Predictable Identities: 13 – Totalizing Ideologies

This entry is part 13 of 27 in the series Predictable Identities

One last quote from Peterson’s article:

“Totalitarian refusal to develop new skill and new modes of conceptualization when confronted with error makes life increasingly miserable.”

Who’s to blame for the misery inflicted by inflexible worldviews? The fault lies both in ourselves and in our memes.

The subconscious models in our brains know to stick to their limited domains. We have a model of how to catch balls, and the first time we apply it to a Frisbee it fails utterly. Our brains aren’t stubborn and quickly develop a new model of how discs fly.

But higher-level conscious models endeavor to become absolute and all-embracing. Religions are ostensibly about the divine, and yet rabbis must opine on every topic from eating your own snot (not kosher) to jaywalking (kosher). Political ideologies, whether progressive, conservative, or libertarian, end up providing answers to matters of pure science like climate change projections. And every philosophy answers the most important question: who’s with us (those who share the belief) and who’s against

Peterson himself is guilty of the cardinal sin of all philosophers — never refusing to pass judgment on a person or topic.

Philosophies evolve towards becoming totalizing ideologies by natural selection. A philosophy (or guru) that leave room for unanswered questions invite competition and will find themselves displaced by more totalizing rivals. After all, it is easier to remember a single ideology than many — or to watch a single YouTube channel.

A single meaning-making ideology is comforting, pleasant, and seductive. It provides easy answers as long as one doesn’t think too hard and keeps ignoring the discrepancies. But as the errors pile up, the ideology fights back, convincing the wavering believer that they are at fault for doubting the cosmic plan. Ideologies don’t disperse gently, they crumble in an avalanche of pain, fear, and confusion.

Series Navigation<< Predictable Identities: 12 – Fear, Myths, and the Outgroup, Part IIPredictable Identities: 14 – Frameworks are Fake >>

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About Jacob Falkovich

Jacob is so proud of his blog,, that it's on his online dating profiles. He also tweets @yashkaf.


  1. And yet we have (Zen)Buddhism. But of course the niche ‘non-totalizing ideology that revels in unanswered questions’ also has to be filled.

  2. romeostevens says

    This is part of why everything is seen as an attack these days. You’re not really arguing for isolated position X, you’re (tacitly) arguing that they should replace their entire belief system! See also Zvi’s Out to Get You

  3. “….an avalanche of pain, fear, and confusion” also known as cognitive dissonance. Been there, done that. And we see it everyday in the news and social media.

  4. Hmm, judgment is a subset of opinion with stronger moral connotations, but I often argue with my wife about holding opinions where I see no need to, and she simply does as a matter of thinking about the question at all. I don’t think its so much a function of ideology per se. Feels like a cousin of functional fixedness, where you naturally have a view on everything and somewhat attached to it. The flip side is discomfort with ambiguity and not having a view, but even the most dogmatic people seem to have room for non-trivial indifferences below the indifference threshold. Like, I find asking anyone who is above age 8 and not a designer or visual artist “what is your favorite color” to be completely meaningless. Most of us don’t have a favorite color as adults. We like some colors in some contexts and are indifferent to color in others. It’s really annoying when a password recovery secret question uses things like “what is your favorite color”

    • It sounds like you have functional fixedness when it comes to “what should be the answer to questions I’m asked”. You can interpret the password recovery question as “what color do I think of when asked this question by a dumb form?” for which there may be a consistent and reliable answer that comes to mind. It’s very different from being asked this question by a friend, or by a child, or by a personality-test website, or by a Home Depot employee…

    • Douglas Scheinberg says

      Ask a Magic: the Gathering player what their favorite color is, and you’ll get some very passionate and detailed answers. ;)

  5. I think there’s a counterpoint there, if we in our ideology are insufficiently flexible, the question remains of whether it is possible to be sufficiently flexible. If it isn’t, and the only question is dealing with a stream of novelty with processing equivalent to its speed (divergence of flow = – rate of sink) then we overcome the hidden layer of ideological guilt; being insufficiently flexible. (After all, it fits the pattern, everything that fails was not flexible enough, and if we fail, we should just become more so.)

    Now that is a hard totalitarian frame to loose, though obviously embedded in some classic recent ideological-looking model failures (learn to code etc.), and it’s hard to determine exactly what should replace it, unless we focus on that idea of information flows. In that context, we no longer just blame ourselves, but the contexts we are enmeshed in: How fast can you process the ethical and visceral “meaning of human activity” implications of new AI developments? How often do you receive news about it?

    That the world is changing rapidly is to some extent not its fault either, but it is also true that the emotional effects of information streams can be weaponised to put you off balance, developing anxiety reactions from information streams designed without the appropriate distribution of information to allow effective orientation, keeping you just behind understanding and building up neural static.

    Of course what I’m doing here is the usual response to ideological fixity; don’t throw it out, just put hinges on it, fold it into place, and see if you can find stability with new dynamic additions working on an apparently higher level of abstraction (are partially depersonalised information flows really a better model than subjectivising memes? I would argue that they help in explaining Trump’s primary enemy, “news we wish was fake” and his simultaneous desire to create endless publicity, and backpedal various cultural changes, but is adopting a model that explains powerful people’s behaviour really the best criteria to go on? Seems like letting them set the agenda in more ways than are directly within their power.), but this can be handled equally well in sufficiently badly lit situations by the old standby of just starting to pay your beliefs lip service, and letting yourself ease into a little interegnum of hypocrisy.

  6. Gregory Falkovich says

    On cardinal sin – very good. Indeed, most scientists refuse to pass judgment on topics outside their field, and only the best philosophers (Witgenstein?) refrain from that.