Monday, April 16, 2018

Jordan Peterson's Darwinian Aristocratic Liberalism: The Cathy Newman Interview (Part 2)

At this point in the interview (21:49), Newman turns to her third topic by observing that Peterson got into trouble in Canada for refusing to call transgender people by their preferred personal pronouns.

No, Peterson responds, I got into trouble for not allowing the Canadian provincial government to dictate my speech.  I did not get into trouble for not calling anyone anything.

Newman asks: Why should your right to freedom of speech trump the right of a transgender person not to be offended?

Because, Peterson answers, to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive.  Look at the conversation we're having right now.  Why do you have the right to risk offending me?  It's been rather uncomfortable for me here.  You're exercising your freedom of speech.  More power to you!

At this point (23:06), Newman drops her head, and she pauses for 10 seconds or more.

Peterson exclaims: "Ha. Gotcha."

Newman answers: "You have got me! I'm trying to work that out in my head. It took a while."

It's this "gotcha" moment in the interview that attracted the millions of viewers to this YouTube video.

Many of Peterson's young male followers have gleefully exulted in this moment of triumph for Peterson in defeating and even humiliating Newman.  But Peterson has said that this was not what he was seeking in the interview.  A few days after this interview, he was interviewed in the Netherlands, and he gave his analysis of what he thought was going on in this interview with Newman.  His analysis draws from the ninth chapter of 12 Rules--"Rule 9/ Assume That The Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don't."

In this chapter, he distinguishes eight kinds of conversation.  In his psychotherapeutic conversations with his clients, he listens and talks, but mostly it's listening, because listening is paying attention, and often the clients will tell him exactly what's wrong with them; and sometimes they will even tell him how they plan to fix it.  Sometimes, he says, this helps him fix something wrong with himself.  Learning how to really listen to someone is crucial for any genuine conversation.  One way to do this is to summarize what you think someone has just said, and then ask them to confirm that this is a correct summary of what they were trying to say.

A second kind of conversation is when people speak only to establish or confirm their place in the dominance hierarchy.  Here two conversational participants aren't playing off one another for mutual enjoyment, because they're actually jockeying for position.  You can tell when this is happening, because there's some feeling of embarrassment when someone says something false or exaggerated in fighting for dominance over others in the conversation.

A third, closely related form of conversation, is when neither speaker is listening to the other, because as each person speaks, the other person is thinking about what he or she will say next, which often has nothing to do with the topic of the other speaker.

In a fourth kind of conversation, one participant is trying to win a victory for his point of view, which is a version of the dominance-hierarchy conversation.  In a discussion of politics or economics, this becomes an ideological debate, where the debaters assume the truth of their ideology, they denigrate opposing ideologies, and they selectively use evidence that supports their ideology.  In this conversation, people are not really thinking together, because they are not listening to one another, and because they are not open to examining or even changing their pre-established positions.

Very different from this is the fifth kind of conversation, which is a genuine listening conversation.  One person at a time speaks, and everyone else is listening carefully.  The speaker might talk about some serious or even tragic event.  Everyone else responds sympathetically.  Here the speaker is organizing his or her thoughts about the troubling event.  Peterson explains: "people organize their brains with conversation.  If they don't have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds.  Like hoarders, they cannot unclutter themselves.  The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche. To put it another way: It takes a village to organize a mind" (250).

A sixth kind of conversation is the lecture.  Although it sounds surprising, Peterson explains that a good lecture is really a conversation, or at least that's the way Peterson lectures.  He sees that as he speaks, his audience communicates with him non-verbally through their postural display and facial emotion.  A good lecturer will pick out particular individuals in the audience and watch their reactions.  He can tell when they are confused by what he says and need a better explanation.  He will respond appropriately to their nods, frowns, or shaking of their heads.

Peterson's seventh kind of conversation is the one where people display their wit.  This can have an element of dominance, but the goal is to compete for being the most entertaining speaker.  Here, you can say anything as long as it's funny.

