In the wake of the New Zealand mosque shootings, one major New Zealand bookshop, Whitcoulls, apparently removed Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules for Life” from its shelves. This was reported in a range of print and online media, particularly various right-wing sites. For example, the New Zealand Herald on March, commented in an article mainly about the many positive responses to the massacre that “Contributions to our national wellbeing such as Whitcoulls’ removal of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life from its shelves, while Hitler’s Mein Kampf remains on sale, and shutting down debate on the UN’s Immigration Pact are tokenism, and misguided to boot.”
I checked six large New Zealand bookstores (either big chains or online) and indeed Whitcoulls is the only one which does not have 12 Rules for Life available for sale. It does have Mein Kampf, and the Collected Writings of Chairman Mao, as well as some other writings by Peterson. Earlier in February this year, a group called Auckland Peace Action, objected to Peterson’s planned visit to New Zealand, with a “press release” claiming that “Jordan Peterson Threatens Everything of Value in Our Society.”
If you are not aware, Jordan Peterson has become an internet phenomenon, with a massive following, particularly among young men, and there are lots of negative reactions to him from journalists and other commentators. My teenage son has been reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules and also watching various videos of Peterson interviews and lectures, and gave me a copy of “12 Rules for Life” for my birthday. So I am going to read it with interest, to see whether it does indeed threaten everything of value in our society, or should be banned as “extremely disturbing material”. As I make my way through the book, I will add review comments to this blog post, starting with the Introduction below.
In the introduction, Peterson talks about his search to understand why people would risk the destruction of the world in order to maintain their belief systems. And goes on to argue that we must have “meaning” to set against the suffering that is intrinsic to Being. And we then may be willing to fight to ensure that is a shared belief system, since a shared belief system stabilizes human interaction.
Well fair enough, as far as it goes. But it raises many questions in my mind. Given that humans are diverse, and there are many belief systems (or rather, systems of values) and this is inevitable, since people are in different social and historical environments, and people and cultures are at different developmental levels, is he saying it is a good thing to extend and presumably impose through social or coercive sanctions, a single value system? Or is he implying that the world should move to a higher level value system, which values and tolerates the vast distribution of value systems under constraints (such as freedom of speech and belief, human rights for all, etc). But then the latter becomes “the” belief system of society as a whole, and how do we get there. Maybe by following his 12 rules? I will read on and find out.
How does the world free itself from conflict over values, without diminishing those values and leaving people prey to meaninglessness? This is Jordan’s formulation of the same dilemma I just outlined in different vocabulary. His answer is to focus on individual development and elevation (ie. what I referred to as developmental level) and “through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path”. With a caveat on the heroic path (which I will come back to), I can only agree with this. And Jordan ends his introduction on a suitably humble note:
“I am not for a moment claiming, however, that I am entirely correct or complete in my thinking. Being is far more complicated that one person can know, and I don’t have the whole story. I’m simply offering the best I can manage.”
Rule 1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
This chapter starts with several pages discussing dominance hierarchies in various animals, with particular attention to the lobster. His main point is that dominance hierarchies and how to deal with them, have evolved over the course of evolution and are hardwired into brains, including human brains. They serve a number of purposes, such as to deal with conflict over territory and mates without lethal violence, and the brain is programmed to accurately and quickly identify position of self and others in dominance hierarchies.
Peterson also makes the point that natural selection does not operate only on the level of “nature” as in physical environment and other animals, but also through the social and cultural environment. And nature is not static, but co-evolves with species as well as constantly changing in random and systematic ways.
Peterson then talks about some of the ways in which you can get into behavioural patterns which act to move your self-perception down the dominance hierarchy to very unhealthy and negative places. He also talks about bullying and how that can be amplified by lack of self-respect, lack of standing up straight. He argues that “standing up straight” sets up a positive feedback loop in which people are less likely to assume you are not competent, and you will get positive responses which will increase your ability to stand up straight and the probability that good things will happen.
