Posts Tagged ‘Jordan Peterson’

Jordan Peterson on the totalitarian temptation

June 25, 2018

One of Jordan Peterson’s core ideas is the human capacity for evil, and his great examples are the crimes of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and Communist China.

What’s notable about all three, he wrote, is not just the atrocities committed by the ruling party, but that the regimes were sustained by the consent of ordinary people.

Under certain circumstances, Peterson believes, almost all of us are potential secret police informers and concentration camp guards.

Alexandr Solzhenitsyn

His heroes are people such as Viktor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who found a meaning in life to sustain him in a Nazi death camp; Vaclav Havel, who lived in truth despite his frequent imprisonments in Communist Czechoslovakia; and, above all, the great Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, who survived Soviet forced-labor camps and found a way to tell the world about them.

Havel condemned those who went along with the regime, such as the greengrocer who put up a sign saying “workers of the world, unite” because doing so is a path of least resistance.  Solzhenitsyn went so far as to blame himself for helping make the Gulag possible by failing to contract the Soviet regime’s lying propaganda.

So the choice is stark.  Either be willing to say “no,” no matter what the cost, or be a potential cog in a killing machine.

What is it today to which we need to say “no”?

It is whether to go along with unprovoked military aggression, assassinations, preventive detention, torture of suspects, warrantless surveillance and all the other practices of police states—all of which have come to be accepted as normal.

Ordinary Americans let themselves be led, step-by-step, to committing atrocities such as the My Lai massacre or the Abu Ghraib tortures.  Until more of us learn to say “no”, we will be just like ordinary Germans in the book Peterson discusses in the video above.

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Jordan Peterson’s intellectual limitations

June 8, 2018

I enjoyed and admired Jordan Peterson’s 12 Years for Life.  It is good advice, written in high-energy prose, on how to form the habits that enable you to overcome despair and lead a meaningful life.

The fact that it is a best-seller is not only due to the merits of the book, but on the need for such books, especially for aimless young men.

Jordan Peterson

When I reviewed the book, I largely ignored Jordan Peterson’s underlying political views because I didn’t think they were important to the book’s basic message.

But now that Peterson has become a political pundit on TV, I think his political thinking deserves a closer look.

In the videos I’ve watched, Peterson expresses himself forcefully, understandably and without equivocation.  He gets the better of debate opponents and hostile interviewers.   He says hardly anything I outright disagree with, but much that is one-sided and incomplete.

Here’s what I see as Peterson’s intellectual limitations.

Psychology vs the Social Sciences

Peterson has a good understanding of human motivation, based on wide study of psychology in all its aspects and also his practice of clinical psychology.   But human behavior is constrained by political, economic and social structures, which Peterson has not studied well.

For example, he explains economic inequality as a product of hierarchies of competence, the fact that some people are more talented and work harder than other people.

I have no doubt that such hierarchies exist.  But they don’t explain the great increase in wealth of the top 0.1 and 0.01 percent of the population throughout the Western world.  The average CEO’s income was 40 times the wage of the average corporate employee 30 years ago, and it is 400 times as much now.  Are rich people smarter and harder working now than they were 25 years ago?  Or is there some other explanation?

Psychology helps you to understand what is permanent in human nature.  You need the social sciences to understand differences between communities and societies and how they change over time.  I would like to see Peterson engage with a social scientist who knows his stuff, such as the economist Thomas Piketty or the political scientist Thomas Ferguson.

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Individualism vs. Mutual Aid

Jordan Peterson is an unusually self-reliant and individualistic person.  As an anti-Communist, he identifies with individual dissidents such as Alexandr Solzhenitsyn.  But I don’t know of anything he’s written about the Solidarity movement in Poland.  There is only so much you can do by yourself to resist tyranny.  You need solidarity with others.

Similarly, he considers himself a Christian of a sort.  But he never goes to church.  He once said he doesn’t need to participate in a congregation to think about God.

12 Rules for Life is all about taking responsibility for solving your own problems and for society as a whole.  It is sensible, inspiring and a good starting point.  But there is only so much you can do by yourself.  Mutual aid is part of human life.  People need to be able

I admire Peterson’s rugged independence, but most of us human beings aren’t like him.  We need community as well as freedom in order, first, to survive and, second, to get things done.  Peterson is insufficiently aware of this side of life.

