Reading Peterson 12 – The End of Peterson & the Last Lobster

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

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Jordan B Lobsterson

“What if it was the case that the world revealed whatever goodness it contains in precise proportion to your desire for the best? What if the more your conception of the best has been elevated, expanded and rendered sophisticated the more possibility and benefit you could perceive? This doesn’t mean that you can have what you want merely by wishing it, or that everything is interpretation, or that there is no reality. The world is still there, with its structures and limits. As you move along with it, it cooperates or objects. But you can dance with it, if your aim is to dance— and maybe you can even lead, if you have enough skill and enough grace. This is not theology. It’s not mysticism. It’s empirical knowledge. There is nothing magical here— or nothing more than the already-present magic of consciousness. We only see what we aim at. The rest of the world (and that’s most of it) is hidden. If we start aiming at something different— something like “I want my life to be better”— our minds will start presenting us with new information, derived from the previously hidden world, to aid us in that pursuit. Then we can put that information to use and move, and act, and observe, and improve. And, after doing so, after improving, we might pursue something different, or higher— something like, “I want whatever might be better than just my life being better.” And then we enter a more elevated and more complete reality.’ – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (pp. 100-101). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life does try to separate itself from its antecedents such as Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking by asserting that it is grounded in empirical knowledge. When Peterson suggest you re-visualise your life (or as alt-right conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich would say ‘change your mindset’) he does so by claiming our perception is shaped by our attitude – which is vague enough to be undisprovable. To change you have to want to change and to convince yourself and other therapist cliches. As is common in this genre, the advice is not terrible when boiled down to these nuggets.

Take a step back though and we can see that nasty side.

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The Shape of Water – 2017

A common perception of society and human nature runs through social-Darwinism, post-war US pro-capitalism, Randian libertarianism and fascism. That perception does not mean that all these things are the same – libertarianism isn’t fascism – just that there’s a shared assumption about the world. This is that the strong lead and the weak follow. The view is both descriptive and normative. The assumption is that is the natural order of things, that we can’t avoid it – yet it is also assumed that a society might try to avoid this and do something different. Any attempt to do so is seen as a violation of the natural order which must be resisted.

The more tolerant libertarian may see this order as being simply the mechanics of the market in operation – they may see themselves as not approving of this state of affairs but simply acknowledging it as an empirical fact. If men get paid more than women, if poor people have worse health outcomes if some ethnic group is under-achieving educationally then the evidence that shows this shows that it must be inevitable. The fascist on the other hand greets the inequity with more enthusiasm.

A nineteenth-century conservative might see these inequities as God’s divine order:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
– All Things Bright and Beautiful in Mrs Cecil Alexander’s Hymns for Little Children 1848

A related strand of thinking overlays character on top of this hierarchy. While god has ordered our estate, god has also granted us gifts. Work hard and you can progress is the offer.

Norman Vincent Peale secularised this strand of theological inspired ideology within a secular framework and within mainstream political thinking for post-war America. Taking his own theological stance (tempered by US Protestantism and Calvinism) he mixed in ideas from psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung along with the political attitudes common among the managerial classes of 1950s New York.

 

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Jessica Jones, Season 2 – 2018

 

12 Rules for Life is simply this same cocktail. The extra ingredient Peterson adds is an anti-‘political correctness’ stance and fear of ‘cultural Marxism’. The essence is the same though:

  • The world is a competitive hierarchy and you can’t/shouldn’t change that
  • But you can change your position in the hierarchy

Only the individual can change and if society changes then this upsets the supposed natural order.

 

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Dana Loesch advertising ‘Superbeets’ 2015

 

Peterson doesn’t get into guns and only talks about health in vague terms but similar principles can find there way into fitness and wellness culture and gun culture. The emphasis away from the collective or institutional action to change the environment we are in (health systems, crime) to personal action. In each case, how an individual can buy something to get some kind of personal advantage over everybody else.

