49) Jordan Peterson: Part 4: The problem of Collective Assholeification

What is an asshole?

….I should clarify the question…..I don’t mean it literally.  Just in case you didn’t realize that.  😉  I mean….it would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it, if someone were to answer my question with a literal answer?

“An asshole is the hole in your butt out of which you expel feces.  And it has some other uses too, for some people.”

If someone gave that answer, you’d be like, “No man, that’s not what I’m asking!  Sheesh!  What is wrong with you!?  You some kind of asshole or something?  I meant “asshole” metaphorically!!”

If the person then insisted that you can’t use that term metaphorically, because who knows what you mean, you should be more precise with your language, you should say what you mean and not expect that people will somehow magically be able to know the full metaphoric significance of the nebulous terms that you use, that it is irresponsible of you to talk in ways that are so easily misleading and instead of being vague and spineless, you should first figure out exactly what you are trying to say so you can say it right the first time and ……..

I imagine you’d come to the conclusion, “This person is an asshole!”

In any case, it seems we don’t have to actually define “asshole” in order to reach a pretty good shared understanding, do we?

Language is not a precise computer-like objective communication tool.  Language is a relationship; communication is a relational dialogue, a shared understanding, almost like a set of agreements or a game that makes sense because people are all playing by the same rules.  Language is inherently fuzzy and slippery (like….oh forget it….).  😉

Through dialogue, we learn to figure out what each other means, to develop shared frameworks for understanding the world; we hash out disagreements, persuade and debate and argue; plus, we seek agreement and validation and form alliances with people who share our views.  That’s what culture is, in large part.

And THAT is the point of this whole “collective assholeification” essay.  I believe that Jordan’s teachings are, on balance, going to interfere with establishing good dialogue in society.  And dialogue is everything.  Without it, we are basically doomed to war, sooner or later, and probably sooner.  With dialogue, particularly when it connects different groups, we have a chance of Humanity-at-large “sorting itself out.”  But the whole Bucko-lobster approach (while helpful in some ways, as I keep carefully noting), disrupts dialogue, builds walls between people and reinforces dysfunctional ways of seeing and relating to each other.  It leads to a similar outcome to the “identity politics” that Jordan disagrees with so vehemently.  And that’s a big problem.

Now, you might point to the many public talks that Jordan gives, the debates and discussions he’s been part of in the media or as part of the “intellectual dark web”.  Yes, there is zero doubt that Jordan is participating in societal dialogue, rather than sitting in his basement playing video games.  In this sense, yes, he is having a positive contribution to dialogue.  But it is also possible that he is, simultaneously (and unintentionally!), having a negative impact on dialogue, and this is what I would like us to consider here. 

Let’s be clear about this, lest it be misinterpreted — I am NOT saying that Jordan is making people into assholes, that Jordan is an asshole, or that people who like what he says are assholes.  I AM saying that there are certain asshole-ish traits that cluster together reasonably well, such as blaming people for their problems, accepting less responsibility for the way one might harm others, an intolerance of ambiguity or non-dichotomous thinking.  I think of people who are aggressive…..poor listeners….lacking compassion….taking advantage of people…..making fun of people…..excluding people….”mean girls”….bullies.  People who intimidate intentionally, who use people’s vulnerabilities against them.  I think of gas-lighting.  People who live in the midst of assholes know what it feels like to always be “walking on eggshells”.  I think of narcissism and self-centredness, closedmindedness and stubborn insistence on being right.  I think of voices raised in angry disagreement; he who shouts loudest, wins.  But I also think of cold cruelty, people twisting words against you, a stifling of emotions into a cool, controlled facade.  There are different sub-species of assholes, some boisterous and obnoxious, others weaselly and manipulative.  Maybe some other types too, but I think you get the general idea.

Assholes tend to think simplistically.  Not about all things, of course; when it comes to something they like or know a lot about, they will be happy to argue the nth nuance of the nth detail until the cows come home.  But about anything else, nope, it’s black and white, right and wrong, and they’re right and you’re wrong, so shut up.  They have a tendency to steer conversations into their fav-talking-points so they can amaze and astound people with their superior knowledge, but they also have a tendency to impose their opinions even into conversations where they really don’t know much about the topic at all, or perhaps they have a smidgeon or two of knowledge and so, they’re “experts”.  My mom always said that you have two ears and one mouth for a reason — assholes seem to have forgotten, or rejected, that bit of wisdom.   

Need for Structure and the Fundamental Attribution Error

One of the big problems that assholes tend to inflict on us, comes from the interaction of two key characteristics:  the need for structure, and the tendency to attribute people’s behaviour to their personalities.

