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Part 10 (of 15): Who Gets To Interpret The World?

Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd

In my previous two posts (post 8 & post 9) I critically evaluated Peterson’s thinking on hierarchies, race and white privilege. In this post I’ll address three other aspects of Peterson’s thought that was outlined in post 5, post 6, and post 7.

On the Power of Women’s “No”

First, we’ve seen that Peterson claims that “[w]omen’s proclivity to say no [to men] more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are” (41). Because females naturally want to mate with males who are as high up on the social scale as possible, finding the bottom half to be undesirable (41), they have been the central means by which advantageous genes got passed along while disadvantageous genes were selected out. Hence, the playing field on which men must compete for mating rites has been getting higher and higher throughout our biological and social evolution.

While I don’t dispute the research demonstrating that women are choosy maters, I’m not convinced women have always, or even usually, had the power to say “no” that Peterson ascribes to them. Indeed, at least since we became agricultural (c.12-10,000 B.C.E.), women have generally not had the power to say “no.” To the contrary, they more often than not have been considered men’s property, as they are in the Old Testament. And far from being picky about who they mated with, young women have most often been sold to the family that offered the largest bridal dowry (or offered other advantages to the woman’s family or clan), as still happens in many traditional cultures today.

The evidence is ambiguous on human mating customs prior to this, though there is a growing consensus among scholars that the old image of the caveman dragging a woman around by her hair is far from accurate. Instead, many are now arguing that humans were generally more egalitarian as hunter-gatherers than when we became farmers. This view is not beyond dispute, but even if we accept it, one would think that the competition among males for the most desired women would have played at least as great a role in sexual selection as whatever power women had to say “no.”

This point is significant in that Peterson argues that the power of women to say “no” is one of the reasons the feminine is symbolically associated with chaos. If I’m correct, we have one less reason to consider this association to be rooted in the very nature of things. (More on this below).

Is Slow Change Sometimes Unjust?

Second, we have seen Peterson make the case that cultural traditions should be honored and changed very cautiously and very slowly, if they need to be changed at all. And, as I said earlier, I think there is wisdom in Peterson’s call for a conservative and liberal impulse to be balanced. But I worry that Peterson’s strong resistance to speedy change could be used to justify the continuance of traditional practices in a society that are truly inhumane and that would justify speedy change.

My concern is not without historic precedent. In pre-abolition America, many people, both in the North and South, and as early as the eighteenth century, agreed that slavery should be abolished. They just insisted that it must be done slowly, to prevent the social upheaval that would result from its immediate abolishment. The same argument was used to maintain Jim Crow laws against the civil rights movement. In his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” MLK addressed this argument, made in this case by a group of well-intended, predominately white, pastors. Against their encouragement to slow down so as not to prevent social upheaval, King argued that “justice delayed is justice denied” (a quote which arguable goes back to William Penn’s statement, “a delayed justice is injustice”)?

A multitude of other examples could be given (e.g. Apartheid in South Africa), for the truth is that inhumane traditions are retained in the structure of a society only because enough people, or at least enough of the important and powerful people, benefit from them. Because of this, it’s always been in the interest of the benefactors of an inhumane tradition to delay its demise as long as possible (and usually only after attempts to completely silence those calling for its demise have failed).

My concern is that the logic of Peterson’s social conservatism – viz. that social change should always come about slowly and cautiously – would land all who embrace it on the side of the benefactors of injustice, which would have landed them on the wrong side of all of social revolutions that have brought about lasting improvements in society.

I want to be clear that, as a follower of Jesus, I deplore the violence that has all-too-often been involved in these revolutions. I believe that Jesus, as well as social revolutionaries like Ghandi and MLK, have demonstrated that dramatic and swift improvements can be brought about by non-violent means if sufficient numbers of people are committed to nonviolence and if these people are willing to suffer for their cause, rather than to make those who oppose them suffer.

But as nasty as social upheavals can sometimes be, there are times when the injustice being done by a tradition renders delaying its termination even more unjust.

The Past Is Written (Mostly) By Men

Finally, throughout 12 Rules of Life, Peterson appeals to the wisdom of ancient traditions, religion, and especially mythic stories, and I think he derives some interesting, legitimate insights from these sources. At the same time, what I find missing in Peterson’s assessment of ancient sources, at least in 12 Rules of Life, is an acknowledgement that all, or almost all, of these stories were originally passed along and written down by men. These stories thus consistently reflect the perspective and concerns of men, and I would think that acknowledging this point would significantly affect how we evaluate them.

