Reasons to Watch Jordan Peterson, Closely, Part One.
The following essay examines Jordan Peterson’s rapid rise to prominence by using Peterson’s Maps of Meaning as a lens to gaze through. Since most of Peterson’s critics, and even many of his supporters, don’t seem especially familiar with his MoM thesis, I decided to put it to the test by applying it to a real-world example of socialized human behaviors in times of ideological polarization. What better example than that of Peterson himself?
Maps of Meaning for Dummies
To my mind, everything Peterson says and does publicly is rooted in his Maps of Meaning project, and either refers to or stems from the principles he outlines in it. These are the principles which he continues both to propagate and apply, albeit in more user-friendly ways (i.e., 12 Rules for Life), since few people seem willing or able to get to grips with Maps of Meaning, the original text.
Peterson is currently finishing up his audio version of the book, and no doubt it will be another big best seller for him. I haven’t read Maps of Meaning, but I have listened to all the lecture series and read Peterson’s summation “Neuropsychology of Motivation for Group Aggression and Mythology” closely, and I think I have sufficient grasp of it to attempt to re-present Peterson’s findings in a way that will make it accessible, easily grokked, by readers who aren’t familiar with it.
Some of Peterson’s critics have argued that Maps of Meaning makes rudimentary, even self-evident, ideas unnecessarily complex and fools people into thinking it is something new and profound. I would say they are half right, but only half. Peterson’s model is certainly not simple, but it is in many ways self-evident; at least, many of its tenets are self-evident and commonly understood.
What is different is how he arranges them into a more or less coherent system and, most importantly, how it can then be applied as a means for navigating the world. By all the evidence, the system is effective at least at a social level but also I think at a psychosocial one. Peterson seems to want us to believe it also functions at a sacred or spiritual level, and this is something I will question as this series proceeds.
How Jordan Peterson Models Meaning
What I hope to demonstrate with this current piece is how Peterson has demonstrated the efficacy of his system in, by, and through his recent ascent to social prominence. Simply put, since his internal map of the world proved sufficiently accurate for his actions in the world to be effective, Peterson affirmed and confirmed the set of meanings by which he was orienting and adapting himself to his environment. This then enabled him to transform that environment, locally speaking (i.e., insofar as he is now rich and famous).
My point here is that Peterson is not only telling people how to live, he is showing them. And the proof that he has something of value to offer is in the pudding of the social validation that this offering has received (his best-selling book and ever-ascending social status).
To be clear, this in no way proves the inherent value of what Peterson is offering and modeling—i.e., that it is true in any absolute sense—only that, within a specific context (that of the current social arrangements), it works.
This may be partly why Peterson is so galling to his critics on the Left, because he not only argues (eloquently) for the meritocratic nature of capitalist hierarchies, he “proves” it via his own success within them. Of course, those who dislike him and his message can see it as proving the opposite, as in, “the intellectual we deserve,” and so on.
There is an inherent double bind in this for the Left because, as with Donald Trump, the only way to counter Peterson’s popular appeal is by reneging on democratic principles previously held sacred, and deeming the proles unfit to make their own choices. Democracy has now become far too important to be left to the majority.
The Individual in an Environment of Interrelations
What follows are, I think, the essential elements of Peterson’s Maps of Meaning thesis. It begins with the question of the place of the individual within his or her environment. Environment here refers not merely to the physical one but also to the abstract environment, which is determined and informed by our social relationships. In Peterson’s summation, this is described as “complex and dynamic social dramas whose behaviorally associated contextual meanings are very much dependent on the reactions of potentially unpredictable conspecifics, familiar and strange.”
Translation: human relations are complicated.
Society—being the environment most of us are embedded within—is a blurry mash-up of the natural or concrete (somewhat literally these days) environment with the more abstract environment of interrelationships at their most subtle and nuanced.
To give an example, when we are at home with our spouse and children, or with parents and siblings, our behavior is significantly more affected by patterns of enmeshment with those individuals than it is by the furniture and appliances. The same applies for school and work places.
Simply put: as socialized people, other human beings affect us emotionally and psychologically more deeply than objects or animals do.
The Threshold Between Chaos and Order
September 27, 2016: Psychology Professor of University of Toronto Jordan Peterson releases the first of his three-part YouTube video lecture series, speaking against political correctness and Bill C-16. The following day, Varsity reports on the video, sparking international media attention.
When Peterson stated publicly (via his YouTube channel) that he would not submit to Bill C-16, or be legally compelled to use preferred pronouns for transgender individuals, it sparked an instant flurry of media interest as well as transgender activist outrage.
Peterson’s central focus as a teacher and now public spokesperson is how to negotiate the space between chaos and order via the Logos, the power of speaking truth to “articulate habitable order out of chaos.”
