56) Jordan Peterson — a moment for reflection

I found out the other day that Jordan recently entered a rehabilitation program for help with addiction to an anti-anxiety medication.  Very briefly, I want to express my thoughts on this, as some people have asked me to do.

My predominant reaction is that I’m genuinely sorrowful that he is going through all this. Holy shit man, he has gone through the ringer recently.  I understand he and his family have been through a terrible time of illnesses and stress, and this is not easy for anyone to get through. In some ways, it might even be more difficult for someone who people look up to as a self-help guru-type, because they may be afraid to reach out for help and feel that some people will see their struggle as hypocritical.  The fact that Jordan turned to (i.e., was prescribed and took) anti-anxiety medication is, if anything, commendable!  What is wrong with seeking help for mental health struggles due to horrible life stresses? 

Furthermore, the fact that he has struggled with addiction-related withdrawal as a result of this, should be met with compassion  and understanding.  The drug he was prescribed comes with a hefty withdrawal struggle, which can last in some degree of severity for up to a couple of years.  To rise to the challenge of this struggle, Jordan sought professional help, even knowing that he would be critiqued by some, at least, who would see his ’struggle with addiction’ as antithetical to his celebrity status as an advice-giver who tells people not to be “weak” and who has recorded very popular YouTube tutorials advising people to deal with addiction by seeking deeper meaning.  Never one to shy from a challenge, Jordan took the courageous step of dealing with addiction by plugging himself into the best resources and help that he could, critics be damned.  Good for him.  Seriously.  That’s walking his talk.  

Now, as Jordan moves forward and continues to advise people on how to live, I do wonder if he will, when he is ready, be willing to add some much-needed nuance to his views on things like “weakness”, personal motivation, stress, and ‘sorting yourself out.’  There are three ways in which I think this is necessary, and would call him out on:  (In truth, these three ways are all the same point, but I hope that spelling them out like this makes that point more easily appreciated in its full complexity).

— First, better acknowledgement that “external” life stresses —> “failure” and “weakness” whereas the opposite, let’s call them “life resources” —> success and the “strengths” that bring success. 

Jordan very, very frequently over-attributes people’s outcomes to their CHOICES, as though those choices are freely made (see also, Part 6 on the Myth of “The Myth of White/Male privilege), and frames “failure” as being the result of character flaws (e.g., low IQ, low conscientiousness, low effort, poorly sorted out values and simply “being weak”), whereas “success” is the result of character strength (e.g., high degrees of all those things, plus the Nietzschean strength that comes from fixing your gaze upon a star, so to speak, and having the sufficient “why” to bear any “how”). 

Instead of this overly thin and frankly wrong narrative which amounts to an ongoing Fundamental Attribution Error at the heart of so much of Jordan’s teachings, perhaps his recent experiences will lead him to better recognize and express the structural limitations/challenges that people face, and the cumulative impact of convergent life stresses that people experience as a result. 

— Second, better acknowledge that “meaning” is NOT necessarily sufficient to lead to the kind of striving that begets success, and is the antidote to addiction. 

People can have all the personal meaning in the world, can engage in “self-authoring” exercises, can lift their gaze up and fix it upon a star, and all that cool, intrinsically-motivating stuff that Jordan has become famous, in part, for telling people to do, and yet, still not succeed, still “fail”, still get overwhelmed by the stress of it all. 

In fact, greater “meaning” can, in some cases, have the complete opposite effect, leading to dissociation due to a biology rewired by sufficient trauma.  (E.g., google “ecological grief” and compare it to “PTSD”).  In particular, I think one of Jordan’s biggest blind spots as a clinical psychologist, is trauma, both its short-term effects in derailing a person’s life, AND its long-term effects, in terms of undermining a person’s entire ‘character development’ and short-circuiting their nervous system’s capacity for ‘sorting itself out.’ 

In short, at the risk of sounding judgemental, Jordan might take these personal struggles as life lessons. He teaches people to not succumb to a Peter Pan-like philosophy and accept responsibility for themselves. But he has replaced this with another Peter Pan-like philosophy of the magical powers of the individual’s ability to take responsibility for themselves and, metaphorically speaking, learn to fly, regardless of the objective forces of ‘external reality’ pulling them down. This is a moment when, I think, Jordan could update his understanding of the long-term reality of trauma, rather than over-blaming individuals for their problems.

— Third, a more honest treatment of the STRUCTURAL contributions to points 1 and 2. 

