The REAL reason Jordan Peterson is so dangerous

David Foster Wallace in his 1990 essay E unibus pluram: television and US fiction, wrote that postmodern irony serves as a way of making us more at ease with our slavish attachments to the predictable cliches of visual culture, rather than helping us detach from it. As a result, a snotty, cynical attitude becomes a necessary part of the mass media culture, a way of feeling above the crowd, when we are merely absorbed by it.

Irony becomes an intellectual crutch, an end in itself, and culture comes to standstill. Foster Wallace admits that it was necessary for popular culture to break from the stifled past of precious and deceitful idealism. However, the same irony that deconstructed the suffocating lies of bourgeois conservatism, is now incapable of helping us create an alternative.

He said: ‘… irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It is critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.’

Foster Wallace goes on to say: ‘Anyone who has the gall to ask an ironist what he actually stand for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalised irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.’

Some might contest that not all irony is destructive, that it can actually be a very positive and progressive force. They would be right, of course. But even Christopher Hitchens, that fiery apostle of irony, noted the difference between his preferred, nuanced and contemplative irony, and the hip, nihilistic sneering of the current age. In the opening words of his Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens wrote that there are many ways that the independent mind is patronised and misrepresented out of existence and one of them is to be given the title of ‘contrarian’. However, there is a more subtle form of attack:

‘To be called “satirical” or “ironic” is now to be patronised in a different way. The satirist is the fast-talking cynic and the ironist merely sarcastic or self-conscious and wised-up. When a precious and irreplaceable word like “irony” has become a lazy synonym for anomie, there is scant room for originality.’

The ubiquity of the jibe and the desire to tear down, to lash out at any form of enthusiasm and deeply held values, with a cocksure tone of superiority, then, is not only damaging to the culture. It also gives ammunition to the philistines, to those who are already suspicious of culture and the arts. The result is an unholy alliance of the hipster nihilist and the overly-proud Trumpian ignoramus.

And most worryingly, the only thing held to be of any sacred importance, is the conviction that nothing is sacred or important at all, and to reach for a positive value system is to be hopelessly childish, or worse, reactionary and nostalgic for an age of unified cultural hegemony.

Douglas Murray stumbled upon this in his 2016 book The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, when diagnosing European intellectuals’ fevered reluctance to cultivate positive values in the face of an academic critique. Reflecting on his attendance at a fruitless and arcane philosophy conference, Murray wrote:

‘If there remains any overriding idea, it is that ideas are a problem. If there is any remaining commonly held value judgement, it is that value judgements are wrong. If there remains any remaining certainty it is a distrust of certainty. And if this does not add up to a philosophy, it certainly adds up to an attitude: shallow, unlikely to survive any sustained onslaught, but easy enough to adopt.’

Even before the television age, this broken, suspicious and contemptuous superiority can be traced as far back as the early 20th century, when the poetic guns of Ezra Pound were turned on the cosseted cynicism of his peers:

‘O generation of the thoroughly smug
/and thoroughly uncomfortable,
/I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
/I have seen them with untidy families,
/I have seen their smiles full of teeth/
and heard ungainly laughter.
/And I am happier than you are,
/And they were happier than I am;
/And the fish swim in the lake
/and do not even own clothing.’

Industrialisation had already disconnected Pound’s generation from the simple truth of crooked smiles and picnics in the sun. The pure dharma of a fish inhabiting his sea is lost on us, a generation of people born addicted to technology and convenience, sceptical of anything that reminds us of innocence and vulnerability.

This inherent distrust of meaning may be prevalent, essential even, in an age of mass communication, but it seems that Jordan Peterson, the now ubiquitous Jungian professor who for the last eighteen months has been telling us all to ‘tidy our rooms’ and ‘grow the hell up’, may have the escape route from this cycle of obedience and bafflement.

His new book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos is at once merciless in its account of human frailty, and Romantically optimistic in its argument for living a wholesome, meaningful and dutiful life.

The foundation of Peterson’s synthesis of Jungian myth-reading and statistical psychology is his commitment to the idea that hierarchies are essential to life. Not only are they fundamental to our natural environment, but also our nervous systems are hard-wired to systems of dominance.

His use of the example of the lobster is much satirised but it comes from a hard science world-view, demonstrating that our neurological reward systems are evolutionarily linked to survival within dominance hierarchies. Lobsters, like humans, respond to status, and their brains release serotonin in a similar way to our own brains. When a lobster wins a fight, he becomes more brazen in his challenges of other lobsters. If he loses a fight, he becomes less prone to risking conflict. The difference is in serotonin levels.

The chemical induces a response, whereby the lobster becomes more erect, more courageous in exposing his vulnerabilities. Serotonin makes the lobster’s nervous system begin to predict success, rather than avoid failure. Peterson’s point is that a chemical used in modern anti-depression treatment, has the exact same effect on creatures from whom we departed evolutionarily over three million years ago. And just like humans recovering from depression, the lobster’s nervous system on serotonin creates a feedback loop for success.

This connection between humans and lobsters has profound implications for the way we see depression. Peterson shows that depression, rather than being a disease, like cancer or tuberculosis, is more like a psychological trap. The experience of failure, disposes us to expect more failure, and the experience of disappointment and fear means we fall quickly down the dominance hierarchy. Like the lobster, we start to slouch, and we begin to see hiding away from conflict as a guarantee of survival, as opposed to adopting a stance of readiness to fight, like the lobster whose serotonin disposes him to expect victory over his peers.

So not only are dominance hierarchies a fact of life, they are intimately linked to our experience of happiness and success. We will be happier the more status we enjoy. We can adapt ourselves to greater chances of fulfilment and success, if we reverse the negative psychological loops that drag us down into depressive thinking and the expectation of failure. Lobsters who have placed themselves lower down the dominance hierarchy can be made to act like dominant creatures when artificially given doses of serotonin. They become more erect, displaying the stance of dominance to their peers, and thus creating more of a chance of beating challengers.

Peterson’s critics accuse him of trying to use science to argue for a fatalistic view of injustice. However, Peterson is a scientist, and he demonstrates a nuanced understanding of evolution, as opposed to a ‘might-is right’, Victorian social-Darwinist view of human life. Nature, says Peterson, is neither romantic nor definitively cruel. It is both beautiful and destructive, and inequalities and suffering are as much a part of life as stunning sunsets or the mystery of childbirth.

Environments are not static. They too change, and some aspects of nature evolve more dynamically than others. The basic morphology of arms and hands stays the same but the actual length and shape of bones may change faster. Weather may change but climate stays the same. Evolution, says Peterson, ‘is chaos, within order, within chaos, within higher order.’ The old Victorian ideal of there being some clean, identifiable type of organism that will always survive, whose attributes lead to ever-increasing fitness to environment, is a myth. There is no template specified by the world, to which we are always moving towards. The templates themselves always change. All creatures are in a dance with nature. No one standing still will survive.

The way we have evolved to handle this flux between chaos and order is through the development of ‘culture’. Again, this is where Peterson comes up against his critics. Culture is not opposed to nature, he insists, but part of it.

‘There is little more natural than culture,’ write Peterson. ‘Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.’

This is important because many of the claims of modern activism and post-modernism are grounded in the idea that power is held unjustly as a product of oppression – whether it is the patriarchy, capitalism or some other conspiracy. For Peterson, dominance hierarchies are what create inequalities, and if we are to contend with them, we must first accept them as part of life.

He is not, as some have claimed, saying we should capitulate to existing hierarchies, or accept inequality as a given in all instances. Rather, that trying to fix cultural and biological problems through heavy-handed political solutions and ideological projects, is at best doomed, and at worst a highway to hell.

So rather than being some apologist for oppression, Peterson is at pains to insist that the only way to avoid the negative low-status loops of depression, and to avoid draining our our nervous systems of serotonin, is to reverse the chemical chain reaction. It is not the existence of hierarchies that is the problem, but our inability to face up to the facts of life, which causes depression. Just as negative loops are created by small events which lead to a cumulative experience of failure and low-self-esteem, so too can small, positive actions create positive feedback loops.

To be on the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, is to be in a constant state of reactivity. There are more threats, therefore serotonin is not very desirable. It is safer to hide, rather than be brave. 

