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Jordan Peterson talks hierarchies at the Mahaffey

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Dr. Jordan Peterson, author of "12 Rules for Life."

Psychology professor, clinical psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Jordan Peterson addressed a large audience at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg Saturday night. Peterson informed and entertained the audience with stories from the natural world, and an explanation of a statistical theory to defend the hierarchical structure of American society.

“Hierarchies cannot be laid at the feet of the West,” Peterson said. Such was the fundamental message of his Mahaffey talk, one of many stops on his tour promoting his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Hierarchies can, however, be laid at the feet of the natural world, according to Peterson. He explained the hierarchical nature of human societies by describing the hierarchies in other animal species.

“Songbirds have hierarchy,” Peterson said, then went on to explain how male bowerbirds try to build the most eye-catching nest possible in order to attract female birds with which to mate. If rejected by female birds, the male bowerbird then destroys his nest.

“There’s competition for scarce resources,” said Peterson, among humans and among many other animal species. Peterson also made analogies to pufferfish and chimpanzees to explain hierarchy through a scientific lens, rather than blaming hierarchy on patriarchy, capitalism or the Western world.

Toward the middle of his talk, Peterson explained the Pareto principle (also known as the 80-20 rule), according to which 80 percent of consequences come from 20 percent of the causes. This principle “applie[s] to all sorts of things,” Peterson said.

For example, “A very few countries have almost all of the storks,” he said. “A very small proportion of stars in the galaxy have almost all the mass.”

Peterson also applied the principle to creative production, saying, “Virtually everyone has nothing, and some people have everything.” Pablo Picasso produced 65,000 paintings in his life, amounting to three paintings a day for 60 years. Peterson used these examples to show that a Pareto distribution of wealth is not unique to economics, since very similar distributions are seen in many other realms.

Among the top-ranking members of a hierarchy, Peterson said that “hierarchical position actually depends on things other than the expression of power.” It depends on reciprocity, which helps those at the top of a hierarchy maintain their status more than tyranny. “If you’re too tyrannical … then you die,” Peterson said, true among both chimps and – more subtly – humans.

Peterson concluded the prepared portion of his talk with mentions of biological differences between men and women, drawing laughter from the crowd. “There are a lot of differences between men and women that can’t be attributed to sociocultural conditioning,” he said, underscoring his resistance to the blank-slate theories espoused by others in his profession.

“Women aren’t as tall as men, on average,” he began. “Women are not as strong in the upper body as men. … Men can bite harder.”

Peterson read at length from a recently-published article in the London Times in which fellow psychologists found that in countries with greater gender equality, men and women diverge from each other more along the lines of certain psychological traits. “When you get rid of the cultural differences,” he said, “the biological differences maximize.” Peterson used biological differences to explain why fewer women go into the STEM fields in countries with the greatest gender equality.

Generally speaking, Peterson said, “Men are interested in things, women are interested in people.” Peterson went on to note that in general, women are slightly more extroverted and polite, while men tend to be more aggressive, competitive and blunt.

Although he did not mention the concept  Saturday, Peterson speaks emphatically about the importance of personal responsibility in his book and elsewhere. In a one-on-one interview backstage after his talk, Peterson, a vocal opponent of identity politics, said, “Your best strategy is to take responsibility for things. But that doesn’t mean it will always work. .. .As a rule of thumb, [personal responsibility] is a good one.”

  • Dr. Jordan Peterson onstage at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg on Saturday night.

  • Dave Rubin opens for Peterson.

  • Peterson onstage.

  • Dr. Jordan Peterson, author of "12 Rules for Life."

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. James Paul

    September 17, 2018 at 2:27 pm

    I like Peterson. However, I don’’t think his examples listed above make a persuasive case for human hierarchy as a natural phenomenon.

    • Terence O'Hanlon

      September 17, 2018 at 5:47 pm

      Even if his examples did explain the origin of heirarchies in humans, he doesn’t provide any valid arguments against working to eliminate them. Peterson doesn’t seem to buy the obvious fact that our individual realities at socially constructed. Social dynamics don’t behave in the same way that inanimate natural phenomenon, do. As a psychologist surely he know this. So why is he constantly pulling out statistics, averages, “on balances”, etc. This is deeply problematic for anyone who believes in freedom and fairness. We believe in individual rights. These form the basis of a constitutional liberal democracy. Crude majorities don’t get to run roughshod over the rights of minorities. Likewise privileged minorities don’t get to run roughshod over majorities or other minorities. Such a world that lamps people — into groups, on average — denies ctizens their individuality and describes fascism. I’m not saying Peterson is a fascist but the logical outcome of the “natural world” for which he seems to advocate leads only to savagery. Please read some Hannah Arendt before embracing Peterson’s ideas.

      • Roberto Sanchez

        September 17, 2018 at 9:22 pm

        Social dynamics do behave in the same way that inanimate natural phenomena do. They can be described statically very similarly to how the behavior of large numbers of molecules can be described statistically, ie thermodynamics. If you allow individuals the freedom to act with agency, statistics and averages naturally emerge. That’s the Matthew Principle which is described by the Pareto distribution. It’s when you want to direct societal behavior at the macro level that you end up with fascistic savagery. And as the linked London Times article demonstrates, society is such a complex statistical structure that even when you try ostensibly benevolent methods to direct societal behavior at the macro level, results emerge which you did not want and, more importantly, did not anticipate, like differences between genders magnifying rather than equalizing.

        Peterson doesn’t exactly embrace only focusing on the micro level of the individual, as that would lead to nihilism, the opposite problem to fascism. Rather, he advocates for individuals to improve their lives so they may better serve others, so they may play iterable games, as Peterson calls it. These are games that don’t degenerate into fascism or nihilism, and that everyone wants to play. His 12 Rules are written with that goal in mind, and in my opinion the most important rule towards that goal is “tell the truth, or, at least, don’t lie.” Fascism falls against the light of Truth, and the same light guides individuals out of nihilism.

      • Gemma Godivala

        September 21, 2018 at 11:45 am

        “Even if his examples did explain the origin of heirarchies in humans, he doesn’t provide any valid arguments against working to eliminate them” Petereson has repeatedly affirmed tis as the valid role of the healthy left, to challenge hierarchies in the defence of the disposessed. The role of the healthy right is to maintain hierarchies insofar as they have not become corrupt. Since neither side has the full answer success lies in constant dialogue.
        “We believe in individual rights. These form the basis of a constitutional liberal democracy. Crude majorities don’t get to run roughshod over the rights of minorities. Likewise privileged minorities don’t get to run roughshod over majorities or other minorities. Such a world that lamps people — into groups, on average — denies ctizens (sic) their individuality and describes fascism.”
        I think you agree with Peterson a lot more than you think you do. He argues this very point constantly.

  2. Jim Bond

    September 17, 2018 at 8:46 pm

    Terence, You obviously do not understand anything Dr. Peterson has been working for. Read his book.

  3. Teresa Garcia

    September 19, 2018 at 7:04 pm

    Peterson doesn’t say we shouldn’t strive to improve fairness and equality. He said that unfairness and inequality ARE NOT CAUSED BY CAPITALISM.

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