Hierarchies and Meritocracy

Jordan Peterson and Russell Brand chat for about 12 minutes on sex differences and personality, but that’s not where I want to focus commentary. What I will say is that Peterson continually conflates sex and gender, and I find that disconcerting for a research psychologist.

I’ve queued this video near the end, where Peterson delineates his conception of how the political right and left (as defined by him and the US media-industrial complex).

I feel he does a good job of defining the right, and he may have even captured whatever he means by left—radical left even—, but he doesn’t capture my concerns, hence I write.

To recap his positions,


  • We need to pursue things of value
  • Hierarchies are inevitable
  • [One has] to value things in order to move forward in life
  • [One has] to value things in order to have something valuable to produce
  • [One has] to value some things more than others or [they] don’t have anything like beauty or strength or…competence or…whatever…
  • If [one] value[s] [some domain] then [one is] going to value some [things in that domain] more than others because some are better
  • If [one] play[s] out the value in a social landscape, a hierarchy [will result]
  • A small number of people are going to be more successful than the majority
  • A very large number of people aren’t going to be successful at all

Conservative (Right)

  • Hierarchies are justifiable and necessary


  • Hierarchies … stack [people] up at the bottom
  • [Hierarchies] tilt towards tyranny across time


I feel I’ve captured his position from the video transcript, but feel free to watch the clip to determine if I’ve mischaracterised his position. I have reordered some of his points for readability and for a more ordered response on my part.

To be fair, I feel his delivery is confused and the message becomes ambiguous, so I may end up addressing the ‘wrong’ portion of his ambiguous statement.

We need to pursue things of value

This is sloganeering. The question is how are we defining value? Is it a shared definition? How is this value measured? How are we attributing contribution to value? And do we really need to pursue these things?

Hierarchies are inevitable

Hierarchies may be inevitable, but they are also constructed. They are not natural. They are a taxonomical function of human language. Being constructed, they can be managed. Peterson will suggest meritocracy as an organising principle, so we’ll return to that presently.

[One has] to value things in order to move forward in life

This is a particular worldview predicated on the teleological notion of progress. I’ve discussed elsewhere that all movement is not progress, and perceived progress is not necessarily progress on a global scale.

Moreover, what one values may not conform with what another values. In practice, what one values can be to the detriment of another, so how is this arbitrated or mediated?

[One has] to value things in order to have something valuable to produce

I think he is trying to put this into an economic lens, but I don’t know where he was going with this line. Perhaps it was meant to emphasise the previous point. I’ll just leave it here.

[One has] to value some things more than others or [they] don’t have anything like beauty or strength or…competence or…whatever…

This one is particularly interesting. Ostensibly, I believe he is making the claim that we force rank individual preferences, then he provides examples of items he values: beauty, strength, competence, and whatever. Telling here is that he chooses aesthetic and unmeasurable items that are not comparable across group members and are not even stable for a particular individual. I won’t fall down the rabbit hole of preference theory, but this is a known limitation of that theory.

If [one] value[s] [some domain] then [one is] going to value some [things in that domain] more than others because some are better

We’ve already touched on most of this concept. The key term here is ‘better‘. Better is typically subjective. Even in sports, where output and stats are fairly well dimensionalised, one might have to evaluate the contributions of a single athlete versus another with lower ‘output’ but who serves as a catalyst for others. In my mental model, I am thinking of a person who has higher arbitrary stats than another on all levels versus another with (necessarily) lower stats but who elevates the performance (hence) stats of teammates. This person would likely be undervalued (hence under-compensated) relative to the ‘star’ performer.

In other domains, such as art, academics, or even accounting and all measurement bets are off.

If [one] play[s] out the value in a social landscape, a hierarchy [will result]

Agreed, but the outcome will be based on rules—written and unwritten.