Things can malfunction. Even when someone is relatively high in the hierarchy, the natural counters to chaos can go off, if certain key things are out of whack. This is why routine is so important. Without it, we live in a constant state of stress. Peterson says that when treating clients for depression, the first two things he asks about are sleep and eating. Without taking these into consideration first, depression, he says, is almost untreatable. The point is to manage mental healing, according to the way our nervous system actually works. Small steps like mastering sleep patterns and eating nutritional meals won’t make anxiety and depression disappear, but they can kick-start the nervous system into adapting itself for success. But we can’t do that if we are constantly blaming others, or raging against society as if it were a ‘rigged system’.

Peterson talks about agoraphobics, alcoholics and depressives as examples of people caught in a ‘positive feedback loop’ related to the parts of the brain associated with dominance and status. Alcohol may act as a counter to the negativity associated with low serotonin and low status, but the withdrawls become increasingly worse, meaning the alcoholic is caught in a loop of dependency to get that hit that counters to the feelings of low status. 

People who experience acute fear, may experience bursts of anxiety. This can then be triggered by the same situations where that fear was first experienced. The association then becomes more ingrained, so that eventually any instance of uncertainty can cause acute panic. The anxiety feeds on itself, so that the self shrinks and the dangerous world becomes ever larger. This is agoraphobia. Our anxiety systems tell us that anything we previously ran from must be dangerous. Anxiety creates more anxiety. Breathing becomes faster and shallower, and this leads to more fear, which just creates more anxiety. 

Depression makes us isolated and separated from friends and family. This makes us more useless and robs them of confidence, and then they become even more isolated and divorced from loved ones. It’s a vicious cycle. 

This is also the case with people who are bullied. They become more slouched and make less eye contact, meaning they become more likely to be bullied. The slide down the dominance hierarchy is fast and slick, once the positive feedback loop has been initiated. 

People who have gone through some experience that makes them wary of aggression may find it hard to release such emotions. This can make them more susceptible to bullying and tyrannical behaviour. Peterson says, ironically, that demonstrating a capacity for aggression makes it increasingly unlikely that you will have to use it. Failing to do so, makes you more likely to become a victim of it. 

Peterson says that in treating clients who believe that being harmless is the best way to survive, he invites them to see the link between their harmlessness and their resentments. It is only by admitting to and looking at their resentments that they are able to see what needs to be done to redress imbalances in their lives. Peterson also translates this to society-wide problems. Bureaucracies and tyrannies feed off people’s submission, the act of going along to get along. This creates festering resentment which can often become cruel and pathological. For Peterson, the only way to avoid this is for the individual to confront their resentments and stand up for themselves, and not allow such resentments to embed themselves. 

It is therefore necessary that we stand up for ourselves, show our teeth, and maintain strong boundaries. If we do not, we sink into a personal hell, but we are also contributing to the hell of those around us.

As much as all of this relates to Peterson’s clinical practice, it also helps us understand his politics. If we allow ourselves to fall into negative, reactive loops, then of course culture is going to appear to us oppressive, and our experiences will continue to confirm this. It is essential, according to Peterson, that we break this loop; not just for our own psychological health, but the for the health of culture and society as a whole. His admonitions about ‘taking responsibility’ or ‘tidying your room’, despite becoming memes and cliches in their own right, are actually grounded in a pragmatic view of how a healthy individual can build his or her relationship with their environment, with society, and with ‘Being’ itself.

Peterson can come off overly traditional. The sceptical mind may see the sense in what he is saying, but still feel resistant to the idea of ‘sucking it up’ and buying the apparent proposition that only conformism and traditional virtues are the key to a fulfilled life. However, beneath the apparent conformist orientation of Peterson’s idea of psychological health and society, there is something thrillingly subversive. We don’t ‘stand up straight with our shoulders back’ because he is telling us to. We do so because it empowers us, it puts us back in the existential cockpit. The message of responsibility that is much talked about in explaining Peterson’s appeal, is also a message of liberation.

We don’t eat good food because lifestyle columnists tell us to. We don’t stick to daily routines because we get brownie points from our elders or our peers. We do these things because they actually free us from being at the mercy of external forces, whether they are cultural, psychological or political.

That status and human happiness are intimately linked throws light on the high levels of depression in our consumerist culture. Feelings of despair and meaninglessness seem to be exacerbated by the dominant values of the contemporary economy, which encourages an almost pathological obsession with material success, gossip and self-esteem based on constant social comparison. 

A further offshoot from Peterson’s understanding of dominance hierarchies and the way serotonin creates feedback loops around failure and victory, is his insistence that we can only develop ourselves if we compare ourselves to who were in the past, rather than everyone else around us. We need our internal critic, because we need some standards in order to live a meaningful life. We need to be able to tell ourselves that some behaviours are preferable to others. However, as a clinical psychologist, Peterson recognises the dangers of this voice, and the role it can play in maintaining negative spirals towards nihilism and depression.

Comparing ourselves to unrealistic templates of success, or to peers whose lives bear no resemblance to the challenges of our own, can only make matters worse. This critical comparison is a recipe for serotonin drainage. However, realistic and nuanced comparisons are healthy, and can be motivating. It is this subtle difference between realistic and unrealistic standards of success and fulfilment, that seems to underpin Peterson’s concept of psychological health.

The effect of internet connectivity and mass media on our dominance hierarchy is extensive. Peterson notes that in the past a decent amount of talent might have propelled someone to the top of their local dominance hierarchy, and the path to further elevation for other competitors would have been relative clear. Today however, Peterson says, ‘our hierarchies of accomplishment are now dizzyingly vertical.’ Meaning, the competition for top dog in any sphere is now almost impossible to penetrate.

A good example of this can be found in the music industry. The best guitar player in a provincial city may be the biggest fish in a small pond, but this exceptional talent is no guarantee of industry success. Not even close. There is simply too much competition, to the point where talent becomes almost irrelevant. A traditional idea of success in the music industry can no longer be a sustainable ideal for anyone choosing to live this life. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of limos and large hotel suites and long world tours filled with sex and luxurious decadence, just doesn’t happen anymore. The market is saturated and the demand is lower. The same is true for many other models of success across various industries.

The upshot of this is that most of us are destined to live near the very bottom of our dominance hierarchies, unless we alter our concept of what success is, and we start to judge success according to alternative metrics. One way of dealing with this, would be to adopt a cynical defensiveness, to subject the culture as a whole to a resentful and withering critique, and thus to sustain one’s psychological integrity through a manageable nihilism. This is close to what David Foster Wallace was warning us about in 1990. Sarcasm, paranoia and treating human relationships as if they are nothing but power plays, is the mark of this world view, and it appears to be the dominant tone of popular culture.

Another way of dealing with this challenge, one which has also gained a lot of sway in the prevailing culture, is the simplistic ‘positive thinking’ of new age spirituality. Peterson notes that delusional thinking was actually recommended for a time by professional social psychologists, given the fact that dominance hierarchies were becoming ever more vertical and difficult to ascend.

Peterson’s view is that we must reject the delusional wish-fulfilment of the new agers, as it means living our lives under a fog of lies. This can only lead to even greater levels of disillusionment and despair, and as a result is dangerous to society as a whole. However, being cynical about the very possibility of living a meaningful life, is no better, and no closer to truth. Peterson says, ‘Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.’

Neither of these half-baked solutions actually protects us from the downward spirals of negative feedback loops and depression. Peterson’s view is that we should actively embrace suffering. We must be mercilessly realistic with ourselves, before we can carve out a meaningful life. We must acknowledge the fact that life is often miserable and terrifying, and that we ourselves are prone to laziness and self-deception. Given these brutal facts of life, we can actually start to make a progress of sorts, we can see that small improvements, rather than perfectionist accomplishments, are more sustainable.

Peterson can often come off as deeply grim and pessimistic. However, his insistence that we face the suffering of human life is actually inspiring. Seeing the world this way frees us from black and white thinking about success and failure, and leaves us free to define our own ideal of success, and therefore to be in charge of what makes our lives meaningful. Instead of getting lost in outdated ideas of success and comparing ourselves to others, Peterson urges us to:

‘Dare, instead, to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life.’

Peterson takes this insight much further than success advice, however. He believes this  critical distinction between realistic and perfectionist ideas of success, is at the heart of difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God is a wide abstraction from the experience of dominance hierarchies. He is a terrifying judge, and he dishes out cosmic punishments and rewards. The New Testament God, however, as embodied in the ideal of Christ, is an abstraction of every individual’s choice to ‘live voluntarily.’

