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What Jordan Peterson Overlooks About Ideology and Power

Understanding the power and appeal of reverse dominance hierarchies.

Key points

  • Peterson is quick to dismiss woke ideology and discussions of power, without considering the benefit and appeal of such perspectives.
  • Such perspectives are most appealing when ordered hierarchies become oppressive and need rebalancing.
  • These efforts to change society come from leveraging the power of relationships and connections, rather than relying on individual competence.
  • Focusing too much on those group relationships for power and change might also smother individual achievement and social progress.

Although I have highlighted the merits of Jordan Peterson's thoughts on relationships, I have become frustrated with his discussions regarding power, ideology, and social dynamics. Beginning with his first Rule of Life, exploring "lobster hierarchies" (2018), Peterson generally focuses on the dynamics of competence and merit within hierarchically-ordered social systems. At the same time, he downplays or omits the interpersonal dynamics (and power) associated with cooperation, collective action, and "the power of the powerless" individuals at the bottom of those hierarchies. As a result, his criticism of "woke" ideology and collective action does not accurately account for the power and appeal of such movements—often just dismissing them as "the fatal attraction of the false idol" (Peterson, 2021). Other than citing over-simplification and pseudo-intellectualism, he also fails to offer explanations for why those forms of power and social change might actually lead to some of the negative consequences he states.

Understanding Power and Social Dynamics

As I discuss elsewhere, there are different types and bases of power. Within that framework, Peterson focuses mainly on competence and merit, which can be classified as Expert Power and Reward Power. Those types of power may indeed lead to the creation of ordered hierarchies, as he suggests. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, however, those hierarchies are not just based on competence. Sometimes, as his discussion of lobsters indicates, those hierarchical structures can be based on dominance too (i.e. Coercive Power). Furthermore, as a hierarchy changes to a "hard power" structure based on dominance and coercion, it also slips into oppression and tyranny.

In fact, that situation can be described by what Peterson often refers to as the Tyrannical Father archetype (2002). Giving respect where it is due, I believe that is why he is careful with his language to promote hierarchies of competency and merit only, hoping to avoid the pitfall of tyrannical order. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge that such hierarchies can become coercive and rotten (hence the archetype)—and to realize that they promote a backlash when they do.

Reversing the Hierarchy

So, what happens when "dad" becomes tyrannical—when hierarchies become too steep, dominant, and oppressive? Well, those who are crushed at the bottom get fed up, push back, and group together to overturn the system. They are motivated to create what anthropologists call a Reverse Dominance Hierarchy instead (Boehm, 1993).

They do so by tapping into different forms of power, like the connections they have with each other (Referent Power) and existing laws and norms (Legitimate Power). Using that power, they form a group, strong enough to oppose those at the top. Essentially, they unionize, to collectively bargain and maximize their power through relationships.

Ultimately, this motivation is the driving force behind woke ideology. It is a social dynamic that arises when hierarchical order becomes too oppressive and needs to be re-balanced. As Peterson (2021) suggests, this process can be fueled by resentment (often justifiably so). More to the point, however, the social dynamics are also fueled by the desire to reconnect, cooperate, and form relationships with others—especially for those who are alienated and marginalized.

Can Woke Go Too Far?

Who doesn't want to connect, form relationships, and love a little more? Who wouldn't benefit from the security (and power) of a large group supporting them? It is hard to see the downside. Nevertheless, as Peterson (2021) argues, such ideologies can lead to unintended ruin. But, why exactly?

Reverse dominance hierarchies get their power from the quantity of relationships. In other words, more people in the group is better—and more powerful. Unfortunately, that focus tends to neglect the competence of each individual involved. After all, if you are motivated to include everyone (and gain power, money, or status by doing so), then any standards that could possibly reject someone would feel counterproductive, exclusionary, and negative. A group without standards can cease to be functional, however, becoming more like an aimless mob than a productive team.

Like Peterson's lobsters, here too we can better understand the situation with a metaphor—in this case, about the crab. If you put a single crab in a bucket, it will easily climb out. Nevertheless, if you put many crabs in a bucket, none can climb out. This occurs because the crabs hold onto each other and drag each other down. The overwhelming power of the group prevents any competent individual from ever climbing up. In this way, the positive and powerful connections of a group can become chaotic and coercive, smothering individual effort and productivity. This is what Peterson (2002) himself alludes to in his discussion of the Destructive Mother archetype.

Finding Balance

By adding the above metaphors and dynamics to the pieces Peterson does discuss, we get the full picture. Both sides have merit, and yet, both can go too far. Too much focus on competency and competition and you end up in a snippy lobster hierarchy, with individuals feeling isolated, relationships fractured, and tyrannical order bearing down. In contrast, too much focus on connection and cooperation and you end up in a crab bucket, stuck in the chaos of a mob that smothers individual efforts toward competence and achievement. Put simply, one side sacrifices relationships for expertise, while the other does the opposite—and both bases of power are needed for a balanced life!

Given that, in our personal lives and our societies, the way forward is to understand each other and endeavor to strike a balance between individual competency and interpersonal connection. We do so by learning to share power with others, building both competence and connection, and refraining from using bases of power for coercive control. In that way, we avoid becoming Tyrannical Fathers or Destructive Mothers, and create the powerful social dynamics that help us best live, love, and prosper.

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© 2022 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.

References

Boehm, C. (1993). Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierarchy. Current Anthropology, 34(3), 227-254.

Peterson, J. B. (2002). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. Routledge.

Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 rules for life: An antidote to chaos. Random House Canada.

Peterson, J. B. (2021). Beyond order: 12 more rules for life. Portfolio/Penguin.

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