A small number of people are going to be more successful than the majority


A very large number of people aren’t going to be successful at all



The notion of meritocracy is fraught with errors, most notably that merit can be meaningfully assessed in all but the most simple and controlled circumstances. But societies and cultures are neither simple nor controlled. They are complex organisms. And as Daniel Kahneman notes, most merit can likely be chalked up to luck, so it’s all bullshit at the start.

In the end, Peterson and people like him believe that the world works in a way that it doesn’t. They believe that thinking makes it so and that you can get an is from an ought. Almost no amount of argument will convince them otherwise. It reminds me of the time Alan Greenspan finally admitted to the US Congress that his long-held adopted worldview was patently wrong.

Video: CSPAN: Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman and Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan Testimony

WAXMAN: “You found a flaw…”

GREENSPAN: “In the reality—more in the model—that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.”

WAXMAN: “In other words, you found that your your view of the world—your ideology—was not right. It was not what it had it…”

GREENSPAN: “Precisely. No, I… That’s precisely the reason I was shocked because I have been going for 40 years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

To paraphrase musically

Video: Social Distortion, I Was Wrong


Jordan Peterson is decidedly not my cup of tea. I can tolerate Pinker and Haidt. I agree with much of what they have to say, but in this video, the dissonance finally dawns on me. Interestingly, I can tolerate Peterson within the scope of this discussion.

I don’t agree with much of what these three are saying, but it is refreshing to hear Peterson outside of a philosophical domain, a place where he has no place. And although I don’t agree with him here, it is on the basis of his argumentation rather than his abject ineptitude.

I disagree with this trio. This video reveals these three people as Institutionalists. Peterson may be a political Conservative versus Pinker’s and Haidt’s enlightened Liberalism, but this is a common core value they defend with escalating commitment. Typically, we find these to be polar opposites, but here they have a common enemy that is not necessarily anti-institutionalists or anarchists but people who don’t understand venerable institutions and thereby risk tipping the apple cart or toppling the Jenga tower because they just don’t understand. Not like them. Besides constitutionalism, the common thread is Paternalism. They may disagree on the specifics, but one thing is true: We know more than you, and this knowledge is embedded in the sacred institutions. If only the others understood.

In this video, we hear these three commiserate about the diversity and inclusion forces in University today, and where this movement is off base.

Descriptive Postmodernism

I can’t count the number of times I’ve defended Postmodernism (PoMo) from attack, so I am publishing this, so I can link to it. Perhaps I am not defending PoMo, but my flavour of it, but I’ve read a lot of work published by the usual suspects—some who eschew being lumped into a poorly defined category—or at least a nebulous category.

Before I get too far, I also want to remind the reader to take care to separate the philosophy from the person. One popular attack is the conflating of identity politics and social justice advocacy as PoMo phenomena. In fact, I consider myself to be PoMO—to be defined here in a moment—and a social justice warrior (SJW), this despite contesting the very notion of identity to begin with.

By definition, a summary is a reduction of some thing, but one needs to be careful not not arrive at reductio ad absurdum. Where appropriate, one may also wish to differentiate postmodernism with postructuralism. So as not to create a definition partir de rien, I’ll reference other accessible versions. A critic may disagree with these definitions, but they will serve as the foundation of my position and vantage.

Wikipedia gives us this definition (their reference links retained):

Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of scepticismirony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power. 


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives us this

That postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.


Notice the commonalities. PoMo is a descriptive, critical activity. It’s descriptive. As language and grammar can be approached descriptively of prescriptively, so can philosophy. Some ‘schools’ do both. PoMo is exclusively descriptive. PoMo was born as a reaction to Modernism, especially the unstated foundations labelled by Lyotard as metanarratives—the grand narratives and underlying ideologies of prevailing beliefs that were uncritically taken for granted, many of which that were formed or catalysed in the Age of Enlightenment.

