This is the second half of my review of “12 Rules for Life” by Jordan Peterson, the controversial Canadian psychologist who has become an internet sensation. The first half of my review can be found at 12-rules-for-life-jordan-peterson
Rule 7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
Peterson again turns to the Old Testament to the story of Paradise and the Fall as a guide to Being and right action. He prefaced this with a quite good explanation of how myths and legends encode guidance on Being, action and meaning based on human experience and behaviours that have evolved over a long period of time. But why he thinks Bronze Age myths are still our best source of understanding of these things, and ignores the important evolution of human societies and understanding in recent centuries, I don’t know.
The characteristic of ability to delay gratification, or in economic terms to have a lower discount rate for future benefits, is well understood as an important predictor of success in health, work and life[i]. There is extensive literature on this. But Peterson decides to argue for its importance on the basis of the ancient Jewish practice of sacrifice to God, with the supreme example being Abraham willing to kill his son as a sacrifice. Then moves on to Cain and Abel, and Jesus being tempted by the devil. Well, I will skip ahead.
Peterson then argues that Christianity is responsible for the abolition of slavery, and insisted that women were as valuable as men, and finally it separated church from state. I think the evidence does not support any of that. Slavery was only abolished in the West within the last two hundred years, and some Christians were heavily involved as aboitionists, but many fighting for the rights to enslave also. And the separation of church from state, and the emancipation of women, incomplete as either is, have more to do with the Western Enlightenment and the rise of science and the post-industrial society than to Christianity. In fact, the powerful Christian churches continue to fight tooth and nail to prevent women having positions of authority in the church or for the state to be separate from the church (think birth control, abortion and gay rights). He speculates that the rise of science was motivated by the need to address suffering as Christianity had failed to do so. And that the “truth seeking” of science was directly the result of centuries of Christianity. This seems implausible to me as a primary motive, and more to do with the transition from concrete operational to formal operations thinking in a significant segment of the population, associated with the ongoing development of Western culture combined with the primate curiosity of humans. But maybe it was a factor among others more important.
To the rational thinker, the dogmas of religion grew to seem less and less plausible, and hence Nietzche proclaimed the death of god. Peterson argues that Nietzche’s main critique of Christianity was that the death of Christ (dying for our sins) allowed people to escape responsibility for addressing their sins, or addressing suffering. But Peterson then says that Nietzche and Doestoevsky still accepted the necessity for dogma to provide a constrained framework within which the individual can ultimately achieve freedom.
I have a real problem with the “constrained” here. Fine, if it is the voluntary constraint chosen by the individual to provide a discipline and structure within which to work. Much as if I take up a martial art, I will accept the discipline, practices, etiquette etc as all providing a framework within which I can safely practice and improve. Such a structure must be freely chosen and can be left without sanction (although practitioners may well appropriately refuse to accept a student who repeatedly drops in and out of the practice, as demonstrating a lack of the personal commitment needed for any serious practice). In contrast, particularly in pre-modern cultures and in the more fundamentalist forms of religion, there are extreme sanctions up to and including the death penalty for disobeying tenets of dogma. This is not acceptable as a “constrained framework”. And even countries like the USA, where freedom of religion is guaranteed under the constitution, there are substantial parts of the country where letting it be known that you are an atheist can invite quite extreme social and economic sanctions from the community[ii].
Peterson says that he grappled with why so many millions died in the twentieth century due to dogmas of left and right, and concludes that evil lies within us all, that we need to strive to ease suffering , aim to improve our own behaviour, pay attention and strive for humility and tolerance. All very Buddhist injunctions, and he continues in the same vein to talk about Right Speech, Right Living etc. He concludes that meaning is found in the balance of order and chaos, as he argued in an earlier chapter. He seems to be drawing in and repeating many of the earlier rules, but leads to the 7th rule: Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.
Rule 8. Tell the truth (or at least don’t lie).
You can use words to manipulate the world, and this is to achieve some pre-chosen outcome that you desire. Ultimately this means you do not reveal to others or yourself who you really are AND you close off potential outcomes in favour of the one you have chosen a priori, so limiting growth potential. Peterson then goes into a lengthy analysis of the suffering caused by lies and deception. Nothing to argue with here, and to put it in the terms I would use, he is essentially saying “Act with integrity even when it is hard”. If you tell the truth, you are informed by reality manifesting itself, and your values will transform as you progress. Whereas the totalitarian with fixed values will not. Peterson argues that everyone should have goals to limit chaos and provide meaning, but these goals are temporary, and the more important meta-goal is to “live in truth”. Tell the truth (or at least don’t lie).
Rule 9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Peterson discusses various different types of conversation, many characterized by not truly listening to what the other person has to say. He says at one point that people organize their minds through conversation. He must be an extrovert, that is what they do, to the great annoyance of introverts, who don’t open their mouth until they have thought through what they really think.
