Dart: Jordan Peterson—Transcending Tribalism in Cloistered Virtues

Below is my transcript of Ron Dart’s helpful video above—I’ve edited it slightly for readability.


I’d like to call this presentation, Jordan Peterson—Transcending Tribalism in Cloistered Virtues. A few decades ago when I was doing my undergraduate studies in the 1970s, I took a course on John Milton and (it was with the Jesuits, which was quite interesting because rarely do something like Milton and Jesuits come together) we did the standard texts: Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained, Samson’s Agonistes, many of Milton’s fine poems. We also touched on one of his key prose works, the Areopagitica, and in one of the lines (amongst the many lines in the Areopagitica) Milton says:

I cannot praise a cloistered virtue that never sallies forth.

John Milton, Areopagitica

In the culture we live in today, there are many people, whether religious, ideological, intellectual, they live with their cloistered virtues, and they don’t sally forth into other terrain where they encounter people who think different, see differently, and if they do, they usually marginalize, subordinate, demonize. Those are various ways of ignoring or not heeding different perspectives.

Jordan Peterson has very, very much come on the stage in the last two years, specifically, he’s been working on much of this thinking for decades. In the last two years, he has stepped on the stage and certainly speeches his speech insightfully, evocatively, challengingly. He’s received, as a result, an immense amount of public attention, probably more than any other Canadian in the last couple of years. He’s taken the role in a more popular way than someone like Charles Taylor had historically, or George Grant before him. He’s become a media darling for good or ill, but he’s nonetheless become a media darling in terms of someone to interrogate, someone to applaud, and there are different reactions to Jordan Peterson.

What I’d like to briefly touch on in the next few minutes is how he transcends the tribalism of different ideological outlooks and cloistered virtues of the progressive and trendy left or the reactionary conservative right, and he’s attempting articulate a third, nuanced, and more thoughtful way, which cannot be easily capitulated to any of the tribes as a were in the culture wars.

There tend to be three attitudes towards Jordan Peterson when his name comes up in discussion. I might add that certainly in the last few months, I’ve had more students who’ve come to me regularly wanting to discuss Jordan Peterson or wanting to write papers on Jordan Peterson or get class presentations on Jordan Peterson, than probably any other public figure in a consistent way. So there’s obviously an interest, even from a sociological perspective, in what he’s saying, what he’s articulating, and how people, for good or ill, are responding and reacting to Jordan Peterson. To ignore him on the public stage of thought and issues is to live with cloistered virtues, to live with one’s head buried in the sand. He’s a person that cannot be missed in that sense. As I said, there’s probably three reactions to him at the present time.

Within Canada largely, we’re seen as a liberal culture on the cutting edge of progressive liberalism and there’s a whole range of content issues, which I’ll touch on briefly, which define progressive were cause de jour liberalism. Jordan Peterson has dared to question that tribe or that clan, with its own definition of what is right and what is good, and one reaction from that clan to Jordan Peterson has been to demonize him, to caricature him, to dismiss him, to see him as a scapegoat, to see him as the alt-right or the light right, to see him as a man of white privilege. I mean there are various ways that one castigates or shuns the person, those who don’t fit in the tribe. He’s been compared to Martin Luther, by some, who dared to question the Catholic Church. Well, Jordan Peterson has dared to question, as it were, the modern “Catholic Church” of liberalism because, in that sense, an ideology is just a secular form of the Church. It’s had its own way of defining itself, what are the important issues, who’s in, who’s out, depending on whether you salute or genuflect to the trendy issues of the particular denomination or a tribal outlook you belong to.

To help understand a lot of Jordan Peterson’s thinking, he did a degree in political science in Alberta. His background is Alberta, then went on to do finally a degree in clinical psychology. In the last 20 years, he’s taught at the University of Toronto.

But some of his early work was very, very much on the way totalitarianism works and particularly forms of totalitarianism—we saw a former USSR under Stalin or Mao in China. We in the West and we’ll often talk about the various forms—we’ll see Germany and Hitler, Mussolini in Italy, Japanese nationalism. But underneath it is a concern he has with groupthink—that you’ll get people in groups who don’t know how to think outside of that group or if they do, they fear doing it for fear of ostracization and the implications of that.