Accept these concepts in one area and you are primed for them in other areas. The message might not be misogynistic or racist in its first form but the skewed logic leads in that direction. If inequity is just the way the world is then whole classes of people must be poorer because of who they are. If trying to change these inequities is against the natural order than anybody advocating for change is an agent of chaos. If male members of some hegemonic ethnic group or nation keep winning in the game of existence then that is because they are supposed to be winning (either by God’s will or by some natural order or psychic fate) – but if they STOP winning (or don’t win as much) then this must be a breach of the rules.

12 Rules for Life is a series of poorly structured arguments built around this hard to describe quasi-ideology. Each chapter offers a rule for a better life but the content of the chapter often roams off into other points. The advice may be helpful or at worst innocuous but it is the attendant view of the world that is poisonous. There is not a view based on ’empirical knowledge’, when Peterson resorts to objective evidence it is only weakly related to his argument. His prefered mode of argument are appeals to myths and archetypes but even here there is little indication that Peterson has stress-tested his ideas against contrary evidence.

By the end of the book, the cherries have been picked, the arches typed and the anecdotes have been rambled. If the book is evidence of Peterson’s academic ability then I am concerned, if it is evidence of his abilities as a therapist then I am concerned and if it is evidence for his inner-life then I am concerned.

This discussion of how he reacts to cats is revealing:

“When you meet a cat on a street, many things can happen. If I see a cat at a distance, for example, the evil part of me wants to startle it with a loud pfft! sound— front teeth over bottom lip. That will make a nervous cat puff up its fur and stand sideways so it looks larger. Maybe I shouldn’t laugh at cats, but it’s hard to resist. The fact that they can be startled is one of the best things about them (along with the fact that they are instantly disgruntled and embarrassed by their overreaction). But when I have myself under proper control, I’ll bend down, and call the cat over, so I can pet it.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 352). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

I don’t know about others but I don’t have to be under ‘proper control’ to want to pet a cat. I wish Peterson had put this insight in Chapter 1 – it would have changed the book for me. It would have become a character study – an insight into a man with his own demons, attempting to understand himself but prone to extrapolate his own demons onto the rest of humanity.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos is not a book I can recommend anybody read. there are better sources for advice and there are clearer essays on modern rightwing politics.

52 thoughts on “Reading Peterson 12 – The End of Peterson & the Last Lobster

  1. I’ve never seen a cat embarrassed by anything. Every cat who’s ever fallen off a chair will immediately look as if that was what it intended to do all along.

    Anyway, congrats at reaching the end. If there was any justice in the world, the absolute logic here would finish Peterson off for good, but the last several years have shown us how few people pay any attention to logic.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. “If male members of some hegemonic ethnic group or nation keep winning in the game of existence then that is because they are supposed to be winning (either by God’s will or by some natural order or psychic fate) – but if they STOP winning (or don’t win as much) then this must be a breach of the rules.”

    Yep, if you’re not in the right group, the individual cannot move up in the hierarchy because that would upset the hierarchy. So women are simultaneously claimed to not have done well in STEM industries because they aren’t able to get their act together and move up to those industries while also denounced as upsetting the natural order if they attempt to move up because they are supposedly innately inferior at these superior industries which are reserved for white men leaders. It’s pretty standard and how bigotry hierarchies work when not involving outright slavery.

    The cat anecdote is the noblesse oblige argument — that as the proclaimed superior being to the cat (symbol for women, non-whites, etc.) who gets to lead (and exploit) it, Peterson enjoys threatening and harming the inferior being, but that he should be and therefore tries to be beneficent to the inferior being and give it pats on the head, unless the cat pisses him off. It’s the argument that a good master to slaves doesn’t whip them too much, tempting as it is with them being so inferior. Basically, it’s an old-fashioned instruction book on how to be a good lordling.

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  3. All things dull and ugly,
    All creatures short and squat,
    All things rude and nasty,
    The Lord God made the lot.

    Each little snake that poisons,
    Each little wasp that stings,
    HE made their brutish venom.
    HE made their horrid wings.

    All things sick and cancerous,
    All evil great and small,
    All things foul and dangerous,
    The Lord God made them all.

    Each nasty little hornet,
    Each beastly little squid,
    Who made the spikey urchin?
    Who made the sharks? HE did!

