Maps of Meaning with Jordan Peterson
Part 26, The Harms of Ideology
In Peterson's long reflections on concentration camps in the final chapter of Maps of Meaning he turns to speak about how ideology thwarts healthy adaptation.
According to Peterson, ideologies block us off from the facts and truths of life, and this rejection of reality interferes with our ability to cope and adapt. Peterson writes (emphases are his):
Ideology confines human potential to a narrow and defined realm. Adaptation undertaken within that realm necessarily remains insufficient, destined to produce misery--as it is only relationship with the transcendent that allows life to retain its savor. Ideology says "it must be thus," but human behavior constantly exceeds its realm of representation; such capacity for exception must therefore be denied, lest faith in ideology vanish, and intolerable chaos reappear. The ideologue says: anomaly means dissolution, dissolution means terror--that which frightens is evil; anomaly is evil. It is not the existence of anomalous information that constitutes evil, however--such information rejuvenates, when properly consumed. Evil is the process by which the significance of the anomaly is denied; the process by which meaning itself--truth itself--is rejected. This rejection means, necessarily, life is rendered unbearable, hellish...
The fact, regardless of content, is not evil; it is mere (terrible) actuality. It is the attitude to the fact that has a moral or immoral nature. There are no evil facts--although there are facts about evil; it is the denial of the unacceptable fact that constitutes evil--at least insofar as human control extends. The suppression of unbearable fact transforms the conservative tendency to preserve into the authoritarian tendency to crush; transforms the liberal wish to transform into the decadent desire to subvert. Confusing evil with the unbearable fact, rather than with the tendency to deny the fact, is like equating good with the static product of heroism, rather than with the dynamic act of heroism itself. Confusion of evil with the fact--the act of blaming the messenger--merely provides rationale for the act of denial, justification for savage repression, and mask of morality for decadence and authoritarianism.
Here we're bumping into material in Maps of Meaning that has made Peterson such a controversial figure and a hero among free-speech absolutists, the Alt Right and the Intellectual Dark Web. Peterson rose to prominence for his public refusal to comply with Canada's Bill C-16 regarding the use of preferred pronouns for transgender persons. Peterson's public stand against "political correctness" made him both famous and infamous.
On the left, Peterson's "free speech" stand regarding Bill C-16 is considered to be an example of bigotry. But in the passage above, we get a window into Peterson's defense of his actions.
Peterson's concern regarding Bill C-16 is that if the state begins to control speech--telling us what words we can or cannot use--this will interfere with our ability to seek and speak the truth. Recall in the quote above that Peterson is reflecting on the totalitarianism of Soviet Russia and the Gulag. To be sure, we can debate if Bill C-16 is a form of "soft totalitarianism," as Rod Dreher would argue, or a step toward a more civil and tolerant society, especially for transgender persons. Regardless, the phenomenon Peterson is describing, how ideology refuses to face inconvenient truths, is legitimate. I'm reminded of Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Possessed (also titled The Devils or Demons) where we follow a group who become demonically "possessed" by their various -isms, leading to bad ends. It's hard not to look at Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as Peterson does in Maps of Meaning, along with other totalitarian states and revolutionary movements, and conclude that political and nationalistic ideologies have been the greatest source of evil in the modern world.
My point is that, while it might be hard for some to separate Peterson's actions regarding Bill C-16 from the point he is making, I do think he is making a legitimate argument. Ideological systems do deny reality, making it difficult to adapt successfully to the realities of the world. And to see this, it might be helpful to spread the love around. There are ideologies aplenty.
For example, just look at free speech and Second Amendment absolutists. The word "absolutist" should be a red flag. "Absolutist" movements are ideologies, people committed to an idea no matter the human cost or toll. In short, many of the people on the right who are huge fans of Jordan Peterson are just as ideological as the people on the left. For every totalitarian on the left there is a fascist on the right.
Consider, as a different example, my recent post about the Southern Baptist Convention report on sexual abuse. In that post I made the argument that patriarchal power arrangements are unsafe. Following Peterson's quote above, those are the facts. The SBC's own report is evidence of those facts. So why do many Christians groups persist in perpetuating gender hierarchies in denial of those facts? Answer: Ideology. A reading of Scripture is taken as "the truth," in an absolutist way, walled off from and imposed upon human experience, no matter the human cost or toll. This is why I suggested in my post that the SBC spend some time in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, to reflect upon how their hermeneutics intersect with human suffering. As Peterson writes above, it's hard to face up to those facts, but that courage opens us up to more healthy and adaptive choices. Refusing to attend to those facts, however, continues to perpetuate suffering and evil. As Peterson comments, facts aren't evil, it is our "attitude to the fact that has a moral or immoral nature." That's the choice facing the SBC, their attitude toward the facts.
My attention to the facts of human experience in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral is why my theological positions tend to tip toward the progressive, even as I try to distance myself from the various ills and ideologies now "possessing" the progressive Christian camp. Maybe it's because I'm a psychologist, but I constantly attend to the intersection of hermeneutics and harm. To be clear, I don't think this attention destines one to become a "liberal" or "progressive." I just happen to think harm is a useful tool for Biblical discernment. I have crazy ideas like that. And attention to the intersection of hermeneutics and harm, allowing the facts of human experience to affect how you read the Bible, will push you away from ideological readings of Scripture.