My notes on the thing that I call ‘the thing’ started with ‘dominance hierarchy’ long before I’d heard of Jordan Peterson, so it is almost alarming that Peterson starts Chapter 1 of his book with his pet theory on dominance hierarchies. The far right love bad-biology. Perhaps its the hope of finding some biological proof of their racist theories or biological proof of their sexist theories or proof that evolution proves that they are right or proof that evolution is wrong. It really doesn’t matter, as there’s no particular commitment to actually engage with the biology in depth.
Instead, biology plays the role of a source of stories, whether it be Vox Day ranting about rabbits, Stefan Molyneaux ranting about wolves or Mike Cernovich beating his chest about gorillas, animals are a regular source for arguments that aren’t quite analogies, not entirely metaphors and never well grounded in science. So some slight kudos goes to Jordan Peterson for at least picking out an animal not usually covered – the humble lobster.
RULE 1 STAND UP STRAIGHT WITH YOUR SHOULDERS BACK
To put it politely, this is bad. The lobster’s territorial habits and rivalries are invoked to demonstrate the great age of dominance hierarchies in the existence of life. Peterson argues that if lobsters have these issues then so do we and that are biological similarities with lobster demonstrate that such hierarchies and psycho-biological response to our position in a dominance hierarchy are deeply and inextricably baked into our beings.
This is, of course, nonsense.
Biologist and blogger P.Z.Myers has already cracked open the carapace of Jordan’s bad biology and feasted on the fleshy insides of confused biology more adeptly than I could, in two videos that I’ve linked too and at the end of this post.
I’m less interested in why the biology is wrong as to how dominance hierarchy is part of this broader ‘thing’. The essence of all the rightwing version of self-improvement has to juggle a set of competing ideas:
- free will
- biological determinism
- everybody is either a sheep, a wolf or a guard dog
Put another way, everything about human nature has to be fixed and inescapable. That’s vital for these pundits to claim that established gender roles are just biology and incapable of change and also vital for their racial theories. At the same time, they also want to promote the idea of the power of will, individualism and god-granted independence.
Dominance hierarchies help them square these circles. The argument is basically this (I say ‘basically’ because as always Peterson never properly explains it but just waves his hand at it). Biology forces us into dominance hierarchies based on territory and mate-finding. These hierarchies are inevitable and unavoidable and we are trapped in them BUT by modifying our behaviour then we can climb up the ladder of those hierarchies and become winners.
Whether it is being a better lobster or being a better salesman* the situation is the same. The pundit/guru wants you to see the world as a struggle for dominance that you can hack your way to success. Note that the very inevitably of these hierarchies means that these secret winning strategies cannot succeed if EVERYBODY adopts them. The dominance hierarchy is taken to be a fixed aspect of our nature, so we can’t all be winners. Given that, is it surprising that the inevitable extrapolation of this argument is the pro-psychopathy stances of the likes of Ivan Throne (see part 4)?
The common ideological threads here are territory and sex. Seeing biological dominance in terms of territory feeds into pro-imperialist, pro-colonialist and pro-capitalist arguments.
“Over the millennia, animals who must co-habit with others in the same territories have in consequence learned many tricks to establish dominance, while risking the least amount of possible damage. A defeated wolf, for example, will roll over on its back, exposing its throat to the victor, who will not then deign to tear it out. The now-dominant wolf may still require a future hunting partner, after all, even one as pathetic as his now-defeated foe. Bearded dragons, remarkable social lizards, wave their front legs peaceably at one another to indicate their wish for continued social harmony. Dolphins produce specialized sound pulses while hunting and during other times of high excitement to reduce potential conflict among dominant and subordinate group members. Such behavior is endemic in the community of living things. “- Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (pp. 4-5). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
It’s just nature! Inequality is inevitable!
“When a defeated lobster regains its courage and dares to fight again it is more likely to lose again than you would predict, statistically, from a tally of its previous fights. Its victorious opponent, on the other hand, is more likely to win. It’s winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies, where the top 1 percent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent— and where the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion. That same brutal principle of unequal distribution applies outside the financial domain— indeed, anywhere that creative production is required.”- Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 8). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Peterson scratches around the notion of power-law distributions as if finding a mathematical description of a thing makes that thing an inevitability.
