Updated: Mar 2, 2021
In the last two posts of the series, I discussed Jordan Peterson's youthful abandonment of fundamentalist dogmatism, his embrace of socialist dogmatism, and his waning appreciation for socialism after recognizing his admiration for successful conservatives and disdain for many of the socialist party members with which he was acquainted. If you have not read those posts yet, I recommend that you do so.
In this post, I will discuss Peterson's attempt to reject ideology itself in pursuit of authenticity.
Disillusionment is the beginning of authenticity
"The people I knew well were no more resolutely goal-directed or satisfied than I was. Their beliefs and modes of being seemed merely to disguise frequent doubt and profound disquietude" (xiv).
At this point, Peterson's disillusionment with socialist ideology advanced to a disillusionment with political science in general. As he studied political philosophy at the University of Alberta, he was taught "that people were motivated by rational forces; that human beliefs and actions were determined by economic pressures" (xiv). This essentially Marxist materialism is so obviously reductionist, as Peterson notes. In truth, commodities do not have inherent value, but are assigned moral value by persons, cultures, and/or societies. This means that economic forces do not shape human motivations, but human motivations shape economic forces. "What people valued economically," he writes, "merely reflected what they believed to be important. This meant that real motivation had to lie in the domain of value, of morality" (xiv). The forces that drive persons, therefore, must be sourced in something deeper, and something more deeply human, than economic factors alone.
Disillusioned with politics, and disillusioned with political science, Peterson's life-goals disintegrated. He writes, "The world obviously did not need another lawyer, and I no longer believed that I knew enough to masquerade as a leader" (xiv). Although he does not clearly state this, I believe this statement epitomizes his forthcoming quest to reject ideology and pursue authenticity. Let's briefly discuss each part of this sentence.
The world obviously did not need another lawyer
We typically ask ourselves and others what we/they want to do. This is not a bad question, but, if this is the only goal-question we ask, we are on a path to nihilistic despair. If our lives are simply driven by what we want to do, i.e., our innate desires, we are succumbing to the ideology of egocentricity. When this is the case, there is no transcendent standard for which to strive, which means a lifetime of chasing our own tails. In addition to assessing our passions, we need to ask the questions, "What needs to be done? What does this world need me to be? Where do my passions and skills connect with the ailments around me?" These questions will lead to the kind of responsible purpose that results in a life-well lived.
Don't simply follow your dreams, but consider which of your dreams will awaken the world.
Do you want to be a lawyer? Well, does the world need more lawyers? Perhaps, more importantly, does the world need you as a lawyer, or does the world need you to apply your passions and skills in some other manner?
I no longer believed that I knew enough to masquerade as a leader.
This statement essentially speaks for itself, but it is still worth highlighting. Many of the greatest leaders of the past gained their positions reluctantly, or even through compulsion. Don't misunderstand me, there is certainly nothing wrong with having a drive to point others in the right direction, but a good leader does not crave power. A good leader does not crave influence. A good leader craves the good of those would be led. Are you equipped to accomplish this in your desired position of leadership, whether it be in politics, your private workplace, your school, or even informally in your peer group?
Pursue the Good, and pursue the good of others, and you will lead well. Pursue leadership per se, and you will likely play the tyrant.
When we rigidly interpret the world through an unevaluated rock-solid set of beliefs, to the point that we are incapable of meaningfully rejecting, exchanging, or amending these beliefs, we are possessed by ideology. This manner of life describes the vast majority of us throughout the vast majority of our lives, whether we are unflinchingly bound to an economic theory, a power-hierarchy framework, gender theory, a particular form of religious dogmatism, or even the ideology of pleasing parents or other authority figures. I'm obviously not saying we shouldn't have firm beliefs or hills to die on, but we need to ensure that our beliefs are reasonably based in reality, and not in an artificial construction.
