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Jordan Peterson and Ronan Harrington

The Progressive Tribal Block

A couple of weeks ago Ronan Harrington tagged me in a tweet, asking for feedback on his video: “Have you made up your mind about Jordan Peterson? Why Russell Brand can help.” Before answering him I needed some time to digest. Why are we being entreated to ‘make up our mind’ here—to come to some conclusion about Peterson? If you make up your mind about something, haven’t you actively stopped thinking about it?—become an ideologue, in other words. Something seemed off to me.

A bit of context: in my Medium article about Peterson and Brand’s first podcast—which I’d enjoyed a lot—I’d commented on the chemistry of the two men. I’d written: “Peterson is vertically oriented (he speaks about hierarchy), Brand is horizontally oriented (he speaks about universality). The two make very good dance partners, energetically speaking — they complement each other!”. I’d wanted to celebrate a good discussion between people of seemingly very different orientation.

Ronan’s video, on the other hand, has a very a different agenda. But before I offer a critique, in the spirit of fairness, perhaps I should start by laying out my own biases. The root of my negative reaction to the video surely indicates that he is mirroring something in me that I don’t like about myself. Perhaps we are alike in some way. Probably if we met in person, we would get along like a house on fire. Still, when faced with his online avatar, I feel like an intellectual fight. And perhaps behind my reactive anger, there is some clarity. So in the spirit of the meta-modernism which Harrington promotes, let us flesh this out a little.

Progressive Tribal Block

Psychologists have a term they call ‘tribal block’—a term I learned from Dr. Grant McFetridge and his research on Peak States. All of us have tribal block to a certain extent. It means we are blocked from thinking or taking a perspective outside of our own tribe. This makes human communication very frustrating, to put it mildly. In my case, I have probably over-identified with Jordan Peterson—since in the last year and a half I have written over 25 articles on Peterson. Although I have some differences with the good doctor (and even agree with some of Ronan’s criticisms) I defend him mostly—out of love and appreciation for what he has taught me. In general, I believe he is in good faith and worth defending. Love wins over reasonableness at times.

Ok, so what has provoked my ire in Ronan’s video about Peterson? It was my feeling that he tries to make a gesture of good faith, but then he falls back on ideology and tribal block—which made his whole message self-contradictory. Ronan wants to speak from a meta-modern perspective—which some have called ‘post-post-modernism’: a position which allows for oscillation between different world-views and tries not to throw any view out with the bathwater. Ronan attempts to integrate Peterson in this manner and expresses the intention to do so—but he doesn’t.

Confession: I’m probably guilty of the same thing I’m criticising Ronan for, and he’s probably guilty of some of the inconsistencies he accused Peterson of having. We are all human after all—we have our loves and hates.

Petersonitis

The video starts with a reasonable proposition: that many people are being violently pushed to take polarised positions (in this case for or against Jordan Peterson) for ideological reasons, rather than remaining in the liminal space of learning. The problem is: Ronan then proceeds to take a polarised position: defending identity politics, progressivism, and universalism against what he perceives to be Peterson’s conservatism. (Is Peterson a conservative? Perhaps in some ways, but I don’t really think so).

Ronan tells us not to take an either/or position and then proceeds to take various either/or positions, aligning himself with progressive values. How odd that he missed this irony. This can be contrasted with Russel Brand, who is skeptical of some of Peterson’s ideas as well; but one senses that Brand is looking for the best in Peterson, rather than trying to distance himself. Ronan, on the other hand, uses Peterson to advance his own progressive agenda, instead of doing the real meta-work he advocates and remaining in the liminal state of creative discomfort that allows for friendly differences.

Ronan has a case of what Jonathan Rowson has called Petersonitis — or an ambivalence toward Jordan Peterson. Petersonitis may indeed be a real condition: the condition of having mixed feelings about Jordan Peterson. And one form of Petersonitis may be progressive tribal block: in other words, the inability to fully digest Peterson for political and social reasons, and because Peterson is too much of a threat to the progressive agenda. The person afflicted with Petersonitis can’t fully dismiss Peterson however.

Soft Criticism vs Hard Criticism

Personally, like Ronan, I have leftist concerns— if leftism is about a real consideration of economic and social fairness. However, to address real issues we have to go beyond the usual political tropes, clichés, and causes — to develop a real critical spirit, beyond the tribe. And this is precisely what Peterson can bring to the left: firstly, to remind them of the sovereignty of the individual and the dangers of collectivism, and secondly to entreat us to give up the identity politics game.

Ronan’s soft criticism misconstrues Petersons views for polemic ends. For example, while he doesn’t directly say that Peterson is mysgynist he implies it. He has a ‘soft’ way of making the usual critiques against Peterson (Peterson doesn’t understand postmodernism, he is male-centric, he is an apologist for capitalism etc.). But actually, Ronan is saying the same thing that leftists have been saying about Peterson all along: that Peterson is a gateway drug to various dangerous and dark views. In the end, Ronan promotes a spirit of openness, but then throws the same old mud-pies that have been thrown at Peterson since the beginning.

The inconvenient truth is that Peterson is not the evil man that might satisfy the collective bloodlust; he has showed no sign of being a fascist— unfortunately those who have been so desperate to to take him down have failed spectacularly. Actually, Peterson is weirdly reasonable! The fact that he isn’t going away means the left needs to respond to him—and Ronan has picked up on this cue. Leftists can no longer ignore Peterson. They have a couple of choices then: to purge themselves of Peterson or to engage in real dialogue with his ideas.