    All things scabbed and ulcerous,
    All pox both great and small,
    Putrid, foul and gangrenous,
    The Lord God made them all.

    Amen.

    —Monty Python

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  4. I’ve enjoyed reading this series and have so much to think about. What I want to know, ultimately, is do you have anything to offer in exchange? There are no end of debunkers of this or that self-help series or the purveyors of magic-bullet fixes, and I appreciate the ripping back of the veil and the reminder that we should pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Not trying to be clever, but thousands of words have been written now by you about why we should disregard this work. And I agree with your assessment. But do you have an alternative for anyone looking for what some would call truth?

    Could you expend, say, ten or twelve thousand words offering what you would consider good life practices that would help someone like me whose looking for solutions? I ask because I was about to read this book before finding your initial Reading Peterson part 1.

    Again, I enjoyed reading this, but am left with a feeling of despair. Sincerely asked. I enjoy your site and posts very much.

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    1. 🙂 That sounds like a task beyond me but The Doctor has a good line:
      “Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise. Always try, to be nice and never fail to be kind. Oh, and….and you mustn’t tell anyone your name. No-one would understand it anyway.”

      But seriously, I think that the fact that Peterson does, in the end, decide to pat the cat rather than humiliate it is a reason not to despair. People are basically nice and want to be nice, helping them be nice is a good idea – that’s all I’ve got.

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      1. Thanks, I’ll take it. Excuse the bathos, it’s late and I’m working on some things 🙂 I’ll let myself out.

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      2. You might want to look into Positive Psychology as a field. It has a lot of parallels with ‘positive thinking’ but is better grounded in empirical studies and mainstream psychology.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Well-being_contributing_factors

        This goes back to what I was saying about how the advice in books like Peterson isn’t necessarily bad advice – just that it is simplistic, and treats self-change as easy or just a matter of will power.

        Rather like ‘what’s a good diet’ the answers are both obvious and complex and miracle diets should be treated with suspicion.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I see you, anonymous too. It seems to me that people who spend a lot of time in their heads — for work or by inclination — are prone to despair because the scope of the problem can seem insurmountable. One of the ways to mitigate that is to go small-scale and focus on ways and places one can improve things tangibly in the here and now. And also, as we hear so much about horrible people doing horrible things that actively hurt others (and seemingly taking great pleasure in doing so), it does help to remember Mr Rogers advice to always look for the helpers, because in any catastrophe, there are always people there helping.

        I was at an event to raise awareness and encourage engagement with the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) this weekend and I have to say, the 20-somethings behind this movement are fierce and articulate and positively angry in ways my generation certainly was not. I did think of Peterson while there because they were everything he scorns — careful vocabulary usage, holding an eagle feather to talk, no MC but speakers collectively introducing each other — and it made me surer than ever that we can change our conditions, not through will-to-power, but through kindness, compassion, working together and getting involved.

        Of course, having deep-pocketed donors and a complicit media complex would help. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which Peterson and most self help books draw from willy-nilly, has been fairly helpful dealing with a lot of issues such as depression, anxiety, phobias, etc., and uses positive visualization techniques and goal-setting techniques. What you want are coping self-help books that actually help therapeutically, not ones that promise to make you a better person and magically solve problems. The Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy would probably be a basic intro book, and you can also try the Theories of Psychotherapy Series: Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy book from the American Psychological Association (and which is written by a woman psychologist author.) Look for workbooks and basic guides that come from actual national psychology associations, rather than one person trying to push their grand organizing strategy. Avoid anything with elaborate promises of self-improvement in the cover copy, and any book that denounces most of clinical psychology as wrongity-wrong. Don’t read any guidebook that promises to share with you vital “secrets” or “insights” or anything of that ilk.

      Real psychologists are not pushing that there is a natural dominance hierarchy, talking about spirituality and the Bible, that women are temptresses who don’t work, or any of that other nonsense. They don’t talk about I.Q., regional genetics or evolutionary psychology. They don’t talk about how men can be truly masculine or how to be predatory and competitive. They talk about coping skills, and those skills are personal, not ways of using and outshining others.

