41) Jordan Peterson, Part 1, Subsection 4: Moral Foolishness

(from https://geektyrant.com/news/netflixs-voltron-legendary-defender-has-a-78-episode-commitment-season-3-premieres-in-2017)

Let’s take a look for a moment at what you end up with when you put together what we covered in the previous two essays: Philosophical Foolishness and Theoretical Foolishness. You get a view of human nature that is disturbingly unbalanced, highlighting the parts of our evolutionary heritage that are most compatible with competitive individualism, and throwing serious shade on the pro-social, kind and compassionate parts that should wisely counterbalance the rest.

Without this counterbalancing, it is very easy for a “sort yourself out” message to get co-opted by the standard individualistic identity project that most of us are already struggling with, as we try to ‘self-improve’ and get motivated and “awaken the giant within” and all that. To the extent that the psychology of motivation gets applied in ways that are unwise, that are not conducive to both individual and collective human flourishing but instead could simply be in the service of a person’s ego, the “sort yourself out” approach, can easily become a force of destruction, like a once-cozy campfire that has gotten out of control….

Jordan would be the first to recognize that the people who succeed in ANY domain are going to be the ones who are willing to discipline themselves and focus their energies on their goals. This is reflected in the dominant “be your best self” narrative you see everywhere in society today. But without Wise application, the power that the dominance-hierarchy-climbers wield can so easily be misused.

If this seems esoteric or abstract, then just think about things like child labour practices, the factory hells of the industrial revolution, and continuing working conditions for the poorest labourers who are commonly exploited and abused by their masters/employers/owners. There is no shortage of stories of people at the bottom being mistreated by people with more power, people who have, apparently, sorted themselves out better, and the belief that those at the top truly earned their way there and should be generally regarded as people to emulate, is just not true. (We will expand on these points at length in Part 3: The Bucko Mistake and Part 6: The myth of “the myth of white/male privilege”).

The consequences of this set of ideas and rhetoric propagating through society and resting, unchallenged, in many people’s belief systems, could be actually disastrous, and I don’t doubt for a moment that that’s not what Jordan would want. If we get this wrong, if we, in effect, blame the victim instead of apprehending the real perpetrator of the suffering in most people’s lives, it we embrace a narrative that is likely to bring out the worst in our society as a whole, then this is not only morally foolish, it is tragic beyond all possible description.


I think a mistake has crept into Jordan’s narrative from the beginning, in that people are not sufficiently challenged to grow in wisdom, and certainly not in compassion; they are not sufficiently encouraged and guided to not only confront, but befriend their vulnerability and weakness; they do not sufficiently encounter their shadow. Instead, by sorting themselves out and cleaning their rooms and such, the implicit message seems to be that people will simply improve and the upward spiral to success will happen for them. Instead of helping people scaffold themselves to encounter and integrate their own Shadows (in the Jungian sense), I think Jordan helps people understand the IDEA of the Shadow, and then, through emphasizing individual responsibility and sorting yourself out, he ends up actually helping them reinforce their own barricades against the Shadow, strengthening their persona in ways that feel good to people in the immediate term, but make them even better defended against the true growth that comes from “integration.”  Rather than accessing the enormous potential for growth that comes from facing one’s vulnerabilities, I think his teachings too often end up shoring up and reinforcing the self-perceived strengths of the persona, in effect trapping people in chaos, not freeing them from it. The eminent philosophers, Pink Floyd, called this “building the wall.”

Now, having said this, I have to give Jordan credit where it’s due, because he DOES acknowledge these insights in some important ways. In his discussions of meaning and in his “future authoring” program, Jordan highlights that people need to find meaningful goals to pursue (not just “goals”), and that there is a hierarchy of value or ‘meaningfulness,’ in a sense, that does point people towards something like wisdom. He recognizes that the identity project individuals all have to go through is best navigated if it is guided towards ends that both strengthen the self and make the world a better place.