Jean-François Lyotard defined philosophical postmodernism in The Postmodern Condition, writing “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards meta narratives….”[4] where what he means by metanarrative is something like a unified, complete, universal, and epistemically certain story about everything that is. Postmodernists reject metanarratives because they reject the concept of truth that metanarratives presuppose. Postmodernist philosophers in general argue that truth is always contingent on historical and social context rather than being absolute and universal and that truth is always partial and “at issue” rather than being complete and certain.[3]


My defence is that PoMo cannot be for social justice or engage in identity, as it has no positive position on these. It functions to critically deconstruct. People unfamiliar with PoMo concepts often misunderstand this notion of deconstruction. All to often, I see people criticise Derrida for his brand of Deconstruction, but that only illustrates the fact that they never read or simply misunderstand what Derrida means by Deconstruction. Perhaps, I’ll elaborate on that in future.

My point is that PoMo is corrosive—like lye. It eats away at ideologies, dissolves them. It is not meant to construct anything. So where does this constructive expectation come from? It derives primarily from two places.


Most people casting dispersion are modernists. They need to construct things. To be fair, this perspective has been an evolutionary advantage, but some people can’t allow a bunch of Lego pieces to remain unconstructed. This is fine, but you need another tool to perform this task. It’s not PoMo.

Ad Hominem

The other challenge is the inability to distinguish between the person and the idea. Michel Foucault was very vocal in the political realm and actively promoted Marxism, but, firstly, Foucault was not a self-professed PoMo—and for several reasons, one could come to accord with his assessment; secondly, in his deconstruction of history, he discovered a foundational component—this activity being squarely PoMo—, but he reconstructed historical narratives employing the lens of power. This rebuilding is not PoMo activity.

Parting Shot

Besides—or in addition to—ignorance, some people have an agenda, and they play ad hominem games, so if they can vilify a person and associate that person to an ideology, it can have the tendency of poisoning the well. Uncritical people won’t even notice the sleight of hand and redirect.

never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by ignorance*

Hanlon’s Razor

A textbook example is Stephen Hick’s attempt in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault to conflate feminism (a positive mechanism) with postmodernism (to reiterate, a negative mechanism). In it he claims that feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catherine Mckinnon are proponents of PoMo thought, but he is apparently unaware that McKinnon has explicitly attacked PoMo as destructive to feminism. A fuller critique of Hicks‘ work can be heard on YouTube. I recommend it highly if you have the better part of an hour to spare. Jordan B Peterson is a celebrity personality whose primary exposure to PoMo is Hicks, so when you understand how off-base Hicks is, you’ll realise why Peterson is so off-base, too.

* Hanlon’s razor is originally cast as “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity“, but I prefer the term ignorance, as it it less value-laden and more broadly applicable. Besides, to be ignorant does not mean to be stupid. Many ignorant people are not stupid. I am ignorant of the Russian language, but I am not stupid.

Competition and Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson was interviewed by Joe Rogan, where he discussed gender and competition. I am not going to address his gender issues, but I’ll say something about competition. I’ll also ignore his stance that the world is ‘functioning unbelievably well, even though it has its problems’. He gets to competition through some comments on equality.

[Focus] on winning the largest number of games across the span of a lifetime.

Jordan Peterson

Firstly, Peterson differentiates equal playing fields from equal outcomes, a favoured Conservative talking point slash whipping boy. He then sets up a strawman argument relating to people favouring the ‘best of the best’ (which is to say, their personal favourites, I suppose) in lieu of exploring the vast universe of music available on the myriad streaming services, the result being that in the aggregate, the preferred acts make more money through this competition. Of course, this is the result of preference theory, which produces different outcomes based on inputs such a time and place, fads and trends, and the ‘winner’ is the one who attains the most listens.

There’s no accounting for taste.

Having had worked in Entertainment for years, I realised early on that the correlation between talent and financial success was fairly weak. In fact, I had several conversations with artists who felt ‘guilty’ for their commercial success over people they deemed more talented. This is a fundamental problem with market systems, the value calculus is influenced by what Keynes termed ‘animal spirits‘. As the saying goes, there’s no accounting for taste.

