36) Jordan Peterson: Prologue – A personal note

To help guide your expectations of what we’ll explore in this series of posts:  there are 8 key points of contention, and one point of agreement, that I’d like to raise.

Here’s a Table of Contents.

Prologue:  (i.e., the part after the Table of Contents…)  🙂

Foreplay)  Agreeing on freedom of speech:  yayyy!!!

Part 1) Problems with Fundamental Assumptions: “In this corner, Dominance hierarchies!!! (crowd goes WIIIIILLLLLLLD!!); and in this corner, Compassion!!! (Woooo…..????…*pin drop*)”

Part 2) More Problems with Fundamental Assumptions:

A) the naturalistic fallacy;

B) issues of scale

Part 3) The Bucko Mistake:  why telling Bucko to straighten his shoulders, clean his room, and sort himself out can cause bigger problems

Part 4) The Problem of Collective Assholeification:  the much bigger, much subtler, but even more important mistake in telling Bucko to sort himself out

Part 5) The Perfect House Problem:  why being told not to try to change the world until you have your house in perfect order is, potentially, at least as murderous as Post-modern NeoMarxism and all that…

Part 6) The Myth of “The myth of white/male privilege”:  Hi, my name is Dan, and I’m a white male.  “Hiiii Dannn”.  Smiles and nods all around while I take my seat in the circle.  

Part 7) Psychology at the Ending of the World

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Now let’s get started.

Prologue:  A Personal Note

This might not be the right way to get this message out.  I don’t know.  I sure ain’t perfect.  I am a bit concerned that something I say comes across the wrong way, or people think I have unsavoury motives of some kind or other.  This is something that, more often than it should, holds me back from doing things.  I’m sure you’ve felt that way before.  Who hasn’t?  Heck, it can be scary just talking to a person at a dinner party; walking into a public debate that often seems to draw fairly extreme reactions out of people?  yikes…

But, I feel it’s important to try here, and share a few thoughts about the whole phenomenon of Jordan Peterson.  It’s….complicated to get into, personally, for a bunch of reasons….which is why I’m starting this series of essays with this ‘personal prologue’, because I think it is important to contextualize my views.

On a personal level, I genuinely liked Jordan when I first met and go to know him.  We have never been personal friends per se, but were always friendly and collegial.  I believed in him as a person (more on that later), and totally got a kick out of talking to him.

More than that, I have always felt an intellectual kinship with him in large part, despite the fact that we seem to disagree about some Pretty Big Things (*cough cough* — climate change…).  But we have quite overlapping intellectual backgrounds and interests, we draw from many of the same sources and we even taught some of the same courses in university.  We also had fairly similar early lives, childhoods, teen years, etc., coming from similar sub-cultures, and having absorbed similar philosophies while growing up.

Of course, we’ve always disagreed about certain things, as I mentioned.  But whatevs, right?  That’s what science and learning and being a curious person are all about — exposing yourself to the unknown, being open to differing perspectives, especially well-reasoned ones, thereby challenging yourself to consider things in new ways.

And like Hamilton, “man, the man is non-STOP!”.  Jordan is a super-smart dude; he thinks, and talks, and listens, and reads and learns, ALL the time.  He works like mad. Whoever thinks he’s just spouting bullshit is not paying attention to the depth to which he has tried to articulate and explain his reasoning.  So come on, let’s not straw-man people and write shitty essays where we try to tear them down and call them names.  I’ve read a few of these online that have made me feel disappointed.  Sure, people are upset and concerned about his public teachings, but personal attacks and ad hominems are just low-quality ‘arguments’ that go nowhere except to further polarization.

Let’s do better than that.

Jordan and I had adjacent offices for about a decade, which was great; every now and then would come a rare opportunity, when both of us happened to be in our offices and neither of us was immediately involved in a meeting or prepping for class.  In these opportunistic moments, I would stick my head in his doorway, and say “hey Jordan, you got a couple minutes?  I got a question for ya…”.  I would ask him some deep, thorny question, and inevitably he would respond, without hesitation, “You know, I’ve thought a lot about that, because it gets right to the heart of….blahblahblah”, and I’d sit down, buckle up, and hang on for the ride.  I totally understood why so many students and others were captivated in his lectures and got so much out of them. 