According to Peterson, this is the spirit of the West; a movement from top down commandments, towards nurturing the desire to do good because it is the most likely way of creating happiness on earth. The ideal found in Christ is a positive vision of the individual, someone who is not merely obedient, but who chooses good actively, because they have the breadth of vision to know it is the right thing in the long run, even in the light their own selfishness and moral limitations.

Peterson’s genius here is in uniting a knowledge of biological dominance hierarchies and Christian ethics. Even better, the resulting synthesis is supremely pragmatic and manages to be both scarily realist in its view of human nature, while also being life-affirming. We do not shy away from the inner critic, the voice which connects us to our evolutionary hierarchies. However, neither do we frame our lives as zero-sum games. We see our daily job as one of careful progress, rather than wholesale dominance, and thus we learn to find a deep meaning and self-respect in the small incremental victories we gain over the inevitable hardships of our lives. We can become resilient in the face of disaster, and competent when faced with chaos. Even death itself, viewed from this perspective, can bring a heightened sense of the beauty of our tiny lives.

xxx

The notion of sacrifice is intrinsic to Peterson’s view of personal development. The myths of Abraham and Christ, for Peterson, have deep evolutionary significance. The idea of sacrifice is intimately linked to the ‘discovery of the future’. That is, delaying sensual gratification in the present for survival in the future, is something that distinguishes humans, and allows us to main dominance in the evolutionary chain. On a tribal level too, delayed gratification is the necessary in the formation of what we now call ‘society’.

Biblical myths of sacrifice, for Peterson, demonstrate a cultural evolution in the understanding that I might delay my own needs being satisfied in the immediate present, so that my family, my tribe, and my nation, might survive in the long terms. The Adam and Eve story, Abraham’s call to kill his own son, and the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of God’s son going to the cross, are all ways of dramatically articulating the importance of delayed gratification in the cultural evolution of humanity.

However, understanding sacrifice as merely bargaining with God would be too reductionist. Peterson is at his most insightful and penetrating in the discussion of the myth of Cain and Abel. Both these biblical brothers offer sincere sacrifices to God, but only one is favoured: Abel. Cain becomes resentful, enraged at not being given his due, and murderous of his own hero, Abel, who for an unknown reason is the object of God’s love.

It is better to please God, to offer sacrifice, rather than to indulge ourselves. For Peterson this is the pre-conceptual, emerging awareness that satisfaction of the sense is not always the best option, that it is worth the pay-off to take a hit now, for survival and happiness in the years to come. Some may argue, as Sam Harris does, that such interpretations of otherwise very brutal and primitive stories is too convenient. That there is no real method of measuring the veracity of such speculations, other than that they sound good.

However, there is evolutionary insight here. It is better to delay gratification, but as with the Cain and Abel story, this is no guarantee of utopian deliverance. God may always disappoint us. And thus we easily descend into war and bitterness, jealousy and rage. And for Peterson, it is this psychological insight, though played out in extreme and violent stories, that is important. Cain does everything right. He loves his brother, his hero, and he loves God. But when he doesn’t get what he feels he deserves, when he feels that the very real sacrifices he made are being punished, rather than rewarded, he murders his brother, tearing down his highest ideal, as a way of getting revenge on God.

Peterson points to the writings of school shooters and well-known psychopaths, to drive home his point. He quotes Eric Harris, the Columbine killer, whose last entries in his diary were curiously human, chillingly familiar in the contemplation of his own fragility, and in the one-pointed obsession with revenge. What’s common among these bloodthirsty killers is a distaste for Being itself, a desire to inflict punishment on the innocent, merely for existing. Such evil manifests, in Peterson’s words, ‘to protest the intolerable vagaries of Being.’ It’s one thing to undergo suffering, but to be subject of conscious, determined cruelty and malevolence can damage people for life. It was the sense that Cain was punished for his virtues that drove him to murderous rage.

Peterson’s claims about this phenomenon may not be decisive. His wisdom is built on experience as a clinician, but not a complete scientific proof. Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves there is something terrifyingly resonant with this account of human evil. We claim not to be able to understand psychotic killers, school shooters and fanatical terrorists, but we understand them perfectly at the deepest level. We know the rage and fury that arises from the punishment of our virtues, from the arbitrariness of tragedy in the face of our most well-meaning and sincere sacrifices. When the best part of ourselves is met with contempt, ridicule or worse, indifference, we become mad. And if we undergo deliberate abuse by a loved one, it does not take much for us let go of our moral sense, and unleash a desire for revenge on God, or existence itself.

Peterson quotes Jung in saying that, ‘No tree can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.’ Only when we explore the depths of our own malice, rage, resentment and capacity for evil, can we really make a sacrifice deep enough and large enough to counteract the suffering brought about by human evil. And it is this understanding of psychological development, that undergirds Peterson’s fascinating analysis of the story of Jesus Christ.

Unlike Cain, Jesus did not give into the temptations of the Devil. Peterson gives a psychological exposition of the ‘forty days and forty nights’ Christ spent in the desert. First the Lord is tempted to use his power to turn rocks into bread. Secondly, Satan urges him to throw himself off a cliff, and if he is the son of God, surely he will be saved by his divine father? Thirdly, Satan shows him the nations of the earth, which could be subject to Christ’s own supreme power, if only he chose to wield it. All of these sacrifices show Christ choosing to live well, to adopt a correct mentality towards life, rather than seeking immediate gratification.

Cain is contrasted with Christ. Cain descends into the wilderness of the soul. He feels exploited and oppressed. He gives into the temptations of the Devil and nurses a malice and rage against life itself, and plots revenge on God. Christ, on the other hand, goes into the desert for real, willingly, for 40 days and nights. Enough to really know the truth of himself and his fragility as a man. Jesus confronted his own gluttony, selfishness and desire for power, and only in doing so was he able to understand humanity’s capacity for sin.

It is only in our confrontation with evil, in owning our own ability to be jealous, greedy and lustful of earthly power, that we can hope to live well. Once we realise that we too have the same potential for evil as an Auschwitz guard or a school shooter, can we have the knowledge necessary to rise above the cycles of revenge and Machiavellian struggle that hold human beings in bondage and lead them into the depths of psychological hell.

For Peterson, Christ’s death on the cross is a symbol of a massive shift in cultural consciousness, an actual leap in evolution for humanity. It is the pre-conceptual understanding that it is better to live well, than to merely satisfy our desires in the present; and at the same time, that this right attitude, must be maintained in the face of the worst suffering. A failure to demonstrate this resilience in the face of despair and the temptations of power, leads us down the path of Cain, of resentment and rage.

What’s important here, is that Peterson is offering an unflinching view of intrinsic human evil, while rehabilitating our once commonly held belief in our own ability to transcend this ‘original sin’. There are some extremely learned and detailed digressions in Peterson’s book, on the critique of modernity by both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Both authors knew that the scientific refutation of Christianity’s metaphysical claims to fact, were bound to leave a vacuum in human civilisation. For Peterson, the great anxiety of our time is that in losing this framework for God, we lose the very thing that gave rise to scientific knowledge and human progress in the first place: the obligation to live for the the future, by sacrificing the now.

Peterson defines living meaningfully as ‘the development of character in the face of suffering.’ He says:

‘Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges between the interplay of the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.’

Many of the atheistic bent will remain determined to dismiss Peterson’s expositions of the gospels and mythical tradition, as unfalsifiable and arbitrary. However, Peterson is not just resuscitating the ideals of sacrifice and religious ethics, merely to make YouTube videos that make people feel better about themselves. If anything, his videos and interviews can be quite brutal in their insistence on the pervasiveness of human evil. He offers, however, both a connection to the past, and a way forward for people to maintain their own psychological integrity in the face of their own bitterness and resentment.

To adopt a new-age view of our own potential, or to fall into political ideology, is to be utopian and disingenuous about the human condition. However, to fall back on the crutch of hopelessness and cynicism about life and our place within it, is to open ourselves up to equally dangerous totalitarianisms. Peterson’s middle path is one of careful, realistic psychological progress in the face of undeniable suffering and the often arbitrary nature of tragedy. Cleaning our rooms, maintaining a schedule, living life in the service of a higher purpose that transcends sensual pleasure, these are the tiny rituals that stand between human fragility and violent hell. In a word, it is the act of giving life meaning, that saves us from turning descendinging into self-destruction.

xxx

 

David Foster Wallace saw no relief in the digitalisation of culture, from the captive passivity of image obsession, and the corresponding irony and sneering superiority that comes with it. We cling to postmodernism, to the fracturing of truth, because it serves a purpose, it helps us to feel aloof and detached, while we subconsciously give ourselves over to enraptured attention. Nothing about social media would have surprised Foster Wallace.