Peterson and Rogan both agree that competition is healthy and necessary, but they don’t define the scale and scope, so they sacrifice a participation trophy red herring on the altar.

Peterson does come back to discuss scope within a timeline of a lifespan, that a single game is less important than a championship—and, apparently, there is more than one championship. What never happens is a definition of what the rules of the game are or how you know you’ve won. I suppose, that’s a relative concern. They also don’t provide any guidance on where to set the dial between competition and cooperation.

If you are trying to get a job versus even some anonymous pool of applicants, then you’ve won this match. I see this as an evolutionary game. I remember a story by Clarissa Pinkola Estes where she tells about a guy who had been climbing the corporate ladder for decades, and when he got near the top, he came to the realisation that he had it up against the wrong building. Perhaps what he thought was a worthy goal (say acquisition of money) was in conflict with some higher ethical goals or deeper friendships.

It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.

From what I can tell, Peterson is guided by a sense the virtue ethics are the way to go, and, judging from this interview, he’s more than just a bit of a Consequentialist. But it’s clear he is no Deontologist. Case in point, he claims that the adage, ‘it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game’ is a ‘sentiment confuses children’.

Play well with others.

He ends by saying that if you learn the kindergarten lesson to play well with others, you’ll temper your winning or redefine winning within the context, and somehow your goal should be ‘focusing on winning the largest number of games across the span of a lifetime’.

At the end of all of this—given Peterson’s pathological worldview—, it’s no wonder he’s so defensive, combative, and irascible: he is driven to win, and he thinks it matters. And it’s abundantly clear that he hasn’t learnt his own kindergarten lesson: Play well with others.

And now for something completely different…

I chose the cover image of this post on the merits of the upcoming competition between Peterson and Žižek on 19 April.

Death of the Metanarrative

Until I recently read Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge I never quite understood why Moderns accused Post-moderns of being anti-science. I’d heard Jordan Peterson complaining, and I’d read forum and blog posts with the same attacks.

As it happens, postmodernism eschews the meta-narrative or is leery of it. This includes the meta-narratives underlying science and the Enlightenment more generally. If you’ve read my posts over the years, you’ll see that this is a common complaint of mine, that everything is a human construct. Although Lyotard published The Postmodern Condition, I only read it this week.

To be fair, I sought it out. I have been attempting to find some other philosophers who have asserted that Truth (and other notions like Justice and Progress) are nothing more than the result of a rhetorical victory. And although Lyotard does not come out and say this (at least not in this book), I feel that he would not disagree with the notion. I may have to read some more of his work.

The least one can do is find the underlying narrative. Feel free to operate day to day as per usual, but be aware. The inscription at Delphi was not exactly right. There is no self to know, and narratives change, but to ‘know’ the prevailing narrative of the day seems it might at least allow one to better assess what’s happening above ground. The Matrix trope may be overplayed, but it’s a fitting metaphor for seeing what underlies. There is no Truth, but for what it’s worth, there’s another data point.

We live on the map, but the terrain is inaccessible. The postmodern doesn’t hate science or progress. We merely question the veracity. One cannot assess progress without a vector, without velocity and direction, so we contrive stories to serve as a foundation.

The founding of these stories don’t need to be sinister or nefarious. They can grow organically. But the ones who understand the rules, Wittgenstein’s language game, can wrest power, and s/he who can bend the rules through convincing rhetoric, perhaps as Locke and Rousseau, can change to course of history. But this course can be changed again. When Marx tried to change the narrative, it threatened the status quo, so they try to delegitimatise it at every turn—primarily through the dissemination of disinformation in a sort of corrupt meme machine. Marx tried to embrace and then co-opt Capitalism, but the Capitalists were not ready to cede power. One hundred and fifty-odd years later, they still aren’t. And it might be that a different narrative is adopted before Marx’s vision is even able to take root.

