Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

From CRB:
Long after the American Revolution launched our experiment in self-government, the tenuousness of civilization continued to define frontier life. Hollywood westerns captured this experience, memorably and even nobly. These movies “portrayed a world in which genuine heroes and therefore genuine villains were possible, where human and American virtues and vices contended in all seriousness,” John Marini wrote in these pages (“There Once Were Giants,” Spring 2001). By probing “the deepest tensions in modern conceptions of the human condition or human happiness,” these movies “confronted the fundamental questions of politics.”

Though Jordan Peterson is not an American, his work takes up these same fundamental issues, familiar yet still unsettled. Indeed, it is not wrong to consider Peterson in connection with the cowboys of the Old West. “I come from northern Alberta, I come from the frontier,” he says, describing it as “kind of a rough place.” Peterson’s hometown, Fairview, “was scraped out of the bloody prairie 50 years before I lived there.” His earnest demeanor and forthright way of speaking attest that a doctorate in clinical psychology and tenure at the University of Toronto have not erased the frontier’s influence. (See the sidebar on the facing page for an outline of his life and career.)

Peterson’s lessons for helping people make their way in the world, outlined in the bestselling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, published in January, can be as gritty as anything uttered by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood: find your burden and carry it; stand up straight with your shoulders back; tell the truth…or, at least, don’t lie. But what Peterson is attempting goes beyond campfire aphorisms, beyond even the academic skirmishes that first launched him to fame. As a result of his book and extensive collection of lectures on YouTube, he has become a phenomenon, in part because he has a project—or rather, a mission. Like a lawman on the plains, he represents something larger than himself.
End of an Age
To appreciate Peterson’s popularity fully, one must look at the massive social and political transformation underway as America’s 75-year-old Age of Television draws to a close. Its demise is closely related to the collapse of the liberal establishment’s “Blue Church”—a metaphor popularized by Jordan Greenhall’s essays on Greenhall, a tech entrepreneur with a law degree, explains the 2016 election as a “revolutionary war” that saw the end of television as a centralized, top-down method for reinforcing a dominant moral-political “narrative”—a set of authoritative customs that have defined American culture. Television powerfully reflected and enforced liberalism’s quasi-religious authority, respectability, and expertise—a process thoughtfully explicated by another Canadian, Marshall McLuhan.

The ascendant digital media, unlike television, are dynamic, decentralized, and interactive. Their veneer of anonymity encourages disdain for traditional authority. Television had been the preeminent pulpit of the Blue Church liberal establishment, which includes much of the Republican Party’s country-club wing. Donald Trump and his supporters represent a red-state insurgency that uses digital media—and more haphazardly, the powers of the White House—to try to overthrow the old establishment, including the administrative state. “The old weapons have no more sting,” Greenhall writes. “The collapse of the Blue Church is going to lead to a level of ‘cultural flux’ that will make the 1960s look like the Eisenhower administration.”

The crumbling of the liberal establishment’s moral orthodoxy is superintended by the nation’s first exuberantly anti-P.C. president. Of course, the U.S. has been through worse political crises in the past. Even as recently as the 1960s, radical protests and violence—including riots, bombings, and kidnappings—seemed to threaten our constitutional order more than today’s political correctness does. Some, therefore, might consider Greenhall’s apocalyptic warnings to be overwrought.

Jordan Peterson, however, is deeply worried. “There’s a reasonable possibility that things are going to go very wrong, very soon...for all of us,” he remarked in one video interview. “We’re playing with fire.” With the centrist accord on what constitutes respectable opinion falling apart—especially on the most sensitive issues of race and sex—political extremists at both poles are rushing to stake new claims. The “alt-right” sees itself as a new counterculture, gleefully embracing a shock-and-awe strategy to leverage digital vulgarity. Meanwhile, the zealous Left on and off campus has beaten the plowshares of postmodern views on identity and social construction into swords for tribal warfare. For calling out the resultant anti-intellectualism, such eminent men of the Left as Noam Chomsky, Stanley Fish, and Steven Pinker find themselves attacked as enemies of the new progressivism. In Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (reviewed by Edward Feser on page 68), which has been sharing the bestseller list with 12 Rules, Pinker deplores the irrationalism of the regressive Left, and seems to accept or even welcome his prospective excommunication from the Blue Church.

Enlightenment Now defends the Age of Reason and its heroes: Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and the other scientific conquistadors who gave us the New World. If the political center cannot hold, then perhaps—as Pinker suggests—scientific progress can provide surer ground for our comfort and safety. There is, of course, a great deal to be said for modernity’s achievements in medicine, technology, and democracy. The Federalist gamely notes that “the science of politics…has received great improvement.”

But there are deep questions about the underpinnings of modern science. The 20th century’s greatest statesman, Winston Churchill, and greatest philosophic thinker, Leo Strauss, both doubted the utopian presumption that science could liberate mankind from all restraint and hardship. Churchill warned against the possibility of a new Dark Age, “made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.” Strauss observed that “while science has increased man’s power in ways that former men never dreamt of, it is absolutely incapable of telling men how to use that power.”

One of Strauss’s first students, Harry Jaffa, explained that modern rationalism sought “to discover premises that could not be doubted, and to proceed therefrom both inductively and deductively to conclusions that could not be doubted.” This would lead to the “ultimate transformation of philosophy into wisdom.” By confining wisdom to the world of objects that can be measured and manipulated, modern science tried to remove from sight and mind anything beyond this materialist focus—above all, the human soul.

But advances in quantum mechanics cast grave doubt on how well we can really understand the one thing science purports to grasp: matter, the substance held to be the source of all causes and recipient of all effects. As early as 1927 biologist J.B.S. Haldane came to suspect that the universe would prove to be “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” Nature, with its quirks and quarks and charmed particles, appears far more mysterious and less manipulable than the Cartesian rationalists thought. Strange and indifferent, the universe would seem to offer no support to the ancient philosophers’ aspiration for a cosmological ground of virtue; but neither does it anymore underwrite the modern desire for a natural predictability and lawfulness that could be counted on to help liberate mankind from necessity. Those seeking refuge from the chaos of politics will find little comfort in quantum indeterminacy.

Peterson, likes Strauss, sees the Enlightenment’s utopian project as a dead end. “Prior to the time of Descartes, Bacon and Newton,” he wrote in his first book, Maps of Meaning (1999),
man lived in an animated, spiritual world, saturated with meaning, imbued with moral purpose. The nature of this purpose was revealed in the stories people told each other—stories about the structure of the cosmos, and the place of man. But now we think empirically (at least we think we think empirically), and the spirits that once inhabited the universe have vanished.
His project, which here departs significantly from Strauss, is to rehabilitate the wisdom of this pre-scientific understanding by melding together three modern approaches to find a non-arbitrary ground of spiritual meaning amid the dislocations of modern life. The moral framework he constructs, which resonates powerfully with his many admirers, combines neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and Jungian analytical psychology (drawing especially on the narrative tapestry of persistent human archetypes, based on ancient myths, that Carl Jung called our “collective unconscious”). This mélange is held together by Peterson’s pragmatic common sense, and a deep well of empathy formed by his years as a practicing psychologist treating patients. (Read more.)

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