Part 7 (of 15): Hierarchies, Masculinity, and Femininity
Assessing Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life
by Greg Boyd
“Do male crustaceans oppress female crustaceans?
Should their hierarchies be upended?”
In the previous two posts we reviewed Peterson’s conception of life as a delicate balancing act between order and chaos (post 5) and we’ve explored how he applies this conception to biological and cultural evolution (post 6). Evolution has always advanced by building on the past, not overturning it. According to Peterson, this is also the way culture has generally evolved and the way culture should evolve. Attempting to force quick change destabilizes culture and brings about chaos, often with catastrophic results. And this is why Peterson is so passionately opposed to the philosophy of deconstructionism that has recently become so fashionable among academics and that is working its way into the mainstream of western culture.
In this post I’ll review Peterson’s reflections on the hierarchical structure of culture, with particular attention to the possible implications this has for his understanding of masculinity and femininity.
The Necessity of Social Hierarchies
Peterson begins discussing the first of his 12 rules for life by talking about lobsters. He notes that lobsters establish a territory on the ocean floor which they consider “home,” and from which they “hunt for prey and scavenge around for stray edible bits and pieces of whatever rains down from the continual chaos of carnage and death far above” (p. 1). The problem, however, is that there are many lobsters, and they all want to locate themselves in “homes” where food is plentiful (p. 2).
This creates competition, and with competition, there are winners and losers. Those lobsters that are the strongest, smartest, and best at intimidating competitors get the best territories. Those that are the weakest, dumbest, and least able to intimidate competitors get the worst territories. And everybody else ends up somewhere in between. The result is that lobsters exist in what Peterson calls a “dominance hierarchy.” And everything about the life of a lobster, including its brain chemistry (I did not know that!) is determined by where they are located on this hierarchy. Those at the top enjoy a multitude of privileges that are denied others, in direct proportion to how low these others are on the dominance hierarchy (4-8). For lobsters, social status means everything.
But not only for lobsters. Peterson notes that this is generally what we find throughout the animal kingdom. And as much as we might wish it was otherwise, this is what we find, and have always found, in human society—a point that is hardly surprising since humans are an evolved extension of the animal kingdom. This is why, for example, “the richest eighty-five people” in the world today “have as much as the bottom three and a half billion” (7). But, Peterson notes, “this principle of unequal distribution” also “applies outside the financial domain.” In fact, it applies “anywhere that creative production is required,” and thus anywhere that the innate inequalities of people’s abilities are brought to the fore. For example, Peterson observes that “[t]he majority of scientific papers are published by a very small group of scientists.” So too, “[a] tiny proportion of musicians produces almost all the recorded commercial music.” And “just a handful of authors sell all the books” (much to the chagrin of all of us lesser authors!) (8).
Peterson is forthright about the fundamental unfairness and brutality of social hierarchies. The unfairness is anchored in the simple fact that “[w]e are not equal in ability or outcome, and never will be.” Indeed, as we’ve just seen, “[a] small number of people produce very much of everything.” And he continues:
The winners don’t take all, but they take most, and the bottom is not a good place to be. People are unhappy at the bottom. They get sick there, and remain unknown and unloved. They waste their lives there (86).
But as unjust and brutal as social hierarchies are, with their privileged winners and unfortunate losers, Peterson argues they are completely unavoidable, for such hierarchies are “incredibly ancient, evolutionarily speaking” (313). But not only is the production of hierarchies the result of our ancient hard-wiring, they are inevitable given that people of unequal abilities strive for the same goals. Peterson goes so far as to put forth a two-step argument as to why social hierarchies are necessary for people to live meaningful lives.
(1) The collective pursuit of any valued goal produces a hierarchy (as some will be better and some worse at the pursuit not [sic] matter what it is) and (2) it is the pursuit of goals that in large part lends life its sustaining meaning. We experience almost all the emotions that make life deep and engaging as a consequence of moving successfully towards something deeply desired and valued. The price we pay for that involvement is the inevitable creation of hierarchies of success, with the inevitable consequence of differences in outcome.