I also believed in his integrity as a person.  I want to be really clear about that. I wholeheartedly believed that Jordan was fighting for The Good as he perceives it, and was doing so out of genuine caring for people to live better lives.  For anyone who has criticized Jordan at a personal level, written nasty things, etc., you gotta remember, even if you disagree radically with his conclusions (which I do, in many cases that I will articulate), this is a person who has devoted many, many years, thousands and thousands and thousands of hours, to helping people — in his clinical practice, as an educator and advisor to countless students, as a colleague and collaborator on a vast number of research projects and collaborative relationships.  I have ‘overheard’ through the wall between us, the research meetings and Skype meetings and phone calls and interviews he has given in his office for many years.  The guy works his butt off trying to help people.  And sure, being a psychologist or a scientist or a teacher doesn’t immediately mean you’re a good person, and counter-examples are easy to find, no doubt.  But you have to give a person the respect they deserve.  Someone who has spent their many-more-than-10000-hours in studying and working directly with human suffering and growth, deserves some respect. 

(On the other hand, according to Jordan’s own logic, it is highly possible that he’s not actually trying to help people, but just trying to advance himself due to his own needs for power….)  

Having said all this, I do want to spend some time developing a critique of some of Jordan’s key points and public communications.  We do have quite deep points of disagreement, and for those who care about what Jordan has to say, I think the implications are important.  I hear a lot of people say things like “Yeah, he makes a lotta sense, but you know, I don’t agree with him on everything…”.  But if you press people for precise points of disagreement, you don’t find many, or at least many that aren’t based on a misunderstanding of what Jordan has actually said.

So, I think I have a good sense of what Jordan has said, and what he means.  And I will try to convey as clearly as I can, the important points of divergence.  I think I have sufficiently expressed, here and in other places, my appreciation with much of his teachings, but it’s time to look at the other side.  I think some of it is, unintentionally I’m sure, downright dangerous and could cause harm.  Which is why I feel it’s necessary to talk about this.

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  8 comments for “36) Jordan Peterson: Prologue – A personal note

  1. Wil Cunningham
    August 5, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    I love that you got “Roughly speaking” into it. Thanks for doing this. This is important (both aspects: an informed debate, and humanizing the debate)

    • August 27, 2018 at 4:14 pm

      Thanks Wil! Much appreciated! By the way, sorry for your message not showing up earlier; I forgot I have to “approve” messages before they are visible….still figuring out WordPress’ ins and outs. Anyway, I look forward to whatever discussions we may have, out of this or otherwise. 🙂

  2. August 5, 2018 at 6:22 pm

    Bravo Dan for choosing this approach. I’m a Peterson fan who thinks a fair critique is long overdue. Looking forward to reading this.

    • August 27, 2018 at 4:15 pm

      Thanks Rob! Sorry for your comment not showing up earlier btw; I’m still not super-great at WordPress….haha…. Anyway, I look forward to your thoughts, as these are posted over the coming weeks. Cheers

  3. Anne Wilson
    August 6, 2018 at 4:28 pm

    Based on your table of contents, I’m really looking forward to the next instalments! I think there are a number of reasons most critiques of him are unfair and intellectually shallow. One is that it takes real commitment to consume enough of his work to really evaluate, so those who start off with an inclination to dislike him are not going to commit to that (and fair enough- I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask everyone to consume 40 hours of video to find out his cryptic comments are ‘not really what he meant’. After consuming a fair bit with an open mind I think most of the public criticisms are off base (not all), but that there is a lot to critique substantively. I’ve thought about doing something like this too- though him suing my university has had a touch of a chilling effect on what I’m willing to say publicly… at least from the titles in your TOC I think I know a lot of what you’re getting at and it’s really important to add that to the conversation!

    • August 27, 2018 at 4:17 pm

      Thanks very much Anne! I look forward to (hopefully!) hearing your thoughts on these postings. It’s taken a long time to crystallize into a form that I could break into chunks and articulate, and I appreciate your encouragement. 🙂

  4. November 5, 2018 at 10:40 pm

    Hi Dr. Dan, thanks for your posts about Dr. Peterson’s thinking. I was your student some seven years ago at the UofT. I still remember your lively lectures and warm presence. Out of many professors, you are on of the few I remember.

    Since graduating, I have maintained a loose connection with U of T psychology by watching many of Jordan Peterson’s lectures. Without going into too much detail, a person very close to me, suffering from severe depression, watched some of Peterson’s lectures with me. Afterwards, he started watching these lectures on his own. The “clean your room, Bucko” stuff may not work for everyone, and it has flaws, as you point out, but it worked for my loved one. It was not a miracle cure. But immersing himself in Dr. Peterson’s lectures saved my loved one from suicide.