He also misunderstands why women get frustrated with men who want to “solve” their problem, saying it cuts short the time they need to talk through and formulate their problem precisely. In fact, often they are wanting to express feelings and receive empathy, rather than problem solve at all.
But these are minor gripes. His main messages are spot on in terms of genuinely listening and conversing with the aim of mutual exploration of ideas and experience, ultimately leading to greater wisdom. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
Rule 10. Be precise in your speech.
This chapters starts with a very Buddhist exposition of the interconnectedness and interdependence of all things. Nothing exists in isolation. When we look at the world we see only what is enough to suit our plans and actions, and this radical simplification of the world is what we perceive as the world. He then discusses how the boundary of self and other is extensible, as is the boundary of the group we identify with. All very Wilberian[iii]. And when things fall apart, our simplifications disappear and we are confronted by the formless emptiness of reality. Again, very close to the Buddhist understanding of emptiness. Peterson argues that the way out of that chaos, or indeed the way to avert it, is through precision of speech. Precise communication allows the issues to be identified and potentially addressed, though denial often seems easier in order to avoid the risks of failure or unanticipated outcomes. Confront the chaos of being. Chart your course and be precise in your speech.
Rule 11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
This rule is essentially about the need for children (and people) to lean beyond their edge. To optimize risk (not too dangerous, not too safe) so that people develop competence and grow. Here and earlier in the book when he talks about the “heroism of genuine Being”, Peterson is talking about an essentially masculine path (in the sense that Deida[iv] defines masculine and feminine). I wrote this too soon, a couple of pages later he describes the differences between masculine and feminine in terms quite similar to Deida. Unlike Deida, he doesn’t then go on to explicitly say that his rules are formulated to appeal to the masculine psyche, though it is clear that he knows they are. And that he is writing primarily for an audience of young men. See the section on why boys are suffering in the modern world (or rather in post-modern Western culture). At one point, he says that boys’ accomplishments are not valued as they are seen as the privileged beneficiaries of the patriarchy.
Peterson claims that girls can win by winning in their own hierarchy, and also by winning in the boys’ hierarchy. But boys cannot do the same. Society will judge them if they hammer a girl as hard as they would a boy, and if they lose to a girl, both boys and girls will reject them. That may be a description of the typical situation, but Peterson seems to imply it is simply the way things are. But it is largely not my experience. I tend to judge male and female by the same standard of competence and performance, and have absolutely no concern about hanging out with women who are better at some activity than me. And that includes “typically masculine” physical activities, such as rock climbing, martial arts or power lifting. For me, these activities are primarily about leaning beyond my edge, not that of anyone else, though of course its nice to receive some admiration if I deserve it. But I am a minority personality type and maybe Peterson is right that, in general, separate male and female dominance hierarchies are part of our nature, and at least need to be explicitly taken into account in addressing social issues. I remain unconvinced though.
The footnote on p299 shows that Peterson indeed doesn’t know much about maths (brackets missing), as he says himself somewhere earlier in the book.
Peterson rejects claims about the oppression of patriarchy. But he starts by saying that all cultures are oppressive structures, and that they are inherited from the past, are out-of-date, wilfully blind, and need to be rescued and repaired by the living. So he is not saying that culture should not be subject to criticism, but he is saying that it is not ONLY oppressive, it also has benefits. And one should not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Given the current attacks on some of the key values of the Western enlightenment, whether on free speech from the left and the right, or on freedom of religion and thought from the right, I have to agree with him. Among other things, he argues very passionately against extremism, whether of the left or the right.
He also argues that it is perverse to consider culture the creation of men only. And then makes a very similar argument to Wilber, that it was the industrial revolution followed by the post-industrial information-based society that created the conditions for the emancipation of women, once their reproductive role no longer limited their ability to participate more broadly in society. There were quite a lot of factors here actually: the decline of physical labour, of conflict, the reducing risks of childbirth and child mortality, the development of contraceptives etc.
He also makes the same argument as Wilber, that to blame 10,000 years of patriarchy on men is to assume women as a whole are psychologically weaker and stupid, which they are not. And then follows with an almost identical critique of post-modern deconstructionism – the “everything is interpretation” of Jacques Derrida. In fact, Wilber made a series of very polemical and angry attacks on postmodernism around the turn of the century[v] that caused immense controversy and outrage in the integral/transrational community, although his audience was a lot narrower than Peterson’s. But his attacks were along very similar lines.
Peterson then discusses various fairy story archetypes of the “wicked mother” who does not allow her sons to take risks and grow into independence. Attempts to suppress masculinity will increase the attraction of hard, fascist ideologies (Peterson cites Fight Club and the Iron Man series as examples of fascist Hollywood films). In passing, Peterson notes with approval that Jung saw the human population of the cosmos with constellations and gods as a projection of imaginative fantasy (the mythic archetypes representing the deep realities of human consciousness) onto the external world. It is probably in this sense that he spends so much time exploring the Old Testament stories in this book.