Now obviously in the larger political authoritarian or totalitarian tendencies of the right or left, the consequences are rather tragic in the lives lost are horrendous. But the underlying way of seeing, in terms of a certain idea or mapping one’s worldview (this is his first big, book—came out in the late ’90s—on forms of mapping reality), is an attempt to explore how ideological outlooks define who’s in and who’s out and the implications of that (even though in the larger political ones the consequences are much more tragic and certainly in a liberal democracy they’re more benign, those worldviews still exist). A way of saying, “My group is right, my tribe, my clan, my cloistered virtues”, and if one doesn’t accept or genuflect or sign the password or the Shibboleth to get in, then a person is excluded from that particular tribe.

Now the dominant ideology in the liberal West (large elements certainly in Canada, our own Liberal Party, which is in power and Justin Trudeau, which would be a part of that), in that sense, embodies a form of progressive liberalism, which means on a whole variety of issues, you know where you stand and no one dares to differ with them. Let me just touch a few to just highlight this particular tribe or family and then what happens if one dares to differ with them.

At one crude level where Jordan Peterson has challenged the new atheist. There’s a whole understanding of secular liberalism, predicates crudest level of what we would call the right wing of the Enlightenment—that a certain view of science is the only way to know and that’s an empirical way of knowing, and that view of science defines what is reality and if something cannot be demonstrated through an empirical research, objective way of knowing, then it’s not real. That particular approach plays a dominant role, say in the universities in the public square, then tends to demean religion and so then you get these clashes, these clashes between science (as understood in a certain way, of which people like Sam Harris and Dawkins and many others are apart) and religion, which can’t seem to compete at that level. If you’re part of that sort of secular liberalism tribe, then people from religious backgrounds can feel inferior, they can feel marginalized, they don’t know how to quite compete at that level, and that’s one way in which that secular liberalism dominates.

But if you move to a more moderate form of liberalism (what we would call pluralist liberalism and which you can really see this played out once again), “okay, we’re open to spirituality” and when we have public events, we’ll bring First Nations people and you can beat their drums and do their prayers or if it’s some form of oriental origin, you can do the bowing at a public event. But to have a priest or a minister come in to do a prayer…? No, no, no! So very open to alternate spiritualities other than Christianity. So this sort of religious pluralism is open to some forms of spirituality but tends to marginalize others. Needless to say, those forms of sort of political correctness and culture wars have very much been a part of treating Christianity and religion in a secondary manner.

In the larger culture wars, Jordan Peterson will be having a big debate this spring in Vancouver with Sam Harris on, “You want to talk scientifically, well whose definition of science, okay? So you want to exclude religion, but can you explain consciousness in terms of a pure material investigation of the world that we live in?”. So then these particular new atheists want to talk as if their definition of science is the only way to understand science. But Jordan Peterson obviously is well-trained in science as well, the science of consciousness and the subconscious and the unconscious, so then it gets into a discussion of whose definition of science, which methodology are we going to use and things like that.

There are other elements in what Jordan Peterson is going to go after, in what’s called the politically correct world of the progressive left. Whether it’s identity politics or whether it’s gender politics or whether it’s white privilege, whether it’s Empire and colony, whether its power and powerlessness. There’s a whole world of discussion at the public university in which certain things are legitimate to talk about and other things that if you do think, then you must be a troglodyte or live in the Catskills. I mean even things like, say abortion, which is often seen as something on the right, it’s all right to talk about pro-choice but not pro-life. When it comes to euthanasia, “yep, pro-choice” but not questioning who are we to define the family in terms of a man/woman. These become ideological constructs in terms of social conservatism. Jordan Peterson has come along and essentially said, “Why do the liberal and progressive left only define what is good in those terms?”, and in one sense, it’s not very liberal of a liberal not to critique liberalism.

