“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door”
How much does the motivation for our research impact what we find? How much does the goal of a journey we undertake determine where we will get to?
This is both a question that I kept coming back to in this week’s reading as well as a question raised within the reading. Canadian Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He specialises in the areas of religious and idealogical identities. He has risen to fame in recent years as a vocal opponent to Bill C-16. This particular Bill would grant people the right to self-identify with regards to gender identity and, in particular, have the legal right to be addressed as they request.
While Peterson’s opponents suggest he is misconstruing the Bill, Peterson’s argument is consistent with his book Maps of Meaning:The Architecture of Belief.
Peterson argues in his book that the stability of civil society is dependent on the myths/narratives that establish the meaning of the objective world. To significantly disrupt these narratives is to risk a level of instability that necessitates complete reconstruction. He thus viewed the bill in question as significantly undermining the stabilizing narrative that Canada relies upon. Tracing his understanding makes sense of his objections.
The objective world is experienced through the senses and gives rise to language to describe what is being experienced. These words are collected to provide a discourse through which the world can be explained. Scientific inquiry, from this standpoint, is objective observations about the natural world. However, the meaning of these observations is created as people interact with this world. The stories that are told about these interactions with the world evolve over time to order a groups’ interactions with the natural world in a way that leads to self-preservation and orderliness amongst the group. These narratives become the foundational beliefs of a group and thus come to moderate action. Action is what takes place within the world as individuals or groups move from what is towards what they think should be. “A belief structure orients one to action. One has to believe something in order to act.” The belief system must be rigid enough to reduce group anxiety such that behaviour and daily circumstance is largely predictable. When minimal disruption occurs within the predictable patterns, adaptation within the belief system is possible. When significant disruption occurs, the belief system itself will be called into question and the narrative will require amendment or may even collapse altogether. A belief system is vulnerable if it is too rigid, and resists innovative thinking, but it is also of little use if it lacks boundaries and thus fails to offer the security that comes with the ability to predict another’s behaviour. The age of reason, or the enlightenment, complicated the ease in which the Christian narrative interacted with the natural world. For many, the narrative no longer made sense of the objective world and thus became too rigid to maintain. “When religion collapses, nationalism rises to take its place because you need a belief system.” In the west, democratic nationalism has risen, nurtured by Judeo-Christian values. The difficulty is that democracy is an ideology rather than a narrative/myth. Given that ideologies proceed from cultural narratives, the erosion of the narrative could eventually undercut the ideology if no communal narrative is established. This will lead to a cultural revolution as the belief system is rebuilt.
So back to Bill C-16. Why might it be so threatening? It seems a stretch to suggest that allowing a person to self-identify their gender would have any more consequence than allowing them to request you call them by a variation of their given name. At first appearance this celebrates individualism, which is generally respected by the right. However, Peterson classifies this bill as emerging from the ideology of the far left, or socialist/communalist agenda within Canada. While Peterson did spend a number of years actively supporting and promoting Canada’s NDPs (a social Democratic Party), he eventually left after feeling that Orwell’s suggestion that the motivation of such movements was less about loving the poor but more about hating the rich. While he was disillusioned about the inefficacy of the ideology, I suspect his true concern is much more visceral. This brings us back to the question of how important our motivation for setting out on a journey is.
Peterson’s introduction to his book is biographical and vulnerable. (Brene Brown would approve and I confess this in itself softened me to listen with interest to what he had to say.) He talks about his experience growing up during the Cold War and in particular the devastating effect it had on his mental health for a period. He describes a full year of vivid dreams in which the bomb went off and people he loved were killed and his world was completely deconstructed. Out of this anxiety and fear, Peterson underwent a journey to understand the circumstances that gave rise to this situation. He examined people’s individual and communal capacity for evil. He sifted through countless belief narratives in order to understand their common themes. (I feel he might overgeneralize in order to construct his archetypes, but it was an interesting project none the less.) He also looked at how evil was characterized and then what ideologies had led to to the highest effect of evil (quantified by the number of people killed by their own state). His conclusion was (unsurprisingly) that communist societies were the most vulnerable to being where evil flourished. Thus there must be a pathology in their beliefs. Beliefs that have similarities to those supporting Bill C-16. When you set out on your journey to alleviate your fears and along the way find ideas that instead trigger them, is it not like the irritation of slow traffic on the way to a meeting? Perhaps you would take no notice if you didn’t suspect it could derail your own flourishing.
