[To repeat my warning, this blog may be dangerous to your mental health.]
I begin with Jordan Peterson and the alleged failure of liberalism in order to comprehend his view of the forces underlying the conflict between the political right and left. How, in the pursuit of what each sees as the true order of the world, the true good, is the result not simply mutual incompatibility and exclusion, but the very opposite result of the one intended by each? Leftists, it is said, want to change the world; though he berates the extreme right, his more frequent target seems to be the left which he regards as the embodiment of postmodernism, relativism and, believe it or not, aggressiveness. Those on the right believe the priority should be on changing yourself, which is Peterson’s aim. But then how can the two positions be reconciled if this so-called traditional conservative right position merely regards the extreme right as a distraction more than a target?
I will not review Peterson’s book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which, though an international blockbuster and extolled by new media sensations on YouTube such as PewDiePie, has generally been greeted by respected reviewers as inconsistent, self-contradictory, sloppy, shoddy, glib, banal, obscure, boring, full of philosophical buzzwords with virtually no explication, lazy analogies and clichés. They often claim the book to be a tedious read full of arbitrary judgments, and assertions without any defence or argument and citations at odds with the actual references.
Peterson is the mercurial intellectual equivalent of the polarizing Trump, one who mixes polemical tirades with boy scout pep talks. When he offers an assertion without an argument – such as respect and project strength – he comes across as weak. As one commentator noted, he displaces a conservativism of substance, a conservatism of tradition, a conservativism of civility, with the moral equivalent of pop art that turns ads into objects of art as he puts forth a gospel of masculinity.
However, I have bracketed the book’s weaknesses. I am not concerned with Peterson’s own contradictory tales of the genesis of the book out of his “procrastination-induced reasoning” or his more careful and purportedly 1999 deeper volume, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief. I also avoid any consideration of his role as a public intellectual and charismatic communicator using contemporary media, propelled by his singular acerbic stance against the Canadian Parliamentary Bill C-16 to include “gender identity or expression” to be protected under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Peterson’s gun slinging stance, reinforced by his quaint Alberta slang – “Sort yourself out, bucko” and “Toughen up, you weasel” – aims to slay the evils of male emasculation and gender protection akin to the gunfighters at the OK Corral. The position has been contemporaneous with the rise of Donald Trump. But I set that all aside.
Instead, I will focus on the philosophical underpinnings, the most important of which is Heidegger, more particularly, Peterson’s interpretation of Heidegger, and the latter’s notion of Being. In a separate blog sometime in the next few weeks, I will dig into Heidegger’s views in his own right. Today, I address the quotes and the queries posed to me by an academic colleague and one of the careful readers of my blogs.
According to Peterson’s interpretation of Heidegger (see Being and Time), Being is activity (contrasted with matter which is passive) and central to human existence; human existence is inherently tragic. The task of humans is to transform the negativity of Being, its inherent nihilism and conflictual character, into improvement and something positive, namely proper (184) or perfect Being (190) – rule 6. We find meaning, value (and, surprisingly, even joy) by finding our “rightful destiny” (28) in what Heidegger dubbed “Dasein,” that is, how individuals experienced Being in their own unique lives.
How? By developing our consciousness. There is, on the one hand, matter which is passive, and then two active competing forces, one tending towards chaos and ignorance and accompanied by despair and angst, betrayal and horror. The other inclines towards order, towards structure, towards authority. “Order is tribe, religion, hearth, home and country… It’s the flag of the nation.” (36) Consciousness is that which is non-material and which mediates between chaos and order and, therefore, suffers from the tension of such an existence, especially since, even as we enhance order, we are inherently hurtling towards death and suffering pain as we face a telos of destruction even as we try to give meaning (rule 7) to what is meaningless, to do good and not add to the evil, to the meaninglessness, of the world. Instead, our prototype is the good man (168-9), an overachiever aiming for the highest good as a father, a husband and a friend even if, in experience, pain, strife and the inevitably of suffering define the world. (172; 174) One of Peterson’s heroes, versus Aristotle, is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who insisted that humankind was not destined for happiness.
The biblical stories of Adam and Eve, of Cain and Abel, exemplify this portrait of experience. Adam, like God, seeks to give order to the world and to be recognized by God for his efforts. Eve allows herself to slip towards chaos, towards disorder and material existence. In interacting, the two come to know one another and thereby to know both good and evil.
Cain follows in the footsteps of his mother and Abel of his father. Abel, a shepherd, does not work towards increasing order, increasing institutional structures, towards cities and civilization. He is a nomad. Cain, in contrast, the proprietor of order and orderliness and imposing those on nature, in his quest for meaning, ends up killing Abel and, tragically, advancing the chaos he so assiduously tries to avoid and counteract. If Adam and Eve met their tragic end because of their complementarity, and became conscious of good and evil in the process, Cain and Abel do so through conflict between them and the polar tensions towards which each is drawn. That is why we end up with a Hobbesian world that is “nasty, brutish and short” and, in the effort to make the world good and more orderly, we compound that state by adding evil to the mix.