Reread the quote that I used to begin this section. When was the last time that you stopped to consider what your goals are, and why you have these goals, and whether or not these are goals worth pursuing? It is so easy to coast through this life, simply doing whatever seems to come next. However, we need to recognize that we are necessarily aiming at something, but, if that something is nothing, or at least nothing truly meaningful, we are pursuing an illusion that will result in despair, whether or not it is realized.
Pick a good target, aim, and fire.
Only say what you believe
"My head was stuffed full of the ideas of others; stuffed full of arguments I could not logically refute. I did not know then that an irrefutable argument is not necessarily true, nor that the right to identify with certain ideas had to be earned" (xvii).
Peterson soon began studying psychology and, as part of his studies, visited a maximum security prison. Of greatest significance, he describes a "short, skinny, bearded man," who was polite, apparently reasonable, and served to guide him away from a tense situation with other inmates. He later learned from his supervisor that this man had murdered two policeman after forcing them to dig their own graves. Peterson recounts that this realization was pivotal in helping him to break free of the ideology of good/bad people. How could somebody so apparently civil and sane commit such heinous evil?
This question was advanced after a couple of the inmates had pulverized the leg of a third with a led pipe. As he reflected on this event, and on evil actions in general, he came to the conclusion, "The truly appalling act of such atrocity did not lie in the impossibility or remoteness, as I had naively assumed, but in its ease. I was not much different from the violent prisoners - not qualitatively different. I could do what they could do (although I hadn't)" (xvi). We all have the possibility of manifesting goodness or manifesting evil. Countless Nazis were ordinary people like you or me who simply acted upon the wrong drives propelled by the wrong ideology. Even if our evil is not quite as obvious as that of the Nazis, our "ordinary evils" of ceaseless grumbling, self-oblivious judgment, nihilistic destruction, or just simple selfishness all leave enduring marks on the chain of human interactions that will continue for generations to come. There are no ordinary evils.
As Peterson's rejection of ideology advanced, he notes that he started hearing an internal refrain as he spoke:
"You don't believe that.
That isn't true.
You don't believe that.
That isn't true" (xvii).
Over the past few years, I have often heard something like this refrain myself. In truth, I think this is something we should all be open to hearing on a regular basis. How often do we act on borrowed assumptions which seem to convey nobility, or even on unevaluated logical arguments? How often do we live with the spirit of our desired collective instead of living as real, authentic individuals striving to understand the experience of reality? Peterson provides a quote from psychologist Carl Jung that explains the reality of our personas (externalized images) well:
"When we analyse the persona, we strip off the mask, and discover that what seemed to be individual is at bottom collective; in other words, that the persona was only a mask of the collective psyche. Fundamentally the persona is nothing real: it is a compromise between individual and society as to what a man should appear to be. He takes a name, earns a title, exercises a function, he is this or that. In a certain sense all this is real, yet in relation to the essential individuality of the person concerned it is only a secondary reality, a compromise formation, in making which others often have a a greater share than he. The persona is a semblance, a two-dimensional reality, to give it a nickname" (xvii).
When we live as personas, we aren't really living at all, but instead are allowing ideology to live through us. We are embodying the illusory collective and, consequently, become illusions ourselves. This is not healthy for us, and it is not healthy for the responsibility that we, as individuals, have to act out in the world. This is despair.
Continually asking ourselves whether our speech represents true and truly held beliefs will surely lead to less speech, but that's surely not such a bad thing. Maybe we won't get as many likes, but we will be more content with ourselves as our words, and we, carry significance. Maybe we will lose some superficial friendships, but our relationships will be more satisfying. Maybe our lives will slow down, but, at the same time, we will actually start to move.
Don't be a persona. Be a person. Be real. Be authentic. Be an individual who inspires other individuals. Stop focusing on setting the world in order, and begin by setting yourself in order with the pursuit of authenticity
As Dr. Person would say in his rural Albertan dialect, "Only say what you believe, bucko."
In the next post of the series, I will finally wrap up the preface to Maps of Meaning as I discuss Peterson's return to a kind of religiosity and assess how this relates to Christianity.
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