There is a particularly good talk of Jordan’s online called The Necessity of Virtue, in which he discusses the importance of what goals we pursue, and why. But while this is acknowledged in his work, it is not well-scaffolded for the person who needs to know how to progress, ‘what to do.’ Although it is obvious that we should first stop doing things that create more suffering, as Jordan talks about, it is not at all obvious how to decide what those things are. For example, Jordan seems to think that “chaos” in one’s personal life, like a messy room, is self-evidently a good thing to get rid of, but this is just not true, particularly if the same time and energy could be applied to making what one believes is a bigger difference in the world, or pursuing goals that are even more personally meaningful and goodness-producing than having a clean room. After all, there are lots of people who suffer mightily with anxiety yet have clean rooms. There are lots of successful people with clean rooms and many of the outer marks of a successful life, who are depressed and suffering, or who are numb to the consequences they actions have for others, or who are quite simply, assholes. But instead of acknowledging that a (“roughly speaking”) singular emphasis on climbing dominance hierarchies isn’t necessarily going to lead to good outcomes, the dominant narrative of Jordan’s teachings is more along the lines of a standard, traditional, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of individually-aimed inspirational message.  (And yes, I know that “clean your room” is a metaphor and not strictly speaking about merely having a clean room…..although it’s also not a metaphor the way Jordan often talks about it…in either case, I stand by my reasoning here.)

I have zero concern about the people who get inspired by this and go on to do good things in their lives and the world as a result. I think that’s fantastic and am excited for the people whose lives have been positively changed. Jordan has a knack for reaching wide audiences and engaging people passionately in a way that very few people can (and very, very few academics, it would seem). I have taken pains repeatedly to point out that I acknowledge the good, for many people, that has seemed to come from the way Jordan has reached them.

What I am seriously concerned about, and why I think some of his colleagues in academic circles (e.g., Paul Thagard, Bernie Schiff) have written articles explaining their concern, is because as I said earlier, the unskillful, unwise application of these ideas, expressed in such inflexible terms as they are, will lead many more people to be worse off than they were before, and not only worse off, but even more self-hating, more invisible, more blamed-by-others-and-themselves for their misfortunes, and more likely to succumb to a deepening spiral of exactly the “chaos” Jordan is trying to inoculate us against. (I unpack these negative consequences in greater depth in Part 3: The Bucko Mistake, Part 4: Collective Assholeification, and Part 5:  The Perfect House Problem.)

Jordan talks about people taking responsibility for their lives, aiming for their highest ideals, fixing their gaze upon a star or whatever, and then going all Nike and shit, and Doing It!  Pour yourself into the cause that reflects your Highest Ideals and best self, and Good Things Will Follow.

I’m super-cool with all that, up to a point. I teach it myself, mostly through the lenses of self determination theory and humanistic and existential approaches to meaning. But drastically underrepresented to the point of being almost invisible in this discussion, is the compassion and caring and connection to others that make “the good” actually meaningful to a person and not just an abstract idea. A person’s “highest ideals”, unless they are rooted in the lived experience of their genuine caring for others, are either likely to insufficiently motivate the person, thus reinforcing long-term failure and lack of success, OR to strengthen the person’s motivation at the expense of the other sources of identity (such as relationships, spirituality perhaps), that would help the person become far more holistically functional, psychologically healthy and “well” over the long-term.

In short, compassion (and ‘self-compassion’, which is really just part of ‘compassion’ anyway), should be the nucleus, the seed of the person’s “highest ideals”, in the first place. It’s better to care about, feel deeply about, be moved by suffering and act to reduce it, than to emotionally distance yourself from it, keep your nose to the grindstone, and allow ‘evil’ to go unchallenged. It’s better to act through a lens of predominantly caring about others, than to pursue your own self-based goals without regard to the consequences. Greed is not good, despite the passionately-defended faith of much of modern economics that assumes otherwise. The argument that individuals striving for success produces a better world for all, a kind of moral invisible hand that propels humans ever-upwards, is just not true (see Part 6: The myth of “the myth of white/male privilege”).

But excessive compassion means that people WON’T take responsibility for their lives, right? Like all those cry-baby social justice warriors, right?

No. This is not right, at least not in the way that it gets presented in most of Jordan’s work. We’ll address this fully in Part 3: The Bucko Mistake.

