Jordan Peterson on "Being a Monster"
Why not speak with more precision about what is being recommended?
Posted Dec 07, 2018
It is always fascinating to watch someone become an object of intense admiration, creating not just fans but "followers." The example I can think of before Jordan Peterson is Ayn Rand. Both figures not only caught the rapt attention of a percentage of the public but have done so with ideas.
The accounts of morality promoted by Peterson and Rand are similar in that they do a "run around" of academic work in morality. Neither picks up or references contemporary debates in the fields of moral philosophy or moral psychology. Peterson's ideas, for example, can be found in the account of Carl Jung, which is very rarely referenced in contemporary moral philosophy. (For a thorough overview of Peterson's work, situating it in psychology, don't miss Gregg Henriques's series of posts here.)
This helps explain an interesting challenge Peterson got from podcast host Joe Rogan. (At nine minutes in you can view this discussion here.) Rogan, a major fan of Peterson, asked why Peterson recommends that men become "monsters," as Hitler also gets described by Peterson as a "monster." Rogan would like a distinction to be made between when Peterson condemns being a "monster" and when he is recommending being a "monster." Peterson seems a bit taken aback by this request, but finally responds that the difference is that you do not want to become a monster "accidentally."
Is this helpful? Rogan does not seem convinced, and I imagine listeners cannot follow with any understanding, either.
I think Peterson means to invoke Jung, who has an account of our "shadow," which we all carry and ought to "embody" in our "conscious life," lest we project it upon others, moralizing about them, while this unacknowledged aspect of ourselves gets "blacker and denser." (Jung, C.G. (1938). "Psychology and Religion.")
These are the not the kind of concepts that are used in contemporary accounts of morality, even though the topic "how to be" receives intense scrutiny in research from multiple fields.
Of course, the public is not interested in reading academic studies or research. So a lot can be gained by avoiding this ongoing work, but if we are left recommending "become a monster," surely we might want to look for the detail that is already a part of ethical theory and the various frameworks being proposed in moral psychology? It would sure seem to help Peterson explain what he must mean. It would lend a lot of precision, as the accounts in ethics and moral psychology are precise (for a few examples, just look here or here or here).
Peterson's response to Rogan's astute question about the unstated difference in "monsters" ends up being a non-answer. Peterson merely attempts to get Rogan to agree that he would see a physical opponent as "monstrous." Rogan does not seem to agree, and suggests instead that strong competitors are only "fierce." Yet no matter what Rogan thinks, Peterson's suggestion that athletes project "monster" onto an opponent is quite at odds with Jung's own warnings about our "shadow."
Athletes talk freely about how they envision their opponents and of course there are many ways they do it. If they saw them as simple "monsters," however, we would not have sports as we know it. For example, we would not see athletes, in the various ways it gets displayed in various sports, engaging in the sportsmanship that we do.
There is a lot of theorizing about what comprises sportsmanship, and little skepticism about whether it is actually employed. Powerful athletes do not act like "monsters," and "unleash mayhem" as Peterson describes. If athletes are being sporting, according to philosophers of sport, they are using self-control, ignoring personal harms, detaching from the need to win at all costs, enjoying themselves while learning and testing internalized rules. Peterson invokes a looser way to refer to these ideas when discussing his son playing hockey with a poor sport. Would we ever want to replace this complex (but realistic) list with just the idea that athletes should act like "monsters?" We would lose so much precision! And that is even if the idea mapped on to what we actually admire at all, which I doubt. Do coaches ever say "act like a monster?"
This is just one example of how Peterson could clarify his message if he engaged with ongoing research on the topics of "how to be."
There is one other way in which I think sports might be a useful focus for Peterson. He has recently written the following (numbering added in by me).
"I told him that the 1) dominant narrative in our culture is predicated on the assumption that the West is a tyrannical patriarchy; that 2) all its accomplishments are a consequence of the exploitation of the dispossessed; and that 3) the only true way to a desirable position is through the expression of power. I told him that young men are therefore faced with a Devil’s choice: 4) if they are ambitious and competent (or even not ambitious or competent) then they will be treated, not least by themselves, as if they are expressing precisely the traits that produced this terrible tyranny, and are no better than the infinite oppressors of the past. This happens because it has become acceptable in our time to put forward a version of history, the present and the future that is based on 5) a deep hatred for men (or, even worse, a deep hatred for competence). This is a very enervating, demotivating, discouraging story, as it 6) takes what is best about the best young men — their desire for competence, contribution, cooperation, competition and success — and turns it into something indictable."
My reaction to the ambiguous suggestion that men become monsters and the above passage was to wonder if Peterson had played sports or follows it at all. The hero-worship that Peterson so admires is alive and well in our culture today, just look to sports! It is hard for me to think Peterson is imagining the world as I live in it, entire families rooting on their teams over the weekend and the intense focus on athleticism in childhood on up. And as children age, mine, at least, hush when a top athlete in their school walks by, in complete awe of the competence (and grace and sportsmanship) of such talented peers. How can our rabid sports fandom be explained if Peterson is right to think that the "dominant narrative" has us hate men and competence?
This counter-evidence seems obvious (and if not, ask some young boys about Lebron James), rendering 4) and 5) above false, giving us reason to doubt their premises and 6) as well.
Back to monsters? Once again, I wish fans of Peterson could access (at least) the detail provided in the actual Jungian account. We not only find Jung suggesting projection of the badness of others is a sign of an unacknowledged shadow, but he also suggests we "carefully amputate" the shadow, and that "only monkeys parade with it." (1938. "The Integration of the Personality.") In contrast, Peterson uses "monster" positively, as a goal for a whole person! He regularly recommends being "dangerous" (in particular to young children?) and promises that he is able to deliver "bad things" to those who challenge him-- and it seems like parading, to me, at least. But there are, I guess, many things we ought to expect only the charismatic to be able to get away with.
(For less drama but instead exacting, responsive, disciplined, carefully argued accounts of how and why and what it is to be ethical, I would, of course, recommend people stay far away from talk at the level of "monster" and the indignity of waiting on someone to provide a definition. They can turn instead to the work being done in the field of moral philosophy, arguments designed to be as clear and honest as possible, so that readers can understand and even disagree. Again, just begin here or here or here.)
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