I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), breaking down each chapter into halves so I can give each a fair treatment. I just finished the first part of the chapter for this rule. This new chapter focuses on the idea of ideology.
One thing that I find interesting about Peterson’s approach here is that he’s not as strict with the definition of ideology as one might think and he devotes relatively little effort to naming ideologies–he specifically focuses on Freud and Marx, though more to show the consequences of certain ways of thinking rather than as a particular critique of either.
But What is an Ideology?
Peterson’s definition of an ideology seems to match what I’d classify as the Jungian conception of ideologies; ideas which possess people and make themselves the masters of humans.
It’s important to understand the distinction between an ideology and a belief for this purpose.
A belief is simply the sincerely held conviction that something is true. This can be something that is very simple (“The sky is blue.”) or very nuanced (“The function of the economy is nothing more than the collection of individual actions of humans who operate under a consistent praxeological framework to achieve optimal psychic profit.”), but beliefs are not in and of themselves controlling. They inform behavior, not drive it.
For instance, someone who believes a particular stock to be valuable may not actually buy that stock, because they’re more averse to risk than benefit, they don’t have money in a position to do so, etc.
When someone has an ideology, they have a framework through which all their beliefs are processed.
The ideologue begins by selecting a few abstractions in whose low-resolution representations hide large, undifferentiated chunks of the world… The use of single terms implicitly hypersimplifies what are in fact extraordinarily diverse and complex phenomena (that masked complexity is part of the reason that the terms come to carry so much emotional weight).Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The problem with ideologies is this: when one defines all troubles as the result of one particular thing, it is nothing more than a deliberate setup to approach all trouble through one framework.
As the old adage goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Further, an ideology is not even a hammer wielded with nuance or skill, but rather a clumsy flailing toward truth (if it is even an attempt toward truth and not a cynical attempt to achieve power!).
Peterson uses Freud as an example of an ideology that while flawed at least contributed something positive to the world. Freud’s exploration of sexuality and libido lent itself to re-evaluating some of the things that were previously taboo or unexplored within human behavior.
However, it was also a shortcoming because Freud’s monolithic pursuit of the reproductive function as the underpinning for the human psyche left aside all of the nuanced and difficult to explain issues that were poorly addressed by his own theory.
There’s an interesting part of Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Amazon affiliate link) that talks about Freud, who was something of a mentor to Jung. When Jung started working on his mythic theories of the human mind and diversifying away from Freud’s own focus, there was an immediate schism between them. While Jung always speaks reverently of Freud, I cannot help but notice that there is a very strong neurotic underpinning in Freud, who had come to the paranoid belief that Jung, his stated intellectual heir, was hoping to bring about his downfall to inherit the throne sooner.
And this is a tragedy brought about by ideology; Freud’s novel exploration of the human mind brought about it a schism between him and his protege, which jeopardized a relationship that would have been a source of significant benefit for both of them.
The Moral Question
Another trait that differentiates a belief from an ideology is how it changes the moral formulation of an individual.
For instance, as an absolute pacifist I believe that violence is never morally right. Though I am an absolutist in the sense that I believe this, I don’t know that I would live out this practice if my life were threatened (in which case I might commit an immoral action to save myself or others, which brings up a whole can of worms that I don’t have a good moral justification for).
This carries itself out in a very limited way. Taking only pacifist actions is somewhat difficult (it helps that my pacifism is limited to humans, based on the divine image of God within them, and does not extend to being vegetarian), but it is not an all-consuming framework.
One benefit here is that there is no adversary in my pacifism (barring perhaps metaphysical forces associated with violence). In fact, it is in many ways the rejection of all adversaries and the pursuit of non-grievance.
By comparison, an ideology contains further directions about who is to be viewed as an enemy. This is not merely “these people are not your friend,” which I have to confront as a Tolstoyan. The company I keep is one of the few ways I can use non-coercive force, and I try to carry that out by supporting people who behave in the ways I find acceptable and avoiding lending support to those who behave in cruel and base fashions.
Rather, ideologies set out targets to be destroyed.
Since the ideologue can place him or herself on the morally correct side of the equation without the genuine effort necessary to do so validly, it is much easier and more immediately gratifying to reduce the problem to something simple and accompany it with an evildoer, who can then be morally opposed.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
One thing that I’ve found incredibly frightening is the state of the modern political left, in part because I see the urge to punish live strongly in many of their number. While there is perhaps something to be said for the archetypal role of the peacekeeper and guardian, as someone who doesn’t fit on the political spectrum I’ve found that my observations of these people online almost always shows behavior I don’t see carried out by people of other persuasions. I’m sure that this is not generally true, and my own friends who lean that way seem to be less infected by this spirit of vengeance, but I don’t doubt that there is a strong ideology underpinning much of their actions.
