The Representativeness Heuristic is at the heart of much of the shitty things we suffer from. Yep, to the extent that you, and those you care about, have struggled with relationship problems, addictions, emotional issues, and other crappy things, this BOOOOOORING sounding nerd-speak Representativeness Heuristic thingy probably has played a key role in that suffering.
Why? Well, you could write a whole book about this, but let me give you the quick & dirty version, with just one example — child abuse.
What does child abuse “look like” to you? What mental image comes to your mind when you think of a child being abused? Probably things like craaaaaaazy fighting, beatings, cruelty, humiliation, sexual abuse, constant criticism, lots of anger, stuff like that. Right? And yes, for sure, these things constitute abuse.
But what about growing up in a home where the parents were pretty checked out, self-absorbed, caught up in their own lives, etc., and the kids just didn’t get a whole lot of attention? I mean, it’s not like the kids were locked in a basement catching rats for food or something. They just didn’t get much attention from Mom, Dad or whoever the caregivers were. Is this “abuse”?
Well, yes. Because growing up feeling invisible, like what you’re doing doesn’t really matter to anyone, like you only get attention when you do something Good (like get straight-A’s or behave properly while visiting the grandparents), or something Bad (like don’t get straight-A’s, or make loud noises at the dinner table, or scuff your feet while walking down the street, or get bored in church, or fight with your sibling, or talk too loud, or say “no” when you are told to do something, or have a messy room, etc.), feeling like you aren’t really allowed to speak out and voice your opinion because Mom/Dad are too busy, too stressed, or have already told you what to do, etc., is a shitty way to grow up. Even if it seems “pretty normal” to you as an adult, the little kid you once were didn’t understand that, and your budding emotional system, INTENSELY dependent on loving feedback from your caregivers, definitely didn’t like it.
“Come on!” you say, rejecting this. “My childhood wasn’t all that bad! It’s not like my parents were abusive or something! I know they loved me. I know they did their best.”
That’s great. If you “know” they loved you, and did their best, that’s cool. But that’s not the point. The point is, when you were a child, did you FEEL like you were enough? Or did you always have to “please” your parents to get affection? Did you FEEL securely cared for, attended to, safe, listened to, empowered? Did you FEEL like you had a voice in decisions that were made? Did you FEEL that you were okay, just as you were? Because if you didn’t feel these things, as a child, then you very likely internalized a feeling of “not being good enough”.
Do you struggle with feelings of not being good enough? Do you know anyone who does? It seems pretty likely. Brené Brown’s TED talk on Shame has more than 50,000,000 views. That’s greater than the entire population of Canada. Shit, eh? There seems to be a lot of people who feel like they’re not good enough….
Now, obviously, if your childhood WAS overtly, obviously abusive, then you probably have struggled with feelings like this. But even with what “seems like” mild neglect, these internalized feelings of “not being okay as you are”, creep in, and can easily, subtly, invisibly become the organizing nucleus around which your self-concept grows.
So, what are the consequences of a not-overly-secure sense of self? Well….everything bad. Seriously. Everything.
Being pressured into sex you don’t want or aren’t ready for
Having “poor boundaries”
Giving up when things get hard
Low motivation and being a slacker
Obsessive need to achieve
Being targeted by bullies, recruited by cults, or sucked into shitty relationships
Unstable relationship patterns
Being a “people pleaser”
Coasting through life because you don’t know what you “really want to do”
Feeling that life is meaningless
Addictions (e.g., drugs, exercise, sex, social media, work, video games, food, gambling, etc.)
And yes, even suicide
ALL of these things stem from an insecure sense of self and a deeply internalized feeling of unworthiness. And in general, THAT comes from having your emotional needs neglected or interfered with as a child.
Go read that list again, please. These are the things we struggle with and suffer from, for years, decades, even our entire lives. These are the things that re-traumatize us as adults who repeatedly get into shitty circumstances and make bad decisions for ourselves. These are the things that undermine our success, get us in all sorts of trouble, suck away our joy, limit our opportunities, and basically, turn us into people who never end up fulfilling our potential and living the great, awesome lives we once dreamed we would.
Now, after people have wasted a good chunk of their lives living sub-optimally, struggling, harming themselves, limiting their success and growth, and potentially causing harm to other people, they find themselves in a mental health crisis, in a therapist’s office, with health problems, maybe even in jail. And it’s a loooooooooong road, usually, to healing. One of the first things people REALLY learn on this road to healing is that their “not so bad” childhood was, in fact, “not so good” either. It’s just that when they compare it to their mental image of “abuse”, it doesn’t “seem like abuse”.
Obviously, this plays a huge role in preventing people from truly healing, and instead, perpetuating their dysfunctional coping strategies and ways of being (i.e., the list above). Because until you SEE that your problems are, in fact, due to your emotional needs being neglected when you were a wee little vulnerable still-forming being, it is virtually impossible to heal. You can’t fix what you don’t even know is broken.
This is the Representativeness Heuristic at work. This cognitive bias, this mental rule of thumb, controls so much of our lives, perpetuates so many of our problems, and leads to so many of the poor decisions we make, that it’s really bloody important to take it seriously, understand it, and then learn to be better reasoners.
Because we CAN BE much, much better reasoners, if we understand some basic Psychology, like the Representativeness Heuristic. Boring-sounding, complicated-seeming stuff CAN BE really important. Common sense CAN BE really dumb sometimes. But learning how to use better reasoning can actually save someone’s life and will almost certainly improve your own.
The other day, I was in conversation with someone whose child had gotten mildly sick. Not super-sick, just, you know, normal kid stuff — maybe a mild fever for a night, mild cough for a couple days, runny nose, low energy, sneezing. Mostly it was just a runny nose, sneezing and feeling “blah”.
So I said, “Those are COVID symptoms; you have to get them tested and isolate yourselves.”
Now, would YOU get a child tested in this situation? Put them through all that discomfort? Would you isolate yourselves, cancel your plans, book an appointment, go to the testing centre, and disrupt your whole life, just because of what sure looks like nothing but a mild cold? I mean, it’s not like they’re REALLY sick or anything. SURELY they don’t have COVID! I mean, come on! Be reasonable! Right?
Others involved were like, “Nah, doesn’t sound like COVID to me. Don’t worry about it.”
As a Psychologist, I was like, hmmmm….this is bad reasoning. This is the “Representativeness Heuristic,” doing its nefarious work. The Representativeness Heuristic is something every student of Psychology learns, when they learn about cognitive biases and errors in reasoning. But, it sounds pretty BOOOOOORING, right? It sounds like egghead nerd talk. It even has too many syllables to wrap your head around quickly. And what IS a heuristic anyway? Textbook-speak, blahblahblah. Whatever….
But the thing is, we ARE bad reasoners, a lot of the time, and a few decades of careful research has uncovered many of the key biases and errors we tend to make in our reasoning. We’re blind to them most of the time. We don’t SEE ourselves reasoning in shitty ways, so we imagine that we are pretty good at making sense of reality. But, too much of the time, we’re not.
Instead of thinking carefully about things, we take cognitive shortcuts. We use mental “rules of thumb”, and we do so because, come on maaaan, if you thought carefully about EVERYTHING, life would suck. Life is way too complicated; there’s too much uncertainty in the world; and who has the time for that anyway? Just “use common sense” and get on with things.
Well, unfortunately, sometimes this could lead you to murdering somebody (unintentionally, in this case). It’s also a HUGE contributor to addiction (and almost everyone you know, including you probably, is addicted to things). It even can lead to suicide. And much of this could be avoided if people just understood, like really understood, the boring-sounding Representativeness Heuristic.
(In fact, the reason that so many people ignore the Representativeness Heuristic is because it has such an obscure-sounding name. Surely something that boring and obscure sounding can’t be important! Right? ……. Well, that’s actually you using the Representativeness Heuristic for shitty reasoning. Sorry, but it’s true.)
So, back to the sick child. Ask yourself, what does COVID “look like”, to you? What mental image comes to your mind when you think of someone with this potentially lethal disease? Do you imagine someone super-sick, fighting for every breath, maybe even on a ventilator? Surely, you’ve heard about that kind of stuff, right? Those are the scary COVID stories that people talk about in the media to try to ram into our heads that we are all fighting a global pandemic, and it should be taken seriously.
But unfortunately, if THAT is your mental image of “someone with COVID”, then yeah, a kid with a mild cough for a couple of days, some sneezing, maybe a one-night fever, is NOT going to “seem like” a COVID case. It’s going to “seem like” no big deal.
The Representativeness Heuristic leads people to make decisions based on the superficial features of something. Like, does it seem like “the thing” to you? If it does, if there’s a match of these superficial features, then DING! You conclude it’s “the thing”. It it doesn’t match your mental image, then BZZZZZT, nope, it’s not “the thing”.
