What the Left—and Everyone Else—Can Learn from the Public Pedagogy of Jordan Peterson
A professor who instructs people to clean their rooms in lieu of protesting emerged in the fall of 2016 as an unlikely hero among many millennials—especially among young adult males who like YouTube.
Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, became a “free speech” cause célèbre after posting videos online criticizing political correctness and Canadian Bill C-16, objecting to the attempt to add “gender or identity or expression” to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination.
Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, appears to have catapulted him into even greater fame. The book, released January 23, became an international bestseller.
The self-titled “Professor against political correctness” has amassed more than 850,000 YouTube subscribers and nearly 500,000 Twitter followers. Camille Paglia, the quasi-feminist social critic known for her quick wit and rapid-fire assertion-slinging with little time for evidence, deemed Peterson “the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan,” and VICE News echoed similar sentiments, crowning him Canada’s “most infamous intellectual.”
He’s been called “a clench-jawed crusader against what he sees as an authoritarian movement masquerading as social-justice activism.”
Indeed, Peterson reserves visceral disdain for “social justice warriors,” and he lambasts the humanities and social sciences in higher education for becoming a “postmodern, neo-Marxist playground for radicals.”
Of course, Peterson has received flak for some of his positions, including warning letters from his university. As his “brand” has risen in notoriety, anti-capitalists with whom I share certain political aspirations have labeled his ideas “bullshit”—and, to be sure, the philosophical framework from which the politically incorrect professor educates millions of people over the Internet has serious flaws, as detailed below.
However, I argue, those of us on the “Left”—including those with structural criticisms of capitalism and of other forms of hierarchy and authority deemed lacking in legitimacy, as well as folks organizing with visions of a better world—have something to learn from him. He has, for example, publicly made a “left-wing case for free speech.” Peterson’s public pedagogy, the informal or semi-formal educative work he shares predominantly through new media, also offers psychological starting points for those of us who take “social justice” seriously. As ironic as it is, given his crusading against “social justice warriors,” we can learn a lot from someone we disagree with. In fact, this approach echoes the ninth rule in his new book: The author entreats his reader to listen to others—even, and in particular, those with whom one might disagree—because those people might know something one does not.
Peterson’s public pedagogy can teach us—whether he intends for all of these lessons to be learned or not—how to better understand, interrogate, and struggle over the meaning of “justice,” be it “social” or otherwise.
Liberating the Logos and Our Understanding of Individuality
First, though, there is the not-so-minor issue regarding how and why parts of Peterson’s worldview remain antithetical to the deepening and extension of democracy that those on the “radical left” support.
To the point, these elements of his thought became the crux of a debate that unfolded between the renegade professor and an interviewer at a recent RSA event. Peterson’s insistence that people should straighten themselves out—by cleaning their rooms, for a start, he oft-implores folks—prior to making an attempt at political engagement, prompted some pushback from the RSA affiliate. The RSA interviewer pointed out that some of the most prominent, effective, and generally speaking, morally upright activists also had their own personal flaws, as was the case, he observed, with Martin Luther King Jr. and his extramarital affairs. Those flaws did not keep MLK from making indelible and admirable changes to society.
Peterson countered that were King to have straightened out his personal life, he perhaps could have been more effective in his civil rights struggles.
That may be true, but given the psycho-emotional and physical toll civil disobedience and militant organizing tends to exact on those who are truly committed to it, Peterson’s maxim probably does not apply across the board.
More importantly, though, is the assumption in Peterson’s formulation that sorting oneself out and engaging in politics (for lack of a better word) are mutually exclusive. His framing implies one should properly come before the other, and that instead of trying to change the world, change should begin with the individual.
This notion of individuality abstracts the individual from society, erecting a dichotomy when none need exist, given that what largely defines us as individuals are our relations with others. The philosopher John Dewey made that case, and Dewey is especially apropos given Peterson’s affinity for the pragmatist philosophy Dewey helped popularize. “Metaphysically, I am an American pragmatist,” Peterson wrote in a now-public email to Steve Kovach, who authored an article for Business Insider concerning Peterson.
What pragmatists like Dewey understood is that our necessary human association produces consequences, and it matters who makes decisions about those consequences and how such decisions are made. And democracy, as Dewey noted, must be “more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” The democratic possibility is what makes the freedom of speech Peterson is adamant about protecting so meaningful.