I think this is a valuable story for me as a researcher, as a pastor and a as a Christian. How is where I think I am, where I think I should be going and the beliefs that motivate my actions a product of why I undertake the journey at all?
Incidentally, it seems that Peterson has recently come out of a year that has been hard enough that it may lead to another personal revolution. My prayers are with him.
“About,” Jordan Peterson, December 9, 2019, https://www.jordanbpeterson.com/about/) accessed Feb 13, 2020.
 Torontoist, “Are Jordan Peterson’s Claims About Bill C-16 Correct?,” Torontoist, December 19, 2016, https://torontoist.com/2016/12/are-jordan-petersons-claims-about-bill-c-16-correct/) Accessed February 13, 2020.
 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief (London: Routledge, 1999), p.15)
 Jordon B. Peterson, “2016 Lecture 01 Maps of Meaning: Introduction and Overview.” YouTube video, 1:40.54. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bjnvtRgpg6g&feature=share
 George Orwell as quoted by Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief (London: Routledge, 1999), p.14)
 Brene Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (New York: Random House, 2018) Section 1).
 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief (London: Routledge, 1999), p.343)
 Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: the Architecture of Belief (London: Routledge, 1999), p.48)
 Aileen Donnelly, “Why Was Jordan Peterson Placed in a Medically Induced Coma? What We Know about Benzodiazepines and Treatment,” National Post, February 11, 2020, https://nationalpost.com/health/jordan-peterson-benzodiazepines)
5 responses to ““It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door””
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Ah, my favorite Canadian! Thanks so much for helping me see the connection from Jordan Peterson’s past relative to his condemnation of Bill C-16. Your insights into the Canadian context, Jordan Peterson’s research, and your own research-inspired musings are most helpful. Many blessings.
Jenn, thank you for your explanation of Peterson. It is clear that you are in your element. I appreciate all you bring to our cohort.
Jenn, thanks for bringing attention to how Peterson uses his voice in Canada. I can see how his thought process might lead him to the conclusion he makes about the bill. I too, was really struck by his vulnerable first chapter, which made all the difference in how I approached this text.
Good stuff Jenn. I like that you highlighted the psychology of action. I know this would be valuable for my own research. When Peterson talks about the idealized vision we have and that serving as motivation to act nobly, I simply call that “hope.” I’m convinced one of the reasons the West is declining is because we are a society who have lost hope. We unconsciously substitute hope with technology, entertainment and other similar things that have no lasting value.
Praying for him as well — both physically and spiritually.
The c16 Bill was very interesting to watch. Peterson was highly concerned about compelled speech, which was an important point. In that sense, he saw the erosion of social stability as the ‘thin end of a problematic wedge’. Though thin end of the wedge thinking is often debunked, it exists for a good reason – legislation very rarely gets changed even when its found to be wrong. 2020 may well be a very good example of this in the fracturing of socially left thinking and societal instability. The Olympic games will unveil a howl of protest as transgender men as officially allowed to compete in women’s sports – it’s been brewing for a while, but it will invariably finally cause a major schism between women’s rights and privileges and gender identification. Does mere identification provide the same protection and priveledges women are seeking? We live in fascinating times. As a privileged, educated, handsome, middle aged white male, I’ll be breaking out the popcorn. If we are in the process of rewriting social myth, I have a feeling it’s going to end rather badly in the next decade.