But there are other ways to reason. Like, we could use logic and statistics. Let’s consider a few simple stats. Approximately 1/2 of kids with COVID do not have high fevers. Approximately 1/2 of kids with COVID do not have coughs. And some UNKNOWN but not small proportion of kids with COVID have no symptoms at all, or very mild ones, like maybe just a wee bout of a cold or something. (The reason this proportion is unknown is because an unknown number of these kids never end up getting tested, so there’s literally no way to even guess with any confidence how many of them are out there. But, enough of them DO pass COVID on that we know kids can be “asymptomatic carriers”.)
Okay, that’s enough stats. And you can see, right away, that there is NO WAY to conclude that a child with mild symptoms doesn’t have COVID. In fact, lots and lots and lots of COVID cases have only mild symptoms. Especially kids. So, “common sense” reasoning, like “doesn’t look like COVID to me”, is just plain bad reasoning. In fact, it’s barely reasoning at all. It’s just guessing, and convincing yourself that your guess is right, because it FEELS BETTER that way.
Unfortunately, the consequences of bad reasoning like this, is that kids become one of the key vectors of COVID into families and communities. Which leads some people to get very, very sick, even die.
And the ones who don’t die? Well, a very large proportion of people who’ve survived COVID still have impairments months after they “recovered”. Mental fog, not being able to concentrate, fatigue, memory problems, respiratory problems, heart problems, immune problems. Nobody knows what the long-term effects of COVID infection are going to be. We won’t know for years, even decades. So, ignoring mild symptoms is literally gambling with people’s lives.
The article attached at the end of this is so beautifully, tragically, honestly written.
I think about this all the time. My kids were raised with a beautiful first decade or so of life, falling in love with the natural world through hiking, camping, and of course David Attenborough documentaries. Now, as their second decade of life unfolds and they become more educated and cognitively sophisticated, their hearts get broken over and over and over as they learn more incontrovertibly that everything they grew up loving (other than video games), is actually dying, and likely won’t exist for their own children, and certainly grandchildren, to fall in love with.
THIS should be the dominant discussion in politics, economics, social sciences and around household dinner tables today (in conjunction with the immediate challenge of being basically not-idiotic with regards to stabilizing society until COVID vaccines can become safely widespread).
When I started teaching at the UofT, in 2002, I still believed a citizen-led evolution of politics would be enough to reinvent the economy and turn things around. Not in time to save the natural world as we used to know it, but in time to save enough of it that we wouldn’t experience large-scale collapse, leaving humanity to fight each other for the scraps left on a dessicated, charred planet.
I still try my damnedest, day to day, to believe that, because giving up that belief is to give up the belief that “we will make it”. But honestly? Most of me doesn’t believe that anymore; I just cling to it in order to stay somewhat sane in the face of a global holocaust.
Humanity can’t even agree, consensually, to wear fucking masks for a year or two in order to avoid mass death. We can’t stop raping each other. We can’t agree on the basic facts and immorality of oppression based on skin colour. We can’t agree on basic biological and psychological facts of gender. We can’t get big money out of politics. We can’t get rid of unbelievable corruption in the most apparently free and informed societies. Hell, we can’t even agree on who the corrupt ones are in the first place.
But the facts are — the largest, and oldest organisms on earth are dying, in every part of the world, from the ancient trees, to the ancient ecosystems, from the whales and turtles and white sturgeons who’ve been alive longer than Canada has been a country, to the Great Barrier reef, rainforests and ice caps.
The magical blue-green marble that we are, floating in a vacuum of near-nothingness, is careening towards devastation. We are tiny, vulnerable babies sucking on Mother Earth’s teats, mere specks on this giant ball of Life that we are killing, while we celebrate the stock markets rising and ignore the fact that it’s almost entirely due to the 1% becoming insanely wealthy at the expense of all of the rest of us.
Meanwhile, the oceans ARE becoming graveyards (unless you’re a jellyfish). The forests are becoming tinder boxes, then grasslands, and then deserts. The fish are becoming….nothing. Summers are becoming fire. The Arctic is becoming not-the-Arctic-ever-again.
And practically the only things that humanity-at-large seems to be getting better at are warfare, propaganda, hate, extremism, and mass delusion.
So, please, share some ideas.
In the next FIVE years, what can we do that will actually turn things around?
And no, I do not accept ideas that emphasize how each individual should reduce anything, reuse anything, or recycle anything. “If everyone did it” is a false argument, when the vast, vast, vast majority of ecological destruction and subsequent societal unrest, war, and collapse is A) already locked in; and B) due overwhelmingly to large actors (mega-corporations, mega-militaries, and big countries’ economic engines).
What can we actually do, to give ‘the next generation’, and all the ones after, a chance at a not-fucked world?
Thanks for reading this, caring, and sharing whatever inspiration you have.
It also sucks. Being lonely isn’t exactly the kind of thing one yearns for generally. Imagine the kid in grade 2, and the teacher, all gung ho to connect with the kids this year and REALLY give them a good educational, inspirational experience.
“So what do you want to be when you grow up?” the teacher asks.
Little Billy puts up their hand eagerly. “Yes Billy?” the teacher asks, smiling. Billy is, after all, a pretty rambunctious kid, always running around stealing girls’ skipping ropes at recess or playing soccer or having knee-kicking fights or flirting with Nicky by the monkey bars. Surely, the teacher thinks, Billy is going to start this conversation off in a rocking way. Like, “astronaut” or “daredevil” or “monster slayer” or something like that.
Then Billy responds. “I want to be lonely.”
Yep, I’m pretty sure that never happens.
It’s interesting, when you’re an academic and you first start to realize that most of your colleagues are studying their own shadows. (Seriously, if you haven’t realized this before, then look deeply into the publication topics of any professors you know….Very often, very, very often, you’ll find it’s a little window into their own under-acknowledged dark sides…)
So, I’ve spent a good chunk of my adult life studying “community” in one fashion or another. First, it was intimate relationships (my undergrad thesis), particularly communication in marriage. One and a half divorces later, plus maybe 30 or 40 books, maybe a hundred academic papers, a 60-page thesis, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about communication in marriage.
But man, actually having it turn out well sure eludes me.
Then I studied prejudice, and how stereotypes between ethnic/racial groups can disrupt the formation of trusting and intimate bonds between people, undermining the possibility of community through a variety of mechanisms. Five years of studies, a couple more hundred academic papers, a few dozen books, and an initially 200+ page dissertation (I was told to cut it down to 60 pages for my second draft), and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about prejudice and how it hampers secure bonding between people who belong to different social categories.
But man, actually helping the world heal its racial and other divides sure does elude me.
Then I studied ecological collapse and in particular climate change. Twenty years of research, teaching, networking, collaborating and learning, probably 1000 or more academic articles, dozens and dozens of books, decades of communication and emails between ecological research groups, indigenous groups, and others, and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how our social fabric is intimately intertwined with and dependent upon our ecological circumstances. It turns out that “community” is once again the antidote to basically all the world’s macro-problems.
But man, actually shifting society towards a sustainable, equitable, non-disastrous future sure does elude me.
Parallel to those studies, I studied happiness, personal growth, meaning, well-being, and the flip sides — depression, trauma, existential despair and self-destruction. Twenty years of research, working with a charity, god knows how many books and articles, workshops, therapy, meanderings through philosophy, religion, plus quite a few years of practice in meditation, mindfulness, gratitude exercises, Flow, goal setting, behaviour change, and all that good stuff, and I feel like I have learned a lot about how to live a life you won’t end up regretting when you die. And once again, it turns out that “community” is at the heart of wellness.
But man, actually transforming myself into a happy person, securely embedded in a vibrant community of support, sure does elude me.
So today, I’m going to be grateful for my almost-ever-present lifelong companion, loneliness. I used to think of it as a bad thing, a kind of shitty inheritance that nobody wants but some people have to suffer with. But as I sit here and reflect, I can see it a little differently. For one thing, loneliness gives you a heck of a lot of time to read and educate yourself, if you’re inclined to do so. I can thank loneliness for those many years of learning; even if I still don’t know what to do with it all, it sure makes the world an interesting place.
But far more intimately and profoundly than mere learning, loneliness is like a psychic heartbeat. It tells you, moment by moment, that not only are you alive, you are a creature of Love. You yearn for love. Not just to BE loved, like you want to consume other people and vampirically suck the love out of them. But TO love.
Loneliness tells you, moment by moment, that you are a fountain, a river, an ocean of love, and it is the sheer, relentless pain of loneliness that confirms that, irrefutably. For if you weren’t a creature of Love, then you wouldn’t be lonely. You would just “be”. It is the very agony of loneliness that shines light into the darkness and tells you that hey, if nothing else happens in this life, you can be damn sure that “deep down inside”, you shine with an inner light. Even if it is rarely, or never, seen, it’s there. You feel it right in the depths of your suffering.