In short, It all depends on what you mean by “excessive compassion.” Where do you draw the line between helping people so that they are appropriately scaffolded to stay in the “zone of proximal development”, and making things too easy for people so that you take away their autonomy and reinforce complacency and helplessness? Jordan seems to draw a pretty damn strict line; don’t do a single thing for your children that they can do for themselves; don’t tolerate behaviour in your children that you don’t like. When the person is struggling to do something for themselves, don’t you dare do it for them! Helping produces weak snowflakes!! (And then these people get all resentful of others’ success, so they run around crying about being victims and arguing for socialism so they can get free handouts…)

I think Jordan’s “line” is drawn way too far to one side; this is the Foolishness-as-Imbalance argument I have been pursuing all along. Sure, it is bad to smother a child so that they feel helpless and can’t do anything for themselves. We’ve all heard the phrases “momma’s boy”, “still tied to the apron strings”, just like we’ve heard about “the nanny state” and “welfare queens”. (Interesting, isn’t it, how common it is to use female-related words to create derogatory labels for people who are apparently weak and dependent….but I digress….)

We all, I’m sure, have some kind of stereotypic image in our minds of the classic “Beta-male,” the sad sack who we expect to be slinking and moping around the bottom echelons of the Dominance hierarchies, taking out their resentment through Freudian displacement types of processes, Kings of Turd Mountain who subjugate any poor schmuck who is even less powerful (like their kids, their partner if they’re lucky enough to have one, their online dates, etc…) in order to feel good about themselves.

I would draw the line dividing functional from excessive much closer to the other side, in the territory that would fall under “excessive compassion” by Jordan’s reasoning, but that I think is more like “appropriately balanced compassion and challenge”, even though that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well….

I believe the arguments about “excessive compassion” need to be turned on their heads. I do not think that they are relevant or accurate for the challenges of our times and to the reality of many, probably most, people’s lives. “Excessive compassion” is hardly the bogey-man destroying our children and turning them into cry-babies who won’t take responsibility for their lives. In fact, the real culprit is precisely the opposite, an overwhelming emphasis on Personal Success, reinforcing a hyper-individualism that finds it pretty easy to ignore the suffering masses when you’re shopping for new clothes, redecorating your home, and enjoying the trappings as you ascend the dominance hierarchy.

I think it is practically sinful, Biblically speaking, to claim that excessive compassion is the devious force making the world the suspicious, fear-ridden, war-mongering, biosphere-slaughtering, comments-section-screaming place that it is right now. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about this sort of thing in the Sermon on the Mount? Blessed are the meek, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the poor of spirit, those who mourn? Isn’t a “cry-baby” someone who mourns? Weren’t they supposed to be comforted, not ridiculed or insulted, according to Jesus? Isn’t Jordan super-chummy with Jesus and holds up the teachings of the Bible as having archetypal messages to teach us? Isn’t showing compassion for others one of the fundamental teachings of the Bible, exemplified by the very existence of Jesus Himself, the lamb of God sent to die for our sins?

Heck, Jesus is such a pushover, all we have to do is actually believe in Him, and ask for forgiveness and stuff, and we can even have been child-murdering genocide-causing Terrible People in our lives, and He’ll STILL forgive us and let us into heaven! Ha, I guess that was pretty dumb eh? Way to go, Jesus, being too soft on us, turning us all into a bunch of wimps who won’t take responsibility for ourselves.

Jordan paints a picture of the Compassion Warriors as being deceitful, “virtue signallers,” hiding their resentment and desire for power and revenge behind a smokescreen of compassion for the downtrodden, and he makes no bones about his abhorrence for these apparently terrible people.  Frankly (although of course there are exceptions), I think this is absurd practically beyond belief.  Characterizing the people who fight for social justice in the name of compassion, in dismissive or derogatory ways, as SJWs, snowflakes, cry-babies, etc., is so outrageously wrong that, like Jordan describes about Post-modern NeoMarxists, it would be hard not to conclude that the person was deeply uninformed, or malevolently motivated.  (Granted, I think neither of these things about Jordan himself, as I have said.  He is extremely well informed and benevolently motivated, but I think he has blind spots that have led him down a very dark path of fallacious reasoning.)