Finally, the eighth kind of conversation is for Peterson the best--the philosophic conversation of mutual exploration.  It's a conversation of reciprocity between people listening and speaking as they organize their thoughts about some complex topic that is of great interest to everyone.  They are all trying to solve a problem, and no one insists on the prior validity of his position.  "All are acting on the premise that they have something to learn," Peterson observes. "This kind of conversation constitutes active philosophy, the highest form of thought, and the best preparation for proper living" (253).

"The people involved in such a conversation must be discussing ideas they genuinely use to structure their perceptions and guide their actions and words.  they must be existentially involved with their philosophy: that is, they must be living it, not merely believing or understanding it.  They also must have inverted, at least temporarily, the typical human preference for order over chaos (and I don't mean the chaos typical of mindless antisocial rebellion). Other conversational types--except for the listening type--all attempt to buttress some existing order.  The conversational of mutual exploration, by contrast, requires people who have decided that the unknown makes a better friend than the known" (254).
To participate in such a conversation, you must recognize that what you know is not enough to protect yourself from suffering and evil.  Knowledge is virtue, and so if you knew enough, you would be virtuous.
"If you just knew enough, you could be healthier and more honest. You would suffer less. You could recognize, resist and even triumph over malevolence and evil.  You would neither betray a friend, nor deal falsely and deceitfully in business, politics, or love.  However, your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe. So, it is insufficient, by definition--radically, fatally insufficient" (254).
Knowing your ignorance and knowing how harmful that ignorance is for you, you might enter into philosophic conversations, where the masks come off, you are genuinely seeking the truth with others, and you are not trying to convince, oppress, dominate, amuse, or achieve victory over others.  You will meditate as you converse, listening to yourself and listening to the other person.  Then, you can "say the new and original things that can rise from deep within of their own accord" (255).

This ascent to philosophic conversation as the highest human activity leads Peterson to the concluding words of Chapter 9:
"So, listen, to yourself and to those with whom you are speaking. Your wisdom then consists not of the knowledge you already have, but the continual search for knowledge, which is the highest form of wisdom.  It is for this reason that the priestess of the Delphic Oracle in ancient Greece spoke most highly of Socrates, who always sought the truth.  She described him as the wisest living man, because he knew that what he knew was nothing."
"Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't" (255-56).
That Peterson does indeed engage in such philosophic conversations is indicated by Norman Doidge's vivid description, in his Foreword to 12 Rules, of Peterson's intense and exciting conversations with his friends exploring the deepest questions of life.

Nietzsche experienced this philosophic life of friendly intellectual conversation most clearly in his "middle period," when he enjoyed the friendship of Paul Ree and Lou Salome.  In Human, All Too Human, he described this as the Socratic life of free spirited philosophers that was possible in a liberal social order that protects freedom of speech and thought for philosophers.  Similarly, Aristotle described this life of philosophic friendship in the books on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics, and one can see here how this was made possible by the relatively liberal social order of Athens.  Also, Adam Smith and David Hume showed how their philosophic friendship was made possible by the freedom of a commercial society.  (I have written about that here, here, and here.)

In such a liberal society, it is no longer necessary or desirable for philosophers to engage in esoteric writing, which shows the success of liberalism in achieving a truly open society, contrary to the claims of Leo Strauss.  (I have written about that here.)

Likewise, Peterson sees the freedom for philosophizing as one of the greatest benefits of a liberal social order.  But he worries that the increasingly combative polarization in modern Western societies threatens that freedom.

In his analysis of the interview with Newman, he says that he had a friendly conversation with her before they sat down in front of the cameras, and so he was surprised when she immediately took on a hostile attitude in the interview.  He saw that she was engaged in a conversation of the second or fourth kind--a conversation of ideological combat seeking victory in a fight for dominance.  He was forced to fight back, but, he says, this was not the kind of conversation he was hoping for.

He says that he has tried to contact Newman to ask her if she would be willing to meet for a second interview, in which they would agree to set aside the concern for ideological dominance, and instead try to have a genuine conversation in which they listen to one another, assume that they might learn from one another, and really try to find the truth about the deep questions they care about.  He wants to have a philosophic conversation with her!