When I was growing up, particularly for half a dozen rather terrible years, I was alone the majority of the time. Aside from school or biking a few kilometres over to a friend’s house sometimes, I spent my days and most of my evenings outside, alone. Summer was fun, but there’s a lot of bugs when you live in the bush. Still, it’s bizarrely cool, running your hand over the back of your neck and seeing how much blood smears onto it from the bites, or scratching your scalp when you lay in bed later that night, picking off the little scabs. It makes you feel like you have participated in the Great Circle of Life in some meaningful way. Sometimes I would watch mosquitoes on my arm as they pierced the skin and gorged themselves on blood, laughing at them as they tried to heft their drunken, swollen bodies into the sky.
And the SOUND. The sound of a forest in the summertime is divine. The wind singing in the leaves (or is it the leaves singing in the wind?). The ever-so-satisfying crunch of the forest floor underfoot. The swoosh of a sea of ferns as you walk through their three-foot-tall canopy. Sometimes I would pretend I was a hunter, stalking my prey, and would move as silently as I could through the trees, mindful of every movement of my limbs so as to not accidentally brush up against a plant or snap a stick underfoot and give myself away. Or I would pretend to be Steve Austin, the six million dollar man, climbing trees to get away from the bad guys, fighting assailants left and right with sticks and clubs and feet and fists, running and leaping and crawling and hiding and ambushing enemies only I could see. I even practiced squinting with one eye, grateful that good ol’ Oscar “had the technology” to keep me alive.
Spring and fall were fun too. The new growth of spring and the return of the bugs, the rich smell of moist soil splitting open with new shoots as Life returned after the long, quiet winter. And the birdsong, that dawn-to-dusk symphony that accompanied you everywhere you went, like a chorus of angelic beings singing their praises to Father Sun and Mother Earth, thanking them for the gift of song, of wings and air, trees, and of course, bugs.
The kaleidoscopic beauty of the fall, as you walked through so much three dimensional colour that sometimes it felt like you were flying through a sunset or a rainbow or the scintillating atmosphere of an alien planet.
And spring and fall bring the best storms. Sitting at the edge of a forest looking out across a field while the sky gets all angry and the clouds voluminously dark, feeling the electricity in the air as it goosebumps your skin, smelling the incoming rain, and then delighting with ecstasy, and sometimes outright terror, as the Earth lets loose with a blitzkrieg of lightning bolts, and thunder booms so loud you feel it just might pick you up off the ground so you can fly, is an experience only a poet could begin to describe with anything approximating the wonder of it all.
But the best was winter. Winter in a forest is utterly, indescribably beautiful. Everything is soft and rounded and flowing, like a woman’s body, like long hair dancing in the breeze, like ocean swells, like an abstract picture drawn with crayons. Not too far from the house I was never in except at dinner and bedtime, was a swamp, and the bent-over dead trees, covered with snow, formed arches and dripped icicles and shone and sparkled like a fairy kingdom that somehow, I was allowed access into, and somehow, no other human ever seemed to discover but me. There were never tracks, except deer and rabbit and fox, and I could follow them, for hours through the forest, discovering their patterns and runs, sleuthing out where they dug down into the snow to find food, laughing at their poo, sometimes still steaming before it froze in the snow.
Spruce trees in the winter are absolutely the best thing in the world. Their branches droop down with winter’s weight so much that the bottom ones form a structure of wood and snow and needles, inside which, huddled against the tree trunk, you can disappear into your own natural cave, and sit there, listening to the silence, peering out at the trees, watching the random chaos of snow floofs falling and sparkling down like fairy dust in the cold sunlight.
And once again, the sound….ahhh, the sound of a winter forest is like the voice of God herself. So much silence, punctuated by the deep cracking of tree trunks as they freeze and split. When it’s really cold, like 40 below kind of cold and the distinction between Celsius and Fahrenheit finally stops mattering, the sound of your feet crunching is…incredible. Nothing else sounds like that, and if you’ve only ever walked on snow in the relatively warm temperatures of the first 20 degrees below zero (Celsius), especially in the city, then you truly don’t know what you’re missing.
If it’s really cold, you can just dig down into the snow and make a cave, and then sit in there. It’s amazing how quickly it warms up, especially if you thought ahead and brought a candle. And then you can sit and watch your own little disco show as the candle light reflects and refracts from a trillion micro-surfaces while your eyes grow wider and wider with wonder. Sometimes, if I was lucky, my cat would find its way into my cave and curl up with me, adding the joy of a soft purr to the wintry silence.
When I got older and stopped sitting in forests for too many years, loneliness guided me to learning, a bit too often to drugs, and most enjoyably, marinated my mind in music from jazz to electronica to classical to good ol’ rock and roll (and always, of course, Pink Floyd). I began to watch birds, long hair, clothing, and of course, human bodies, with an ever-deepening aesthetic appreciation for the endless nuances.
You cannot truly perceive beauty until you are so silent inside that every infinitesimal nuance of the object of your perception reveals itself, patterning your mind with awe.
At some point in life, if you remain open long and intensely enough, or if you’re just plain lucky to be gifted with a deeper Sight, you may start to realize that the air is alive, plants have voices, the Earth has a mind, and ‘loneliness’ is a human construction based on a false sense of separateness. Opening to the sentience of the world around you is not a tit-for-tat replacement for human companionship, but when I’m at my best anyway, it feels like it might even be better. It’s a kind of loneliness that isn’t, well, isn’t so lonely, and might even teach you a little bit about magic.
The downside, of course, is depression, existential emptiness, feelings of worthlessness, like you are a ghost flitting through a material world that you can only observe and never truly participate in. But even that, when it’s not so painful that suicide is your primary preoccupation, has its own deep beauty, reminding you, as I said earlier, that you are a creature of love.
I don’t believe people need “rules,” any rules, for living an optimal life, and for creating an optimal society. Let me say that again — we don’t need Rules. None. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
What people need is CONNECTION. We need to be ensconced in a community of people who we know deeply, live with interdependently, and care about. When we are surrounded by a sufficiently warm, inclusive community, we generally fall into line with that community. We don’t treat people like shit, lie, steal, rape, murder, etc., because if we do, the community expresses its displeasure towards us. And who wants to disappoint all the people who love them?
This doesn’t require “Rules”; it requires a basic process of collective accountability. It requires a community of people to say, “hey, we don’t like being acted towards in a shitty fashion, so here, let us help you learn to get along with others better.” And then, for the tiny proportion of people who are truly psychopathic enough to be immune to community pressures, what happens? Well, historically, when we lived as tribes, those truly impossible-to-deal-with rarities would be shunned. AND they would be incredibly rare. The vast, vast majority of people are deeply responsive to, indeed are “needy” for social acceptance. This is not a weakness; it is our greatest strength as a species.
e.g., (from a Facebook post in The Chimp Zone: Primate Portal)
This is how “socialism” avoids turning into the Gulag. A strong-enough community would, when the power-seekers and hierarchy-believers start to vie for power, stand against them collectively and absolutely refuse to give them positions of power. Just like how, if everyone in the schoolyard refuses to be a bystander, bullies quickly get shut down. If every member of a family bonds together against the abuser, the abuser finds themselves without anyone to abuse.
What we have never in modern times been able to do is to bring people together into a strong enough community, so that the tyrants are prevented from seizing power. And this is exactly the challenge of the 21st century. Socialism and community-based self-governance DO work. Native societies have shown us that, incontrovertibly. What we need to figure out how to do now, is scale that up to the modern, 8 billion-people world. We haven’t managed to do this, yet. But this is exactly what humans are. We are the species (or rather, a species), that rises to the challenge through cooperation and collective effort, in which we HELP EACH OTHER adapt to difficult circumstances.
Imagine a society where, instead of punishment, people’s misdeeds were met with concern, sadness, forgiveness, and help. Instead of jails, we had deeply-ingrained practices of restorative justice. Instead of “bad grades”, we had wise mentors who helped us discover what we were fascinated by, found meaningful or beautiful. Instead of shame, we had encouragement and community-support that inspired us to dig deep and keep at it. And instead of being scolded and disciplined into being “strong” and persevering through tough times, we had allies, mentors, helpers, who helped us see our own strengths, who helped us create meaning in our lives, and who inspired us through their own strength, stick-to-it-iveness and responsibility.
Imagine a society where toddlers were held and accepted and loved through their temper tantrums. Where patient, grounded adults would sit with the little one and teach them to breathe through the fear and anger, would demonstrate over and over how to calm down until the child internalized that skill.
Imagine a society that helped people get back up when they fell down, so that people learned that they WERE NOT ALONE, and had the opportunity to experience the deep gratitude that comes from someone being a Good Samaritan when you are at your weakest.
Imagine teenagers being treated not like irresponsible, entitled little shits who need to grow up and accept responsibility, but instead are embraced into communities of practice by a plethora of loving adults and mentors, helping them, teaching them by example.