When interviewing Peterson, the aforementioned RSA affiliate appropriately balked at the idea that in a purportedly “democratic” society individuals should let others run the political show. While Peterson makes much ado about responsibility, his conception of the term shirks the responsibility that one might feel toward civic engagement. That understanding of individual responsibility was even articulated by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, the twenty-sixth US president, who argued that citizens had the duty to participate practically in politics “in accordance with the highest principles of honor and justice.” Those who do not, he claimed, “are unfit to live in a free community.”
Roosevelt’s gunboat diplomacy and American exceptionalism aside, the notion of the individual invoked in his rhetoric has roots in the tradition Peterson also celebrates.
The Western understanding of the sovereignty and respect for the individual, Peterson suggests, is premised upon respect for the logos, the ability to articulate or formulate order out of chaos. The logos is a precondition for the realization of one’s potential.
Dewey, for one, grasped that insight Peterson is now helping to popularize. But he took it more seriously than Peterson appears to.
In his 1916 book, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Dewey criticized Plato for defending a class-stratified society characterized by a select few who “appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others.” As Dewey explained,
Plato subordinated the individual to the social whole. But it is true that lacking the perception of the uniqueness of every individual, his incommensurability with others, and consequently not recognizing that a society might change and yet be stable, his doctrine of limited powers and classes came in net effect to the idea of the subordination of individuality.
Drawing on Dewey, any society that relegates major decision making to an elite few denies actualization of the logos and ergo deprecates the individual. Peterson’s philosophy of the individual and his disdain for “social justice” ideologically isolate individuality from the contexts whereby the logos—and thus more meaningful individual lives—can be realized.
Venerating the logos and the individual should thus teach us the importance of struggling to deepen the kind of democratic social relations that do not limit but instead expand people’s opportunities to participate in the decisions affecting them. Movements that, for instance, encourage the development rather than the subordination of people by instituting workplace democracy—illustrations of “democracy at work,” in other words—seek economic justice and try to do just that.
The True and the Good
In a 2016 message explicitly geared toward millennials, Peterson told his young-adult admirers to be wary of the kind of activist whose main aim “is to change other people.” Of course, we inevitably do change others, and ourselves, through the interaction that is a prerequisite for human life.
Peterson’s own online content is a form of public pedagogy insofar as what he communicates has an impact on others, which I’m sure he hopes it does. That is, he probably wouldn’t bother posting videos—now totaling more than 250—on YouTube if he didn’t expect them to have an impact on—that is, if he did not expect them to change—other people. The precept of free speech is paramount in part because it protects and enables, as the prominent Free Speech Movement thinker and later adjunct professor of philosophy Mary Savio once explained, “consequential speech,” communicative advocacy that can stir people to act and catalyze concrete changes.
Given that much of Peterson’s life is no doubt devoted to pedagogy, public and otherwise, it is safe to say one of his aims is to change others too.
As he individualizes problems that could be addressed socially, smuggling in his own attempt at social change in the process, his philosophy of education seeks to separate the “true” from the “good,” even though he wants to wed the two as a crucial part of his worldview.
In his aforementioned message to millennials, Peterson agreed with Jonathan Haidt, a cofounder of Heterodox Academy, who argued the search for “truth” and the search for “justice”—especially within the context of higher education—irreconcilably conflict.
Peterson often recounts the horrors that have emerged historically from utopian idealism, yet he commits a dangerous idealist fallacy by supposing educators ought to or even can avoid making pedagogical choices about what is important to educate students about and what the purpose of that education is to begin with.
That is, he ignores the notions of “justice” and of what is “good” or right and of value that necessarily inform how we educate and search for the truth.
Dichotomizing the explicit value concerns of “social justice” from “truth” obscures why and how “truth” can be of value. That framing erases the pragmatist conception of truth, predicated upon experimentation to determine what works and at least temporarily holds “true” in practice, from consideration. Arguably the greatest practical rationale for valuing truth gets discarded within the Peterson-Haidt dualism because the practicality of the search for and use of truth for and by human beings is not recognized as of value.
As another public intellectual and professor in Canada, Henry Giroux, argues, the failure to connect learning to politics also severs education from its democratic potential. Positing truth and justice as mutually exclusive in higher education rules out a pedagogy premised on the aim of realizing the individual through democracy, and neglects the value in students learning to exercise agency and to participate in the decisions affecting them.
