This is another of Peterson’s key points and one that he receives a lot of criticism for, namely, that hierarchies of one sort or another are unavoidable within existence, human or otherwise. Specifically, he has insisted that every decision we make—or at least the major ones—refers to, is “nested within,” a hierarchy of values.
Maps of Meaning describes how we create internal maps of meaning via a sequence that begins with a very general, “low-resolution” model that is meant to encompass the whole environment—rather like an establishing longshot at the start of a movie.
After this, we can start to zero in and add layers of complexity and specificity, regarding what is in our environment. As in a movie, we cut to medium shot and close-up, as our attention is directed according to our interest. This way, we gradually become cognizant of some (though never all) of the moving parts that make up the whole—as in the case of rats sniffing their way through a maze.
This “sequential learning in structures” depends on “outputs, sequentially, from the hippocampus.” It consists of “a chain of integrators, where each one starts to respond only after reaction develops at the previous link.” Translation: as we assemble a multilevel map of internal meaning, all the parts are nested within one another, like Russian dolls, forming a hierarchy in which more general meanings (and values) contain more specific ones.
Why We Need Predictability & Routine
October 27 2016: A second free speech rally is held outside of Simcoe Hall, just before the University of Toronto Students’ Union Annual General Meeting. It is mostly peaceful.
In 12 Rules for Life and elsewhere, Peterson describes how, as human beings, we are continuously transmitting and receiving to and from one another regarding our behavior. The way I behave with you, down to the smallest things—a nod, a smile, a movement of the eyes—communicates how I feel about your behavior in any given moment.
This can be especially crucial in the case of strangers: since strangers have no prior experience of us, no “emotional baggage,” they are responding only to what we are transmitting in that very moment. Hence, “first impressions are often correct”: because they set the template for how we perceive that person thereafter. (This may relate to Peterson’s emphasis on Bible stories about the importance of hospitality towards strangers.)
What Peterson is describing is a never-ending process of community life and social interactions. It is as if human society (as well as Nature) is a self-regulating system that’s constantly exchanging information about itself in order to adjust itself towards ever more optimal behaviors. Needless to say, this can lead to a negative reinforcement loop in which the self-regulatory process reverses itself and things grow steadily worse (leading to an End-Times scenario in which iniquity abounds).
We see this in intimate relationships all the time: the more we signal (often unintentionally) our distrust, resentment, or hostility, the more the other person mirrors the same signals back at us. The less open and agreeable we are (in Peterson’s dichotomy of openness vs. conscientiousness), the more disagreeable and oppressive things get, while, on the other end of the spectrum, the less conscientious we are, the weaker our boundaries become, the more indulgent and chaotic things get.
I think this observation on Peterson’s part is genuinely useful, and that it becomes all the more so when we allow (as he does) for the element of the transcendent, namely, that not only our bodies are transmitting information, but also our souls—that is, our deepest essence.
Why Do We Get Triggered? (Personal Interlude)
For a (timely) example of nested maps of meaning, let’s suppose I write a blogpost and receive a poor response, either negative or minimal feedback, and a low number of shares. My reaction is one of disappointment and irritation but I press on and continue to write. I “don’t take it personally.” Fine and dandy: but what’s happening under the surface that caused my reaction to begin with?
If I am feeling particularly sensitive or unstable, or if I am simply paying close attention to the undercurrents in my psyche, I may observe, beneath the irritation and disappointment, something more primal and irrational. I may feel a wellspring of rage and resentment at being “ignored” and a desire to punish my (silent, invisible, possibly non-existent) readers by never writing another blogpost again!
Where does this literally infantile reaction come from? I would say it is due to childhood patterns being “triggered” that relate to being ignored by my father or mother at a time when my life may have literally depended on getting their attention. Peterson’s model doesn’t preclude this understanding, but it does add new context for it.
We could apply it as so: my father was a successful businessman who, as a young man (when he met my mother), dreamed of being a successful writer. When I was growing up, he expressed admiration for intellectuals and literary figures (his favorite was Dostoyevsky), and yet his own life path took him into the family dairy business. He was mostly absent as a father, and to make up for it he gave his kids lots of money when we came of age.