Accordingly, his Internet media platform was founded on a refusal to have his power of articulation restricted by external agencies. The inception of Peterson’s “Ministry” coincided with the moment he crossed the threshold—līmen—between order and chaos.
Anxiety as Normative State
How we experience ourselves is strongly characterized by our “emotional regulation” within our concrete and abstract environment. Peterson follows B. F. Skinner’s studies (yes, that Skinner) and maps anxiety onto “fear of specific elements within our environment,” adding that this is something that is learned, as well as innate.
As Peterson’s summary states, with perhaps unnecessary complexity:
“individual character was formulated as a consequence of the assimilation of information from the experiential world and subsequent accommodation of the structure of the organism to that experience. This might be best understood as pattern to pattern matching. The simplest organisms and the youngest human beings map the patterns of the environment directly onto patterns of action, changing their capacity for action. Perception may be changed in this manner, as well. . . . the organism builds itself out of the information that it gathers in the course of active exploration.” (Emphasis added)
Peterson compares the Western viewpoint that complacency is our normative state with the Russian view that “Anxiety is instead the a priori state, manifested axiomatically whenever a stimulus or situation appears whose features have not yet been mapped functionally by the cortex.”
Human existence is essentially a constant struggle to adapt ourselves to the environment—and vice versa—to achieve or maintain an anxiety-free state. To make our inner and outer maps congruent.
The Ideological Colonization of Consciousness
October 3 2016. Peterson posts a video in response to the University of Toronto Human Resources (and Equity) Department’s decision to make “anti-racism and anti-bias” training mandatory for the HR staff. The training includes “training against unconscious bias.”
Peterson has said that one of the things that motivated him to begin his decades-long Maps of Meaning project was his fear of totalitarian government control. His video of September 27 2016, in defiance of Bill C-16, was his public reaction to what he perceived as a threat within his environment, both concrete and abstract.
Fear/anxiety is “the immediate and involuntary response of the organism to the emergence of novelty or anomaly—or unexplored territory.” Chaos, then, relates directly to anomalous elements, as well as novel ones; in a word, to unfamiliarity.
Peterson’s statements implied that, if the Canadian government had the power to force him to speak in certain ways—or to preemptively judge him guilty and in need of correction for his unconscious biases—by implication, it was assuming totalitarian control over his life. He reasoned—reasonably enough—that it is a small step from controlling our words and thoughts and policing our unconscious to compelling us to act in ways we wouldn’t normally act.
Peterson challenged these policies and laws as precursors to an ideological colonization of consciousness: groupthink enforced by the power of the State; hence his later comparisons to Maoist China, which many saw as either naïve or as disingenuous hyperbole.
What Peterson was reacting against is an example of when our environment begins to mutate in ways that our internal map cannot keep up with, to the extent that we experience it as intruding upon our own internal sense of coherence, order, and meaning. His experience, accordingly, was of being in an increasingly unsafe environment, one in which his own value and purpose was becoming less and less guaranteed.
Creating Safe Spaces = Life as We Know It
Peterson has a leaning towards hard or mechanistic science, and refers a lot to brain function. In Maps of Meaning, he cites data about how our brains receive “bottom up” information about our environment as it is, and that this is then mapped onto information about how it could be (i.e., potential changes to our environment) coming downward into the hippocampus.
This second set of data can presumably be negative or positive, “aspirational” or dreadful. Just as we can imagine how things could be better and work to achieve that, we can also imagine how they may be getting worse and try to avoid it.
In either case, the imaginary data—which is potentially limitless in variation—must be simplified in order to be made compatible with our map of things as they actually are; this way what we want (or want to avoid) can be mapped onto what-is. The more closely they can be made congruent, the better a grasp we have on things, the less anxiety we are likely to suffer.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. (Co-incidentally (?), this is the prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous for their 12 Steps program.)
The way we proceed with this endeavor is first by mapping our environment as well as possible (i.e., getting enough bottom-up data about what-is). In the case of rats, they start by sniffing and then move to visual exploration, and so on.
The procedure becomes more complex and mysterious when applied to human relations, however, which entail an ongoing struggle to negotiate the shared space and establish a social contract with the other inhabitants.
This amounts to the continuous creation and maintaining of “safe spaces.” This was the battlefield which Peterson entered into in September 2016.
Tenure on Fire
October 5 2016: Non-binary activists hold the “Teach-In and Rally” on campus to inform the public about trans and non-binary issues. October 11, University of Toronto Rally for Free Speech is held. Conflict ensues and counter-protestors blast white noise. Campus Police report threats made against transgender students on campus. October 16, University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) issues a statement calling for an inquiry into Campus Police for what it calls a lack of action at the rally for free speech.
One thing that’s eminently observable from the ideological struggle which Peterson both got sucked into and helped to provoke is this: the more people feel as though their own environment is becoming unsafe, the harder they try to make it safer, the more unsafe they will make others feel in their environment.