At the present moment, it seems we do almost everything wrong, from a developmental perspective. We take childhood and we relegate it to a desk, a homework schedule, and pre-set “recess periods” where kids are ALLOWED, for brief moments, to run around and do whatever they want — as long as that doesn’t involve swearing, rough-housing, throwing snowballs, etc.etc. “Follow the rules and you can play in ways that the adult world has sanctioned as acceptable”, is the message our far-too-heavily structured and institutionalized society gives to kids. “Because you are too useless, stupid, and immature to be able to think for yourself and be responsible”, is the implicit subtext.
And when these heavily-regulated, punished and controlled children turn into adults, what do they do? Well, the same thing, of course! These are hardly well-balanced, secure, wise adults! Hell no! They (we) are insecure, power-hungry tyrants. We’ve been controlled for our entire upbringings, and now, finally, it’s our turn. And because we’ve so deeply internalized a distrust in our own innate goodness, we also don’t trust the snotty-nosed little buggers we are now given power over.
Just watch parents interact with their kids. (Or schoolteachers, for that matter). Watch how ANGRY far-too-many of them get as soon as the kid “misbehaves”.
“Don’t talk back! Don’t give me that attitude! Stand up straight! Don’t make so much noise! Don’t talk to your sister like that! (Ignoring the fact that this is exactly how the adult is talking to them). Eat properly! Clean your room!“
We can do better than this. We can grow a more compassionate society by being more compassionate ourselves. Kids who are standing with slumped shoulders and a lazy, give-up mentality don’t need to be chastised into “not being weak” and sorting out their Bucko selves.
No, they need to be loved. They need someone to believe in them, to show interest in them. They need their parents and teachers and other adults to LISTEN to them, enjoy their creativity, their humour, appreciate their efforts. Instead of being given Rules, they need to be given loving, wise attention.
“No rules for life” is the same as saying “loving, nurturing attention and wise guidance for life”.
And THAT is the antidote for too much, destructive chaos. The rest of the chaos that is inherent in a living system, is great! It’s the source of all creativity, innovation, play and good times.
As our world increasingly faces the challenges of social inequality, over-militarization and a collapsing web of life, relying on Rules and control has only one outcome — the rise of authoritarianism and violent subjugation of “the other”. But dictators and xenophobes do not make the world great again. We will not solve the problems of the 21st century using the approaches of the 20th century that got us here in the first place. No, it is time to evolve, collectively.
Besides, I don’t want to live in a world of Rules and “antidotes to chaos.” I want to live in a world of wonder and fascination and humour and zest and play and connection and wisdom and love and kindness and gratitude and generosity and trust.
So what’s the alternative? Do we need more “rules” to help us live like half-decent people who aren’t slobs and losers and depressed and too-agreeable and “weak” and addicted? Do we need more external authority figures structuring our lives for us? Do we need more Dad-advice telling us to clean up our rooms, stand up straight with our shoulders back, and sort ourselves out?
Or do we need less of this?
Do we need, instead, to be encouraged to dig down and find our love, our compassion, and our self-love and self-compassion? To get in touch with our feelings? To mourn and grieve for the unacknowledged, unprocessed pain of our own childhoods?
Do we need others to simply hold space for us, to accept our full selves, struggles and all, that we may finally feel like there is NOTHING fundamentally wrong with us?
Do we need to find our own inner spark again, to remember the simple joys that propelled us into action when we were little kids and we didn’t need to be “motivated” to do things?
But waaaaaaaait a minute — surely I can’t be saying, hey, let’s just do whatever the fuck we want, live like toddlers and somehow our “innate goodness” will shine through. Surely I can’t be saying THAT, can I?
No. I’m not saying that. After all, toddlers freak out every time their expectations/demands are not instantly met. They take the biggest cookie for themselves, and ideally all of the cookies for themselves, and they don’t give AF whether you’re sitting there wanting your own cookie. They steal each other’s toys. They bite. Whine. Scream. Fall on the floor wailing because someone said “no” to them. They shit in their pants. Sometimes they play with it afterwards.
Definitely, we shouldn’t “return” to a less developed state, or be encouraged to remain there.
But living systems are not static. The “inner purpose” of a living system isn’t to be complacent and stagnant. No! The very essence of life, of living systems, is to struggle for growth. It is to get better at being alive. It is to learn, to get stronger, to rise to challenges. Not to just be lazy and sit on the couch eating Doritos and expecting your next handout because you’re so “entitled”.
In fact, this whole line of questioning, this whole fear-based way of thinking — i.e., we NEED rules because without them we will degrade to our lowest common denominator and sit around masturbating and leaving pizza boxes on the floor until we die — is EXACTLY what I’ve been arguing against.
Let’s adopt a different set of assumptions — the Doctrine of Original Awesomeness:
Humans are, “innately”, “fundamentally”, “intrinsically”, growth-oriented and mastery-oriented.
We WANT to learn things, to be challenged, to stretch our abilities, to get better at stuff, simply because it feels better to be fully engaged with life, than to live half-heartedly, retreating from challenge to the safety of the known. This insight has been discovered and rediscovered countless times in Jordan’s (and my own) field of Psychology. For example, it is the foundational assumption of the entire movement that became Humanistic Psychology. It’s the clear message that resounds through the field of Developmental Psychology, in particular the development of emotional security. It is the (oft-overlooked) beating heart of motivational theory — we DO NOT need to be cajoled through rewards and punishments into living better lives. We already WANT to live better lives; provided that our “inner light” isn’t covered over by shame and humiliation, or diminished by a system that over-relies on rewards and punishments, we innately yearn to thrive. This is now well-understood (although poorly practiced much of the time), in business — employees do their best work, especially in a challenging environment that requires people to be creative, when they are motivated by their own sense of meaning, when they are encouraged by their peers, and when they are allowed to fully express themselves in their work collaborations (i.e., socially validated intrinsic motivation). But the more that leaders, CEOs, managers and such rely on rewards and punishments to try to squeeze out some extra motivation from employees, those employees lose interest in what they are doing, have to push themselves to work harder, and far too often produce sub-standard work, and eventually burn out.
You don’t need to push a secure person to embrace struggle. Struggle is our birthright. We are born into struggle. We are evolutionarily hard-wired for struggle. We aren’t lazy, selfish assholes at heart. We are vibrant, loving, curious, focused, striving, interdependent social beings. We love struggle. We love challenge. Watch any little kid who hasn’t had their INNATE desire for mastery crushed out of them by over-controlling, over-shaming OR over-rewarding parents. Watch them spontaneously engage in complex play. Try to stack those blocks just a little bit higher. Try to climb that playground equipment. Try to throw rocks into a lake and make them go farther or make a bigger and bigger splash. We LOVE challenges, because it feels super-kick-ass to stretch ourselves, to make progress, to get better at something.
To encourage this kind of mastery-orientation towards life, we don’t need Rules. This is the second part of the Doctrine of Original Awesomeness — We are profoundly, innately, fundamentally social beings; our SoulFood is love.
We need each other, right from birth. We need our caregivers so we don’t die. As we grow up we need them to help us learn not to do stupid things that we don’t yet understand are stupid — like playing in traffic and eating whatever we find on the ground that looks interesting. We need more stable others around us to help our little developing nervous systems to be able to handle our raging emotions. We need to learn to push through difficult moments in the learning process, to develop grit and determination and perseverance. We need social validation so that we learn that we actually do matter to other people, our actions do matter for the world, and being “a good person” actually does pay off in terms of being more warmly embraced by the community around us. We need others to learn skills, like how to tie a lure to a fishing line, or how to type, or how to read, or how to fry eggs without them sticking to the pan. Or how to calm ourselves down.
That’s a good one — learning to calm ourselves down. Do we most effectively learn to control our difficult emotions by being given “rules”? Or do we most effectively learn to control our difficult emotions by being exposed to wiser, more mature others who model for us how a responsible person behaves, and ideally, by being taught, in-the-moment, how to do things like deep, mindful breathing, how to tell ourselves messages like “this too shall pass”, and how to learn to reframe our “failures” as “learning experiences”?
I believe (and I would confidently argue that the vast majority of research in psychology over the past half-century or more agrees with me) that learning to be a responsible, productive, healthy, moral and reasonably successful human being does NOT come from rules. It comes from having one’s inner goodness nurtured, embraced, accepted and loved PLUS having one’s inner shittiness also embraced, accepted and loved, so that the power of being loved and accepted in our totality teaches us that we ARE “good”! We ARE worthwhile, beautiful, wonderful little beings. Maybe we don’t exactly behave that way all the time, but intrinsically, we are creatures of love, far more than we are creatures of selfishness.
I believe that Jordan’s hierarchy-based, rule-based way of thinking comes from a philosophy of scarcity and fear, rather than abundance and trust. It is focused on the defects in people and the age-old fear-based belief that these defects will be what wins in the long run, unless we stamp them out of the person through DISCIPLINE.
