Jordan Peterson, and straw men for everyone

Peterson should be met with critical, but intellectually honest, thought rather than adulation.

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© Dave DuBay

People can’t stop talking about psychology professor and intellectual dark web thinker Jordan Peterson. Charismatic personalities are emotionally compelling, for better or for worse.

But I have mixed feelings about him.  I agree with Jordan Peterson’s basic psychological message: we must get our personal lives together before we try to change the world—otherwise we’ll do more harm than good. And related to this is that with equal rights comes equal responsibility.

Peterson’s straw men

But I think Peterson’s politics is too alarmist, and this detracts from his psychological message.

I disdain hysterics on both the left and the right. And I think too many people talk past each other, offering straw man arguments rather than accurately representing their opponent’s positions.

We’re all guilty of this to some extent, and I am no exception. But some are more egregious than others, and I include both Peterson and many of his critics in this category.

Peterson rose to fame when he objected to Bill C-16 (now law), which added gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law. He claims C-16 would force people to use alternative gender pronouns, which if true would violate their free speech rights. He says this could result in civil fines or even jail time for those who refuse to pay the unjust fines.

Peterson is clear that he doesn’t believe transgender women are actually women. Further, he advanced the alarmist claim that alternative gender pronouns are “the vanguard of a post-modern, radical leftist ideology” that is “frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”

Nowhere does C-16 explicitly compel the use of alternative pronouns, however. His claim is based on a slippery slope argument. Though Wilfrid Laurier University tried to censure Lindsay Shepherd for showing a video clip of Peterson debating C-16—but failed due to public pressure—this is hardly comparable to a Soviet gulag. And notably, this case involved a university, not a governmental entity.

“Postmodern neo-Marxism” is Peterson’s favorite boogeyman.  But this is a conflation of two different, and sometimes opposing, ideologies.

Postmodernism is notoriously difficult to define. The best definition of postmodernism I can offer is that meta-narratives—the big stories we tell ourselves about why the world is the way it is—are socially constructed. And postmodernists like to deconstruct the power interests of Western society’s meta-narratives. This can include skepticism toward science and reason even to the point of denying there’s any such thing as human nature.

Marxism, however, promotes a particular meta-narrative. And that’s a problem for postmodernists.

Still, there are similarities. Postmodernists think the meta-narratives of Western society serve the power interests of white male elites. And neo-Marxists see a complex array of power struggles—the rich oppressing the poor, men oppressing women, whites oppressing minorities, cisgender heterosexuals oppressing sexual and gender minorities, and so on.

But while there is some agreement between postmodernists and neo-Marxists, it’s a mistake to conflate them just as it would be a mistake to conflate Christians and Muslims because both believe in God.

Progressive straw men

Peterson’s progressive critics are no better, however. They claim he opposes equality when in fact he supports equality under the law but not equality of outcome (though the latter, it should be noted, is a conservative straw man).

They say he wants gender norms to return to the 1950s when in fact he’s saying that there are scientifically verifiable personality differences between men and women, which greater gender equality amplifies rather than diminishing. And this results, on average, in different career choices.

Peterson is also critical of fascism and the alt-right, though this doesn’t stop his critics from disingenuously trying to associate him with the alt-right.

That Peterson is all about oppressive hierarchies another favorite straw man. I’ve read both of Peterson’s books and watched many of his videos, and what he’s saying is quite different.

In the first chapter of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos Peterson says hierarchy in some form is unavoidable because it’s built into our biology. He disagrees with the claim that hierarchy is a social construction, though manifestations of it can vary greatly from culture to culture. Peterson notes that even lobsters, with whom we share an evolutionary ancestor that lived hundreds of millions of years ago, have hierarchies. That’s how deeply biologically ingrained it is.

However, Peterson is clear that hierarchy is not inherently good or bad. It just is. It’s important to understand this because you don’t want to find yourself at the bottom if you can help it. And because societies that think they can eliminate hierarchy end up with horrifically murderous hierarchies—such as every communist country that has ever existed. As such, he opposes both far left and far right hierarchies and instead advocates hierarchy based on merit.