I was a bit confused by Lyotard’s quip about utility being the arbiter under modern Capitalism in lieu of Truth, as I am not sure how many postmodernists embrace the notion of some objective Truth. To be clear, I don’t.

Lego Blocks

In the end, I feel it is better to deconstruct the concept of a knowable reality. The trick is not to try to reconstruct something from the pieces. It’s like deconstructing a Lego model and rebuilding a different model from the pieces whilst making the claim that this reconstitution is the true manifestation when in fact any construct is as ‘good’ as the next, but good cannot be determined until you’ve defined a context. Such is the role of the metanarrative. Once you define an end, you can then evaluate utility in light of it, but there is nothing to assess the choice of one end versus some other ends save by preference. And of course preference can be manipulated by rhetoric.


Whether in English or in French, I don’t believe Foucault ever uttered the words, ‘It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge‘*, but I don’t think he’d disagree with the sentiment.

“All my analyses are against the idea of universal necessities in human existence.”

Michel Foucault

Foucault was a postmodernist, and on balance, political Conservatives (Rightists?) dislike the notion of postmodernism. Evidently, a lot of Postmodernists are also Leftists (Progressives or Liberals in the US), so somehow critics such as Jordan Peterson conflate the two clearly distinct concepts.

A basis for Conservatism is the notion of an objective truth, and despite recent sociopolitical trends, they at least say they are guardians or truth and purveyors of knowledge. Conservatives (OK, so I am broad-brushing here) are staunch individualists who believe strongly in possession and property, of material, of an objective reality. Fundamentally, the are aligned to a monotheistic god or at least some discernible (and objective) moral compass.

On the Left, especially post-Enlightenment, they’ve substituted God with some anthropomorphic Nature. In fact, they find comfort in natural laws and human nature. Science is often their respite because science is objective. Isn’t it? Leftists are friends or Reason, and one can’t acquire enough knowledge. Moderation need not apply here; the more the merrier.

This being said, evidently, many on the Left seem to have abandoned this comfort zone. Of course, this may be because the Left-Right dichotomy doesn’t capture the inherent nuance, and so they were miscategorised—perhaps, much in the same manner as persons are miscategorised in a binary gender system. No. It must be something else.

In any case, both side claim to the parties of knowledge, reason, and truth because the opposing parties are clearly abject morons. There is no hint of irony in the situation where each side claims some objective notion of truth—whether divinely granted or self-evidently reasoned—, yet they can’t resolve what the true truth is. If only the other side were more rational.

By now, we are well aware of the demise of homo economicus, the hyper-rational actor foundational to modern economic theory. In reality, humans are only rational given the loosest definitions, say, to (in most cases) know enough to get in the shade on a 37.2°C day. However, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely noted by the title of his book, people are Predictably Irrational. Ariely is just standing on the shoulders of Kahneman and Tversky and Richard Thaler. My point is that humans are only marginally rational.

As I’ve written elsewhere, truth is nothing more than a rhetorical endpoint. It is hardly objective. It’s a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, systems of government and jurisprudence require this objective truth. In truth—see what I did there?—, social fabric requires a shared notion of truth.

A shared notion doesn’t imply that this notion is objective, but if it’s not objective, how does one resolve differences of opinion as to which is the better truth. Without establishing a frame and a lens, this is impossible. The problem is that frames and lenses are also relative. Whether the members accept a given frame or lens is also a matter of rhetoric. It’s turtles all the way down.

Turtles all the way down

Even if all members agree on all parameters of truth at day 0, there is nothing to prevent opinion changes or from new members not to share these parameters. Such is always the problem with social contract theory. [How does one commit to a contract s/he is born into with little recourse to rescind the contract, renegotiate terms, or choose a different contract option. The world is already carved up, and the best one can do is to jump from the frying pan into the fire.]