A lot of his work, in terms of looking at things like Neo-Marxism, post-modernism, and progressive liberalism has upset the ruling elite or the family compact or the Mandarin class in terms of the issues he’s written. What they tend to do then is to caricature, they dismiss, they demonize, they turn him into a scapegoat. In the recent interview with Cathy Newman in Channel Four, which has caused a huge reaction amongst many, you can see her constantly trying to stump him from within that trendy progressive left and him quite astutely and acutely knowing how to respond to her caricatures of them. She thought she knew what he stood for, but he’s much more subtle and nimble than that particular way of thinking.

One of the things, probably the first thing, as I mentioned earlier, just as he saw certain forms of authoritarian or totalitarian thought politically, so he sees the whole culture wars of political correctness is just a more benign form of groupthink. If you dare to break from the ranks, there’s going to be consequences. He certainly feels the ire and the consequences of that liberal elite or, as I mentioned, the family compact. He understands that world well because he’s lived within it for much of his adult academic and intellectual life, and so he speaks of what he knows. He’s not someone who stands outside the public educational institutions. He lives within them and he knows their agendas.

He’s dared to deconstruct progressive liberalism and many progressive liberals or ideological liberals or postmoderns, they love to deconstruct everything—except their own agenda, so it’s very dishonest. Or you might want to ask why don’t deconstructionists deconstruct deconstructionism? He’s dared to do that and carried it a step further. He points out very clearly, even though they talk the language of liberty and individuality, there is a groupthink, there is a clan, there is a tribe here. And those who dare to question it will feel the same ire as anyone would in a larger political system when you dare to differ with the party line.

Now the dilemma that often he has faced is that for people who think just dualistically black/white, right/wrong, my-tribe/your-clan—that very Manichean dualism—”Well then, if he’s critiquing the progressive left, then he must be a Herald and a pioneer and the Messiah of the alt-right or the light right!” Of course, many on the right have tried to co-opt Jordan Peterson for their agenda and see him as one of the family, and in that sense, they’re just as dualistic as the progress progressive left in that sense, the alt-right. Again and again, they’ve tried to co-opt him, whether it’s Rebel Media or whether it’s even the Canadian Christian College in Toronto (and there are a variety of other organizations), which have really cheered him on in his critique of that progressive liberalism and its seeming inability to critique itself. Even though it uses the language of critical thinking, it only swings the sword one way—to the right. It doesn’t allow the blade of that sword to come and also critique the left. It’s what Jesus would talk about, mote-beam syndrome, as we could always see the beam and the other’s eye and we either don’t see the mote in our own eye or we just see a mote but not a beam.

What he’s really highlighted is that tendency of mote-beam thinking, and the other always has the beam and we have the mote—if we have that at all. But those, as I mentioned before, who only see ideological perspectives (certainly within liberal democracy) as liberal progressive or reactionary conservatives, think, “Well, if he’s deconstructing liberal progressivism with all of its agenda and its laundry list of issues, therefore he must really be a prophet of the right or a Herald or a pioneer of the right.” He’s made it very clear again and again when they attempt to co-opt him or bring him into their household as a part of the family, that he’s quite as willing to deconstruct the alt-right and the light right as he is the left because at the heart of a lot of his thinking is the commitment to critical thinking—and the sword of critical thinking swings both ways. It will swing in terms of the alt-right, the light right, and any forms of reactionary right or conservatism.

So the left and the right don’t quite know what to do with him because even though the content of their perspectives is different, the way they see reality is often similar in terms of right/wrong, black/white—almost a comic book way of approaching reality. Someone who slips through that net becomes a little too elusive and they don’t know how to deal with him in that sense.

In attempting to understand Jordan Peterson, it’s important to see that underneath his concern is, on the one hand, a fear of groupthink and the importance of responsibility of the individual to think for themselves if they’re going through situations in life that are difficult and try not to blame mom and dad, not to blame circumstances. Not to blame but each person is very responsible for making choices that bring them a more meaningful life.