And what works for inequality works for both sex and for gender as far as Peterson is concerned:
“There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society— on a scale of one to ten, for the sake of argument. If you’re a number one, the highest level of status, you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and the highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention. 18 If you’re female, you have access to many high-quality suitors: tall, strong and symmetrical; creative, reliable, honest and generous. And, like your dominant male counterpart, you will compete ferociously, even pitilessly, to maintain or improve your position in the equally competitive female mating hierarchy. Although you are less likely to use physical aggression to do so, there are many effective verbal tricks and strategies at your disposal” -Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (pp. 15-16). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Peterson is demanding that we see some things as biologically fixed and that we cannot succeed in changing them – nor should we even try! It’s dressed up in pop-science & self-help clothes but it is essentially a very old reactionary argument. God has ordained a place for everything and to go against God’s will is to be unnatural and to be unnatural is wrong.
Now couple that with the other aspect of self-help I’ve discussed before – the focus on the individual changing themselves. Peterson is setting out a view that we cannot change these fixed aspects of the world but only change our position within them (I noted in a previous chapter how better self-help books avoid this trap).
You can see how appalling this trap is when Peterson starts discussing bullying – now note he is an actual practising therapist who gives advice to actual clients.
“Sometimes people are bullied because they can’t fight back. This can happen to people who are weaker, physically, than their opponents. This is one of the most common reasons for the bullying experienced by children. Even the toughest of six-year-olds is no match for someone who is nine. A lot of that power differential disappears in adulthood, however, with the rough stabilization and matching of physical size (with the exception of that pertaining to men and women, with the former typically larger and stronger, particularly in the upper body) as well as the increased penalties generally applied in adulthood to those who insist upon continuing with physical intimidation. But just as often, people are bullied because they won’t fight back. This happens not infrequently to people who are by temperament compassionate and self-sacrificing— particularly if they are also high in negative emotion, and make a lot of gratifying noises of suffering when someone sadistic confronts them (children who cry more easily, for example, are more frequently bullied). It also happens to people who have decided, for one reason or another, that all forms of aggression, including even feelings of anger, are morally wrong. I have seen people with a particularly acute sensitivity to petty tyranny and over-aggressive competitiveness restrict within themselves all the emotions that might give rise to such things. Often they are people whose fathers who were excessively angry and controlling. Psychological forces are never unidimensional in their value, however, and the truly appalling potential of anger and aggression to produce cruelty and mayhem are balanced by the ability of those primordial forces to push back against oppression, speak truth, and motivate resolute movement forward in times of strife, uncertainty and danger.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 23). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
This is an extraordinarily toxic message from a mental-healthcare professional. He portrays bullying often (50%?) due to people not standing up for themselves. He sees the problem as them being too nice, too unwilling to be confrontational or just too kind. Note he doesn’t see the problem as being an issue of the BULLIES becoming better people or perhaps more relevantly seeing bullying as a SYSTEMIC problem that can be reduced not by an intrapersonal change in the victim but interpersonal changes and social structural changes. Why not? Because oddly it is the things that can be changed that he sees as immutable and the things that are notoriously difficult to change (our own habits) as the things we are obliged to change.
In short, if Peterson thinks you are acting like a loser you should expect to be bullied. OK, that’s a bit mean to me. Peterson is an experienced therapist and well-known psychologist – he doesn’t go around classifying people as ‘losers’. I’m being unfair to him and setting up a strawman to make his position look more evil.
Ha, I’m kidding – OF COURSE, he goes around calling people ‘losers’:
“Maybe you are a loser. And maybe you’re not— but if you are, you don’t have to continue in that mode. Maybe you just have a bad habit. Maybe you’re even just a collection of bad habits. Nonetheless, even if you came by your poor posture honestly— even if you were unpopular or bullied at home or in grade school— it’s not necessarily appropriate now. Circumstances change. If you slump around, with the same bearing that characterizes a defeated lobster, people will assign you a lower status, and the old counter that you share with crustaceans, sitting at the very base of your brain, will assign you a low dominance number. Then your brain will not produce as much serotonin. This will make you less happy, and more anxious and sad, and more likely to back down when you should stand up for yourself. It will also decrease the probability that you will get to live in a good neighbourhood, have access to the highest quality resources, and obtain a healthy, desirable mate.”-Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (pp. 25-26). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
It isn’t exactly the same as the more overtly fascist models of Vox Day or Mike Cernovich but the differences are small. They tend to blame low testosterone whereas Peterson blames low serotonin but the basic narrative is the same. Biology determines that you must live in this hierarchy and you can only move within it not move beyond it or change it. The implication is also clear – if you don’t live in a good neighbourhood and don’t have access to quality resources and don’t have a desirable mate, it is because you have let yourself slide to the bottom. For Peterson et al it is your fault if you a poor – you simply didn’t try hard enough NOT to be poor.