I started to write seriously in my pre-adolescence (about 11 or 12), and it quickly became central to my sense of identity in the world. Through my father’s influence, I unconsciously mapped a meaning of the world as a place in which financial success was both “a given” and central to my value within it. It was also a world in which literary achievement was the foremost measure of my social functionality or value.
My low resolution or foundational map of meaning—by which I attempted to find a safe place and function within the world—became centered around being successful as a writer (entirely independent from a need to survive). As a result, all subsequent maps became nested in that larger one.
Now, when I write a blogpost and receive few responses (or, possibly but not necessarily worse, hostile ones), there is an almost instant but wholly unconscious chain of associations by which the immediate information (poor response at blog) gets fed into a more ancient meaning map, and extracts from it a conclusion: I am a worthless individual trapped inside a hostile environment.
Cue panic response: fight or flight.
Never Trust a Stranger
Nov 5 2016. Jordan Peterson posts “2016/11/16: An update” (confusion of dates unexplained) in which he includes a clip of Kermit the Frog in response to comparisons made by students to Peterson’s vocal range. Peterson quotes his letter to U of T Dean Faculty of Arts and Science David Cameron. At the end of the video he dons a Native American head-carving of a frog and states: “As spokesfrog for the nation, let’s say, I’m stating quite bluntly that we better clean up our act or there’s going to be hell to pay.”
As previously mentioned, Maps of Meaning is Peterson’s attempt to understand atrocity and the motivation for unreasonable aggression and hostility (evil). It asks the question of why what is unfamiliar and novel to us (not part of our internal mapping system) is so often perceived as a threat.
“No one knows where [anomalies] fit, what they think, or what they are likely to do. Thus, they threaten the integrity of the social and psychological structures that inhibit fear. . . An unfamiliar conspecific [i.e. human being] is unpredictable in his actions and something that presents a potential threat to the integrity of the entire dominance hierarchy structure. . . . These data might include actual human beings whose appearance and behavior speaks of the strange, or just the ideas of those human beings (which can certainly be more dangerous than the physical incarnations themselves).”
Whenever we encounter a person, idea, or situation we don’t understand or haven’t mastered, “the brain starts to make a model of the unknown event by assuming that it is like other unknown or threatening events” (emphasis added). Since it creates the new model “under the influence of associative emotional systems . . . the unknown occurrences are ‘contaminated,’ a priori, with everything else that is dangerous or unpredictable.”
In other words, to the extent we are threatened by something unfamiliar to us, we automatically lump it with all our prior experiences of being actually threatened, and interpret it in similar terms. False impressions are often correct, even when they are incorrect.
John Rambo was just looking for a place to eat; but treat a threat as a threat, it may just start acting like one.
Why Humans “Overreact”
Why do people fight over trivialities? Because they only seem to be trivialities to our conscious minds. At a deeper level, there is nothing trivial that is not nested in ever deeper/higher layers of meaning and significance.
If our spouse forgets to let us know s/he is going to be late for dinner, the part of us that can’t separate out the layers of meaning experiences it as a total rejection of our value as a human being, and as a drastic reduction in the safety of our environment. This is so at least until we can calm down enough to separate out the layers.
In Peterson-speak: “the more fundamental the presumption threatened and the higher and more abstract the level in the sequential learning chain that presumption is instantiated, the more negative emotion will be disinhibited.”
It’s easy to see from this how the human being is “a truly social animal whose physical existence and whose psychological stability is dependent on maintenance of a predictable social environment.”
Predictability inhibits anxiety. In more proactive (and problematic) terms: the more control we have over not only our actions but our environment, the safer we feel, and the less negative emotions we have to deal with.
There is a dark side to this proclivity.
State of Uncertainty = State of Emergency
November 19 2016: The debate on Bill C-16 and free speech is held. Peterson faces off against Law Professor Brenda Cossman and UBC Education Professor Mary Bryson, with Trinity College Provost Mayo Moran moderating. Non-binary activists boycott the debate using the hashtag #NotUpForDebate and hold a breakfast event at the same time.
