Thoughts on JBP-Milo
The following video was recently released, in which Professor Doktor Jordan B. Peterson, world-renowned médecin de l’âme, talks with Milo Yiannopoulos. My concern with the video is very selective. I won’t entertain the question of whether the illustrious doktor-professor was, for an hour and 45 minutes, evading certain Castalian elephants in the rooms. It is beyond my ability and ambition to analyze the mind of the great Jungian professor-prophet. I am going to discuss, instead, a theme that Milo brought up, because I find it personally relevant. Although the greatness and virtues of the professor-prophet exceed my limits, and I cannot relate to them, I can relate to some of his alleged vices and flaws. So I was motivated to write this partly because I believe an unreflective attitude toward prestige can render anyone vulnerable to traps and manipulations.
At around 50:00 Milo introduces the phrase “prestige economy” into the conversation and stresses that (1) JBP operates within that economy and, (2) perhaps as a consequence, JBP prefers to fix universities rather than seeing them annihilated. The two statements are, indeed, connected: If you are rich within a game of monopoly, you’d rather continue the game than to end it. JBP responds, not to the more fundamental claim (1) but to the follow-up (2). He says, “generally speaking, fixing things is better than burning them to the ground”. A good tactic for evading the deeper subject, but Milo presses on.
At 52:07 JBP responds to claim (1): “What do you mean by the prestige economy, exactly?” / Milo replies: “Position, recognition, titles, […]. You want to be part of ‘the church’, and I don’t. […] I cannot imagine anything more awful than to make the sorts of constant compromises in what I say and do in order to maintain a position, because I know it’s doomed anyway.”
Milo’s response is opaque. His one-word responses (“position”, “recognition”, …) are akin to saying “dollars”, “land”, “bank account”, and so forth. Standing on their own, these individual concepts alone only hint at the bigger picture. They do not expose the super-ordinate system within which the currencies (“position”), responses (“recognition”), and sub-ordinate systems play a part.
When we take them together, however, Milo’s hints are useful. His reference to power and control, for instance, is quite useful in clarifying how participating in the prestige economy sensitizes us, such that we can be controlled. If someone wants to control our actions, they can succeed in doing so when they know what we value (an idea that is elaborated in Marken & Carey’s book, Controlling People). This justifies Milo’s statement that not being a participant in the prestige economy gives him power.
But orienting and sensitizing its participants isn’t a unique feature of the prestige economy. We value many things, in turn becoming responsive or “vulnerable” to control. It is not a vice to value or to participate in systems where particular things, such as prestige, are valued. What is the problem with prestige? Is the prestige economy intrinsically bad? Before going further, let’s put a simple definition on the table: Prestige economy is a feature of social systems in which prestige is recognized, valued, pursued, and exchanged for other valuable assets. It creates asymmetries. For instance, a young and talented student who chooses a doctoral program in a prestigious institute is paying into the economy, exchanging his hard work and talent for prestige, and the institute/adviser are gaining from it.
Signs vs. Objects
Let’s divide the world simplistically into objects and signs. Objects are those things with which we are directly concerned. We value, want, and pursue them for what they are in themselves, not for what they indicate or promise. They have “use value” for us and their pursuit is intrinsically meaningful. Food and shelter are obvious examples of “objects”, but let’s also include other less tangible things into this category, such as belonging to a group, cooperative alliances, and protection.
Signs, on the other hand, indicate the presence of what we value, want, and pursue. Signs themselves are not, at least in principle, our concern. We are concerned with them in so far as they enable us to infer the presence or absence of important objects. The function of signs depend on regularities and co-occurrences. If a tasty-and-safe fruit was red in all instances in the past, we might take redness as a sign of a tasty-and-safe fruit. If a group of talented and hardworking employees, or a group of groundbreaking scientists, were all Harvard graduates in the past, then we might take ‘Harvard graduate’ as a sign of talent, hard work, and inevitable success.
