Jordan Peterson seems to be all over the internet at the moment, at least the corners I frequent. Among his many thoughts is the one that young people have experienced so little and are so ignorant that, despite what they themselves might believe, they are in no position to judge what is good for themselves, let alone for society. I think I agree with this. While being old doesn’t guarantee wisdom, being young and inexperienced pretty much guarantees a lack of wisdom.
Aldous Huxley once suggested that though our beliefs change as we get older, we don’t necessarily get any wiser; instead we adopt beliefs appropriate to our age. Thus our mature beliefs aren’t necessarily any truer than our younger beliefs, just different. Huxley might actually have claimed that our immature beliefs can sometimes be truer than our mature beliefs, thus distinguishing his idea from plain old relativism where nothing is ever better or worse than anything else.
The idea that human knowledge never gets any nearer to the truth but merely changes is not new. Though it feels to us like we know more about the universe than did people in the Middle Ages, this could be an illusion. Equally at the individual level, though it feels like my present self knows more than my 20-year-old self, I might be fooling myself.
However, I don’t believe this. I think both individuals and humans as a species live and learn and thus know more than their immature incarnations. Thus Isaac Newton had a more accurate view of reality than some Stone Age caveman, and I am wiser at 58 than I was at 20. Looking back on the many silly things I believed I can see why I believed them: because others believed them. I absorbed the prevalent beliefs of the time and any thoughts of my own were shaped by those around me. I’m not even sure it makes sense to talk about ‘thoughts of my own’ since my thoughts just happened to me rather than me having them.
Now I have lived several more decades, have encountered many different ideas and experienced more things, my purview is wider than it once was. I therefore I agree with Jordan Peterson that some young people should spend less time mouthing off and more time listening. They haven’t experienced enough to teach us oldies anything we haven’t already thought.
Another of Peterson’s thoughts is that the cosseted youth of today take for granted all the miracles of science and technology which render our lives so easy and comfortable. A month in a tent in Alaska would be a salutary experience for them. Modern youngsters don’t realise how weak and vulnerable they are, once stripped of the modern appurtenances that they take for granted. A bit of genuine hardship would help them appreciate their mobile phones, computers, air-conditioned houses, their parents, the police, the army, the justice and political systems and all the other things we have developed over centuries and millennia to make our lives better and safer. They don’t seem to understand that perfection in this world is not a possibility and that our well-functioning yet imperfect societies are frail eco-systems that are easily destroyed but immensely difficult to build, or rebuild. If these young people knew enough to compare the societies they live in with those of previous ages, or other places, they might not be so quick to rail against the injustices they believe they see. They lack both a sense of history and a sense of proportion.
At present Jordan Peterson is at war with those who wish to force him to refer to transgender people as ‘ze’ and ‘Zir’ etc. His opponents claim it is disrespectful to refer to anyone other than by the pronoun they choose for themselves. By the same logic they should be referred to as ‘Your Excellence’ if they so desire. How you react to this madness depends on whether you sympathise with this small group of pampered, thin-skinned, self-absorbed babies. Jordan Peterson doesn’t.
Another furrow Peterson ploughs is his opinion that unmarried, childless moderns live arid, pointless lives and are destined to end their days alone and miserable. To this accusation I have to hold my own hand up. For whatever reason I have never got married or even come close. Sometimes I wish I had and sometimes, like when I see a Japanese family coming home from somewhere and the children are skipping and the parents look happy. Then I am envious. At other times I am glad I never got married, like when I see an unattractive western couple with one or two morose-looking children straggling along behind. I wouldn’t want to change places with such people for all the world.
The obvious conclusion is that happy marriages are the best. The worst is being chained to a partner who after a couple of years of marriage has started to get on your nerves. Her clear skin and fine figure blinded you to the fact that she has no interests and nothing of interest to say. Your son is ungrateful, sneering and cynical, more influenced by rappers and footballers than by you, while your daughter rolls her eyes at everything you say and is continually up in her room watching Miley Cyrus pop videos: at 13 she too wants to dress, speak and behave like a Harlem street walker.
Compared to this hell a life alone, where you can choose where you go and what you do, looks to me like an idyll of calm. Of course it can’t compare to an intimate life spent cheek-by-jowl with a soulmate and your lovely children but it’s a damn sight better than being stuck indoors on a rainy Sunday afternoon with someone you have started to dislike.
I have come to believe that the main point of life is to reproduce and raise good children, something that gives greater meaning to your life by connecting you to the past and future of our species; I love the idea of passing the genetic baton from my flax-clothed farming ancestors to my aluminium foil-clad descendants. Alas this will never happen for me now. Maybe I was too fussy, or English girls were too fussy, or all of us were unloving or unlovable. Certainly many things annoy me that others either laugh off or just don’t notice: “Really? Did she use up-speak and vocal fry? I can’t say I noticed.” No, I know. You seem to have a tin ear for pretty much everything.
But never mind, the age to marry is in your twenties when the chemicals coursing through your body can take you a long way before the magic finally wears off. And when it does you should hope that the person you have chained yourself to is someone you at least enjoy talking to. That possibility is still open to me, even if having children is not.
Finally I like how Peterson continues to think even after reaching an apparent conclusion. For example, he could have stopped thinking about wealth disparity at the point where he observed that large inequalities often lead to resentment, which in turn leads to crime, which is in no one’s interest, especially not the comfortably-off conservative. It is therefore in his own interest that wealth inequality shouldn’t become so great that a portion of society feels it has nothing to lose by simply bringing the whole edifice crashing to the ground.
Yet Peterson doesn’t stop there. He goes on to point out that dominance hierarchies are natural and inevitable features of properly functioning societies and competitive men actually enjoy battling it out and attempting to climb the dominance ladder since this is a way of attracting females. And if men aren’t allowed to play these games, how are they supposed to spend their time?
By levelling things too radically you risk depriving men of one of the big motivating factors in their lives. A society with no winners and losers might look great to Social Justice Warriors but to some men it feels like playing tennis with the net down, another game spoiled by well-meaning busybodies.
That said, I too can see the advantages to averting a modern-day French Revolution brought about this time by relative rather than actual poverty.