I Hope Jordan Peterson Fans can Appreciate his New Political Message
Jordan Peterson is back, and he is busy promoting his new book Beyond Order. The book contains 12 more rules for life, and literally complements the previous book, with its cover being black, as opposed to the white cover of the original 12 Rules For Life. Now, Peterson has always been a controversial figure. Among the people I know, some absolutely love him, and some have a much less charitable view of him. Over the years I have had both agreements and disagreements with him, but what I like about him is that he speaks his mind, and he is also rather more complex than the party-line talking heads you see everywhere.
When Peterson first became a global phenomenon a few years ago, many people understood his position as one of defending order against chaos. Some described his worldview as being in favor of an ‘ordered liberty’. This time, he is adding some important nuance to his views on order. Basically, as I understand from his recent comments, he sees order as both protective but also capable of turning oppressive. Order becomes oppressive when it degenerates, when it is based on power and not competence. While an order based on competence would enjoy wide support, an order based on power would have to resort to force to get people to obey it, and hence such a degenerated order would be oppressive.
Since order can degenerate into oppression, then, the antidote to chaos cannot just be order. Rather, it must be truth. Specifically, Peterson advocates for a truth based on love, a desire for all things to flourish. I think this is a very interesting point. Lately, I have been doing a series called The Liberal Project, in which we examine the beliefs and values of great liberal thinkers. And what strikes me is that, the great classical liberal thinkers, Locke, Mill, and so on, don’t necessarily share the same worldview all the time, but they are united by their dedication to the objective truth, and their liberal values is a consequence of this commitment to the truth.
Indeed, one may have different reasons for a commitment to truth and objectivity, but the ultimate consequential values are going to be very similar. For example, my own position as a Moral Libertarian is that there is one objective truth, and hence one objective right and wrong morally, but that no human being is infallible in discerning the right from the wrong. This is why there must be a dedication to finding the objective truth, and this would necessitate free speech, rational debate, freedom of conscience and so on. Mill’s position differs from my position in that his commitment to truth is based on utilitarianism, but the consequences, a commitment to free speech and so on, is the same. A study of the history of liberalism would show that commitment to the truth, and an order or morality that is based on the objective truth, is inherent to liberal philosophy. Conversely, any ideology or philosophy that is not committed to the truth would be, by definition, incompatible with liberal democracy’s spirit. Hence, if we are committed to the continuation of liberal democracy, we must call out all such ideologies.
Now, let’s return to Peterson. In Chapter 6 of his new book, he advises readers to abandon ideology and think complexly. Discussing this on the Rubin Report, he said that ideologies often try to explain everything by just one thing, like the way Marx focused on economics, Freud focused on sex, and the current New Left on power. However, in real life, most things are explained by the result of a combination of factors, or ‘multivariate’ in the language of quantitative researchers. Indeed, I think it is regrettable that this point isn’t a much bigger part of our school education. I personally think that high schools should teach some basic quantitative research methods, so that every adult would have a fundamental understanding of this. The take home message is basically that, if you are committed to the truth, if you really want to understand the truth behind things, then you cannot just focus on certain ideas or explanations and be satisfied with that. Rather, you should be more open-minded in terms of the possibilities. I guess independent thinking, breaking free of echo chambers that reinforce the same talking points every time, would be important here too. This would equally apply to the Left and the Right alike.
This is also a message I hope Peterson fans would take time to absorb. Due to his position against political correctness and his association with the IDW, Peterson has come to be seen as an anti-woke figure, and a large part of his fanbase have strong anti-woke views. As you may know, the anti-woke world is experiencing a kind of schism at the moment, with some people placing the need to defeat ‘woke’ ideas like critical race theory at the center of their politics, while others take a more moderate approach, looking at the whole picture for the whole truth about things, critiquing ideological wokeness as part of their overall critique on insufficient objectivity. I’m obviously more sympathetic to the second group. Indeed, I am worried that parts of the anti-woke movement are now trying to explain everything using their anti-woke lens. They are essentially becoming the mirror image of the woke. Like every other one-factor ideological approach, this would oversimplify and distort reality, and is no good in terms of understanding the truth. Postmodernism should be seen as inherently incompatible with the principles of liberal democracy, because of its lack of commitment to the truth. But any other ideology that is more committed to its a-priori biases than the objective truth would be just as bad, and this includes anti-woke fundamentalism.