He speculated that the writers of the future might return to sincerity and reverence, away from nihilistic posturing, towards a sentimental naivety, open to accusations of anachronism and conservatism. Such accusations could be, and increasingly are, thrown at Peterson by postmodernists and atheist reductionists alike. For someone whose career is firmly based on the YouTube platform, his message is very much the antithesis of the values that dominate visual culture.

There’s something thrilling about Peterson’s call to ‘be dangerous’. It is not his wars against political correctness that make him a threat. Nor his merciless emphasis on humanity’s capacity for evil. Both of these are inconvenient to the wider agendas of the mass media. Peterson’s often surly and barbed pessimism is never going to sell Pepsi or beauty products. However, it is not these battles that make him such a threat to the dominant narratives of our time. It is, rather, his single-handed rehabilitation of meaning.

Peterson is often asked why he is popular. Why has this dry, rambling and frequently grave professor struck a chord with the young, and particularly young men? His answer is usually to say that young people secretly crave responsibility, because responsibility makes life meaningful, and gives them a reason to get up in the morning.

This is true, but perhaps it is not the whole story. Maybe the reason is that his revitalised conception of a meaningful life offers us an alternative to the nihilistic sarcasm and naive suggestibility that go hand in hand with popular culture. The person who lives meaningfully, who has chosen to take responsibility for their own capacity for evil and to live well in the face of such a terrifying fact, is almost immune to ideological suggestion and psychic manipulation.

For a long time, the most expedient way of guaranteeing one’s own resilience in the face of propaganda or consumer agendas, was cynicism. This explains the seductiveness of postmodernism. Now that this very cynicism and fracturing of truth threatens to become a kind of tyranny in itself, Peterson is offering a remarkably strong and simple alternative way of maintaining personal integrity.

Living meaningfully is to be truly self-dependent. We ‘volunteer’ our own suffering, we become the source of our own inspired purpose. Peterson puts great stock in the hero myth, whether it is Christ, Horus or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The hero descends into darkness and discovers truth. The truth reinvigorates the nation state, replenishes the land. Unlike Joseph Campbell, however, there’s no easy fix for self-esteem here, no reassuring slogan such as ‘follow your bliss’. Rather, we make ourselves heros by resolving to make small, incremental steps towards the best possible scenario we can envision for our lives, and we do it knowing that tragedy and despair are inevitable and in fact part of the deal.

Peterson’s message puts us in mind of Blake’s Jerusalem:

‘Bring me my Bow of burning gold;

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
\

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

 

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land.’

An individual who resolves to become the source of their own sense of purpose and meaning, secured by discipline and honesty with his or herself, becomes impervious to suggestion, whether it is ideological manipulation, political demagoguery or consumer advertising. In a culture that is contemptuous of human will, and which equates freedom with self-indulgence, no message could be more thrillingly dangerous.

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The important difference between scepticism and cynicism

In reactions to recent posts, where I have attacked a certain kind of snotty, nihilistic attitude of mind which I feel is dominant in western culture right now, I have found some who have mistaken my intentions. Some responders think I am attacking all doubt, and therefore calling for a reversion to a reactionary gullibility. Nothing could be further from the truth.

However, in the course of some discussion a useful distinction has arisen, which requires further exploration. It has become clear that what I have been attacking is a certain kind of doubting, a form of cynicism. However, some responders have accused me of attacking scepticism, which is a very different frame of mind altogether.

Many responders spend a lot of time defending scepticism as a healthy product of enlightenment thinking, something which goes hand in hand with liberalism and and open society. Such arguments are preaching to the converted. I don’t need persuaded of this.

Having said that, the distinction between cynicism and scepticism is welcome, and it seems to me that most of us go about the world conflating these two things.

To be a sceptic is to remain open to alternative possibilities. To be a cynic is to close oneself off to most possibilities.

The cynic uses doubt to claim a certainty about life’s outcomes. If one always suspects the worst in life, one is never disappointed. However, there is hypocrisy in this position, because to expect the worst is still to expect something. The cynic might claim that she is not actually expecting anything, merely avoiding any expectation of the good. However, there really is no such thing as expecting nothing.

Jean Paul Sartre would have called this bad faith. You are lying to yourself. If one avoids expecting positive outcomes at all times, one is by definition expecting the worst.

Eventually, you train your mind to expect negativity so much, that it becomes an affront to end up with a positive outcome, and you begin to resent those who do not share your outlook.

Of course, cynics will deny this furiously, as they are very much identified with their fatalism, believing themselves to have risen above the naivety and callowness of ordinary people.

This is another conceit of the cynic: that of claiming special insight, a superior understanding of the world, by exorcising from their minds any hope or positive ambition.

Again, the cynic tells herself this fatalism and arrogance is a form discipline, a kind of scepticism. In reality it is a lazy, ill-considered renunciation of the imagination. For the cynic, all that can be expected is doom, betrayal and narcissism. One’s fellow man cannot be relied upon. Humanity is the worst of nature, in disguise.

Sceptics, however, are indeed disciplined. They are, like scientists, able to entertain multiple possibilities, while avoiding the grief and loss involved with investing in one particular outcome. Life is a series of hypothesises. The sceptic lives with doubt, but that doubt is a means to an end, a tool, by which the sceptic achieves the spiritual release of living in a state of constant potential.

Like the cynics, sceptics do not expect the best, they are free from the perils of idealism. This also frees them from the dangers of Utopianism and political ideology. The sceptic has made peace with the ragged edges of humanity, the complexities of people’s common frailties.

However, unlike the cynic, the sceptic never rules out the pleasant surprises of human tenderness and empathy, the spontaneous shows of brotherly love, which are common in times of crises.

The cynic’s stance is one of limited intelligence. Because the cynic finds a rigid certainty in her bleak world-view. She would rather sacrifice the surprise charity of common goodwill, reducing it to Freudian motivations, in order to salvage the stability and control that living negativity gives her.

The sceptic, rather, lives like an artist, on the edges of the possible, in a beautiful anxiety. Doubt is not an ideology, to which reality must bow; it is a method of thinking, similar to that of a samurai warrior.

To live as a sceptic is to live fluidly, to live in a prepared state, like a kind of meditative contemplation. The discipline of the sceptic is one of reining in the imagination, rather than cutting it off completely.

Unfortunately for the cynic, only the worst kinds of possibilities are entertained. Doubt itself becomes a god to be worshipped, ironically becoming a dogmatic fatalism. To aggressively hold to the claim that ‘there are no truths’, is itself a truth-claim.

The sceptic is not concerned with ultimate truth, so much as his own humility in the face of the limits of his own perception and imagination. Scepticism means to live in a healthy relationship with one’s own limitations.

Why then, do cynicism and scepticism get so easily conflated?

A huge part of the reason must be the overwhelming nature of modern living. The nervous system runs on empty for most of us, and the threats of the unknown are, as a result, more terrifying. The more useless stimulation we have to process, the more anxious we become, because our survival mechanisms – whatever they may be, I’m not a brain scientist – are in a state of perpetual overdrive.

It is not unreasonable to propose that our imaginative abilities, our faculties of seeing beyond the immediate situation into the realm of possibility, are what have sustained human beings and placed them at the top of the food chain.

In the modern world this imaginative faculty, this hyper-perception of what has not yet occurred but might, becomes strained. It is therefore easy to slip into cynicism.

The natural scepticism of the scientific world view, that healthy ability to entertain multiple hypotheses, is used as a sort of PR gloss, a way of convincing ourselves that the uncertainty of being overwhelmed is the same uncertainty as the disciplined scientist and philosopher.

We congratulate ourselves that our anxious state of cynical unknowing is the ironic methodology of Hume, Francis Bacon and Descartes.

The reason we conflate cynicism and scepticism then, is simply because it makes us feel better. The two attitudes grew in power simultaneously as a response to the growth and dominance of the technological era. However, they are in fact, entirely different ways of looking at the world.

Why ideas matter in a mechanised culture

An idea is the opposite of automatic thinking.

Human beings are clearly more than just higher order apes, and it is our capacity for ideas that helps us rise above the purely instinctual. Ideas are the opposite of inevitability.

