The Rise of Jordan Peterson

Yesterday Mercedes and I watched The Rise of Jordan Peterson. I would say we are both fans of JP, and that we were a touch disappointed that the documentary didn’t really give us that much insight into his thought process. But I guess you can get enough of that from his youtube channel . Instead, the documentary focuses on his somewhat uncomfortable rise to fame after the whole trans pronoun controversy.

But what I really want to comment on is how he responds to becoming a right-wing celebrity despite not really being comfortable with right-wing ideology. It’s more like he is just really uncomfortable with left-wing ideology.

In fact, if you take him at his word, JP is not a fan of ideology at all. One driving force behind his intellectual journey is how normal people (like Nazis and Communists) can commit great evil (like genocide). One answer is that it is largely due to ideology. Thus, ideology is dangerous. If we want to live good lives we should be wary of ideology and focus on doing good in our own sphere of influence (i.e., clean your room).

So my first question is: don’t we all have an ideology? How can you not have an ideology? Isn’t that like having a worldview?

After JP decides to speak up about pronouns, he participates in a rally for free speech, and there is a counter-rally in favor of respecting people’s pronouns. Aren’t those both ideologies? Maybe. But JP distinguishes between ideologies that can turn us into genocidal maniacs, and those that can’t:

That is, he distinguishes between “personal responsibility” and “political ideology.” I think what he means by this is that we need to have strong opinions about how to order our own lives (the personal), but we don’t really need to be so focused on how to order everyone else’s lives (the political).

This is sort of like a meta-ideology. As human beings, we live in a layered onion of society. We can have different ideologies associated with different aspects of society. For example, we can have ideologies that relate to raising children, performing our professional responsibilities, behaving toward family members, raising taxes, selecting political leaders, etc.

JP doesn’t care about which ideologies we choose, he just wants us to prioritize the personal layers over the national layers. Surely we are not going to become genocidal over child-rearing philosophies, right? And we won’t try to kill all the Jews if we just kinda-sorta care about national politics, right?

This all sounds pretty reasonable, but I want to take a bit of a detour into territory where I don’t know enough about JP’s philosophy to speculate. Basically, I don’t think the role of ideology is just help us choose our own behavior. They help us recognize, sympathize, and cooperate with in-groups.

In fact, I speculate that human susceptibility to political ideology is essential to our ability to cooperate. We need it. And it can’t just be focused on personal responsibility. Humans are social animals. We are built from the ground up to form groups. Ideology is part of our whole group-forming psychological apparatus.

So if this is true, where do we go from there? For me there are basically two reasonable possibilities:

  1. The human race is going to need more and more global cooperation, so our ideologies need to become more and more universal until all of humanity is organized according to single, all encompassing political ideology.
  2. Humans are only really equipped to cooperate with groups under the Dunbar limit (or some other limit of your choice). Any more than this and things go haywire. So our primary ideology should forever and always be limited to some kind of local cooperation.

In other words, even if we reject the idea of a “personal” ideology, we still might try to limit ourselves to “local”. Maybe this is what JP is getting at. Maybe by “clean your room” he means “organize your life up to and including your Dunbar groups”. Even if he doesn’t, I think this is what he should mean.

One way of looking at the progressive/conservative divide is to see them both as meta-ideologies. That is, the political landscape might be different in say, Iceland and Alabama, and specific political ideologies must be relevant for their own time and place. But all progressive movements everywhere think that ultimately we will end up with one global ideology to rule them all, and conservatives everywhere want to impose some limit to the boundaries of ideology (personal, sub-Dunbar, national, or otherwise).

According to this view, JP is definitely a conservative. He might think he is in the middle because he recognizes the damage that can be done by over-emphasizing ideology on the right or the left. But the true battle is not between ideologies (or even between ideology and no ideology). The true battle is between meta-ideologies. And when it comes to meta-ideology he no longer looks like a centrist.

In fact, there is no such thing as a centrist when one meta-ideology is “infinity.” You can’t find a middle ground between X and infinity. You just can’t. Trust me, I have a degree in math. It doesn’t matter what you choose for X (1, 150, 150 million), you are conservative unless you choose infinity. Because JP seems to advocate for X = 1, or something close to that, he might even be considered ultra-right wing.

I am a conservative, too. I think global ideology is either dangerous (occasionally) or pointless (for most people most of the time). However, I want to point out that despite being a conservative, I do think the globalists have a good point. Let me explain why.

Basically, whichever ideology can successfully organize the largest group is going to win. A coordinated society of millions will always dominate a coordinated society of hundreds. This is one of the reasons why Christian societies dominated tribal cults. The concepts worked better at scale. History will always favor an effective progressive ideology over an effective conservative ideology because, almost by definition, it scales better. Therefore, if we ever figure out some ideology that can coordinate billions and get people to actually buy in, other ideologies have no chance. So why back the loser?

Putting it like that almost makes me want to be a progressive myself. Honestly, I feel like I am between a rock and a hard place. One the one hand, people suck at large-scale ideologies. They lead to decadence, decay, anxiety disorders, and in some cases, genocide. That’s pretty bad. On the other hand, small-scale ideologies lose. Crap.

What we need is some way to coordinate large-scale behavior without requiring large-scale ideology. JP proposes focusing on personal responsibility, and that takes care of the latter half of the equation, but where does that leave us in terms of large-scale human society? Let me propose two options:

  1. Encourage people to focus on small groups, and let larger scale cooperation arise naturally (i.e., without the conscious direction or comprehension of mere humans). In other words, let the free market take care of things. Or maybe some kind of artificial super-intelligence. As long as the solution doesn’t depend on conscious ideological cooperation on the part of humans.
  2. Encourage people to focus on small groups, and let a few super-elites coordinate things at the very top. Ordinary people can focus on their little sub-Dunbar groups while the super-elites can try to out-compete each other for global domination. In other words, competing global conspiracies.

On some level, both of these things are already happening. I’m not sure which is more creepy. But if my premises are correct (i.e., that large-scale coordination wins, and that people suck at large-scale coordination), it seems likely that the ultimate form of human coordination will not require explicit buy-in from the masses. It will, however, provide space for people to coordinate smaller groups.

The good news is that freeing up space in our mind by rejecting global ideology will enable us to focus on the kind of small group connections that will really make us happy. But for some reason that doesn’t make me feel much better. I guess that’s what I get for trying to comprehend the future of infinite ideological Darwinism with my decidedly finite mind.




Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters

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Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters

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