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      1. With regard to Cognitive therapy – 20 years or so ago my therapist suggested Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy by David Burns. I don’t know how well it has held up, but it helped me at the time and the techniques I learned from it still help me to this day.

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      2. CBT is really the best thing in modern psychology, IMHO. Real, practical skills that work without needing to completely change your personality or any bullshit about evo-psych and lobsters. It concentrates on making you, you, just somewhat better.

        To use an automobile analogy: These self-help books are trying to swap out major parts, put in a new engine, and rebuild things and put shiny chrome and spoilers everywhere. CBT is just rotating the tires, realigning the frame, changing the oil, topping up the fluids and going through the car wash. Still the same car, but running better.

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      3. And of course there’s apps for that as well. I haven’t looked deeply into them, but some seem OK, just gentle reminders to practice self-care or run through a CBT exercise.

        It will seem silly and maybe useless at first, but if you stick with it, it helps, as Leah F’s testimony of 20 years says.

        Don’t count out medication, either, if you have access to it. Sometimes a short course of the right pill can put enough of a floor under you to apply the thinky bits.

        Hope you can find something that helps — if nothing else, now you know there are a few wacky strangers out here who care enough to try.

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    3. What to actually do?

      Well, the trap that self-help authors like Peterson seem to set out for people is the idea that there actually *is* a universal panacea. There isn’t – but not because solutions to a problem don’t exist or are too difficult, but because each situation may be different so that generalisations fall somewhere between vaguely useful and downright dangerous.
      I think it’s good to have some principles (e.g. don’t be a dick) and some techniques (e.g. share problems with friends and family) and use the ones that seem to go best for you, but they never suit every occasion and mine won’t be yours either.

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    4. I like the watchword I learned from an addict friend in recovery. It’s apparently an AA concept, but seems less problematic than some of their others, and also seems generally useful beyond the core group: worry about the next right thing you should do. IOW, not “I really shouldn’t have broken my sobriety last weekend” or “I should have paid the water bill on time.” That happened. Right now, what is the most just, merciful, productive action I can take, starting from where I am?

      There’s also a dark side to this, of course. Some people intone, “You can’t dwell on the past,” while endlessly reiterating it, and the heart cries out, “For God’s sake, dwell a little!” But probably more often, more people get into recrimination loops about the things they already did wrong, and it fixes them in that wrong state. Feeling worse about it every minute that drags on.

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      1. That’s actually what I’ve been doing in my piano playing recently, like a mantra, saying to myself, “What’s the very next thing I have to do?” with associated sub-questions, like “exactly which notes?” and “how will that feel?”

        All this as a way of overcoming the constant distraction track my mind generates while I’m doing any task. I don’t mind it so much when I’m mowing the lawn, but when I’m playing piano, it’s like Robin Williams is next to me, talking away. With the new mantra, he’s still there, but I can turn away and get more of my processing power where I want it.

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  5. “When you meet a Jordan Peterson on a street, many things can happen. If I see a Jordan Peterson at a distance, for example, the evil part of me wants to startle it with a loud Politically Correct sound— perhaps a non-binary pronoun or a Cultural Marxism. That will make a nervous Jordan Peterson puff up its fur and stand sideways so it looks larger. Maybe I shouldn’t laugh at Jordan Petersons, but it’s hard to resist. The fact that they can be startled is one of the best things about them (along with the fact that they are instantly disgruntled and embarrassed by their overreaction). But when I have myself under proper control, I’ll turn my back, ignore it and get on with my day, secure in the knowledge that I am not giving the Jordan Peterson any power to upset my life.”

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  6. After thinking about it a bit, I wonder if perhaps one way to summarize the attitudes of Peterson (and similar thinkers) is to describe them as deeply and profoundly confused essentialists.

    Essentialists, because they repeatedly write as though the ideas and abstractions that humans have created actual real things about the universe, rather than about the ways that human minds conceptualize things about the universe, given cultural influences and conscious and unconscious biases.

