After carefully pointing out, and occasionally flat-out ranting about the irresponsible errors in Jordan Peterson’s public proclamations, I’m ready to sum this up by taking a look at truly the worst part of everything he has said (in my opinion).
To put this in context, here’s the deal. The world is rapidly becoming “fucked”. That may not be the technical term for the ever-escalating global spiral into ecological chaos, war, nationalistic violence, fascism and xenophobia that we are witnessing today, and that are near-certain predictions for humanity’s future if we don’t change course, in a big, big way, but the term is apt. And really? Do we need to be polite or ‘technical’ when discussing the collapse of our planet’s biosphere, the evisceration of the Living World that makes this special planet so special, and the collapse of human civilization? No, let’s just say “we’re fucked”. Because we all know what we mean by that.
We are on a planet-sized Titanic, and as we approach the proverbial iceberg of our doom, not only are we not changing course, we are accelerating towards it.
So along comes Jordan Peterson, with his “12 Rules for Life”, promising us the “antidote to chaos.” Like every snake-oil salesman of the past, his advice may very likely be ineffective, OR, ends up causing exactly the problem he is promising to cure. Based on the Judaeo-Christian framework which Jordan argues is the foundation of Western morality and ethics, this would be considered, well, downright evil.
Then again, maybe it wouldn’t. After all, it was the Bible-based belief system that gave us such “enlightening” gifts as colonialism, the abduction of millions of Africans into slavery, and the genocide of Native peoples. And while you can’t exactly blame this Bible-based belief system as being the sole cause of things like the subjugation of women, the destruction of the environment, and the prejudice and greed that underlie pretty much all wars, it is incontrovertible that Bible-based beliefs have played a heavily instrumental role in exacerbating exactly those things, and perpetuating them across the centuries, so that we have the rapidly-fraying world we now live in, steeped in generations of warfare, cultural hegemony, and incalculable suffering of the masses.
And THIS is exactly the deep, terrible, “downright evil” part of Jordan’s teachings. He has taught us to fear “the collective”, and by extension, to distrust and fear ourselves. And these teachings, while perhaps compatible with Bible-based doctrines such as “original sin”, are based on assumptions of human nature that are just plain wrong.
Jordan espouses a philosophy based on fear and a deep mistrust of “human nature”. After all, that is fundamentally what RULES are — they are an imposition of an IF-THEN structure upon people, so that the people’s presumed depravity and selfishness can be held at bay, or at least minimized through disincentivizing shitty behaviour through appropriate punishment. This is the logic that comes from “spare the rod and spoil the child”, and “an eye for an eye”. It’s why parents raised to uphold “traditional” values have relied so heavily on anger, punishment, and RULES for keeping their little brats in line and supposedly “teaching them right from wrong.” Cuz when you do “wrong” and you get a good beating for it, or you’re sent to your room without any dinner, or you’re grounded, or yelled at, or have “privileges” like toys and freedom taken away, you therefore become a better person? hmmmm…..Sorry, but practically the entire field of psychology and research on human development says that this is dead wrong.
Taken out of the home and practiced large scale at the societal level, this is the same logic that has given us the prison-industrial complex. It has led to the United States becoming the most heavily incarcerated society on the planet, despite touting itself as the bastion of Freedom and Democracy. This same reasoning has given us the War on Drugs (and that sure went well…), the War on Terror (and that sure went well…), a body politic that harbours deep distrust of “social programs” (because giving people free stuff just allows them to be lazy and self-indulgent). It’s the same reasoning that has, for centuries, nay, millennia, suppressed women’s sexuality. It’s the same reasoning that turned Native people into “savages”, Black people into “savages”, Muslims into “savages”, in fact pretty much any non-Christian, non-White people into “savages”, which is a really handy belief system for justifying swooping into those peoples and cultures, with your crosses and Bibles and schools and orphanages, in order to “save” them from their morally decrepit, “uncivilized” ways.
Jordan’s reasoning, founded on incorrect and indeed dangerously negative assumptions about human nature, is utter bullshit, and needs to be called out as such.
But, what COULD take its place? What kind of philosophy, and psychology, and approach to parenting, and education, and social reform COULD grow out of a different (and I would argue far more accurate) picture of “human nature”? What COULD happen if we started not with assumptions of depravity and selfishness and, in short, “original sin”, but instead with a more trusting, generous, optimistic, positive set of assumptions? And, is there any evidence basis for these positive assumptions? I mean, it’s all fine and dandy to say we’d have a better world if we just trusted in people’s innate goodness, but that can easily be dismissed as naive, utopian-style thinking.
But what if it’s true? What if humans really are far more trustworthy, kind, compassionate, selfless, generous, and in Jordan’s words, “responsible” than we generally assume?
I argue that this would give us the psychology, the philosophy, the means for organizing society, and indeed, the solutions that we need to face the escalating problems of the 21st century. It’s time to wake up and smell the new millennium. We live in a globalized, rapidly decaying, unraveling world. The values that gave us the hierarchies of the past have CREATED the shitstorms we must now suffer through this century. Relying on these same values to somehow bail us out of the problems that they created is….well, Einstein had something to say about that, didn’t he? 😉 Yep, it’s just plain stupid. Or worse, it’s intentionally misleading, a form of society-wide gaslighting, in order for the powerful to hold onto power, regardless of the damage they cause to, literally, everyone on the planet.