This is satanic. This emerges as conscious malevolence. For, if we are aware that we cannot bring order and meaning to the world, that ultimately we cannot achieve goodness, then we surrender to despair and we turn to destructiveness, to “pure hatred of man, God and Being,” to expediency and acceptance of life as catastrophic instead of accepting that life is a struggle to exemplify order and the good even though we recognize the effort is futile, that proper or perfect Being is out of reach. However, if we do not make the effort, then the self becomes the benefactor of evil who strides “about the stage of Being as Nazi and Stalinist alike; who produced Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and the multiplicity of the Soviet gulags.” (p. 194)
What then is the role of thought, of critical thought, of reason, which Descartes in the seventeenth century defined as the essence and central character of the modern individual and Karl Popper, in that same line and out of that inheritance in the twentieth century insisted that thinking as logical was primarily engaged in building order through a process of falsification of that which contributed to disorder, of taking apart fake news at the same time as the opponents of thought labelled all thought per se as fake. Descartes used doubt to try to defeat doubt and find a foundation for certainty in reason that would replace the dying faith of religion. However, over three centuries, the only result has been sewing distrust in reason itself and affirming the reality of pain and suffering rather than the contentment of logic as the essence of existence. Peterson, using the same doubt, comes to a different conclusion, not the certainty of the self but the certainty of suffering.
The tragedy – in deconstructing and labeling the fake, thought contributes to the notion that all thought is fake. Thought falls into the trap of thoughtlessness and, therefore, helps neo-fascists in their quest for power. That is the tragedy of thought. That is the tragedy of thinking. That is how the quest for the good helps produce the horror show of contemporary existence. Thought cannot avoid becoming an abettor of evil even as it acts in the name of the good, even as it acts in “good faith” to advance the realm of thought and reason. For if the essence of thought is scepticism, if the essence of thought is critique, if the essence of science is premised on falsification, then it is easy to see how that good faith is turned inside out, is inverted to translate all of experience into doubt where truth claims receive no more status than false ones.
There are implications of Peterson’s views on issues such as “fake news.” CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, they all stand on the side of “facts” and discriminating between what is factually accurate and what is hyperbole, what is misleading and what is an absolute falsehood. But all these “news” organizations fail to convey that what they portray as “news,” what they deconstruct as false, only feeds the frenzy of deceit as they suborn themselves to the conviction that fake news, that false news, is the news, when that is the oldest satanic seduction of all. In defence of facts, they help shovel the dirt on the grave of facts. And when we become self-conscious of this, we are driven to despair and into the long night of the human soul.
How can Peterson emerge from this long passage on the road to hell by supporting a very non-Nietzschean moral quest for being humble in one’s exertions in order to resist the core of the satanic path of pride that necessarily leads to intolerance and oppression? He does it by turning away from the dictum “To thine own self be true” towards the humbler premise that one does not possess a self to which one can be true. Rather, he advises, become self-conscious of the deceit in your own heart, of the cowardice in your own gut, of how your own motives are driven by resentment and towards malevolence.
Peterson offers an updated version of a Christianity in which we are born sinners and, however much we strive, and ought to strive, to overcome a propensity to malevolence, we and the world all eventually succumb to their embrace. So generally, “it is best to do what others do, unless you have a very good reason not to.” Peterson found very good reasons in his own mind for rejecting correct thinking and the preference for neutral over gender pronouns. Conformity and critique are not opposites but complements. Be cautious but forceful seems to be his maxim.
By accepting pain and suffering as inevitable, we minimize our contribution to that tragedy and can work to alleviate unnecessary pain and suffering. By accepting the inherent irrationality, the inherent lack of logic to existence, we minimize the worst mistake of the Enlightenment, the belief that we can replace the tragic with a divine order of goodness through science and reason. By surrendering the utopian quest of modernity, we can best minimize though not evade its inevitable hell.
Peterson’s maxims are simple: Pursue meaning even as you accept that it will all be meaningless in the end. Seek unity and order even as disunity, disorder and chaos confronts us and spreads. Pursue the Kingdom of God on Earth, but only if you recognize that God’s kingdom can only be established in heaven. Only then can Being emerge out of Nothingness. Only then can God’s quest to order the world through logos, through words, be pursued though never realized. Pursue truth but surrender the vision of a singular objective truth in favour of your own truth. Resurrect the true meaning of, “To thine own self be true.”
What about the proposed rules? Rule 1 – “Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back.” The analogy is a lobster to put forth a Darwinian proposition defending dominance hierarchies which are “older than trees.” Posture expresses dominance – as do handshakes. You can understand why so many sophisticated critical readers found this writing banal.
Rule 2 – “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping.” The rule is not act towards others as you would have others treat you, but treat yourself as if you were another in need. Clever but not exactly profound. It is as if the inversion in his writing served as a deliberate ploy as when, in narrative chaos, he esteems self-criticism prior to any worldly critique in rule 6 stated above with the imperative that you put order in your own house before criticizing others.
What about Rule 11 – “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding?” Don’t impose order when children are discovering their own way to make order out of chaos. Don’t be over-protective. The book may be badly written. The philosophy underlying it may appear obscure. But the advice is not bad. Rule 12 states, “Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street.” That alone leads me to understand why my youngest son, though professing some ambivalence towards Jordan Peterson, urged me strongly to read him.
I have done my duty.