In the end, the notion of truth is necessary, but it doesn’t exist. Playing Devil’s advocate, let’s say that there is a single purveyor of Truth; let’s just say that it’s the monotheistic Abrahamic God of Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is no (known) way to ascertain that a human would have the privilege to know such a truth nor, if s/he were to encounter, say, a burning bush of some sort, that this entity would be conveying truth; so, we aren’t really in a better place. Of course, we could exercise faith and just believe, but this is a subjective action. We could also take Descarte’s line of logic and declare that a good God would not deceive us—sidestepping that this ethereal being was good, as advertised. I’m afraid it’s all dead ends here, too.

And so, we are back to where we started: no objective truth, limited ability to reason, and some fleeting notion of knowledge. We are still left with nothing.

Enter the likes of Jordan Peterson, he with his fanciful notion of metaphysics and morality—a channeller of Carl Jung. His tactic is to loud dog the listener and outshout them indignantly. His followers, already primed with a shared worldview, are adept (or inept) cheerleaders ready to uncritically echo his refrain. To them, his virtue-ethical base, steeped in consequentialism awash in deontology, Peterson speaks the truth.

He also potentiates the selfish anti-collective germ and rage of the declining white man. He’s sort of a less entertaining Howard Stern for the cleverer by half crowd. He gives a voice to the voiceless—or perhaps the thoughtless. He uses ‘reason’ to back his emotional pleas. He finds a voice in the wilderness where white Western males are the oppressed. If only they hadn’t been born centuries earlier—albeit with iPhones and microwaves.

Those would be the days.

* I believe this phrase attributed to Foucault was a paraphrase by philosopher Todd May.

Will the Real Jordan Peterson Please Stand Up?

On the topic of social constructivism and cultural relativism, Jordan Peterson is both a vehement counter voice and a hypocritical adherent. This post calls out Peterson’s hypocrisy. To Peterson, the notion that people create their own reality and especially their own identity is heresy. Worse, he will not abide where someone wishes to be identified by some non-gender-performative pronoun.

In his world, it’s obvious that there are two each of singular, gendered subject pronouns and their correspondent object pronouns: he, she, him, and her. Betwixt the two shan’t ever meet. For people like Jordan Peterson, this arbitrary taxonomical classification is written in stone in a manner reflective of Moses encounter with God on the mount.

Peterson 23:13-15

There shalt be two and only two genders, male and female;

and all humans shall conform to these classifications;

and all humans shall dress and behave in compliance with these classifications


For people who view the world like Peterson, there is no distinction between sex and gender, so there is no CIS-this or CIS-that. They will accept for the minority of exceptions for hermaphrodites, but these people are freaks of nature and need to pick a path.

If you have were born with certain primary sexual traits, you must comply with gender stereotypes:

  • Male = Penis
  • Female = Vagina

And these are not cultural stereotypes, by the way; it’s obvious that this is Natural Law handed down from on high because identity is not an individual’s construct. If anything, you must accept with grace the identity society bestows upon you. If they perceive you as X, you had better conform to X or all hell will break loose, and your parents and friends will corral you into the X-mould, if you’ll only listen and comply. It’s for your own good.

Society knows best. If you can’t see it, that’s your problem. It our world, it’s majority rule, and if the masses perceive you as gender X, you had better comply. And don’t be a sissy about it. Purses are for women. Makeup is for women. Dresses are for women. Skirts are for women.

Image: Men wearing kilts
As action figures are not dolls, kilts are not skirts; even so, don’t wear a kilt unless you are either Scottish or playing dress-up, but don’t play dress-up, and you’d better be toting a bagpipe or we’ll question your motives.


Where was I going with all of this?

At the same time, Peterson and his ilk defend universalism, they leave open the ability to envision their own deities as realities as they choose in a ‘it’s my personal god’ sort of way. They want to have their cake and eat it, too.

It’s fine to take a position of objectivism versus subjectivism. I mean you’d be wrong, but you don’t really get to cherry-pick from each where it is convenient. Actually, you do, but you’d be a hypocrite, so there’s that. Perhaps just logically inconsistent or disingenuous.