Individual and Society: Gabor Maté and Jordan Peterson on Addiction

Jordan B. Peterson - IMDb
Dr. Jordan Peterson
Dr. Gabor Maté (@DrGaborMate) | Twitter
Dr. Gabor Mate

In the following two clips, first from Dr. Peterson, and then from Dr. Mate, you will see two drastically different psychological explanations for rifts between ourselves and the world. The general question is how depression and addiction are related phenomena? Addiction is often considered a symptom of depression. However, it may be better to understand that they are symptoms of a more general malaise of the corruption of what could be more innocent frameworks of private, social, and political parts of our existence. (See my article called “1958” to see the tendency toward technocratic rationality.) In alignment with Dr. Mate, mass society creates conditions which not only corrupt our private, communal and political lives, but open a crack to a kind of metaphysical disparity which plays out as politically “right vs left” in front of our eyes.

Both of these clinical psychologists have enormous followings, and they represent this disparity: Dr. Jordan Peterson (who thinks addiction is a matter of personality) and Gabor Mate (who thinks addiction is a response to the pain of unfulfilled childhood needs, frequently trauma). The difference between the two perspectives is particularly stark. Notice how Dr. Peterson, in the following short clip, talks about dealing with addiction as a “rebuilding of the personality”, which is conceived from the standpoint of the atomized individual. Ultimately, it is an incredibly self-responsible activity.

Jordan Peterson on the Psychology of Addiction

Contrast this with Dr. Gabor Maté, who asserts in the following video that it is compassionate presence – essentially a caring presence of an “other” – which works at the origin of addiction and deal with it.

Dr. Gabor Maté: What is Addiction?

One takeaway from this contrast for me is one serious debate that goes to the heart of a widespread social malaise, and that is depression. 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 primacy of the individual towards self-responsibility, need to be absolutely certain that the individual has sufficient tools to take self-responsibility.

I suspect that the individual, as Dr. Peterson conceives her, does not have the requisite skills – or content – to take the kind of responsibility Dr. Peterson urges. Dr. Peterson here, and in other places, offers a conception of the individual that does not have the architecture required to sustain moral responsibility, i.e. responsible for, that is necessary. Dr. Mate points to the core role of significant others in developing that architecture. Dr. Peterson’s perspective of the individual omits such an architecture. The consequences for both sides are enormous, and as political societies, such clarity is needed to avoid being prepared for totalitarian rule, as “Trump as an Agitator” states. That it has taken 70 years for such an awareness to to catch widespread attention may be equated to the blindness of the fact that we have been the cause of climate change; that the world-ending consequences of the alienated individual may be of our own doing.

In other words, Dr. Peterson and Dr. Mate recognize the problem that addiction is a symptom of depression. But Dr. Peterson, pointing to the effectiveness of “religious conversion,” not knowing how to “induce” it can’t draw the connection between dealing with addiction and the operation of a religious conversion. That admission shows that the individual self – conceived apart from her surroundings – has no resources for dealing effectively with addiction. Peterson in effect describes a situation why the pathways that reinforce addiction are strengthened, but considers it abstractly, as if it is just part and parcel of a personality. He is essentially asking, “why the addiction?”

Dr. Mate, on the other hand, poses the question, “why the pain?” And we see that such addiction is sourced in pain, and that pain comes from somewhere deeper. This question leads him to situate the person so as to deal with the deeper depression. In other words, by connecting emotional and physical pain and treating them as integrally connected – rather than separate – Mate gets to the heart of the metaphysical illness to which Peterson’s view does not have access.

The stakes are enormous! We need to get this right.

3 thoughts on “Individual and Society: Gabor Maté and Jordan Peterson on Addiction

  1. This is not an accurate depiction of Peterson’s views and only picking pieces that support the argument. Peterson deals in the realm of meaning and he starts at childhood with how we develop meaning in our lives and how what we have developed manifests itself in the world. He does not require a religious answer to solve deep human issues, as is suggested, and his book maps of meaning goes as deep into the human experience and psychi as is possible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi JaEv – Thanks for your comment. I have to admit that I pick pieces, and since I wrote this, I have been exposed to some of Peterson’s later work (even though Maps of Meaning precedes “12 Rules”) He certainly admits that “we are social beings through and through” as I have heard him say in more recent lectures. However, his discussions of Piaget certainly still push his overall thoughts to formal conditions for development – and this to a slightly abstract individual who tends to greater individual sovereignty than I am inclined to agree with. But I very much appreciate this comment, because piecing together a holistic view of Dr. Peterson’s work is important, and again, my view presented is not so holistic.


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