Why am I paying so much attention to Jordan Peterson? A few people have asked me this.
Good question. I am going to answer in two parts. This post is the first part. The second will follow…..later….
It is incontrovertible that Jordan is having an influence on our culture, right now, in important ways. This intersects with my own work and values. Also, I teach similar material to him and am encountering his ideas increasingly in my classes and larger work in society.
It’s a tricky place to be. Because I do agree with big parts of his logic, and so, this comes up in class all the time. But I disagree, strongly, with other parts. If I mostly agreed, or weakly disagreed, I would just step back and do nothing probably. It’s way easier, and more fun, to do other things.
But I think there is great potential, and danger, in this moment. So, I feel the need to get involved, for my own integrity. I’m not pretending like I can make a difference. Most likely, given the size of his platform, my contribution will do little. But that’s not important to me, ultimately (although of course, I would prefer the outcomes I would prefer…) 🙂
This is too much to unpack in a relatively short message, or even a few. But I’m going to begin to outline ‘the issues’, as I see them, in broad strokes, and invite your thoughts.
Let’s start with points of agreement: (yes, I think this is the right way to start; conflict is easy to fall into; dialogue is way more difficult, and if you don’t start with openness to “the other”, then dialogue is basically doomed).
Part A: Jordan’s advice on “sort yourself out” is right. This is self-help 101. There are libraries of personal growth, humanistic, personality theory, work-team effectiveness, motivation, goal setting, and all that stuff, that basically says the same thing. So, go clean your room. (Actually, come do my dishes! ….god…..they need it….) 😉
Figure out who you are. Live in accordance with your values. Organize yourself. Commit to what’s important. Have integrity. etc.
You get it. This part is simple.
Part B: This “sort yourself out” message is true in a deeper sense. It taps into and reflects the psychology of POWER. Which is one of our fundamental needs, I would argue.
Power is important. It sits right down at the foundation of violence, oppression, assault, rape, mental health, war. The abuse of power is intoxicating, as every person who has every teased someone “too far” , and everyone who has been hurt by a bully, has experienced. I.e., everyone. Jordan uses 50 Shades of Grey as an example that peels back the curtain on our power-hungry selves. Yep, he’s right. We all “get off” on power. From at least toddler-hood, for the rest of our lives.
If you deny people power, they both crash, and rebel. Suffering and violence ensue. The oppressed know this very, very well.
Jordan knows that POWER is so important, that if you ignore it, it will bite you in the ass. Writ large, that means fascism, the communist nightmares we have already witnessed, totalitarianism, genocide. In our own time, POWER needs that are ignored lead to the “deplorables” backlash that I think put Trump in the White House. And POWER, gone rampant IS Donald Trump, the Koch brothers, and the whole ‘military-industrial’ complex that has become global corporatization and is, in short, destroying the world.
So, power is important, and dangerous. ONE group of society that is thoroughly enmeshed in their power needs, is men. And yep, while I don’t think this is the exclusive domain of White Men, they play a big role here.
(NOTE: OBVIOUSLY, this is overly simplistic. Not all men are the same; women have power needs too….don’t homogenize groups….etc. Yes, but we do need short-hand ways of talking about real, average differences that are meaningful between groups. E.g., men ARE taller than women, even though taller women are taller than shorter men. Ok? Let’s set this aside, and understand we are talking about average differences……AND let’s always, always remember that this is, therefore, a misrepresentation of the truth, and “ingroup variability” is very large, maybe even larger than between-group differences.)
I think there are two big reasons for this power-addiction in men. One is that men HAVE had power, institutionally and relationally. So, as they start to feel this power threatened, backlash. This leads to the belief in society that the “deplorables”, the Trump supporters, the meninists, the #metoo backlash, is all about men who are scared and feel their own power is in jeopardy. Obviously, there is some truth to this. BUT it’s not the whole truth, and if you pretend it is, then you are basically shaming and derogating these men, and sorry, that just isn’t gonna work. It’s going to make people LESS open, more defensive, more combative, and more likely to ‘circle the wagons’ rather than trying to listen to and understand “the other”.
So, “poor men, feeling threatened, boo hoo” is simply wrong. It ignores at least one other HUGE reason why men (many men, etc.) are addicted to power. Many people, men included, have experienced trauma, and all people, men included, have experienced mini-trauma in the sense of being criticized, disempowered, shamed, etc.. But “trauma” as we normally think about it, is not just reserved for the far end of the developmental continuum. Trauma is rampant. It’s everywhere. Scratch the surface of practically any family, and you are going to find trauma. Every police officer knows this. Every clinical psychologist does too.
Trauma addicts people to power. This is, fundamentally, why abused people so often become abusers. You can’t ignore power needs, and thwarted power needs are about the most dangerous thing about humans.
This is why, I think, Jordan is so careful to speak TO (and is resonating with) people whose power needs usually don’t become part of the discussion of social change, but instead are, historically/institutionally, part of the system of power that is in place. As a result it often appears (especially at the sound-bite level) that Jordan is speaking to “the enemy” of progressive thought, in many ways, the system justifiers, the people who hold power in different contexts, and who represent a big chunk of the voting block that prevents what ‘progressives’ are arguing for. Because these people’s power needs are not going to simply disappear, or be shamed into retreat and giving up. And the more the people in power feel shamed, ridiculed, threatened, criticized, etc., the more these deep, unconscious power needs, will come out through backlash.