I don’t find everything on the right palatable, either. It’s just that I see them commit what I consider errors in thinking rather than demonstrating this ideological possession. The right seems to think more nebulously and raise broader concerns (e.g. they are rarely focused simply on their political opponents but rather more broadly on modern issues like familial disintegration), though there are certainly individuals who conduct themselves poorly in my estimation.
However, I’ve seen left-wingers say that certain things justify ruining peoples’ lives (when asked directly “does this justify ruining someone’s life” and not just in general terms). I have no examples of that flowing in the other direction from anyone I know personally. The closest I can find, when I look at strangers, is essentially an expression that turnabout is fair play, which is hard to argue with and lacks the vindictive sting of the equivalent approach on the other side.
It may help that most of the “right-leaning” people I see are deeply religious and use that as a counterweight against their political beliefs (or at least make a feeble attempt to), where the left-leaning people I observe are generally not religious or have adapted their religious beliefs to match their politics, which I think might be an inoculating force against the more extreme ideological elements.
I’ve also noticed that of the people who I see on the right, the spirit of vengeance seems to strike, when it strikes, regardless of whether they’re moderately right-wing or more right-wing, though I don’t have any exposure to people I’d consider far right. On the other hand, the vengeful wrath of left-wingers seems to correlate with the distance to which they are left of center.
This is an analysis based on somewhat mediocre data, but I’ve actually noticed that it’s the right-wingers who occasionally ally with left-wingers who are the most petty and vindictive among them. I won’t hypothesize for this, in part because I’m taking my data sets and scraping barrels (to the point where I’m thinking of two or three people when forming these categories).
One theory that I have about this, however, is that ideologies can include things like patriotism (something Peterson doesn’t touch on, though he mentions conservatism and postmodernism as ideologies by name) when that patriotism comes from a negative view rather than a positive view.
Essentially, ideologies encourage dichotomous thought; us-and-them mentalities of a wretched sort are the bread and butter of the ideologue. When you permit little influence from ideologies (as moderate left-wingers and more traditionally religious right-wingers are unlikely to do, albeit for different reasons) to influence your thinking you wind up with a more nuanced and complete view of the world.
This makes it much harder to have a significant enemy, though you may still hold particular sore spots of resentment dear. These small spots are not guiding points in your life, however, because you blame them for individual problems, not the totality of problems.
When someone aligns their goals too narrowly to an insipid purpose or the causes of the problems in the world to a single point, they wind up with much more of a tendency to lash out. Only the latter results from ideology.
This leads itself to concrete moral thinking. While it’s good to have a firm moral compass, the problem is that ideologies engineer the moral compass not toward the pursuit of virtue but toward the defeat of an enemy.
When this occurs, it’s much easier to justify one’s own bad behavior. One reason for this is simply that a clash of values means one’s own infractions will always seem lesser in one’s own estimations.
The first players of a given game of this sort are generally the brightest of the participants. They weave a story around their causal principle of choice, demonstrating how that hypothetically primary motivational force profoundly contributed to any given domain of human activity.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Another danger that Peterson points out in ideologies is that they often start from a theorist who is a visionary in their own right and then immediately become the playthings of less capable people.
One issue is that the initial founder of an ideology has found their belief in a vacuum, incorrect as it may be, and has not been building upon anything else. They have not been indoctrinated into their own beliefs, though they may be as possessed by them as their followers are.
It is the people who come afterward, the imitators, who are the greatest threat. They turn measured statements into absolutes and may never have known any competing viewpoint. Although they may nominally have less at stake than the founder of a school of thought, they depend on it for their moral guidance, which is a commitment that is essentially total. The consequences of being mistaken in moral thought can destroy a person (and, speaking from experience, are at the very least very unpleasant).
Further, this is something to which well-intentioned people can fall victim. In order to convince themselves of their own goodness, however, they must then choose between self-deception or apostacy. The psychological weight of this may make self-deception involuntary until such a point that the person experiences a crisis, which makes it very hard to leave an ideology behind on the basis of individual data points that suggest problems (whereas a belief may be disavowed after a single conflicting piece of evidence, should it be sufficiently convicting).
One problem here is that ideologies provide causation and solution in a single framework that is simple enough to be reproduced and understood by the masses.
There’s no clear way around that other than self-discovery and outside support.
This chapter is something that I’ve found incredibly interesting, but it also leaves me with serious questions about the future. As I’ve thought about this at length, it’s become clear to me that I don’t have as much to worry about as I thought I might, but I am hard-pressed to deal with the issues that come up.
Ultimately, maybe the lesson to be learned here, should I not want to eventually become an ideologue myself, is that there are some things that not everyone can solve. Someone may eventually come along to solve these things, but I don’t believe it will be me.