There is a spectrum of procedures, or reactions, ranging from open dialogue with and exploration of the anomaly so as to incorporate it into our view of the world (the low anxiety response), to the high anxiety reaction which automatically conflates strange with evil and seeks to destroy it (rather than entering into any kind of relationship with it). Shoot first and ask questions later, we don’t want guys like you in our town, the US does not negotiate with terrorists, #NotUpForDebate, etc., etc.
Such a reaction ensures there is no need to adjust our internal meaning map, to linger uncomfortably in a state of uncertainty, or to suffer prolonged anxiety over an anomalous encounter. This relates directly to Peterson’s desire to understand totalitarianism and avoid future implementations of it, as he fears happening via Leftist channels of political correctness, etc.
Avoiding the unknown—either by staying within a social environment in which it can’t enter, by ignoring it, or by refusing to think about it when it does—is a means to prevent anxiety from becoming destabilizing.
This is a short-term solution but it has long-term consequences. It exacerbates the problem by refusing to address it. The more liminal the times, the more anomalies surface; without adapting to them, the less and less representative of the territory our map becomes.
Our worldview thus gets narrower rather than widening.
Listening to the Other
“The desire to deny or to refuse to confront evidence of systemic error [is] central to our notions of individual psychopathology. . . . Perhaps we could extend such notions to the social realm and begin to speak of ‘social psychopathology’—that is, the tendency to demonize evidence of conceptual insufficiency, or the bearers of that evidence, and to ‘morally’ attempt to eliminate it or them from existence. This seems something close to the essence of totalitarianism and the brutality with which it is always associated.”
This is an element of Peterson’s message that, though central, tends to gets lost in the archetypal shuffle, perhaps because it is both very obvious and at the same time, quite radical. Optimistically speaking, it may be that this is not so much one of the destination points on Peterson’s map as the paper on which it is printed.
This is why Peterson stresses, referring to his experience as a clinical psychologist/psychotherapist, the value of listening to others. He isn’t so much stressing the value this can have for the other, in being heard, as the value it has for the listener.
Seeing the Transcendent
Nov 28 2016. Jordan Peterson appears on Joe Rogan live for a two hour and fifty-minute interview. According to Joe Rogan, he was getting an average of 3 million downloads per podcast in 2016.
Nor is this so simple as Peterson’s rule no. 5 suggests: “Assume the person you are speaking to knows something you don’t.” This is certainly part of it. On the hero’s journey, as well as in video games, everyone we encounter potentially holds some secret, some clue, or some piece of the puzzle by which we will eventually achieve our goal.
But, as Peterson has also said, the value of transforming chaos into order is not so much that it establishes order but that it allows us to develop our capacity for transformation. In the same way, recognizing the possibility of finding meaning in our every exchange with others is less to do with gaining those particular meanings along the way, than with learning to see the transcendent in all things, and so becoming an agent of it.
This is also expressed, in different language, when Peterson advises showing trust for others even when we know they are unlikely to prove worthy of it, not out of naiveté or lack of discernment, but out of courage and a willingness to risk betrayal and disappointment. Only by meeting other people with openness and respect—with the anticipation of benevolence—do we provide sufficient space for what is best within that person to express.
No Noah’s Ark
If anything gives me hope that Peterson’s “ministry” might have a benevolent purpose that transcends his limitations and errors, it is the possibility that he is genuinely open to dialogue.
Because, if this is so, there remains a chance he is presenting his model of meaning to the world, not in the hope it will be accepted, adopted, and applied, but in the hope of discovering all the ways in which it does not hold water.
I do not believe that Peterson is capable of offering rules for life or that his Maps of Meaning thesis provides an ethical, philosophical, or practical basis for building a Noah’s Ark of meaning by which to navigate the inevitable catastrophe. But it has at least the potential to make people curious about the possibility of such a project for themselves. If this is the case, then Peterson’s true project is simply creating a strong enough platform and launch pad for a deeper and higher level of discourse. And why on earth would we not want that?