So far so good. All good stuff, and I like the arguments from evolutionary principles. I’ve seen some critiques that focus on the lobster example to claim that Peterson is saying we are just like lobsters and should accept the hierarchy that we live in[i]. In fact, his message is the opposite. Rule 1 is essentially about respecting yourself, standing up for yourself, and resisting oppression. Losers don’t need to continue to be losers, and not acting like losers is the first step. Of course, the second step may be to organize for social change where it is needed, but that requires the first step.
Peterson says “To stand up straight is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. …… It means casting dead, rigid and too tyrannical order back into the chaos in which it was generated; it means withstanding the ensuing uncertainty, and establishing, in consequence, a better, more meaningful and more productive order. “Dare to be dangerous”.
Rule 2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
Peterson starts by noting that many of the world’s traditions regard suffering as the irreducible truth of Being. Well yes, although not quite true for Buddhism, where it is set out as the first of the Four Noble Truths, and is the starting point for setting out a path towards liberation from suffering. He then talks about the principles of Order and Chaos as two of the most fundamental elements of lived experience and the interaction between them, which he suggests is the same as consciousness. And there needs to be a balance between them, of order that provides structures for living and interaction, and chaos that allows freedom, potential and change. And too much of either is destructive.
He argues that order and chaos are symbolically associated with masculine and feminine, and this is expressed in myth, religion, archetypes etc. He then says that the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, and because men have been the builders of towns and cities, engineers, operators of heavy machinery etc throughout history. Peterson is on record as saying he doesn’t believe there is such a thing as the patriarchy, but to my mind he has just described it. Perhaps to him “the patriarchy” carries some more conceptual baggage in its definition or use, and I haven’t tried to find any of his discussion of this to find out more. But his statement on masculine dominance is true as far as it goes, at least for recorded history. But with the industrial revolution, and now the post-industrial “information” society, the historical dominance hierarchies are being changed, at least in modern and post-modern societies. Further to go, and some societies still in pre-modern phases. And “historical” culture is fighting back. I suspect Peterson may be somewhat on that side of things, though he does not say so here. Or maybe I am reading him and giving him the benefit of the doubt.
In discussing how chaos is symbolically associated with the feminine, Peterson makes an argument that women play a dominant role in sexual selection – they are choosy maters. I’m not sure about this, at least in historical times, but the more I think about it the less clear it seems to me. But Peterson then goes on to throw in a claim that for this reason we all have twice as many female ancestors as male ancestors. This argument is just straight out wrong. Ignoring the possibility that one male or female may be an ancestor through more than one ancestral line, we have exactly equal numbers of male and female ancestors. And its hard to imagine that the proportion of men who are ancestors through more than one descendant line is twice as many as the proportion of women, particularly given that this circumstance will only be a low proportion of all ancestors. Peterson has made a leap of illogic from a claim that most women father children, but from a subset of males. More men do not have children than women. May or may not be true but doesn’t lead to his claim about having half as many male ancestors.
Peterson does not claim that order is better than chaos, but rather that the Way (in the Taoist sense) is represented by the border between order and chaos: “To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure.” That is where meaning is to be found.
Peterson then spends several pages discussing the Garden of Eden myth and its meaning, getting to the issues of good and evil. He identifies the fall as the dawning of self consciousness and the realization that you have a great capacity for wrongdoing. Leading us to question the value of our being. He then delves into the Genesis account for more pages to conclude that it tells us the solution to avoiding existential despair is to treat ourselves like people we care for and strive for good. To embrace the world as an awake being rather than to go back to sleep as before the Fall. And hence his 2nd rule: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
The chapter ends with a whole lot of standard self-help about setting goals and act with discipline and vision to achieve them, and giving your life meaning.
Rule 3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
This chapter starts with lengthy personal story of Peterson’s youth in a small Canadian town and some of his friends who had low self-esteem and did not take responsibility for themselves, ending up as real losers. And his rule 3 essentially is to surround yourself with people who will support your upward aim, and encourage you when you are heading in the right direction, and call you out when you are not. All fairly standard self-help 101 and good advice for teenagers, and everyone.