That might sound naïve, but it's remarkable that he is so serious in his quest for philosophic conversation.

It's also remarkable that Peterson admits that somewhere deep in his unconscious, there is a dark side to his soul, which he thinks lurks in every human soul--a dark desire for dominance over others that could be expressed in physical aggression in attacking someone like Newman.  Newman has complained that Peterson's followers have posted comments on the YouTube video of the interview that threaten her in ways that have made her worry about her security.  Peterson says that the dark side of his soul could respond to this by saying that if he wished to do so, he could provoke his followers into truly violent attacks, perhaps breaking the windows at Channel 4.

Peterson says this to underscore his warning that the polarization of debates in the West could easily go very wrong very fast in moving towards violent disorder.  Avoiding such polarization is what motivates his argument for philosophic conversation rather than ideological battle.  Peterson says that even if it looks like the interview with Newman is a victory for him, it's not a healthy victory.

Here's the video of Peterson's analysis of the Newman interview:

So, now, let's go back to the interview where we left off--just after the "gotcha" moment (23:25).

Newman says to Peterson: You have come voluntarily here and have agreed to be interviewed. Now, let's say a transgender person comes into your class and wishes to be called "ze." [This is one of the new gender-neutral pronouns proposed by some transgender people.]

Peterson answers: I would call them "ze."

Then you've changed your tune, Newman responds.

No, Peterson says, this is what I've said from the beginning.  I said that I would not cede the linguistic territory to radical leftist control. I've never mistreated transgender people, and I'm not transphobic.

Although he does not explain this here in the interview, Peterson does indicate in his book that his defense of the biological reality of sexual identity as male or female can recognize the biological reality of transgender identity.  In showing the incoherence of the claim that all gender differences are socially constructed, he writes: "Gender is constructed, but an individual who desires gender re-assignment surgery is to be unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman's body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot logically be true, simultaneously, is just ignored" (315).  The implication here seems to be that Peterson can accept that transgender people are biologically different from most people who are comfortable with their male or female bodies, and therefore transgender identity is not a social construction but a biological reality.  That might then motivate us to respect transgender people as people struggling as best they can to come to terms with their biologically confused sexual identity.  Here again we see Peterson's Darwinian psychology of human nature.

Peterson has said that the radical leftist transgender activists who attacked him are authoritarian ideologues like the Marxist ideologues in Maoist China.

Newman challenges this by saying that there's no comparison between Mao and the transgender activists, because the transgender activists are not killing millions of people as Mao did.

Peterson's response is to say that the transgender activists are guided by the same philosophy as that of the Maoists--the philosophy that led to the deaths of millions of people in China.  It's the philosophy that presumes that group identity is paramount.  That's identity politics.  It doesn't matter who you are as an individual.  It only matters who you are as a group member locked into tribal conflict with other groups.  That's a murderous ideology, Peterson insists.

Here we can see Peterson's fundamental theme--developed in his two books--of arguing for liberal individualism as superior to ideological tribalism.  Xenophobic tribal psychology--us against them--is what explains the brutal conflicts and genocide practiced by both left-wing and right-wing ideologues in the 20th century--Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others.  The only way to avoid this is to adhere to the classical liberal principle of individualism rather than to practice group identity politics.

One should note here that while Peterson has been identified by many of his critics as on the side of the alt-right white supremacists, he has actually criticized the alt-right for playing the game of identity politics and thus imitating their leftist opponents.  Peterson rejects this as a dangerous game to play.  And thus he takes a position of liberal individualism as an alternative to the identity politics of both right and left.

Similarly, Nietzsche in his middle writings warned against the violence of totalitarianism--both left-wing and right-wing--that would arise from an illiberal collectivist tribalism.

Here's a video of Peterson warning the alt-right folks about their identity politics:

To be continued . . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am surprised to find my self saying that I really liked what Peterson has to say on these topics.