Enter the Totalitarian Father?
Dec 2 2016. The National Post runs a piece called “Jordan Peterson speaks for those of us that refuse to follow the ‘great liberal death wish” in support of Peterson’s stance. The author, Conrad Black, is a British former newspaper publisher and convicted felon (initially for fraud, though it was overturned and reduced to obstruction of justice).Prior to his conviction Black controlled Hollinger International, for a time the world’s third-largest English-language newspaper empire, which published The Daily Telegraph (UK), Chicago Sun-Times (U.S.), The Jerusalem Post (Israel), National Post (Canada), most of the leading newspapers in Australia and Canada and hundreds of community newspapers in North America. Jordan Peterson posts a video in response to the article: “Thank you, Lord Black—really—but you’re wrong.”
As a compelling side point, the rise of the internet and social media have taken our experience of the environment as a system of endless signal-exchange as a means to observe, judge, and alter our own behavior in reference to others to a whole new level, in terms of quantity if not quality.
The sheer speed and number of signals we are sending out and receiving, every Tweet or Facebook post that is liked or shared, so to speak, make it impossible for us to keep up with the data, while at the same time making it all-too-easy to feed an addiction to more and more positive stimuli, or pseudo-validation.
This gives us the power to control our own “transmission” and shape it towards positive validation (agreement) in endless new ways, but always, I think, towards the shallow end of the noosphere.
When a person becomes a media celebrity, like Peterson, the balance shifts still further away from direct, “high-resolution,” soul-to-soul communication (much less communion), towards ever more diffuse and scattered forms of “networking.”
This may be the central error in Peterson’s effort, and where his theory begins to fall down in practice, namely, by ignoring this essential question: does a soul’s signal lose “resolution” (quality) the more widely distributed it becomes?
A dialogue, after all, implies two voices equally represented. What happens to the reception-transmission when it expands outward from a 1:1 ratio to a single voice interacting with a multitude? How does this effect the signal to noise ratio?
What if the result of such amplification is the very thing Peterson most fears?
 Ironically, I know I risk undermining my position as a writer by using this example, because some people fail to understand that being conscious enough to articulate a neurotic emotional pattern does not make me more but less neurotic. The pattern I describe above was present in me decades ago, when I first began to write. The fact I was wholly unconscious of it at that time hardly implies it wasn’t driving my actions, on the contrary. By the same token, those who are unconscious of having similar patterns (faulty maps of meaning), while they are the first to judge or condemn me if I own up to my own neuroses, are not acting less neurotically but more so. As Peterson says: “If you don’t think you’re the kind of person who could do that, then you ARE the kind of person who could do that.”
 Since we are not so simple creatures, however, we rarely have only one internal map-complex at play. In my case, I also have a low-resolution map of the world in which a corrupt and oppressive social system (the Matrix) only rewards those who are useful to it. Based on this internal map, failure is actually the safer option. This means I may find (someday) that I enter into full-blown identity crisis as a result of receiving too much positive validation from the world. The first complex I described is shared collectively, even by those who also adhere to the second one (that the world is inherently corrupt). This first model is the one Peterson is expounding and, I would say, embodying. It is the map that says the Western world is a meritocracy made up of a multitude of competence hierarchies; that our society is inherently safe, provided we all understand and keep to the social contract; and that, what’s more, we can rise within the hierarchies which we develop competency in (though best of all is to be able to move freely between hierarchies). This then leads to the common idea, or ideal, that, since the system fundamentally works, our success within it is a measure of our competency, and hence our value, as human beings. This can even extend to the point of arguing that ascending the social hierarchies equals receiving favor in God’s sight, and is proof we are doing God’s will. I consider this to be a profound and mostly uncontested flaw, both in Peterson’s model and in Western thought overall, including Western Christianity (see for example the Theology of Prosperity). I have already touched on this in previous essays, and will develop it further as the series proceeds.