The easiest place to see this is in our sexuality. Human sexuality has become so much more sophisticated than procreative instinct. It certainly emerges out of whatever imperatives exist in our biology, but the diversity and confusion, the whole range of sub-cultures from fashion photography to the nudes of Rubens, all the way up to the decadence of Oscar Wilde through to modern transsexuality, reveal that much more is going on than just a quest for survival.

There is something essential about being human that doesn’t fit into a simple reduction to the procreative instinct. There is something unique and beautiful about human beings that marks us out from the instinctual world completely.

Ideas are what create the space between our instinctual imperatives, and our free choices in the world. To create this space, an idea doesn’t need to be philosophical, or literary, or even conceived in language at all. An idea is simply that which stops us being prisoners of inevitability.

Great works of beauty, sweet melodies and even the heartfelt intimacy of a truly loving kiss, all these are forms of ideas, because they convey something to us that stops our instincts in their tracks.

Ideas don’t matter because they perform a function. They are not practical or utilitarian. Ideas matter because they take us out of the trap of automatic, reactive thinking, out of our programming.

To do this, an idea doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to be new, it just needs to be fresh, to create that space between you and your instincts. There is no way of preconceiving what such a thing might look like. The only way you can tell a powerful idea from a bad one, or from a lack of ideas completely, is whether or not it frees you from automatic thinking.

When George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, warning of the way political language degrades public dialogue and therefore human potential, he was not being a grammar nazi. Neither was he, as some have mistakenly thought, asking for constant originality in language. All language is a product of other language, just as all culture is a product of yet more culture.

Orwell’s concern in avoiding cliche was not about avoiding what had already been done, so much as avoiding anything that narrowed the scope of human thought, that trained the human mind to reduce the possibilities of individual potential.

Orwell’s project was to encourage fresh thinking, a way of using language that was the opposite of propaganda, or reactive, ideological behaviour.

Advertisers and PR managers and political spin doctors are heavily invested in automatic thinking. Orwell could see the dangers posed in an industrialised society, to language use, critical thinking and private agency – all the things he presumably thought democracy and egalitarianism were supposed to promote.

Today, Orwell’s fears are playing out for us, but not in the fascist nightmare of 1984. Rather, they are being manifest in the erosion of private reason, narrowing the space between our sense of who we are, and our instinctual and automatic biological programming.

Some may respond by saying, ‘of course ideas matter, you are not saying anything new’. But most probably what they mean by ‘ideas’ is just ‘clever solutions’. Ideas have been reduced to problem solving. What is generally meant by a ‘good idea’ in this sense is something like the Iphone, or the Uber taxi app or Elon Musk’s Tesla cars.

These are indeed the products and examples of good ideas, but they don’t embody the whole of what a good idea can be.

Far more powerful examples of ‘good ideas’ are Magna Carta, democratic sovereignty, or the truths conveyed in the famous soliloquy of Hamlet.

These are not necessarily ‘solutions’ in the local, technical sense of helping one get from A to B while overcoming an obstacle. They don’t necessarily offer mind-blowing answers, either.

Magna Carta was a revolutionary idea because it conceived of the state and justice system as more than the mere limbs of sovereign power. In Magna Carta we have the first instance of a state’s power being there to protect the people from the whims of a king, rather than just consolidating the entitlements of that office. This puts a space between the society, and its leader’s personal ambition.

Human instincts and biological programming seem to suggest hierarchies will always be the product of human relationship. Magna Carta marked a shift in human society by freeing us from that inevitability. Human civilisation stopped being the product of instinct, and became a way of distancing ourselves from it.

The dangers of a technologically driven society are that automation becomes not just function the culture, but the desirable end of it. Technology helps us satisfy our basic needs in constantly revolutionary ways. However, we forget that a great part of human progress is not just the fulfilment of our desires, but our ability to be free from them.

Ideas are not a form of technology. They are ways in which we create space between our evolutionary needs and our higher-order culture. If human life was about survival only, we would not have created religious culture, democratic societies and any heritage of beauty and art. We would not be obsessed with making a meaningful life, only a long one.

The dogma of the day is that humans are merely sophisticated apes, and our programming is so strong that we are bound to destroy ourselves; the cruel irony of our survival instincts being that they conflict with each other, and our desire for survival leads to a desire for power, which leads to a desire to destroy.

This view of human nature fits conveniently into the ideology of technology, because it means that a culture of automation is not foreign to us, it’s not troubling or dangerous, because our whole instinct is towards automation and complex problem solving. Technology is just the advancement of our instincts by other means.

Viewing ideas and civilisation in the way being laid out here, however, disturbs the convenience and comfort of this modern ideology.

The aim of human life is not to fulfil our animal needs, but to rise above them. Instinct and survival programming are strong, but this is not the complete picture of what humanity is, or is capable of.

Consumerism, technological thinking, marketing, Public Relations and political propaganda, are all mechanisms of automatic thinking. They are the enemies of ideas. So it follows that much of what we call modern culture is also the enemy of ideas. Much of what we see in the public sphere, from textureless glass-box buildings to monotonous popular music and simplistic debate in online media, reflect this anti-idea culture.

The way to fight this, is to insists on creative thinking, in constantly refreshing our capacity for ideas, clearing a space between our instinctual programming and our dreams for ourselves and each other. Technology is great, only if it is matched with equally strident experimentation and advancement in ideas.

If technology advances faster than our capacity for ideas, or worse, if it actively erodes our ability to develop them, then the Darwinist nihilists will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fight this by resisting automation, inevitability and capitulation to instinct. This resistance is the secret behind the achievements of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Steve Jobs. It’s also the secret to becoming a truly free human.

 

‘Love and peace’ is not enough: We must show them who we really are

Our enemies think of us as a decadent race. They think they have the advantage over us. They believe that they have a passion and a readiness to die for something greater than themselves, and we do not. They believe we are ripe for the plucking, because we are on the turn.

We need to show them that we too are friends with death. That we are not hiding our faces from the devil. That we are not so conceited that we live in some cartoonish, deathless world of consumerism fuelled by infantilism, just as they believe we do.

We must reject the critique of western civilisation, that it is somehow all simply founded on exploitation. That is self-hatred, and a gross oversimplification. Unfortunately, all societies, all nations and civilisations have exploitation and bloodshed in their history. The human DNA is packed full of trauma, and each of us has inherited monsters, rapists, abusers and warmongers. We are, without doubt, descended from tyrants and imperialists.

However, that is only a fraction of the story. The history of civilisation is a history of man’s battle with himself. Everything from Greek democracy right down to the speeches of Martin Luther King Jnr, through Michelanglo’s David, is a catalogue of desperate self-transcendence. Whatever our faults as a civilisation, the need to overcome our animal impulses is a defining feature of who we are, and what we have become.

Western civilisation is not decadent. Western culture is not the product of empire. Western civilisation is not the preserve of fat, white, iphone-addicted MacDonalds-munching morons.

No, our civilisation, with its secular ideals, its love of beauty and the belief in man’s capacity to overcome himself, is the product of the essential evolutionary impulse, the knowledge that culture can conquer death. We must get back the deeply understood knowledge buried in our biology, that we are parts only of some greater whole, some greater potential and cosmic project.

This knowledge is our greatest weapon against our enemies. They have missed this crucial piece of the battle plan. They have missed it because they are incapable of understanding it. Their minds are swept up in the passionate, bloodthirsty conviction of moral righteousness that attaches itself in desperation to anything that resembles the finality of truth.

They are convinced that this conviction and zeal gives them the upper hand. That they alone have the capacity to sacrifice themselves for a higher, divine order. In their narcissistic lust for martyrdom, they have blinded themselves to the fact that civilisation has the advantage. That they are fighting a losing battle.

However, it remains for us to reconnect with the beauty and brilliance of what our forebears have bequeathed us. It is time to stop apologising, to stop navel-gazing and indulging in guilt over our power and history. It is perfectly possible for us to extend the powers and privileges of our liberties and freedoms to those who were previously exploited, while at the same time salvaging the best of our inheritance.

Every family has a history of abuse and trauma. But every family equally has the assets of survival, struggle and overcoming that can be harnessed by its young. To salvage what is best in our culture, without guilt, without shame, without self-flagellation, does not mean we live in denial of the crimes of the past. It simply means we understand the context of those crimes, and we make sure that whatever powers we glean from our past are not excluded to the least among us.

