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

Subsection 1: Foolishness as Lack of Balance and Contextual Sensitivity

“You were the Chosen One! It was said that you would destroy the Sith, not join them! Bring balance to the Force, not leave it in darkness!”
―Obi-Wan Kenobi, to Anakin Skywalker

In the most succinct way I can put it, I think a good part of Jordan’s recent public narrative has a deep and fundamental problem — it is Foolish.

I don’t mean “Foolish” as an ad hominem attack, like “he is a foolish person!” I would be the first to admit to being quite a foolish person myself, make no mistake about it, and I am in no place to accuse another person of my own flaws.  No, my critique is completely outside any essentializing type of characterization someone might want to think I am making about Jordan as a person; that’s just not the case, and it would be intellectually self-contradictory of me to do that, given that I have virtually zero idea of Jordan’s inner world, lived experienced, etc. My critique is about a body of reasoning, a public narrative, and a use of rhetoric that I think are misguided and have potentially negative, even disastrous consequences that should be considered. So don’t get fooled by surface interpretations of language. 😉

I mean Foolish in the more formal sense of “lacking wisdom.”

Obviously, this brings up the question, “what’s wisdom?” and the very next question is “who gets to decide that?” These questions have been pondered and argued and sought after and studied and debated forever. But just because something is difficult-to-define-precisely, and just because there are a wide range of opinions across time and place on the topic, does not mean that you have no basis for a starting point (as we’ll discuss in Part 8: Postmodernism).

Over the millennia of humankind peering into Deep Questions about Wisdom, a couple of near-universals can be discerned:
Wisdom is about balance.
Balance, in turn, requires contextual sensitivity.

Wisdom as Balance and Contextual Sensitivity is found in every wisdom literature or approach that I know of — from the Tao Te Ching and Confucianism, to Shamanism, to Aristotle, the Stoics and pragmatism, all the way through the centuries to modern empirical approaches such as the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm and others in “positive psychology”, up to modern neurobiology and cognitive science such as the Wisdom teachings of John Vervaeke. Or just go talk to a wise dude (“dude” being a gender neutral term in this context, btw), or a martial arts master, and ask whether balance and being sensitively responsive to the reality of the moment, are important… Or it might be more fun to get really drunk and walk around with your eyes closed; see how that turns out for you.

Our understanding of Balance has always involved trying to understand the interplay between seemingly opposing forces: Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, Order and Chaos, Yin and Yang. It’s through considering the relations between these ‘opposites’ that we have come to a better understanding of dynamic processes in many things, including our own psyches; we even understand Consciousness itself now, as a kind of emergent level of self-organized awareness, arising from the dynamic interplay and tension between ‘forces’ in opposition to each other, across multiple systems and levels of scale.

In a more common-sense kind of way, we all have a basic dynamic understanding.  “The pendulum swings back and forth” is a deep saying, and we all understand that. It means that when ‘things’ go in a certain developmental/organizational direction for a while, there is a countervailing tendency to organize in opposing ways, and the further you swing in one direction, the stronger the countervailing tendency becomes, and the closer you veer to a catastrophic disaster if you don’t change course in time. For example, if you’re alone for too long, you want to be around other people; but if you’re around other people too much, you want to be alone — and if either of those situations continues for too long without appropriate reprieve (‘dynamic balancing’), the person suffers and will likely amplify this suffering as they pass it onto the world through their treatment of themselves and others.

Surfing 101

This kind of back&forth dynamic interplay is found in all sorts of Big Ideas that humans have come up with: equilibrium, homeostasis, the Hegelian dialectic, complex adaptive systems, opponent-process models. Understanding how to achieve Balance is central to almost every culture’s notion of wisdom, and practically every body of practice, from History and Philosophy to Biology and Ecology, from karate to sailing, sword-making to drumming, motorcycling to surfing.

Every set of circumstances affords better or worse ways of adapting (depending on your perspective of course). Take surfing for example. Assuming that your perspective is that you want to stay on the board and do cool shit (as opposed to falling into the water), then you have to maintain appropriate, balanced interaction between your body weight, the board, and the waves. When all three elements are in ‘proper’ alignment, you surf like a Boss! But a wee bit of imbalance, and you’re going down.