(from https://me.me/i/1300s-im-dying-of-black-plague-1800s-im-and-workin-13352870)

Compassion and the world today

When I look at today’s kids, I don’t see cry-babies. I see kids growing up in a world where everything is changing so fast their parents are ‘out of touch’ and the old ways seem like a joke. Traditional systems of meaning have lost their lustre in a globalized world, and with their smart phones, even many 10 year olds know that the Bastion of Western Freedom and Democracy (at least, self-proclaimed), is ruled by a President that the rest of the world loathes and suspects to be mentally ill and dangerously unbalanced, advocates grabbing women by the pussy, makes fun of a war hero with brain cancer, calls his opponents insulting names like a schoolyard bully, breaks every rule in the books it would seem, and still, somehow has rabid support from a seemingly unshakeable chunk of the population. To grow up knowing that The Bullies are in charge, is scary and disheartening, to say the least.

Kids know that the world is polluted beyond imagining, that the oceans are choking on plastic, that “nature” is disappearing and most of the beautiful places that once existed, won’t by the time they are old enough to go backpacking around the world and see its treasures. They know that species are being exterminated at horrendous speed, that the climate is changing, the world is bristling with weapons and while they are told to “share” and “use your words,” the adult world does precisely the opposite of this, all the time. They know this at the same age I was still listening to Looney Tunes and imagining I could fly.


My son, lover of manatees, has lived his whole tender childhood with the heartbreak that his beloved gentle giants, along with most of the Wild World that children love so much, face the spectre of extinction in his lifetime. Kids today are not partaking in the grand blossoming of Life that childhood picture books make the world out to be. Instead, they are witnessing the Final Slaughter before the Endless Silence, unless we figure out really bloody fast how to reverse the ecological and social collapses that are on the brink of accelerating out of control.

Is a kid like this, shouldering such knowledge from the tenderest of ages, a cry-baby if they struggle and fight their damnedest to hang onto their compassion and hope? Or are they a bloody hero? Should kids receive the predominant message, so consistent with Western individualism and faith in capitalism, that Greed is Good, that the world is getting better and better, Stephen Pinker-style? (Note: I plan to refute Stephen Pinker’s arguments about progress in a later essay after this JBP stuff is over, so if you’re interested, stay tuned….) Should kids be exhorted to merely focus on their own personal development, motivating themselves to be successful, and just trusting the adult world to take care of things? After all, as Jordan repeatedly points out in his teachings, kids don’t know a bloody thing, relative to adults. They have so little life experience that they shouldn’t concern themselves with trying to fix the world; just get their own selves sorted out and everything will be fine….right? Be strong and take responsibility for yourself; don’t wail about how “the system” has treated you unfairly…

What about poor kids who grow up with violence and shitty schools, with suspicious teachers and police officers who always give them a second look, who see their friends get harrassed and arrested? What about kids who grow up knowing that the path to success would be a whole lot straighter and easier if their skin was a different colour, their gender-identification was more traditionally normal, or they lived on the other side of the tracks? Are these kids (and the adults they become) cry-babies because they acknowledge the structural factors working against them?

Are the so-called “social justice warriors” who dedicate their lives to bearing witness to the unbearable, unending agony in the world, who burn themselves out working to shine their tiny light into the darkness and help whoever they can, all the while their news feeds are filled with pictures of dead turtles and grieving whales and albatrosses with plastic-filled stomachs and indigenous people being shot at by the police and removed from their homes by para-military squads in order to make way for resource companies owned by the wealthiest people in the world, cry-babies?

Do you have any idea what it is like to stare, day after day, into the killing fields of genocides, the torture chambers of the military-industrial complex, the factory farms of tortured billions, yes billions, of sentient animals? To watch or read the stories of the soldiers who rape villages and turn babies into targets to be shot and stabbed for their amusement? To feel in your own heart the Dying of the World, as species after species teeters ever-closer to the brink?

I’ve been learning about ecological devastation and social breakdown in earnest for almost three decades. And it’s bloody exhausting. The more you know, the more you understand what is at stake, and how quickly we are losing it all. Is the person who does this a “snowflake” when they get upset at those who defend The System and those who argue for “traditional values?”

This is the lived-reality of so many of the so-called “social justice warriors” that Jordan rails against.  Go read Naomi Klein (Fences and Windows; The Shock Doctrine; and This Changes Everything), and I think you will have a radically different view of “activists” than the derogatory image Jordan frequently paints of what he calls “the radical Left.”  

