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The Jordan Peterson Problem
Not THAT Jordan Peterson problem. We all know about that one. We “sense” something — even if it is not as clear and exaggerated as his most vocal critics might claim. Even if we admire his critiques of regulated speech and his laudable advocacy of personal responsibility, we may remain wary of the “whatever” that makes him so resonant to the alt-right-in-all-of-us & so triggering to the woke-in-all-of-us.
Don’t his well-read analyses of multiple mythological systems always feels a bit too Christian? Don’t we suspect him of an incomplete understanding of postmodernism even while we cheer his stance against superficial and degenerate cultural conformism? There’s something in all that but it’s not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about that OTHER Jordan Peterson problem.
You know… the apparent necessity of public polarization in the popularization of philosophical discourse.
Personally, I am a quasi-intellectual operating from Ontario, Canada. That puts me in an interesting group with Marshall McLuhan, Charles Taylor, Lee Smolin, John Vervaeke and, yes, Jordan Peterson. So I am understandably sympathetic to his work and temperament. However I remain deeply divided about the possibility of deeply dividing people...
A few years ago Jordan went from being a Toronto professor specializing in psychology & comparative mythology to being the most popular intellectual on the planet. Very interesting. This did not happen because people suddenly discovered, and carefully read, the arguments in his book Maps of Meaning. No. It occurred because of his defiant & morally articulate stance against the Liberal-Centrist Canadian government in its attempt to legislate free speech by officially regulating the appropriate pronouns to be used for groups who identify with various genders.
This event catalyzed public interest in Jordan’s work and led to his rapid inclusion into the so-called Intellectual Dark Web. Soon he was lecturing at Oxford in expensive suits, debating Slavoj Zizek, touring the world with his best-selling books and provoking woke activists to call for his banning and censorship.
He even joked once that he had “found a way to monetize social justice.”
What does that mean?
It means that his wealth, celebrity and his philosophical centrality to the public discourse is based directly on his ability to speak in a way that turns on people who find fault with social justice crusaders & triggers people who fervently identify with social justice causes. Divide and conquer. This is the problem.
Or, rather, the problem is: What do we do about the fact that this works? Can we, as thinkers, generate wealth & attention, enter the public conversation, put ideas on the map, without increasing general polarization?
This question should be haunting the integral or meta or transpersonal or transpartisan thought-leaders who urgently see a need for their work but are temperamentally reluctant to foment division.
People who have made their moral, emotional and intellectual life out of balancing-and-integrating diverse perspectives are frequently, instinctively, opposed to dividing the population. They (We?) would like to show up on the public stage in the mode of uniting the divided — not in the mode of FOX News and MSNBC. Their business model is not to appeal generally but to hyper-target polarized subgroups. Play to the base.
Consider Donald J. Trump.
He did not ascend from reality TV star and real estate grifter up to the presidency of the United States of American by appealing to his general support from the public. No, he specialized in turning groups against each other. What he actively cultivated in public was a situation in which he had
(a) increasingly diehard supporters and
(b) increasingly agitated adversaries.
His personal empowerment and the relevance of his viewpoint came through a fairly even distribution of adulation and hatred. Even the election of Joe Biden as his successor was barely more than 50/50 in most voting distributions.
So what “integral” or “metamodern” thinker is going to lean in for being hated by half the population? What good-hearted, well-balanced, open-minded intellectual can, in good conscience, set out upon the pathway charted by Jordan Peterson? And can anyone contribute to real social change if they do not follow that strategy?
This is the Age of the Internets. We all exposure ourselves to random masses of the general public. Thus we can, and must, become accustomed to hearing & searing endless critical remarks on our youtube videos, twitter feed and public interviews. That’s tough. We are built so that we really take public criticism to heart unless we are sociopaths. We want to be liked in order to confirm that our actions are moral and successful. Yet there certainly seems to be a definite ceiling on your popularity unless you stop being so well-balanced — and start pissing off as many people as you delight.
Could YOU do that? Have you the constitution for it? I’m not decided whether I do. I like to be liked. I’m working on the skill of balanced integration and I feel successful when my feedback indicates that I am synthesizing sides somehow.
But clearly, that feeling is a limit when it comes to efficacy in the current social environment.
The only plausible solution I have heard — other than hoping for a pandemic shift in emotional sensibility among human being coupled with a radical restructuring of media incentives — is to figure out who it is good to be hated by.
An odd inquiry for people committed to spiritual growth, no?
Peterson is monetizing the triggering of social justice. Trump “trolls libtards” to the delight of his base. If you are an integrative, metamodern developmental thinker then - who SHOULD you be drawing ire from?
To come forth publically as an agent of developmental integration, capable of moving populations, do you need to say and do things that will upset… who?
Should you be triggering anti-developmentalists? Anti-integrative philosophies? Partisans? Meta-exclusionary activists?
Who are those people? And what will you do about your instinct to include them?
I don’t exactly know. However, I DO know that we haven’t sufficiently asked ourselves this question….