Status and Society in Jordan Peterson’s Ethics
Alienation, Shame and neo-Marxist post-modernists
Leadership is about taking responsibility, not making excuses. — Mitt Romney
Until the great mass of people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained. — Helen Keller
Democracy demands trust. It demands that sense of mutual understanding. And — it’s a two way street. You’ve got to give — as much as you take. — Charles Kennedy
I have never listened or read much of Jordan Peterson before. But first, a disclaimer:
What follows is an examination of Peterson’s ideas. I have incorporated Ben Roberts thoughtful comments. I don’t want to fix Peterson as that would require a book unto itself. Instead I want to look at the effects of Peterson’s message and show how what he says is inadequate as a solution for what Peterson claims to be wanting (fixing society). A large part of this approach requires that I try to examine the internal contradictions within his message instead of imposing values onto what he says.
To that end, I am faced with a problem. I have to address the incoherent label neo-Marxist post-modernist. This label conveys enough of what Peterson wants so as to offend people but conveys too little of what the people Peterson critiques is about to be useful. In order to avoid the largely tangential discussion of what neo-Marxist post-modernist might mean or what such individuals might prefer to be called, I have tried to adopt Peterson’s characterizations of political correctness and social justice warriors with this label with the understanding that sometimes zealous individuals might appear, at least superficially, as Peterson characterizes them.
This does not mean I agree with Peterson, nor does it mean that I stand by his critiques of such social movements. To be clear, I do find value in much of the activities and critiques of such left leaning activists. This isn’t to say that I believe their approach to be wholly without its flaws, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
For this article, I only wish to focus on Peterson.
He’s not the solution we are looking for. Don’t get me wrong: The positive aspects of his message are definitely meaningful. He advocates that alienated young men stop defining themselves as victims and take responsibility for their lives. He also advocates that we speak the truth (as we know it). Both of these messages are positive.
And yes, he gets some concepts very wrong. Peterson is not as bigoted as some left leaning intellectuals would make him out to be. But how he is wrong isn’t why he is popular. Nor is his conceptual inadequacy what is bad about him. (Who among us really understands what post-modernism is anyhow?)
What is bad about Peterson is that he only recognizes the self in terms of success instead of seeing society as a whole. As a psychologist, he is literate in terms of meaning for the self, in relation to a spiritual sacred other and culture. For example, Peterson understands sacrifice. He understands how to build the self in terms of future gain. But his entire message is only about the self, what we should do with others and with ourselves for ourselves.
If Peterson’s goal is to fix society, then his message needs to include an ethics of the Other. If the pendulum of political correctness swings too hard towards care about what other people think, Peterson swings far into the opposite direction. His self referential message, if followed literally, would lead only to a society of selves which is not a society at all.
The Problem for Peterson…
…is that he sees that young men are alienated from themselves. They don’t know who they are, they are conflicted about their own agency. His main message is that to build yourself back up you need to integrate all your tendencies and emotions.
To do that, Peterson cites the need for eternal truths and religion. This appears very positive: that we should build ourselves up. Yet when you actually listen to Peterson speak you’ll see that he expresses negativity towards only one group: the anti-essentialists (what he calls neo-Marxist post-modernists, where everything is a social construction).
At this point we can go in-depth as to whether Peterson or his scapegoat group has more veracity, or whether neo-Marxist post-modernists actually exist in the way he characterizes them, but that’s not my point. This article is about Peterson. There are two areas where Peterson fails. The first area is where he tries to justify his essentialist stance. The second area is where he provides a fix for society (when in fact he only provides an ethics for individuals).
1. Competency vs Essentialism
As far as essentialism goes, Peterson is accurate when he says that humans have existed a certain way for a long time. He then uses the argument that nature is automatically good to justify his vision for humankind.
But look. What isn’t an outgrowth of what humans have been doing?
Peterson may see sexism or social hierarchies as natural (certainly hierarchies are naturally occurring as is everything we do), but it is also natural for humans to make decisions about how to change and grow. For centuries we used alcohol as an anesthetic. Does that mean we should continue to do so?
It’s this problem with past and future where Peterson fails. What was good then doesn’t mean it is good now. In fact this is something Peterson recognizes.
For example, one of Peterson’s beefs with neo-Marxist post-modernists is that they mistake competency for oppression. Sidestepping whether this assessment is true or not, it’s clear that Peterson prizes competency. In fact, his message to alienated young men is to gain competency (in your career, in your relationships).
But what actually is competency? Competency is intelligent planning for the future — for doing or fixing something so that it works in the future (in the podcast, Peterson’s examples are an auto mechanic and a doctor — both of which know how to fix something so an outcome in future is assured). And as he points out, memory is there so we can avoid mistakes of the past in the future.