And like our forefathers, we learn too to see this inheritance of survival and self-overcoming as the very blood of our culture, it is the means by which our genes survive.
We are not impressed by the supposed self-sacrifice of our enemies. We are not intimidated by it. Because, contrary to what they tell themselves, we are entirely familiar with it. We have seen it before, we too were once a culture that delighted in the egotism of a death wish. Some say that our culture is done for, that we are living in the last days of Rome, that the empire is collapsing on itself. History is repeating, and we are prisoners to inevitability.

Such gloom and self-hatred is the work of false prophecy. No culture before us has survived its own crimes of slavery and exploitation, no culture in history has triumphed over its own savagery, the cults of nationalism, pathological war, like the culture we call our own.

The 20th century is a blot of demonic shame on the history of human life. However, we came through it. And not only did we survive it, we learned from it, we grew, we innovated our way out of the squalor.

Rather than merely rise from the ashes of our unthinkable past crimes, we have emerged a resilient and loving people, willing to extend the hand of brotherhood to all who may wish to join us.

However, somewhere along the line we have convinced ourselves that we need to abandon our past in order to be free of its crimes. This is to give the enemy a free pass. The crimes of our history are not the products of our culture, but aberrations of it. It is our democratic values, our humanism, our love of beauty, truth and the ‘known rules of ancient liberty’ that define the best of our inheritance, not the many instances of our failure to live up to these ideals.

Our enemies are counting on us to hate ourselves. What they don’t understand is that civilisation triumphs over warmongering every time, because civilisation is never undermined by its own failures, and neither are we.

These people think they are the only ones with a cause. They think they only have the zeal and fire to die for the sake of their future generations. They think they and they only have the capacity to face horror, death and the monster of malevolent darkness. They think they have the upper hand because they write us off as scared, spineless, self-consumed animals, buried under technology, privilege and wealth.

They lack the intelligence to see what we are. To see that we are the product of Hellenistic democracy, the Renaissance, the birth of science, the emancipation of slaves, the suffrage of women. Our past is full of war crimes and slaughter. However, through all the struggle and blood we have bequeathed to the world landmark innovations of human progress that our race will never be able to undo.

We need to let our enemies know that if they go to war with us, they go to war with history itself. That even if they kill us, they cannot kill what we represent. That they may be able to rob us of individual life, but they will never rob us, or the world, of the indefatigable victories of our culture. And we must let them know that we too, then, have a creed worth dying for, and that we too are willing to sacrifice comfort, ease, and privilege to ensure that the triumphs of our civilisation also triumph over their boring, childish, conceited barbarism.

Art, utility and bohemianism: The challenge for the modern artist

The biggest challenge for a writer and an artist these days is persistence. The sad truth of the matter is that as artists we are engaged in activities that don’t have immediate value in the market of exchange.

The artist is engaged in the celebration of life, not necessarily its enhancement, and his or her work is only valued in as much as it is a relief, a tonic to the business and pressure of the marketplace.

This means not only that our work cannot be valued in the same way as typical commercial products, but also that our work culture is different.

The first thing to remember in this battle is that there is actually a divide, between the values of beauty and the market. For sure they overlap, and they have been successfully combined at rare moments in civilisation. The Renaissance being one of them. And there remain pockets in contemporary life where examples of this overlap are very prominent.

Some of the older university colleges maintain a culture based on beauty and contemplation, while still offering value to the marketplace, for example. Some art galleries maintain a commitment to beauty for its own sake, and are a celebration of older, more permanent values, while they still function in the world as commercially viable enterprises.

These are rare examples, however, and in each of them the battle to preserve non-commercial values is ongoing. The beautiful for its own sake is always being infringed upon, and you can see that most starkly in places like London, where heritage buildings are never left alone by local councils. There is always some kind of tinkering and modification going on in the name of “accessibility” and “community education”.

It’s almost as if the price we have to pay for not demolishing old buildings (just for the crime of being old) is to allow the philistines to have their say, to leave their scars upon the heritage of beauty. It’s only way to placate the monster of modernity.

So how does the individual live in this world? How do we preserve those parts of ourselves that are of no utility, but of the deepest significance?

It’s very hard, because science and technology have reached a stage if unprecedented arrogance, and they have convinced the world that there is no underlying value other than utility.

However, the reality of being human doesn’t match up to their supercilious simplicities. The very fact that churches will be packed to the rafters this weekend is one example of this hidden, inexplicable dimension of human reality.

Another example is the tourist industry. Why do people flock to historic sites, to the Vatican, to London’s galleries, to the old monasteries of Scotland, if utility is the only permanent value worth integrating into culture and education?

Another slightly more ironic example is the fact that once people have enough money, having committed to the market their time and labour, they flock to older parts of cities, to more ornate houses built pre-modernism. The problem of gentrification in places like Brooklyn, San Francisco, or Shoreditch, speaks directly to this problem. Utility does not seem to be enough to those aspiring to climb the hierarchy of the market.

The best sign of status in the marketplace, seems to be the ability to exhibit non-market-based or utilitarian values. This could just be a kind of aristocratic self-indulgence. Or it could be proof of the fact that people demand more from their life than utility. Perhaps beauty and civilisation are of inherently higher value than the market?

None of this helps the artist, or the creator of those buildings, and thinkers of ideas, that become the sought-after artefacts of status. The artist as individual is stuck trying to prove his or her worth to the world of the market.

Not only that, but a modern artist understands that the true holy grail of their craft is to affect the market in a non-market way, to re-establish the values of beauty, contemplation and civilisation as a kind of guerilla assault on the marketplace.

For those who simply want to confine themselves to the cloisters, to puzzle away on useless problems, or who are content to sit in the quietude of creative privacy, it is enough to put up a barrier between the beautiful and the market.

For the artist, who sees herself as part of a tradition, who feels anxious about preserving the heritage of the culture, life is not so easy. You have to live in the market, but not of it.

This living in, but not of, the marketplace was what was once called bohemianism. Bohemians were neither bourgeois (though often they came from the middle classes, which is different), nor are they working class dissenters of the trade union, Marxist type.

The bohemian does not conform to, nor demolish, the marketplace. The first true bohemian could be said to be Socrates – a man who devoted the same energies most of us devote to survival, to ideas and the search for truth.

Jesus Christ, too, was a bohemian. Oscar Wilde called him the first Romantic, for calling on people to live “flower-like lives”. The whole Sermon on the Mount is a call to abandon the demands of the marketplace, and to live with “no thought for the morrow”. That is, not to get caught up in the busyness of trade and ambition, but to live for the enrichment of the spirit, to nourish the highest aspects of ourselves.

The Marxist Terry Eagleton has said that the commodification of culture has robbed culture of one of its most vital functions – to offer a critique of the marketplace. Eagleton says that culture has in fact become an engine of the marketplace – through public relations, the creative industries, advertising – rather than a counterbalance to it.

This explains why it is so hard to be a bohemian artist in the current economic culture. There is no room for a dissenting way of life manifested in creative values, because consumerism has subsumed dissent into itself.

This is the exact phenomenon we see in the recent outrage over the Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert. The language of critique and dissent is used for the propaganda of commodities. The imagery of resistance is used to induce capitulation.

The most prophetic example of this was the legendary Apple Mac Superbowl advert from 1985, whereby IMB was portrayed as the evil Big Brother state, and Mac users were shown to be the free-spirited individualists, emancipated by their personal computers.

How, then, does the artist live? How do we keep our spirits enraptured to our values, when anything that is said by an artist is subsumed into the marketplace?

The only way to live is to live ironically. That is, to accept the sorry state of affairs for what it is, but to refuse to let the marketplace have the final say.

This will require toughening up a bit. We have to become immune to accusations of delusion, madness and naivete. We have to abandon the need to prove our worth the a world that doesn’t deserve such efforts.

But finally, we have to keep working. There is a certain amount of trust involved. In truth, there has always been such an element of faith in the work of any great artist.

Michelangelo and Shakespeare were both adept at winning patronage in the marketplace of their times. However, their compromises probably came from viewing their work on a historic plane. They were okay doing a dance with the devil, for the long-term gain of imprinting their art on the cultural heritage.

It only seems harder to live as a bohemian, if you accept the view that contemporary, utilitarian values, are the end-of-history, final say of cultural evolution. The ironic shift in perspective necessary for an artist comes from finding emancipation in a private dialogue with history, with spending as much time in the timeless realm of ideas as possible.

