The Closing of the American Mind, and What I think about Jordan Peterson
Bari Weiss' gigantic NY Times opinion about the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web has birthed a thousand think pieces, about the oddity of lumping thinkers of such disparate beliefs into one bucket, about how public intellectuals with millions of followers could possibly claim to be marginalized, about how silly the phrase, "Dark Web" is, and so on.
I read Weiss' piece out of interest because I knew Sam Harris was being lumped in there, as was Jordan Peterson. I've been following Harris since he wrote The End of Faith, which I read right when it came out all the way back in 2004, just after having graduated from a religious college. Harris, beside being an extraordinarily compelling writer, makes the argument that religions everywhere should have to answer and be accountable for all their bad ideas, of which they are completely chock-full. For every good "God Is Love," there are ten bad ideas which have insidiously started wars, motivated genocides, justified torture, bigotry, and more throughout history. By graduation I was pretty much done with religion anyway, but Harris gave me another language and set of arguments on which to base my rejection.
I first came into contact with Peterson last year via Harris. The first time Peterson was on Harris' podcast, Waking Up, they argued about the meaning of truth for the better part of an excruciating two hours. Harris seemed to think that things were true if they were true, whereas Peterson seemed to be arguing that things were also true if they were useful to humanity, e.g., myths with lessons in them which have served humankind for eons. Harris couldn't stomach this, and they went around and around about their different approaches. This, says Weiss, is one of the common qualities which unite "intellectual dark webers,": the ability to strenuously disagree and yet remain friendly and civil.
I hadn't heard of Peterson at the time, but that changed soon enough. A few months ago I binged through a group of his YouTube videos. I watched the infamous sit-down he did with Channel 4 in Britain, which ought to be taught in journalism schools as a good example of how not to conduct an interview. But I also watched videos like, How to Change the World, Properly," and other excerpts from his lectures at University of Toronto, which he has been videotaping for years.
At this point you might be thinking, uh oh, Russell is going down the Jordan Peterson rabbit hole. When I tweeted that I would be reading Peterson's new book, 12 Rules for Life, an old friend from St. John's, where I went to grad school, tweeted back something to the effect of, "Oh hon, no," as if reading someone necessarily meant I would inevitably become enthralled to their ideas. As if she and I both hadn't gone to St. John's College, where the whole point is to critically read source material and then discuss and decide how close to Truth, capital T, the author arrived.
Which brings me back to the intellectual dark web, and to the state of our discourse, and to the big fat giant stinking turd of a culture war being waged right now on both sides. I appreciate Harris' rejection of identity politics, his constant drumbeat of emphasis on our common humanity, rather than our cultural or biological differences, and his commitment to making nuanced arguments and using precise language when speaking. That commitment is part of why his podcasts often run upwards of two hours. That commitment to clarity in speech is the same thing that appealed to me in Peterson's Channel 4 interview: Peterson is trying to articulate nuance in full paragraphs, while the interviewer is trying to ascribe to him black and white, all or nothing positions.
Over the past few months, people have asked me what I think of Peterson. And I want to answer with some nuance, because I think when we ask each other "what do you think" type questions, what we are trying to figure out is whether people like me think he's worthwhile or not. We are trying to figure out, in other words, a short-cut to having to go read and watch everything ourselves, which would take days and weeks out of our life. We are trying to figure out if we should approach this person openly, or with some trepidation. This is how it is when we are overloaded with too much information: we look for shortcuts. The ability to come up with these short-cuts is actually one of humanity's best evolutionary gifts. It allows us to react quicker, keep safe, and most importantly come up with paradigms and conventions that guide behavior. But it is also an inherently tribal quality. If everyone we know and love thinks one way about someone else outside our tribe, it is very difficult for us to come to a different conclusion. Because the world is complicated, and all the biggest, most important questions are also the toughest to answer, we take short-cuts: we look around us at the people we know and like, and see what they are thinking, and then we can skip to the intellectual end.
So, what do I think of Jordan Peterson? He is clearly a conservative, in that his instinct is to look to our past for ways of thinking and organizing the present. He clearly values traditional family structures, and he argues that traditional gender roles are at least in part based on thousands of years of evolutionary and biological history (not, for example, "the patriarchy."). This is where he and many liberals diverge, though, and again I think the problem might be one side refusing to embrace any nuance in the discussion. Do liberals really think that the biological differences between men and women bear no responsibility - none whatsoever - for current realities like the gender pay gap? Witness this exchange with the Channel 4 interviewer, Cathy Newman:
Newman: … that 9 percent pay gap, that’s a gap between median hourly earnings between men and women. That exists.