    And deeply and profoundly confused, because I am fairly sure that if you started asking them to break down these archetypes and essences; this “chaos” and “order” that men and women supposedly are — where are they? What are they made of? Are they actual things? — they would quickly acknowledge that oh, no, humans are made of cells that are made of atoms and so on. Essences of “male” and “female”, and archetypes, aren’t actually real.

    But when you stop interrogating them, and they go off on these wild musings, they start writing as though the archetypes and essences and whatnot are real things. It’s sort of like doublethink, maybe.

    I’m not certain I’ve quite nailed it down, but I think that’s the best I can do at the moment.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. “He does this by claiming that our perceptions are shaped by our attitudes.” This struck me when you mentioned it before. Most of the depth psychologies hold that it’s the other way around. Peterson’s beliefs might stem from his Jungian outlook. But it’s no accident that Fascist countries made Jung ‘official’ and banned those who taught otherwise.

    It may not sound like a big issue, but it’s actually a critical distinction. Classical therapists aimed to prove to a client that his faulty perceptions were creating his unrealistic attitudes. To reverse this paradigm means simply to change one’s attitude and perceive the issue as of benefit. Questioning perceptions lead to actual change; changing attitudes leads to superficial change and is especially dangerous when put in certain contexts, specifically “accepting that the world is an unchangeable, competitive hierarchy but you can change your position in it.” Basically what this is saying is that you should accept the actions of a hierarchy regardless of what your perceptions of it tell you; and ‘go with the flow’. Or as Vox Day said recently: “Relying on the Moral High Ground equals decades of defeat.”

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    1. Great point. It’s also related to the impulse people have to tell seriously ill people (e.g. cancer patients) to “make sure to stay positive.” Which, Christ no, don’t ever say that.

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  8. To add a point of my own: Not only share “social-Darwinism, post-war US pro-capitalism, Randian libertarianism and fascism” (you could add a lot more ideologies to that) the assumption of strong hierarchies but also that the means of dealing with those that won’t conform is violence and that those outside the order are expendable. The logic of individualism breeds a strange collectivism.

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  9. Because he, presumably, cared about factual reality and was able to change opinion as new information became available, Francis Fukuyama woke up to the sheer wrongness of the claims he was making. This new crowd doesn’t care about factual truth at all. It’s disorienting because the contested terrain is unfamiliar and older strategies do not apply. Will be interesting to see what synthesis comes out of this dialectic.

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    1. Also even if he hadn’t his arguments were structured in a way that you can engage with them in a rational debate.

      That’s true even with something obnoxious like Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve – even if Murray doesn’t acknowledge his errors, it’s structured in a way that it is conducive to a rational response.

      Peterson’s work isn’t like that. The connection between ideas is thematic not analytic. Peterson’s lobster biology is way off but it doesn’t matter because there’s no real inference between how lobsters behave and his point about lobsters. They may as well have been unicorns.

      He’s wrong about all sorts of things from Derrida to the actual mechanics of folk tales but the facts never mattered anyway.

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      1. One of the strands of this relentless march rightward that has been interesting to me, and is perhaps related to the above, is the apocalypticity of a lot of it (I made up that word!) From the capitalist triumphalism of Fukuyama’s claim that we’d reached the end of history (that’s a simplification of his argument, but broad strokes to make a point) to Adelson building the new embassy in Jerusalem and the evangelicals prepping for world’s end to start with Middle East conflict, to the zeal of the new nukes crowd, I guess we could add Peterson’s gibberishy speaking-in-tongues fundraising.

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  10. They want to feel powerful and superior and righteous, and they’ve been taught that means climbing to the heap as a ruthless but whimsically magnanimous ruler, a super-man. Even if they themselves don’t think that they can be the rulers, they believe that they will do better and be seen as superior by supporting rulers who are like themselves and who promise them that they will still hold the top social spot (or spot in a heaven or whatever.) Rulers, as opposed to leaders, have to constantly worry about security — that they are sufficiently repressing groups to stay lower in the hierarchy and exploit them, with violent force and its threat enforcing poverty or slavery, and that the groups, the masses, will not be able to rebel and overthrow and get rid of the hierarchy that supports the ruler’s claim of superiority and getting all the stuff, that they will not be betrayed by their own to usurp them, etc. When it’s “dog eats dog,” you always have to worry about the other “dogs.” (Which is deeply insulting to actual dogs but that’s the metaphor.)

