Jordan Peterson, author of Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, argues people through centuries developed stories to deal with complexity in order to make action in the big, mysterious and dangerous world tractable. These stories were of three general types . Some simplified the known world and explained the individual’s place in a complex society; others set out the relationship with the unknown, enabling us to face it without undue fear; and some provided a link between the known and the unknown.
Thus equipped man met challenge after challenge. Stories, myth and meaning served not to provide final truth but enough truth to enable mankind to write his next chapter. The species staggered through history like a kind of Scheherazade, making up stories that were hopefully, each a little bit truer than the last. Peterson writes:
If it is impossible to perceive the world, how do we do it? The simple answer is that we don’t. We sense it well enough so that some live long enough to reproduce. We maintain our integrity, momentarily, while the complexity of the world swirls around us … thus, no solution to the problem of perception is final. … The price paid for this, however, is endless deadly failure. Most genes do not propagate themselves across the generations. The best laid plans fail, and most species go extinct.
Given that myth had played such an important role in human survival it was surprising that Western civilization decided to do without stories in the 2nd half of the 20th century. Religion and traditional values were replaced by an ethos “broadly characterized by tendencies to epistemological and moral relativism, pluralism, irreverence and self-referentiality”. The idea was the “stories” were no longer needed because the brass ring — some called it the technological singularity — was within reach. There was no more need for mental crutches.
That vaulting ambition seemed attainable on the face of it. In 1999 civilization seemed at the End of History. It felt safe; 54 years had passed since the last atomic bomb had been dropped. September 11 was unimaginable. The Internet was anonymous. Technology was our friend. The world’s biggest worry was the Y2K bug. Confidence was high. It was as if men had finally become gods, the masters of the known or the soon to be discovered. With humanity perched atop Olympus what further need for stories?
But in 17 years since the situation has markedly changed. Now it is clear technology is not always the benign source of controllable benefit it was once assumed to be. Confidence in political institutions is at a low because unintended consequences keep raising their head: nuclear proliferation, airplanes crashing into buildings are but a few and no one has any answers to them. Even the Washington Post reported that the greatest risks to human survival in the 21st century would come from technology itself.
That threat is sure to grow as technology becomes ever more central to the way we live, changes the way we interact, communicate, and our very genetic make-up. Through its complex and multifaceted interactions, human technology is creating emergent events in unpredictable ways. Just as no one could have imagined the invention of texting would increase the risk of a car crash 23-fold, no one can predict the impact of a chaotic technological system on a civilization continuously perturbing itself.
Technology will become part of the weather as the winds and waves now are, occasionally giving humanity a clear stretch but at other times afflicting it with catastrophes which arise seemingly out of the completely harmless, the way hurricanes can follow a bright day. In any case the the optimism and feeling of godhood and control that characterized the end of the 20th century has gone without giving notice of when it will return.
The recent decline of trust in global institutions is a reflection of the fact that governments, gatekeepers and experts really have lost control over immigration, fertility, technology, nuclear weapons and their populations sense this. The global population isn’t imagining things. They feel the actual impotence of the new gods.
Counter-intuitively 21st man may be as helpless before these giant technological storms as his pre-industrial ancestors were before gales in the age of sail. He may be more helpless if Jordan Peterson is to be believed, for unlike the seamen of former days the sailors on today’s seas have no “stories” — just cell phones full of fake news — to bear them up.
Perhaps no one came so close to stumbling over the roots of the populist revolt as Hillary Clinton did in her famous “deplorables” speech. Clinton came within an ace of realizing that there was a whole swathe of the population looking for their missing myth; the lost seeking their once secure place in the world, the dismayed trying to recover their niche in eternity — or at all events trying to rejoin the parade of mankind — and she eventually threw the insight away. But for a brief moment she held it, regarded it with disdain and went on to give a forgettable speech promising government programs which neither she nor anyone could deliver.
We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now how 11 million. …
They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
She held the key and she lost it. What Western civilization is going through today is a crisis of myth; a story crisis. Of course MAGA is just another slogan not the actual answer, but then nothing is. “If it is impossible to perceive the world, how do we do it? The simple answer is that we don’t. We sense it well enough so that some live long enough to reproduce. We maintain our integrity, momentarily, while the complexity of the world swirls around us”.
Maybe it’s hopeless, but by rights the universe should’t exist or so cosmologists tell us. Still whatever we do, it isn’t aborting our progeny, disdaining our culture, or casting out the ashes of our fathers and burning down the temples of our gods. Instead we hope and live to fight another day. That’s what stories are for.
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