Of course, intersectionality—the progressive belief that some people belong to multiple oppressed groups, which creates a unique experience of oppression that is greater than the sum of each oppression taken separately—unwittingly creates its own hierarchy where people compete for status by asserting they are more oppressed than others. Call-out culture—trying to lower other people’s status by publicly castigating them for oppressive or culturally insensitive behavior no matter how small (“microaggressions”)—is a prime example of social justice activists jockeying for status.

With Peterson and his critics talking past each other, we are still waiting for a serious debate.

 

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Calmer than you are

There’s a scene from The Big Lebowski where the Dude is upset, and hotheaded Walter brags, “Calmer than you are.” But we all know that Walter is faking it.

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© Dave DuBay

What does it really mean to not worry about things that are not up to us?

I just completed a cross-country move to be closer to family. By any objective standard things have gone well. A week after we decided to move a job opened up, and a week later I had an offer. Within 9 days of arriving (on schedule) my significant other was offered her first choice job, and our first choice apartment came through.

So what’s to complain about?

In retrospect the events I stressed over were minor. We had to haggle with the landlord to avoid fees related to breaking our lease. U-Haul’s communication for the delivery of the U-Box was poor, creating uncertainty and last minute schedule juggling. We had more stuff than we thought, and had to make several trips to Goodwill. Avoiding an approaching tropical storm meant a detour which added a day to the drive. And our dog was totally stressed out from 5 days on the road.

Stressors like this seem minor when they’re happening to someone else. But my anxiety levels were sky high, especially because I worried that each event could derail the entire cross country move.

This is not a rational position. Every bump in the road had a simple solution, and none of the consequences were as dire as my fevered imagination would have it. In the end I expended unnecessary energy stressing over unimportant things I could not control—even though I could choose my favored solution.

Buddhists like to say that the point of practice is not to make the waves go away, but to learn how to surf. I write about taking life’s difficulties with greater equanimity not because I am calmer than you are, but because I aspire to be calmer than I was yesterday.

Stoic Buddhism? Or Buddhist Stoicism? Or neither?

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Stoicism and Buddhism have many similarities, but significant differences as well. What follows is my attempt to modify Stoicism with aspects of Buddhism.

I also modify aspects of Stoicism I don’t fully agree with, such as describing a spectrum rather than a dichotomy of control, and saying that things that are not up to us (externals) don’t cause the greatest harm instead of saying they can’t harm us. Extreme circumstances can cause people to mentally decompensate, and dementia can result in loss of the ability to make effective choices.

Stoicism’s focus is aretê, usually translated as virtue or excellence—the best of what human nature is capable of. One’s practice of these higher ideals defines one’s character.

Buddhism’s focus is the cessation of suffering.  I argue that being people of character—reflecting the best humanity has to offer—would greatly reduce suffering.

Certainly the Buddhist focus on loving kindness—which I more generally refer to as goodwill—is among the best of what human beings have to offer. And goodwill toward self and others is a choice that is under our control.

I would even argue that goodwill is the common thread of values such as justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom (good judgement). As such, goodwill is integral to eudaimonia, or human flourishing. But kindness and compassion are sometimes weak spots for Stoicism.

And while similar to the Buddhist concept of nonattachment, I find the Stoic notion of indifference toward externals to be less realistic.

Further, while Stoicism seeks to restrain destructive emotions through reason, Buddhism seeks enlightenment by transcending the self (which is said to be an illusion). And I would argue that recognizing the illusion of a permanent self—along with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing—is a rational perspective that can decrease anger and greed while increasing compassion.

I hope what follows is a coherent framework:

  • We all suffer.
  • But the greatest harm comes not from things or events but rather from our judgments of them.
  • Thinking we can control anything other than our choices, values, and deliberate thoughts can result in actions that cause harm, especially to one’s character. We must realize that external things are not up to us.
  • Practicing goodwill toward ourselves and others is a choice that is up to us, and it’s the surest path to human flourishing (eudaimonia). To promote goodwill, reason must restrain overpowering emotions and focus on:
    • Correct understanding: the spectrum of control (externals are not up to us), interbeing, and the illusion of a permanent self. So we must practice nonattachment and realize that life is constant change—everything is impermanent.
    • Good intentions focused on values such as:
        • justice,
        • courage,
        • self-control,
        • and good judgment
    • Compassionate communication.
    • Non-coercive action based on the four values listed above, as well as recognizing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
    • Pursuing our livelihood in an ethical manner.
    • Full effort.
    • Focus.
    • And mindfulness.

