The Gap In Western Education: An Appeal to Dr. Jordan B. Peterson
The following text was the original plan for a conversation with Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. The conversation as it actually occurred can be accessed at the end of the text.
By way of personal background, I grew up and was educated in the UK, and I now divide my time between New York, Toronto, and various other US cities as part of my work in management consulting.
My university studies were in the Greek and Roman classics. My background is entirely Western, and my ancestors are of Scottish, English and Scandinavian stock. In terms of politics, I am socially and fiscally conservative.
You have said, very honestly, that you are not an expert in Eastern culture and philosophy, although you have drawn on various Buddhist and Daoist ideas in your writings.
You have also said that it is preferable to be in love with what one doesn’t know, and that to grow, you must let go of what you are in the service of what you might become.
There is a psychological principle which Daniel Kahneman calls ‘What You See Is All There Is’. He highlights it as one of the most significant short-cuts of the human reasoning process.
With the best will in the word, therefore, a lack of knowledge about another culture can translate into the conviction that there is nothing to learn from it, and that — by implication — one’s own culture is superior.
If evolution has moved on from the mutation of cells to the mutation of ideas, and the future will select those societies and individuals with the best ideas, it would make sense to pursue as broad a diversity of thought as possible, rather than risk intellectual in-breeding.
Since the West has been dominant for so long, particularly those in the Anglosphere are at risk of succumbing to Kahneman’s principle, and getting lost chasing our tails in search of what lies beyond the boundaries of the known.
Put another way, it is tempting to think, as I did, “East Asian culture may be very interesting, but it’s too much effort to learn about and we in the West are in any case more advanced”.
I can attest to the fact that it is a lot of effort, but I don’t agree that we have everything we need in the West. I am familiar with your standard response to questions about the East, namely that West was first to discover the sovereignty of the individual.
Even if that were true, I don’t see it as grounds to discontinue all further investigation. And as I hope to come on to, I believe there are things that the East figured out which we have yet to learn in the West.
What we can learn from societies and civilization who have suffered
I have for about 15 years been traveling to and living in South Korea. I knew nothing about it when I went there, and I have found it a difficult country to get to know.
However, in the course of persevering I have learned something about its history and culture. When I say culture I am referring not only to art and literature, but to the values and philosophy inherent in Korean society.
Korea has a history that stretches back to the third millennium BC, and this history contains many hardships, including over 500 invasions by foreign powers, and at least two periods of brutal colonial rule by Japan.
One interesting point about this history, is that Korea has never at any point invaded another country.
The Greek historian Thucydides says in his work: “Of gods we believe and of men we know, that all men rule where they can.”
As a Briton, I grew up thinking it to be self-evident that dominance is preferable to submission. History, on the other hand, shows that dominance is fragile and often leads to destabilization. What I have since learned from Korea is that temporary submission can be a necessary precursor to longer-term survival.
Christianity survived while Ancient Rome did not. The many civilizations that oppressed the Jewish people have faded with time, while the Jewish civilization persists.
One might summarize the two alternative strategies thus:
Strategy 1: is to acquire sufficient power so that no one can destroy you. This has been the strategy of the imperial powers of history.
Strategy 2: is to suffer without succumbing either to destruction or the urge to destroy.
Strategy 2 is what Nassim Taleb would call ‘antifragile’, in other words successful in the long-term, whereas Strategy 1 is fragile and doomed inevitably to failure.
*When we think about the most important nations, we tend to think of their power to destroy, rather than their ability to suffer.*
It is in the second regard that the Korean culture presents so many points of interest. And I believe that by studying their culture, we can learn a great deal about this strategy.
Within Korean culture, there is an attitude that suffering is not just something to avoided, but somehow embraced.
Embracing suffering provides a Darwinian way of ascertaining how to ameliorate suffering.
However, the strategy appears best from a collectivist viewpoint, because in the course of embracing suffering, the risk to the individual can be high, while the risk to the group is low, and the gain to the group is considerable.
This is something that I have witnessed on an interpersonal level.
Korean culture — in so far as interpersonal relations are concerned — could be summarized clinically as governed by reciprocity erring on the side of generosity with respect to favors, and as erring on the side of parsimony with respect to injuries sustained.
This strategy, if played out over a long period, will lead to a resilient society — the opposite of a soviet style hell-scape where, amongst other things, nobody trusts one another.