I was raised to believe exactly this. And maaaaaan, let me tell you, it did not work. And the “strongest” people I knew growing up, those who insisted on discipline and obedience and following the rules and all that — well, they were pretty lonely, especially as life went on. Not “needing” anybody, they found their social worlds constricted smaller and smaller as they aged, until, in the most extreme example I know of, they died almost entirely alone and with deep sadness for all the relationships they didn’t build and all the people they “let go of” over the years.
So what if we just…..throw that shit out in the trash where it belongs? Throw out the doctrine of original sin. Throw out the need for “rules” to “teach us right from wrong.” Throw out appeals to authority based on the (incorrect) belief that hierarchies of power are, “roughly speaking”, hierarchies of competence, as Jordan argues vociferously. If we throw out enough of those disempowering, shaming, distrustful beliefs about human goodness, what are left with?
Well…..love! Compassion. Empathy. Vulnerability. Interdependence. The need to be there for each other because that’s what being human IS.
People don’t become ethical because they’ve internalized a bunch of rules. (Ummm….sex scandals in “the Church”? Residential schools? “Pillars of the community” who are tyrants at home? etc.).
People become ethical because their love and empathy and compassion are nurtured. They become loving because they are LOVED. Love begets love, compassion begets compassion, and acceptance begets acceptance. So, when people’s dark and twisty parts express themselves, giving them a bunch of rules is NOT going to help them heal those parts; it is, in fact, going to further shame them, polarizing their inner world into an even more starkly contrasting “persona” and “shadow”. This is a foundational insight in the entire field of Psychology, going right back to Freud, or if you’re not super-cool with Freud, then Jung, with whom Jordan is definitely super-cool.
Rather than helping people to heal, integrate, and thrive, focusing on Rules actually further distances people from their own inner abundance and their confidence that, indeed, they live in a world of abundance, that other people CAN, for the most part, be trusted, and that this becomes increasingly true the more we behave towards others out of a place of abundance, treat each other with respect and honour, give people our loving attention. Focus on helping people, sharing, being kind.
And the people who receive this ‘sharing’? Are they going to become lazy and entitled and weak, waiting for handouts? No, they are going to become grateful, and they are going to give back, or pay it forward.
The Doctrine of Original Awesomeness argues that:
People strive to be better because striving feels innately better than withdrawing into laziness and complacency.
People help others and are generous because they care, have empathy, and feel compassion for others’ suffering, and because they are grateful for the blessings and help they have received.
People learn because being curious and fascinated feels awesome.
People grow because PLAYING is innately fun, and the more that “learning” and “challenge” can be framed and experienced as play, the more effortlessly people will be drawn towards exerting effort.
And people grow up to be responsible adults because they are inspired into being that way by the responsible adults, the wise elders, that have already walked that path and can shine their own light into the darkness, showing others the way forward.
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.
Saturday, August 29th, 2020 was an inspiring day in Toronto, as most protests and demonstrations are. Every time I go, I am inspired by at least four things. Every time.
One is how interconnected the issues are that people care about. Your typical protest has a theme or set of central issues that it’s all about (Saturday’s was technically about defunding the police). But then you get there, and you realize that there are signs representing other causes that people care about. It’s not random though. Like, it’s not like every person or organization out there with an axe to grind is like “Woohoo! A protest! Let’s go!” This is how the media portrays it, especially the more conservative media. They not infrequently make claims like the protesters don’t really seem to stand for anything in particular. There are so many different signs and messages and causes, it seems more like a big confusing mess, you know, just all the snowflakes coming out to stroke their egos and make themselves heard. Or just stir up some trouble. As though the people who become “activists” are the same people who sat at the back of the class with a chip on their shoulder towards authority and were shit-disturbers, just for the hell of it.
But no, the people who show up, the organizations who show up, are not random. Instead, you start to realize that the different causes represented in a single march are in fact deeply connected issues. That’s why at a Defund the Police march, you’ll see signs for Native rights, signs for investing $$$ in communities, signs for mental health, signs about poverty. These are all deeply interconnected issues. To work on one is, in effect, to seek solutions for all of them.
At a climate change march, you see different signs. Climate change and environmental stuff, of course. Plus anti-poverty signs and Native rights signs, again. Plus lots of vegan and animal liberation signs. Plus signs about energy investment and securing sustainable jobs in the future. Plus signs about the rights of girls and women, especially around the world rather than merely in Canada, for an education. etc. Because THOSE are all interconnected issues.
At every protest, you realize that people DON’T just think about issues in a single-perspective kind of way. The media often talks about things as though they are disconnected. But the people who educate themselves see things very differently. You’ve just gotta get involved and learn about the issues, benefiting from the expertise of the countless people in the societal-reform movements who are true experts on these issues, people who have spent their entire careers/lives fighting for justice or mental health or to alleviate poverty, etc.
I’m sure it wouldn’t be hard to interview people at random at a protest and find out that some of them have a limited or poor understanding of what they’re protesting about. Sure, that’s likely. But if you do a comprehensive interview of the people there, and include some questions like, “Is this your first protest?”, “How long have you been involved?”, etc., you would find very quickly that many, many people who call themselves “activists” would put your average journalist, to shame with their deep and systemic understanding of the issues.
One gentleman I spent some time talking to on Saturday was clearly homeless. “In between jobs”, he said. And he SCHOOLED me on the links between government policy regarding mental illness, the history of Native ‘rights’ in Canada, and poverty. I was blown away. Dude would get an A+ for sure if he wrote that down and handed it in for a university assignment.
Society is actually FULL of brilliant, learned, caring and courageous people.
That’s bloody inspiring.
Two is how LOVING the protest community is. Have you ever been to a rave? You know, the all night dance parties, popular in the 90s, which operated outside the law and everybody dropped Ecstasy (or other things) and spent the night dancing, hugging, sharing? If you have never been to a rave, dude, you missed out. :’( But THAT is the closest collective vibe I ever experienced that mirrors what you find at a protest (minus the Ecstasy; protesters are overwhelmingly sober aside from some weed here and there).
I spent the day marching with a couple of Black women who appreciated the drumming and danced down the street with me (I had my drum, of course.), a bearded tall dude who didn’t say much in person but chanted passionately with the crowd, a young woman proudly holding a “Dump Your Racist Boyfriend” sign that made me laugh, and a smattering of others who were my microcosm of love and solidarity in a crowd of several thousand.
At protests, people are gentle, overwhelmingly. Their eyes are kind. Their smiles are warm. They share. They talk to strangers, without hesitation. And they respect your space, if you are having your own ‘moment’ and don’t feel like engaging. Every new encounter oozes mutual respect, starting with a smile and bright eyes. In pre-COVID times, many start with a hug.
I know some white people who feel anxious about getting involved with a Black or Native-led movement, or with groups from different cultures. Cuz, you know, aren’t White people judged, even hated? Isn’t it a minefield, where you’re always afraid of offending someone? etc.
No. The reality is, when you show up, your ally-ship is clear, and your acceptance is instantaneous. Are there moments of discomfort sometimes? Of course. And as you push through those moments, you realize how deep the practice of respect and listening can be, and how quickly people can see past your skin-based “group membership”, to the person you actually are.
That’s bloody inspiring.
Three is how diverse and broad-scale the protest community is. It is a true cross-section of society, although not of the entire political spectrum, I must admit. Saturday was mostly young people, granted. It was a little different than climate marches, which are even more diverse. But I think the recent violence against BlackLivesMatter and related movements has indeed made people wary. Although thousands showed up, there were RELATIVELY few kids in strollers (but there were a few), and elderly people (but there were a few). Understandably. This was also true for protests against government surveillance (Bill C-51, I believe it was) and other issues where it’s a little dicey as to how the police are going to respond.
But still, the people who show up ARE people like you, and me, and your neighbour, and the nice guy who works at the grocery store, and the woman in the coffeeshop, and the bus driver, and your teacher, and the person sitting in front of you at church.
That’s bloody inspiring.
Four is how much leadership, and ‘grounding’, are provided by Native people. They really are the experts in societal reform, and this is abundantly clear the more I encounter their leadership and wisdom. I grew up knowing literally ZERO about Native history in Canada, and my impressions of Native people were entirely driven by stereotypes. This ignorance disappears rapidly when you get involved, in person. Listen to their songs, their speeches, their recounting of history. Listen to their ideas, and how different they are from those of mainstream society, so steeped in hierarchy and symbols of power and control that “we” have collectively forgotten that Humans are innately kind, and sharing communally IS “human nature” far, far more than militarily organizing and subjugating each other under the delusional mentality of scarcity that seems to have infiltrated most of the world’s thinking.
Native people know that Mother Earth is abundant. There is enough for everybody. If we treat her, and each other, with love, then all of us, and all of our descendants, can live in abundance and peace.
