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Life is hard: Jordan Peterson and the nature of suffering

The Canadian professor's old-school message is why many started listening to him.

  • The simplicity of Peterson's message on suffering echoes Buddha and Rabbi Hillel.
  • By bearing your suffering, you learn how to become a better person.
  • Our suffering is often the result of our own actions, so learn to pinpoint the reasons behind it.

The main reason I came to appreciate Buddhism is its elegant simplicity. Sure, thousands of mythologies grew from the tradition: hungry ghosts, rebirth, dharmapala, heaven and hells. Buddhist metaphysics will make your head spin. At heart, the sage from modern-day Nepal taught a universal message applicable to everyone, everywhere: we find life unsatisfactory and so we suffer.

Here we are, two-and-a-half millennia later, still reeling in pain. An unprecedented opioid epidemic signaling our intolerance for pain — physical and emotional pain are related; religious and populist fervor infecting social discourse; increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide, especially among the young; tragic upticks in obesity, metabolic diseases, and cancer; Twitter.

We live in a time of plenty, a time of excess, but human nature intervened so that the few stole the plenty and left the many to war over the scraps. Self-obsession, the fuel behind the insecurities causing us to lash out any time our race/gender/sexual orientation is remotely challenged, infects our echo chambers. Pity the fool who dare enter with a divergent idea.

Buddha knew the inability to see beyond suffering was the result of mindset. His program, The Noble Path, was a means for escaping this fate and changing your mind. It took — it takes — a lot of work because we're conditioned to act reflexively, to fear the other, to defend our territory at any cost necessary, even if that territory is a screen that can't shout back. We forgot (or don't care) that those daggers pierce the other side when thrown.

Another religion, Judaism, is similar to Buddhism, in a metaphysical sense, and can be brilliantly summed up in a singular thought, presented by the first century BCE teacher, Hillel. When asked to teach the entirety of the Torah on one leg, he replied, "That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go forth and study."

Jordan Peterson - Life is suffering, so get your act together!

Such can also be said of Buddhism: we suffer when misperceiving the nature of reality. There is a way out of suffering in many ways similar to Hillel's philosophy, except with more meditation — keeping in mind that meditation predominantly meant "contemplation." Closing your eyes to focus is a skill we can all use more of in the Age of Screens.

The screen is also a metaphor long employed by Buddhists, as in: we see the world as if through a screen. Remove it and reality becomes clear.

We're all products of our environment. Mine was slightly militaristic. My father is a veteran. His four years in the Navy heavily influenced his relationship to time (he's always early, a quality passed along to me, much to the chagrin of my wife) and his by-the-bootstraps mentality. As part of the Silent Generation he put his head down and worked, first serving the country, then in computer operations for nearly a half-century at Dupont.

Life was never about being happy; it was survival. You did what you could do to get by. When moments of happiness arrive, embrace them, but don't hold on too tightly — they are fleeting. Very Buddhist upbringing in that sense, even if my father's agnosticism turned into my atheism. We agree on the basics.

Which is what interested me about Jordan Peterson's work. I've written a number of pieces about the Canadian professor on this site, some championing parts of his messages, others contesting them — I discuss that balance here — but what drew me in, as it has so many others, is his willingness to admit that life is quite the challenge. If you're not ready to face that, you're going to suffer. Or, as he phrases it,

Pick up your damn suffering, and bear it, and try to be a good person so you don't make it worse.

Dr. Jordan Peterson | 10 Things That Will Change Your Life Immediately

Life is, as he also puts it, unfair. The 26 richest people in the world control as much wealth as the bottom 3.75 billion people. That's not the result of successful business practices. It's stealing. Such an occurrence could never happen in small, tribal societies. But certain people figured out how to exploit globalism and took everyone for a ride. More importantly, there's nothing metaphysical or divinely sanctioned about it. It is what it is. Look at it, turn it over, turn it around, but look at it. Then figure out how to address the issue because — as Buddha and Hillel and Peterson would say— the issue is in your head.

How you act when facing this fact is your challenge. There are reasons each of us suffer; what unites us is that we suffer. Or we've moved past it, which is the point where you help others through empathy and understanding. Getting bogged down in the pain, yours or others, isn't helping anyone. Or, as Peterson expresses in 12 Rules For Life:

"Before you help someone, you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn't merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation. It's the most unlikely explanation, not the most probable. In my experience — clinical and otherwise — it's just never been that simple. Besides, if you buy the story that everything terrible just happened on its own, with no personal responsibility on the part of the victim, you deny that person all agency in the past (and, by implication, in the present and future, as well). In this manner, you strip him or her of all power."

Bootstraps, even if that analogy always was a bit weird.

Because in a time of excess, where so many own more than ever before even with such income disparity, the complaints people have are hard to handle. Reality television and social media unleashed in public the awful fact that too many of us take ourselves way too seriously, unable to see beyond the tiny bubble allowed onto their screen.

In the face of actual suffering — as in, global displacement due to climate change, the major consequence of our excess — we'll see how we really fare. At this point it's not looking good. That said, as wistful and petty as humans can be, we're also resilient and courageous when called upon. When you don't have time to contemplate suffering, when you're thrown in the midst of challenge with no escape, you come face to face with who you really are.

As those uncanny Zen Buddhists like to riff on their teacher's legacy, whose face will appear then?

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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