12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson: Review by Julian Baggini

Canadian Psychology Professor Jordan Peterson is all the rage I hear, being told this by a friend who is more in tune with Net Celebrities. And there was some famous interview on Channel 4 that as I don’t have a TV eluded me though I have watched it and thought he did well against a useless interviewer.  Here is the UK Financial Times review of his latest book 12 Rules. And yep UK FT is hardly Post Modernist Maoist Grand Central.

 

Oh and spare us the death threats. Apparently, when you criticize him, his followers send death threats to you for your temerity in questioning the guru, or at least some of them do. We just post what is interesting to provoke discussion, and have big dogs and lots of defenses… 🙂 And three of my friends here are ex-Special Forces, ageing but still capable…

“12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson — back to basics: A YouTube intellectual’s advice on how to live emphasises order and tradition

In the Balkanised age of the internet, bands that most people have never heard of can fill arenas, and TV series on platforms most people don’t use can have audiences of millions. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, shows that intellectuals can play that game too. His YouTube lectures — with titles such as “Identity politics and the Marxist lie of white privilege” — have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

His new book, 12 Rules for Life, began as an answer to a question on the online forum Quora: “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” His response, we are told in the typically self-aggrandising “Overture” to the book, touched a nerve with readers, who “upvoted” it 2,300 times and gushed “You win Quora. We can just close the site now.”

It’s not difficult to see why Peterson’s rules sold in the online marketplace, where attention spans are short and repackaged clichés pass for original insights. In headline form, most of his rules are simply timeless good sense. “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)”; “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” The problem is that when Peterson fleshes them out, they carry more flab than meat.

Peterson’s big, unifying idea is that chaos and order, along with the processes that mediate the two, are the “primal constituents” of “the world of experience”. He sees almost everything through this lens, not heeding his own advice to “Beware of single cause interpretations — and beware the people who purvey them.”

Although he advocates a balance between the two, most of the time he argues that we need more order. In practice, this means a conservative return to tradition and what is “natural”. Dominance hierarchies, for example, are said to be “older than trees”, a “near-eternal aspect of the environment”. But since when has “natural” meant “good”, or “is” meant “ought”? If we cannot move beyond dominance hierarchies, then his apparently empowering advice to stand tall has the chilling corollary that others will have to stoop.

It is no defence to say there are truths here clumsily expressed: rule 10 is ‘Be precise in your speech’

He certainly is not shy of advocating aggression, saying it “underlies the drive to be outstanding”. Those who disagree that kids sometimes need more than “a swat across the backside” are “not thinking such things through . . . not acting responsibly as a parent”. He even says it would have done a two-year-old good to have been thrown “30 feet down the field” for some minor playground bullying of his own child. That doesn’t stop him from later arguing that the school in The Simpsons benefits from the presence of Nelson Muntz, the “King of the Bullies”, without whom it would be overrun by the resentful, the touchy, the narcissistic, the intellectual, the soft and the infantile.

Peterson, who has become one of the most prominent critics of anything that can be labelled as “political correctness”, is especially conservative on gender and family roles. “Female lobsters . . . identify the top guy quickly, and become irresistibly attracted to him,” he writes. Generalising from the crustacean to the human he adds, “This is brilliant strategy, in my estimation.”

On planet Peterson, the social revolutions of the 20th century have not lifted us above atavistic power games and brought about female emancipation but have led to universal degeneracy and the enfeeblement of men. Where “the traditional household division of labour has been demolished”, the result is “chaos, conflict and indeterminacy”.

Peterson has a knack for penning sentences that sound like deep wisdom at first glance but vanish into puffs of pseudo-profundity if you give them more than a second’s thought. Consider these: “Our eyes are always pointing at things we are interested in approaching, or investigating, or looking at, or having”; “In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.” It is no defence to say there are truths here clumsily expressed: rule 10 is “Be precise in your speech”.

This is not the only time Peterson breaks his own rules. He sounds charming when advocating the principle of charity: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.” In practice, he often dismisses people with opposing views with barely concealed contempt. This is particularly noticeable when he talks about religion. Peterson, a Christian, doesn’t just say atheists are wrong, but that they are wrong to even think they are atheists. Those who think otherwise “don’t understand anything. You didn’t even know that you were blind.”

Peterson represents the backlash against his own boomer generation. His book’s subtitle, “An antidote to chaos”, expresses the yearning for a more ordered, simpler world. The antidote, however, is an ethics of conformity, most clearly expressed in his assertion that “It is the primary duty of parents to make their children socially desirable”.

Peterson peddles a kind of academic populism in which the philosophies of Heidegger and Kierkegaard are drafted in to support the will of the people and the wisdom of tradition. No one trying to understand how to live should read this book. Anyone interested in the growing assault on liberal values, however, should study it with fear and trembling.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan Peterson, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Random House, RRP$25.95, 448 pages

 

Julian Baggini

About creativeconflictwisdom

I spent 32 years in a Fortune Five company working on conflict: organizational, labor relations and senior management. I have consulted in a dozen different business sectors and the US Military. I work with a local environmental non profit. I have written a book on the neuroscience of conflict, and its implications for conflict handling called Creative Conflict Wisdom (forthcoming).
This entry was posted in Academic Conflict, Conflict History, Conflict Processes, Creativity and Conflict, Neuro-science of conflict, Philosophy of Conflict, US Political Conflict, Ways to handle conflict and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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