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John Horvat: Social Media, Jordan Peterson, and “Returning to Order”

I’ve read Peterson’s Twelves Rules for Life, and it has some points that I agree with. But I don’t think he goes far enough.”

A frequent criticism directed towards modern society is that it suffers from a lack of shared purpose, community, or, more broadly, “order.” Commentators such as Jordan Peterson, for instance, have gained considerable attention in recent years for discussing topics along these lines. In this interview, John Horvat II, the Catholic scholar and vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, joins Merion West and Kambiz Tavana to discuss his book Return to Order, as well as to provide suggestions on how best to find structure and purpose in a fast-paced modern economy and culture.

Thank you for your time today, Mr. Horvat. Let me start with this questions first: How did you come to write the book, which is, as you know, a very peculiar book. It’s not just a book that you read and put aside; it’s like a toolbox—or like a resource you have to come back to over and over. So how did you come to write this book?

Well, it has a long history. It goes back to 1986, and it was a project that was proposed by an intellectual I knew, whose name was Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira; he was a Brazilian. He studied a lot about economics and culture and the moral aspects of society, and he proposed this book for me and a commission of people: about five or six others. So I did these studies, and I conducted many studies for years until, finally—in 2008—I spent four years writing the book. Together with the commission, I was bouncing around these ideas, and the result was Return to Order

The title of the book is: Return to Order. Does this suggest that—for some reason or another—over some time, we’ve gotten away from the sort of order a society should have?

Exactly. The central premise [of the book] is that we are in a state of disorder: a disorder that’s mainly as a result of what I call in the book, “frenetic intemperance.” That is to say that where we’re out of balance. We have a system that works; it produces things, but it produces it in a way that is intemperate and that doesn’t have restraint. And, at times, it can go into crisis. So the idea is we need to return to a temperate order that will be more stable and more virtuous. 

Could you be more specific when you say “unstable,” or unbalanced in current life? Do you have an example?

I would say, for example, an economy that is first of all—very much—addicted to debt. That is one thing that is very disorderly. We put things off. We want to just have the pleasure for the moment and, then, the debt comes, and the system crashes sometimes, like it did in 2008. Also the speed of things. We have an economy that is extremely fast-paced. Everything is fast; everything has to be right now, regardless of the consequences. And I think that also is a factor of instability and breakdown in our economy and, especially, in our society. Economies can work fast, but people are human; and they are limited by how much they can absorb and how much they can take. So that would be another thing: the speed of society. And perhaps another example would be the volume of things; you know we’re dealing with huge amounts and huge movements of that could be moderated. We want everything, and we don’t want any type of restraint. 

When I started reading the book, Steven Pinker’s book The Age of Enlightenment, a very good book, came to my mind. What are your thoughts? Pinker argues that we are progressing constantly, but you argue that—at some point—we just got off the route of order, and we have to get back at it. I want to know your thoughts. 

Right. The point that—let’s say, “the breaking point,” which I mentioned—is the Industrial Revolution. I’m not against industry or progress. I think we need progress, and certainly it helps a society. However, the Industrial Revolution was a revolution that turned society upside down and reversed the role of the consumer and the producer. Yes, it produced a massive amount of goods and services, but it overturned social structures that are very necessary for our own stability. I think these days we can have a society with a lot of progress and a lot of goods and services, but it should be done in a moderate way. And it can be done in a moderate way. The Industrial Revolution simply didn’t do it in that way, and, for that reason, I criticize it. 

We are now in a very turbulent time politically. There’s a lot of talk about how the economy is working for some but maybe not all. Some proponents of capitalism might argue that that’s just how capitalism works, in that some are made better off than others. What’s your take—since you brought up the economy—about our current times and how the economy is playing out? 

Well, I mean we definitely have an economy that produces a lot of goods and services, and a lot of it has helped an enormous amount of people. It has taken people, as well as entire nations out of poverty and want. But it is a very precarious situation because it is very much based on debt (and the issuing of debt). It is also an economy that is fast-paced and leaves a lot of people behind—because they’re not able to keep up with that pace. So there are definitely problems with our modern economy. And then there’s the fact that we don’t have a lot of the social structures of family, faith, and community that normally keep a society in balance. Those structures would allow us to keep the same amount of prosperity but would keep it in a balance that would allow many more people to benefit from the goods that come from a prosperous economy. 

