Gabor Maté, Jordan Peterson and The Twin Tyrannies of Compassion and Responsibility

If I had given this blog post the title “Gabor Maté VERSUS Jordan Peterson”, it might have guaranteed a few more clicks and an unlikely shot at virality.

But that kind of title would really not be in keeping with the spirit of the article.

Because it is my sincere hope, that one day a public conversation takes place between Gabor Maté and Jordan Peterson. I sense that constructive dialogue between the two would be a good thing in terms of reconciling different perspectives.

I admire both men. I have read Peterson’s books and listened to many of his podcasts and interviews. I also saw him speak in person at Oxford New Theatre in 2018. I am a Substance Misuse Recovery Worker in a public prison – and Maté’s ‘In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts’ has become something of required reading for those in my profession. I also admire his work around ADHD and his thoughts on parenthood.

When we examine the work and public utterances of Jordan Peterson and Gabor Maté, we are able to detect distinct feeling tones in their communication. ‘In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts’ is a warm and poetic account of life with addicts. It does not however, feature stories of recovery. It is more an exhortation to love and accept the addict as they are. This is in stark contrast to the Peterson code red admonishment of ‘urgent action required’ in the realm of personal development. If Maté’s stated concern about Peterson is his repressed anger – my concern about Maté is what I sense as being his progressive tendency to see those who suffer as ‘sacred victims’.

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With both of these men, the perception of the observer is key. It is clear that both Maté and Peterson are driven by a love of humanity and helping others – they simply differ in their views of how best to effectively achieve the latter. Same goals: different operating systems and strategies.

Q. Are you a sticking plaster peeler or a sticking plaster ripper?

A. Well I suppose the answer to that is dependent on the nature of the wound concealed by the sticking plaster.

Whereas Peterson has occasionally spoken of ‘the tyranny of compassion’, Gabor Maté is the creator of a psychotherapeutic approach known as ‘Compassionate Inquiry’. According to the CI website, it “gently uncovers and releases the layers of childhood trauma, constriction and suppressed emotion embedded in the body, that are at the root of illness and addiction.” The Peterson approach or philosophy, if you prefer, is the idea that each person has to create a ‘map of meaning’ which will guide them forward, helping them plot a course of navigation in a world which can be brutal and chaotic. This personal map, like most software, requires regular updates.

I sometimes get the impression that the Peterson in conversation, either with himself – or others is not necessarily the Peterson his clients would work with in clinical practice. His public discourse are staccato bursts of passionate musings. In his books, however, he shares case studies of painstaking long-term work with his clients.

On the subject of addiction, the men might appear to share two very different perspectives – but I suspect that there is more common ground between the two than might at first seem obvious. Peterson believes that addiction is a matter of personality (and therefore the responsibility of the addict) whereas for Maté, addiction is a response to the pain of childhood trauma and the failure to have had one’s needs met as an infant.

I sometimes find it helpful to imagine Maté and Peterson as two very different types of 12 Step sponsor – for two very different personality types.  Peterson reminds me of the tough love sponsor I had in early recovery. “Grow up. Stop whining. Stop blaming others.” Maté is the kind of sponsor I would warm to now, well-established in long-term recovery: “Easy Does It. Love and Tolerance of Others is Our Code”. To expand upon this theme: in early recovery (the first decade) I was preoccupied with the black and white rules of recovery, the 103 ‘musts’ contained in the Big Book. Now, I am far more interested in the principles of the program – as opposed to the mechanics.

The Righteous Mind and The Partisan Brain

It is my belief that the political “left”, in other words, the ones who believe in the importance of community need to be clear about the mechanics of how they contribute to building resilient individuals. And the “right,” in other words, those who believe in the primary of the individual towards self-responsibility, need to be absolutely certain that the individual has sufficient tools to take self-responsibility.

Raymond Klasser

The following thought has crossed my mind on a number of occasions: “If personal responsibility and self-reliance are now seen as inherently right-wing values, whereas constructive (as opposed to destructive) compassion and helping others are seen as being left-wing values – then we are really in trouble as a society.” Anyone who has a genuinely wide and varied social circle will know that the aforementioned assertion is false. Maté is happy to describe himself a left-wing intellectual whereas Peterson has stated that he is commonly mistaken to be right-wing. As far as I can see Peterson is described as right-wing for two reasons. The first is his frequent attacks on Marxism and Post-Modernism. The second is the fact that he puts the onus on individuals to put their own house in order before criticizing the world.

Do Socialists Write Self-Help Books?

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It might be interesting to analyse the political leanings of the authorship of hundreds of personal development and motivational self-help titles. I have often wondered if those who self-identify as left-wing produce as many self-help treaties or personal development tomes as those who are generally believed to be right-wing or libertarian. The thought being that right-wingers are more interested in the development of the individual (and his ability to shoulder personal responsibility) than in dismantling, improving or creating systems.

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It’s his energy that draws people as much as what he teaches.

Fundamentally, I see him as an agent of repression, posing as an agent of libertarianism. Not to mention, he’s got this bee in his bonnet about what he seems to consider to be conspiracies by left-wing intellectuals, they seem to be his bête noire. Being a left-wing intellectual myself, I’d like to talk to him and ask him: ‘What are you so upset about Jordan? What are you so afraid of?

Gabor Maté on Jordan Peterson

On the YouTube video from which the above quote is taken, a commentary is provided by the uploader: “(Jordan Peterson’s) injunction ‘clean up your room’ – is tyrannical or, at best, not compassionate.” Comments have been disabled, likely to deter Peterson’s loyal tribe of internet follower/warriors from criticising either Maté or the uploader. But on another YouTube video in which Peterson discusses his allegedly tyrannical injunction, an avatar named ‘Dogmatic’ (presumably a young man – but not necessarily) shares his personal experience of what cleaning his room has done for him:

“Man, that’s bullshit. Cleaning my room won’t do anything. I’ll try it.”

Cleans room.

“Well, I guess I may as well apply for that job today.”

Applies for job.

“Well, I’ll get started on that workout routine. Might as well…”

Five Years Later: rich, chiselled and accomplished – all because this dude told me to clean my room.

The Tyranny of Responsibility vs The Tyranny of Compassion

As I have stated in a previous article, I believe that tough love and compassionate love are one and the same. That being said, Maté has stated that he is trying to engineer a subtle shift in how we perceive the notion of responsibility: can we move away from responsibility as a mechanism to attribute blame and establish guilt – and move towards a rational and compassionate analysis of Response Ability? Does the subject of our discussion, the protagonist (or perpetrator), have the ability or the capacity to respond? As Joe Rogan has said on a number of occasions, the idea of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps is only realistic if we actually have the capacity to do so. The reality is that very few (if any) of us are born in a log cabin that we built ourselves.

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