By “need for structure”, I mean the term a bit loosely, in the sense of a cluster of traits involving a preference for clarity, simplicity, predictability, closure.  A dislike of loose ends, ambiguity, uncertainty.  A devaluation of messiness, disorder, surprise.  It’s not that Need for Structure tendencies, all by themselves, make a person an asshole, don’t get me wrong.  I know many lovely people who are well-organized and tidy, and thank god for those people or we’d all be living in caves probably, and dirty caves at that!  But on the other hand, an EXCESSIVE need for Order…..kind of sucks, you know?  Prisons are orderly.  Classrooms with desks lined in rows, all facing front.  The planet of Camazotz where IT dwelt, in Madeleine L’engle’s masterpiece — A Wrinkle in Time.  Nazi Germany was pretty darn orderly.  Hyper-strict parents.  Obedience to authority.  Clearly, “need for structure” can be taken too far.  It makes me wonder — how much “order” do we really want to be striving for in the world at this point?  Maybe we don’t need so many Rules; maybe we need something messier, more intuitive and dynamic, to use as guidance in the coming times of instability we are facing (see Part 7:  Psychology at the Ending of the World).

It’s when you combine this need for structure with a second characteristic that things get real nasty.  Psychologists use the term “fundamental attribution error” to describe the tendency to over-explain behaviour in terms of personal characteristics.  Like, you see a person rushing down the street cutting people off, and you assume, “he’s a jerk!”, rather than considering he might be in a crisis, late for an interview, sick and running for a bathroom, or have some other very good reason for his behaviour.  Or you see a person marching in the street to protest injustices in society and you assume that this reveals something about their personality, rather than assuming that, you know, maybe there are injustices in society that they have some personal knowledge of?  The fundamental attribution error is all about forgetting, in the moment, that there are many, often situational, reasons for any individual’s behaviour, and instead assuming it’s because the person “is just that sort of person”.  …..if you think about this for a second, it’s clear how this connects to empathy and compassion for people in difficult circumstances….

When you combine high Need for Structure with the tendency to over-attribute behaviour to the individual, then you have a truly toxic combination — someone who operates under the simplistic framework that, basically, The Individual is the god-like determiner of their own fate, that Freedom of Choice is supremely powerful; and you have a person who is simply uninterested (or unwilling?) in considering the MANY FACTORS that are necessary for explaining human behaviour.

Psychologists, like Jordan, who emphasize personality traits and the dispositional aspects of character, nevertheless know that a full understanding of human psychology requires integrating “the person” with “the situation.”  Even the people who take the strictest biological approaches, know that “the situation” is important for determining how biological factors (e.g., genes) end up expressing themselves.    

Our sciences are very, very, very clear that “the individual” is the nexus point of many factors.  Putting forth a narrative that over-emphasizes the individual and under-emphasizes (indeed, casts suspicion on) the collective nature of our being and the importance of situational determinants of behaviour, is irresponsible in the extreme (and scientifically absurd).  It will amplify the voices that are the most judging and blaming, and marginalize and silence the voices that are the most concerned about improving our collective circumstances.  This is why I think Jordan’s emphasis — the Bucko-approach — is not conducive to a healthy, inclusive, supportive societal dialogue.  What it IS conducive to, perhaps, is a success-promoting, individualistic mentality that, instead of being liberating in general, MIGHT BE liberating to the least-vulnerable, but is likely stigmatizing and disempowering to the vulnerable.

If you overwhelmingly attribute people’s problems to their own failings while disregarding the situational forces in their lives; if you overwhelmingly emphasize that “going easy” on people just makes them into fragile snowflake wimps; if you overwhelmingly derogate those who are apparently compassionate as being manipulative power-seekers, then I think you are contributing to the world becoming more assholeish.  I don’t think we as a society need any more help blaming people for their problems and ignoring structural, collective level factors and solutions.  Instead, the opposite!  We need to help each other improve our situations and take collective action to improve society.

And although people do, ultimately, need to take responsibility for themselves, it’s also true that people who have taken a beating from life, so to speak, can use a helping hand.  This is so elementary that again, I can’t believe one needs to make this argument.  Like, Jordan’s all into the Bible.  …..so, ummm….The Good Samaritan?  When a person is bleeding on the side of the road, you don’t turn away from them saying, “well, they should have taken responsibility for themselves!” or “well, if I help them, they’ll just become weak and dependent; learn from your mistakes and toughen up, snowflake!”  No, you help them.  It’s not more complicated than that, unless one (defensively?) makes it so.

You also don’t accuse the Good Samaritan of being a Nietzschean “tarantula”.  Not all Helpers are running around projecting their resentment and unaddressed power needs onto the world….   

Actually, come to think of it, wasn’t Jesus basically a socialist?  ….I mean, he sure was generous with sharing the loaves and fishes….didn’t seem to think that money was all that great for society or that meritocracies were all that centrally necessary………seemed pretty cool with giving people excessive rewards (e.g., eternal life in Paradise) for doing almost nothing (“for whosoever believeth in me should not perish, but have everlasting life”)……Jesus seemed to believe that helping out those who were harmed by the power structures of society was a good idea AND that taking direct, civilly-disobedient action against those power structures was the right thing to do!  Heck, Jesus was a revolutionary!  He wasn’t scared to challenge the power hierarchy of the day.  Jesus was super-bad-ass, when it comes right down to it.  Ain’t no way he’d be saying, “yeah, just submit to oppressive structures in society and blame the impoverished and down-trodden for their problems….”  No way; that is clearly not WJWD!  But also, Jesus was super-caring and loving.  He was probably pretty high in Agreeableness, one might guess.  I mean, he valued others so much he actually DIED for them; that’s some serious “Rescuer-complex”.    Omg….Was Jesus a tarantula?  😉

Now, if “the person bleeding on the side of the road” is instead a whole group of people who are systemically disadvantaged to a serious degree, then …well, exactly the same as above.  You help them.  And that also means working to change the system that is collectively harming them.   (NOTE:  Jordan doesn’t seem to believe that society generally involves “oppression” in the way most people who talk about oppression seem to believe that it does; but we’ll save that for Part 6: The myth of “the myth of white/male privilege”).