AND, it turns out to be true. Humans are NOT fundamentally selfish, depraved, prone to laziness and violence and all that. Human nature, if nurtured with appropriate soul-food, you might say, turns out to be pretty damn inspiring. Humans are a beautiful species, if allowed to function as we are “supposed” to, that is, as evolutionary pressures shaped us to be. But instead of allowing the free self-determination of individuals-in-community, we have, for centuries, disrupted this, letting the powerful (from Kings and Presidents to CEOs and parents), impose their fear-driven RULES on the less powerful. In trying to tame “the savage brute” out of humanity, we have instead practically stamped out our innate beauty, our empathy and compassion and sensitive, kind nature, replacing it with competitiveness and greed and violence and distrust and xenophobia. Under the guise of doing good deeds and helping humans become “free”, we have instead turned ourselves into tyrants and oppressors. We have diminished the wise values of tolerance, compassion, forgiveness, humility, equanimity, acceptance, love and community, and in their place, we have concretized values of ‘respect’, authority, obedience, control, self-striving, competitiveness, rejection of “the other”, in-group favouritism and outgroup-derogation.
Go back to the beginning of these essays, where we discussed the “Bucko mistake”. Jordan’s bootstrapping advice for people to sort themselves out, in all its Ayn Randian glory, is an illustration of EXACTLY what is wrong with society, writ large. The vast majority of our social ills are the result of disconnection between people, which has profoundly accelerated after the Industrial Revolution through many different forces which have, in essence, dismantled much of what was once “the community”. Replacing “the community” with “the nuclear family” as the important scale of social organization, struggling to carve out its niche in the grand Hierarchy of society, has created practically everything that sucks.
Social disconnection is at the heart of everything from crime to drug abuse, mental illness to domestic violence, and political apathy to the alarming rise of right-wing authoritarianism and prejudice around the world. Sure, there are other factors, such as the failure of society to sufficiently tax the wealthiest individuals, the allowance of corporations and “big money” to influence the political process, the propagandizing of Big Pharma and Big Food which has brainwashed the population into believing that corporate-profit-driven “cures” for things like mental un-wellness, nutritional deficiencies, etc., are what we need, the simplification and concentration of power in the corporate world through the rise of the transnational corporation, the raping of ecosystems and indigenous cultures for resource extraction, and the military meddling and outright brutalization of many countries’ democratic processes by certain nations. There are many factors that are contributing to the shit-show of problems that is becoming humankind’s “21st century”.
But at the very epicentre of these problems is the supposedly “empowered” individual — the person who faces, alone or with their small in-group of allies, an uncertain and hostile world, and is largely responsible for themselves to make it and keep the forces of evil at bay. Never in human history has “the individual” been shouldered with so much responsibility, and while Jordan tells us that we should, every day, seek to lift the heaviest weight we can carry, the truth is that most of us are already being crushed under far too much “weight”. Instead of sharing our collective burdens with each other, each person tries to soldier on, seeking to carve out their little fiefdom of “individual” security and success, while the world around them continues its slide into chaos.
Telling already-struggling people that they are, in effect, solely responsible for sorting out their lives is not only harmful, it flies in the face of practically EVERYTHING we now know about human Psychology. Jordan is rebuking his own field of study by peddling this insanity, ignoring the decades of scholarship and research that near-consensually describe the human as a social species, where each “individual’s” success and well-being is determined in large part NOT by their isolated individual efforts, but by how well ensconced they are in supportive communities.
But instead of telling us to turn to the communal level of our being and shore up the relations that have been eroded over the past two centuries or so, Jordan warns us with all the hellfire and brimstone of an evangelical preacher that the road to hell (or rather, chaos and the hundred million deaths of the Gulag) is paved with socialist intentions. Don’t trust our communal nature! Don’t trust your fellow “man”! Hell no! Sort YOURSELF out! Pull YOURSELF up! And here are the RULES (12 of them so far, although word is that he’s writing another book about a bunch more), that will help you do so.
This is not only scientifically ridiculous, it is societally destructive in the extreme. Jordan believes he is giving us the antidote to chaos, but he is, in effect, pouring gas on a fire, giving us exactly the advice that will make things worse.
But waaaaait a minute…..if what I’m saying is true, then what about all the testimonials from people he has helped?
This is called “cherry picking”. In the research world it’s also known as the “file drawer problem”. If you spend enough time talking to enough people, then you are very likely going to have a positive impact on some, maybe even lots, of them, just like if you run enough studies testing a theory, SOME of those studies will show “positive” results.
In the self-help world, it is unbelievably easy to make people FEEL like your advice has helped them. Practically every psychologist knows this, and it’s a real problem for research in fields like Positive Psychology, where essentially placebo-like advice or experimental conditions are STILL motivating and inspiring to people. This is especially problematic if you only look at a short time-frame, such as a person’s epiphanic enthusiasm after reading your book that teaches them the Rules they have to follow in order to improve their lives. EVERY SINGLE self-help guru out there knows this. Say a bunch of shit to people that encourages or inspires them to greatness, and SOME (probably many) of those people will FEEL like you have improved their lives.
But, have you? What about all the people who remain basically the same after the rush wears off and normal life resumes? Well, very few of those people are going to write you a letter or make a comment about you on their blog or whatever. Only the self-proclaimed success stories tend to speak up.
And what about the people who are harmed? How likely are they to confront an adored public figure who tells people to take responsibility for themselves and to stop saying things that make you weak, and say, “uhh, excuse me, but your advice made me feel worse about myself”?
This is an argument I have made throughout these essays — much of what Jordan has to say does have kernels of truth, in some contexts and for some people, but may be damaging for others. However, failing to acknowledge these negative effects paints a much more seemingly-convincing picture of the value of the ideas. Thus, the Jordan-show continues.