But he’s more than just sort of a “power of positive thinking” sort of a person. There’s much more to him than that. He believes there are structures of reality and to the degree we ignore those myths or structures, we, in fact, do our soul, our society, our families, great hurt and harm. And this is why he has done a great work on examining the great religious texts of the pasts.

In one sense, it’s probably important to understand he’s very much a Renaissance thinker. He can’t be reduced to a discipline in the academic world or a silo, in saying, “Oh, you’re a clinical psychologist, that’s all you can talk about, that’s all you know, so who are you to talk about philosophy, theology, social issue, political correctness?” Well, in fact, much of his work transcends the tribalism of disciplines, to begin with, as well as transcends the tribalism of the culture wars or the cloistered virtues of these different tribes that will not sally forth into the bigger world and actually engage different perspectives in a thoughtful, listening, and mediating way. Remembering, he spent years as a clinical psychologist and counseling and he has the ability know how to listen and listen very well in that sense, and be sensitive—to call forth people to live their lives in a meaningful manner, that they don’t blame others for their state and station in life, and that each and all are responsible for their decisions, and, yes, there are influences that can impact them, but they can’t use those influences as a justification for their continuing problems in the present, in the future. They have to work through those to move forward. He uses different analogies, but one is the analogy of the chess game.

He points out that life, like a chess game, has rules and if you violate those rules, there’s no game—just like violating rules of anything. Freedom is only found to move the pawns, the rooks, the Kings, the Queen within a framework. And the problem with certain types of liberalism is it highlights the role of freedom but there are no rules by which you can decide how to use your freedom or there’s no content to freedoms. It’s like Janis Joplin once said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to do.” He’s acutely aware of the ideology of liberalism with its highlighting of individuality, liberty, open-ended notion of human identity, but absolutely no markings or care in terms of how to use liberty and freedom and an open-ended notion of human nature.

It’s as a result of that—over really the last 20-30 years of his life—he has tried to look at what are the great stories of civilizations that in fact give us the rules by which we play the game of life, which doesn’t mean there’s not great freedom but there’s freedom to move within, as it were, these rules. At the present time, and certainly in 2017 (which has come as a shock to a great many people who assumed we live in a secular age and nobody who thinks beyond a Sunday school that would want to go to public forums where teachings in the Bible were being done outside of the church), he’s literally packed out lecture theaters in Toronto (which is seen as one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Canada) with lectures on the Bible! This has sort of stunned those who take the temperature of culture and postmodernity—”Certainly no one cares about the Bible anymore and who would sit in lectures on the Bible other than maybe people in Bible school or seminaries or churches or synagogues or things like that.” He’s obviously speaking to a generation of people in which the markings are gone, in which the quest for meaning has become so diluted and thinned out, they don’t even know where to look anymore.

They are looking for those hints, those clues (without slipping into a dogmatic conservatism or, on the other hand, a form of relative liberalism in which nothing goes),  and say there are these broad rules that, as it were, can point the way into the future. He looks at the Bible in these lectures in terms of not a simple either literal way in which you’ll get sort of creationists (remember, a lot of his work is from evolution of biology, so he’s not going to certainly read Genesis, which he’s done a lot of lectures on thus far, in simple young earth notion of creation versus evolution. He takes seriously the role of evolution—what it has to offer), but he also doesn’t look at the Bible in terms of the way some biblical scholars will, in terms of the historical, as it were, “Was there a flood?”, “Can we find Noah’s Ark or Jericho?”, “Do we have the archeological digs?”, “Do these things…?”—that doesn’t interest him. He’s very interested in a psychological reading. He’s been influenced by Carl Jung and, some would argue, Kierkegaard, and a whole variety—again, it’s his Renaissance nature. There’s a quite a wide range of sources he draws from—he draws from them thoughtfully. He wants to look at how do you map the Bible in terms of the meaning it offers to the soul, the community, to society, and what are the great themes.