This begs the question: how much of our social system (hierarchy included) is a mistake? Certainly we cannot develop competency if we continue to behave as others have in the past simply because it was good for them. Peterson claims our brains are wired for hierarchy like lobsters are — which, while vastly reductive — may or may not be true, as obviously our brains are wired for many other things too (that lobsters are not wired for). Thus, Peterson’s wiring argument isn’t acceptable because everything we do is allowed by wiring — including needs that lead to rejecting hierarchies and so on. In other words, Peterson’s neurology argument is flawed because it can be applied both ways.
Nonetheless, Peterson uses the wiring argument to claim that anti-essentialist ideas are categorically bad. This has the effect of implying that Western Civilization is as natural as lobster behavior. If that’s true then it’s also true that anti-essentialist ideas have emerged as part of the civilization Peterson claims he is trying to save. Bring up all the conspiracies you like, but the fact is, regardless of who started anything, if a message doesn’t jive with the audience (if it isn’t “natural” to them in some way) then that audience wouldn’t accept it. Like it or not, Peterson’s claims, like the neo-Marxist post-modernist claims, are acceptable because those claims serve the needs of people and are compatible with how people are neurologically wired.
Humans have the ability to exceed biology’s “purpose” (which we do often). How many of us wear glasses or take medication to extend our lives and fight illness? People plan a great deal, including creating hierarchies of social dominance, organized religion and so on. Part of what is natural to humans is to rationalize, plan and alter our lifeworld. If we did something that was incompatible with our biology then we would get sick and perhaps die. At that point it would be obvious that what we are doing is not good (such as eating too much sugar). It’s not clear that having ideas such as so called “neo-Marxist post-modernist” or otherwise leads bad health.
Thus, when there is no clear line where we should or should not decide for ourselves what is or is not allowed, it is basically a decision each of us must make for ourselves.
Additionally, the very fact that Peterson has to argue for us to live in social hierarchies means that social hierarchies are not inherently natural. If we were meant to live like lobsters then we would simply do so. We wouldn’t have to discuss it or argue for or against it.
This is where Peterson’s reasoning becomes questionable. To my knowledge he hasn’t advocated that all the neo-Marxist post-modernists be physically harmed. But he does find it objectionable that neo-Marxist post-modernists would contribute to the alienation of young men by forcing their ideas onto others.
This brings us to the second area Peterson falls short.
2. Peterson’s Ethics: Alienation, the Self and Others
2.1 Peterson’s Other
Ethics are about behavior. Most of Peterson’s ethics rules deal with the self, although rule 9 is different.
Rule #9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
As Peterson wants to help fix society, his ethics must include rules for interacting with others. Yet, rule #9 is his only rule.
There is an Other for Peterson. Peterson’s Other is the neo-Marxist post-modernist. When we see how he speaks of these others with intense distaste we get a sense of what is acceptable in Peterson’s society — and how much listening one might need to do.
Peterson finds it objectionable that people are characterized by the group they are members of (race, for instance) because members of that group may not conform to how a group is (he says this in the podcast). At first Peterson will claim that neo-Marxist post-modernists don’t even know they are indoctrinated, or are at least indoctrinated lightly. Peterson then goes from a partial characterization to an absolute characterization: neo-Marxist post-modernists should not be listened to or reasoned with because they don’t/can’t reason.
In Peterson’s world that group of people should not exist. (While Peterson’s conceptual grasp of neo-Marxist post-modernist is so sloppy as to virtually talk about no one in particular, some people who identify as his targets seem to share a mutual dislike with him.) This dual exclusion of the Other (neo-Marxist post-modernists for Peterson and Nazis for neo-Marxist post-modernists) is a structural problem; one created by exclusion and unresolveable by increasing exclusion.
To get that a deeper understanding of how Peterson’s work relates to neo-Marxist post-modernists and alienated young men, we have to dive deeper into how Peterson’s rejection of neo-Marxist post-modernists relates to his uplifting of young men.
2.2 Peterson’s Actionable Solutions are all External
Peterson’s solution is to use one’s discontentment; one’s shame to improve. I’m not fully versed with Peterson but it seems as though he grasps that self esteem and serotonin levels are correlated. Nonetheless, he doesn’t seem interested in questioning one’s beliefs; he states that finding relief is mainly an external condition. If you are unhappy with yourself, take responsibility! Stop being weak! Stand up straight!
Certainly, the larger social meaning of shame is that shame is central to any kind of socialization. But if a group of people are made to carry shame in order for society to function (for example: racists, immigrants, women, Dalits in India, and so on) then that is a problem especially since those people do exist and are members of that shared society regardless of how we feel about them.