Have you ever argued with an angry man about sexual assault? Or women’s issues? Or race? The anger is profound. You can’t just say “bad men” are like this. It’s more accurate to say “hurt people” are like this.
This is why, fundamentally, “identity politics” are dangerous. Because whatever group you identify with DOES likely have a legit perspective. But so does “the other”. This is true for the oppressed AND for the elite.
So we need to talk about power. And acknowledge the reality of people’s PERCEPTIONS that their power needs are thwarted. More than any other thing, I think this is what Trump’s election has taught us.
But more importantly, we need to help people EVOLVE their power needs. And this is, I think, where Jordan and I dramatically disagree, and where, I think, what he is doing needs to be strongly challenged.
The other fundamental need that is intertwined with power is, let’s say, connection. Call it love, acceptance, belonging, relationship, community, social identity, inclusion…..it’s about people connecting to others.
We all know connection is important. We are “social animals”. Loneliness sucks. Children develop terribly under conditions of neglect. Being shunned from the tribe = death. Being rejected = pain.
There is a huge research literature on the deep biology of our need for connection.
I don’t feel I need to expand on this. Everybody knows this. I think?
What people DO NOT USUALLY UNDERSTAND very well, is the complex relationship between power and connection. This is where I think Jordan is partly right, and dangerously wrong.
3) Power and connection:
Here’s where Jordan is right. IF a person’s power needs are not ‘sorted out’, they will project them onto others (deep argument here for where prejudice comes from), and act out destructively, often, against those who have less power than them in some important way.
EVERYBODY has experienced this. Just go walk around some place with kids, and watch how parents interact with their children. You will see some lovely, beautiful relationships. And a ton of criticism, ‘tone’, passive-aggressiveness, frustration, eye-rolling, disingenuousness, and pressure-pressure-pressure for the kid to be impressive somehow. Hell, many times a parent can’t even let their child play on a damn swing set without turning it into a “good job” self-esteem stroking. Or go to a hockey rink…. case closed.
This happens everywhere. If you want to understand the roots of shame, close-mindedness, bullying, self-harm AND violence, look at the power needs of the people who, collectively (it takes a village, after all….) have raised the person with so much shame, leaving people STARVING for connection, acceptance, love, “being enough”. Unmet power needs lead to unmet connection needs, as people develop, AND to unmet power needs.
In short, being treated poorly leads to pathological organization around power AND connection.
When you scale up to “social change”….like people fighting for equality, anti-oppression, anti-poverty, women’s rights, children’s rights, men’s rights, environmentalists, feminists, charities, etc., it is easy to see how unaddressed power needs become destructive. So, Jordan has a point when he warns that so-called “social justice warriors” could do violence to society. This is the essence of the argument, as I see it.
BUT if you look at ANY OTHER PART OF SOCIETY, you see exactly the same thing. So, if one person wants to argue that the so-called “social justice warriors” have deep problems with power, and unless they address their problems (sort yourself out!), they are very likely going to mess up the world, then I would point to the so-called power elites — the business class, CEOs, politicians, billionaires, etc. — who DO ultimately hold the reins of power (right now), and I would say the same thing about them. These people’s unaddressed power needs are screwing up the world. AND they have the power to do so, as you can see everywhere in the utterly absurd inequities, the devastation of colonialism, the struggle for social justice, and the soul-crushing reality of ecological devastation that we are collectively waking up to.
Unaddressed power needs are bad. Jordan is a clinical psychologist, so he knows this, deeply. AND he has steeped himself in studying the worst excesses of power — totalitarian regimes and other such colossal, indeed murderous failures.
So, where is he wrong?
Jordan seems to argue that people need to deal with their shit FIRST. Sort yourself out before you try to fix the world. “Me” before “we”. If you don’t, all the power-hungry people out there (i.e., pretty much ALL OF US), will bring our power needs into our world-saving collective action struggles. And the result will be, in effect, a furtherance of oppression. This is what he fears, in the smallest nutshell I can put it.
Specifically, he seems to fear “the left” more than “the right”, in our current social context. He certainly criticizes “social justice warriors” a lot more than “the business elite”, for example. He seems to feel that the collective action that would result from challenging and trying to evolve current power structures, will usher in ‘chaos.’ And certainly, history is full of revolutions that lead to terrible, terrible outcomes.
Unaddressed power needs –> violence. So, address INDIVIDUAL power needs first before you try to “fix the world”. This is right. And wrong.
Okay…..pause. We are at the critical point, I think, of this whole discussion.
This is where you are expecting me to articulate my position. I’m not going to do so, right away. If you are interested, then do some serious thinking about this, and articulate your own position.
Specifically, I would suggest that you parse out the points I’ve argued for above, from what may remain as a critique of Jordan’s arguments (and consequent effects on the world). I have tried to briefly sketch out the terrain as I see, so we can focus, fruitfully, on an important critique. And later, I’ll post my own position. But I encourage you, think about this first. Reflect on what you agree with, and what you disagree with. And why.
To be continued….