Reflection on “Critique of ‘Beyond Order: 12 More Rules’ (Jordan Peterson)” by Davood Gozli
What map should we use and when?
Davood Gozli is a constant source of strong material, insight, and analysis. He recently recorded a series reflecting on Beyond Order by Jordan Peterson, and we should all appreciate the time Davood took to put the series together.
I enjoyed Peterson’s Maps of Meaning years ago, and I believe that is where Peterson shines brightest. I personally find Peterson’s popular books incomplete, but I also know people who would say Peterson has immensely helped straighten out their lives. Could they have found this positive influence from other and better sources? Perhaps, but I don’t think that diminishes Peterson’s contributions.
Beyond Order is meant to be a “popular book,” and I’m sure Peterson would stress that point in light of critiques he receives. Personally, I wish society as a whole replaced the metaphoric structure of “popular books versus nonpopular, academic, professional, etc. books” with “Level 1, 2, 3, etc. books,” because I think this would help drive home the point that we really can’t replace nonpopular books with popular ones. Yes, I understand leaving out the nuance and talking in vast generalities to keep a text from becoming 800 pages long and losing readership, but at the same time, leaving out nuance really matters and transforms the very meaning of the arguments themselves. If we understood that we were reading a “Level 1” book though, that might help us maintain some intellectual and epistemic humility; right now, I believe the impression of the “popular genre” metaphor is that we “get the gist of it” from popular works and really don’t need the deeper stuff — longer and harder texts are just for academics, professionals, and the like. I think this is a critical mistake.
“Maps aren’t territories,” so no book can be perfect, but currently we tend to think of “popular books” as containing the main ideas and “nonpopular books” as containing (unnecessary) technicalities (note also that the term “nonpopular” implies “bad,” perhaps contributing to subconscious bias). This is a mistake: there are “Level 1 maps,” “Level 2 maps,” etc., each of which adds valuable direction. Perhaps we personally don’t need the “Level 4 map” which takes us all the way to the summit of Mount Everest — perhaps we just need the “Level 2 map” to reach Nepal — but that’s very different from saying “the Level 2 map is essentially the same as the Level 4 map.” We cannot replace the Level 4 map with the Level 2 map, and if we try, we’ll get lost. I fear that is what happens all the time today due to the language of “popular vs professional books.”
That out of the way, below you will find a list of my thoughts on Davood and Peterson. Before continuing though, please do be sure to watch Davood’s 6-part series; it’s well worth your time.
1. I like the idea of a “fool” being someone who questions the social script (and thus is a “fool” relative to that script). This person has an important function of questioning and “checking and balancing” the credentialed to assure, every now and then, that the credentialed really are qualified. In this way, “the fool” could be called “the tester,” and the fool has this function by forcing the credentialed to explain topics from “the ground up.” The fool knows nothing (or at least acts that way), so the credentialed cannot skip around or leap ahead: the credentialed will have to painstakingly build up from the foundation, the act of which can unveil that the credentialed has gaps in his or her knowledge that the credentialed didn’t realize were present. Perhaps not — thus the need for periodic tests.
2. Davood is correct that Peterson’s idea that we shouldn’t break rules except in the name of a higher rule is strange, for in what sense are we really breaking rules then? I think Peterson might have in mind Edmund Burke or “Chesterton’s Fence,” and what Peterson is trying to say is that we shouldn’t deconstruct something unless we have something with which to replace it. It’s easy to be critical in this world where nothing is perfect, but if we tear down preexisting structures without foresight, the “new world” we enter into could be worse than the imperfect world we left behind. Assuming this is what Peterson means, I think this is a fair point he is making, but of course those in power could use Burke to make us fear changing the social order, suggesting the difficult task of discernment. This is discussed in “Belonging Again” by O.G. Rose.
3. I agree with Davood’s point that society tends to absorb counter-cultures, thus making them part of the general culture, and this draws into question the “chaos versus order” dichotomy Peterson likes to use. The point that no one is an “agent of chaos,” actually, but instead we are all just different agents “of our ideas of what should be the social order.” This is a crucial nuance, and again suggests problems with the “order versus chaos” dichotomy (in which is embedded a problematic value judgment).