Practice combines Stoic exercises such as morning and evening reflections, and Buddhist-style meditation. And the inspirational texts of both philosophies are utilized.

This is a viewpoint that accepts modern science as the best explanation for the functioning of the natural world. But it’s open-ended regarding other metaphysical questions. Diversity of thought about God, atheism, life after death, rebirth, nirvana, free will and determinism, and so on is accepted.

And it is tolerant of disagreements regarding what political approach best produces human flourishing. Conservatives, progressives, libertarians, and others honestly believe their political ideals are best for humankind. But there are unacceptable ideologies, such as those that promote hate or deny human rights.

Drifting deeper into agnosticism

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Certainty and agnosticism are about what we think we know or don’t know, while religion and atheism are about what we believe or don’t believe. My position for the past 20 years has been agnostic atheism, or “weak atheism”: I don’t know if God exists, but I doubt it. Lately, however, my emphasis has leaned more heavily toward agnosticism.

Few people are really moral relativists

There are two reasons I can’t be certain that there is no God. One is the observation that most people, myself included, reject moral relativism. If you agree that a murderer did nothing objectively wrong because what’s right or wrong is up to the individual (or to the culture) then you’re a relativist. But most of us think certain actions are wrong no matter what some people might think, which implies objective morality.

Further, Arcdigital.media editor Berny Belvedere points out that the idea of progress implies a standard of higher and lower morality. If there’s no objective moral standard then the abolition of slavery was a horizontal shift rather than a vertical incline toward a higher morality.

In my opinion, God is the most straightforward way to assert objective morality. But there’s widespread disagreement on what God’s moral standards are. You could even argue that God’s morality is relative because God could have a divine change of mind (though most religions say this wouldn’t happen). But even then God’s morality would still be the final standard.

An alternative is to use observable suffering as a metric—including the fact that in most circumstances we all wish to avoid suffering. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind, avoidance of suffering is inadequate to fully explain human morality. In other words, avoidance of suffering is a type of relativism, albeit a robust one.

Something must exist without causation

The second issue is that most of would agree that some things can exist without having been caused. The question of who created the universe (or multiverse) leads to the question of who created God, and an infinite regress. Theists say God is self-existent, but many scientists say it’s the universe that is uncaused.

But what’s the difference between an uncaused God and an uncaused universe? Conscious intelligence is a deeper question. If God exists then presumably God acts intentionally. But the universe is not conscious. Cause and effect is mindless.

The scientific challenge of claiming the universe is without a cause—even that cause and effect didn’t exist before the big bang—is falsifiability. But neither can God’s existence be proven. If God is infinite then quantification of the divine is impossible. Besides, if God could be proven like a geometry problem then faith would be unnecessary.

Deism

The belief in a conscious intelligence that created the world, including moral standards, is emotionally appealing to me. But I’m cautious about believing something just because I want to. And I cannot honestly believe all the details of Christian belief, such as the virgin birth, resurrection, and other events that suspend the laws of nature.

My inclination is to shrink God to something more palatable: a God who is powerful enough to create the initial conditions for a life sustaining universe but not powerful enough to control every detail of how it unfolds; and a God who is primarily a morally inspirational force rather than one who intervenes directly. But to a certain degree this approach seems contrived.

Outrage: Passion as a disease of the mind

What Stoicism says about resisting manipulation.

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© Dave DuBay

Resisting cultural forces requires constant effort. The unending stream of media and entertainment is background noise that influences us more than we’re aware of or care to admit.

And as Russ Roberts points out on his Econtalk podcast, the internet age enables us to customize our newsfeeds to amplify our biases and suppress viewpoints we disagree with. It’s not that human nature is more tribalistic today. It’s just easier to indulge our tribalism compared to decades past.

To make the walls of my bubble less opaque I follow conservative publications such as the National Review and Fox News; progressive outlets including The Nation and The Progressive; and Reason, a libertarian magazine.

