Wednesday, February 28, 2018

JORDAN PETERSON AND SNAKE-OIL SELF-HELP

     For those who don't know, Jordan Peterson's new book 12 Rules for Life has become something of a phenomenon. Mostly this is less because the book has much of any substance than that Peterson has gathered something of a cult of personality about him. His Youtube channel has logged about 35,000,000 views. To put that number in perspective, that's roughly the same as the entire population of California. 

     Peterson was an obscure professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto until he did what academics should have been doing: he stood up to some PC over-reach. This gained him a measure of notoriety; which was reinforced by his defense of traditional gender-roles. So far, so good. But going much below the surface a less attractive picture begins to unfold.

      Peterson's book---and his other works in general---seem to be an admixture of Nietzsche, Machiavelli, and Jung with a measure of commonsense thrown in to make those values seem viable. Frankly, these are three philosophers for whom I've had little or no use: the one thing all of them have in common is a belief in an Uebermensch, or a superior man. Now while we here proclaim that men should rise to their fullest potential, that is not what these writers mean. That means that some men are superior in some things; and that the Equality of Man is the way these combinations of superiority work to the benefit of Society. But what these people mean is that some men are intrinsically superior to the masses of other men. They deny any measure of equality. 

       Peterson follows that very same path. "Nietzsche pointed out that most morality is cowardice." he pontificated to The Guardian in a January 21st interview, "This is absolutely the case. The problem with 'nice people' is that they've never been in a situation that would turn them into the monsters that they are capable of being." 

       This is obviously false. As a psychiatrist, he should certainly be aware of Alfred Adler's famous maxim that two children raised in an identical environment will often turn out differently. And historically, we could point to dozens of examples where good men have shone in the most trying of circumstances. But Peterson's outlook on humanity is a grim one. Besides human equality, he also denies the belief in 'the Pursuit of Happiness.' This despite the fact that Philosophy---from the earliest times---has made human happiness as its chief goal.

        Thus, Peterson spins this web of nonsense: "Happiness is a pointless goal. Don't compare yourself with other people, but with what you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically, but also literally and neurologically, These stories are what the great myths and legends have been telling us from the dawn of time." 

        Actually this is not what they teach. They teach us that humanity is made for cooperation and that no man is an island. The indigenous peoples of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania lived in societies that had minimal formal government, and it wasn't until Western explorers and pioneers came into contact with them that the ideals of individual rights began being discussed in the West. Thus Peterson is wrong again when he posits that: "Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That's the great discovery of the West. That's why the West is right...the West is the only place in the world that has figured out that the individual is sovereign." It may be fair to say that the West is responsible for promulgating the doctrine of individual worth (not 'sovereignty' as Peterson says); but we certainly did not invent it. And even so, it's not been a generally accepted principle even in the West until the end of WW2. 

          Here is the root of Peterson's errors: "You only see what you aim at...your perception is adjusted to your aims. So if your aims are dark and corrupted, you will see the dark and corrupt things that facilitate your aims...belief colors perception." It is actually the other way around: perception is what colors belief. How we perceive things determine our behaviors and actions. Again, Peterson shows himself to be a poor scholar of Psychology, because psychologists have understood that fact for decades. 

        Overall, Peterson comes across as a Snake-Oil type, who picks up concepts which he doesn't understand himself but employs them to bolster his arguments---the best of which most of us figured out for ourselves long ago. 

        For a good overall review of 12 Rules for Life, sci-fi blogger Camestros Felapton has been doing one in several parts, which is worth a read. 

  

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