    So then facts don’t matter because the rulers are building a reality that says they are superior, and because they are claimed superior, anything in words or deeds that they can get away with is fair game to reach or maintain power (security.) It doesn’t matter if it’s factual or blatantly false, contradictory, or empty of substance. The point is to have a constant barrage that counters the message that equality, empathy for those placed below you and collaboration/collective good are good things and instead declare them threatening things or falsely promised things by the repressed. The goal is to create effective chaos, call it rightful order that should win out over time, and both belittle and aggrandize the threat of anyone who they feel threatens their power base (with a notion of what that is shifting over time.) Even if it doesn’t work to get them power, it can get some of them hucking it money, which is also a form of power.

    Peterson’s book, like most of these books, reassures that superiority is innate, that power is attainable and maintainable, but of course threatened to be over-turned by the repressed hordes of inferiors. So it’s a guide to maximizing your superiority, and to be able to secure that power position from threats. Except it’s a really lame and dated one from the material and quotes that Cam has presented. But it’s sufficient for a huck.

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      1. He also seems to be trying to present Frozen as some sort of outlier for Disney – he seems unaware that Frozen is at least loosely based on a fairy tale, or that previous Disney movies have played pretty fast and loose with their source material to produce a more modern story.

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    1. Yes, Frozen is built on the Snow Queen, which was Anderson but which was also built on other folklore myths by him. And while the movie changes the basic story, the Snow Queen is also about a very brave sister who frees and saves her brother. Peterson only likes some of the archtypes (common patterns in stories.) The ones that don’t fit his shill of “feminine,” which is again drawn from basic old 1950’s propaganda against the “threat” of the actual beginnings of 2nd wave feminism, he tries to ignore or claim don’t exist.

      But what this interview does is simply place Peterson as a “controversial intellectual thinker,” because he’s a prof who compared humans to lobsters, which was just so weird it’s perfect for the media as sound bite. He can build on that for the con — it establishes him as a “ruler” who is thwarting the efforts of the inferior masses to rebel and the people who like that message will give him money and the media who think that message will attract attention to their enterprise because it’s an outrageous show will give him coverage. So like Spenser getting punched then placed him higher in the spotlight and suddenly we have to hear the man braying all the time, Peterson being lobster man will move him up in the right wing circles, more so in the U.S. than in Canada, his home turf, and give him lucrative speaking gigs. (We’ve had quite a number of extreme conservatives come down from Canada to find fertile ground in the U.S.)

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      1. Yes, and so many myths can be traced back a long way and they often change to reflect whatever the political/cultural reality is in society at the time. For example Clarissa Pinkola Estes (also influenced by Jung) shows how many myths were used as kind of warnings or guides for young women about the world and about relationships with men. The “old crone” characters that in more recent times were portrayed as jealous of the young heroine and dangerous/evil were originally figures of wisdom/guidance and helped to highlight a path to safety for the young female character. Mythology is just another area that JP is cherry picking from and misrepresenting to enforce his own paradigm.

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  11. From that first Peterson quote:
    “This is not theology. It’s not mysticism. It’s empirical knowledge. There is nothing magical here”
    Thing is, that’s exactly what it seems like this ‘thing’ is. Magical woo that because perception intermediates between his mystical view of the structure of the universe, thinking right will cause the universe to work the way you want it to. Without reading the book I can’t tell whether he really believes that it’s not magical woo, or is knowingly placing a pseudoscience veneer over his beliefs, but either way it’s a pretty thin veneer.

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure we were safe from the fate of accidentally reading Peterson already, but it’s been fascinating anyway – thanks!

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      1. It’s especially hilarious because the reviews are so cavalier with easily-checkable facts, like the release dates of the movies. Someone is obviously having fun!

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