For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link). Moving into Peterson’s tenth chapter, the focus on honesty continues; this time with a focus on using precise language to simplify problems so that they can be solved.
As I’ve said a couple times before, this isn’t a review. I’m just using this post as a way to reflect on what I’ve read and commit it to memory (though readers are more than welcome to use it to pique their interest in the book or compare it to their own findings). A full review should be coming once I finish the book.
Peterson starts this chapter with an overview of how we form concepts; people form concepts based on a sort of emotional utility, not on form and function, as much as we would like it to be the latter. Peterson uses the example of electronics: people will get rid of old electronics, even if they still function perfectly, because they do not do what we grow to expect electronics to do based on our perceptions of others’ devices and what we see in advertisements, life, or opportunities.
Basically, we don’t see things, we see useful things and burdens/barriers. Peterson points out that we do this because it is practical; I could find food that I like, but realize that it has been on the ground. The dirt (and assorted contaminants) that have alighted on the food serve as a barrier to its nutrition and enjoyment. At the same time, we would not expect me to judge and critique my food on several scales of quality every time I eat: this would be something that would seem both wasteful and pedantic. (I may have missed Peterson’s point a little, but I’ve been trying to generalize his arguments more in my own terms)
We don’t see valueless entities and then attribute meaning to them. We perceive the meaning directly. We see floors, to walk on, and doors, to duck through, and chairs, to sit on. It’s for this reason that a beanbag and a stump both fall into the latter category, despite having little objectively in common.
The reason why it is important to use precision in language is because it is easy to shift down to the conscious or subconscious process of assessing things on their utility, rather than their nature: my neighbor might seem a “bad person” because they make noise late at night—but the fact that they have to go to work and don’t feel like hanging up their phone conversation as they walk out into the dark is not a particularly unreasonable assumption, and would chagrin me for my selfishness (if I were on the phone walking out to my car, I would probably not hang up until the time came to start the ignition, but I work “normal hours” and as such absolve myself of guilt for such things; this is, of course, also a relatively subjective perception of the world, rather than an objective one).
One thing to note is that it’s not just the small details that get abstracted out, but also the large systems. Peterson has mentioned on several occasions the ways that society has shaped our perceptions and lives, and he reminds us that the great networks we have built in the developed world rely on a multitude of conscious decisions: limited corruption, high degrees of education, a general emphasis on cooperation, a complicated economic system involving lending and investment of money, and so forth.
When any of these things break down, we know about it and are incensed.
But it is easy for us to forget to pursue these things, because we don’t see past the utility of what we have into the work that went into it.
At the same time, it is not wise to simply open up our minds to infinity. Such things are beyond the capacity of our brains, so rather we make our aims precise.
Tool-use is given as an example. When we use a screwdriver, or even a car, our brains naturally intuit it as an extension of ourselves, because it fits into our aim of what we are doing. The counter-part to this is that we become dependent on our extensions, or at the very least emotionally attached to them: they are part of our picture of a sure world (and loss plunges us into the chaos of a world whose complexity we have to, and usually do, make abstract).
Simplicity then comes from the world behaving, and when the world misbehaves we lose our own simplicity.
When things collapse around us our perception disappears, and we act. Ancient reflexive responses, rendered automatic and efficient over hundreds of millions of years, protect us in those dire moments when not only thought but perception itself fails. Under such circumstances, our bodies ready themselves for all possible eventualities. First, we freeze. The reflexes of the body then shade into emotion, the next stage of perception.
The difficulty with our loss of simplicity is that we often go into two stages that lead us astray (though there are other things going on that are related). Our previous course needs to be adjusted (or we carry on blindly despite the knowledge that such a thing is likely destructive), and we begin to feel our way, because our senses and our schema did not do their job.
When you precisely identify problems, however, you free yourself from emotional response (not that such a thing is always bad) and allow yourself to consider the situation. Maybe the first impulse is correct (and it often is), but there is also a chance that you can narrow down the problem. Maybe instead of students always being late to turn in homework because they’re “lazy”, the fault lies with the teacher who fails to communicate deadlines (or the problem is a little in both courts; with past expectations being lower than present expectations).
Why avoid, when avoidance necessarily and inevitably poisons the future? Because the possibility of a monster lurks underneath all disagreements and errors.
The great reason why we hate to confront our problems is that we are afraid to find out what they really are. Many failures and flaws can be explained away as a flaw of the system, not of the character. Sometimes they even are. However, there is usually something we ourselves can do to prevent the worst events in our lives; even if they will unfold, we can prepare ourselves or diminish their impact by realizing their place in the grand scheme of things (for instance, it is inevitable that we will all die, but by confronting that fact we can make a better decision about what to do with our lives).
The problem with problems is that when they go unresolved, they keep growing. We can deny a small problem and ignore it. Doing so actually rewards us; we did not fail at all, and indeed we may even have been successful. Of course, failing to define things often begins with success itself: without success as an option, there can be no failure, pleads the man who continues to live without confronting his problems.
To insert a personal note: I think that this is actually the point of pathologizing behavior as has been a trend of late in the media and psychology. We talk about things and say “This person has a problem with their behavior, and it is due to this psychological condition that we just discovered.”
One example of this is the classification of people who spend crippling amount of time playing video games as having a unique disorder.
It may be that some of these people have disorders. At the same time, many of these people (and I myself am not so far from them, but for the benefit of forcing myself, through concerted effort, to recognize my own tendencies) simply have never prioritized their lives and as such find no reason to exist.
While Calhoun’s rat experiments probably aren’t directly related to humans, there is something to be said for the existence of a behavioral sink. This is a topic that is too complex to touch on now.
Returning to Peterson, the mind is organized and built into the psyche (or soul, or whatever term people want to use for it) through communication with others. Communicating things is needed and healthy, but often requires expanding beyond one’s comfort zone.
We need to voluntarily encounter new information and experiences for them to transform us. If we avert our eyes and cast away our gaze, we will not have that opportunity, but that is the temptation when what we encounter is not pleasant.
He uses the example of a patient who is in pain.
They might be dying. This is not out of the realm of possibilities, since pain shows a dysfunction in the body.
By going to a doctor, talking about their problems, and having a thorough diagnosis, they are able to find exactly what is wrong.
Sometimes the problem is minor or easily fixed, and the conversation was well worth having because it ends the pain.
Sometimes the problem will be fatal or irreparable, but the conversation will still have merit, because it expresses the truth about the situation and prepares the patient for their life.
(Shout-out to Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which basically turns this narrative into the plot of a novella).
If you shirk the responsibility of confronting the unexpected, even when it appears in manageable doses, reality itself will become unsustainably disorganized and chaotic.
The ultimate goal of life is to have a goal and follow through on it. Peterson points out that this is very hard to do in chaos, when one has not defined the world fully.