This quiet, unobtrusive dissent will actually raise us up to the level of great artists, but it will do so to the scorn and ridicule of the world. We have to abandon the “cool”, we have to shun the group, and we have to resist the moronic need to prove the utility of our daily work.

Anxiety is not a sickness. Beauty is not a solution

An age which understands beauty, understands mystery. And an age at ease with mystery must be able to confront the despair of uncertainty, of unsolvable problems.

We must beware of anyone bearing the gift of a perfect idea, a meticulously formed solution. This is one dangerous problem with our technologically enslaved generation. We worship technology, because we worship solutions, we are an age addicted to the dopamine rush of correct answers, formulas and equations.

This is what makes our time in history such a uniquely philistian one.

Before the twentieth century, the primacy of religious ritual and piety was not merely a sign of primitive knowledge, though that may have been part of the success of religion as a social force. The power of religion, however, also comes from its ability to offer a map through uncertainty, a map which if it is understood properly, is not fixed, but symbolic.

The technological model makes mystery, mythology and meaning itself seem like the epiphenomenal waste of brain-function, the evolutionary excess of consciousness.
The danger of this mindset is its in principle hubris. What is unknown, is knowable. What we don’t know, simply awaits conquest.

Ironically, we are less and less able to confront the unknown, our relationship with mystery is one of a frustrated child to a broken toy, and our lustful need for solutions and quick fixes is the product of a spiritual tantrum, an existential outburst, rather than some noble quest of inquiry.

If we do not find ways to confront the infinity of the unknown (for there can be no complete knowledge, no ultimate solution), we lose one of the most exquisite experiences of being alive, and we treat the anxieties and depressions of life as sickness, deviations from the norm, rather than crucial aspects of our growth as moral beings.

Moral behaviour cannot exist in this narcissistic obsession with solutions. Mystery places boundaries on our arrogance, it gives us the necessary limits to our conceits.

By embracing our limitations, by understanding that it is what we don’t know that makes us what we are, we avoid the intoxication of power, and automatically fall into existential solidarity with our fellow man.

The hubris of the Macbook-Tesla generation creates a narcissism that cannot survive the dread of uncertainty and death. We become pathological, hell-bent on final solutions wherever we can find them.

The artist does not need to offer solutions. His criticism does not need to replace what he criticises. It is enough that poets and painters and the heritage of myth give us a looking glass through which we see our own beautiful insignificance.

Dread, depression and stone cold horror are part of life. But so is beauty and love and the creative rush of ideas. We can’t have one without the other, and neither would we want a world so imbalanced.

Individual conscience, imagination and morality

Individual conscience is the foundation of a society.

Our society is technologically advanced, but morally narrow. The end result of technological thinking is to treat human individuals as means to ends, to cultivate a nihilistic, mechanised, systems-based way of thinking about ourselves and others. At best the arts, ideas of beauty, the concept of philosophical contemplation, all become simply curiosities, lifestyle choices and distractions for a leisured bourgeoisie.

This kind of thinking robs individuals of their potential, and leaves society resting on an unstable balance of power between fear and security.

Individual conscience is made up of the following:

1. Resilience
2. Imagination
3. Mutual recognition

Resilience

Resilience is the sense that one is capable of confronting difficult challenges, and meeting those challenges.

Psychologists call this the ‘internal locus of control’. The opposite of this is feeling completely beholden to exterior events, and at worst, feeling like a victim of circumstance. A resilient person, however, has experienced enough moments in their life where they have witnessed their own strengths and has enjoyed the feeling of seeing their willpower confirmed as a problem-solving force in the world.

We are not born with an internal locus of control, but personal development is about creating this sense of emotional power. Crucially, none of us has entire control over our circumstances, and none of us is a complete victim of circumstance. Healthy personality is a balance between recognising things out of our control, and recognising our personal strengths.

Undeveloped personalities lack the self-esteem to take on challenges because they have not had the validation of seeing their willpower in successful contest with the world. A child has to be brought along slow, completing small tasks, and expanding the scope of their confidence over time.

Often, people with low self-esteem will try to compensate for their feeling of powerlessness by taking on new, ambitious tasks. This often ends up in driving their personality back into victimhood, because they lack the internal locus of power that will sustain them.

If we are to cultivate individuality, each personality must be treated as unique, and development must be slow, careful and measured. Like athletes, skill and confidence are developed over time. The internal locus of control is a muscle, and it takes training.

If people don’t believe in their own power to affect change in themselves and their environment, they will never be fully functioning individuals. Replacing this agency with state agency is dangerous and is the opposite of human flourishing.

Imagination

Imagination is also a muscle. Rather than being a chance offshoot of evolutionary neurology, it is the vital advantage human beings have over other beings. The ability to penetrate the unknown, the dark realms of uncertainty and powerlessness, by constructing possibilities from experiences, is the very basis of creativity.

This is not a scientific theory, but it is an observable fact. If our survival depends on adaptability, then adaptability depends on our ability to confront many possibilities at once, and to do so in the realm of death and uncertainty.

We cannot rid ourselves of the anxiety of death. We can however, use our imaginations to explore the unseen, the best and the worst of what’s possible, and to anticipate a multitude of outcomes. The cultivation of creative abilities, then, is essential to the fully developed individual.

Through the worlds of myth, theatre and stories, we ritualise our relationship with the unknown, with the darker, more hidden aspects of ourselves as well as the darkness that exists in front of us.

The map may not be the territory, but the imagination kicks in when all we have is the map. The mark of a healthy and sophisticated imagination is the extent to which an individual conscience can review and correct their imaginative map of the unknown as they confront the nothingness of their future.

The artist’s role in society is to do just that for the culture, to push the boundaries of the possible, to confront the darkness of death and infuse it with creative excitement. Without the imagination, human potential collapses. And imagination can only be cultivated through the individual.

Attempts to control the imagination from the top-down, often require thwarting the individual in order to succeed. The historic crimes of institutional religion are perfect examples of this. Political ideologies are another. The result creates selfishness and narcissism, as the individual struggles to reassert its own experience and faculties onto society. Cultivating the imagination means cultivating the power of the individual. Cultivating the power of the individual, means cultivating responsibility.

Mutual recognition

The term comes from Hegel. Morality starts the moment we recognise the same conscience we know in ourselves, in other people. This is a leap of the imagination, and speaks to the importance of that faculty in social relationships.

The more subtle and sophisticated our own sense of self, the more likely we are to project that same sophistication onto others, and in doing so, the value of human life becomes a keystone of society.

To deny the depth of conscience in another, is to deny it within ourselves. The essential importance of mutual recognition is that it can only occur through the prise of individual conscience. You can’t rationally argue the equal depth and value of other individuals in an abstract way, you have to experience it through your own experience of yourself.

The less sophisticated your individuality, the less sophisticated your idea of other people will be. The fastest way to cultivate a true brotherhood of man, then, is to cultivate the individual.

Selfishness does not arise from individuality, but from the stunted growth of the individual. The subtlety of our self-awareness, our imagination, and our ideas of what we are capable of, turns our experience of ourselves from powerless objects into active forces of moral power.

In this way, we cannot but treat our fellow human beings as moral ends in themselves, rather than as means to ends.

 

There is no perfect state of individual conscience. This is not a utopian argument. Suffice to say that the moral fabric of a society depends on the empowerment each individual, through their conscience, and we cannot do that in a society which actively robs children of their developmental resilience, and which treats individuals as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves.

Education is the key here, and it must be an education that gives young people, not just the experience of a locus of power within them, but the sense of possibility and sophisticated experience of self, that gives life the meaning and value enough for them to value themselves and others.

The most powerful show of solidarity is dissent

If something is right, it is not right by virtue of consensus. The popularity of a view has nothing to do with the truth of that view. The prejudice of mistaking popularity with goodness, and uniformity with love, is very primal, perhaps having its origins in our tribal roots.

Equally important to tribal unity, however, is the creative power of individual intuition, the ability of the human conscience to break free from the common habits of the flock. In many ways this defines what it is to be human. It proves we are not governed by instinct alone, that we can fight against our biology, and it is that fighting, ironically, that makes us supreme in survival.

Women's March On London

Some might say that solidarity is the chief virtue of the Left, that by dissenting from the collective one risks betraying the cause. This is, among many competitors, the most persistent and dangerous myth of the Left.

Solidarity is the ability find common cause, to see that other people, under wholly different circumstances, have their own struggles for self-realisation. Despite the differences in circumstances, I can empathise with them, because a core sense of human empowerment unites us.