Nonetheless, people are repositories for our feelings. Think about it: How we construct our emotions regarding a person helps solidify who they are to us. Have you ever decided to reject someone based on how they felt to you? Isn’t this association what falling in love is all about? Additionally, how does your mom feel? Or your best friend? What about that asshole in the other department at work? This association between emotions and individuals extends to race as well, which is what political correctness (PC) is meant to address. How does a particular race feel? How does a particular class, or group feel? Do we automatically expect that a member of a group (such as a profession, or a member of a specific neighborhood) automatically have certain kinds of characteristics that we associate with our feelings?
Our inability to accept emotional aspects of ourselves often correlates with an inability to accept others even if those emotional aspects associated with others are associations that are wholly our own. People carry for us the feelings we associate with them, even if those feelings are associated with certain groups (such as clowns, hair color or immigrant farm workers). This association means that we often reduce people to the way we feel so that we treat them primarily based on the feelings we have about them.
If a group of people carry the shame of being a social pariah (be it a white male or a Jew or a neo-Marxist post-modernist), then that society can become functional on an image that is based on treating a group of people as Other (which is BTW, on a such smaller scale, is what bullying is: see this article on how shame and bullying interrelate).
This construction of who is to be Other (young white male or neo-Marxist post-modernist) is what Peterson’s work is essentially about.
Coming to identify with shame leads to our being alienated. While alienation is the problem Peterson wants to combat, he doesn’t talk about dealing with shame itself. Instead he cites external markers for success (such as getting into a relationship or having a job) as a way to manage one’s own feelings to escape feeling like a victim and being ashamed. Additionally if we follow Peterson’s example, he externalizes his unwanted feelings by attributing them to others.
Essentially, Peterson externalizes success just as he externalizes bad feelings. Instead of accepting our feelings of inadequacy and processing them in order to own them and to improve ourselves, Peterson shows us by example, that it is acceptable to pollute the social sphere by projecting our unwanted feelings onto others.
This impoverished means of addressing one’s self esteem is inadequate as a way of fixing an alienated society.
This also brings us to the actual structural root of the alienation Peterson wants to address.
2.3 Alienation and Shame Pollution
To follow Peterson’s message is to perpetuate this cycle of shame and shaming. Peterson characterizing others as being incapable of reason even while he advocates that one should listen to others. This contradiction highlights how Peterson is faulty for the same reason he claims neo-Marxist post-modernists are faulty: Peterson assumes that there’s no dialogue with a group of people that he projects as ruining everything that is great about civilization.
This kind of attitude (rejection based on blame) is reminiscent of the entire punch a Nazi campaign. (Some liberals might claim that there’s no way to reason with Nazis; they have nothing worth saying; they are irrational and so on, therefore violence is the only response to their presence.)
In this manner, as many have seen, the Neo-Nazis and Social Justice Warriors have the same political belief structure even if they differ in content. Peterson may not be a neo-Nazi but he does not rise above the same faulty reliance on shame and blame that those he criticizes do. Assuming he is accurate (that the group of people he calls neo-Marxist post-modernists exist, and that they cause the social problems he claims they do) then Peterson compounds the problem by offering the same solution — just with a different target.
If his goal is for all of us to be responsible to heal society, then claiming that another group is entirely responsible for the ills of society is antithetical to his thesis because that other group of people are also part of society.
It may be true that there are individuals who won’t be willing to have an authentic conversation — but people like that can be found in any group. To characterize any group of people of being automatically unworthy of authentic interaction based on how we feel about them is what creates alienation and victim mentality in the first place (not only for white males but also for genders, sexes, races and so on).
Socially enforced shame is at the heart of inequality, injustice, racism, sexism, privilege and so on. Historically, the attempt to build a better world led to Civil Rights. One of the primary messages of Civil Rights is to address socially enforced shame (for example, Black is Beautiful). Eventually, the zealousness of trying to eradicate socially enforced shame for a group of people led to shame being rotated onto other groups of people (perhaps whites (mostly males), among others) which came about under the banner of PC. Like Peterson, neo-Marxist post-modernists through PC offer a positive message to its downtrodden (that one is made a victim; that one can choose not to be), and like Peterson, PC does not adequately deal with shame as a structure of our society as it can be a vehicle to perpetuate shame by externalizing it onto others.
Thus the “solution” in PC’s social justice warriors has become as it is with Peterson: to address shame by shaming/blaming others. This externalization of shame is not a solution, because it simply remixes shame without offering any way of resolving it for society at large.
Now we have gone full circle.