Peterson moderates his views of the pre-eminence of dominance hierarchies somewhat in Chapter 7 (RULE 7 / Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)). He gives an example of one person getting above it all – Jesus and then himself in a weird spirit quest dream:
“Finally comes the third temptation, the most compelling of all. Christ sees the kingdoms of the world laid before Him for the taking. That’s the siren call of earthly power: the opportunity to control and order everyone and everything. Christ is offered the pinnacle of the dominance hierarchy, the animalistic desire of every naked ape: the obedience of all, the most wondrous of estates, the power to build and to increase, the possibility of unlimited sensual gratification. That’s expedience, writ large. But that’s not all. Such expansion of status also provides unlimited opportunity for the inner darkness to reveal itself. The lust for blood, rape and destruction is very much part of power’s attraction. It is not only that men desire power so that they will no longer suffer. It is not only that they desire power so that they can overcome subjugation to want, disease and death. Power also means the capacity to take vengeance, ensure submission, and crush enemies. Grant Cain enough power and he will not only kill Abel. He will torture him, first, imaginatively and endlessly. Then and only then will he kill him. Then he will come after everyone else.
There’s something above even the pinnacle of the highest of dominance hierarchies, access to which should not be sacrificed for mere proximal success. It’s a real place, too, although not to be conceptualized in the standard geographical sense of place we typically use to orient ourselves. I had a vision, once, of an immense landscape, spread for miles out to the horizon before me. I was high in the air, granted a bird’s-eye view. Everywhere I could see great stratified multi-storied pyramids of glass, some small, some large, some overlapping, some separate— all akin to modern skyscrapers; all full of people striving to reach each pyramid’s very pinnacle. But there was something above that pinnacle, a domain outside each pyramid, in which all were nested. That was the privileged position of the eye that could or perhaps chose to soar freely above the fray; that chose not to dominate any specific group or cause but instead to somehow simultaneously transcend all. That was attention, itself, pure and untrammeled: detached, alert, watchful attention, waiting to act when the time was right and the place had been established.”- Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (pp. 183-184). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
I should add that a LOT of the book is like that. It isn’t all bad nature documentaries about lobster or half-baked alt-right talking points – some of it is weird purple prose passages.
It isn’t a contradiction that Peterson seems critical of the dominance hierarchy in Chapter 7. After all, he doesn’t think he is saying that we SHOULD all live in some bitter struggle against one another, just that we do and we can’t escape it unless we are Jesus or maybe Peterson on acid.
Well, I’m not even sure of that. Peterson never feels obliged to develop a theme systematically but rather dances around it or deploys it for convenience.
By Chapter 11 (RULE 11 / Do not bother children when they are skateboarding) he shifts gear again to rail against political correctness.
“The strong turn towards political correctness in universities has exacerbated the problem. The voices shouting against oppression have become louder, it seems, in precise proportion to how equal— even now increasingly skewed against men— the schools have become. There are whole disciplines in universities forthrightly hostile towards men. These are the areas of study, dominated by the postmodern/ neo-Marxist claim that Western culture, in particular, is an oppressive structure, created by white men to dominate and exclude women (and other select groups); successful only because of that domination and exclusion.
The Patriarchy: Help or Hindrance? Of course, culture is an oppressive structure. It’s always been that way. It’s a fundamental, universal existential reality. The tyrannical king is a symbolic truth; an archetypal constant. What we inherit from the past is willfully blind, and out of date. It’s a ghost, a machine, and a monster. It must be rescued, repaired and kept at bay by the attention and effort of the living. It crushes, as it hammers us into socially acceptable shape, and it wastes great potential. But it offers great gain, too.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 302). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
He wants it both ways – it is a universal existential reality and also it is really good and those bad people (women) shouldn’t change it! Although if he was truly committed to this ‘existential reality’ then should he not just blame himself and his own gender for not standing up straight enough, with his shoulders back enough and letting himself lose the dominance game to the women? After all, if women are WINNING these battles as he claims, surely that means that is the system he lauds working?
Ah, but it doesn’t count when Peterson sees himself as the loser.
Next – Nietzche.
*[‘man’ intended there]