Hello and welcome to another instalment of The Living Philosophy. I was away visiting family last week on the other side of the Atlantic so I’m still settling back in and trying to get my sleep cycle fixed up (it’s appallingly disorganised still). But we have some exciting stuff planned for the next few months. I really enjoyed making the profile on Heidegger and I thought it would be interesting to put together a series on Existentialist philosophers so we’re going to look at Kierkegaard in the next instalment and then maybe Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and Jaspers and I guess Nietzsche would even fit this category so maybe even a broad overview of Nietzsche which would be fun. That and I want to write a few articles on some developmental models so Maslow and Spiral Dynamics could be on the horizon in the next few months as well with all going according to plan.
In the meantime I thought we’d do something a little bit different this week. I was on my phone at some point last week and I came across this video of Jordan Peterson on Piers Morgan. It was really enticing but I managed to avoid algorithmic hijacking on the way to whatever it is I’d actually come to watch. But alas escape from the algorithms was not so final as a couple of days ago I came across an article on the New York Magazine’s online wing The Cut and they managed to ensnare me.
I quickly devoured what turned out to be a short little article but something about it really struck me and I couldn’t immediately figure out why. I’ve consumed a lot of culture wars content over the last five or six years (as we all have I’m sure) but it’s been a while and I don’t know whether it’s a certain level of distance I have from this sort of content, or whether some of the things we’ve been researching on the blog these past few months have had an effect on me but there was a different awareness bubbling beneath the surface. And so curious about this as I was, I took a little time to sit down and explore it and basically what I came up with was the striking realisation (though it seems really obvious now) that this whole culture wars bonanza is a psychological mirror. And more than that: it’s a co-dependant psychological mirror.
Now for those of you who don’t know the story basically Olivia Wilde — who to be honest I only remember from The OC — made a movie where the bad guy was based on Jordan Peterson. Peterson in turn reacts to this in an interview with Piers Morgan which is the clip that first grabbed my attention on YouTube. And then there’s The Cut article which has the beautiful clickbait title “Did Olivia Wilde Just Make Jordan Peterson Cry?” and is more or less a blow-by-blow of who said what.
Now the article is pretty typical of any culture wars-related content. We are presented with two in-groups. There’s the so-called Woke in-group which is the mainstream progressive movements advocating for the rights of minorities and marginal groups. And then we have what we’ll call the alt-right group in which we usually find the likes of Peterson Trump and the incels all lumped together. Now obviously these aren’t labels that these individuals or groups would apply to themselves. These are for the most part outgroup characterisations rather than self-identifications.
So then these are the two sides of the culture war. On the one side we have Olivia Wilde who says:
“We based that character on this insane man, Jordan Peterson, who is this pseudo-intellectual hero to the incel community.” Wilde defined incels to Interview as “disenfranchised, mostly white men, who believe they are entitled to sex from women.”
And on the other side we have Peterson of which we hear the following:
He also called the film “the latest bit of propaganda disseminated by the woke, self-righteous bores and bullies who now dominate Hollywood.”
When I was thinking about this article afterwards I remembered a random thing I saw last year when I was out for a walk. There’s a mosque just up the road from me and I remember one day some kid in a group of other kids (teenagers I guess or on the cusp of it at least) mocking a Muslim man who was all dressed up heading into the mosque. Whatever the remark was it got a laugh from others in the group. But it was interesting because before all this, this kid had been at the fringes of the group. He wasn’t the cool kid. And yet by making this comment he became more of an in-person.
At the time I thought a lot about it and how if we are feeling a bit excluded or lower in status then othering is a way of bringing ourselves back into the fold. If you’re on the fringes then creating a sharper out-group brings you deeper into the in-group. So we should be most wary of people on the fringes who are most in need of a status boost and who will become increasingly desperate to get it. This is relevant to how Trump became president, how Caesar became Caesar and it also ties in with the psychology of conspiracy theories where we see that the disenfranchised and marginalised are the most vulnerable to conspiratorial thinking.
Attacks against the out-group curry favour with our in-group. The Cut is signalling that it is a Woke outlet; Olivia Wilde is signalling that she is a Woke person. On the other side Peterson is signalling that he is on the side of the Alt-Right. And again obviously none of these people would say they were Woke or Alt-Right because that’s an out-group term for them rather than an in-group term. But we can see the way these different actors move into certain positions in the field of force relations. Peterson aligns with one collection of strategic power that we usually caricature as the Alt-Right while Wilde and The Cut align with another set of strategic forces that we usually caricature as the Woke.
What I’m interested is in the fact that psychologically there is something very similar going on. Each side of this equation has compassion for one group and hatred for another. Peterson shows disdain for the Woke; Wilde and The Cut show disdain for Peterson and the incels.
They are tightening up their compassion for their ingroup and blowing off their steam towards the outgroup just like the young lad I saw on the street was doing by mocking the Muslim man. They are literal mirror images of each other.
On the Woke side the group that is being empathised with are the LGBT+, racial and gender minorities. On the Alt-Right side it’s the incels, the white people living in poverty, the young men and other groups that feel like personae non gratae in 21st-century progressive society.
Peterson feels deep and genuine compassion for the young males who are struggling today. That’s where his focus goes. While the typically university-educated Woke ingroup invalidates and dismisses these struggles with terms like white privilege or male privilege, Peterson takes their struggle seriously — obviously identifying with the struggle on a personal level. Those on the Woke side of the cultural chasm are either unaware (sometimes wilfully) or dismissive of this deep-felt compassion of Peterson’s that we often see move him to tears. They don’t see this benevolent loving face that Peterson shows towards his in-group.