Peterson: Yes. But there’s multiple reasons for that. One of them is gender, but that’s not the only reason. If you’re a social scientist worth your salt, you never do a univariate analysis. You say women in aggregate are paid less than men. Okay. Well then we break its down by age; we break it down by occupation; we break it down by interest; we break it down by personality.
Newman: But you’re saying, basically, it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top, because that’s what is skewing that gender pay gap, isn’t it? You’re saying that’s just a fact of life, women aren’t necessarily going to get to the top.
Peterson: No, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, either. I’m saying there are multiple reasons for it.
Newman: Yeah, but why should women put up with those reasons?
Peterson: I’m not saying that they should put up with it! I’m saying that the claim that the wage gap between men and women is only due to sex is wrong. And it is wrong. There’s no doubt about that. The multivariate analysis have been done. So let me give you an example
Ooof. Do watch the whole thing if you haven't already. It is excruciating television.
I think the real question is not Do biological differences bear responsibility, but To what extent do biological differences share responsibility? Then liberals and conservatives and everyone in between could just argue the percentages, and arguing the percentages does not seem like something so fraught with social disaster.
What else do I think of Jordan Peterson? I think I would want him as a professor, but I would not necessarily want someone who speaks with that much certainty as, say, a guest at a dinner party (for that, I would pick Harris and one Andrew Sullivan). I think people should legitimately engage with Peterson's ideas. I for one am grateful to have had the education that I did prior to encountering Peterson. So that when he admonishes everyone to read Dostoevsky, to read Solzhenitsyn, to read Tolstoy, I can say: been there, done that, I know what you're talking about. I do fear that young men in particular may encounter him without having read the alternative opinions and philosophies. I think it was useful, for example, to read Marx without having Peterson's adamant voice in my head railing on and on about the evils of "cultural Marxism." Mostly, though, I think that Peterson is popular because he is one of the only games in town when it comes to telling people how to live.
Telling people how to live is not a popular thing to do now a days, because who are we to be so presumptuous? But for all of human history we have had people telling us how we should live. I think that has been useful, because people really, really want to know how to live. I certainly do, and it's a complicated thing to sort out. How should I conduct my relationships? How should I interact with my kids? How should I weigh the complicated nexus of adult responsibilities, including those to my immediate friends and family, as well as those to my community, my country, and the rest of humanity? How much should I focus my work toward providing for other people, even if they're strangers, versus how much should I focus on providing for my family? What values are most important? Is speaking the truth no matter what important? Under what circumstances should I lie to protect people? Is legacy something I should be caring about so much? Should I care about leaving something behind for later generations, or should I be more focused on the here and now? Is the work of building on and improving civilization important, and how should we be judging that? And what about that age-old Aristotelian debate: what is virtue, and is it important?
There is surprisingly little about any of these questions in today's discourse. You have to either go into a church or go back half a century or more to start seeing discussion of morality and virtue or suggestions of how to live. Today it's considered quite rude to suggest to someone else how they should live. So we leave all those questions in the dark, and instead we talk about frivolous matters. And into this void has stepped Jordan Peterson. If you are wondering why so many millions of people are drawn to him, I would posit the reason is that he is the only one around with a comprehensive view on how we should live. It's right there in the title to his book: Rules for Life. We are thirsty, ever so thirsty, for rules for life. We want the short-cuts. We want someone to tell us how we should live.
I am also thirsty. But I am also grateful that I have been thinking about these things for more than a decade, long before Peterson ever came on my radar. I would say that my basis for independent thinking on questions of virtue came from my St. John's education, but when I read the intellectual dark web piece, my mind went back even further. It went back to the book that made me want to go to St. John's in the first place. That book was The Closing of the American Mind, by Alan Bloom. Everything about today's culture wars is presaged in its first few pages.
I was teaching literature to freshmen high school students at a tiny private school on Martha's Vineyard when the academic dean at the school handed me the book. I had just graduated college, but in some ways my long experience of self-learning had just begun. The dean would hand me books, I would read them, and based on my reaction he would hand me another. He did this with both fiction and nonfiction, both mainstream classics and obscure gems. Eventually, he handed me The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students. The book was published all the way back in good old 1987. But it is as relevant as ever.