A letter sent on October 12 2016 by a branch of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (Queer Caucus) was titled, “Jordan Peterson’s Comments Make U of T a Hostile Place to Work and Study.” It included this passage:
“When comments like [Peterson’s] are made in public, they need to be swiftly and categorically condemned, and appropriate actions need to be taken to restore a workplace free of intimidation and hostility. But in case any of our managers and supervisors didn’t understand that actions like Professor Peterson’s—and the silence of the university administration in response—are unwelcome, hostile and offensive, let us be the ones to tell you: they are. And now you know. We expect and demand better, and our union will be organizing and acting accordingly.”
This is not so much a question of negotiation vs. conflict, but of where on the spectrum we find ourselves in a given encounter with, and reaction to, the anomalous “other.” Negotiation is a form of conflict, conflict a kind of negotiation.
Peterson experienced his position at the University of Toronto as increasingly unsafe due to the new transgender and racial policies and laws. He took a decisive step towards securing his own position on the “map” by alerting others to what he saw as the dangers. His aim was both self-protective and community-minded: to prevent chaos from encroaching too rapidly on a hard-earned order.
The response was that the anomalous “other” (mostly in the form of student activists, often called social justice warriors) reacted in kind, and saw Peterson’s defensive measures as offensive. There was a corresponding pushback from “chaos.” Peterson had unwittingly poked a Dragon with his stick and now his tenure was on fire—in more ways than one.
Lipstick on the Collar (or, The Pros & Cons of Paranoid Awareness)
Within the ongoing endeavor of making our spaces safe to inhabit, strangers and strange information are inherently threatening to us, because we have not yet established whether they adhere to the social contract we are operating within.
They present the risk of “shattered assumptions”: unfamiliar behavior or data that undermines our sense of meaning.
Peterson has repeatedly used the familiar, even clichéd, example of lipstick on a husband’s collar, i.e., a discovery that threatens to destabilize a relationship and consequently our life. Another obvious example would be the sort of research that gets called “conspiracy theory” and which involves uncovering anomalous and threatening information about our environment, revealing it to be increasingly unsafe.
The question that arises at this point is generally something like: do I really need to know this? Does it benefit me to become aware of this, or does it actually make me less safe in some way?
Another way to put this is: Is the necessary destabilization of encountering new and anomalous experience beneficent to me or not? The answer depends on our capacity to process and respond to the new data, and to adapt our maps in a sufficiently graceful and calm fashion.
In a word: not to panic.
Infinite Jurisdiction for the Dream Police
October 12 2016: Peterson posts a video that begins with Johnny Cash singing Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” He responds to a letter from University of Toronto students on October 6, objecting to his videos. The letter accuses Peterson of “transphobic, racist, and anti-Black comments” and states that “Purposely misgendering a trans person is an act of violence.” The students make several demands, including a public apology from Peterson, removal of his YouTube videos, and mandated anti-oppression training “at all levels” at the University.
It can hardly be a coincidence that the transgender position which Peterson found himself somewhat inadvertently opposed to centers around arguably the most fundamental human reality there is, namely, the difference between men and women.
The invention and avocation of the right of human beings to decide what sex they already are (and not merely get to be via surgery)—irrespective of biology—and then to compel others to conform to their election, is surely not a process that ends with such a crucial step but begins there.
In a similar way, the policing of potential racial bias that has its hypothetical roots in our unconscious is a form of policing that knows no conceivable limits to its jurisdiction. We can be tried and sentenced based not only on behaviors we have not (yet) committed, but on thoughts or feelings we do not even know we have.
And if using the wrong gender pronouns is an act of violence, then having the wrong thoughts or opinions, or even unconscious “biases,” about what constitutes the difference between men and women, means we are—at least potentially if not actually—violent offenders.
Such measures do not seem geared towards making everyone feel equally safe, so much as the means for transferring an intolerable feeling of unsafeness from one group onto another.
Two Primary Questions for Logos to Articulate
In Peterson’s Maps of Meaning model, there are two constant priorities when mapping our environment and interacting with it. Firstly, there is—Laurence Oliver’s endlessly reiterated demand to Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man—Is it safe? Secondly, every distraught lover’s query: Do I have value (purpose, meaning) within this environment?
Peterson’s emphasis on articulation relates to how speech (Logos, the ratio or line between chaos and order) represents the merging—the making congruent and mutually supportive—of these two priorities. When we understand our social environment enough to articulate our understanding and communicate it to others, we are both safe and able to function optimally within it (i.e., of value to it).
“Thus, what is fully understood and what inhibits anxiety most effectively is knowledge elaborated to the point of verbal comprehension and communicability.”
Insofar as we have adequately mapped our social environment we can now navigate it (relate to it); and the more we navigate it, the more comprehensive our map becomes, in a continuous positive reinforcement loop.