And that is for good reason because Peterson’s compassion seems to end with the young males. He expresses little but disdain for those in the Woke camp — a proclivity that has been widened to a chasm by the vicious feedback loop between his views and their reception in the culture. As the criticisms of him become more extreme so too does his rage. The image of Peterson that those in his outgroup see is the bitter angry face he turns towards them and not the compassionate caring face he turns to his in-group.
In the mirror image of this we have the Woke camp. The dismissal by Wilde of the incels basically chalks their issues up to being first-world problems. The mental health crisis among young white males and the suicide rate in this demographic is not a source of compassion because the signal that the Woke bucket receives regarding this demographic is their reaction to the progressive campaign. This reaction is in response to the Woke’s study of historical oppression and systemic inequality. This generates a lot of anger in the Woke which they project onto the face that most fits their demonic mask and that is white males. Of course not at the elite university-educated white males who are on the Woke side of the line but generally the uneducated prejudiced white males from lower socio-economic backgrounds. These are the individuals who are most likely to fit the mask of the domineering masculine.
This is the Woke that the Alt-Right side see. It is an angry resentful face that invalidates and dismisses their concerns. But what the Alt-Right either wilfully ignore or completely overlook is that the Woke movement in axiomatically a movement of compassion. In the Big 5 personality system that Peterson has written scores of articles on, the Agreeableness trait can be broken down into two elements: Politeness and Compassion. Politeness — the tendency to respect social norms — is correlated with the right-wing while Compassion — an empathy for others that trumps any concerns about social norms — is correlated more with the left. So Compassion is a more central trait to the left.
The Woke side of the cultural chasm directs its compassion at the LGBT+, racial minorities and women as the oppressed.
it is no longer religion but the culture wars that are the opiate of the masses.
It is still far from safe to be a gay person. There are still disadvantages to being a woman or to being in a racial minority. And this is the set of groups that the Woke treats as an in-group. The source of oppression of course is identified by the terms white and male. And hence we’ve got a very convenient showdown.
Funnily enough the stereotypical Woke individual is university-educated middle-class saddled with the debt that comes with that while the stereotypical Alt-Right individual is going to be a white male without a university education and at the lower end of the socio-economic scale closer to the poverty line and these are the groups that are pitted against each other.
The culture wars are the sport of the poor and the debt-ridden; were we to look at the culture wars through the eyes of a Marxist conspiracy theorist one might suspect a game of divide and conquer being at play here and we might remark that it is no longer religion but the culture wars that are the opiate of the masses.
But setting that aside for now, what is interesting here is that we have two groups here that are perfect mirrors of each other and yet each thinks that they are the victims and saviours while the other side are the devils and oppressors. Peterson references the “self-righteous bullies that dominate Hollywood” while Wilde talks about the entitled and white side that Peterson is the hero of. They are co-dependent in that each side needs the other to prop up their identity. The bitter white male provides very good fodder for the Woke image of oppressor and the same goes for the so called social justice warrior on the side of the Alt-Right.
As ever this is all painted in the archetypal colours of heroism. The culture wars offer us a chance to paint ourselves in heroic colours and to give our lives meaning. We have the chance to be heroes on this archetypal battlefield. But as the Jungian Robert Moore points out the archetype of the hero is immature. Until its hero’s journey is completed this hero is more of a liability to his society than a bonus. Speaking about this ego inflation of the hero Moore writes:
People standing in unconscious spiritual grandiosity, anxious to be idealized by others, are particularly reactive to any lack of dogmatic or ideological agreement. Their narcissism demands a rigid ideological sameness from everyone. They experience the unique interpretations of others as painful narcissistic wounds to their own inflated pretensions, and this provokes a whole constellation of rage responses. They see “the other” as a demonic agent shaking the foundations of their already shaky narcissistic equilibrium. They see their own unconscious satanic inflation in the face of “the other.” They generate unconscious genocidal fantasies of holy revenge. They want to become heroes who step up to the task of cleansing the world of chaos and evil.
You can read this passage with Peterson, the incels or the Woke mobs of Twitter in mind and you’ll see that it applies to them all. I saw it first hand in the comments section beneath the video version of the piece on Jordan Peterson’s Shadow. You can see the Woke version of it all over Twitter. There is a cause that needs to be defended. It is as if the whole culture were at stake.
This undoubtedly ties into the meaning crisis and how in the midst of the postmodern nihilist crisis we are all searching for some kind of meaning we can hold onto. And the easiest thing to grasp is the archetypal holy war of the culture wars.
Not that I see any easy way around it it’s just when I read an article like this it sets off all these alarm bells in my head. It’s supposed to outrage the audience and divide us into two neat groups that each feel vindicated. But it’s all just a pile of culturally immature ego inflation. Both sides are compassionate and both sides are callous. And each have met their match in the other. Each side needs the other. Meanwhile you get populists like Trump who step in and speak to one side or the other and cynically capture the flag for their own ends.
It’s interesting because I don’t consume that much social media anymore and so I’m not usually dragged in by this culture wars stuff. And I’ve been thinking that maybe this little bit of distance gives me the emotional bandwidth to empathise with the LGBT+ and with the incels. It just doesn’t seem like it should be so complicated and I can’t figure out whether this is the oldest problem in the world or the newest one but anyway I just thought I’d share my thoughts on it as I’ve been trying to figure it all out myself.