But we have the inverse inference problem: We cannot jump–without a risk–from “All A’s are B’s” to “All B’s are A’s”. There could be a poisonous red fruit or a Harvard graduate that breaks the regularity, which is to say: The signs are not always reliable. The problem of inverse inference applies to status, social proof, and prestige. Prestige is a sign, not the thing itself, it is a promise and not the delivery of the promise, indicating that the person holding prestige has certain desirable characteristics. We rely on prestige because a more direct judgment of character requires conditions that are relatively rare (e.g., a crisis), but it is good to remember that, first, what I ought to aim to cultivate in myself is character, not overt signs of character; and, second, what I ought to value and encourage in others is also character, not overt signs of character.
Reward vs. Instrument
Our sign/object distinction corresponds to the distinction between primary and secondary reinforcers. A primary reinforcer (e.g., food, comfort, sex, pain-avoidance, play and exploration) is intrinsically rewarding, by virtue of the organism’s evolutionary-phylogenetic history. A secondary reinforcer (e.g., my favorite coffee mug) is rewarding by virtue the organisms’ individual-ontogenetic history, and through its association with a primary reinforcer. A secondary reinforcer can promise reward, but because of its infusion with the primary reinforcer it eventually becomes an object of value in its own right. In the absence of countervailing brute evidence (Black Swan observations) it takes reflection and meta-cognition to disentangle a secondary reinforcer from a primary reinforcer.
Through deliberate reflection, we can arrive at a position that recognizes the status of prestige as a secondary reinforcers, but we would also recognize its role–as a sign–within a shared communal perspective. This would allow you to use your Harvard degree instrumentally, recognizing that the instrumental value of such prestige is ultimately fragile, dependent on arbitrary conditions. The ethical stance, in my opinion, is to present one’s prestige-related commodities with a promissory and provisional tone. Rather than thinking, “They must value me, because I am a Harvard graduate!”, you could think, “They could trust me, provisionally, because I have already done something, even though it may not be relevant, at all, to what I will do in the future.”
Such a mindset prevents prestige from becoming a top priority. It tames and domesticates the desire for prestige, it prevents us from sacrificing all other values in favor of prestige, while keeping an eye on values for which we are willing to leverage, risk, and sacrifice our prestige. Finally, it confines the role of prestige to a sign, a secondary reinforcer, and fragile indicator of what we are truly concerned with (e.g., character).
Within the prestige economy, prestige is a currency and an instrument. A total immersion in the prestige economy–if one ceases to participate in other economies, if one ceases to recognize values that are higher than prestige, or if one allows prestige to monopolize one’s life–then prestige economy turns into prestige fetishism. This is what we ought to avoid: Pursuing empty signs for their own sake, ending up at a position where we desire signs regardless of whether they indicate what is truly good.
It is not a vice to care about the opinion of others. We are social by nature and we tacitly understand the practical implications of having good standing in the community–in a crisis, it is preferable to be surrounded by others willing to stand by your side. We understand that prestige–at least as long as our faith in the institutes that grant them is not completely undermined–is a useful shorthand/sign. We ought to supplement these views with the recognition of the fragility of prestige (and the fragility of the institutes that grant them), the recognition of its possible misuse, its potentially misleading role, and the trap of prestige fetishism. Falling into the trap of prestige fetishism can turn a person into a tool, stripped of his autonomy. And that is worth being mindful of.
Let me end on a practical note. When confronted with a choice between two collaborators, two institutes, two opportunities, two writing outlets/publishers, two media engagement, we can compare the options along many different dimensions, including prestige, but we ought not to be blinded by prestige and ignore other values. This, I believe, is the power Milo is referring to–the power (or at least option) to exercise integrity and character. Given that JBP enjoys a great deal of prestige at the moment, he has all the more opportunities to demonstrate character by spending into the prestige economy, and show that he is driven by other values. To a lesser degree, many of us have such opportunities.