And if a principal aim of education and the search for truth therein is not based on equipping students with the knowledge and skills to make those decisions, then people are less likely to learn how to apply and embody the logos and might even forfeit it entirely.
Peterson, to his credit, has been quick to criticize some trends in higher education that bode well for no one. He vocally criticized the incident that happened at Wilfrid Laurier University—when Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student and teaching assistant, was reprimanded for showing to her class a short clip of a debate, featuring Peterson, about the use of gender pronouns.
In contrast, though, something like the 2015 University of Toronto graduate employee strike—an action in which grad student workers foregrounded the job and income insecurity they faced, enabling them to build coalitions and foster a sort of social movement unionism among academic workers—was ostensibly not as an important an issue for him. The point is not that he or anyone else has to always attend to every major event, even if it seriously affects the school where and perhaps the students one teaches. Rather, what’s relevant is what and why one’s philosophical assumptions lead one to consider some issues worthy and others unworthy, to paraphrase an analytic technique famously used by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
If we learn to truly value free speech on campus as Peterson beseeches us to, then we need to create the conditions under which it can actually be exercised and valued in more than the abstract.
For a freedom of speech advocate, Peterson has yet to connect the political economy of academe to the persistent threats to free speech on campus. Although he has acknowledged the plight of adjunct professors in higher education, he has not publicly pointed out, as far as I know, how the precarious, low-wage positions faced now by the majority of the professoriate within the two-tiered system of higher education imperils academic freedom. Freedom of speech for professors appears wholly inadequate when the majority of faculty, at least in the United States, can now be fired—or, simply not be rehired for the next term, given their per-semester contingent employment—if they say something that irks department chairs or administrators. Examples abound. And they illustrate the inextricable if-oft-concealed tie between the “true” and the “good” or, put differently, between the search for “truth” and the quest for “justice”—teloses that Peterson again considers at odds with each other.
Except he doesn’t. He explicitly admitted trying to wed at least the former within his own philosophy during an interview-cum-debate with podcast host Sam Harris. In attempting to do so, he put forward a conception of truth based on humanity’s evolutionary survival. He likened it to a pragmatist approach, but determining whether something is true on the basis of whether it allows us to survive would not seem all that pragmatic. It doesn’t do much to help inform us of how to act in the present, going forward. It would also seem silly to search for the truth—as Peterson beseeches us to do, at the expense of working toward justice—if the truth could not be determined until we all died.
In another talk, Peterson shared an anecdote that belies similar logic. He explained how in 1989, the Berlin philharmonic orchestra played during a big celebration after the fall of the Berlin Wall. They played Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9” in front of a large crowd.
“You can imagine someone,” Peterson said, “critically minded and rational, at an event like that standing behind you, as you’re listening to the great strains of that symphony manifest themselves, tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Well, you know, that symphony is going to end. What makes you think it has any meaning at all?’ ”
As he noted, it’s hard to respond to something like that. But, he added that you might say: “You should reconsider the way you’re looking at the world there, buddy.”
If you think that the symphony has no meaning because it ends “you’re not paying attention to what’s going on if that’s the way you think, or maybe you’re thinking too much,” he said. “Yes, you’re thinking too much and not paying enough attention. But it’s more serious than that. Say, ‘what does it all mater if in 10 billion years … the sun is going to expand and consume the earth? What difference does it make?’ And I would say, ‘Well, is that the kind of answer you’re going to give to a child that’s in pain?’ ”
Likewise, his attempt, at least in his debate with Harris, to postpone the adjudication of truth until our species becomes extinct robs it of its meaning too. His effort to marry the “good” of survival with the concept of “truth” showcased the tensions and shortcomings we all can learn from, and it points to a kind of “doublethink” embedded in his philosophy.
Doublethink, Dichotomous Narratives, and De-Democratization
George Orwell, the acclaimed British fiction writer of the twentieth century, popularized the concept of “doublethink” in his dystopian novel about a totalitarian future, 1984, one of the texts on Peterson’s official reading list. Doublethink involves holding two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time and believing them both to be true.