There’s a chapter in your book that’s very interesting; it’s called “Foundation of an Organic Order.” It got me thinking, and I bookmarked it so that I could talk to you about it. There was a time in the earlier days of the Internet, for example, that social media and the Internet allowed people to post thoughts and organically reach some sort of audience. Now, it’s almost impossible because you have to pay to increase your reach (through advertisements and such) or seek to game their algorithms. I always thought that when we talk about the foundations of organic order, with every change or with every new technology, that becomes subject to change. In this day and age—with new technologies coming and going—how do you keep that kind of organic order that you discuss in the book?

Organic order is basically the order that is according to our nature. We are social beings, so we like to communicate with others. That’s part of an organic order. We’re not machines. When we’re put into machine-like situations, it becomes very awkward for us, and we don’t become comfortable in those situations. So that’s how I would define an organic order: an organic order is a society where people live according to their nature. And with social relationships, natural leadership, ways of producing, ways of consuming that are familiar, you feel a certain familiarity with what you’re dealing with. The modern economy does tend to destroy those things, you know. It creates an environment where you’re just a number in the system; you’re not really a person with all the nuances that are necessary. As you mentioned, new technologies tend to disrupt those organic rhythms, but they don’t necessarily have to destroy them. And we’re seeing a lot of that destruction today. We’re feeling the lack of that human element that is so important, that human touch that is so important to not only our own social life but also to economic life. 

When I describe your book to friends, the first question almost everyone asks is: “What does the book say about social media?” So why don’t you share what you think about that?

Social media—I mean, I’m on social media. Not so much for my own personal use; I use it incidentally for the book because you need to have some kind of presence. But I think it is a very shallow medium; it doesn’t allow us to really think deeply, and that is much more important than the shallow contacts, where it’s just a like, some kind of notification. I think it makes for very limited contact. Social media is very limited; it cannot replace personal contact. A lot of people try to replace it, and social media tends to present a distorted reality where the person only presents that which is most favorable to that person, and a person can somehow show off what he or she is doing. So I don’t think it’s an ideal medium, as the more organic ones are. The personal contact is what makes all the difference. 

I follow you on Twitter, and I was suspicious as to if it was really you behind the account.

Well, actually, Twitter I use. Facebook I don’t, but Twitter I do. On Twitter, the personality of the person does show through because your thinking can show through, and it’s interesting. The human personality is so strong and so important that even in very mechanical ways, it can show through. Hopefully, my personality shows through on Twitter. 

I resisted Twitter for a long time, but eventually I joined because apparently you should have it these days. Also, if some people want to contact you, then that’s how they do it. But it always amazes me when I see those with much more practical purposes in life having a social media presence. I think they have much better things to do than spend time on social media. 

One of the other things that comes up when I talk about the book is that the book looks like a religious book, but it’s not a religious book; it’s a very practical book. How do you account for having a very practical book that looks like it’s a religious text, but it’s not a religious text?

Well, I mean, it is. What we’re talking about are rules that come from our human nature, the way we are. It’s just an observation of reality and an observation of society—not only my own but those of people who have written some very brilliant books about these topics. What I wanted to do in the book was not to provide an encyclopedia of everything I’ve read but to create a very succinct summary of these things so that you could see what is available out there. These things have been thought out, and it’s not just some kind of pipe dream that I’ve come up with. These things have been done; societies have been organized like this. It does work, to a certain extent. So that was basically my idea. 

What’s your take on the state of religion nowadays?

Obviously, there is a decline in religion; we live in a secular society that doesn’t recognize religion—or makes religion simply a very personal thing. We are social beings, but we are also religious beings; and, it’s very hard to suppress religion. It always comes up. Everyone has to answer those very basic life questions that a secular society cannot answer, and those questions are, “Who am I”; “Why am I here”; “What is my purpose?” These are questions that require answers, and everybody has to somehow find an answer for himself or herself. And I don’t think you can ever really suppress religion, even in a secular society that doesn’t recognize it and doesn’t give it official citizenship in the national discourse. But I think America is a very, very religious nation, much more religious than you might realize. 

One topic that also comes up when I have conversations with people about your book is how to reach and maintain order. I tend to talk with people who are not thinking in the same way as I am, so I can understand my beliefs and also understand their point of view. But the notion of having an orderly, practical life—people always say it’s easier said than done—and from what I understand, it’s not easy to keep order. But if you want tell people how to approach having order in life and how to maintain it, what’s the best practical advice that you could give?

