Review of Jordan Peterson, 12 rules for Life: An antidote to chaos, Random House, 2018.
Over the past year, Peterson shot into the public eye with his jihad against political correctness, using YouTube, the new medium for getting one’s beliefs broadcast without corporations, governments and media gatekeepers censuring and burying one’s new ideas. And his ideas are radical, but more radically old than new. To him, cherished beliefs are mostly cherished because they’ve worked for millennia, some actually hardwired in us, and we abandon them at our peril.
He asserts what he argues is his male, rational energy, taking no prisoners as he fights to save the English language from attempts to substitute gender neutral terms with orwellesque ‘they’s and ‘zhe’s and then forcing one and all (provincial premiers and profs included) to bow to the new golden calf. Language is important, as is marriage and respect for sex (not the amorphous ‘gender’). That is just part of his message, and he is now riding an angry, bucking herd of politically correct broncos. Peterson stares them down unapologetically.
Prairie boy makes good
Peterson grew up in a tiny village in northern Alberta, and gives a fascinating account of his youthful friendships, looking at his early life now through his psychiatrist lenses. His own maturing led from socialism till he turned 18 (he grew disenchanted with the NDP due to what he saw as a preponderance of "the intellectual, tweed-wearing middle-class socialist" who "didn't like the poor; they just hated the rich") to … well, some kind of conservatism, but not the neoliberalism which has poisoned both conservative and liberal politics. He also moved from a limp protestantism to a kind of spiritual agnosticism, though his conservative bent will please Catholics.
According to Wikipedia, his lectures at Harvard in the 1990s were highly admired by students. In July 1998, he returned to Canada and took up a post as a full professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, practicing as a clinical psychologist, and very public intellectual.
Peterson epitomizes the new type of newsmaker. His YouTube channel has gathered more than one million subscribers and his videos have received more than 48 million views as of April 2018. He used funds received via the crowdfunding website Patreon after he became embroiled in the Bill C-16 controversy* in September 2016. His funding through Patreon has increased from $1,000 per month in August 2016 to $14,000 by January 2017, and then to more than $50,000 by July 2017. Who needs crusty academia?
His critique and his Orwellian critics
His critique of political correctness looks at the relationship between political belief and personality, and posits two types of "offense sensitivity": PC-egalitarianism and PC-authoritarianism. The first type is represented by a group of classical liberals, the latter by "social justice warriors" who "weaponize compassion".
Postmodernists, instead of pitting the proletariat, the working class, against the bourgeois, started to pit the oppressed against the oppressor. That opened up the avenue to identifying any number of groups as oppressed and oppressor and to continue the same narrative under a different name. This makes racial identity or sexual identity or gender identity or some kind of group identity paramount, replacing class analysis.
Right so far. But he calls this a continuation of Marxism, taking the word of the intellectual gadflies he despises. Yes, practitioners of neomarxism “in modern universities should be ashamed of themselves for continuing to promote such vicious, untenable and anti-human ideas, and for indoctrinating their students with these beliefs.” But I doubt Marx would have any use for these self-styled Marxists. Marx wrote nothing about pronouns or gender preferences, not even a word about homosexuality, a phrase which had barely been coined before his death. There can be no Marx without class, and as Marx famously quipped to French theorists: if that is marxism, then i’m not a marxist.
So Peterson has a misnamed axe he’s grinding, but the axe is still worth grinding. He advises students to avoid disciplines like women's studies, ethnic studies and racial studies, as well other fields of study he believes are "corrupted" by this ideology, such as sociology, anthropology and English literature. He states that these fields, under the pretense of academic inquiry, propagate unscientific methods, fraudulent peer-review processes for academic journals, publications that garner zero citations, cult-like behaviour, safe-spaces,** and radical left-wing political activism for students. He calls the ongoing campaign against ‘white privilege’ and (even worse) white male privilege blatant racism.
The university threatened him in late 2016 but then backed off. He is tenured and now a major media figure, and the best strategy with hot potatoes is generally to try to ignore them. When he was denied a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant for the first time in his career a few months later, he called this retaliation for his statements regarding Bill C-16. In response, the notorious Rebel Media launched an Indiegogo campaign on Peterson's behalf, an organization which, considering his youtube success, he might have been smarter to distance himself from.
