Jordan Peterson: Part One of a Five Part Blog Series

Jordan Peterson and the concept of identity.

Posted Aug 07, 2018

Over the past two years, Dr. Jordan Peterson has exploded on to the scene of our cultural consciousness. His meteoric rise to fame has been especially fascinating for me, as we are both trained as clinical-personality psychologists. Because I have an insider’s view on both his ideas and the controversy he engenders, I have decided to develop a blog series on the topic.

My goal in this series is to offer an analysis that allows for understanding Jordan Peterson’s ideas, for why he is attracting so much attention, and for what I think it means for our society. This series is for individuals who want a more in-depth understanding of what is going on. If you are looking for the basic background on who Jordan Peterson is, go first to his website and see his brief biography here. For an article that provides a solid overview of his story, see here. For even more background and commentary, see here, here, here and here. Finally, to get a flavor of how he is characterized in the broadest media lights, see this snippet from NBC Nightly News.

Part I: On the Concept of Identity

To fully understand the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, we need to start with an understanding of one of the most central concepts in clinical-personality psychology, identity. Take a moment and ask yourself the following questions: Who are you? Why do you do what you do? What is the story of your life? What are your core values? How do important others in your world see you and relate to you? As these questions suggest, the concept of identity is at the very heart of what it means to be a person.

Identity does not appear full blown at birth, but instead it develops over the course of a lifetime. The first developmental phase of identity, according to the psychologist Dan McAdams, is the social actor phase. This begins to take hold as a young child (starting between ages 2 to 4) learns language and has the cognitive capacity to identify what role they are to be taking. When parents tell kids that “you must be a good student and listen to the teacher” or that “our family says a prayer before dinner” or “it is not nice to hit” they are learning the rules that the family and culture uses to socialize the individual into their various roles. It is called the social actor phase because it refers to how kids are internalizing the rules and roles that frame what they are doing. And it also refers to others’ expectations and how others are judging them.

Identity shifts in late childhood and early adolescence to become a more active force in human behavior. McAdams describes this shift as going from a social actor to an agent, which refers to an active self-concept. Carl Jung offered a wonderful self-reflective description of the time he awakened and became an agent, writing:

I was taking the long road to school…when suddenly for a single moment I had the overwhelming impression of having just emerged from a dense cloud. I knew all at once: I am myself!...Previously I had existed, too, but everything merely happened to me…Previously I had been willed to do this and that: now I willed. This experience seemed to me tremendously important and new: there was “authority” in me. (cited in Ryckman, 2004, p. 75)

The new “authority” that Jung experienced was the sense of agency. Jung now had enough self-reflective awareness to really ask himself: How do I want to be? What should I be doing? What gives other people the right to tell me what to do?

Parents of teenagers know that this is when many kids begin to “wake up” and start to think for themselves. It can be both enormously rewarding and frustrating for all parties. The adolescent begins to assert claims about who they are and what they ought to be, and they often make the point that parents don’t know everything. This is the agent.

The third and final phase of identity development is the autobiographical narrator. This emerges in young to middle adulthood, and refers to how the self-concept system begins to develop a “narrative arc” that tells the story of the person’s life and their place in the world across long stretches of time. Ideally, what emerges is a “story of generativity,” in which the individual experiences themselves as a protagonist who has a clear sense of who they are and how they are able to contribute to society in a productive way, and in a way that allows them to feel valued and understood. If this does not happen (i.e., they are not valued or experience major failures or are isolated and confused), then the individual stagnates, feels trapped or “dead ended” by life, and often will be stressed, anxious or depressed.

Clearly, identity has many components. It develops over time, it is dependent on cultural context, it involves both private and public domains, and consists of (a) rules and roles that guide social actors, (b) choices and active decision making about what ought to be by self-reflective agents, and, ultimately, (c) a narrative arc in which key story lines define protagonists and antagonists, generative successes or stagnant failures.

What does this have to do with Jordan Peterson? Well, much of his message is about identity. For example, a major aspect of his research is the “self-authoring” exercise. And, his larger message, captured in his 12 Rules For Living book is about cultivating a particular kind of identity, grounded in basic and traditional principles of conscientious living. And, if we are to understand the phenomena that Jordan Peterson has become, we need to recognize that we are living in a tumultuous time regarding our cultural identity.

From Individual Identities to Cultural Identities

With this description of an individual’s identity in place, let’s take a step back, and move to a higher level of analysis. That is, let’s “zoom out” to the level of human culture. This is pretty abstract. It can be hard enough to try and reflect on one’s own identity, yet alone trying to reflect on the identity of one’s culture.

But it can be done and one way to do it is via questions: What is our cultural identity? What is our story? What have we been? What are we now? Where are we headed? Where should we be headed? Cultures are “macro-level” identities for groups of people. Cultures provide the stories that define people, they frame what is and what ought to be and the ‘right’ kind of decisions people should make, and they define the rules and roles that people adopt within them. Cultures are magnets that pull people together and give them a shared sense of belonging and script about their place in the world. Of course, many people are attempting to influence the culture as they are being influenced by it, and the stories that make up one's culture are in constant flux. People are constantly attempting to justify the cultural story that folks should be listening to.

Another effective way to consider cultural identity is to step outside of it. A couple of years back, I went to Costa Rica and when folks asked me where I was from, I initially said, “America.” I learned quickly that folks in Costa Rica (along with many others who live in Latin America) do not like it when people from the United States act as though they are the only true representatives of the North and South American continents. After this “acculturation” to the social norms in Costa Rica, I proceeded to refer to myself as someone from the US.

Now consider a cultural icon, Captain America. What associations emerge? His identity is a hero from WWII who fights evil and stands for truth and justice. And in experiencing those associations, what associations emerge for you? That of the greatest generation and the greatest nation on earth? Or, perhaps you feel a bit self-conscious about him and his name, especially since I just narrated my story about being an “American” in Costa Rica. Perhaps you are more conscious of his whiteness and maleness, and US arrogance and dominance?

Like individuals, cultures can go through identity crises. When different groups within a culture have radically different responses to images and icons, and radically different ideas about what defines the culture and what direction we should be headed, a crisis emerges.

As is well documented, modern times in the US are characterized by enormous political polarization. And the concept of “identity politics” is one of the key hot spots. To understand the Jordan Peterson phenomena, we need to understand modern political polarization and the battle over identity politics, and that is where we turn next.

Part II: Identity Politics and Political Polarization

Part III: Jordan Peterson’s Psychology and Philosophy of Life

Part IV: Controversy and the Emergence of the 100-foot Wave

Part V: What the Peterson Controversy Means for Our Culture

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