What Jordan Peterson Doesn't Say
The purpose of psychology is to provide clarification, not instruction.
Jordan Peterson says a lot. His protest of Canadian Bill C-16 was his foray into a litany of issues that are coming to define the first quarter of the 21st Century. However, these deliberate thoughts from the Canadian psychologist tend to coalesce around a central theme: it’s time for young men to grow up and take responsibility.
Such a call has been medicine for a Millennial sick of the coddling from the Left. It’s something the Right has been yearning for ever since William F. Buckley collapsed on his desk—an intellectual justification for their position.
But Dr. Peterson doesn’t say everything, and what he doesn’t say could be the seeds of destruction for the young, earnest males who listen to him as deliberately as he speaks.
When I was a younger man, in the midst of the serious phase that defines that age, I read a lot of books on self-improvement. My goal, which I barely admitted to myself, was to ensure that I didn’t mess up my life. Most of these books were philosophical, because I thought if only I was smart then everything else would work out. Also, I saw myself as above—or I wanted others to see me as above—reading the prattle of self-help compendium.
I did find a lot of value in Think and Grow Rich, though I only read How to Win Friends and Influence People in order to argue with it. Nathaniel Branden was the nexus of the intellectual and practical. I could at least read him in public without trying to hide the cover.
Maybe these books kept my life from getting worse, but I can say for sure they didn’t make my life any better.
It’s only when I began to, quite accidentally, manage my anxiety, that my life emerged from the wasteland of post-adolescence. It’s only when I began to look at my issues, instead of my goals, that I inadvertently accumulated a sense of self-respect the bootstrap-pulling books demanded I have. Paradoxically, the anxiety that drove me to improve myself was the same anxiety that kept me from improving myself.
These growing pains, however, ended up teaching me a lesson that would be central to my development as a psychologist. The lesson was simply this: The relevance of psychology isn’t instruction, it’s clarification.
Young men, especially, rarely come to the clinic because they don’t know what to do—rather, they come to the clinic out of complete frustration because they cannot bring themselves to do what they know they need to do. Unconscious emotional patterns, like procrastination and avoidance, have the power to degrade even the morally upright to substances, video games, and internet porn. The complex nature of the psyche requires elucidation more than anything else, but Dr. Peterson is short on elucidation.
His commandment-style philosophy is exemplified in his new book 12 Rules for Life. As the title indicates, it’s a list of decrees with Dr. Peterson’s signature mythological and evolutionary justification for why the decrees are true. But the disconnect is between the phenomenon of truth and the mechanism behind the phenomenon. The rules carry with them barely a “how” with the “what” and “why.” As such, Dr. Peterson isn’t technically a psychologist—he’s a philosopher who talks about psychology.
Rule number eight is: “tell the truth—or, at least don’t lie.” Like Dr. Peterson’s admonishment to amass responsibilities, this is accurate in that honesty is vital for psychological health. Though telling the truth, simple as it may be, is difficult. The gears that turn the wheel of honesty are hidden, so rarely does following a certain behavior engage them. If they were more accessible, then everybody would be honest all the time and psychology would be indistinguishable from philosophy.
The Disney movies Dr. Peterson frequently references have already imprinted us with the value of honesty. We’re dishonest for deeper reasons—most predominantly, as a defense against insecurity, usually the insecurity of needing to fit in. To be more honest, therefore, requires us to learn how to recognize and manage our insecurities in a healthier way. It requires we learn about anxiety, what it is, and how it accumulates in our unconscious outside of awareness.
Without knowledge of how emotions work, any disorder could be treated with scolding. Alcoholics need to stop drinking, addicts need to stop using, and bipolar disorders need only focus more to stabilize their mood. We would laugh at these injunctions, but they’re no different than instructing an individual to merely cease the compulsiveness that undergirds most dishonesty.
The conscientious types who are attracted to Dr. Peterson, without learning about why they’re dishonest, will inevitably fail. They’ll think something is wrong with them, but in truth they’re only learning how to putty their cracked foundation.
This lack of nuance in Dr. Peterson’s admonishment limits his critique of postmodernism as well. He criticizes the philosophical foundation of Leftism without elucidating why a Leftist would want to live a life devoid of truth. Any constraint—even if that constraint is the divine, correcting nature of reality—to the undeveloped mind, is cause for angst. In a rage against unconscious issues they don’t know they have let alone know how to manage, campus protesters project a chaotic worldview to justify their inner turmoil. Until we speak to this turmoil, debunking the regressive Left will come up short. More importantly, western civilization will fail to learn and grow from the aberration of 20th Century philosophy.
Dr. Peterson’s surface-level philosophy is the symptom of the growing American schism, which was exemplified in the recent debate between Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro. These are, by popular demand, the best American thinkers we have, from the Left and the Right, respectively. Yet, when trying to deconstruct the other’s argument, they both reach an intellectual impasse that neither identifies. Harris cannot see how his determinism inevitably leads to the subjectivism he opposes, and Shapiro cannot see how his revelatory moral code leaves him vulnerable to the same subjectivism of a determinist. What transpired in this debate is these two only look smart in relation to the regressive Left they’re accustomed to arguing against. Their self-imposed low gravity made them weak, so they buckle under the pressure when back on Earth.
The problem with the Right is they’ve become too focused on the worst of the Left, which is so regressive that the pragmatism of Peterson looks intelligent by comparison. But it was precisely the intellectual vapidity of pragmatism that led to the rise of the postmodern Left in the beginning of the 20th Century. It’s the same intellectual vapidity that leads psychologists to think a mental disorder is nothing more than an incorrect behavior.
As the purpose of an opponent is to make us stronger, the purpose of chaos is to make us more aware by learning the structure of the chaos. That’s a bit of advice that's obvious, even for Dr. Peterson.