Here, for example, is the opening passage from Bloom's Introduction, titled "Our Virtue," which has stuck with me since I first read it back in 2004:
There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students' reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4. These are things you don't think about. The students' backgrounds are as various as America can provide. Some are religious, some atheists; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism and in their allegiance to equality. And the two are related in a moral intention. The relativity of truth is not a theoretical insight but a moral postulate, the condition of a free society, or so they see it. They have all been equipped with this framework early on, and it is the modern replacement for the inalienable natural rights that used to be the traditional American grounds for a free society. That it is a moral issue for students is revealed by the character of their response when challenged - a combination of disbelief and indignation: "Are you an absolutist?," the only alternative they know, uttered in the same tone as "Are you a monarchist?" or "Do you really believe in witches?" This latter leads into the indignation, for someone who believes in witches might well be a witch hunter or Salem judge. The danger they have been taught to fear from absolutism is not error but intolerance. Relativism is necessary to openness, and this is the virtue, the only virtue, which all primary education for more than fifty years has dedicated itself to inculcating. Openness - and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings - is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger. The study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; men always thought they were right, and that led to wars, persecutions, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvinism. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
An excellent contemporary example of this dynamic played out over the first few months of 2018, when Sam Harris debated Ezra Klein on the subject of biological differences between races. If Harris were here, he would say he has no interest in even debating the topic, since whoever seems to be interested in debating it is subsequently painted as having some vested interest in proving that such differences exist. Nonetheless, Harris was drawn into the debate by having Charles Murray on his podcast, who wrote a book with a chapter on said subject, which ultimately made Murray infamous and a persona non grata on college campuses. It wasn't long before Ezra Klein, founder and now editor at-large at Vox, published a piece that said Harris and Murray were perpetuating "junk science" that has been used for centuries to legitimate racism in America. Harris responded: it's not junk science, it's actually mainstream, and described Klein as a prime example of how the Left would rather shut down debate than talk honestly. This is all preface and background for a podcast the two recorded to debate the issues. The podcast resolved absolutely nothing, but I do recall this comment from Klein, as he responded to the science that Harris offered which supposedly shows differences in mean IQ across races. Klein says:
David Reich, in the very article that you sent to me, his view on this is that whatever we think now is going to be proven wrong, that whatever confidence we have now, is going to be shown to be incorrect. The ideas and the information coming down the pike are going to surprise us. So, the argument of Turkheimer, Paige Harden, Nisbett, in the piece that, again, people should go to the show notes and read these pieces, is that, who knows? Maybe some time in the future we’ll find this, but right now there’s no reason to believe it.
Now, don't get me wrong: I love Klein. I continue to listen his own podcast, The Ezra Klein Show. I think he's an excellent journalist and I am always interested to hear his analysis of policy debates in Washington (though I am always more interested to hear the opinion of his colleague, Matthew Yglesias). But in this case, Klein is doing exactly what Bloom counsels against: placing the virtue of "openness" against all others. He uses it as a trump card, so to speak, suggesting not that we should try to figure out what is true, but that we should assume and act as if all opinions could be untrue: "The point is not to correct mistakes and really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all." And the problem with this view is that we then have no guidance at all as to how to act today.
The students, of course, cannot defend their opinion. It is something with which they have been indoctrinated. The best they can do is point out all the opinions and cultures there are and have been. What right, they ask, do I or anyone else have to say one is better than the others? If I pose the routine questions designed to confute them and make them think, such as, "If you had been a British administrator in India, would you have let the natives under your governance burn the widow at the funeral of a man who had died?," they either remain silent or reply that the British should never have been there in the first place. It is not that they know very much about other nations, or about their own. The purpose of their education is not to make them scholars but to provide them with a moral virtue - openness.
I have seen exchanges like this repeated dozens of times in the 15 years since first reading that passage. I recognize it everywhere: in the Harris-Klein podcast, in the campus debates over gender and race, on Facebook threads about gun violence or presidential decency. I see it all the time. It's always some version of: I assert a fact or truth should guide our behavior, and someone else responds: You can't know for sure, and besides there have been many behaviors, facts, and truths, that were later shown to be wrong and destructive. Those who assert that anyone of a different race, or sexual orientation, or gender, cannot possibly understand their own "intersectional" experience are advancing the epitome of relativistic thinking: your truth isn't the same as my truth. I assert, along with Harris, that whatever our differences, it is possible to find our common humanity, and hold on to that. We must find some way to both communicate our own experiences in a way that others can understand, and empathize with others when they do so in good faith. Otherwise, we are doomed.
