Aion, The Internal Witness, and Kissing Social Media’s Butt Goodbye

Anyone who knows much about me knows that I’m fascinated with Dr. Jordan Peterson. He’s filled the hole left by the death of Christopher Hitchens, in that he is an endless source of new and challenging ideas and information about modern problems, while being almost completely devoid of ideological leanings. He’s smart, engaging, well-spoken, and uses excellent rhetorical skills to support impeccable logic. This quarter, I’ve been using him to teach my students how a great critical thinker sounds and behaves, and to my delight, they love him, too.

Much of Dr. Peterson’s work is derived from Carl Jung’s Aion. Peterson is a clinical psychologist, and in addition to his career in psychoanalytical work with his patients, he now travels around the world giving conversional talks with large audiences. A few months ago, I had the immense pleasure of going with a good friend to hear Peterson talk here in Salt Lake City. The majority of Peterson’s presentation was based on the underlying meaning behind the enduring story of Adam, Eve, and the Garden of Eden, and how it relates to the constant, existential threat each of us faces of the evil within ourselves (as represented by the snake, which is able to bypass the illusory safety of the walls surrounding the paradisiacal garden, and simply appears on the inside).

In the talk, and in many of Peterson’s other presentations, he mentions reading Carl Jung’s Aion, wherein Jung lays out his theory of human consciousness and existing archetypes within our collective subconscious. For some reason, I had created this idea of Aion as a jargon-ridden, super-complex piece of psychoanalytical expertise, and convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to understand it without substantial difficulty. So I avoided reading it. Cool, right?

But my curiosity about the formation of Peterson’s teachings and their relationship to real, verifiable truth finally won out (as much as such a thing exists in the murky underworld of the subconscious), and I started reading Aion one night. Although I had to do some looking up of words and terms, there was hardly anything so jargony that I couldn’t understand it. The overall writing is clear, the ideas are absolutely fascinating, and, it turned out, somewhat familiar due to the pop culturization of archetypes and psychoanalytics (take this 10-question quiz to find your archetype now!).

So I’ve spent even more time than usual trying to objectively analyze myself. Impossible, I’m aware, but I do believe that Jung was right when he said that “Man’s task is to become conscious of the contents that press upward from the unconscious.” While it’s not possible for me to be truly objective, I think the effort to seek and understand the inner workings of our own consciousness is a critically important part of being a worthwhile human being – refer back to the idea of the life unexamined, etc, etc.

Dr. Peterson seems to be in agreement with this sentiment and expresses it in a variety of ways, one of which is the regular urging of young people to stop their inclination to seek refuge from life’s difficulties in “Safe Spaces” – an concept which I have always strongly felt is both very silly and extremely dangerous. The safe space mentality is cropping up in all kinds of memetic ways (“Treat yoself – you deserve it”), but also in senseless feel-good platitards (“Love your imperfections, for they are what make you perfect”), and in truly cringe-worthy bureaucratic attempts to remove all elements of discomfort and confrontation from college campuses.

Nowhere are these ideas embraced more firmly than on social media. I haven’t had Facebook since the summer of 2016 (and believe me, I don’t miss it), but I can’t imagine that the endless posts about removing “negative” and “toxic” people from your life have stopped. In fact, I’m positive they haven’t, because up until a couple of months ago, I still had Instagram and that platform is replete with memes and messages encouraging people to take the paths of least resistance. Don’t do the hard work of owning your part in dysfunctional relationships and attempt to resolve conflict; simply surround yourself with people who will kiss your ass and never tell you when you’re fucking up. The person who broke up with you is really the one missing out. You’re perfect as you are.

Not only is Social Media full of these senseless feel-good sentiments, but it is entirely hypocritical in the sense that it is a perfect platform for political witch-hunting and Social Justice Warrior bullying. In one post, someone will encourage you to refuse to grant toxic and abusive people access to your sparkling character, and then in the next they’ll be participating in the kind of death-by-public-shaming that is heaped upon people who dare say or write something that can be construed as even vaguely racist.

Rather than encouraging us to turn our perspective inward, at our own dysfunctions and ineptitudes, Social Media is the endless encouragement of the worst parts of our ego. We post selfies, spend hours trying to perfect the angle of our waist-to-butt ratio, and make decisions about who to date based on how well we think they’ll mesh with us in our pictures on Instagram. We might admit our imperfections, but it’s in a humble-braggy “Look, I’m not perfect but I love myself anyway, so deal with it” manner. We judge other people as if we were in any position to know better. It is self-promoting, aggrandizing self-indulgence at its absolute worst, and it is not making us more connected or empathetic people. It’s doing the opposite. And we spend an average of two hours a day doing it.

I’m not an exception to that. Even though I had reflected, amazed, on how much time I could waste scrolling through endless iterations of essentially the same content on Instagram, I kept doing it. I’d stay up past my bedtime and be exhausted the next day. I’d spy on profiles of people, all of whom I had no business knowing about, and I know people did that to me in return. I got into stupid fights and attacked people’s inability to spell as evidence of their inability to reason. And all of this to maintain a certain dynamic in a social circle that is, for all intents and purposes, not even real. The internet could go down tomorrow and Social Media would cease to exist. Our actual relationships with people would not.

My trusty internal witness – that which Socrates called his daemon, and which Christopher Hitchens eloquently argues is the guide we naturally have to lead a good life sans religion – kept whispering that it was probably time for me to just give up Social Media and focus on the things that actually matter. Instagram, I knew, was not bringing out the best in me, just as Facebook had done. It was bringing out the vain, the braggadocious, the snarky and sarcastic, the cynical. It confirmed my least favorite parts of humanity, while encouraging me to participate in the same. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t blame Instagram for this, or Facebook. They are simply vessels I could use to make public the private pieces of me that were already there. And I knew better.

So just after Christmas, I got rid of Instagram, and pared my Snapchat down to just family members (I have a couple of brothers who won’t text me back, but will message right away on Snapchat)(insert affectionately frustrated platitard about kids these days). In addition to the time I’ve gained from not having social media, I’ve also noticed that I’ve lost the need to obsessively photograph everything, and instead just enjoy the moment. If I think about someone and want to know what they’re up to, I text them and ask. Or I call. Or I actually set up a time to see them and talk.

My skin hasn’t improved and I’m not, like, glowing or losing weight as a result of this. By all outward appearances, I am the same as I was before. But I know better – the inner me knows better – and I have more time to spend on reading and thinking about things that are actually of consequence. I’m more focused on my teaching and schooling and the Fulbright. And I know that I’m actually doing these things because I want to – not because I want the affirmation I’ll get when I post about them on Instagram. Dr. Peterson would be so proud.

P.S. “Platitard” is a word I added to my lexicon with the help of my brilliant mentor teacher. A platitard is a platitude which is so entirely devoid of substance or inspiration that it is not only meaningless, but jaw-droppingly stupid.

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