Jordan Peterson and the “clean room” theory of social change

When he is not offering esoteric Jungian interpretations of the Bible, or dissecting Postmodernist ideology, Dr Jordan B. Peterson is telling us to clean up our rooms. It is an old-fashioned bit of advice, springing from Peterson’s Protestant values; “take responsibility for those matters under your immediate control”.

It also reflects his experience as a clinical psychologist treating people suffering from depression, anxiety, and those with an overwhelming sense of living in chaos. The idea is, encourage people to apply themselves to the simple day-to-day things; help them organize their lives from the ground up. People, Peterson says, should be careful to remain within the boundaries of their own competency; and for him that means that most people should not preoccupy themselves with “changing the world”.

Peterson’s view is also influenced by his exposure on campus to young, idealistic, and very often narrow-minded and naïve political activists. He sees them (probably accurately) as biting off more than they can chew; dedicating themselves to changing society for the better, while they have done little or no work on improving themselves, developing their ideas, and cultivating their own maturity.

The problem is, all of these contexts that have influenced Peterson’s views lend themselves to a very skewed perspective. Peterson, for instance, has never been involved in any social, political, or human rights activism himself; hence his critique is entirely one-sided. He has no idea what sorts of discussions take place among activists, doesn’t know anything about their lives, or indeed, if their rooms are or are not clean already.

He also fails to recognise that the overwhelming majority of the population already implements his advice; i.e.; they are entirely consumed with their own daily lives, their own private concerns, their own personal issues; and have very little interest in anything else going on in society, or in the world, that does not impact them directly. And this is precisely why many activists become so vehement; because Peterson’s advice encourages an approach to life which enables horrific injustices to be perpetrated without the slightest notice from the general public.

I have personally seen regular, average people successfully delay a catastrophic loan agreement between the Egyptian government and the International Monetary Fund, and the only reason they were not able to derail the agreement altogether was because too many Egyptians opted to busy themselves with their own personal lives. The impact of that agreement has already increased the misery index for millions of people in Egypt. Being too focused on “cleaning up their own rooms” to participate in the opposition to the IMF, has made it more likely that they will have no rooms of their own to clean in the near future.

I have seen a housewife in England organize boats on the other side of the world to rescue Rohingya refugees from certain slaughter. Would she have been better advised to organize her closet?

I have known a husband and father who struggled every month to pay his own rent and to provide for his family’s basic needs, while simultaneously raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in charity to fund relief efforts in the Third World, which made millions of lives better. Should he have rather discarded those efforts in favour of a stable 9 to 5 office job with a livable wage?

Every significant social and political movement has been advanced by individuals willing to sacrifice their own well-being, their own comfort, their own personal interest, for the sake of a cause greater than themselves. The theory that society would have advanced in a similar, or in a better way, had all of these people instead attended to the tidiness of their own rooms, so to speak, is dubious at best, and delusional at worst.

I fully agree that everyone must try to remain within the boundaries of their own competency, but I do not at all agree that those boundaries can just be assumed. One does not definitively know the limits of one’s capabilities until one tries. There is also something to be said about the degree to which individual competency can be compounded with the competency of others through solidarity in a collective effort. That is something very real, and again, it is something attested to by the many triumphs of social and political movements throughout history. The “clean room” theory, is more or less an argument against solidarity.

I do not think it is as obvious as Peterson thinks it is, that one who cannot focus on “cleaning their own room” is automatically incapable of doing anything greater or more complex than that. Indeed, it may very often be the case that people opt to engage the greater and more complex challenges precisely because they (correctly) evaluate them as being more important and more urgent; and if they were to heed Peterson’s advice, they would be undermining their own potential, and robbing the world of what they had to offer.

A clean room is not necessarily a womb from which a better and more just world is born. It is sound advice, but with a very limited scope of relevance. If taken as too strict an injunction it is a call to self-absorption and indifference. Sometimes, it is necessary to step out of your room, regardless of what state it is in, and push the boundaries of your competency in an effort greater than your own self-interest.