From this it follows that “[a]bsolute equality would…require the sacrifice of value itself—and then there would be nothing worth living for” (303).
At the same time, Peterson acknowledges that, as necessary as hierarchies are for a society, they can also create significant social problems. For example, Peterson argues that “there’s good evidence” that “the tendency for valuable goods to distribute themselves with pronounced inequality constitutes an ever-present threat to the stability of society.” When the top one percent of a society have more wealth than the combined wealth of the bottom fifty percent while a significant percentage of this bottom fifty percent endure persistent hardships, people can begin to grow deeply resentful and think about ways of correcting this injustice. The result could be, and historically has been, social upheaval, as the Marxist revolution in Russia in the early twentieth century illustrates all-too-well.
The failure of Communism and every other attempt to socially engineer financial equality leads Peterson to conclude that there is “no self-evident solution” to this problem. We simply “don’t know how to redistribute wealth without introducing a whole host of other problems” (312).
The Post-Modern Attempt To Deconstruct Hierarchies
Because Peterson believes social hierarchies are both natural, given their ancient evolutionary history, and inevitable, given that people pursue common goals with unequal abilities, he believes that the primary determiner of a person’s social status within any particular hierarchy is: “Competence. Ability. Skill. Not power” (313). This sets him in diametric opposition to Derrida and other deconstructions who argue that “all hierarchical structures emerged only to include (beneficiaries) and exclude (everyone else, who were therefore oppressed),” which is precisely why these deconstructionists seek to dismantle these hierarchies and to distribute power equally (310).
According to Peterson, this is nothing more than a baseless Marxist ideology that is rooted largely in a deep resentment over life’s innate inequalities (though Peterson acknowledges it can also be driven by compassion for the underdogs). For Peterson, it just lies in the nature of things that competent people inevitably rise to the top and enjoy a lion’s share of the available social privileges while the less competent inevitably find themselves sinking to a lower place on the hierarchy and thus enjoying far less privileges. This is how things have always worked, both in nature and in human society, and, according to Peterson, while some hierarchies are abusive and should be corrected, this is basically how things must continue to work if society is to function well and keep chaos at bay (313).
Many of the less competent resent this hierarchical arrangement, of course, and it is this resentment, or the resentment of those who strongly empathize with them, that fuels the deconstructionists’ claim that inequality is about power, not competence, and that leads them to view “inequality” as “the heart of all evil.” And since Peterson believes that hierarchies are intrinsic to all culture, he argues that these deconstructionists are aiming, wittingly or unwittingly, at nothing less than the demolition of culture itself. And, as we’ve seen, he is convinced that, if these deconstructionists are not stopped, the result will be something similar to the horrors that Marxism brought about in the twentieth century (306-13). Given this perspective, it’s little wonder Peterson has publicly argued that governmental funding should be completely cut off from all Universities that indoctrinate students in the philosophy of deconstructionism (313-14).
The West’s Patriarchal Hierarchy
Peterson’s understanding of the naturalness of hierarchies informs many of his most controversial social stances, including his opposition to “equal pay for equal work” (315). People who are competent at a certain task may produce two or three times what a less competent person produces in the same amount of time. Why, Peterson wonders, should they receive the same pay? In his view, pay should be based on competency alone, regardless of a person’s gender, race, age, or social disadvantages.
But nowhere does Peterson’s defense of social hierarchies get worked out more passionately, or more controversially, than when he confronts the deconstructionists’ “insane and incomprehensible” claim that “all gender differences are socially constructed” and are a cloaked way of keeping women oppressed (314). Indeed, according to the deconstructionists whom Peterson has in the cross hairs, western civilization as a whole was created by men, and for men, with the goal of placing men, and keeping men, at the top and wielding more power, and thus with the goal of keeping women from the top and wielding less power. In a word, deconstructionists claim that western culture is inherently patriarchal and misogynistic.
