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So I am totally reevaluating everything I said about Jordan Peterson the other day. I underestimated this guy. I have started listening to his lectures and reading his academic articles… and I gotta say, the sheer chutzpah of what this guy is actually trying to do is astounding.
I don't think any of the book reviews or think pieces have actually gotten to the bottom of what Peterson is all about. What his project is. Why he does what he does. This is a man who, I kid you not, is trying to rebuild Western civilization from the ground up.
No joke. There have been a flurry of reviews of P. Daneen's new book on the failure of liberalism. It is a very zeitgeisty sort of work. Left&right, European or American, everyone in the West seems to agree that the model is failing. We have a crisis of faith in the liberal order
This comes on top of the older crisis of faith in faith itself. The West is a place that has no real moral bearings left. The community structures and institutions that held it all together are falling apart, or are already dead. There are no sources of cultural authority left.
This is where the Peterson project starts. In essence, he asks: is it possible to build up a new sense of moral order in a society where no one believes in God anymore?
Yes, he says, it sure is possible. The totalitarians did it! But look at how that turned out. So in a world that has abandoned the old hierarchies and belief systems, how do you construct a moral, ordered society, something more than atomic individualism…without it turning Nazi?
That is Peterson's animating question. Everything he says or thinks comes back to that. In a godless world, how do we keep ourselves from descending to Mao. His answer is kind of complicated, and as I haven't read his big book yet, this reconstruction is a bit tentative. But
it looks something like this:

Nietzsche saw the problem of our times when he declared that God was dead. Now Nietzsche saw this as a chance to go out and build a new world with a shiny new morality, absent all that 'slave' baggage that came with Xianity.
Problem is, humans cannot be just whatever they will themselves to be. We are hard wired to act and feel certain ways. Peterson spends a lot of time on the neuroscience of emotion, and its connection to basic human social desires
Desires like a need for transcendence, a need for purpose, a longing for community, the human penchant for turning everything into a story, etc. Implication here is that certain human behaviors-especially behaviors that are connected to societal narratives
Are hardwired into us. They are just as much a part of human nature as the sex drive. totalitarians didn't understand this, assumed that all nature could be subjected to human will, including human nature.
They were good story creators though, and so were able to hijack human nature for very destructive ends. Created narratives that, when believed and looped into the base needs of the brain, led people to incredibly destructive acts.
Understanding the psychology and neuroscience behind acts of genocide and things like concentration camps is a big focus of his writing. In a way he describes totalitarian ideologies the way nutritionists describe sugary drinks--something modern that takes advantage of an ancient
predisposition that originally evolved in a very different environment than modern society, and can be deathly maladaptive now. But you can't get rid of the attraction to totalitarian narratives any more than you can attraction to sugars, as he sees it.
So for people to be healthy, and to not hook their brains onto the sort of stories that lead to totalitarianism, people need to have another option. They need to have another set of myths, narratives, and rituals to hook into
Because the need to enact myths and rituals and transcendent narratives is something he thinks evolution has bored into our brains. But where do we find these myths and rituals and transcendent narratives in the 21st century?
Well, he suggests we find them where they've always been: in the great books and ritual traditions of the past. Thus his take on the Bible. You read it as a series of archetypes that provide a pattern of order and structure for daily living.
Not as the living word of a living God. That God is dead for most Westerners-not so much older Americans, but certainly the millennial ones (And lo behold, who is his great audience?).
So if you can take these myths and stories and reformat them as rituals you can enact in the modern day… well, you are happy, you meeting the requirements your brain sets for meaning and happiness. They are the building blocks for building "order out of chaos."
Now from this perspective… Peterson becomes a *much* more interesting figure. He's been arguing this theory for a long time. Since 1995 really. But it wasn't until he said some loud in the culture wars that he got the kind of platform to reach more than a few hundred students.
The original fame started with that moment. His culture warrior moments are all gateways to the real message he is pushing. But the obsession around him really seems based on that message. It appeals to a millennial demographic that has longs for a sense of belonging and order.
To an extent I now question how important he really thinks that culture war stuff really is, and how much he is just intentionally baiting for the sake of media attention, in a super cagey plan to get his real message out
I say that because his next step is brilliant, and shows a shade of brilliance. He writes a self-help book. And the book has, as discussed yesterday, most of the same stock self-help ideas 90% of the other self-help books offer. But the 'answers' isn't really what that book is
about. What matters isn't the end ideas but the process he uses in laying them out. Pretty much a third of the book is Biblical exegesis. Why? Well, he is training his readers on how to think about myths and rituals and how to incorporate them into their lives.
I suppose another way you could say this: His self-help book is a cleverly designed gateway drug into his approach. And to bring it back to where we started, his approach is all about trying to build a post-God, non-totalitarian, moral order.
Now I don't know if his project has any chance of succeeding. Probably will fail and be forgotten. But again: I am impressed with the chutzpah it takes to say "Our sense of civilizational self-confidence has fallen apart, let's see if I can create a mass movement to rebuild it."
This is also why I find reviews like this… just so, so inadequate. I can think of a thousand ways to criticize this civilization-revitalization project, but the reviewer doesn't even have a clue that this is what is being attempted.
P.S. If you want me to write about this long-form somewhere, PM me. I'll consider it. There is a good long form essay here if I can find a publisher. (Sorry folks, not going to waste time providing more than this twitter sketch though just for my blog!)
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