Rule 4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
There is usually someone better than you at any particular thing, and its easy to let the self-critic put you down, and feel worthless. The solution is not to say there is no “better” or “worse” or to decry the competition, but to follow rule 4. Peterson also points out that you are playing many games, and the specifics of some are so specific to you that in fact comparison to others may simply be inappropriate.
Peterson then launches into a fairly lengthy discussion of vision, appearance, illusion, and desire….very much along the lines of Buddhist thought, but then veers into religion and the necessity for obedience (to provide at least an initial structure and set of values for a person to work with). He defines religion as essentially about proper behaviour. From a Zen Buddhist perspective, I would follow Ken Wilber[ii] in describing an authentic (religious) practice as a set of injunctions (ie. practices) intended to achieve certain outcomes – much like a scientist’s specification of an experiment. With the injunctions to be accepted as valid, rejected, or modified in light of results. Too easily many religions instead treat “proper behaviour” as mandatory and departures from it to be punished, either in the afterlife or here-now by self-appointed enforcers of their interpretation of proper behaviour. And Peterson’s discussion does not really bring out any of this, rather concludes simply that it is desirable for religion to have a dogmatic element.
And then Peterson tells the reader that no-one is an atheist and quotes a Dostoevsky novel about an atheist who commits a rational murder. This is complete nonsense. And bizarre after he started so well in terms of the evolutionary origins of much human behaviour and psychology. Clearly, humans as social animals have evolved with empathy and the ability to put themselves in the other’s point of view, along with altruism and a propensity to behave ethically etc. Of course, there are many humans who lack empathy and ethics, but it is clearly a human instinct. And there is no empirical evidence that non-religious people are less moral or ethical than religious people, and indeed the most visible religious people today seem to be mostly tribal haters stuck at a premodern developmental level.
Then there are four pages on the god of the Old Testament and the god of the New Testament. And how the angry vengeful god of the Old Testament is still relevant today. I have no idea why he wants to spend so much time defending a bronze age god from a lower level of human development, or trying to derive rationales from it for “rules for life” that are easily justifiable in terms of current understanding of human psychology and developmental levels. This material leaves me at best cold, at worst quite irritated.
In the final section of this chapter, Peterson suddenly flips from a somewhat strange apologetics for the Old Testament to a set of arguments that could have come straight from some of my Zen teachers, saying “Pay attention …Align yourself with truth and the highest good……live in the present and attend completely and properly to what is right in front of you……Realization is dawning…….you no longer have to be envious or frustrated, or be concerned with the actions of other people” and so he formulates this as Rule 4. Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
Rule 5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
Most of this chapter is essentially an argument that the wise parents provide education, guidance and discipline to their children to maximise their ability to function in society and to thrive. Poorly socialized children who behave badly and treat others badly will be avoided by potentially friendly peers and interested adults with negative impacts on their development and future wellbeing.
He then follows with a discussion of discipline and punishment, including an argument in favour of proportionate use of physical force. Which I could and would disagree with, but then (spoiler ahead: irony) I look at my dreadfully spoilt sons, and wonder whether a good thrashing every now and then may have made all the difference.
Rule 6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
How can a person who is awake avoid outrage at the world? Peterson then discusses various mass killers from Nazis to the Columbine shooters who were so angry at the world they thought humans should not exist. Rather than giving in to despair or nihilism, Peterson advises to look closely at your circumstances and to clean up your life. Rather than wallowing in blame of others, set your own house in order. You may then find your anger and resentment recedes, that some of the problems no longer seem such a source of despair. I would also add that you may also be in a position to act mindfully and effectively to help address some of these problems free of ego and anger. All seems good advice to me.
For the second half of this review, see 12-rules-for-life-part-2
[i] Colin Friedersdorf. Why can’t people hear what Jordan Peterson is saying? The Atlantic, Jan 22, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/01/putting-monsterpaint-onjordan-peterson/550859/
[ii] Ken Wilber. The marriage of sense and soul. New York: Random House, 1998.