In November 2017, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University was censured by her professors and WLU's Manager of Gendered Violence Prevention and Support for showing a segment of The Agenda, which featured Peterson debating Bill C-16, during a classroom discussion. This had the Orwellian implication that even criticism of the bill was itself in violation of Bill C-16. The farce could not be ignored and the censure was withdrawn. A minor victory against the forces of 1984, but 2017 was a rough ride for Peterson.
Psychological bull’s eyes
The furor surrounding Peterson as related in the mainstream media left me with a wariness of the guy, portrayed as rude, a bigot, a tyrant to a handful of outspoken critics. A prickly character, not your average psychotherapist. He had become notorious, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and ordered his book from the public library (as of this writing, there are 1162 holds on 176 copies).
By the time it arrived months later, I had forgotten about him and what seemed a strident but sensible feint in the ongoing feminist/ gay war against the white male. I thought - what a corny title! Why did I ever order such a trite self-help book? I grudgingly picked it up - and was soon blown away. It slowly dawned on me that this is ‘that guy’, but it was neither strident, nor flakey.
Is mainstream media really so distorting as to leave us all so prejudiced? A spot on a panel on Steve Paikin’s TVO news show, but no platform in the public eye beyond his own youtube site. Are transactivists on campus, the darlings of mainstream media, just hysterical, spoiled brats trying to destroy the English language, dump all traditions as sexist etc.?
Peterson is the quintessential renaissance man, bringing together many ideas from the natural and social sciences, projecting a refreshing understanding of the conundrum of human existence -- both Old and New Testaments, history and philosophy (though he came to believe that Marxism is a murderous ideology and lumps Stalin with Hitler), and of course psychology, with Freud, Jung, Skinner all providing insight into the various paths to self-understanding. This is not easy stuff, he’s bound to get some things wrong, and his own strong opinions are guaranteed to offend just about everyone in some way.
It is occasionally long-winded and unfocussed, but worth plowing through to the end. I suspect Peterson finished it in a rush, hounded by the university, government, and the omnipresent political thought policy. Capitalizing on his notoriety, he caught the moment to make 12 Rules a bestseller.
The postmodern left reduces morality/ ideals to a cynical power grab, leaving only relative/ personal ‘value judgments’. All we’re left with is tolerance/ compassion for people who think differently/ different cultures.
Peterson looks to myth from oral traditions, which were not just stories, but were moral in intent, telling us how humans should act. The world is a stage/ drama, not a mere place of objects. The human dialectic is between chaos/ order, female and male, yang and yin, epitomized by the tao circle. Meaning is found in the tension on the border between that ever-entwined pair. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life. Resolve chaos into order via language. I.e., language is vital, even sacred, like marriage and other human heritage, not to be treated lightly.
We need a shared belief system as a code for mutually predictable relations, expectations, desires allowing for cooperation, peaceful competition. We need a clear value system because both perception and action require a goal. For this to work, we need to take responsibility to strive for goals consistent with reality. Hey, this is Islam or Christianity!
Feminists will fume at Peterson’s use of lobsters as the oldest of reasonably intelligent life (140m yrs ago). The Alpha male syndrome in ‘society’ is already in place. Mr Alpha enjoys higher serotonin,and struts cockily over his brood, rousting subordinate male from shelters at night to remind them who’s top dog. When the defeated male lobster regains courage, he is more likely than the victor to lose in future battles.
Peterson’s conclusions: 1/ We too are hardwired by serotonin. Dominance hierarchies are basic to all living ‘souls’. If peers despise you, your serotonin is low, a self-fulfilling prophecy as you stumble through life. This can even shut down your immune system, or render you dangerously impulsive. You see change as leading to disaster, not opportunity.
2/ Winner-takes-all. Unequal distribution is also hardwired, i.e., the pareto concept of rich get richer, the Matthew effect.***
3/ So you need a balance of compassionate self-sacrificing vs self-protective anger to defend yourself. If you can bite, you generally don’t have to. The mere ability to respond, even for the lobster is not the same as ‘might makes right, but there is a whiff of it.
