Perhaps I’ve written too much about Jordan Peterson, but it’s never been about him alone. Aside from Peterson and his ideas, what sets me on fire is observing (and being part of to a certain extent) the tribe surrounding the Peterson phenomenon. For one thing, through Peterson’s rise we can observe a fundamental change in how people think and educate themselves outside the mainstream culture. There is a dizzying, maddening, new mode of education, which is more or less self-organising and organic — and it’s happening in the world of YouTube and podcasts.
In the 1970’s Ivan Illich promoted the de-schooling of society, and this has become a reality, to some extent. My current thesis is that the YouTube/podcast phenomena is inadvertently de-schooling society, in exactly the way Illich predicted. This de-schooling has certain characteristics, including the decentralisation of education, the emergence of new informal tribes of learning, and a change in the mode of communication: from asymmetrical broadcast (see Jordan Greenhall’s Understanding the Blue Church) to conversation and conversion (or what is called red-pilling in internet culture).
Small is Beautiful
Tribes have always been the most efficient model for human flourishing and good education—a small group of people is more human than a mob. The team, a band of brothers and sisters, a think tank, an extended family, or a small tribal unit — these create a space where everyone has a vital role and can quickly grow. Vitality is what characterises tribes — perhaps because our survival once depended on them.
Tribalism is deep within us, for better or worse. When we witness a tribe in action even by proxy—at a football game or rock concert for instance — we get the distant echo and thrill of that vitality which characterised the few millions years when we were small bands of hunter gatherers prey to wild predators. Tribes give us a charge of communal meaning and enliven us with both terror and creativity. The tribe can turn us into monsters or Gods, it brings out the best and the worst in us. Certainly, we feel most alive when we participate in a meaningful tribe rather than being a mere spectator to a tribal game— perhaps some of the modern ennui is a sense of separation from our tribal origins.
So what is the best kind of tribe to belong to then? A good tribe would have to be ‘adaptive’ as Eric Weinstein has recently said in his discussion with Peterson on the Rubin report. The point is: tribes can be either cult-like and incestuous or extremely effective and creative. The traditional tribe protects tradition and its gods, even if those gods are homicidal, whereas a small group of intelligent learners can raise up the society and the individual. The key to enlightened tribalism is right motivation and creative thinking rather than blind ‘social justice’, which may be our most primitive tribal impulse—to protect and defend our identity.
The story of The Tower of Babel is the story of too many tribes at each other’s throats in too narrow a space—of the attempt to create a false kind of universalism, a forced intimacy, or too big a tribe. If our global structures get too overbearing and large, alienation is inevitable. That is why the rule for a good tribe is, to use the economist E. F. Schumacher’s term, Small is Beautiful.
The Intellectual Dark Web
The IDW label is actually a pretty good joke by Eric Weinstein. The joke is that it is no longer possible to seriously characterise these people as the ‘gateway drug to the alt-right’ that they were supposed to be—anybody who has been paying attention knows these are not dangerous radicals but reasonable individuals. In upper class manhattan ‘progressive’ circles, to go off script is to be branded a heretic and subject to inquisition—but Eric’s humour has magically undone some of that spell. The IDW are not a political movement, but a bunch of heretics to a dying dogma; they are also a powerful tribe that has flourished outside of any monolithic structure.
The success of the Intellectual Dark Web shows that heterodoxy points the way forward. The IDW consists of atheists and believers, left-wingers and conservatives—there is no overarching ideological imperative but a general spirit of congeniality and creativity rather than resentment. Nobody has elected the IDW to be the voice of any political party or social agenda—the tribe rather arose out of an organic need for sense-making in a media landscape that was beginning to feel more and more narrow and stupid.
Jordan Peterson, as the biggest rock star of the IDW, speaks a great deal about the development of the individual but he has spoken less about communalism. At the same time he is the leading voice in a definite tribe. His rise to stratospheric popularity comes in great part from being nourished by this spontaneously emerging tribe, even if his main orientation is towards individual development.
The Quality of Attention
People watch YouTube videos and go to sell-out theatres to see Jordan Peterson because they are rapt by ideas and want to change their lives, not to get a diploma. This is ‘learning for the sake of learning’ and is more about self-development than meritocracy. Schools, more and more, have other agendas than personal and spiritual development, and for this reason many students have their attention elsewhere. The between informal and formal schooling, in other words, is the quality of attention. If you passionate about your subject your learning potential is will expand exponentially.
Jordan Greenhall has coined the terms ‘red religion’ and ‘blue church’ to describe new and traditional media—this can be applied to this great divide in self-learning vs institutional learning. The red religion is fiery, dangerous, and feeds our deepest desires and imperatives; the blue church is cool, protective, and prescriptive. As society gets more rigid and church-like the ‘red tide’ pressure builds up and breaks down the gatekeepers wall. This allows for the giddy influx of new ideas, but also the proliferation of further insanity.