Academia vs the Great World

Jordan Peterson became famous not just because of his book, but because of his resistance to mandatory rules about using special pronouns for individuals who didn’t consider themselves men or women.

I think he was right both on academic freedom grounds and on the merits of the issue.  But he writes and speaks as if conflict over political correctness rules were as big an issue in the world as large as they are in academia.

In the world outside the college campus, women are subject to employment discrimination and sexual harassment, black people are subject to employment discrimination and police harassment and unauthorized immigrants to deportation and separation from their families.

These are not micro-grievances, and it is natural and right for people who are picked on because of race, gender, immigration status or other characteristics to band together on the basis of identity to defend themselves.

It is true that this kind of identity politics can devolve into a war of competing micro-nationalisms, without a vision of the common good.  Peterson’s critique of identity politics is all right as far as it goes, but it is not enough.  What’s needed is an idea of the common good.

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Jordan Peterson takes antidepressants

April 24, 2018

Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, author of the best-selling 12 Rules for Life, said a 2012 interview (above) that he takes antidepressants and expects to take them for the rest of his life.

I don’t have any current information, but my guess is that this is still true.

His daughter Mikhaila, who was 20 back then, also said she takes antidepressants.  Peterson believes he is subject to a genetic flaw that his grandfather and father also had.

This runs counter to the argument of British journalist Johann Hari, whose new book, Lost Connections, was reviewed by me in my previous post.  Hari said people are depressed not because things are wrong in their brains, but because things are wrong in their lives, which is often due to things that are wrong with society in general.

All three generations of Peterson appeared to have everything that makes life living—meaningful work, friends, loving marriages, children and the respect of their communities.

Yet Jordan Peterson’s grandfather and father went to pieces in middle age, and Peterson himself thinks that he might have suffered the same fate if antidepressants hadn’t been available.

Mikhaila, the daughter, did go through a lot of suffering.  She suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from a young age and had to have hip and ankle replacements.  But she didn’t suffer alone.  She had the support of parents and friends.

So none of the Petersons fit the profile of typical depressed people as reported in Lost Connections.

Hari reported on clinical studies comparing patients who’ve been given antidepressants with patients who’ve been given placebos and patients who’ve been given nothing.

They indicate that 50 percent of the apparent benefit of antidepressants comes from the placebo effect and 25 percent from people simply getting better on their own.

That, of course, leaves a remaining 25 percent who actually were helped.  Hari said nobody understands how this works, because the effects of the various antidepressants are widely different.  Some increase serotonin, some decrease it, some increase or decrease dopamine and other biochemicals.  Also, many of them have bad side effects.

Peterson said that antidepressants work best for people who outwardly have great lives and are depressed for no apparent reason.   If you are depressed because you are unemployed, divorced or lonely, antidepressants won’t fix you, he said; you need to look for a job, a new mate and new friends.

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Jordan Peterson and the dominant lobster

April 17, 2018

I forgot to mention the most striking metaphor in Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life—the struggle for dominance among lobsters.

Hierarchy is a law of nature, Peterson wrote; it is hard-wired in our brains by the evolutionary process.  It manifests itself not only as top dogs and pecking orders, but the struggle for dominance of our distant ancestor, the humble lobster.

Lobsters, it seems, compete for the best nesting places where they can be safe when they are shedding their shells.  The winners are lobsters with the biggest claws and a level of confidence produced by a substance called serotonin.   Sub-dominant lobsters not only fail to get good nesting places, but their level of serotonin drops so they can adjust to their lowly status.  Not only that, lobsters respond to Prozac.

So don’t be a loser lobster, Peterson says; stand up for yourself.

Illustration from 12 Rules for Life

It’s true, as he says, that human beings compete for dominance in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  Everybody can see this.  I’ll never again observe a certain type of (usually) male behavior without forming a picture in my mind of a giant humanoid cartoon lobster, waving its claws.

And it’s also true that the human body produces serotonin.  But current thinking is that serotonin has little to do with mental states.  In human beings, its main function is to aid digestion.   Also, even though lobsters respond to Prozac, there is no evidence that it makes them happier.  Also, the lobster species is not the ancestor of the human species.

Peterson, to his credit, does not advocate being at the top of a dominance hierarcy as a life goal.   That way lies fascism by way of social Darwinism.  What he says is that life is tough and you need to be able to stand up for yourself.

