8. jordan peterson, samuel beckett, and an issue of technique
considering how we address pain and progress from it
Lately I’ve been fascinated with the concept of “Choice”. Not so much in the sense of discussing free will. That is something I believe in with an ironic blind faith. I’ve been interested in Choice as a tool of psychology. Intrusive thoughts are a core issue in modern psychology. Our brains prod at us with thoughts and words that manifest horrifying impulses. Surprising calls to harm, self-hate, and commit suicide appear out of nowhere - and, though the conscious brain is able to notice them and categorize them as alien and unusual, their presence is still terrifying. A great deal of mental health work is dedicated to the problem of intrusive thoughts. Their presence can drive a person to depression, obsession, paranoia, and far more. And it is fair to see how that can happen. The mind is the most immediate safe place we, as humans, have. To be suddenly invaded by these confusing thoughts can be overwhelming, especially when coupled with outside forces.
What does this have to do with Choice? Well, once it is fully established and understood by both clinician and client that these intrusive thoughts are not willfully brought on but just a byproduct of the brain, Choice becomes extremely important. One can never be rid of intrusive thoughts without being rid of thinking in general. They are part and parcel. Thus, when the sufferer is faced with intrusive thoughts, they must choose to accept them as a concrete yet irrational part of life and, through that process, take away their power. The idea here is to utilize human free will to remind oneself that thoughts, on their own, are immaterial. The patient renders the intrusive thought into a harmless object by choosing to accept it and recognize it as a vacuous spark of the brain. It is a simple yet ingenious tactic. And its track record for its success is well documented, and worth looking up.
That being said, my intention is to criticize the technique of Choice, as inherited from the treatment of intrusive thoughts. It becomes an issue, to me, when it leaves the realm of the mind. We can apply this self-reliance when dealing with the mechanisms of the mind and issues such as intrusive thoughts. But applying Choice towards external issues, such as the environment we exist in, creates a dangerous mindset that impedes social change. And a good example is the work of Jordan Peterson.
Peterson has become noted for his “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality, especially towards a specific group of people: young, lonely, disaffected middle class men. Over the past decade or so, this group has suffered in the public eye. Multiple mass shootings, media-claimed ties to the success of Donald Trump and 4Chan, and multiple New Yorker articles analyzing the dangers of inceldom - they are not particularly beloved. However, the truth is, this is a class of people that strongly reflect the nature of our time. Many are at an age where the future seems bleak. Debt will forever cripple them, and, though they are told they must pursue a degree, their job prospects are bleak. Born of the private managerial class, they have already watched the material pleasures that their parents enjoyed become unattainable. Dreams of ever owning a house no longer exist, as they see their parents drown in layers of mortgages. And the prospect of building credit becomes a pact with the devil, as it has devoured their parents and communities through debt. Thus, they turn to online forums that offer community and a shared sense of anger that comforts them. Their plight does not diminish that of other races, sexualities, genders, or class statuses - but it is a useful mirror to the state of our economy.
And, for a time, not a single person saw them worth considering due to the vitriolic nature of their discourse - except for Peterson. Peterson addressed the group by recognizing the source of their discontent. And the advice he offered was Choice. This manifests in a phrase of Peterson’s: “Before trying to save the world try cleaning your room first”. Peterson prescribes this tactic as a way of ridding oneself of the anxiety brought on by the world. It’s not as if you are going to save the world, so just accept it. Peterson emphasizes a form of decluttering throughout his work. Cleaning one’s room, working out, taking a shower - these are simple activities you can control, so exercise that control and ignore the furor of the world. Peterson prescribes choosing to accept the dire economic state of the world as an unchangeable fact; rather than fall into the despair that these young men find themselves in, they can choose to accept it as a fact of life and no longer be afraid of it. To help aid this act of ignoring, small actions that offer small successes help these young men gain a sense of control in their life. The psychological trick is admittedly smart. And, to Peterson’s credit, he does not fall into the neoconservative trap of classifying these issues as some cultural gap that needs to be crossed. He agrees that the distress is in response to real economic issues.
The problem is, Peterson asks his patients to merely accept reality and move on. This is where I find not only great fault, but great danger. A technique like Peterson’s, which asks an individual to treat the status quo like an unchangeable aspect of life, is dangerous to the human ability to alter society. Peterson’s Choice leads one to accepting debt, loneliness, and jobless prospects as an unchangeable fact of life. And his bootstrapped mentality trains his patients to have an aversion to the communal. I don’t think Peterson is acting maliciously. At his core, he is a doctor. His patient has an issue, and he addresses it to hopefully solve the issue. But his technique leads to a group of people running to hell with blind accepting smiles.