They have been waiting for us “settlers” to come and sit with them, in community, ever since the first ships arrived from across the sea. They’ve never stopped extending their hands in generosity.
That’s bloody inspiring.
This is what it’s (usually) like to go to a protest.
From my perspective, denying the basic “feminist” (I would say historical) insight that women have historically been subjugated and oppressed, relative to men (and indeed, by men), is absurd. It’s as absurd as a Flat-Earther or Climate change denier position.
(Interestingly, Jordan was a climate change denier for quite a number of years, and we used to have conversations about this sometimes when we had adjacent offices at U of T. I was always confused, and amused, at the strength of his BELIEF in his own theories.)
(To be fair to him, he’s shifted his tone in recent years from climate change denial to denial-that-we-can-do-anything-effective-about-it. Which is, of course, the exact same shift that has happened in Jordan’s fanbase’s (making an assumption here) part of the political spectrum in general. But I digress….)
Jordan’s reasoning: Jordan’s denial of the existence of The Patriarchy goes basically like this:
Life is hard, especially before the past 100 years or so, when life was absolutely brutal. Men and women had few choices in life; poverty & lack of opportunity was the norm. So men and women HAD TO work together, struggle together like true teammates merely in order to survive and raise their family in a hostile and difficult world. Life is tough, Jordan constantly reminds us. Life is brutal. Life is a terrible existential burden. Life is suffering. And life before the recent economic advances of the last human lifetime or so, was even worse than anything most of us can imagine. So, the notion that men were out there ‘subjugating’ their women is just wrong. They were bloody well working as hard as they could, together, just to stay alive. So, there’s no Tyrannical Patriarchy.
Besides, what a terrible way to view history, he says! Do you really want to believe that all our forebears were these women-abusing terrible tyrannical men? Do you really want to limit your view of women to these passive victims of systemic violence? Is that really the image that best captures the ‘heroic pioneers’ (let’s ignore the colonial aspect of this for reasons of space) and others of our ancestors that you want to have? How dismal!
(Errr, Jordan, just gotta remind you here what your pal Ben Shapiro constantly reminds us of — facts don’t care about your feelings, buddy.)
The recent empowerment and “liberation” of women across the 20th century was not a result of activism, feminist thinking or ideals, or anything else that “the Left” usually puts forth as a driver of social change. No, it was mainly technologies — the Pill, the tampon, better sanitation practices, etc. Because you see, there was no “Patriarchy” holding women back; it was mere biological inconvenience most of the time, due to the inescapable fact that women are the ones who bear children, menstruate, and are responsible for much of the work of childcare, thereby benefiting the most from technological advances that make caring for children less of a horrendous slog.
Furthermore, Jordan believes that the differences in outcomes between men and women (e.g., women being paid less than men), largely boil down to PREFERENCES. He makes this argument for dozens upon dozens of hours online. Basically, there are two reasons for this.
One is that women tend to choose lower-paying careers. He usually talks about Engineering vs. Nursing, and says that men choose to be engineers more than women do, because engineering is more about Things than People, and men are, on average, more inclined towards Things. Nursing is the opposite, and therefore, women gravitate towards nursing. Now, because engineering is valued economically more than nursing, men get paid more. No “Patriarchy” there. Just free choice and free market valuation.
Second, the people who truly are superstars, the ones who rise through the ranks, who make it to the top of the heap, have to be not only extraordinarily capable, but extraordinarily committed. They HAVE TO put in the 80+ hour work weeks, because if they don’t, someone else will, and then that other person will be the one at the top. So, the highest levels of success (and therefore $$$$), go to the most ardent, practically pathological competitors.
So again, free choice comes in here. Women are more interested in people than things, and especially as they approach their 30s and certainly as they zoom through those 30s, women increasingly value children and family, and don’t exactly want to be spending 80+ hours a week at work. So, on average, women CHOOSE more moderate levels of achievement, in order to be moms and home-makers at least part of the time. Men, on the other hand, less inclined towards family relative to achievement, end up putting in the long hours, and they therefore become the Managers and CEOs and truly successful people.
In short, men make better career choices (economically speaking), and they work harder (not on average, necessarily). As a result, at the upper end of the achievement continuum, you’ll find it disproportionately comprised of men, NOT because of some “glass ceiling”, but because these are the rare people who truly work their butts off to attain excellence.
He sometimes “backs up” this argument with the observation (note: this is a subtle form of gas lighting) that women are amazingly strong. They have opinions, strong wills, stubbornness. Women are hardly pushovers. Therefore (Jordan concludes), it is RIDICULOUS to assert that these countless generations of women have merely capitulated to and been controlled by their husbands or other male figures in their lives. Surely women are stronger than that? After all, have YOU ever tried to tell a woman what to do? (Again, Jordan’s reasoning, and insinuation, not mine.)
So no Patriarchy. Just free choice and even-handed market forces at work. Nothing nefarious to see here, move along….
Whew. I am trying very hard not to reduce my response to a mere “WTF dude, that’s cray cray.” Because, to give Jordan credit, he does think pretty deeply about these things, so there’s a good chance this isn’t totally cray cray? Okay, fair enough.
Here’s what I can accept: Three main points:
⁃ 1) Life is hard, especially historically for the masses. Men and women both lived tough lives.
⁃ 2) Women are strong, and resist being told what to do or controlled.
⁃ 3) The biological reality of having and raising babies, plus the societal reality of the bulk of that work falling on women, plus the societal reality of women being raised to value people over things, family over career (on average, of course), puts significant barriers in the way of women achieving the highest ranks of success. Men don’t have to choose family vs. career, but unfortunately the practical reality is that many women do. So, this “choice”, both of career and of how much work to put in climbing the ladder to success (note: I am not claiming this is “free choice”, which I will address below), puts women at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to competing with men to get to the very top and achieve the positions of power.
BUT — and this is a “Big but”….you know, like an elephant-sized butt kind of but — these beliefs DO NOT LEAD to Jordan’s conclusions. The logical leap is so enormous it is stunning to me that he continues to make it.
⁃ 1) The fact that life was hard and men and women had to struggle to survive has ZERO RELEVANCE to whether or not the men and women had equal amounts of power over their own lives. It is not difficult to imagine peasants, struggling to survive, living tough lives and all that, and yet at home, the man is still “master” and the woman is still more or less the servant. Jordan’s premises do not lead in any conceivably logical way, to his conclusions.
⁃ 2) The fact that women are strong and don’t like to be controlled, doesn’t mean that they cannot be overwhelmed by broad-scale societal, legal, economic, religious and other forces which “put women in their place”, as the old saying went, taking away their agency and preventing them from having access to power. I’m sure individual women fought hard to make themselves heard. There are countless examples of such heroic women. Many of us can relate, with our own aunts and moms and grandmas. But again, the premise that women are strong and don’t like to be told what to do has ZERO RELEVANCE to whether or not they CAN be effectively controlled by societal forces.
To give an obvious, painful analogy, I would imagine Jordan believes that Black people and Native people are also strong and don’t like to be told what to do. But….um….slavery? Genocide of indigenous people? Are those things somehow “not real” because surely strong, stubborn people can’t be overwhelmed by societal forces? Jordan’s argument is not only ridiculous, it is offensively ridiculous. And I don’t say that as a snowflake who gets easily offended, but as a respectful person who is well aware of the depths of suffering that Black, Native, and Female folk have experienced as a result of, yes, “the Patriarchy”.
Interestingly for Jordan, who claims (incorrectly) to have membership in a Native tribe, if he wanted to see what society WOULD look like in the absence of the Patriarchy that he doesn’t believe in, then he should talk to the Native elders, and particularly the women, and gain some insight into how profoundly different Native North-American cultures are from the patriarchal, Bible-informed, European cultures he seems to be such a staunch fan of. In particular, how WERE those cultures before centuries of colonial violence, genocide and near-erasure?
Many Native cultures were, for thousands of years, matrilineal, with women having key roles to play in the power-dynamics of the tribe and women generally being regarded as the wisdom keepers. (It is of course complicated, because I’m lumping many different cultures together, so this is admittedly a very rough generalization. However, I stand by it as a general statement, in line with my best understanding of the Native scholarship and history that I’ve learned). When you contrast the way that decisions were made in Native tribes, how RELATIVELY flat their hierarchies were (relative to what Euro-cultures have given us, by far), the amount of self-determination enjoyed by women and girls growing up, etc., you would see a very different way of organizing society, and perhaps then “the Patriarchy” would become a little more visible in contrast.
Huh. How about that? No wonder when the “brave pioneers and explorers” showed up, they were welcomed with open arms. When they struggled to survive through the winter and suffered scurvy and such, they were helped by their Native brothers and sisters who understood we are all family under the Creator. No wonder the violence committed was overwhelmingly one-sided. And no, it wasn’t the so-called “savages” doing all the violence. It was the so-called “heroic explorers.” I assume you know the true story of Christopher Columbus by now, for example? If you don’t PLEASE go and read about it.