In terms of speech: the more we can express our experience of ourselves in relation to the world, the more we can have a dialogue with the world, the more we will discover about ourselves, and the more we will then have to express.
Now imagine this in reverse.
A Solipsistic Vacuum of Self-Referenced Identity
October 18 2016: Arts and Science Dean David Cameron and Vice-Provost, Faculty and Academic Life Sioban Nelson send Peterson a letter, requesting that he respect non-binary pronouns and refrain from making public statements. Peterson makes a video response on October 24, “U Toronto Requests my Silence,” confirming that the University will host a debate on Bill C-16 and free speech.
Peterson argues that the freedom and capacity (they aren’t the same) to verbalize our perceptions is indispensable to making our experience of the world, and ourselves, coherent.
It is only through interaction with our environment that we get to discover who and what we are, in relation to other living beings. It is only through dialogue that we discover what we believe and get to test our beliefs, by applying them to our circumstances and submitting them to the scrutiny of others.
The alternative is to languish inside a solipsistic vacuum of self-referenced identity in which we are simply what we choose to pretend to be, based on our own internal impressions. We can then impose an untested, largely fantasy-based (or at least utterly subjective) “position” onto the world and onto others, in such a way that it is only ever reinforced, never challenged or tested.
We become infant dictators in a world of yes-people.
The Rules of the End-Game
One of Peterson’s primary influences is Piaget, specifically Piaget’s simple model of morality as relating to rules of play. The first and overarching rule in this system is to play the game in such a way that others will want to play with you.
This is a logically unassailable principle because, if no one wants to play with you, you won’t ever win the game, so if the only way you can win is by alienating the other players, you lose. It is also similar, though far from equivalent, to the golden rule of Do unto others, and to the commandment to love one’s neighbor. Play fair.
“It is these ‘rules,’ after all, that specify the nature of shared social territory and are encoded to some degree in our explicit conceptions of intrinsic human rights. . . . More exploration means more ways of looking at the world, and more behavioral strategies at hand. What is it that determines whether the unknown is made subject to hostility or exploration? [S]ocial instability—structural and unjust inequality of opportunity, unemployment, fiscal uncertainty—increases the probability that the bearer of unknown customs and ideas will be demonized and persecuted.”
The insistence on minority rights nested in identity politics amounts to the right to determine one’s own rules about what constitutes a safe space, a non-prejudicial environment, or violence against one’s person.
Ironically, this means that, as the social contract becomes something that is no more consistent, reliable, or predictable than human whim—effectively becomes synonymous with it—all safe spaces break down and the game becomes essentially unplayable. It becomes a free-for-all of every man for himself, and every woman an island.
Chaos Made to Order
October 26 2016: Peterson is interviewed by Steve Paikin on The Agenda. “Politically-conscious interdisciplinary historian” for Sexual Diversity Studies (at University of Toronto) Dr. Nicholas Matte tells Peterson that refusing to use gender pronouns is a hate crime and an act of violence. Peterson states: “If they fine me I won’t pay it; if they put me in jail I’ll go on a hunger strike. I’m not doing this and that’s that!”
The less stable the social environment, the more tenuous the social contract becomes, the greater the anxiety and the more likely people will react in a violently hostile way to anything anomalous. This is liminality, and it opens a void into which an authoritative father or ceremony master is almost bound to enter, legitimately or not.
Peterson’s rise to social prominence and arrival onto the world stage as a cultural leader unfolded as a kind of live-action improvisatory theater, designed (probably unconsciously) to demonstrate—by enacting—the principles he had been exploring and formulating in the decades leading up to these events. It was the point at which Peterson’s territory became almost perfectly congruent with his map.
A crisis point that was also an opportunity—and now, verily, Peterson lives in interesting times.
The articulation of order from chaos, in Peterson’s model, requires a willingness to enter into chaos, to expose one’s sense of order (beliefs, values, opinions, perceptions) to elements that are adversarial to it and can easily turn into active threats to its existence.
This can be paralleled with the Gospel accounts of Christ, and the theological interpretation of them, namely, a Son of God or Logos, a carrier of divine truth, entering into a world that only partially receives him but is largely hostile, and meets him with betrayal, torture, and crucifixion, i.e., total chaos, which then submits to the “new order” via the resurrection.
In order to bring order out of chaos, chaos must be called forth and made to show itself, like a fire-breathing Dragon called from the depths in order to be tamed, or slain, by the knight who summons it. It is chaos made to order, a myth to live by, and possibly to die by.
It is still too soon to say who’s the Knight and who’s the Dragon in this story—assuming they aren’t both the same. That which resembles chaos is not always chaos, any more than that which presents itself as order is always order.
As this series continues,I will endeavor both to walk and to map this line as well as I can, while keeping one foot on either side.
(Continued next week)