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.

Peterson – Overcoming Addiction

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5sOh4gKPIg
Dr. Gabor Maté: What is Addiction?

One takeaway from this contrast for me is one serious debate that goes to the heart of 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 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 where 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.

5 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.

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    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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      1. Realistically, the social world is not the ideal environment for us anymore. Both Peterson and Mate mention this. Both of them agree native communities have great knowledge and wisdom thats rare in the modern world. What differs for me is that while Mate offers an empathetic rational for pain, which is accurate, Peterson deeply explores what to do with pain besides empathise with it. He does this within a modern context, seeing as however we dislike it, this is the landscape we are living within. He also emphasises tailoring your approach to your own understanding of your own personality, values and goals so you can attach action to meaning. Also tailoring approaches to children based on the child’s personality and not a vague blanket approached insisted apon by Mate. It also seems Peterson has no problem with enjoying present, connected and mutually beneficial relationships with his children and grandchildren. His anger is integrated and so can be applied. Both Mate and Peterson get triggered but I haven’t seen Mate use anger as effectively by choice.

        I see Peterson fully express many emotions, including joy and frustration but rarely to make his companions comfortable, they are sincere. Whereas Mate tends to maintain a monotone. I don’t know if this is an indication of more integrated emotions or simply personality differences.

        Peterson refers to addiction in the stricter sense of substance addiction. Mate refers to it as almost any maladaptive seeking behaivior so it is difficult to compare them. Peterson doesn’t ever deny these behaiviors aren’t influenced by social factors, he rather honestly admits that most of the time we do not have the social structures to heal us, life is bloody hard, with or without these structures. In order to create the life and community you want, you work at it. You don’t wait for your community to heal you when they can’t even heal themselves, you break the cycle yourself and watch as your own and everyone’s lives around you improve. You don’t do it alone as people seem to insist he’s implying. You take responsibility to initiate action and end up creating communities of people doing things together.

        I guess the biggest difference I’ve found is that to me, Mate seems fixated on healing the world, an important maternal role/stage of development a lot of us missed, whereas Peterson seems passionate about living well, taking responsibility for yourself AND others AND your community and inspiring others to do the same, a crucial paternal role. Adult life will be forced on us if we are ready or not but its more helpful if we choose how we engage with the world. Maybe they both have a place. I found Mate before I found Peterson and maybe that order was crucial?

        I was disheartened to read some of Mate’s twitter things reducing Peterson and those who enjoy his work to justifications for anger about change. It’s simplistic and wrong. Also insisting that Petersons anger is at the heart of his autimmunities. While I don’t follow his daughters lion diet, I have found profound help from adjusting my vitamin d and b vitamin levels (Stasha Gominak).

        Mate’s intense focus on the emotional environments impact on genes (I have enjoyed ‘how the body keeps the score’) seems to blind him to ideas about the physical environments impact on genes. I can have the most loving and attuned parents and communities and still inherit/develop autoimmunties generationally from lack of key hormones and nutrients.

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      2. Laura, I really appreciate this response. You have helped me to re-think the either/or way I framed my original post. As you can tell, I favor Mate’s approach, but this is because I believe we have some tendency to overlook socio-environmental causes. That being said, Peterson has shown a kind of empathy in his later work which is refreshing (and is partially informative to his latter well-being, I believe). But I still believe he asserts the atomistic individual – and to me, it seems he does so as an article of faith.

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