But of course, being good at suffering is not easy.
The situation in the North Korea is an example of this. We typically see this story framed by the dictators, but it is as much a tale of the suffering of the North Korean people as it is the brutality of the dictatorship that has governed it. And the story is not yet finished.
Western civilization is not complete — true diversity of thought necessitates entertaining the perspectives of other cultures
Although I have translated some difficult Latin and Greek in my day, I have found the process of working on English translations of Korean texts far more difficult than anything in Thucydides or Hesiod. I believe this is because the original Korean writer not only used different words and sentence structures, but also thought using different mental building blocks. As a result, I think it is hard for those in the East to explain their culture easily to a Western audience.
If the West is to understand the East in the way that the East has been forced to understand the West during the latter’s period of dominance, I think that the person doing the introduction should be a Westerner.
The reason that I am raising this topic with you, is that you have set as your goal the rejuvenation of Western society, and established various principles concerning responsibility and fortitude.
Rather than simply studying individual philosophers who have thought about the topic, might a more practical approach be to look at whole societies who have come closest to realizing many of these principles, and look at what practically makes them different?
If so, the study of Eastern societies is not simply a matter of curiosity, but vital if we are to make use of every avenue at our disposal.
The implications of South Korea’s success
As I discovered in the case of South Korea, it has not simply been a case of surviving. It has emerged from the wreckage of war, to become one of the wealthiest nations in the world in a matter of decades. Many economists attempt to explain this away as a consequence of foreign aid, but few were predicting its success in the 1960s when it had nothing.
One notable point about South Korea, is that it has been successful in exporting not only industrial goods such as cars, smartphones and ships, but also its cultural exports such as music and television dramas have been considerably more successful around the world than those of China and Japan.
Part of the reason for the success of Korean television dramas and music in other countries, is that they contain elements that are not typically found in Western culture.
In the case of K-pop, commentators in Western countries are surprised at the organization and dedication of the fan-groups, many of which require an entrance examination to gain membership. These fan groups are pre-dominantly young women, and I would hazard a guess that they are reacting against the bland nihilism intrinsic to much of Western popular music, symbolic of the wider postmodernist despair permeating our society, and against which you so eloquently and passionately inveigh.
Responsibility to one’s descendants
I’ve personally encountered many aspects of Korean culture that are not present in my own, and it seems to me that we would benefit greatly by becoming better acquainted with these things.
Conservative Korean intellectuals, for example, place a lot of emphasis on performing ceremonies for one’s ancestors.
A New Atheist would find this absurd. I think that you, sir, might point out that from a Darwinian perspective, the persistence of such ceremonies among educated individuals in a scientific age is de facto proof that they have an inherent value that transcends the outward appearance.
During the years following the Korean War, South Korea, still in conflict with the North, was left with the task of building a modern economy out of little else but mud and determination.
In one factory, the foreman was unable to persuade the men to stop working at the end of the day, and had to resort to shutting off the factory’s power at midnight. When asked why they insisted on working without overtime pay, they replied that they were working not just for themselves but for future generations.
At the same time, in my home country of England, shipyard workers were refusing to work and striking for higher pay. Now many of their descendants have no jobs as the shipyards have all shut down. Only when I heard this story did I start to think that having respect for one’s ancestors imposes an obligation to earn such respect oneself.
Sovereignty of the Individual is compatible with Collectivism, and in fact only works in combination with it
The topic of individualism and collectivism is an area where again the East can help to shed light on a problem that your speeches are constantly drawing attention to.
How a society functions under conditions of scarcity is important because periods of scarcity are inevitable. It is also harsh conditions that reveal the true value of a society’s values and culture. Cultures that have survived periods of intense suffering are therefore interesting.
One recent example we might take from Korea is the Asian Financial crisis in 1997, during which ordinary people lined up outside banks, in order to donate gold and personal heirlooms to the government and so help avert a national crisis. In Britain, during the banking crisis, people lined up outside the failing bank Northern Rock to remove their assets. In Greece, the epicenter of the European financial crisis, people went on strike.
The Western view of individual freedom runs into difficulties that are often left unaddressed. For example, in movies where the character’s family is threatened, it is often taken as read that in order to save them, it is acceptable to risk the lives of many others.