Although it’s not obvious at first blush, Peterson succumbs to a sophisticated version of doublethink when it comes to some of the foundations of his worldview, and he couches that within criticisms reflecting dichotomous thinking.
As he explained in the lecture, Orwell wrote the last part of the book
for the Left Book Club, which was this socialist group that would publish a book every month or so. And what he did was he wrote a critique of socialism—of British socialism. And he said, ‘Yeah, well this sucks man. We should be on the side of these working people. But the socialists I meet they’re not on the side of the working people. They’re like tweed-wearing, middle-class hyper-intellectuals who never go anywhere near the working class because of their class prejudices and for all sorts of other reasons. And they don’t like the poor at all. They just hate the rich.’
Peterson came to agree with Orwell’s criticisms. “That’s part of also what made me psychoanalytically oriented,” he said, “because one thing psychoanalysts always do, always, is if you say, ‘Here’s how I’m positively predisposed,’ the psychoanalyst says, ‘How are you using that to mask something easy and malevolent that you’re doing?’ ”
Taking a tip from his playbook and turning the psychoanalytic tables, it is worth exploring how what Peterson says serves as ideological gloss for other ways his public pedagogy functions.
In the same lecture quoted above, Peterson notes that “George Orwell was the first Western intellectual who figured out what the hell was going on in the Soviet Union. And he did that in the mid-forties,” adding that evidence was piling up about Stalin’s atrocities before then, “but unfortunately, what happened was the Spanish Civil War and the lefties were pretty much the good guys in the Spanish Civil War.”
What gets omitted from his narrative is crucial to understanding that history, though, and it illustrates what is going on with Peterson’s pedagogy.
He failed to mention that in December of 1936, shortly after writing The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell also made the trip to “Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles,” as the British author himself put it, adding that he “joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do.” He wrote that in Homage to Catalonia, which Wes Alwan appropriately plugged in the PEL podcast about Orwell on language and totalitarianism.
In Spain during the country’s Civil War, Orwell witnessed what meaningful, anti-authoritarian socialism could look like in practice: “The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing.” The movement Orwell experienced firsthand has been described as anarcho-syndicalist because of the role of the militant syndicalist labor union, the Spanish CNT-FAI, in reordering society along the lines of, as those involved also referred to it, comunismo libertario (libertarian communism).
“It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle,” Orwell wrote. Every shop and café he encountered had been placed under collective democratic control, and servile forms of speech had disappeared. “All this was queer and moving,” he wrote. “There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.”
In the book, Orwell also documented the irreconcilable tension between Soviet-style authoritarian socialism and the syndicalist-inspired libertarian communism of the Spanish anarchists. He exposed the lies of the Communist press in Spain, quoting excerpts from the party’s organ at length to showcase falsehoods. He also described what has since been corroborated: The Communists bear some responsibility for undermining the short-lived revolution Orwell thought worth fighting for by helping to ensure the demise of the short-lived Spanish experiment in economic democracy.
Peterson might not have read Homage to Catalonia, so he might not know that Orwell was critical of the Moscow-directed Communists before the mid-1940s. Or he might have opted to omit the part of history that fails to conform to the dichotomous worldview, popular during the Cold War, which pitted Soviet-style “Communism” against Western-style capitalist “democracies.”
He has lectured about the horrors of the Soviet Union before, lamenting that the atrocities committed by and even after Stalin are not widespread knowledge. The position he takes is curious, but it again helps indicate his presuppositions and outline his worldview. During the Cold War, especially in the United States, as Herman and Chomsky also demonstrated in Manufacturing Consent, major media devoted significant coverage to victims of a Communist state, like the murder of Polish priest Jerzy Popieluszko in 1984, while the murder and rape of “unworthy” victims killed in the 1980s by military and paramilitary forces in Latin American countries supported by the United States received little-to-no coverage. Herman and Chomsky pointed out that with well-documented US attempts to subvert the administrations in Guatemala (1947–54) and the backing of military attacks on Nicaragua (1981–87), “allegations of Communist links and a Communist threat caused many liberals to support counterrevolutionary intervention, while others lapsed into silence, paralyzed by the fear of being tarred with charges of infidelity to the national religion.”
