Predictable Identities: 12 – Fear, Myths, and the Outgroup, Part II

This entry is part 12 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

In Neuropsychology of Group Aggression Jordan Peterson, before anyone knew or hated him, inadvertently describes why some people will passionately hate him when they find out.

The article talks about high-level models keeping anxiety and fear of the unknown at bay. When these models are challenged by new data, people whose frameworks are already straining will react to the challenge with hostility. They will engage in “confirmation extortion” and attack the messenger.

[…] the tendency to demonize evidence of conceptual insufficiency, or the bearers of that evidence, and to ‘morally’ attempt to eliminate it or them from existence.

Making a distinction between “reporters” and “journalists”, the latter’s job is not to describe facts but to interpret their meaning. Meaning-making involves applying stock narratives, the primary one often being “the outgroup is evil and all the same”. For journalists whose outgroup are conservatives, Peterson highlights the acute “conceptual insufficiency” of that narrative.

Conservatives are not supposed to be humanities professors at Harvard, but Peterson was. Conservatives are supposed to say that life begins at conception, but Peterson’s takes a full minute to think of what to say on abortion, and five more to say it.

In his most notorious interview, journalist Cathy Newman repeats “so you’re saying…” dozens of times as she tries to cram Peterson’s idiosyncratic worldview into a familiar narrative – quintessential confirmation extortion. When he’s not around to interview, journalists often engage in “moral elimination” by associating him with the worst of his fans.

Why not attack the worst of his arguments instead? I think it has less to do with the strength of Peterson’s arguments and more with the journalists’ own anxiety. The financial anxiety of a struggling industry, the status anxiety of alternative outlets stealing attention, and the ideological anxiety of their narratives failing in the face of a weirding world full of weird people like Jordan Peterson.

Reflections on Refactor Camp 2019

Last weekend, we held the 7th Refactor Camp, in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, at the lovely (and for our purposes, aptly named) Philosophie offices, on the very au courant theme of Escaping Reality. Here are a couple of early reflection posts, from John Palmer and Lisa Neigut. Another participant, J. Chris Anderson, sent me this succinct reflection over email that I think hits the nail on the head:

The biggest unspoken theme for me was how coherent the zeitgeist is. It’s not like the theme constrained the topics. I bet a conference on escaping reality would have a totally different set of concerns in five years / after reality has been permanently escaped.

You can find links to the raw recorded livestreams at the refactorcamp.com website, and catch up on the conversation via the #refactorcamp2019 hashtag on Twitter. You can also follow this Twitter list of participants. Edited individual videos will be available on the Refactor Camp YouTube channel in a few weeks.

Among the interesting new elements were a chalk mural created by artist Gracie Wilson during the event, and a schwag book of mazes courtesy Dan Schmidt (who has a guest post this week, connecting his interest in mazes to the themes of the event). And to round out the theme of the week, Ian Cheng (who couldn’t attend in person) has a very apropos post this week in our Worlding Raga collaborative blogchain.

I just realized I haven’t actually posted personal reflections since the very first Refactor Camp in 2012. Many of this year’s younger attendees were still in high school then.

It’s all turned into an entangled 7-year blur of online and offline conversations I can’t reconstruct. I’m going to have to go back and dig up other people’s reflections for 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018 (we skipped 2017). If you wrote a reflection for any year, I’d appreciate a link in the comments. Anyhow, let me capture some thoughts for 2019 while they are still fresh in my head.

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Mazes as Mirrors of Creation

This is a guest post by Dan Schmidt of mazestructure.com. His booklet Maze Structure was distributed as schwag at Refactor Camp 2019.

When I was a child, I drew mazes (like the one below) to “wow” people with complexity. A psychotherapist friend of my parents said I was externalizing my brain on paper. Others liken my maze drawings to intestines. I prefer the brain comparison.


There is a difference between creating for self-expression and creating with a purpose. When you create purely for self-expression, the reward is seeing something from your head outside in the world. The externalization is itself the end, regardless of its effect. When you’re creating with a purpose, in contrast, success depends on the outcome. With each iteration, you try to bend reality one step closer to your vision while adjusting your vision to your evolving understanding of reality.

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Worlding Raga 6: World To Live

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Worlding Raga

In a few weeks I’m going to become a dad. I’ve been feeling a new urgency to imagine what life might be like for a person born native to this weird atemporal era. But what that really means remains speculative until, well, she arrives. So in anticipation for this new world of a person entering my life, and in the spirit of this month’s timely Refactor Camp exploring the fertile side of Escaping Reality, I thought it’d be fun to imagine: what would living in a culture of Worlding feel like?

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Refactor Camp Livestream This Weekend

Day 1 Live Stream recording

Day 2 Livestream recording

Just a heads-up that Refactor Camp 2019, on the theme of Escaping Reality, is this weekend in Los Angeles, on Saturday and Sunday. We have a great program lined up, and there will hopefully be a live stream if there are no technical glitches (update: WE DID! Livestream recordings embedded above!). You can follow the @ribbonfarm twitter account and the #refactorcamp2019 hashtag to review the conversation.

We should also have video recordings of most of the talks available a few weeks after the event.