    Psychologists and psychotherapists are very expensive. Rightly so. These people are highly trained professionals. But when insurance runs out, paying for a psychologist or psychotherapists becomes a huge burden for many. And I think Dr. Peterson nobly steps in to solve this problem. He really helps the everyday Joe. Anyone with access to Youtube can be inspired and even helped by him for free.

    That being said, I don’t know psychology as deeply as you. Almost certainly, you’re right that Dr. Peterson’s speeches may exasperate psychological problems in some people. But for what it’s worth, I do admire his sincere desire to help them.

    • dandolderman
      November 28, 2018 at 3:29 am

      Hi Patrycja! I remember talking to you, a few times! I believe the last time was on St. George near Robarts? I can’t believe it’s been 7 years…. 🙂

      Thank you for your personal, and very moving story. I am of course incredibly happy that your friend was helped so much by Jordan’s teachings. I feel I don’t really need to say any more than that, but in case there’s any misunderstanding, I do want to clarify something.

      I have tried, throughout my critique, to point out that I agree with Jordan’s teachings up to a point, and undoubtedly, over the full span of the population there will be many, many people who resonate with and are helped by things he says! Especially given that a good chunk of his teachings are pretty standard, straightforward applications of psychology, motivation theory, etc.,FOR SURE they will help many people! And Jordan has a particular gift for oratory and a charismatic personality, which is getting these teachings into the hands of more people than he would have reached had he simply remained teaching classes at U of T. So, don’t be under the impression that I disagree with Jordan entirely!

      As I tried to express more clearly in the “Foolishness” essays, the issue is not (in most parts), that Jordan is dead-wrong; he’s not (although I have to admit, I think he is completely, 100% wrong about post-modernism, marxism and what I’m calling the “perfect house problem” in the next essay to come). The issue more generally is that his teachings are poorly balanced and qualified (e.g., the lobster-depiction of humans as excessively dominance-hierarchy-oriented). The result is that while his teachings will help some people, I believe they will also harm some people. The unfortunate truth about people who are harmed by something, is that more often than not, they don’t come forward; they just suffer in silence. Or, they don’t even attribute the harm they’ve experienced to something outside of themselves; they internalize it, and it just reinforces their already-poorly-constructed self-concept, leading to a deepening of their difficulties.

      By analogy, imagine someone discovering the wonders of penicillin. “Oh my god, this can really help people!”, they figure. So they load up a Super Soaker with a gallon of the stuff, and walk down the street spraying people left and right. Undoubtedly, they will help some people, probably even save some lives! But of course, they’ll also be ineffectual for a lot of people, potentially giving them misleading ideas about antibiotics. But most concerning, they will trigger some allergic reactions in some people, and what was helpful to many, may end up harming some….

      Another analogy is advice that people dispense readily nowadays, telling people who are struggling in practically any way that they should “try meditation”. Meditation undoubtedly helps people. On average, it does FAR more good than harm. Nevertheless, there are cases in which meditation seems to destabilize people, trigger dissociative tendencies, etc., and can lead to long-term harm in a minority of people. So, “try meditation”, while good advice on average, should not be dispensed without the proper qualifying information.

      This is how I feel about the Bucko advice; it is standard-fare in the motivational self-help fields. Practically every self-help person out there has some version of the advice to start small, set specific goals, have success experiences, and go from there. It’s great advice, up to a point.

      The particular concern I have about Jordan’s rhetoric is that not only is it insufficiently qualified with these types of exceptions and “moderating circumstances”, but Jordan expresses himself with extreme certainty. And he utilizes such obscure lines of reasoning that it is very difficult for people to intelligently evaluate his arguments. Instead, he makes lots of good points, tells lots of powerful stories, and then mixes in a ton of questionable logic based on mistaken assumptions, but all of this is difficult to tease apart when it is combined so seamlessly with his otherwise good points and solid arguments. As you said, he helps the everyday Joe. But, he also may inadvertently be harming a bunch of other “average Joes”, and I think would be easy to avoid doing so by more comprehensively grounding his teachings in good theory and research.

      So…..that’s my reason for writing all this stuff. It’s NOT AT ALL that I think what he has to offer is dead wrong or has no value. It’s that it has both positive AND negative value, but the negatives are often difficult to pick out from the good stuff. So, that’s what I’m trying to do….

      Thanks again for your thoughts! I’m glad to hear you’re finding it interesting, and again, I’m very happy to hear that the person close to you, is doing better! 🙂

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