And it is not solely Peterson who prescribes Choice as a way of finding solace from the world’s problems. Across western media, towards all subaltern and disaffected groups, there is a moral tied into so many works of literature, television, film, music and so on - that the individual is a hopeless being, one who has no hope of changing the external world. Happiness is only attainable through accepting a lack of control. This existential ideal - seen in the works of writers such as Camus, Sartre, and the early stories of George Saunders - becomes applicable to the propaganda used to oppress subaltern communities into a place of nonprotest. I would even argue the existential revolution of the modernist time empowered the individualist mentalities used in America to impede unionization, communal protest, and more.
I will offer a counterexample in the media that I believe can serve as a key guide against the use of Choice towards external circumstances. Of course, there’s a mass amount of literature that poises the individual as protesting against efforts to make them accept and “choose” their external circumstances. Native Son depicts Bigger’s murders as an almost animalistic lashing out against what is expected of him. Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar cribs this, though towards a more bourgeois audience. However, I am more interested in the communal rejection of the status quo - and to that, I would suggest turning to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Not only does Waiting for Godot display the importance of companionship, but it displays two people reeling from their prior Choice to accept their situation.
Most of Beckett’s oeuvre deals with the internal - individuals clashing with the last breaths of their mind going haywire, be it creative tendencies (Malone Dies), nostalgia (Krapp’s Last Tape), or the apocalypse (Endgame). All that being said, Waiting for Godot presents a more intriguing circumstance: two people dealing with unalterable circumstances. Estragon and Vladimir wait for the mysterious Godot, who has the promise of work and the danger of beatings should they not wait for him. The play implies that its two acts mimic every day of the two’s lives: they come to the tree, wait for Godot, are told Godot won’t come today but will come tomorrow - they’re both homeless, sick, growing old, and are so poor, they live off only turnips.
In Vladimir and Estragon’s case, Choice plays an important role. It is implied that they have chosen to wait for Godot for a long time, possibly multiple years. They are two people who have followed the Peterson mindset of accepting their circumstances. And while it is implied that the prospect that Godot will come for them eventually, it is clear that it has become frustrating. Their physical realities prevent them from continuing to accept their state of life. In a stroke of Beckett’s brilliance, physicality and materiality prevents this ignoring of the status quo. Urinating burns. Their stomachs are ripped to shreds from only eating radishes. Their boots don’t fit. They sleep in ditches and, at night, are sometimes beaten by random mobs.
It is in companionship that Vladimir and Estragon reject their reality. The play ends with them planning to wait one more day for Godot. If Godot fails to come again, they agree to both commit suicide. They are united in needing each other for this act, as one cannot commit suicide without the other. They are only able to reject their state of reality through their companionship - and their suicide, though harsh and seemingly hopeless, acts as rejection of what is expected of them by the status quo: inaction via their past Choice.
Now, I am not cosigning some form of mass suicide. My point is more how popular change occurs through the lashing out of subaltern classes and people against the status quo. Though, yes, it does involve the ability to specify the sources of wrongdoing in society, that core emotional discontent across a population is integral to social reform. It is how we, as humans, first signal to ourselves that something is wrong and needs to change. When the issue is something like intrusive voices, thus tied to the chemical nature of our brains, we do have to be self-reliant. But when facing the exterior world, no person is truly alone - and, more important, we do each contain the ability to achieve great pain-relieving change. The human capability for progress is in the communal sharing of pain, deliberation, and then group action. This is the abstracted formula for societal reformation and rejecting the status quo.
It is a core human instinct to reject pain the easiest way possible. We seek escape. It is why we are attracted to concepts, like Peterson’s, that offer us a route without the need for other people or much effort. I would argue that, though there is psychological effort necessary in Choice, it is the easier route than finding solidarity in other people suffering under the same economic weight. But it is through solidarity we come together. To the groups of disaffected white men, their solidarity scared the mass media because it seemed to present a supremacist coalition - but, in reality, it had the potential to bond the divides between classes and races, were it not immediately categorized as something to be shelved away. Peterson approached it as something to break apart down to the individual level. But perhaps, what is needed, to tap into the reforming potential, is a solidarity and outreach past the divides. In the face of exterior issues, Choice creates a population stripped of their ability to feel pain, address pain, and navigate as a community to the source of their pain. Revolution only comes through that process - and Choice is merely a path to run away.