. There's no real historical comparison. And considering wider developments in the Left (by that I mean not identity politics/SJW ramblings), there is an increasingly large amount of people who are rejecting the (mainly economic) consensus of the last 40 years in the West. An economic consensus entirely developed and progressed by monetarist conservatives and their later neoliberal successors.

What I do think is happening is that against yet another wave of postmodernism, which has been far greater in its scope and challenge than previous movements, those living in the West have had to examine the fundamental basis of liberalism (i.e. classic English liberalism, and its counterparts) and reaffirm it. A lot of what Peterson et al. say I don't think is necessarily exclusively conservative in nature - you don't have to be conservative to agree with the concepts of isonomy, of equality of opportunity, of free speech or due process. In accepting these as fundamental tenets, you do have to uphold the values of the West, however.

Edited Thursday by Arch
Reply to: "Why They Listen to Jordan Peterson"

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