This idea does not work: because if an individual is precious, then a group of individuals is also precious, and sacrificing the group for the benefit of the individual makes poor mathematical sense.
You have pointed out the danger of subsuming oneself into a group — via group identity logic — and thus absolving oneself of responsibility.
It would I think be incorrect to conflate the Eastern model of collectivism with the crude neo-Marxist model. In the former, according to my understanding, individual responsibility is preserved, and the sacrifice of one’s own interests for the good of the whole is a voluntary one.
Bret Weinstein has observed that human development has been characterized by periodic expansions of the definition of the self. In this respect it could be said that Eastern civilization is more evolved than in the West.
One could summarize the issue thus: The individual is sovereign with respect to his own actions, but his interests are not held to be sovereign over those of others.
This approach provides a non-totalitarian solution to inequality, which communism attempts to solve by force. There is a world of difference between top-down (compelled) collectivism and bottom-up (voluntary) collectivism. In a society of voluntary collectivists, the moral burden on those who are successful is naturally self-imposed.
As you yourself have said: “The most effective way of regulating the market is to improve the moral character of the people who make up the market than directly regulating the market.”
The Eastern perspective further posits that mankind is on a journey to enlightenment that spans eons, rather than a single individual lifetime. This outlook is more likely to encourage strategies that can play out over longer periods of time — such as sacrificing short-term dominance in favor long-term survival, referenced at the beginning.
On an individual level, the notion of re-incarnation lends the perspective that sacrificing oneself in this lifetime will bring rewards in future lifetimes. This view is once again typically lacking in Western thought.
King Sejong embodies the philosophy one should sacrifice oneself for the group; and thus exercises true ‘sovereignty’
I’d like to speak briefly about a practical example of the values just described.
You have said that the point of memory is to avoid the mistakes of the past. For seven hundred years, the Koreans had a record called the Sillok, wherein the acts and words of the king were recorded for posterity. Unlike many other royal chronicles, the king was not allowed to read what had been written, in order to provide an unbiased account for future generations.
If — as seems likely — we can believe the Sillok, King Sejong the Great is one of the most benevolent monarchs in all of human history. He enacted a seemingly unending series of programs intended to benefit the poorest people in society, and fully lived according to his stated philosophy, that it is the duty of a king to serve the people.
His reign was characterized by incessant dialogue with advisors and even direct surveys of his population, including the world’s first national referendum.
He was also known to make decisions that he knew would be unpopular. One of these was the promulgation of the new Korean alphabet, which was designed so that anyone would be able to learn to read in a 24 hours. This proposal was opposed by the scholar class for many reasons, as it was such a radical idea. But the alphabet eventually took hold and is still used today.
Sejong wrote in the year 1439: “The heavens nurture all creation, with no distinction between great and small. When a king loves his people, it should be the same way.”
King Sejong was a man who was clearly laboring under an immense moral burden. He appears to me to have fully comprehended the sovereignty of the individual. It is unclear to me why this specific individual has remained largely unsung and his example virtually unstudied outside his native land.
After we realize that ‘Life expects something from us’, the next step is to figure out ‘what’. Customs and traditions are society’s answer
There is a quote by Nietzsche that appears frequently in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which states that ‘a man who has a why can endure almost any how’.
Frankl himself discovered that the correct question to ask is not ‘What can I expect from life’ but that ‘What does life expect of me?’
In your recent book, you have formulated an answer to the question of how one should live one’s life, in an age of nihilism. However, I would argue that Eastern civilizations have formulated their answer more precisely, and with a longer history of tradition.
So I would suggest that we look for ideas that are good but *not* present in Western thought. This will lead us away from familiar dialogues, with familiar folks, in familiar cultures, and into the uncomfortable, salubrious chaos of the unknown. I suggest that after bringing order to chaos, chaos must be brought to order.
To be clear, I am a great admirer of your work for the same reason that other people are. More than your ideas, it is your sincerity in the pursuit of truth that I think is so precious. I would also suggest that your arguments remain intact even if the West is not the ‘best’ of all possible civilizations.
I am not aware of anyone in the West who has truly grappled with and understood the East, and popularized it in the way that you have popularized the best of Western thought. I don’t think that Eastern philosophy is a mere curiosity. I think it contains elements that could help the West out of its current morass. And I would like to know what you think of this.