For example, might the fact that ancient stories were passed along and eventually written down by men have something to do with the fact that order, the realm of the “known,” is symbolically associated with masculinity, while chaos, the realm of the “unknown,” is symbolically associated with femininity? I largely agree with Peterson that there are genuine biological and psychological differences that tend to (it is a continuum) distinguish men and women, to the point that members of each group often experience members of the other group as deeply mysterious. But might not the fact that ancient stories were written by men go a long way in explaining why women are identified as the mysterious “unknown” in these stories? Had women instead been in charge of passing along and writing down these stories, might we not find men being associated with the mysterious “unknown”?

We need to wonder about the archetypal association of femininity with chaos on other grounds as well. After all, isn’t it fair to say that men, with their extra testosterone induced aggression, pride, and all-too-frequent fragile egos, have always tended to bring far more destructive forms of chaos into the world than women? Conversely, isn’t it true that the traditional roles that women have assumed throughout history have always centered on preserving and protecting order in their families and societies, all-too-often against the chaos that husbands and other males introduce into the family and society?

In this light, we’ve got to wonder why order is consistently symbolically depicted as a masculine quality in ancient stories while chaos is symbolically depicted as a feminine quality. To deny that this has something to do with the fact that these stories were written by men is to endorse the male perspective of these stories as being the true and timeless perspective, which is, to be frank, precisely what I see Peterson doing. And this is one of the reasons I have no trouble understanding why many women find his perspective to be irritating, if not dangerous.

Finally, we have to wonder why Peterson (following Jung) identifies consciousness with masculinity while arguing that “attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence” are “masculine traits” (324)? Related to this, why should we believe ancient and modern stories such as Sleeping Beauty that depict women as needing to be “rescued” by a “Prince” (or by their own “masculine spirit”) whose kiss is needed for her to become conscious (324)?

I would have thought that the traditional roles of women to care for the needs of children and of society, while the men were away hunting or at war, would have required them to be as conscious, and to possess all of the above “masculine” qualities, in at least the same measure as men. So, how did these qualities get symbolically associated with masculinity in the first place?

Peterson simply claims that consciousness has been symbolically associated with masculinity “since the beginning of time.” Since I’m not an expert on ancient mythology, I’ll accept this as correct (though in a later post I’ll give reasons to be suspicious about some of Peterson’s interpretation of ancient stories). But even if true, how much weight should this fact carry when we know that these ancient stories have reflected the perspective of the men who created them “from the beginning of time”? If women had been the primary bearers of oral traditions and the primary authors of ancient texts, does Peterson believe they would have agreed that consciousness, or attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence,” were distinctly “masculine traits”? I, for one, strongly suspect not.

Here is another point where I think deconstructionism makes a valid point, its many shortcomings as an overall philosophy notwithstanding. For it holds that whoever is empowered to interpret the world controls the world. Owing chiefly to their generally superior strength, and lacking the biological burdens that women have had to deal with up until the recent past (e.g. menstruation, childbearing), men have generally held the power to interpret the world (as reflected in ancient stories) and to therefore control the world. This is not to endorse the postmodern claim that men have tyrannized women throughout history. It is simply to say that men have usually controlled the narrative through which the world gets interpreted.

If we instead assume that the perspective reflected in these stories is rooted in the very nature of things, as Peterson does, we are simply ensuring that the male perspective of these stories will continue to control our interpretive narrative. And I, for one, think this would be tragic. In my estimation, we have evolved to the point that it’s time for the patriarchal dimension of our past to be eliminated. Given the technological and digital revolution, it is no longer either necessary or helpful. But eliminating this requires us to first acknowledge that the interpretation of the world in the past – including its association of masculinity with order and femininity with chaos – reflects the perspective of males and is not rooted in the very nature of things.

If I may close with a piece of speculation: Given how challenging it was for humans to simply survive up until the recent past, Peterson may be correct in arguing that it was advantageous to our species that males usually wielded more power than women. Their generally superior strength and higher testosterone levels, combined with the biological burdens that women have always borne, arguably rendered it inevitable, and possibly even necessary, for males to usually assume leadership roles in their tribes and cultures. However, I submit that the technological and digital revolutions have rendered men’s generally superior physical strength and women’s biological burdens largely irrelevant when it comes to playing leadership roles. Indeed, with the frightful advancement of military technology, these revolutions have arguably rendered the higher testosterone levels of men a liability.

In this light, I would argue that what the world needs now is to have more people in charge whose biology and role in traditional cultures has rendered them less skilled at hunting and war, and more skilled at relationship building and preserving order in the family and in society.

In short, I’m thoroughly convinced that our world now needs more women and less men calling the shots.

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