People’s learning is maximised on YouTube because they are deeply engaged and attentive with subjects which have meaning to them—one would not listen to 3 hours of lectures on existentialism and brain anatomy if this were not the case. This is the opposite of MTV marketing and flash news which networks have been shoving down our throats for decades, with the cynical presumption that human beings are gullible idiots.
In the ‘de-schooled’ society, the more content, the more depth, the more meaning and minutia, the happier people are. A longer narrative trumps effect, in the same way long form serial tv shows have trumped formulaic movies in terms of cultural relevance. Another reason for Peterson‘s popularity is that he is a compelling storyteller and his audience are rapt, in the same way people are for an episode of Game of Thrones, for instance.
The various podcasters and people from the IDW have shown that coercion doesn’t work, and that many people prefer a certain low fi authenticity over slick and empty production. And Peterson especially has triumphantly proved that high level discourse is not too good for the masses. The resentment of academics towards his work only highlights this fact. Postmodern academics have failed to communicate meaning in the way that the most fundamentalist fire and brimstone preacher can. Peterson has filled this void with some of that spiritual urgency, but without losing science, reason, literature, or philosophy.
The Nature of Listening
Education is changing more rapidly than we think. As a teacher at various universities in Paris over the past decade I think I have seen a change in my students: they are more combative and interested in ideas. Millennial aren’t as blinkered or zombified as one might expect: it may be the teachers who need to be reformed. The new kind of student, nourished by YouTube and video games, will force the teacher to abandon his old ways and up his game a bit.
Since everybody has an Alexandria library in their pocket but also pornography and fake news, the classroom is changing. There is intense toxicity of the online world on one hand, and a new efficient learning possibility on the other. In general, the cell phone wreaks havoc with relationships — the tension of vying for attention with the smart phone has reached a terrifying pitch, and there is a new promiscuous triad (teacher/student/machine) to navigate. In any case, the days of a teacher on a podium extolling knowledge to the obedient listener may be over. Because of unruly machines, the teacher has to dance faster than he used to to get attention. Good teaching is a performance and this is magnified in an environment when we have to compete with machines.
In present circumstances, I often wonder why students are so polite and well behaved. You would think they would be having orgies or at least plotting the overthrow of the government — or that they would be completely dysfunctional. However, millennials seem well put together — perhaps a bit too conservative. As Jordan Peterson has pointed out, millennials are actually interested in ‘responsibility’ and ‘meaning’ as much as instant gratification and partying.
The nature of listening has changed. Students don’t just listen to the teacher passively the way they watch tv; rather they surf and they will only pay attention when they come across a giant wave. The teacher has to be that wave, which is daunting. When students get bored there are more compelling and bigger waves on their screens to contemplate.
Beyond empty consumerism and toxic ideology
Empty consumerism in education on one side and postmodern social justice on the other have reached a maximum level of corruption it would seem: a middle space is opening up where real dialogue can take place. Because ‘The Blue Church’—or traditional education and media—is in decline, people are listening to groups like the IDW, which lead them to even deeper intellectual webs within webs, and tribes within tribes.
This is the positive sign I see: that authenticity has once again become cool. For instance, a good educational video today is less about production effect than content; lateral and long form dialogues are winning over packaged content. This could be likened to the difference between a folk song and a pop hit: the folk song has a deep narrative — the pop song is exciting but shallow. When people are deeply sick of the shallow noise, they start to search for a deeper melody. The ancient storyline doesn’t need ‘special effects’ to be powerful. Could it be that oral culture is once again in ascendence?
In any case, today the floodgates are open. With online learning the choice is clear: you can fritter away your time on pornhub and celebrity gossip or learn game theory and continental philosophy. You can be a new kind of idiot or genius — or both; in the online world you are either a student of meaning or you entertain yourself to death. In any case, the IDW has shown that people actually are interested in something more than shallow entertainment.
Traditional education continues and will continue to exist — but more and more the learning happens elsewhere.
Beyond modernism and post-modernism in education
The message is: we have to go beyond the modern industrial mode as well as the postmodern ideological impasse in education, which means small tribes of of intense and efficient learning modules. Either we fall into doomed mega-structures and become ideologically possessed—or work in small scale on cutting-edge teams. Our tribal nature needs to be integrated and it’s worse excesses transcended, in other words.
The education system has become increasingly a scaffolding, an empty matrix, which offers a lot of expensive diplomas that has less and less value. Educational inflation has pushed people outside the system; it so often has other aims than learning and the growth of the individual. The original purpose of education remains what was written on Temple of Apollo at Delphi: Know thyself. This has been forgotten in a technocratic, managerial world.
The IDW may be sign of the beginning of the end of school as we know it — which opens up a space that is both terrifying and exciting. Perhaps like the Beat Generation in the 1960’s, the IDW have proven that a small group of inspired friends can raise up the culture, outside of the institution, where real life happens. However, unlike Jack Kerouac and his gang—the message is not of hedonistic freedom and poetry but sense-making and responsibility. Of course poets are dependent on the philosophers and the philosophers on the poets—both are needed to dance in the dragons jaws. So bring on the poets.
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Thanks Stephen Lewis for the edits