I think it is “morally imbalanced” to the point of being downright shameful to contribute so knowingly to a narrative that derogates such people, instead of working valiantly to shift the narrative to honour them. Instead of snowflakes, SJWs and cry-babies, people who fight for social justice and environmental protection could, and should, be considered Warriors of Compassion, Protectors of the land and water and air, Voices for the voiceless, Guardians of the future, Defenders of the vulnerable, and an inspiration to us all. Especially in today’s world, where global crises are mounting day by day and year by year, those who are strong enough to maintain their compassion, to keep themselves open to trust and acceptance of “the other” as our world destabilizes — they are the true Paladins, the heroes we should be applauding and emulating, the videos we should be making ‘viral’.

Of course, there are examples of so-called SJWs doing some pretty horrible things. For example, there’s the well known example of the women caught with a garrotte at one of Jordan’s public events, the examples of activists drowning out the speech of those they disagree with, of being intolerant of opposing ideas. I disagree with such tactics in general, just like I agree with my current government’s tactics to use mob-tactics to drown out journalists who would question politicians, corporations who use lawyers to effectively silence their less-well-funded-detractors, and both governments and corporations (is there a difference anymore?) who use the police and prison complex to control and intimidate those who would resist what they see as grave injustices being perpetrated on the people and the world at large. I disagree with any activities that limit the ability for people to express their truths, freely and without concern for their safety or freedom, but I also recognize that in any situation where power imbalances are vast, those at the bottom sometimes have no choice but to resort to “extreme” measures in order to counteract the silencing of their voices. Free speech is a sacred treasure we have to all fight to protect, but in addition to meaning that people should be able to say what they want, it’s also the case that voices that are given so much power they can effectively “shout out” other voices, need to be restrained. This is a complicated issue and needs to be talked about case, by case rather than further elaborated here.

The point is, there are certainly examples of activist tactics that I personally think are wrong and counterproductive (although the activists probably have a different view of the ethics of their actions). But these examples, even if you accept them, do not add weight to Jordan’s arguments about SJWs being essentially a bunch of poorly-adjusted people who are lashing out at the world through resentment instead of acknowledging that they are responsible for their own shitty lives.

No, what these examples point out is that “social justice warriors” are flawed humans too, who make mistakes, get emotional, and who might be wrong in some important ways and in need of having their beliefs challenged. And they point out that every barrel of apples has some bad ones; the activist community has some pretty unstable, even violent elements in their midst, for sure, but this is in no way justification for depicting the whole class of “SJWs” as Jordan does.

Also, it is questionable in many cases to even argue that “extreme” activist tactics are necessarily wrong. After all, even violence has its place in the most extreme of situations, as I discussed earlier. If you believe that the forces you are fighting, such as corporate powers who are displacing people from their homes, poisoning the land, water and air, and potentially destroying human civilization through ecological collapse and the large-scale unintentional terra-forming of Planet Earth into a place not compatible with human life, then…..well….maybe seemingly extreme tactics actually are defensible in some circumstances? In any case, it’s not as cut-and-dried as Jordan makes it out to be, even with the cherry-picked examples of so-called radical Lefitsts and SJWs behaving in ways that seem pretty extreme.

Martin Luther was viewed as extreme by the conservative powers-that-be. So was Martin Luther King. So is David Suzuki. So were the Famous Five. So was Rosa Parks. So is Black Lives Matter. So is Colin Kaepernick. So was Ghandi. So was JESUS, for god’s sake….So is everybody who is fighting against what they perceive to be an oppressor. It’s not always clear who really are the “extremists” and who are the Paladins.

When I look out into the world, I hardly see an excess of compassion. I see an excess of pressure to succeed, to be hip and sexy and clever and with-it, to be thin, toned, athletic, to be “positive,” to climb the corporate ladder, to have Instagram-worthy meals, perfect nails and loads of friends-having-great-times-together.

I see kids being hyper-competitively encouraged from day 1 by helicopter parents who suffocate the kids with structure and corrective feedback and rubber safety bumpers at every turn, while paralyzing them through lack of genuine self-awareness and the ability to listen to those “intrinsic interests” that whisper inside you regardless of how mis-calibrated your environment is to your own shining brilliance.

I see other kids growing up invisible, either in the shadow of their more ‘impressive’ siblings who get all the glory, or in the shadow of their parents’ own narcissistic lives that are too full of their own dysfunctional relationships and personal problems to open any space for the child’s own self-expression and need for Love.