Now, to give Peterson credit, in his mind, I think the “order” which “chaos” is defined relative to is “the social order,” and indeed our present Capitalist order is profoundly based on the Petrodollar, for example. Hence, efforts to switch off of fossil fuels could be considered more on the side of “chaos” than the side of order, and this is because switching off the Petrodollar will entail a lot of practical and difficult changes. In this way, concerns about Global Warming risk “chaos.” Peterson may also argue that, yes, everyone has an intellectual and “individual order,” but there is generally only a single “social order” defined by the material and practical existence of the society in which we live (on the macro-scale, at least: diversity emerges as we “zoom in” on smaller localities and communities) — any ideas that conflict with that social order errs on the side of chaos.
Fair enough, but what if the current “social order” will destroy the planet in a hundred years? Sounds like “order” in this case is the real source of chaos, and individual reformers concerned about the environment those who want to save “the social order.” Sure, Peterson might reply, but “chaos and order” is defined relative to the present, not the future. And so on.
Ultimately, I think all this suggests the problem of “overfitting” the work of Carl Jung. The metaphors, terminology, and the like Jung uses to describe the individual and his/her circumstances are useful, but they don’t work very well when applied to entire societies and large scales. Personally, I find the language of Sigmund Freud (as discussed by Philip Rieff) to work much better at describing social systems than Jung. In the same way we almost need two different theories of physics, one to describe the quantum world and the other to describe “larger objects,” it’s almost like we need Jung to describe individuals but Freud to describe societies. For those interested in Freud, the lectures by Cadell Last are wonderful.
There is of course overlap, but where Jung wants to stress “chaos vs order,” Freud will describe “givens vs releases” (to use Rieff’s framing), where “givens” are the assumptions we make by which to organize our lives (“thoughtlessly”), and “releases” are the freedoms we can live out, unrestricted by “givens.” If “givens” are too strong, tyranny develops, but if “givens” are too weak, anarchism takes over. A balance much be struck, one that is constantly renegotiated and managed, never solved.
I think Peterson has something similar in mind with the language of “chaos and order” (and I value many of the points he makes), but still, “chaos and order” is just not a good metaphoric structure for the social level, and, again, metaphors matter (as we learn from Susan Sontag). Peterson seems like he can be a Jung “monotheorist” — someone who tends to see the world through a single theory — when his work would benefit from being a “polytheorist” who moves between conceptual structures and theories (based, in this case, on the size of the social unit discussed). Perhaps Peterson is trapped too much in a single story? This hints at his need to explore a “pluralism of stories,” as Davood Gozli suggests.
To summarize, Peterson “overfits” Jung: he tries to use Jung to explain both individual lives and social orders, which though entails truth, loses nuance and precision. It would be better if Peterson switched to the “mental model” offered in Philip Rieff on Freud when Peterson described society at large, a mix of Jung, Freud, and Rieff in smaller society units, and primarily Jung regarding individual lives. Again, I understand many of the points Peterson makes and value them: it’s just that I think he would benefit from moving between metaphoric systems.
4. I like Davood’s idea that there can be a kind of violence in forcing everything into “the hero myth”: I think that is true and speaks to the danger of “monotheorism” again. Perhaps Peterson would reply that creating a new story is incredibly hard, but if we’re an “open” person who can move between stories and explore new territories without major cognitive dissonance, then we should. However, “open people” are relatively rare, and if we’re not that kind of person, “the hero myth” is a safe investment (this point brings “spiral dynamics” to mind). To use an investment metaphor, it’s almost like “the hero myth” is a blue-chip stock, and though better returns can be found in the speculative biotech world (with more risk), history has shown that blue chips are more reliable over time.