They added “that when anti-Communist fervor is aroused, the demand for serious evidence in support of claims of ‘communist’ abuses is suspended, and charlatans can thrive as evidential sources.” Whether Peterson and his denunciations of the “bloody neo-Marxists” who “have invaded the campuses” and are supposedly “in the process of invading the rest of the culture as fast as they can possibly manage” qualifies as an updated example of the latter is hard to say. However, his assertion that the history of Communist state crimes has been neglected clearly neglects some not-too-distant history as well. And his conceptual linking of a so-called “radical Left” to the mass torture and death doled out under the Soviet Union could certainly function in similar ways to what Herman and Chomsky described in the 1980s, perhaps at minimum scaring “liberals” into disavowing more progressive policies and practices for fear they will lead to a dystopian nightmare of Orwellian proportions. Meanwhile, Peterson’s focus on the barbarity of what was in effect top-down state capitalism in the now-nonexistent Soviet Union comes at the expense of well-documented atrocities that still-existing Western governments, often acting on the prerogatives of the capitalist institutions undergirding them, bear responsibility for.
This not only reflects a serious double standard. The assumptions about historical and political worthiness also reinforce the de-democratization characteristic of the framework for understanding Peterson has popularized.
What Peterson’s Pedagogy Teaches Us about Social Justice
Peterson’s deficit when it comes to democratic sensibilities notwithstanding, his ideas and his perhaps pretentiously titled “rules for life” should not be dismissed outright.
In a recent book talk, of sorts, Peterson made a point in relation to one of those rules that anyone interested in a more meaningful notion of social justice could learn from.
Ruminating on one of the “rules” from the book—“Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)”—he told the audience the way to read the horrible parts of human history is as if you were the perpetrator.
“The idea that the savior is the person who takes the world’s sins upon himself is exactly that,” he said, relating the aphorism to the Judeo-Christian religious tradition, as he tends to do.
Digging deeper, he added that the way “there stops being Nazis, is for you to know that the Nazis were you, and for you to decide not to do that again.”
Coming to such a realization is no easy task. It requires getting in touch with the evil, or the potential for it, residing within. That’s what we understandably try to suppress and, worse, what we pretend does not exist.
News recently broke that in Perris, Calif., a mere twenty miles from where I live, the parents of thirteen children are alleged to have tortured, abused, and held their kids—ranging in ages 2 to 29—captive for years. The children were found severely malnourished and some were tied up.
A common response to this news might be to wonder how anyone could do such a thing. Or, some could experience a knee-jerk desire to severely punish the parents for what they did.
However, if you read Peterson closely, he entreats us to come to a different understanding.
As is suggested by another chapter in his book—“Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them”—acting as if our demons within do not exist makes it all the more likely they will emerge uncontrollably, unleashing some of the worst horrors imaginable.
While parents might believe they would never do anything to hurt their children—and while we might prefer to imagine we would have been the organizers of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising rather than members of the Death’s Head Units of the SS who ran the Nazi concentration camps—ignoring the capacity for evil within each of us is, as Peterson explains, a recipe for disaster.
In The Gulag Archipelago, another book featured on Peterson’s recommended reading list, this insight was eloquently captured by Noble laureate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, an author Peterson refers to often in his lectures.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds,” Solzhenitsyn wrote, “and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
If we take Solzhenitsyn and Peterson seriously, we are, I think, compelled to put punitive paradigms of “criminal” justice aside in order to empathize. To do so in such a profound and indeed disturbing way helps us get just how we human beings can act so inhumanely.
That kind of empathy can translate into a radical forgiveness needed for another notion of justice to take root. It was on display recently during the trial of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing women gymnasts who were just children at the time of the abuse. Gymnast Emily Morales, 18, told Nassar she believed in forgiveness when she testified at his trial.
“You and I are human beings, we make mistakes,” she said. “Although you have hurt me, I want to forgive you and feel closure and move on to healing in my life.”
For anyone who has suffered abuse, the desire for vengeance has to be great, and the judge in the Nassar case certainly invoked a notion of justice infused with thirst for revenge. But that is not the formula for justice that best reflects those psychological realizations Peterson teaches about. It is also not a justice that shows respect for humanity, despite and even in part because of our penchant for cruelty. Nor is it necessarily the most effective method for reducing the cruelty victims want to address.
Early on when the #MeToo movement emerged in the fall of 2017, highlighting the issue of widespread sexual misconduct, prison abolitionists were sharing analyses similar to the above and were already discussing the importance of trying to end sexual violence without prisons.