Peterson will have none of this. In his view, the differences between the sexes is as deeply rooted in nature as anything could be. Indeed, he argues that this differentiation is the “most basic category” through which humans have always seen the world, and this category is “as old, in some sense, as the sexual act itself” (40). Moreover, while Peterson grants that “the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine” (40), he nevertheless argues that “[t]here isn’t a shred of hard evidence” that “Western society is pathologically patriarchal” or that “the prime lesson of history is that man, rather than nature, were the primary source of the oppression of women (rather than, as in most cases, their partners and supporters).” Nor is there a shred of evidence “that all hierarchies,” including presumably the hierarchical advantage of increased power that men generally have over women in most societies, “are based on power and aimed at exclusion.” Hence, he sarcastically asks: “Do male crustaceans oppress female crustaceans? Should their hierarchies be upended“ (313)?
Peterson’s point, if I am understanding him correctly, is that it is natural, and therefore non-oppressive, for male crustaceans to be higher on the lobster dominance hierarchy than female crustaceans. If reality has selected them to be higher, then we must consider it to be “in some sense correct” that they are higher. Similarly, if men are generally higher on the social hierarchy of most societies throughout history and yet today, this can only be because reality as selected them to be higher, and we should therefore consider this to be “in some sense correct.” This is simply how things evolved, and as we’ve seen, Peterson insists that, on both a biological and cultural level, things always evolve a certain way for a reason, and that reason, while not altogether unalterable, must be considered right, natural, and wise. Hence, if men tend to rise to the top of most societies’ social hierarchy, and if men therefore tend to wield more power than women, then, from the perspective of Peterson’s evolutionary framework, this suggests that men are generally more competent than women at acquiring and wielding power.
But Peterson adamantly denies that this implies that culture is the result of men tyrannizing and excluding women, as the deconstructionists claim. While culture “is symbolically, archetypally, mythically male,” Peterson insists that culture “is certainly the creation of humankind, not the creation of men.” Women played an important role in the creation of culture by “raising children and working on the farms” which was instrumental “in raising boys and freeing up men…so that humanity could propagate itself and strive forward” (303).
To understand why nature “selected” men to wield more power, Peterson believes it’s vitally important to remember how brutal life in general was up until very recently (and how brutal life still is in under-developed countries). Peterson observes that
…men and women both struggled terribly for freedom from the overwhelming horrors of privation and necessity. Women were often at a disadvantage during that struggle, as they had all the vulnerabilities of men, with the extra reproductive burden, and less physical strength…. women also had to put up with the serious practical inconvenience of menstruation, the high probability of unwanted pregnancy, the chance of death or serious damage during childbirth, and the burden of too many young children.
From this Peterson makes the following observation:
Perhaps that is sufficient reason for the different legal and practical treatment of men and women that characterized most societies prior to the recent technological revolutions, including the invention of the birth control pill.
In Peterson’s view, considerations such as these should “be taken into account, before the assumption that men tyrannized women is accepted as a truism” (303-04). While Peterson isn’t opposed to critiquing the masculine structure of social hierarchies, he is deeply concerned with those who, in the name of an ideology, caricature our past as one of male tyranny in order to recklessly dismantle. That is the sort of over-simplified story that is typical of ideologies, in Peterson’s view. To avoid destructive social chaos, change should be brought about cautiously and thoughtfully.
Masculine Order and Feminine Chaos
There is one final thing that needs to be said regarding Peterson’s perspective on innate differences between males and females. We’ve seen that Peterson believes that the differentiation of the sexes constitutes the “most basic category” through which humans have always seen the world and is as old as “the sexual act itself” (40). He is making essentially the same claim when he argues that “[c]haos and order are two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience,” or “two of the most basic subdivisions of Being itself” (38), for he argues that order is inherently associated with masculinity while chaos is inherently feminine.