This is what I mean by Contextual Sensitivity. “The right thing to do” depends heavily on the specific situation you are in. “To everything there is a season.” Even Generally Bad Things, like leaning too far back on your surfboard, or like physically attacking another person, have their appropriate circumstances. To “adapt” is to be contextually sensitive in a way that furthers your own goal progression, dominance position, evolutionary fitness, ability to ride the big wave, or whatever you consider to indicate “value.”

With regards to aggression, for example, in the Bible, we are told to “turn the other cheek”. Which is great in lots of circumstances. Probably even most circumstances. Like, if you are an aggressor, and the other person just turns the other cheek, and you go and take advantage of their refusal to fight back by beating the living daylights out of them…..then you are a terrible human being, and everybody around you who doesn’t share your particular brand of hate or twisted belief system that justifies it, is also going to think you are a douche-bag. Even animals know this, and don’t (usually) take advantage of submission displays within the pack; once you’re Alpha, you don’t need to go around rubbing salt in your Betas’ wounds, and if you do, public sentiment will begin to turn against you, only held back by Fear…..and everybody knows that’s a shitty way to keep a tribe/family/pack/community/society together, long-term.

Besides, too much internal discord in the pack, is suicide.  It leads to mutiny, rebellion, civil war.  And if the Other pack (the Bad Guys) next door comes a-knocking, you want to know you’ve got your whole posse backing you up.

In most interpersonal situations, especially in long-term scenarios, a nonviolent stance is far and away the best option.

But “most” does not equal “All.” Nonviolence will do diddly-squat for you if nobody’s watching while you’re facing the aggressor (and they have insufficient empathy/compassion for you…), so if they beat the living daylights out of you, you just end up in the hospital, or dead. Nonviolence won’t help you one whit if you’re facing the Gestapo, or the boots and fists and clubs and pitchforks of angry mobs. It won’t help you when the barbarians are at the gate, so to speak, and are intent on pillaging your civilization and burning it to the ground. It won’t work against the Death Star, Sauron and the Orc Hordes, FireLord Ozai, or the resource companies coming to your planet to displace your tribe so they can extract Unobtainium. It sure wouldn’t work with Stalin.

As much as one might want to have a prosocial, optimistic, rosy belief in the inherent Goodness of the Human, we have to face the reality of violence and suffering that has plagued humanity throughout the ages. (Recently there was a news story about an idealistic couple who decided to bike through ISIS territory in order to prove humans are fundamentally good. They were killed by ISIS.)  We have to accept that Nature IS red in tooth and claw. The story of Human Civilization is written in the languages of Guns, Germs and Steel, as Jared Diamond so convincingly argued. And as Jordan has argued, (based on Jane Goodall’s chimp research and Frans de Waal’s primate research), although good leadership often involves behaviours that look like kindness and compassion, sometimes you gotta get violent and keep your dominance hierarchy in order; sometimes you gotta command respect with a good threat display, backed up by a thrashing if the little insubordinate doesn’t back down. Heck, even Jesus had it in him, going all Rage Mode on the moneychangers in the temple. Right? Sometimes, even violence is, contextually speaking, “good.”

(But remember, even though it might be more glamorous to imagine Alphas keeping everyone in line through sheer Strength, most of the time, and for most of the layers of the dominance hierarchy, dominance is given to you by the tribe because they like and trust you; respect is only partially, and sub-optimally, based on fear).

It is because of “contextual sensitivity” that wisdom is about balance. Any set of circumstances has niches for adaptation — optimal (or at least better) ways of adapting to the circumstances. But the non-homogeneity of the world (“stuff is different”) and the impermanence of the world (“stuff is changing”), means that there is no single perfect ‘way to be’. What’s perfect in one circumstance could be suicidal in another. And the faster or more chaotically things change, the more important Balance and Contextual Sensitivity become. Just ask a surfer.

Thus, in this sense of “lacking Wisdom”, I think Jordan’s recent work and public rhetoric need to be challenged.

I will make this case in three primary domains of “Foolishness”: philosophical, theoretical, and moral. — see next post —

Waaaait a minute….what the heck does this have to do with Dominance and Compassion?  — see next post —   🙂

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