#35 On representation

Dear M,

Our representations of the world are of roughly two kinds: innate (you call them “toolkits”) and ideological (which you call “maps”)*. The problem with maps, you say is that they’re rigid and predictable.

But surely our innate representations of the world — folk psychology, moral instincts, heuristic decision making — are more rigid. They’ve been honed by natural selection’s trial and error solutions that allow organisms to do a good enough job, in a limited but relevant domain. Maybe they work 90% of the time and there would be a massive opportunity cost to improve the other 10%, so they leave it at that.

One has to wait many lifetimes (generations) for our innate toolkits to change but one can change maps many times in a lifetime. Admittedly most people find a map when they’re about 20 and stick to it regardless. So in practice ideological maps are more rigid. What you really want is a map that has its own — and all other maps’ — limitations assumed as part of it. That way it is an open-ended ideology of constant updating and testing of representations. I think we agree on this bit.

By the way, there are two kinds of feminists: those who like binaries and those who don’t.

Incidentally, neither kind would like your explanation of Peterson’s male protagonist. You’re saying the M/F binary is worth keeping because it made sense to our ancestors and the reason it made sense to them was because it was rooted in a biological reality. So you’re saying that M/F is a toolkit whereas a lot of contemporary thinkers would say it is a map.

To me it’s a combo. What’s interesting is that it’s just about the most rigid toolkit/map I can think of. This is the problem I have with Peterson’s veneration of myth as being a way of getting to big truths. I think our inherited representations are often inadequate. The terrain has changed so much that most old maps (or toolkits), however useful they were, are bound to be defunct, especially if they’re about something that has undergone a lot of change. Our toolkits to deal with rotten food are as useful as ever. Our toolkits for dealing with people’s roles in our culture are rusted as shit.

F = emotional, passive, life-creating.

M = rational, active, risk-taking.

That’s what men and women could be like until very recently. Because freedom is very much about how many options one can exercise, we are more free now than before. Women can be heroes, men can raise children.

Reiterating the roles from ancient myths is true to history. That aspect of it makes them not so much morally wrong as insufficient given a new terrain. But because these myths continue to rudely delimit the roles people can play, they are morally wrong in the sense that they reduce freedom.

The more you insist that only men can be heroes, the less women can be heroes. Also men write the myths. In this way the binary is asymmetrical. Frankly it’s not just as good to be the caregiver as to be the hero because the hero also writes the myths about who can be a hero or caregiver and what they do.

That’s why I’m on one side of feminism not the other. I do think that there are reliable, statistical regularities in features that can distinguish the two big groups: M & F. But the reiteration — constantly, ubiquitously for thousands of years — of these differences as though they’re ironclad rather than merely reliable, is totally detrimental to anyone who doesn’t fit the mould. Maybe 90% (for argument’s sake) of women want to be in traditional female roles. In which case the inherited myth is a “good enough” kind of heuristic. But what’s the opportunity cost of taking the other 10% into account? We’re no longer struggling to live in the Pleistocene. We can afford to think about the minority. Also, the proportion in the minority is bound to change once people are aware of more choices.

And everyone’s a minority of some kind. Religiously and politically, we’re minorities. I don’t want any myth that is so crude it gives people only one option. It probably did bumble people through the world the last few thousand years. But now we have the resources to do better.

If you are anyone non-male (I haven’t even got to T, I, or A) then the myths inherited from the past necessarily entail your oppression: you have fewer choices and you can’t write the myths that provide choices. High time for new myths with more diverse roles: more representative representations.



*Actually you say it goes in order of rigidity: toolkits > frameworks > ideology. Maybe “frameworks” is the one we should explore?

Also published on Medium.