In numerous ancient stories, which Peterson believes reflect profoundly deep truths about ourselves and the nature of reality, masculinity is symbolically associated with “the known”(order). “This,” he adds, “is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals” (40). By contrast, femininity has always been symbolically associated with “the unknown” (chaos).
This “is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all being we encounter were born of mothers” (41). But he adds, “Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection.” And he continues:
Women are choosy maters [sic]….It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, “No!” For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date (41).
Yet, Peterson argues, “[w]omen’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are” (41). In other words, it’s because women have always sought to mate with men who are higher up on the social hierarchy that natural selection has favored the qualities of the more competent and eliminated the qualities of the less competent. And this has the effect of continually raising the playing field on which people compete for a higher place on the hierarchy. (I will call this line of reasoning into question in my next post).
Now, we’ve already seen that Peterson holds that life is only possible when order and chaos balance each other (post 5). In this sense order and chaos are absolutely equal and mutually dependent. We can’t say one is superior to the other or that one should be privileged over another. But the different roles that order/masculinity and chaos/femininity play, according to Peterson, doesn’t always strike me as perfectly egalitarian. For one thing, the very concepts of order and chaos are not on equal footing in as much as chaos is a pejorative concept while order is positive. That is, order describes a positive state affairs while chaos describes what we want to avoid. Yes, chaos plays a positive role in keeping order from stagnation, but it is not a positive concept in and of itself in the way order is. While Peterson certainly emphasizes the positive and negative aspects of both order and chaos and the need for their cooperation, it doesn’t seem to me that he overcomes the intrinsically negative connotation of chaos in our everyday language.
The fact that Peterson holds that the hierarchical order of society is archetypically masculine and that its natural for men to generally rise higher on the dominance hierarchy of most societies reinforces this suspicion, as does the fact that Peterson, following Jung, argues that consciousness is symbolically associated with masculinity (323). Peterson finds this “truth” illustrated in Sleeping Beauty, in which a young maiden needed “the masculine spirit, her prince,” to “save her” by being “her own consciousness” (324). For the same reason, Peterson judges the Disney film Frozen, to be “deeply propagandistic,” for here “a woman does not need a man to rescue her” (324). (Spoiler alert: Anna is rescued by the kiss of her sister, Elsa).
The reason Peterson assumes this position is because “it is certain that a woman needs consciousness to be rescued and…consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time.” Peterson grants that a woman’s saving “prince” need not be “a lover,” but could instead be “a woman’s own attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence.” But Peterson grants this only because “[t]hose are masculine traits – in actuality, as well as symbolically” (324).
Perhaps most significantly, Peterson argues that consciousness is “the process that mediates between [order and chaos].” Indeed, Peterson argues that consciousness is a third “primal constituent” of being (35). Hence, both order, which always manages chaos, and consciousness, which mediates between order and chaos, are archetypically masculine, and perhaps its just me, but I frankly can’t help but see this as privileging masculinity over femininity at the most fundamental level of Being, Peterson’s insistence on their equality notwithstanding.
I understand that Peterson makes an emphatic, and important, distinction between the masculine and feminine archetypes, on the one hand, and the biological gender distinction, on the other. But, as I’ll argue more fully in the following post, I can’t help but wonder why consciousness is associated with masculinity in the first place. Indeed, I can’t help but wonder why order is associated with masculinity and chaos with femininity. Peterson of course claims that this is just how humans have always mapped out their experience of the world in drama and stories, and since I’m not an expert in ancient mythology, I’ll take his word on this (at least for the moment). But even if true, I am not convinced this means that this association should be accepted by us in the present.
One doesn’t have to be a full-fledged deconstructionist or buy into the “men-have-always-suppressed-women” thesis to wonder if the association of femininity with “the unknown”/chaos, and masculinity with “the known”/order (as well as with consciousness) may have been influenced, to whatever degree, by the fact that men have been the principle story-tellers throughout history. It’s at least a thought worth pursuing, which I will pick up in the following post.