Where he goes wrong is to claim dominance and hierarchy in the animal kingdom have any relevance to current arguments about economic inequality.

It is true that, within any group, there will be one or more persons who are more competent and confident than the others, and they will emerge as leaders.

But that has nothing to do with questions of the power of money in politics, the abuse of power by government or the growth of income inequality.  The current distribution of wealth and power in the USA and other countries does not reflect constants of human nature; it is the result of governmental and corporate policies during the past 35 years.

12 Rules for Life is inspirational, and Peterson mostly speaks good sense when he is dealing with matters of which he has personal experience or has studied deeply.   But on issues of economics and politics, he seems not to know what he doesn’t know.

LINKS

Psychologist Jordan Peterson says lobsters help to explain human hierarchies – do they? by Leonor Gonçalves for The Conversation.

Three More Reasons for Wealth-Deprived Americans to Take to the Streets by Paul Buchheit for AlterNet.  The real issues in the inequality debate.

 

Jordan Peterson’s antidote to chaos

April 17, 2018

Jordan Peterson’s new best-selling 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos is different from most self-help books.   The author doesn’t promise happiness or success.  It is a manual for survival in a harsh, unforgiving world.

He teaches that suffering is inevitable, happiness is not a worthwhile goal, and the path of least resistance in life leads to failure, addiction, depression and hatred of oneself and ultimately of the human race.  But he says it also is possible to pull yourself together, listen to your best moral intuitions and live a life of meaning and integrity.

Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, and also had a clinical psychology practice, which means that he had an opportunity to test his theories in practice.

He has been in the news for his opposition to his opposition to the revolution in thinking about gender and his defense of academic freedom.

12 Rules made a strong impression on me.  Peterson is the kind of writer with whom I hold imaginary conversations in my mind.  I think he has blind spots, which I will get to, but none that negate the value of the book.

Here are Peterson’s rules.

1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
2. Treat yourself like someone you were responsible for helping.
3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else was today.
5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
8. Tell the truth—or at least, don’t lie.
9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
10. Be precise in your speech.
11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

The key fact about life is that it is suffering, Peterson wrote.  Even the most fortunate can expect to experience either serious illness or the illness of loved ones during our lifetimes and then old age and death.

Be grateful for whatever happiness and joy come your way, he says but make your life a quest for something meaningful, not for happiness.

Face with world standing straight with your shoulders back, he says, which is almost word-for-word something my mother told me when I was a boy.  This body language braces you to face the world and its challenges.  (A good breakfast also helps).

Making yourself strong isn’t everything, but it is the first step to anything.  Being weak and agreeable only sets you up to be a victim.

Look at what you do that hurts you.  Look at what you don’t do that you need to do.  If you are honest with yourself, you know what these things are.

Start with some improvement in your life that you know is within your power to make.  Don’t feel embarrassed if it seems trivial.  Just do it.  And then reward yourself for doing it.

Minor improvement day after day is like compound interest, Peterson wrote.  You’d be surprised how much you can change your life over time with tiny incremental changes.

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Jordan Peterson on how to change your life

January 23, 2018

LINKS

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson website.

Jordan Peterson: “The pursuit of happiness is a pointless goal” by Tim Lott for The Guardian.

Jordan Peterson and his 12 rules for life

January 22, 2018

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of Toronto whom I never heard of until last week, but who evidently has millions of followers on YouTube.

Below are his 12 Rules for Living, the title of a book that will be published later this year.  Based on the video above and on a couple of articles I’ve read about him, he is a free spirit who says things that are important and true, things that are important if true and some other things that I can’t make head nor tail of.

  1.  Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2.  Treat yourself like you would treat someone you are responsible for helping.
  3.  Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4.  Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who somebody else is today.
  5.  Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6.  Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7.  Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8.  Tell the truth—or at least don’t lie.
  9.  Assume the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10.  Be precise in your speech.
  11.  Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12.  Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

The 12 rules are true and important.  I remember, when I was a small boy, my mother telling me to stand with my shoulders back and my neck straight.   I think of this when I’m feeling down, and adopting good posture does change my attitude.  It makes me wiling to meet the challenges of the day.

He is right to object to silly rules about gendered pronouns, which regulate how you can refer to people who consider themselves neither men nor women.  I do believe in good manners—referring to people (within reason) as they would wish to be called.   But I wouldn’t try to enforce my idea of good manners through the criminal law.

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