I’d like to look at two briefly. Let me take one in terms of just how to read the Bible, say elements of Genesis or Exodus, which gets beyond either a simplistic literalism or an unhealthy just doing historic digs to find sites or places or archeological, places like that, manuscripts and this is supposed to verify these places existed or stuff like that. I mean “genesis” in the Greek is “the beginning”—it’s the beginning of all myths (remember, “myth” is not an untruth, it’s “myth” in this classical sense, it’s the perennial truth wrapped in the garment of a story). The great myth of Western civilization, which you’ll find in other civilizations, is the Eden myth.

Underneath the Eden myth is the notion of the tree. Of course, you don’t read the tree as a mere literal tree. One of the great symbols of the human soul is the tree and the tree, by its very nature, the question is, “What is it rooted in?”, “What sort of soil is rooted in?”, and any tree produces fruit. The story of the Eden tree is that humans have many desires and we’re told in that passage those desires are good, enjoy them, pick from there to be enjoyed, they’re nutritious for the soul. They’re nutritious for the soul, but don’t pick from the fruit of certain desires because there’s going to be consequences, and one is going to lose one sense of who one is.

The story of Eden is, in fact, people use their freedom in a way that they lose their freedom and hence, the “East of Eden” that John Steinbeck will talk about, and then the rest of the human journey is being banished from who they really are, the real image and likeness of God, living east to Eden, but always longing for the homeland again. You can see this mythic structure played out in this Edenic myth in that sense, which is the foundation myth of the West—it’s liberty and order. And what is the order? Just as in a chess game that allows a game to be played. But what’s the order of the human soul in society that gives life meaning.

The other would be the Exodus myth, it could be again read in the Jewish story of slavery/bondage, being freed from a Pharaonic empire, across the desert into the promised land. That can be read at one level. The other level is that when we are east to Eden, we are in slavery to false desires, to fantasies, to imaginations. We were very, very much victims of turning to mirages for meaning and they can give us a sense of order, direction, but they don’t fulfil, they leave us restless. We’re enslaved but there’s a certain security and predictability. Exodus, the “ex” (“out”), “odus” (“the way”), is about the story that people have to go through to leave that which is secure but in bondage, so that they can be free but insecure in the journey. The whole story of Exodus being read from a mythic perspective, it’s psychologically and spiritually extremely insightful, the price that has to be paid and then the journey to the desert. Of course, most never in time reach the promised land, but it’s the journey of letting go and the desert is the place of all those distractions and diversions are taken away and then “Oh, who am I when all that’s taken away?”

Jordan Peterson in his lectures in Genesis, he’s really trying to get at, in many ways, and he’ll take key biblical figures, the Cain, the Abel, the Adam, the Eve and he’ll read them metaphorically or mythically—that, of course, is what appeals to people beyond the simple literalism or “Can we find these sites in the Middle East or the Near East that the Bible talks about to prove for us that the Bible somehow was valid?” In drawing from people like Carl Jung, archetypes and myths, he’s sort of a more popular version of Joseph Campbell—doing the same sort of thing. He looks at the mythic hero who’s trying to find their way beyond that which enslaves, that which is ideology, that which prevents people from being free and finding their true and unique individuality on the journey.

Perhaps a criticism that could be levelled at him is he’ll critique the right and the left in terms of its ideology as if he himself is not coming out of an ideological perspective. Very important to understand a lot of his underlying principles are very much classic forms of liberalism, the individual versus the community or the state, and the state can oppress the individual has to fight for their own freedom. Now he’s not daft enough to see the state or community as always negative and the individual as always good, but often when they’re pitted against one another, he’ll often see the individual hero as having to find their way against these oppressive structures.

In his conversation, interestingly enough about the Church, he finds that he’s often asked if he’s a Christian, if so what kind of Christian, if he’s doing these lectures on the Bible “well, he must somehow have some interest in religion?” and he talks about the danger, as it were, of groupthink in the Church as if people in the Church all think the same way, no more. He has enough experience obviously in a public university, and to know they don’t all think that. Actually, he’s been marginalized within that context, and no community is homogeneous unless it’s extremely ideological.

