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Thoughts On Our Collective Fascism

Canadian psychologist and author Jordan Peterson once defined a fascist state as “…a society or culture of individuals who have a characterologically negative orientation toward anomalous information.” Whether or not most people would agree with this rather novel view of a soci0-political ethos that is often evoked but perhaps rarely understood, it strikes me that it is nevertheless one of the more interesting operational definitions of it I’ve yet encountered. To unpack why I think this is such a good psychological model of what 'fascism' is and how it works in individuals and groups, we have to have a rudimentary understanding of the overall thesis of his work .

He offered this definition during a classroom lecture on his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief way back in the mid-90's when we taught at Harvard. In this lecture, as in his book, he describes how we construct values in direct relation to how we are to act in the world. In other words, our values are a map of action. Our highest value at any given moment dictates what we do at any given moment. If we haven’t eaten for a long enough period, the part of our brain responsible for food/calorie procurement takes over, often times quite independently from the part of our brain that governs rational thinking.

Proceeding from this, he asserts that all successful* human cultures and civilizations have essentially valued one thing higher than all else. This one thing is the process by which order, which can be thought of as all things known, mastered, understood, etc., is derived or constructed from the willing interaction or voluntary confrontation with chaos, which can in turn be understood as the unknown, unexplored, and not understood. This process of the transformation of chaos into order constitutes the single highest value of any successful long term civilization. Following from this, we might say that any action that is taken by any individual or group that sacrifices this 'sacred' process constitutes a violation of the fundamental moral/ethical hierarchy or value system at the heart of the shared civilization.

Peterson’s concept of anomalous information- information or experience which does not conform to, or seems to contradict, what we know or believe to be true and well understood- can be categorized as existing squarely in the realm of chaos. If the highest value (which we might also call a mode of or call to action) of all is to encounter chaos- in this case, anomalous information- with the intention to understand it, integrate it into our model of truth and reality, and thereby transform it into order, we must confront it voluntarily.** We might even say that this voluntary confrontation with chaos or anomalous information is an act of faith, in that we have no empirical way of predicting the outcome of the interaction or confrontation, precisely because it involves previously un-encountered information.

With this rubric, we can see how a healthy and virtuous society might be constituted of individuals, groups, and institutions who all seek, in a relatively concerted effort, to confront that which we do not yet understand with faith, truth, and willingness, rather than with suspicion, evasion, ridicule, insouciance, hostility, and even violence. Sadly, most societies too often seem to orient themselves to new ideas, speech, persons, values, or phenomena with all of these negative reactions, and many more.

I won’t here go into all the specific iterations with which our society demonstrates this pathology of fascism. I want to simply call for us to turn away from our own individual and collective fascism by reorienting ourselves to that highest value, that process by which we might voluntarily confront those people, things, ideas, and words that we don’t understand or that we deem dangerous, with the truth- as we see it- and in faith that doing so can build a healthier and more sustaining civilization with the ability to continually revivify itself even in the midst of ever-changing conditions and new challenges at every turn.

I believe that this reorientation of the self and the society is at the heart of learning, and therefore at the heart of how I am now approaching my teaching practice. I see the process of creativity as perhaps the best microcosmic example of how we can cultivate our ability to voluntarily confront that which we don't yet understand and transform it into something that we do. Whether we're learning how to play an instrument or marshaling our musical skill to create a piece of music, we're honing our capacity to engage with the chaos of the world and transform it into something that we can witness, perceive, and admire. I see this is an essential step in better understanding the world, ourselves, and those around us.

I think that each of us may have a real responsibility to engage in some level of learning, skill building, creativity, expression, and communication, without which the world may not fully recover from its moment of confused and befuddled state. At it's core, this is what the Peter Benjamin Music Workshop and its attendant programs are all about.

* Perhaps we agree that exactly what defines a successful civilization is difficult to identify. For the sake of this writing, I'll say that any civilization that lasts more than a few generations is successful by virtue of it's capacity to propagate itself from one generation to the next while keeping cultural artifacts like language, art, and perhaps economic and political systems more-a-less intact. I don't offer this as an authoritative or comprehensive definition, but I think it's a plausible one.

** The idea that we must confront chaos voluntarily for a process of beneficial transformation to take place is well established by the relevant clinical literature. It's one of the fundamental theoretical ideas behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It observes that while debilitating neurosis is often experienced by the individual seeking to avoid the source of their fear and anxiety, a gradual mitigation of the symptoms of anxiety, avoidance, and other acute neuroses is seen with controlled exposure.


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