Trump, Climate Change, and The Patriarchy

Jordan Greenhall wrote in his article entitled, Understanding the Blue Church:

“If you live in any big city in the United States, go to a social gathering and simply express an opinion that is out of line with Blue Church orthodoxy. Then watch closely. Particularly watch the reactions of members of the opposite sex. Pretend that you believe, for example, that climate change isn’t real. Or that Islam or Feminism are dangerous ideologies. What will quite likely happen is that you will be “out grouped.” At a physical level, way below conscious consideration, you will be assessed and found wanting. Not a good mating prospect. Not a good social ally.”

What is the tribal block of progressivism that I speak of? Let us call it in jest the ‘holy trinity’ of Trump, Climate Change, and the Patriarchy. As a progressive you are bound to be excommunicated if you say that climate change isn’t real, but we can take this a step further. You might be branded a ‘climate change denier’ for simply associating with somebody who denies climate change—even if you have not offered any opinion whatsoever on the subject. One is guilty by association and omission. Certain subjects are sacred in the world of the Blue Church, or under the dome of the dominant overarching ideology.

Ronan calls out Peterson for breaking the code, so to speak—not for his deeper ideas. The problem with Peterson, Ronan says in his interview with Rebel Wisdom, is that Peterson doesn’t give the necessary condemnation of climate change, lament the oppression of women, and he won’t weep and gnash his teeth over the horror of Donald Trump. This is not normal behaviour in Ronan’s progressive tribe. Peterson is therefore a heretic. Interestingly enough, he is also considered a heretic by some traditionalists.

Peterson the Heretic

Ronan is disappointed because Peterson doesn’t ‘virtue signal’. But Peterson is not trying to please the left or the right, and politics are a lesser matter to him in his investigation of truth. Peterson has been doing this amazing tight-rope dance in the middle, talking with both sides unapologetically. His stance is dialogical rather than ideological — even if he admittedly has a few ideological blind spots.

Both the progressives and the traditionalists have a hard time fitting Peterson into their tribal box. Even the Orthodox Christian carver Jonathan Pageau, who is Peterson’s good friend and ally (and is an an amazing thinker and artist in his own right), feels the need to signal that Peterson is a heretic—albeit the good kind of heretic, who is bringing people back to the church in droves.

One of the reasons that so many people on the right love Peterson is that he doesn’t signal to the left. Of course, this gives many the false impression that Peterson is on the right — and gives the left ample reason to make voodoo dolls and cast aspersion. But neither side — the adoring sycophants on the right or the haters on the left — are doing the deep work and contemplating what Peterson is actually saying. Only a heterodox thinker, to use Jonathan Haidt’s term, can do this.

Identity Politics and The Sovereignty of The Individual

By a certain wilful misrepresentation of Peterson’s ideas, Ronan is trapping himself in the same either/or rather than both/and logic which he asks us to transcend but can’t quite do so himself. Ronan won’t practice the complexity he preaches, in other words.

For example, Peterson has never said dominance hierarchies are good, only that they exist; he has never defended the ‘patriarchy’ or said that it can’t be corrupt and that nothing should be done to fix its flaws; nor has he said that women should be forced to marry or have children. He has instead argued for complexity and a multi-varied analysis.

Two pillars of Peterson thoughts are his critique of identity politics and a belief in the sovereignty of the individual. Does it follow that he is saying that community and identity are unimportant? Peterson’s critique of identity politics is this: defining yourself merely by group identification and victimhood is a self-fulfilling prophesy leading to groupthink and resentment.

Development of the sovereign individual is the remedy. The sovereign ‘I’’ restores and renews the community through his strength of character and noble acts. Of course, it is easier to identify with the collective superego, but a shining unique consciousness is needed to break though it. This is the hero’s journey towards individuation and consciousness.

Does this focus on the sovereignty of the individual mean a cold kind of Ayn Rand individualism and a celebration of of hyper-masculinity, as Ronan suggests? Does Peterson promotes the man/the individual/the dominancy hierarchy at the expense of women/the community/and egalitarianism? This seems to be the fault line of the so-called culture wars these days. It is the oldest war in the world. Man vs Woman, another binary position Ronan wants to place us in. What side are you on?

Also, Ronan also argues that Peterson’s fear of Gulags is alarmist—and that we have evolved beyond that danger. But have we? Gulag-like spaces do continue to exist in societies that have forgotten about the sovereignty of the individual and in the service of utopian ideology. Future Gulags may not take the same form as past ones, but the dangers of falling into totalitarianism are eternal. And Peterson has made a deep study of totalitarian ideology and human evil. Have we really progressed beyond the possibility of groupthink genocide? I don’t think so.

Anima Possession

My last issue is a larger critique of left-wing culture, that Ronan embodies well. Ronan, I believe, exhibits a certain ‘anima possession’, in Jungian terms (anima is the hidden female spirit within the male, just as the animus is the hidden male spirit within the female), and this is a major collective pathology of the left in general.

To be less esoteric, this means Ronan exudes and promotes traditional female values of compassion, community, and care, while condemning traditional male values of passion, individuality, and rationality. Ronan’s soft feminine persona embodies those qualities—which is not a problem in itself if he could also embody the other side. However, Ronin has less love of the masculine principal, it seems.

To put all this in metaphorical terms: both wings are necessary for a bird to really fly: the father wing and the mother wing. Symbolically speaking, Ronan loves the mother, but is not so sure of the father. And who can blame him. The father can be a real tyrant. But he doesn’t have to be.

Note
Bonnitta Roy and Jordan Greenhall’s unusual conversation on the Emerge podcast was a hidden inspiration for this article:

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