Dangerous ideas at Google and the pain of Jordan Peterson
In June, Stephanie Gray was invited to Google HQ and gave just about the best pro-life talk I’ve heard, “Abortion: From Controversy to Civility”. Gray uses the Socratic method, drawing out the traits people admire in those who inspire them, and then showing how the traits admired by her interlocutor in any given situation are totally contrary to abortion. What a surprise that liberal Silicon Valley would provide a venue for this point of view! Unfortunately, Google certainly does not have a clean record of allowing unpopular speech, having recently fired an employee who wrote a memo questioning its diversity policy and arguing that women are biologically less likely to desire certain jobs than men.
The media almost universally misrepresented the contents of the memo. At The Atlantic, the always-fair Conor Friedersdorf comments: “I cannot remember the last time so many outlets and observers mischaracterized so many aspects of a text everyone possessed.” The mainstream press labeled it “anti-diversity” (it was the opposite) and claimed that the author said women are innately incapable of doing tech jobs (a very different claim than the one he actually made). And one outlet, Gizmodo, literally edited out the graphs and evidence when they posted the text of the memo.
But the idea than men and women’s personalities diverge on a biological level is uncontroversial in the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, as evidenced in this response from four scientists. While the Left’s war on science when it comes to sex and gender will continue apace, it’s heartening to see more and more legitimate academics, who would of course rather pursue their research and teaching without harassment and threats of termination, speaking out against the madness.
One such courageous professor is the University of Toronto’s Jordan B. Peterson, a personality psychologist who made waves last year when he refused to use any of the myriad transgender pronouns. His job was threatened by the university, though he ultimately prevailed.
Since then, Peterson has become something of a guru and father figure to many who are looking for an escape from postmodernist nihilism, particularly because rather than just communicating abstract ideas he (as a clinical psychologist) is always issuing a moral challenge to his audience: the challenge to act as though everything you do and say matters, instead of using nihilism to flee our terrible human responsibility, justifying “sloth and cynicism”.
He proclaims the power of truth, and the damage that we do to our own psyche when we lie. He convinces people not to assume that they are good, getting his students to see that if they were in Germany during World War II, they would likely have been Nazis. He condemns pornography and using sex merely for pleasure, and holds up marriage and children as the norm for humanity while keeping open the option of celibacy for those pursuing something higher. He even correctly describes the pathology of social justice warriors as “resentment for the burden of being”—what a Catholic might call acedia at its most destructive.
Peterson urges taking responsibility for your own life, in contrast with the spirit of activism often encouraged in young college students who think they know how to fix the world when they can’t even bring themselves to clean their own room—this for Peterson is deluded and dangerous. His emphasis is that one can do significant good wherever one is right now, in the smallest things, in stopping one’s own disordered or dishonest or manipulative or hedonistic behavior, and in improving one’s familial relationships. He talks about responsibilities rather than rights, and this is part of what makes him so refreshing and compelling, especially to the many young men who say Peterson has inspired them to, in his words, sort themselves out.
Dr. Peterson has done quite a bit of work on the psychology of religion, including an ongoing lecture series on the psychological significance of the Bible. It is noteworthy for having made quite a number of atheists interested in taking the Bible seriously, and indeed, that is Peterson’s intent: he wants to make the Bible accessible to atheists by looking at it through the lens of psychology (especially in terms of both Jungian archetypes and evolutionary psychology).
The most immediately obvious pitfall of this approach is that any attempt to make the Bible accessible to those who do not believe in its central truths will necessarily be reductive. Peterson realizes this to an extent, but makes a problematic distinction between literal truth and “tool truth”, that is, something that may not be literally true but has good results when we stake our lives on it as though it were true (this is Peterson’s notion of belief, and the sense in which he calls himself a Christian). Putting aside the philosophical problems with this, and the way it ultimately guts Scripture of its primary incarnate, personal meaning, this sort of therapeutic approach runs the risk of dishonesty, for if one thinks something is not true but behaves as though it is, one is being dishonest. (For a lengthier appreciative critique of Peterson’s ideas from a Catholic perspective, see this video.)
For all that, it can be said of Peterson that he treats the Bible with about as much respect as one could while considering it the work of mere human genius (and that is not remotely enough respect, but far more than it usually gets these days), that he takes its power, influence and longevity seriously (not remotely seriously enough, but...), and that he has some excellent moral insights into the Old Testament stories.