I see kids growing up in pressure-cooker environments that force them prematurely to strive to be more, more, more, while not allowing them to soak in the wonder and magic of the world that could fill their hearts with passion and love and the feeling of Connection that ultimately gives one a sense of meaning and purpose.

I see people making the tiniest misstatements online, and getting crucified for it by the flood of keyboard warriors honing the sharp point of their own over-polished-but-still-brittle Egos in the vain hope that someday they’ll get to stab something real and feel like a Hero.

I see the United States of America, the so-called bastion of freedom and liberty, with close to 100% of its entire history involving active war, and now, at the very apex of its power, huge segments of their population live in fear, trying to close borders and arm everyone to the teeth, protecting themselves from the evil Others out there waiting to rape their children, murder their families, and of course, steal their jobs. Even if Stephen Pinker was right, and the world is getting generally more civil over time, it is indisputable that there’s a hell of a lot of nastiness left out there, and it sure doesn’t come from all of us being golly-gee-Wally too kind and soft on each other.

I think excessive individualism mixed with regressive tribalism, is at the root of the problems we face, both in our personal lives all the way up to the global scale. It’s not that there is too much compassion, too many resources going into the helping the “oppressed”, but too little. There is too much competition, not too much helping. There is too much power concentrated in the hands of too few, and NOT BECAUSE those few deserve the power in the sense that Jordan talks about (see Part 6: The myth of “the myth of white/male privilege”). There is far too much motivation for those who are in the right circles, to extend and protect that Power imbalance with every ounce of will and ingenuity they have. There is too much money going into the hands of the “military-industrial” complex, and far too little going into funding the artists and teachers and wisdom leaders and cultural creatives who could actually catalyze the evolution of humankind into a better state of Being.

And what is left of the world’s vast wealth for the masses? “Let them eat cake.” Or, if you’re in Ontario where Jordan and I live, it’s “let them eat steak and drink cheap beer.”

I think we have dedicated far too many resources to coupling Dominance Hierarchies of societal power, with structures at many levels of scale (from personality all the way up through societal mores to the level of institutional practice) that are fundamentally antithetical to the collective good. Divided we fall, indeed, and the philosophy of Excessive Individualism that I see in Jordan’s work is one of the most divisive ideas out there.

I have encountered this same Excessive Individualism in corporate success seminars I have attended, motivational speeches I have watched, and “be your best self” types of books and videos I have consumed. I remember most vividly attending a multi-level marketing seminar, in which the crowd of several hundred wanna-be millionaires were led in ecstatic chants of “Fire it up!” that got everyone aroused and feeling like they can conquer the world.

Fire it up. Conquer the world. Indeed. That is precisely the wrong thing we need to emphasize right now.

In conclusion, the narrative that I see building up around Jordan is unwise and morally problematic, in that it has misled people in ways that are likely to increase suffering overall. While compassion CAN BE a vice (which of course is a problem that shouldn’t be ignored either!), it is not one in the vast majority of relevant circumstances. Rather than something to deride and warn us against, compassion should be proudly held up as one of our Core Values, and we should pour our resources into figuring out how to broad-scale compassion and interweave teachings of compassion and wisdom back into our cultural practices, education, and child-raising norms.

Rather than furthering an individualistic narrative that tells the downtrodden to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we need to help people, to experience forgiveness and acceptance, and to learn to trust.  Then, to build the personal habits that make them stronger, to build the resilient communities that can face the chaos of the present and the unimaginable tidal wave of destruction that is coming in the near future. We need to further narratives that are not about dividing people into warring ideologies, but are about moving out of the darkness of the narrow confines of historical tribalistic identifications and into the light of our shared global reality, so that we can genuinely work together for the greater good.

Or we aren’t going to make it. While national governments funnel money into ever-greater weapons of war, and mass shootings and terrorism hit the news nearly every day, practically the last thing we need is more rigid, sort-yourself-out calls for individualistic “personal responsibility”. We don’t need people scrambling for their own personal success anymore, as much as we need people figuring out how to work together, collectively, to produce the society that will be resilient in the face of what’s coming.

We need less trumpeting of the virtues of individualism, and instead, more love and compassion.

Please leave a comment below and let me know what you think! :)

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