4/ Boys will be boys. Guys are hardwired with aggression and higher testosterone. Rather than labelling antsy boys with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and pumping them with Ritalin, sapping their natural energy, schooling should be structured to nurture them, not to try to turn them into little girls.
Peterson’s book is worth it just for his advice to parents. It’s full of gems: the first four years are crucial, a child really needs both a mother and father, memory is there not to be nostalgic, but to consolidate a useful version of the past to help you navigate the present and future. This is the foundation of his counselling practice, and his fame is deserved as a first rate counsellor.
The real Marx
My radar was alerted by Peterson’s overt right wing slant. He early on saw the hypocrisy of the NDP mentality, not so much liking the poor, but resenting the rich. Ouch! A cute anecdote of right wingers is that Marx didn’t want everyone to be poor, but to be rich. That is doubtful. Marx wanted people to be free of work, “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.”****
And study after study shows redistributing wealth and a more equal income distribution is the silver bullet. While cumulative advantage has its role in society, a pareto-effect rule of thumb for acceptable inequality is 80:20 (the bottom 80% get 20%), not 99:1 (the bottom 99% get 1%), a point Peterson doesn’t make. Social justice is as much ‘hardwired’ into us as hunger, sex or aggression.
His blanket dismissal of Marx, confusing the neomarxist gender warriors with Marx, leaves a big gap in his social theory. It is urban civilization, leading to overcentralization and increased maldistribution, that leads to tyranny and capitalist globalization. That is Marx, and is ’hardwired’ into unmediated social evolution. Capitalism makes Genghis Khan scientific, and the role accessible to many khans, Hitler the 20th century version, Trump a 21st century wannabe, playing with the nuclear button, strutting his hardwired alpha pretensions, terrifying us all.
Better small groups, giving more room for talent to develop. There is a higher ratio of creatives in rural settings (the young Peterson a fine example), and greater contentment, longer lives. Small is beautiful. That is the essence of Marx. His blueprint for a bright future is to put the giants of industry under state control, and let small producers carry out economic production without exploitation.
Not bread alone
Rather than rejecting Marx and socialism, as Peterson seems to be doing, we can take a leaf from his other major point: man does not live by bread alone. Spirituality is also hardwired into us, as Peterson argues. He described himself as a classic British liberal, a philosophical pragmatist. He lost his socialist faith in 1980 as a teen, taking no inspiration from the fading Soviet alternative to capitalism, mired in the Cold War and Afghanistan. Bootstraps are all well and good, but you won’t solve the world’s problems with 12 Rules.
His concept of Christianity is to imitate Christ, for him meaning "something like you need to take responsibility for the evil in the world as if you were responsible for it to understand that you determine the direction of the world, whether it’s toward heaven or hell". Yes, the devil is at work and we must recognize it and fight it.
The 12 commandments
Peterson’s homilies are all worthwhile, and are full of anecdotes from his work as a therapist and his wide knowledge of philosophy and psychology. They include
*Treat yourself like someone you must care for.
*Make friends with people who want the best for you.
*Compare yourself to yesterday (not to someone else today).
*Don’t let children do what makes you dislike them.
*Set your own house in order first.
*Pursue the meaningful, not the expedient.
*Tell the truth or at least don’t lie.
*Assume x knows something you don’t know.
*Be precise in speech.
*Be a skateboarder. So don’t minimize risk, optimize it. We are hardwired for risk.
He adds meat to religious homilies like ‘love thine enemies.’ Love thine enemies means learning from their success, listening to their critique, adopting as your ambition the creation of a world in which those who work against you see the light so what you’re aiming at encompasses them. Noah: ‘The centre cannot hold’ so prepare your character to prevail against the flood.
*Trudeau’s bill adds gender expression and gender identity as protected grounds to the Canadian Human Rights Act, and also to the Criminal Code
**An autonomous ‘space’, meaning that a teacher, educational institution, or student body is resolved to not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech), typically on a university campus, but also at workplaces, as in the case of Nokia
***Matt 25: 28-9: One form of the penalty of the slothful will be to see work which might have been theirs to do, done by those who have been faithful while on earth. In secular lingo, unused muscle atrophies.
****German Ideology (1945)