What they all have in common, however, are headlines designed to elicit outrage. If you don’t share their bias then the outrage often seems silly. But if you do share their bias then the headline easily evokes anger.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes in letter LXXV that,

“Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement. They have come on so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

This disease of the mind is

a persistent perversion of the judgment so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or if you prefer we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that we shouldn’t oppose separating children from parents who have illegally entered the United States. But outrage over minor things like the latest mean tweet can diminish the seriousness of issues such as separated families. Furthermore, anger and outrage, including wanting revenge, can cloud our judgement and lead to irrational behavior that fails to achieve justice—or which in the long run might actually make things worse.

Notice how our reactions to harmful things is too often an overcorrection. Street drugs can be harmful, so we throw a pot smoker in prison for 10 years along with murderers and rapists. Globalism sometimes neglects local concerns, so the president declares NATO a foe. Capitalism someones exploits low income people, so we must turn to socialism—even though capitalism has greatly reduced poverty.

But outrage is seen most loudly on social media. Its anonymity—particularly that you don’t actually have to face the person you’re insulting—incentivizes people to say all sorts of horrible things. The problem isn’t just that they think they’re doing no wrong. Most do so self-righteously, implying their moral superiority. The desire to punish transgressors can create irrationality to the point of causing even greater harm. That’s why murders of intimates are often more vicious than murders of strangers.

Stoics philosophy claims that events don’t harm us. Rather, our thoughts about these events harm us. That is, we can choose to put our passions aside and do the right thing even when something unfortunate or harmful happens. Physical or psychological harm may occur, but only we can harm our souls.

If we fail to pay attention to the constant barrage of daily outrages, however, we can get caught up in a pattern which can lead to a disease of the mind—a pervasive anger that never quite seems to resolve. And by paying attention I don’t mean becoming outraged, but rather being aware of the attempt at manipulation so that we can step back and not take the bait.

Stoicism might not be a bummer after all

I’ve heard the Dude is Epicurean. He follows the pleasure principle. Take ‘er easy.

And he’s anything but unemotional. I’ve never heard anyone say Mr. Spock is a dude.

But wait a minute. The Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski is a tale of the Dude being very unDude.

A carpet pisser ruins his rug. And that’s a bummer, man. That rug really tied the room together.

There are two Jeffrey Lebowskis. The Dude is an unemployed aging hippie. The other Lebowski is a millionaire (sort of) whose young trophy wife owes money to known pornographers. It takes the goons a while to figure out they’re at the wrong Lebowski residence.

The Dude was about to realize it’s all part of the durned human comedy. Except his bowling buddy Walter convinces the Dude that he’s entitled to compensation. And the Dude gets uptight and decides to confront the Big Lebowski.

A Stoic dude would have been like, “Amor fati, man. It’s just a rug.”

But in the Dude’s mind the rug is not a preferred indifferent. The soiled rug didn’t mess with his eudaimonia. The Dude’s belief that he was done wrong did that.

The serenity prayer is Stoicism in one sentence: change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change.

Stoicism isn’t emotionless. That’s just being a human paraquat. Calmer than you are. Shoosh.

So someone peed on your favorite rug? Sometimes you eat the bear. And sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A wiser dude once said, “Life is change, but that’s only a bummer if you think it is.” Is that some kinda Eastern thing? Far from it. It’s Marcus Aurelius. Maybe I paraphrased a bit. Whatever, man.

Back in the day, Stoics and Epicureans were bowling for different teams. Maybe we still are. But it’s not about winning the semi-finals. It’s how we play the game.

Putting negative emotions in perspective makes us chill. Anger, greed, lust, fear, jealousy are just different words for uptight. In the final estimation Stoicism is about being a good person. And it’s hard to be dudely toward other people if you’re uptight.

But not freaking out over stupid stuff takes a little self-discipline. The Dude wouldn’t have had to put up with all those ins and outs if he hadn’t been greedy for a cut of Mr. Lebowski’s money in the first place.

Stoicism and Dudeism are compatible. Parts, anyway. Some guy peed on your rug? Forget it. Let’s go bowling.

Keeping partisanship out of Stoicism

Honest people may disagree on what is just.

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© Dave DuBay

Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.

But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.

Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.

I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.

But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law.  Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.

Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.

Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.

I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).

I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).

Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.

But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.

The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”