And no wonder that our current best models and practices for collective healing after trauma, for reconciliation within broken communities, for decentralized and self-determined collective governance, and for effective long-term “management” of “natural resources” (put in quotes because I do not believe in these terms, and certainly not with reference to Native cultures), ALL COME FROM NATIVE CULTURES. It turns out that a matrilineal culture is pretty damn good at figuring out how to cooperate. Europeans? Well…..ever heard of “colonialism?”
⁃ 3) The fact that women are biologically disadvantaged for the specific purpose of working insanely long hours to climb corporate ladders of success, AND the fact that women’s “Free” choice trends towards lower-paying and lower-status jobs doesn’t actually have zero relevance to “the Patriarchy.” It has tons of relevance, but COMPLETELY OPPOSITE to what Jordan concludes.
Women have internalized agreeableness, being less deserving of success, less smart, less capable, having less of a right to strive for their own personal goals. “Behind every great man is a great woman”, the old saying goes. Interesting how it’s only in the last handful of years that we started teaching people more about the Great Women of history, isn’t it? I mean, I grew up with the overwhelming impression that history was about white people, wars, and the male ruling class. That’s it. Everything else was just the shitty lives of peasants, and who wants to know anything about that?
Even today, women who are focused on careers are often criticized as being selfish, having something wrong with them, etc. There is “supposed to be” an innate inclination, a maternal instinct, that “naturally” inclines women towards becoming mommies and having children. Women who’d rather duke it out with men in the corporate arena? That just ain’t “natural”! There’s something wrong with those women. Didn’t their mommas raise them to know a woman’s place?
But the thing is, the various social norms out there, the socialization practices, the beliefs held by people about what is right and appropriate for women, etc., all the things that influence young girls to set their sights on the hearth whereas men shoot for the moon, ALL OF THESE THINGS ARE THE PATRIARCHY. Jordan is well aware of exactly what he believes doesn’t exist.
Just think of a small sample of the constraints suffered by women over the generations, and imagine how these affect not only the opportunities available to women, but also the internalized beliefs about themselves, that little girls would form as a result of seeing the world structured in such a way as to limit their achievement.
⁃ Employment protection for working moms. Child care. Maternity/parental leave. etc. If you set up the workplace such that parents are at a disadvantage, then those who do the most parenting, and who are impacted the most by the process of having children, will suffer the most in their career advancement. And who set up all those rules and practices and regulations? Who was in charge of the corporations of old, the halls of power in government, etc.? Hint: “Women” is not the correct answer.
⁃ Women and men played extremely different social roles in the past, and to a lesser but still obvious degree in the present (on average, of course). Women were simply not allowed into the clubs where business deals were made, the cigar smoking rooms where all the business talk happened. Men talk business in one room, women serve them, or if you’re wealthy enough that there’s a “servant class”, then women sit in the other room talking about family and community gossip. This was practically ubiquitous in the social world. Men go to one space and talk amongst themselves about politics and money and sports and “guy stuff”. Women stay with the children, and the food preparation, and talk about family and relationships and what’s going on in the community. So, who ends up creating business opportunities? Who ends up networking with the movers & shakers?
⁃ Women have LONG been prevented from gaining headway in the halls of power. For centuries, it’s been believed that women were too “irrational”, “emotional”, “soft”, “mercurial”. Or just plain stupid. They couldn’t be trusted with the reins of power because, well, “you know women…”. There are COUNTLESS stories from the past of women who wanted a shot at the top, but like poor old Aaron Burr (sir…), they weren’t even allowed “in the room where it happens”. No, they were in the kitchen, making tea and preparing biscuits to bring to the men.
⁃ Shame — One of the most horrendous legacies of Jordan’s highly regarded Bible and the framework of values it instilled in us, is the shaming of women’s bodies and sexuality. For centuries, women have suffered under the Madonna/Whore framework. They are either put on a pedestal (but they have to be virginal, asexual, “pure”, you know, like Moms. That is, sexless Moms. Yeah…), OR they are gross, disgusting, impure.
⁃ What’s it like growing up as a girl, and learning that your own developing body and its urges are….evil, scary, disgusting, “impure”. This seems to still be true today, particularly for people who buy into Jordan’s positions on the ideological spectrum, “roughly speaking.” For example, have you heard Ben Shapiro discuss WAP? It’s….just wow.
If you don’t believe it’s like this for girls, getting all body-shamed and stuff (seriously? have you ever talked to a girl?), then please, go talk to a mom about her experiences breastfeeding in public.
And menstruation? “AAAAAAAHHHH!!!” **man runs from room in horror**
And what about women who DO enjoy exploring their bodies and their sexuality? Do people accept that? Well, many people don’t accept it NOW. Can you imagine how well they accepted it 50, 100, 150 years ago?
Hmmm, I wonder if there’s any research out there on the long-term psychological and emotional, motivational and ‘success’ consequences for children who grow up being shamed about their own bodies and sexuality. Hmmm….anything? I wonder if the LGBTQ literature has anything to say about this? Jordan? Have you read any of that? Do you not see the relevance to the last 2000 years of girls growing up under the Biblically-inherited prejudice against female nakedness and sexuality?
The Indian Act
I don’t know of a single person, at least one who isn’t brutally racist, who would consider the “Indian Act” passed in Canada to have been a good idea, or to have had basically no significant impact on the generations of Native youth who have grown up under its framework. The Indian Act is a fundamentally dehumanizing piece of legislation, taking away virtually all rights within the broader society, and entrenching a view of Native people as “savages” who need to be “civilized.” I can’t imagine someone not understanding how damaging such treatment would be to children and their eventual emotional well-being, their ability to strive for success, etc.
Women’s rights across much of our history run a rough parallel to the Indian Act. Women weren’t full citizens. They couldn’t vote. Couldn’t own property. Couldn’t inherit property. Couldn’t (for the most part) consider a career for themselves, because “a woman’s place is in the home” and women who choose careers are, well, there’s “something wrong with them”. They are immoral. Even evil.
Add to this the sexual violence that women have suffered throughout history, most of all at home, at the hands of their oh-so-non-patriarchal husbands. But no, women “can’t be raped by their husbands”. Right? It’s their duty to submit. The good ol’ Bible even says so.
And how many women were slapped around? Humiliated when they voiced an opinion? Made fun of by their own husbands for being fat? Or ‘shrill’ when they get passionate about something? Heck, even powerful, professional women today can’t DARE get angry. If they do they come across as unhinged “harpies”. And what about the angry man? Well, maybe a little unhinged too, but powerful, impressive, maybe even A Leader.
Add to this the different amounts of freedom enjoyed by boys vs. girls growing up. The different amounts of autonomy, the encouragement to follow your dreams (vs. find a husband), the emphasis on competence and ability and success (vs. being pretty, docile, and agreeable).
Jordan himself acknowledges this many times, when he talks about how high in Agreeableness women are, and how that personality trait, in excess, holds them back from achieving their potential. He talks about how he has personally helped LOTS of women shake off their inherited-constraints from society so that they could step into their power. And sure, of course men struggle with low self-worth, self-confidence, etc.. But even Jordan recognizes that Agreeableness and its corollary, passivity instead of assertiveness, is a particular barrier for women, on average, compared to men.
And where does this Agreeableness come from? From the internalization of messages about what is appropriate for girls vs. boys to do, to dream about, to expect for themselves, to strive for. From role models out there in society for the boys vs. girls to pattern themselves after. From the institutional structures put in place to help boys vs. girls achieve greatness. And if you need convincing that the amount of resources society throws at helping boys excel vs. girls, then seriously, just stop reading this essay right now, because if you don’t see THAT, then I dunno man…..but my words can’t possibly reach you.
So, Jordan? All that stuff I just said? That’s THE PATRIARCHY.
Grandmas of the World Unite!
Or, just take a look at this personally. Let’s take a survey, of you, me, and the people we know. Let’s all think through the women, especially the older women, in our lives — our grandmas and aunties and such. Did these women, in general, have the same freedom to strive for their dreams as the grandpas and uncles? Did they have the same rights? Did they have the same ability to walk out the door whenever they want, to date who they want, to study what they want in school? Did they receive the same level of parental control and punishment and restrictions, growing up, as their brothers?
Or will they tell you, person after person after person, that a woman grows up in a man’s world, and it’s bloody hard to make yourself heard, to be an autonomous individual, to feel empowered, when every step of the way, right from your earliest memories, you are TRAINED to be “less than”, to step back and let The Man step forward?
My own Grandpa and Grandma illustrate this nicely. They were lovely people, married 59 years when Grandma died, and by all accounts they had a good life and happy marriage, surrounded by friends and family, active in the church, you know, ‘the whole nine yards’.