Mediocratopia: 5

This entry is part 5 of 8 in the series Mediocratopia

In a world that runs on ceremonial expectations of optimal performances, but where it is rarely in your best interests to actually deliver optimal performances, practicing mediocrity necessarily involves capability masking: the act of hiding the true extent of your capabilities.

Capability masking is the opposite of “fake it till you make it” behavior, and comes in two varieties, illustrated below, both of which are involved in the behavior commonly referred to as sandbagging.

Capability masking has to be done in a subtle way. You can’t just pick a suboptimal performance level that’s in your own best interests and then nail it precisely without breaking a sweat. Sandbagging is an artistic performance, not a throttle setting, and it’s worth learning to do well.

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Predictable Identities: 11 – Fear, Myths and the Outgroup, Part I

This entry is part 11 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

The first reason why I like the article Neuropsychology of Motivation for Group Aggression and Mythology is that it does what this blogchain hopes to, using predictive processing to explain at once rat behavior, ancient religious symbols, and war crimes.

It starts by noting that fear and anxiety are not emotions that animals need to learn, but are the default reaction to any novel situation. A rat placed in a new cage will first freeze in fear, then sniff and look around cautiously, and only later will dare to move about and explore.

“[T]he organism is only calm, habituated, free of stress, and well-adapted when cortical [predictions, plans, desires] and brainstem [sensory information from the outside] input match.”

This applies to physical space, and even more so to the social environment. We react negatively to familiar people who break social norms and to “strangers, [who] offer equivalent threat. No one knows where they fit, what they think, or what they are likely to do. Thus, they threaten the integrity of the social and psychological structures that inhibit fear.” The symbol of the chaotic unknown in many ancient traditions is a reptile – unpredictable people literally creep us out.

We’re not fans of ideas that challenge our high-level models either. According to psychologist George Kelly: “. . . a major revision of one’s construct system can threaten with immediate change, or chaos, or anxiety.” Often, people will either willfully ignore challenging data or force it to conform to their pre-existing narrative, what Kelly calls “confirmation extortion”.

One such challenge is admitting that a person we’ve dismissed as an enemy of our tribe or a buffoon who is safe to ignore, may actually have good ideas. And this brings me to the second reason I like this article – but more on that in the next post.

The Age of Diffraction

There’s a state of mind that’s been increasingly common for me lately, which I can only describe as a sense of being outdoors in time during inclement temporal weather. I’ve been searching for the right metaphor to describe this feeling, and I think it is the feeling of being diffracted. Like being a hapless, innocent electron being tortured through the famous double-slit experiment. Here’s a cool animation I found on Wikipedia (physics would have been so much more fun if these sorts of animations had been available when I was learning this stuff).

Animation by Jean-Christophe BENOIST at French Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

If your state of mind is normally like that of a particle — you are here and now, thinking about this, doing that, with some uncertainty around it all — being diffracted is feeling like a wave. Like you’re in multiple states at once, with those states interfering with each other in ways that creates subjective dyschronia or timelexia.

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Weirding Diary: 8

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Weirding Diary

Elections in India and EU, and the US-China trade war, have sparked a fresh round of prognostications in my feeds, on the expected length of the global reactionary swing. Here’s a thread of representative opining from Yascha Mounk.

Weirding is not the same thing as the global rightward swing, but I believe it is going to be co-extensive in time with a generation of extremist politics, with the initiative sparking back and forth between far right and far left across the horseshoe gap, with far right having the overall advantage. Centrist positions are underwater in terms of viability.

I’ve come up with an estimate of my own: the weirding will last another 21 years, or until 2040. Counting from 2015, that makes it a 25 year half-cycle, which triangulates well with the 25 year neoliberal half cycle that came just before, making for a 50-year full cycle. If I’m right, I’ll be 66 by the time we’re done with the weirding, so I might as well get comfortable.

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Predictable Identities: 10 – Big Updates

This entry is part 10 of 16 in the series Predictable Identities

When the world conforms better to your expectations, whether through effective action or improving models, it feels great. When the world slides towards unpredictability, it sucks. So how does changing your mind feel? That depends on whether the change improves or breaks your predictions.

Look at the image below until you can make out what it is.

Got it? The moment when the picture resolves feels good because it resolves into something familiar. Random blobs are unpredictable, but you know what a cow looks like and what to expect of it.

How about this one?

Changing your mind about communism is much harder than about a picture of a cow. Whatever your current view of communism, it is a high-level model with multiple associations. It impacts many concrete predictions about nations, politics, your life and career choices, and what sort of person you will get along (i.e., cooperate) with: the Ethiopian lady picking the coffee or the Londoner consultant dude drinking it.

Updating a high-level model is a risky undertaking because it immediately breaks all the predictions that depend on it. You must have an entire alternative system of smaller beliefs and connections in place that fit the new model – then it feels like an epiphany or a long-needed paradigm shift. To convert someone to atheism, it is better first to convince them that atheism doesn’t necessitate immorality or a belief in transforming monkeys.

Without this scaffolding, adopting the new idea will promptly make the world less predictable even if it may be a better-predicting model in the long term. This feels bad, and your brain will pull out all the stops to avoid it: confirmation bias, isolated demands for rigor, flat out denial. And if the new model’s messenger is too insistent to ignore, shooting the messenger is always an option too.