The most interesting cultural phenomena are often the most divisive. Movies in particular seem to be ideal for splitting audiences into love it/hate it camps.
The following films leap to mind: Magnolia, Fifty Shades of Grey, Antichrist, Eyes Wide Shut, Transformers, Prometheus, The Big Lebowski, 2001 A Space Odyssey (my verdicts, if you are interested: love, hate, love, love, hate, love, love, not sure).
Jordan B Peterson is a Canadian academic and he is a polarising character. You have probably heard of him. He has been lauded as a champion of free speech and a corrective to the creeping project of the Maoist Thought Police. He has also been vilified as a poster-boy for the reactionary, patriarchal alt-right. It is no easy thing to make a call as to his true place on the political spectrum (he claims to be a liberal – but these days this designation is ambiguous). Maybe this is good thing, preventing us tidily pigeon-holing him, which is something we humans like to do. Pigeon-holing is convenient and saves time but it creates a picture of the world which is of questionable accuracy.
In his 1873 essay, On Truth and Lies in an Extra Moral Sense, Nietzsche also argued that cognitive shortcuts (deceptions and falsehoods) are necessary for life as they make the world practically navigable in an efficient way. We sort phenomena we encounter in the world into types and assign them to categories to enable speedy processing. For example, no two trees are alike when closely examined, especially when they are of different species, but we lump them all into the type: tree. This may be expedient, but it is sometimes useful to remember that our oversimplified world of tokens and cyphers is not how things actually are. The facts are always more complicated.
Our modern media, in particular, tend towards stereotyping and pigeon-holing. News is a good example because it has to communicate complex information quickly – in short stories of a few hundred words or, audio-visually, in brief items of a few minutes. Perhaps there, more than anywhere, we should beware of this tendency to pigeon-hole.
Recently Peterson was interviewed by UK Channel 4 News anchor, Cathy Newman. The video went viral after Peterson comfortably trounced Newman who seemed to be too invested in projecting male chauvinist tropes onto him rather than exploring his actual views. It is well worth watching - below.
Peterson was on the show to publicise his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I already had an interest in him as he frequently talks about Nietzsche’s work in his online lectures. I would even say that many of his ideas are Nietzschean, though I suspect he would reject any such label for himself. After seeing the interview, I picked up a copy of his new book, my interest having been sufficiently piqued. I am about two thirds of the way through it now. In all, I have found it pretty interesting, but hardly radical. A lot of it is fairly bland common sense, but with an undercurrent of stodgy, old-time conservative thinking – take responsibility, he tells us, discipline your children and so on. Not exactly ground breaking. The exception is the first chapter, which I found captivating. It’s about lobsters.
Peterson claims that we can learn something about ourselves from lobsters. The reason for this is that not only do lobsters have nervous systems that are easy to study scientifically; they are also such an ancient species that we can see in them a snap-shot of our own pre-human nervous systems. Apparently, many hundreds of millions of year ago we were on the same branch of the evolutionary tree as these crustaceans. This was when all animal life resided in the oceans, before we crawled out onto the beaches, developed lungs, grew fur and got smartphones. Therefore, he claims, we can discover much about the most ancient parts of our brains by observing the behaviour of lobsters.
Like many creatures, lobsters compete for resources: for territory, for food, for holes in which to hide and of course for mates and breeding rights. Now, wishing to avoid too many ruinous physical confrontations when competing for these precious resources, male lobsters have a ritual ‘dance’ in which they size each other up and both decide whether they think they can take the other guy down. If there’s a clear fitness difference, size or condition, and the exchange is likely to be a forgone conclusion, the lesser of the two will usually yield to the healthier lobster – usually the bigger one. This concession means not just the loss of the disputed resources but a loss of status too, meaning the victor will now lord over the defeated, with privileged access to resources in future times as well as the present.
Female lobsters will be irresistibly attracted to the triumphant lobster, swooning when he scuttles past. They want those superior genes for their own offspring, so the fruit of their lobster loins might be born predisposed for top lobster status. The loser in these bouts doesn’t get a look-in with the ladies, generally speaking.
Jordan claims this happens in other species too – including humans! He cites the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey in particular, as a cultural artefact epitomising this fascination in women for powerful, bullying alpha males. The fantasy being the bringing of this dangerous animal finally to heel, as happens in the book and film. Yes, this is the archetypal story of beauty and the beast. (As you can imagine, this is one of those opinions that brings Peterson into conflict with some groups.)
Only when our champion lobster is successfully challenged by a bigger, healthier lobster will he be pushed off the top, though he may still be higher up the pecking order than his earlier opponent.
Other animals have similar means of avoiding outright war when establishing a dominance hierarchy. Using songs or calls or dances or scents or colourful displays or demonstrations of skill, such as nest building, to signal health, strength and reproductive fitness.
Animals of all species at the top of the dominance hierarchy enjoy the good life. They have privileged access to food, shelter and mates. Those in the lower orders have to scratch out a living, dining on crumbs fallen from the table of their betters. They live in a state of stress and despondency. In fact, a defeated lobster undergoes structural changes in its brain in response to the new grim reality of its lower station in lobster society. These changes make it more diffident, highly-strung and prone to flight at the slightest of threats. Lobsters who prevail in dominance exchanges, on the other hand are full of swagger and confidence. Jordan says that two chemicals are at play here, serotonin and octopamine.
Serotonin, as I am sure you know, makes one feel dynamic, confident, positive about the world and in control. Octopamine makes one shrink and doubt one’s self. It puts your fight or flight response on a hair trigger. Whether ascending or descending the hierarchy ladder, the pattern is self-reinforcing. The lucky winner increases his chances of prevailing with every victory, as his confidence and tenacity grows. The loser, sadly, becomes a lesser lobster with every defeat and is more and more unlikely to recover his former position.
It is easy to see the Darwinian consequences of this. The top lobster, with access to the best food and the safest shelters, will thrive and further strengthen himself. He is much more likely to live long and reproduce, passing on his successful genes to the next generation. His downtrodden opposite, with his deprived circumstances and the constant stress compromising his immune system, will weaken by stages and perish quickly with few or no offspring, erasing himself from the evolutionary current.
With regard to this self reinforcement, Peterson references the so-called Matthew Principle. In Matthew 25: 29 Jesus is reported as saying: “to those who have everything, more will be given; from those who have nothing, everything will be taken.” A cruel but salient truth, though, cryptically, Jesus seems to be decreeing this unjust arrangement rather than decrying it.
Lobsters have existed for more than 350 million years and during that time they have changed very little. Peterson claims that this means the kind of dominance hierarchies we see in lobster societies are ‘an essentially permanent feature of the environment to which all complex life has adapted’. Even back then, at that primitive stage of life, simple creatures were jockeying for primacy. This, he says, is proof that human dominance hierarchies are not socially constructed – a system of oppression implemented purposely, to serve socio-political ends, whether that be capitalism or communism or patriarchy. No, instead his contention is they are a fact of life, they are not even a human invention, they are part of the fabric of the evolutionary reality we inhabit.
I’ve run on a little, but there is much more to say about this. I will continue in the next post.
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