That’s a very difficult question—because in an organic society, a lot of these aren’t spelled out in a systematic and mechanical way. People are very different, and one formula for one person may not work for another person, though there are basic principles you can and must take into consideration. I think one of those principles is that there is an order in society; there is an order that exists in our very nature. And it is necessary to recognize that order as valid for all people, in all types of times. It doesn’t change, and there is an order of things, which says you don’t lie, you don’t steal, and you can’t really find a way out of those things. Those are part of our very nature that you can’t change. I think the first step would be to recognize that there is a natural order in society, and to see, well, how can I apply that to my own life? And how can I live that? The circumstances around me may be different, may emphasize one aspect over another, but we all have to somehow deal with it.

I wanted to see what your view is on a point I’ve been thinking about. Many companies transformed media, entertainment, and such into a very scientific-based method to grab your attention and stop whatever you’re doing. And they do it very successfully; they make a lot of money, even from people do not have a lot of power of concentration. However, the things that matter most need deep conversation, and we do not have that. I would say, “Why is there no science behind the other side: on how to have discussions in a very deep way?” 

Well, that is a very interesting question. I’ve never really thought about it. You definitely have a point—because the other side, the side that likes the spontaneity and unrestraint, they have become experts at it. They study it; they do the science on it, and they know what our reactions will be. So, definitely, we’re at a disadvantage. We’re not in the loop. I see things from the point of view of a Catholic, and that’s what I wrote it from: from that point of view. And there are spiritual schools that deal with these topics, of how to live one’s life and how to meditate, how to reflect upon God, the contemplation of the universe. It is something actually well-developed, and these things are ways in which people can find a certain kind of happiness, a type of happiness that is very much in contrast with the frenetic intemperance of our modern day world. It’s not as if these things have never been studied. I just think they have been put aside, and the modern media has certainly taken advantage of its monopoly on people’s attention to turn people the opposite way. 

The argument that I make usually when it comes to the media is that many people still have this incorrect perception that media companies are doing things by the book, or are fair, or balanced, or moral. So I argue that these are money-making machines, so they don’t really care about what’s fair or balanced. They just see what works to their interests, so, in that case, no one should look at them as sources of justice or impartiality or fairness or morality. There’s nothing there, so we have to change the view. That’s what I tell them about. 

There was a series of podcasts by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and he made the series of “Morality in the 21st Century.” The main theme was why for example, Adam Smith’s book on the economy, The Wealth of Nation, is great, but his book on morality, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is less known. So what would be the best way to approach  the relationship between economics and morality today? 

My analysis involves personal decisions that you have to make—and also decisions where you’re definitely going to have to give up something, including benefits that you might receive by falling in line with the fast-paced world where everything is completely unrestrained. So those personal decisions are things that will really determine how you are going to put morality into effect. But there are some basic ones, like family. Family is such a natural institution that it adapts to time; it adapts to situations, and it allows a person to feel very fulfilled. At the same time, one feels the restraints of that relationship, as well as the benefits. Family is very important, and if you can live a family life inside our society, then you’ve gone a long way. And, of course, faith is an important part of that as well. Even a community—the life of a community is very difficult these days because everybody’s isolated in their own little house, and they don’t get involved in communities. But communities are very important for our social relationships. 

Have you noticed that your book, Return to Order, is very compatible with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life? 

[Laughs]. I don’t know; I’ve read Peterson’s Twelves Rules for Life, and it has some points that I agree with. But I don’t think he goes far enough. There are some criticisms that I have of him because he is not a religious man, and he’s very philosophical. He bases himself on a lot of philosophers that I would not agree with, including German philosophers of the 19th century. But the fact that he does talk about responsibility, the fact that he does talk about family relationships, and also the fact that we are always constantly looking for meaning—we only reach a certain degree of happiness when we find meaning. In that sense, I think I definitely agree with him. 

Last question, what’s the best current book you’ve read that gives you the best satisfaction as for the point of view of having an orderly life? 

That’s a good question. I would go with the book of my mentor, the one who actually proposed this project to me, who is Professor Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, and he wrote a book called Revolution and Counter-revolution. It is a perspective on history that put everything in order in my life, and said “Well, this how history works.” It gave a general outline of the different revolutions in society and how to do a counterrevolution. That book was very important in my life, and I do read it often. I go back to it often. 

Thank you so much for your time.

It’s a pleasure, anytime.

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