Solidarity is what makes me able to feel invested in the struggles of Kurdish female fighters and working class men in the USA. Solidarity is a leap of the imagination that moves past and through the barriers of time and space.

None of this says that I have a duty to fall into line, and march in unison with anyone that I feel this solidarity for. If anything, the very thing that drives my sympathy and common humanity is the recognition of individual will versus the forces of conformity. Solidarity is a product of individual conscience, not collective thinking.

In many cases, the greatest act of solidarity is dissent. The most important thing is preserving the human ability to act upon personal conscience. Without personal conscience all morality and love is a sham.

Human rights are not the final end of any progressive movement. They are just a convenient approximation of what we need to preserve in order to maintain human dignity.

Human dignity, ultimately, comes from this very ability to conceive truth independently and to act upon our conscience.

Democracy is not good in and of itself, it’s good to the extent that it empowers us to act on our conscience. Human rights are not ends in themselves, they are just as close as we can get to making an institution of liberty of conscience.

The charge of contrarian is a conformist tactic. Perhaps the most insidious one. Dismissing those who insist on arriving at truth on their own terms, as being infantile, and reducing defiant conscience to a kind of adolescent tantrum, is a totalitarian reaction.

People tend to confuse dissent with mass protest. They think that it is progressive to join the march, to “unite” in crowds, show strength in numbers. Sometimes these things are good. One of the more heartening aspects of the women’s march after Trump’s inauguration was the sheer diversity of the women involved. It was just too big to be about one agenda, despite the best efforts of the lunatic organisers and desperate celebrities.

However, too often mass protest gives license to mob tactics. Collective action too easily becomes collective thinking. The many objections to the current state of the progressive Left are not always grounded in a distaste for change. Some reactionaries are jumping on the flaws of the psycho fringe, but most objections come down to a fear of purely ideological thinking.

Solidarity, or even love, does not require total compliance. It has become all to common to dismiss people as ‘alt-right’ because they have reservations about certain tactics of protest, and the way a commitment to one cause requires an automatic commitment to a range of other causes.

Too many people are being driven to the centre or the Right by the tendency for automatic thinking on the Left.

It has become too easy to dismiss progressive values now, on the basis of the mob tactics and conformist mentality of a great many protesters.

What will save the Left is dissent. Though Thomas Paine and George Orwell were excommunicated in their own time for showing dissent in the ranks, their legacy was actually to prolong the life of socialism. Without them, it is difficult to imagine what the Left would have been like after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Embracing dissent means putting individual conscience before ‘the movement’. It means placing the individual before ‘the cause’. Why? Because dissent is a far better insurance against delusion and propaganda than consensus.

Beauty, reason and the difference between a fanatic and a visionary

There’s a famous quote from Thomas Paine, author of the Age of Reason:

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture.”

hitler1A similar thing was said by Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”

There are however, some seemingly opposing, but equally well quoted passages, expounding on the power of intuition over simple ‘reason’ or analytical thinking.

The most famous, I think, coming from a private letter by the poet John Keats:

“…I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

What Keats is talking about is the unknown, or rather more accurately the unknowable, the essential mystery at the heart of life.

Mystery and superstition are often lumped together, and a false dichotomy is drawn between analytical thinking and intuitive thinking, as if one is hard, real-world mechanical science, and the other is fancy and conjuring.

Superstition, however, is rather the opposite of mysticism, than it is the opposite of science.

David Hume that absolute paragon of sceptical thinking and radical, disciplined analysis said:

‘Reason is, and must only ever be, a slave to the passions.’

What he was referring to of course, was morality, and how we conceive of our ethical values. In a word, he meant how to behave. The process is one based on emotive reasoning, sentiments, in his own words.

The great hero of western analytical thought placed a high value on creative, non-rational thought.

The chain of quotes above does not present an antithesis, and the paradox arises simply because our definition of reason is thoroughly limited.

Keats_aloneFor Aristotle, and equally for Leonardo Da Vinci, REASON was the convergence of logic and beauty, not the separation of them.

Rather than being the opposite of mystical apprehension of the unknown, it was rather the totality of capacities by which human individuals apprehend knowledge and mystery.

In short, reason as a concept refers to something more than just analytical, logical and mathematical thinking.

This was what Keats was referring to when he said ‘truth is beauty and beauty truth.’

Reason must include vision, the ability to see beyond the limitations of the problem at hand, to think laterally and join dots in a way that does not follow linear thinking.

Linear thinking is hugely important from the stand point of strategic action, but when it comes to uncovering our goals, then we must have vision, and vision requires imagination, the ability to create and conjure possibilities as well act logically.

The importance of this when it comes to argumentation and dispute is that a person’s values tend to emerge from their ability to conceive possibilities and their capacity for vision. Our ideas of morality are grounded in ethics, and ethics is essentially the science of what’s possible.

That’s why it was said by Socrates that the fundamental question of all areas of philosophy is ‘how should I act?’ The implication of this is that even questions of metaphysics or logic come down to the question of what’s possible.

It is normal to find oneself in a dispute with a man or woman who regards themselves as the defender of the ‘the facts.’ If you happen to have a conviction that does not correspond to these sacred facts, then you are easily dismissed as fanatical or intransigent.

There’s a difference however, between someone who sees possibilities beyond the evidence, and beyond the reality of historical truths, and someone who is delusional.

The difference lies in a person’s willingness to test out his theory or ideas.

And it is also true that often these ‘defenders of the facts’ happen to be people who will do anything to avoid acting.

These are people who will dismiss a hypothesis before it’s even been acted upon or tested once.

Contrary to what these people tell themselves, such thinking is actually profoundly unscientific, because the mark of true, radical scientific thinking is not a talent for number crunching, but a talent for experimentation, and a willingness to test any dogma, no matter how common sensical or absolute.

What distinguishes the visionary from the fanatical then, is not logic, but flexibility, a willingness to personally live out his theory and test it himself.

This crucially cuts out the intellectual ‘middle man’ who arrogates himself the role of guardian at the gates, a Cerberus monster who defends hell from any wayward poet.

Aldous Huxley once said he struggled with the difference between genuine mystical thought, and superstition. Huxley spent much of the latter half of his writing career attempting to salvage mysticism and religious tradition in the context of science.

It was necessary for Huxley to do so, he believed, because the non-rational, the visionary expansion of imaginative thinking, is essential for moral activity.

If a man acts from a fanaticism for certainty, then he acts in a myopia of selfishness and short-term thinking. And it was this very closed-mindedness, this anxious relationship to the unknown, that for Huxley was the biggest threat to human civilisation.

The unknown is almost always unknowable. That is, the five senses, logical discrimination and the reptilian mind, cannot penetrate it.

The fanatic is no mystic. What Huxley couldn’t see was that the fanatic prefers his imagination to the world. The world of action, impact and moral goodness become irrelevant to him.

The mystic on the other hand, is a kind of Bodhisattva. He is primarily concerned with effective action, change in the world. However outlandish and experimental his visions, however unlikely his ambitions, the Bodhisattva, or the true mystic, is concerned with results – his vision serves a greater end.

The fanatic on the other hand is someone who cares not a dot for results. Fanaticism serves to support a narrow view of the world, but creative vision serves to expand the range of possibilities.

These possibilities are almost always illogical, or paradoxical, or seem senseless in the face of the facts.

Typical arguments between the ‘fact defenders’ and the more creative problem solver, tend almost always to come down to ‘human nature.’

The fact-defender, for instance, probably views the issue of climate change as one of damage limitation. Material scientific solutions must be found, but they won’t solve the fundamental problem of human overconsumption.

A slightly more visionary person will understand that a basic shift in human perspective is needed if the problem of man-made global warming is to be countered. They also have the scope and forward thinking to know that any short term practical solution will be its own worst enemy, because the relationship of man to his environment, or man to man, won’t change.

The fact-defender poo-poos such talk out of hand. Because it just seems too abstract, too high-minded, to talk about ‘shifts in consciousness’ or ‘evolving human nature.’

Again the question is about human possibilities. There is no way for a visionary to prove his conviction in argument. If he does, he is likely to fail. The whole history of the human race is almost always working against him.

Does this make him a fanatic? No, because a fanatic’s convictions are there to defend a weakened ego, a psychic wound. A visionary’s convictions are there to see beyond the limitations in thinking that have created the problem at hand.