A society that functions by shaming is a society that cannot tolerate its own history/culture in its entirety because it has disowned itself from its own injustices. A culture that has a structural component of shame is a culture that creates privilege through a category (be it a race, class, or even membership to a generation) by contrasting it with those of a different category who are deprived. Such a culture encourages us to into pre-made categories, which only perpetuates injustice because it perpetuates categories as the way of dealing with actual people. The only way out of such a cycle of shame is to stop identifying with those pre-made categories — and instead relate to ourselves and others as they to us (which is why rule #9 is a good rule).
None of us can chose what feelings others associate with us. Often we don’t “choose” how we feel about others either. But this is the situation we are in and this situation is what we must deal with. Denial/rejection as a way to deal with others often means that denial/rejection is how we deal with our own unwanted feelings.
3. Living with Others
There is of, course, a purpose to shame. Shame is directly related to the self reflection each of us has needed at some point to be a better person (such as the shame we might feel when we lie). But socially enforced shame is a different matter as that shame is distributed based only on social categorization instead of individual behavior.
If we are to have a future, we cannot live in the social hierarchies of the past (neo-Marxist post-modern, slavery, Feudal Monarchies or not). We cannot live in cultures that automatically assign people as carriers of all that is wrong with the world due to their group categorization (be it women, immigrants, the rich, men and so on). Enforcing social shame on some of us has the effect of releasing others of us from responsibility because enforcement of shame has assigned all the problems with society onto a select few. This projection of shame is the shadow side of privilege. Obviously anyone, regardless of group membership, must be accountable for how they personally interact with other people. The very antithesis of responsibility is to blame others for how we choose to treat them (which is exactly what Peterson does).
Peterson can preach about how to be unalienated all he likes. But such preaching cannot change the causal connection between alienation and socially enforced shame.
As long as Peterson, the “neo-Marxist post-modernists,” or whoever else assign blame based on difference (ideological difference, for instance) they will be running an uphill battle. What’s self defeating about Peterson’s tactics is that he creates the conditions of alienations for some (blame and shame) even as he seeks to eliminate alienation for others. If alienation (the inability to be integrated into society) is the problem, then Peterson is part of the problem.
An actual solution would be to recognize that there will always be people with ideological (or whatever) differences around — and thus to seek to find harmony with them (to follow his own rule #9)— to stop the cycle of shame so that as a whole society can move forward.
Socially enforced shame might have worked to maintain society when the world was big enough for entire civilizations to live in isolation. But that is no longer the way the world is.
We cannot go back. Even if gasoline dried up and we lost electricity, the world is an irreparable intermingling of culture, race, genders and anything else we can think of to characterize people.
Any attempt to fix society MUST include an attempt to not only address what is alienated in the self but also what we find alienating in others (think perhaps, gun shootings in schools). What is wrong most in the world, and that includes how PC can be practiced, is the attempt to control others because we are not willing to come to terms with our own sense of vulnerability. Fearing rape, poverty, violence or any other discrimination or forms of alienation, leads Peterson and some of those he calls neo-Marxist post-modernists to want to control situations, other people, wealth and so on. This is why power discourse is so important — in these discourses, power is about controlling others to guarantee how safe and accepted one can feel.
The problem with this approach is that no amount of control can guarantee security. Successful manipulation of others cannot guarantee feelings.
Decentralization sounds fine, but what guarantee do we have that any individual in a decentralized network will have resources to combat any attempts at hacking? Obviously most people won’t know how to deal with being hacked. So we may have control but we lack security.
The opposite though, is to give your personal data to Google or FaceBook. This is certainly a loss of control but how secure is your information if you have no control (what will these data companies do with it), even if it may be secure from hackers?
My point is that while blaming others for things may make us feel better, that tactic that doesn’t guarantee we won’t feel vulnerable or ashamed later on. In that sense, dealing with the root of those feelings by getting out and being responsible is the way to go. In this sense, Peterson is right: Be responsible for yourself. Victimized or not, get out of the victim mentality. Better yourself, and learn how you fit in the world and grow to find yourself.
This is where Peterson goes wrong: Demonizing others for our feelings of shame is not what responsibility is. Making other people carriers for how we feel about ourselves and then discarding/blaming those people because we don’t want to be reminded of our own bad feelings is not how to fix society. Essentially, Peterson’s ethics amounts to embracing responsibility for your self with no real accountability towards anyone else.
Any real solution at growth requires that one owns one’s shame and comes to accept what that we will have both good and bad feelings as part of being human. In this sense fixing society so it is an integrated harmony means that the individuals in it also integrate and become harmonious, instead of using others as external markers for their own bad (or good) feelings. We can’t truly love/accept others until we love/accept ourselves.
This desire to only benefit one’s self — as capitalism reinforces (by only rewarding individuals) — to only be responsible for things that benefit you — is the very disconnect that led to the need for civil rights in the first place. In that sense, Jordan Peterson’s solution of an individual centered ethics is not a solution at all.
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