Feeling the Weight
I cannot write about the aspects of the Catholic faith Peterson lacks without also pointing out what he does have which we Catholics should have, but all too often lack. What makes Peterson compelling to me other than his ideas is, in a word, his sense of weight, and I will illustrate it by contrast.
I spent my freshman year at a very solid Catholic college, and while I benefited from my classes, I was left profoundly unsatisfied and even depressed by the society of my peers. I should have been able to relate to all these people who supposedly shared my beliefs, but I couldn’t. The only way I could put it at the time was that “people are walking around like nothing has happened.” There was a lot of intellectual knowledge, and a lot of high-flown talk about truth, beauty and goodness (which were practically reduced to buzzwords), but there was no sense of the tragedy of the human condition (except in my mentally ill classmates who all, probably for this reason, befriended me), and no sense of how mind-blowing our religion is.
Why were they not more sorrowful? Why were they not more joyful? Why were they not electrified? They lacked a sense of the weight of it all. I have no doubt that the belief was sincere on an intellectual level, and the rules were followed in an orderly fashion (except when they weren’t), but the doctrines we learned were more theorized about than lived.
That sense of weight and the authenticity of lived truth is something nobody could accuse Peterson of lacking. That he has (to use Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s expression) skin in the game couldn’t be more clear from the way he speaks, and he is appropriately alarmed and startled by what truths he does know. He is on the journey along with those whom he addressest.
More than a superficial charisma, this is what makes Peterson so powerful, someone I perhaps would have gone along with hook, line and sinker (if he will pardon the phrase) had I not already encountered a living saint. If Peterson is so powerful without the sacraments, imagine what we Catholics could be if we availed ourselves of what we have! Perhaps the word “saint” is so well-worn that we don’t realize the startlingness of that universal call. We are supposed to be great lovers, great dyers, mystics, gods. We should be alive to and electrified by the great and, yes, terrible things God wants to do in us. This is what changes the world, not sound argumentation. Seek first the beautiful and terrible reign of Christ in your soul, and good arguments shall be added unto you!
I praise Peterson’s sense of the weight of reality, but with a caveat. His view of Jesus, the Logos, as what he terms a “hyper-reality” or perhaps a Jungian archetype to be imitated, poses another danger besides the eternal consequence of ultimately rejecting the real person of Christ. When he speaks on the human condition in the present era, one sometimes senses a terrible strain and tension, anger (though not resentment) and pain under Peterson’s words, as though he is trying to carry the weight of the world himself, imitating Christ as archetype rather than participating in the sufferings of the indeed hyper-real but incarnate Savior Who has already carried, Who carries all suffering on His shoulders. As the fellow whose video I linked to earlier points out, Peterson views existence as a burden, albeit one we can make beautiful and meaningful by carrying it properly. There is less of a sense with him that the yoke is easy and the burden light.
All Christians know that we cannot bear the weight even of our own personal sins, but to attempt, concsciously or unconsciously, to bear the weight of the world’s is unhealthy folly. In one video, labeled a New Year’s message to the world, a visibly exhausted Dr. Peterson broke down weeping as he described the direction the world was going and the terrible suffering, the next Gulag, that he foresaw in humanity’s future. This man has studied deeply the horrors inflicted by what he calls “ideological possession” in the 20th century, and seems scarred by what he has found in the human heart; when discussing man’s capacity for evil he is often on the verge of tears.
Even as I say this, I reiterate that we should have Peterson’s sorrow. We should all be able to weep for the world as he does even without being overcome by it—better to weep for the world, even to be unable to cease weeping for the world, than to have a heart of stone.
Because I deeply admire Jordan Peterson’s integrity, compassion and courage, and find many of his thoughts on the modern predicament profound, I pray daily that he will go beyond his beloved Jungian archetypes and finally take the leap of faith. When one flies so close to the Son, the only way not to be burnt and fall into the depths is to become one with Him.
Note: This article, originally posted on Aug. 09, 2017, was revised in response to criticism from a reader. I refined my critique of Peterson’s work somewhat, but more importantly, I expanded on my praises of Peterson, in order to add balance to an article that some apparently found to be dismissive of Dr. Peterson in its original form, though that could not have been further from my intent.
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