They were dairy farmers, until they sold the farm and retired. And both Grandpa and Grandma always talked about their farming years with joy and happiness. It was a good life. They made it into a good life together.
But WHY were they farmers? After all, Grandma grew up an urbanite. She wanted to live in the city (Hamilton, Ontario, specifically). She wanted to ride horses as a hobby. She wanted to have a job (which she did when they first met). In the 1920s-1930s as she was emerging into adulthood, she was a fairly progressively minded woman.
And then Grandpa took her out for lunch one day. They sat down at the table, and he proudly slapped the Deed for the farm “they” had just bought. “Grace, we’re gonna be farmers.”
Was he an asshole? No! He was actually a kind, mostly gentle and sincerely good-hearted, God-loving man. He always treated Grandma well. He always treated us kids well. He’s one of my role models in life. But, back around 1930, it never even occurred to him that Grandma should have a say in her own life. He wanted to be a farmer, so he bought a farm. And she suddenly and irrevocably became “a farmer’s wife.”
Of course, she COULD have left him. “Choice” right? But any women who grew up in more traditional times or places knows full well that a woman turning her back on a husband and striking out on her own, is in for a hard, probably miserable life. The economics of society just weren’t set up for single women not interested in being “the wife” of the bread-winning man. Even today, practically a full human lifetime after the mass inclusion of women in the work force around WWII, there is still a lot of pressure on girls to find a good man before they’re “too old” to be marriage material. Their #1 task in life is (so they are told) to find a successful, responsible man who will PROVIDE for them. That belief is by no means rare in today’s society, and this is a CENTURY after women won the right to be considered full legal citizens who could vote.
So, Grandma adapted. She became a farmer’s wife. At least she could have horses now! But….no. Grandpa wasn’t into horses. Didn’t see the sense of it. They were practical farmers, and he bought a herd of dairy cows. No horses. So, Grandma spent her adult life being a dairy farmer’s wife. Gee, just like she had always dreamed….
My point is simply, this was normal. This one-sided decision making is not an aberration, nor is it the result of some tyrannical male. No, this is everyday life, everyday people. It’s the internalization of “the Patriarchy” by BOTH OF THEM. Grandpa thought it was perfectly reasonable to buy a farm without consulting Grandma. And Grandma accepted that it was “her lot in life” to become a dairy farmer’s wife. I’m sure there are 100 million stories like this out there in North America alone.
So Jordan, go tell the old Grannies of the world that they grew up just as empowered as their brothers, and emerged into womanhood with just as much power as men. That they had just as much say over their lives as their husbands. That they weren’t shamed for their sexuality (relative to males), impeded from entering business and professional workspaces (relative to males), had the same types of economic opportunities (relative to males), suffered the same amounts of criticism and humiliation and violence in their homes (relative to males), etc.
And when you convince the world’s grannies and aunties that there is no Patriarchy, then ok, you win.
Now, let’s talk about Race. Actually no, let’s not. Because if you reject everything I just said about women, then this is a waste of time. And if you accept what I just said about women, then you bloody well know the story for Race too.
I’ve been struggling with this essay for more than a year. I’ve written more than 30 000 words on it, and I still feel its woefully incomplete. And way too long…hahaha….
The issue, for me, is that Jordan’s claim that male privilege is a myth is so thoroughly absurd that it’s actually difficult to address. Practically all of history, all of life experience growing up in this culture, and countless personal stories, indicate that Jordan is virtually delusional on this topic. (We’ll get back to this in the next essay.)
AND I shouldn’t be writing this essay in the first place! And Jordan shouldn’t be pretending to be an expert on topics like feminism, gender, etc., while ignoring the decades of scholarship on these topics. Instead, he dismisses this ocean of brilliant thought and insights as being meaningless because it is based on approaches to research and assumptions about epistemology that Jordan thinks are, well, wrong, so wrong that they amount to collective brainwashing as a result of a concerted attempt by “postmodern neomarxists” to take over the education system and corrupt the youth with Marxist ideas. Their “methodologies” are non-scientific, according to Jordan. So, he ignores all that scholarship, entire FIELDS OF STUDY that are relevant to these topics, and makes himself an authority, based on “science.”
(As an aside, this is astounding reasoning for a guy who bases no small part of his thinking on Jung, his own interpretation of Nietzsche, the Gulag Archipelago, and the Bible and other myths. And yes, to give him some credit, Jordan also reads “scientific” literature in psychology, neuroscience and other fields, and bases some of his reasoning on the more presumably “scientific” claims made by those fields.)
So, why shouldn’t I be writing this essay?
Well, more than any other part of Jordan’s work, this feels like a minefield (and that’s a bold claim, cuz there ain’t no shortage of “mines” littered throughout much of his other work, as I’ve been pointing out now for sbout two dozen essays).
AND, here I am, a white dude, with all the dimensions of what are currently considered to be privilege, on my side — I’m white, a dude, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied (well…more or less). I have a Ph.D., so I’m in the highly-educated class. I live in Toronto, so I’m an urbanite. I have generally made a good living, and am employed at a great (economically speaking) institution. I was raised in a Christian family, speak English as my first language. I’ve got no shortage of privilege for North American culture.
(And same with Jordan.)
So, who am I to wade into “the culture wars?” What DOES my perspective matter? Who cares what some white dude who fits into all those above-mentioned categories has to say about topics like Race, Class, Gender, etc.?
And feminism? Who the hell cares what I think about feminism? (I would hope virtually nobody, and same for Jordan.)
Well, it matters what Jordan thinks about feminism, because there are now millions of people who consider him a wise teacher, philosopher, and Guide to living a good life, as well as a religious and historical authority. His views on feminism are considered “true” by his fans, as are his views on lobsters (problematic), communism (blatantly ridiculous), addiction (problematic, at best), motivation to live a good life (problematic, possibly dangerous), etc…
So I’m going to proceed on the assumption that it does matter what we express about these topics. But in my opinion, this whole discussion basically shouldn’t be happening other than just two dudes airing their opinions at a party or something. There SHOULD be no public forum for a psychologist’s views on feminism, unless that happens to be something that psychologist is genuinely an expert in. But Jordan isn’t, and neither am I.
The Greta Thunberg Principle
Greta, to her great credit, consistently tells people NOT to listen to her, that she shouldn’t be the one on stage in front of the mic, and that journalists shouldn’t be taking their cues from her. “Listen to the scientists,” she says, over and over.
Jordan is not much of a scholar on feminism, or Marxism, or Post-modernism, or Gender Studies, or the Humanities, or History, or Sociology, or most of what he talks about (except for Psychology, maybe Neuroscience, and arguably Religion). (And neither am I!)
There are FAR more learned people, who have spent their 10000+ hours learning and becoming experts in these fields. Someone like Jordan promoting beliefs about gender, feminism, etc., is like someone with a high school education, or a Philosophy degree or an MBA, arguing against climate scientists who have been doing the actual research for decades. It’s ridiculous.
“Listen to the experts”. Or at least START there. Instead, what so often happens is that people listen to the contrarians or popular generalists, and then, because the contrarians or generalists inform them as to what THEY think the experts say, people form their opinions about topics based, essentially, on ‘hearsay’.
Not that there’s no role for generalists or you should never listen to them. Heck, I’m a generalist, and I think my educated opinions on stuff have SOME value. But seriously, if I had a theory about, say, communism and the history of 20th century politics, and it was flagrantly opposed to the decades of scholarship by someone like Noam Chomsky, then you should view my theory with at least some serious skepticism. Not that the Expert is always right or that “appeals to authority” are any guarantee of truth, but still. Expertise matters. I’d lay my money on Chomsky, over me, or Jordan, any day.
Similarly for sociological/economic claims concerning socialism and alternatives to capitalism. Instead of Jordan’s absolute (and unfounded) paranoia that socialism leads directly to the Gulag and its 100 million dead, how about checking out Richard Wolff, who is actually a leading scholar on those topics? (Incidentally, Dr. Wolff is diametrically opposed to most of Jordan’s reasoning that relates to his own field of study).
Similarly for feminism, philosophy, and yes, even neuroscience.
So, Jordan having such an impact on topics he knows relatively little about (relative to the experts, I mean), should never have happened. Critiques of Jordan’s thinking on these issues, such as the one I’m about to write, therefore also shouldn’t happen. This whole sham is sad, and instead of listening to media-driven personalities like Jordan talk about whatever he wants, we as a society should figure out how to do a hell of a lot better of a job getting good, nuanced and rigorous arguments and reasoning, plus good guidance for critical thinking, into the minds of people. We should curate our information much more carefully, than merely listening to whoever happens to be in the limelight at the moment. Having said all this, I think Jordan is dead wrong when it comes to feminism, the Patriarchy, and the topic of white/male privilege, and in the next essay, I’ll tell you why.