By now I have no doubt shown my hand here: I am not a relativistic thinker, and openness should not trump all other virtues. We should be trying to figure out how to live, and we should all acknowledge that some ways are indeed better than other ways. Perhaps the British should not have been in India in the first place. We can debate that. But also, burning widows at the stake is immoral and the British were right to abolish such a practice. Furthermore, the fact that the British did abolish such a practice should factor into our discussion of whether the British should have been in India in the first place. Discussing whether some cultural practices are simply wrong may be uncomfortable, but it's necessary.
As I read the intellectual dark web piece, I came across yet another example of the pervasive openness Bloom describes. Weiss is recounting the moments when each of his subjects quote unquote "joined" the dark web:
Sam Harris says his moment came in 2006, at a conference at the Salk Institute with Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson and other prominent scientists. Mr. Harris said something that he thought was obvious on its face: Not all cultures are equally conducive to human flourishing. Some are superior to others.
“Until that time I had been criticizing religion, so the people who hated what I had to say were mostly on the right,” Mr. Harris said. “This was the first time I fully understood that I had an equivalent problem with the secular left.”
After his talk, in which he disparaged the Taliban, a biologist who would go on to serve on President Barack Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues approached him. “I remember she said: ‘That’s just your opinion. How can you say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?’ But to me it’s just obvious that forcing women to live their lives inside bags is wrong. I gave her another example: What if we found a culture that was ritually blinding every third child? And she actually said, ‘It would depend on why they were doing it.’” His jaw, he said, “actually fell open.”
It was like reading Bloom's introduction all over again, and I was grateful to have read it so long ago. Nearly my entire adult life, since reading The Closing of the American Mind, has been lived with this conviction: that there is such a thing as Truth, and that we should be looking for it, and that our investigation of it should guide our behavior.
At the time I was reading Bloom, I also happened to be applying to graduate schools. I had gotten in to American University's joint program between the school of international relations and the business school. I was all set to go get an MA and and MBA from a well-known program in the heart of our nation's capitol. I am so glad I didn't go. Instead, I chose to go to an obscure classical liberal arts school with campuses in Santa Fe, NM, and Annapolis, MD that taught nothing but the Great Books curriculum. I made that decision almost entirely based on my reading of Bloom. I wrote in my application essay to St. John's about how I was interested in Truth, but more importantly that I was sure that there was such a thing as Truth, and that I wanted to go somewhere that also believed that. I wasn't disappointed. St. John's remains to this day one of the few places (one other being the University of Chicago) that I think is more invested in giving its students the ability to think independently about how to live than it is in inculcating openness. When a student in a St. John's classroom offers an opinion or an analysis of the text, and someone else disagrees, the tutor (i.e., the professor) will never step in to say, "Well, you know, everyone is entitled to their opinion."
Of course we should be tolerant, but how tolerant should we really be when it comes to ideas that are poisonous to the human project of civilization? How tolerant should we be to a culture that has decided to ritually blind every third child, or to one that, as Harris was describing it, forces women to live inside of bags? My sense is we should be fairly intolerant of such ideas. And once you accept that, you may also accept that, in life, there are bad ideas. And that the totality of such ideas about how to live constitutes our culture, and that by extension not all cultures are equally conducive to human flourishing. One might begin to accept that openness to other ideas and cultures is perhaps only a stepping stone toward a more important virtue, which is the ability to develop sound judgement about which ideas are good and which are bad.
Sam Harris has said his grand project in life is to stand against bad ideas. I think that is an admirably virtuous goal. Jordan Peterson, if you read closely, has said that his entire philosophy is designed to make us more capable of standing against human suffering. I think that, too, is a virtuous goal. A few weeks after I had binged Peterson YouTube videos, I re-read Viktor Frankl's book, Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl, a Jew, survived the Holocaust in part by embracing the existentialist Friedrich Nietzsche's position that "He who has a why to live can bear almost any how." Peterson, who has said he considers himself a Christian, says that much of his work was formulated as a response to the horrors and cruelty and suffering of the concentration camps.
So we have Frankl, a Jew, Peterson, a Christian, and Nietzsche, who said that "God is Dead," all in dialogue with one another over the years, all discussing the same questions. I consider that to be the stuff of civilization. It is a dialogue that continues to move us closer to Truths about human suffering and answers about how to live. And it is a dialogue that today we seem very far away from indeed.