Whether you’re in education, church, politics, sports, policing, culture, any of these communities are highly layered, so there’s always the danger of saying well, the church or the political party or the education is collective, but anyone who lives in them knows they’re layered. He tends to in his own thinking prioritise as what we call first-generation liberalism with the individual against the community, liberty against order, even though you can see him again, again grappling with that tension, which is, I think, to his credit and he’s aware of it.

I think the more he explores obviously biblical themes you get beyond the stories, you get under the myths into the principles that the myths are all about, that inevitably you’re into these huge, huge tensions in world philosophical thought in terms of liberty and order, individuals, community, unity, diversity without divisive. These are all significant and the role of thinking which of course is very important for him. Critical thinking in this. Property rights are very important to him and again, in some ways, he reflects a more sophisticated version a bit of his Alberton upbringing in that sense when you start getting underneath that, some of the liberalism which defines that.

And in that sense, I started off with Milton because Milton was the quintessential sophisticated liberal of his time, as Bunyan was the cruder liberal of his time in Pilgrim’s Progress and the hyper-individualism of Milton and of the populist one of Bunyan. It shares that sort of first-generation liberalism.

To sum then, I think it would be important in reflecting and evaluating the Jordan Peterson to recognize very clearly he is attempting to transcend the tribalism of the ideologies of his time, the dominant ideology in Canada, and large elements of the liberal West, whether the democratic tradition in the states or the liberal party or the NDP in Canada is very much a family or it’s a tribe which has a laundry list of issues that come from certain principles, whether it’s as I mentioned earlier post-modernism, postmodern feminism, whether it’s gender issues, whether it’s identity politics, whether it’s a certain uncritical support to a Neo-Marxism, whether certain views of abortion, euthanasia, family, certain views of the environment, certain views of war and peace, and crime and punished.

You can list 20 to 25 issues in terms of that progressive trendiness or cause de jour liberalism, and there’s obviously good in that. When it becomes a frozen ideological perspective, then you’re intellectual totalitarianism. Does that mean Jordan Peterson then uncritically genuflects to the right? No, they’re exactly the same. The dualism of the right is not much different than the dualism of the left. You know but the hero is, you know who the enemy is. It’s sort of the Captain America mentality. He then turns beyond the dominant ideologies, and this is why he’s interested in the Bible in a much more nuanced read of it (it’ll be interesting to see where he goes as those lectures unfold). And the fourth part would be interesting in terms of getting Jordan Peterson as he goes along to actually begin to critically reflect on his own ideological principles and both the strength of those principles, and perhaps the Achilles heels and blind spots of those principles. As I mentioned earlier, I started with John Milton’s Areopagitica, cannot praise a cloistered virtue that never sallies forth, the right and left tend to be tribal. They have their cloistered virtues and those who disagree with them are in the world of vices usually.

The particular reads of the Bible and can open us up to a much more vibrant and more in-depth understanding of the contributions of myth and its role in terms of freeing individuals to see actually the landmarks that have been laid down in history through stories, through narratives, when these sacred texts are read in a certain way. Then the fourth point would be is Jordan Peterson depending on how he goes along his journey would be to reflect on perhaps the ideological framework within which he lives, but he does not substantively criticize because it’s one thing criticize various positions. The task of a healthy thinker is to know how to be self-critical as they go along on their journey.

To end, absolutely important … Well first of all, absolutely important that people don’t put their heads in the sand and ignore these bigger public issues of which Jordan Peterson is very much on the stage articulating. That would be the first thing, either religiously or politically or culturally, and not sort of slip into a religious ghettoism in that sense, but enter into the larger public fray. Secondly in Peterson, to know how to see the immense good he’s contributing in terms of deconstructing both forms of liberalism, the sort of trendy liberalism and reactionary conservatism, to look at his unique … I won’t say it’s unique because the historic Church has read the text this way and he’s just making it more popular from a clinical psychologist’s point of view.

Then the fourth point would be to reflect on, for those who are interested in critical thinking, to be posing before Peterson himself, what does he see as the ideological construct and the house he inhabits by which then he reads the Bible and which he critiques the progressive left and the reactionary or conservative right.

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