I don’t want to push “the investment metaphor” too far (which I have Lorenzo Barberis Canonico to thank for creating), but it might help us understand Peterson’s approach. Peterson seems to think that a focus on “personal responsibility” is likely to produce a better “return on investment” than say focus on “overturning systems of power” (a line of thought perhaps justified by the work of Deirdre McCloskey). If the system is defeated, the payout could indeed be greater, but it’s unlikely that average people will be able to change the system (probably only privileged people can have such an influence); thus, the better ROI rests on focusing on “personal responsibility” (as suggested by Bret Weinstein when he interviewed Peterson recently). This in mind, Peterson caters his writing style, language, topics, and the like around that ROI, and though that causes major problems (as we’ve discussed), the overall ROI justifies the mistakes in Peterson’s mind. Whether this is true or not is a different question, but I wonder if “return on investment” as a metaphor is useful for helping us grasp Peterson.
(On this point, again, I wish we erased the “popular vs academic book” distinction and switched to something like “Level 1, 2, etc.” metaphors, all while suggesting that ROI increased the higher the level to which we advanced.)
5. It’s been discussed by many others, but I think Peterson’s most glaring shortcoming is his description of Postmodernism. Derrida was a genius, though perhaps the followers of Derrida are not, and if Peterson said that, well, that would be one thing, but Peterson goes after Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, and similar thinkers. Now, perhaps it is true that the followers of these thinkers have indeed incubated some of the social problems Peterson detests, because followers often live and think according to misinterpretations of primary texts (as studies in religion make clear quite quickly), and a deep question that this leaves us with is if thinkers are responsible for misinterpretations of their texts. Justin Murphy makes convincing arguments that Giles Deleuze is much more traditionalist and even Conservative than Deleuze seems, but the majority of people interpret Deleuze as a radical Leftist. Is Deleuze responsible for this interpretation? I don’t think so, but Peterson may think otherwise, and thus Peterson’s general criticisms of Postmodernism. (But if this is the case, Peterson needs to take responsibility for influencing the Alt-Right which Peterson has said he doesn’t align with: Peterson needs to either change his criticism of Postmodern thinkers or take ownership for his followers.)
I personally wish Peterson didn’t go after “Postmodernism,” which he associates with “The Woke Left,” but instead something like “Neo-Maoism” (I don’t like the phrase “Cultural Marxism” either). Now, perhaps calling “The Woke Left” “Neo-Maoists” would be a bad categorization — that’s a different conversation for a different time — but it would at least separate Peterson’s criticisms from Postmodernism, hence helping correct what I view as Peterson’s most problematic shortcoming. Perhaps there is a correlation between “reading Postmodernism” and “being a Neo-Maoist,” but correlation is not equivalence.
“Postmodernism” is not a simile for “nihilism”; in fact, some postmodern theologians argue that the best way to get at “Ultimate Truth” is through the death of “metanarratives,” for they color and block our experience of Divinity. Peterson’s mistake is speaking like “a death of metanarratives” is the same as “a death of truth,” and though these can follow, they do not necessarily follow.
For those who are interested in an elaboration on why it’s incorrect to conflate “Woke Culture” with Postmodernism, I suggest “Unregistered 110: Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay,” which makes the critical point that Wokeness is more a product of the Frankfurt School (with particular focus on Herbert Marcuse, the mind behind “repressive tolerance”).
6. Davood questions Peterson’s “serious language” (the use of words like good, evil, demons, angels, etc.), and I wonder if Peterson uses “over the top” language to motivate people to do what he is saying, to supercharge his advice with cosmic significance. Peterson wants people to see their individual choices as part of a cosmic struggle, believing the loss of that sense with the decline of religion has hurt humanity. At the same time, what if the decline of religion has contributed to “the great peace” Steven Pinker discusses? Hard to say.
A few more points could be made — say on Davood’s idea that it’s better to be frivolous than a terrorist (Peterson stresses the value of commitment without discussing the possibility of a pointless commitment), the value of Peterson’s distinction between “reliving the emotion” and “gaining a new interpretation” when remembering the past, Peterson’s over-focus on “the I” versus “the we” — but for those points, I encourage you to watch Davood’s series. Davood does a much better job examining Jordan Peterson than me, and I share Davood’s view that criticism is a sign of respect, respect which Jordan Peterson deserves. Peterson has helped people live better lives, and I can hardly think of a more noble undertaking.