A critique of Jordan Peterson’s worldview from a buddhist perspective (insofar as his worldview relates to buddhism)

To be honest, I don’t think an enormous amount of Jordan Peterson anymore — he has great well-studied ideas, then he has terrible, poorly-researched ideas, which are ofttimes blended together within the same paragraph of continuous thought. An example of his better ideas includes the consideration that the fallacies and dangers associated with more egalitarian ideology are less well-understood in general society than the fallacies and dangers engendered by hierarchical thinking. This is fairly well demonstrated by the fact that almost everybody in a western society can describe and explain the nazi atrocities, while very few can describe the atrocities committed by Stalin and Lenin, for example.

An example of his worse ideas include the idea that feminism, or to put it another way, the rise of self-determination in women and a corresponding unwillingness to suffer tyranny at the hands of their male counterparts, has very little to do with the rise of gender equality when compared with the increase in living standards and overall well-being of society as a whole. It may well be that a rise in general living standards gave women a platform upon which to start pushing back against, for example, rape being legal within marriage in the 1960’s in America, but it is appalling, and in fact derisible, to suggest that the change of that law came about purely through that platform being available.

Overall I see a lack of criticality in his work, which is surprising given his bold, even angry defence of rational thinking and sensible debate. I do not think this largely comes from self-deception — he is too smart for that. Rather I believe his experience of cultures outside his own to be limited. As all of ours are. More importantly I feel his understanding of the world in terms of it’s largely Jungian outlook is somewhat deceptive. He’s even gone so far as to describe the canonical story of the Buddha, some 2500 years old, as a primordial example of the hero narrative as explained through Jungian analysis. Being buddhist, I only object to this on technical grounds — it would be relatively un-buddhist of me to care about the misunderstanding of this story enough to get angry about it.

Jordan’s interpretation of this story is that it fits the typical hero mythos — hero is in the palace, leaves the comfort and safety, has adventure, gains personal understanding and through suffering and subsequent growth of character becomes a better human being. Fine. But once again, Jordan, like most Jungians, mistakes a Possible interpretation for the Only interpretation, or even a Relevant interpretation. If you’ve read “Iron John” you know what I mean. But I assure you that within the scope of buddhism, that interpretation is neither useful nor relevant, at least to anyone who truly understands what buddhism is about.

To be brief: that story lays out the explanation of suffering as understood by the buddha — the suffering of age, the suffering of illness, the suffering of parting with that which one holds dear. It shows that these are sufferings which no person living can hope not to experience. But the story also lays out buddha’s dive into asceticism, his attempts to escape suffering through self-denial and persecution, and his eventual realisation that this path, like his previous sheltered, pleasure-oriented life in the palace, did not lead to peace or escape from suffering. His eventual path, and the understanding upon which buddhism is based, was to cling neither to suffering nor pleasure, to neither seek nor reject either of these aspects of life. A deeper understanding might be that it is the seeking and rejecting of both pleasure and suffering which predominantly defines us as individuals, and the self as constructed from this toing and froing is the basis for suffering. Buddhism does not say, as Jordan himself has often misquoted, that “life is suffering”. However what it says repeatedly is “this way of relating to the experience of life brings the burden of suffering with it”.

In short, the story of the buddha is not a story about the building up and expansion of the self through noble and heroic means — it is the method by which one might give up all forms of clinging to self, to be of most benefit not only to oneself, but to the world as a whole. It is a story about the deconstruction of all stories. It is a positive unmaking, not a positive making. In one translation of the buddhas story of enlightenment which I have read, the buddha says “Ah, creator, I see the cage you have built for me” (this particular phrase is probably a subsequent Hinduist insertion, given that buddhism neither contains nor acknowledges a creator figure, but it proves a point). Buddhism might be compared to entropy, that which drags the marble being spun around the sides of a bowl back down into stasis. Life as a whole struggles against death, and that is the source of all happiness and suffering engendered in our experience of it. Buddhism attempts to break that artificial and highly self-centered view of the world into something that might be considered more scientific and observant (were it not for all the literature concerning deities, nagas and fantastic events, etc).

However, this is to get ahead of the game a little. Before one might hope to attain enlightenment or even start stepping up to the plate on that particular path, it is considered highly desirable to have a strong sense of self. What, you say? That seems a little absurd, given the focal point of the process. But consider this: have you ever been in a really terrible head-space and had something objectively wonderful happen to you that in fact made things worse? I have. Once my family surprised me with a birthday party on my 15th birthday, which was by all objective measures, a wonderful and thoughtful thing for them to do. However, I was not in a head-space where I could appreciate it, and in fact it made my day worse and not better as they had hoped.

Now, consider being a schizophrenic — having strong delusions, a weak sense of self, distressing and ‘skinless’ experiences of reality, and all that. Now try to imagine that same person having a sudden realisation of the inherent emptiness of reality — the intuitive understanding and perception that reality does not relate to itself on the terms that we do — through labels which relate to how we make use of it or understand it. One might think of this as a scientific view of reality, but instead of being understood in a superficial intellectual way, being understood in a fundamental, experiential mode. I have had some experiences of this, however brief and limited, and I assure you it is not unchallenging.

I imagine for a schizophrenic person this would make them even more unstable, even more insensible, even more fraught. You need a solid mind and heart for these experiences, and imagining you can merely shrug off this sense of self without any forethought, goes against both the story of the buddha (who renounced asceticism and self-denigration before his enlightenment) and against the process of buddhism. Of course, there will always be a need for heroes or role models, and buddhism does not escape that aspect of religion by any means. But it is a disservice to any religion, I feel, to describe it through another religion’s axioms and understanding, which is what Peterson has done to buddhism.

However I would like to say, in his defence, that he is doing good work, both for those who would not be buddhist and for those who would. As mentioned, you need a strong sense of self, purpose and meaning before you can develop the strength to go beyond a sense of self. Jordan’s guidance on that front, I feel is helpful. It is good to make yourself useful, well, happy and productive, not just for oneself, but for others as well. These are extremely positive things and I hope he continues with that. I just hope he stops seeing his metaphorical interpretation of reality as the literal interpretation of reality, and sometime soon.

Programmer, Scholar, Third-person self-describer. http://www.plflib.org