Jordan’s Shadow?

It is around this point that I get genuinely puzzled, and frankly disturbed, by Jordan’s thinking.  He’s a scientist, but he is propagating an understanding of the individual that is not only two decades or more out of date in terms of our cutting-edge psycho-biological sciences, but doesn’t even reflect the nuanced understanding of personality that Jordan’s own field has been working out for the last century!  This is something I just don’t understand; why would someone so educated in these exact sciences nevertheless overwhelmingly emphasize an old-fashioned vision of individualism, instead of acknowledging and teaching others about the relational, interdependent nature of consciousness?  It’s weird…..it’s almost like Jordan is actively resisting “interdependence”.  Why might that be?

I dunno…..Jordan is pretty down with Jung though.  Jung would probably suggest that it revealed some unresolved Shadow material……I wonder what Shadow material would result in a person emphasizing power and dominance, distrusting the collective, and seeing Helpers as manipulative tarantulas?

Well anyway….regardless of your specific theory, it seems like we might need to turn the whole Bucko-narrative on its head.  Maybe we should consider that it might just be a defensive projection??



That’s worth thinking about for awhile.


(As an aside:  This is where I start wondering, against my initial faith in Jordan, if he is merely being an effective marketer.  I don’t believe this, although I can’t help but wonder sometimes; and in some ways it would be the more charitable interpretation.  It WOULD be a good marketing decision, like say if you wanted to get famous, write a book, etc.  After all, the “average person” in North America believes mightily in the individual, and the dominant narrative in our society is undoubtedly the free will, you-are-responsible-for-yourself kind of narrative.  Particularly among the political right, Protestant Christians (i.e., the whole Protestant work ethic and religiously-meritocratic framework), and those more traditionally masculine.  “Those people” are a pretty big chunk of the North American population.  If you wrote a book that essentially validated their worldview, it’d probably be a best-seller!

I hope that Jordan isn’t this Machiavellian.  I never would have thought so.  But when he gleefully chortled to Joe Rogan that he had figured out how to “monetize social justice warriors”, I have to admit, my initial good faith was cast into some doubt.)


Questions:  An exercise for people probably not super-high in need for structure

Some interesting questions come to mind:   

I wonder if there is any connection between having a high need for structure, and insisting on strict gender categories?  What about preference for social hierarchies and social dominance orientation?  What about authoritarian tendencies?  What about prejudice and strong ingroup-outgroup differentiating tendencies?  I wonder how all these things connect to each other?  I wonder if there’s any research on these questions?  😉

I wonder if certainty-seeking is, overall, a good thing for society?  I wonder if it’s good for things like mental health…..or recovering from trauma…..or fixing problems like poverty or the global extinction crisis humans are causing or the ongoing erasure of indigenous cultures under the bulldozer of global corporatization and the ‘military-industrial complex’ that has hijacked the systems of power for at least the last half-century, making all of us slaves to an excessively hierarchically-structured system that is rapidly transferring most of the world’s wealth, property and resources into the hands of the tiniest few, leaving the vast masses of humanity to figure out how to ‘share’ an ever-dwindling puddle of remaining natural capital before the corporate pipeline sucks it dry?

I wonder if we would be better off with less certainty and efficiency, but more humility and wonder?

I wonder if narratives that promote traditional values, and dichotomous ways of thinking, are helpful in this day and age?

I wonder if the challenges of living in a pluralistic, globalized world are best met through holding onto some vision of “the ways things used to be”?  Do we need to MOGA (make ourselves great again)?

I wonder if Archie Bunker is the right model for the 21st century Nietzschean Ubermensch who needs to emerge out of the currently-struggling mess that is humanity in its adolescent throes of identity consolidation?  Or is Meathead the right model?  Or maybe there is a “middle way”, some hybrid, in between a lobster and a loser, in between the Atlas muscle-man and the weakling with a face full of sand?

I wonder if humanity really is so simplistic as a species that our developmental options are relegated to choosing between straight-shouldered winners and hunched-over losers?

I wonder if we can hang onto our nascent appreciation for the beauty, wisdom and enrichment of consciousness that comes from a diverse and culturally rich humankind, or if fear of the Other will overtake us and we’ll retreat to our more culturally homogeneous ingroups?

I wonder if we can have more faith in people, and recognize that if we help them, they will grow and achieve even more, not become complacent and dependent free-riders?

I wonder if we can remember that “the Other” is just like us, only in a different situation?


So, THIS is the more subtle problem with telling Bucko to sort himself out — it propagates a set of narratives in society that are not only factually wrong, but also tilt society towards Collective Assholeification.

And that is that.

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