Jordan’s teachings fit very well within the historically dominant (in this society), individualistic, masculine-dominant, hierarchy-promoting, Western-colonial, Christian-based narrative. It is no surprise that these teachings are well-received by people who themselves align with those same narratives.  But, this viewpoint is simply not accurate, as MANY disciplines of study and other cultural frameworks have long held.  It is like Jordan is excellent at articulating the “yang” of personal development, but practically blind to the “yin”. 

Instead of articulating a balanced view (as I argued in several previous essays), Jordan derides the systemic insights of “feminism,” the structural awareness of “Marxism” and the bleeding-heart compassion of those who are concerned with social justice, as though proponents of such ideas are naive idiots, or worse, resentment-filled ideologues, both of whom in conjunction seek to change society in ways that veer towards totalitarian horrors.  This is absurd in the extreme, and is an embarrassment to those in the social and biological sciences, not to mention students of history and philosophy, who know full well that this caricature of the “individual” and his caricatures of “socialism”, “Marxism/neo-Marxism”, and “postmodernism” are exactly that — caricatures, dressed up in so much complex verbiage that it is exceedingly difficult to wade through it all in order to clearly identify the flaws.

I hope, when Jordan recovers from his struggles, and hopefully when Life takes it a little easier on him, that he learns something from his life experiences here and strives with integrity to undo the considerable harm that, I believe, he has done to many, in his crusade for personal-empowerment (which has also, undoubtedly, helped many people at the same time, as many people attest online). 

But I hope his “lived experiences” leads to him apologize for the implicit (and not-so-implicit) shaming of the downtrodden that is rampant through his teachings, his book, and his videos, and that he sorts himself out in order to better speak to the actual suffering of so many people, and the INTERDEPENDENT framework that the 21st century sciences collectively agree upon.  If Jordan is to update his overarching narrative to include structural factors, he is going to have a struggle ahead of himself, because this IS the basic perspective of the fields of study and activism that he has become famous for deriding, and inevitably involves a deep consideration of the importance of compassion as a virtue, rather than a vice.

In closing, I wish to separate, in case it’s not clear, the person of Jordan from the teachings of Jordan.  To the person that is Jordan, I wish him well and hope for his speedy recovery and that Life gives his family a break.  To the teachings of Jordan, I wish that these recent struggles lead to a much-needed evolution and deepening.  

Finally, I have to be honest here and admit my own conflicted emotions. I am uncomfortable with the fact that I am choosing to post this now.  Maybe I should wait a while? It would be too easy for someone to criticize me for, in effect, kicking a man when he is down.  But, Jordan’s own teachings kick people when they are down.  Not that two wrongs make a right, but rather, that there are certain moments when people may be open to changing their views a bit, and seeking to act in those moments, for the greater good, is not unwise, even if it may be misconstrued by some. 

In complex systems, as Jordan presumably knows, moments of destabilization and disruption are precisely the moments where perturbations to the system may actually catalyze a reorganization into something better.  It is with this sincere hope that I am posting this now.  

All the best.

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P.S. I will be continuing my suspended critique of Jordan’s teachings shortly. As I have acknowledged in recent postings, I have experienced a considerable ptsd-related struggle with dissociation these past few years, and this year in particular, was essentially forced by my neurobiology to take a break, and work on ‘healing.’ I cannot make any promises as to how reliably I’ll be posting, but as soon as I can articulate the remainder of the proposed essays on his work, I’ll let you know. 🙂

  2 comments for “56) Jordan Peterson — a moment for reflection

  1. Josh
    October 2, 2019 at 5:02 pm

    Hi Professor Dolderman (autocorrect prefers the name Spiderman), thanks for your posts. I took your classes, and Peterson’s, about 10 years ago and you were my 2 favourite profs so it’s interesting to hear your perspective on his recent output. I only discovered your blog a week ago and have been reading through the whole thing since then. It’s been great.

    I’ve always been a big fan of Peterson, and continue to be, but your critiques have helped me avoid idealizing him.

    Thanks!
    Josh

    • dandolderman
      October 3, 2019 at 2:37 am

      Thanks Josh! I really appreciate that! It’s been an interesting experience working through the critiques myself. Maybe two years or so ago I just had this disquieting feeling that, while I agreed with Jordan on many things, there were so many others that we seem polar opposites on, like there was this underlying schism that I just couldn’t reconcile, and so, I started exploring where that might come from. And it led to all this. I’m so glad to hear that, agree or disagree, you’re finding it worthwhile! 🙂 . Thanks for reading them, and thanks for telling me!
      (and yes, I am the lucky recipient of one of the awesomest autocorrect names in the world! Hahaha)
      Cheers

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