“When we put people in prisons and in jails, often we are sentencing them to judicial rape because we know they are going to be assaulted when they go inside,” explained Marianne Kaba, who runs the abolitionist organization Project NIA. “Yet we are still putting people in that environment to be assaulted. How are you going to be an anti-rape advocate or organizer and still be pressing for people to be put into rape factories?”
A different idea of “social justice” is illustrated in an interview with a woman, Patricia Naqi, featured in Visions of Abolition, a documentary about the problem of prisons and possibilities for life without them. In the interview, Naqi recounts receiving a phone call at 3 a.m. one morning from detectives in Riverside, CA, where I currently reside. Her stepdaughter answered the phone. They were informed that Patricia’s mother and her 13-year-old sold had been murdered; they were murdered by the man who was going out with her daughter. He was later sent to San Quentin Prison and was sentenced to death without the possibility of parole.
Naqi described experiencing “a powerless moment,” but after getting involved in prison abolitionist efforts, she came to a profound realization. She observed that there was a moment when her daughter’s partner “snapped,” and she went on to ask: “Who’s to say that’s not possible for any one of us?”
Even though she doesn’t always want to think that he could be “rehabilitated,” Naqi added: “I know today that it’s a possibility… His life is being wasted just sitting in prison, you know, completely. That’s not the answer, and I know it’s not the answer… His story can be used to help other people.”
Understanding our shared capacities for malevolence as well as the innately human ability to actualize the logos and make order out of chaos, as Peterson teaches, is a precondition for a different practice of justice akin to the type Naqi alludes to. It becomes increasingly harder to justify existing Gulag-like institutions, like the US prison-industrial complex, when we grapple with the humanity of prisoners who might have done something wrong and also comprehend how we ourselves could commit just as bad, if not worse, acts of harm.
As Solzhenitsyn put it, echoing Naqi’s realization as he addressed the question of how those who participated in state-sanctioned torture and murder in the Soviet Union could have done what they did, he cautioned, so that “we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: ‘If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner? ’ ”
After reminding readers of Socrates’s eternal lesson—“Know thyself!”—Solzhenitsyn added that when we are met with “the pit into which we are about to toss those who have done us harm, we halt, stricken dumb: it is after all only because of the way things worked out that they were the executioners and we weren’t.”
Furthermore, Solzhenitsyn made another point in the book that can show us how to develop one of those key moral principles Peterson preaches.
In evaluating how and why “several hundred thousand young men” in Russia took up arms against their own country during World War II, Solzhenitsyn concluded that you could not “explain this treason biologically. It has to have had a social cause.”
To act in an evil way, Solzhenitsyn also remarked, “a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act of conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.”
If we value precepts regarding responsibility, which Peterson claims have unduly taken a back seat to talk about people’s rights, it seems the only responsible thing to do is to assume responsibility for the society within which one becomes an individual. If we have an individual responsibility to account for the evil we are capable of so as to sort our own selves out, we arguably have as much a responsibility to honestly interrogate the justifications for, and the taken-for-granted assumptions regarding, the seeming normality and necessity of evils enacted by, and in some cases embedded in, our social institutions. This turns our attention to the relationships that shape us as individuals yet can also be reshaped, transformed, or perhaps even transcended by enough individuals assuming a more meaningful kind of responsibility.
Cultivating and exalting the logos and individuality in the manner Peterson insists is paramount should imply criticizing and surpassing the democratic deficit upon which his philosophy is hamstrung.
To do so would no doubt involve “the integration of the shadow,” to use Peterson’s phrase, borrowed from Jung. That means you must bring back in part the “monster” that’s been “edited out,” so that you are not merely a “persona,” someone meek, merely obedient and lacking individuality.
To stand up to evil, he offers, you have to incorporate some of the evil in yourself. Our attempts to assume responsibility, to disobediently confront the evil otherwise normalized and justified often in the name of justice, might reclaim the meaning of “social justice” if we incorporate our shadow in the process.
That might be the most important lesson Peterson can teach us.
James Anderson is an adjunct professor working in Southern California. He is from Illinois but now tries each semester to cobble together classes to teach at various colleges and universities in Southern California. He has worked as a freelance journalist for several online news outlets.