Boys have to toughen up to become awake and conscious men. Girls also have a path to becoming awake and conscious women, but its not usually identical to that of men. Leave children alone when they are skateboarding.
Rule 12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
How to deal with the fact that Being is suffering? Peterson essentially comes to the Buddhist conclusion that pleasure and pain, good and bad, existence and non-existence are mutually co-arising and two sides of the one reality, and even quotes the Tao Te Ching. He returns to the theme many times already expressed, that rejection of Being because it is suffering essentially ends up with genocide or humanocide (whether of the Holocaust, the Gulag, the Great Leap Forward, or the Columbine massacre). And thinking is not the path to a solution (he gives Tolstoy as an example), rather noticing is. Mindfulness, paying attention. Become aware of the wonder of Being as a balance to the suffering of Being. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
What shall I do with my newfound pen of light? Where do thoughts come from? Who or what thinks them? Peterson describes grappling with these koans, and writing down various responses. Ultimately deciding that the practice is to set your aim on the Good, the Beautiful and the True (Wilber’s Big Three[vi]) and then focus pointedly and carefully on the concerns of each moment, the Here-Now. He then elaborates a series of responses and links them to the twelve rules.
Returning to the Introduction, in the last paragraph Peterson says that the purpose of the 12 rules is to help people to understand that “the soul of the individual eternally hungers for the heroism of genuine Being, and that the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life.
In interviews, media appearances and his Youtube videos, Peterson comes across as much more provocative and confrontational than he does in this book. He appears to enjoy doing battle as a culture warrior, and often says things that he must know are going to be easily misunderstood. I suspect this is quite often deliberate, and either part of his combative personality or a more strategic purpose to increase his impact with the audience he is seeking to reach. Generally, he does skirt a line where what he does say is defensible, and there is a whole genre of youtube videos showing him “owning” or “destroying” critics. He clearly enjoys doing battle as a culture warrior, and his targets are the left wing identity politics warriors and extreme feminism, much less so the right wing extremists. Reading this book, it is clear that he repudiates all that the alt-right stands for, and it is quite ironic that he has been embraced by the “alt-right”. I think that is almost certainly because of his culture warrior stance. I also saw him say somewhere in an interview that he is deliberately trying to reach out to the alt-right in his work, to show them a path to a more productive and successful life rejecting all forms of totalitarian and identity-politics thinking.
Given his loathing for totalitarianism (and apparently he has filled his house with Soviet realistic paintings to remind him of this all the time), it is odd that his polemical focus seems to be entirely on the left, and seemingly triggered by a Canadian government attempt to legislate pronouns for transgender people. At least in the “Western” countries, the violent antidemocratic activity, and terrorism, is almost entirely from the extreme right. But perhaps he is indeed trying to reach out to those attracted to the alt- or extreme right to suggest a better path.
Returning to the book, most of the advice he offers is quite unobjectionable, positive and at one level seems quite self-evident. As I’ve noted above, I see quite a lot of congruence at the deeper level with the guidance and vision of Buddhism, Zen Buddhism in particular. Although he quotes from Lao Tzu a few times, and does reference Buddhist thought on suffering, I think his intellectual roots in Western culture, and Christianity in particular, mean that he has not really explored this way of culturally framing his advice. I found his quite heavy focus on the meaning offered by biblical mythology, mainly from the Old Testament, was quite off-putting, and for me had little persuasive force in getting to rationale for his rules. But that may simply reflect my very different intellectual path. I am much more of the view, like Ken Wilber, that Jung (and by extension Peterson) is committing the pre-trans fallacy of importing to iron-age myths a wisdom that they did not yet hold. So a number of the chapters seemed to me to digress into some quite forced interpretations of Jewish myth, and then leap without much real connection to a quite advanced understanding of right living.
Two things were missing for me, but maybe not so much for another reader. The first is a broader conceptual framework. While Peterson takes major issue with identity politics and with postmodernism (everything is relative, there are no hierarchies or absolute values), this is not put in a broader evolutionary framework the way Ken Wilber has done. This may simply reflect that like Wilber I am an INTJ whose overriding interest is in understanding the big picture and developing a conceptual system to describe it. Whereas Peterson is probably an ENTP (the Debater who thrives on shredding arguments and beliefs) or an ESTJ (the “Executive” who uses their understanding of tradition and right and wrong to provide clear advice and guidance to others, sticking to their principles and can appear stubborn). He may be relatively balanced on S/N and T/P dimensions I suspect.
The second is that unlike Wilber or Zen practice, he does not really offer any practical techniques for actually moving towards living his rules (practices in the Zen sense). Without this, it is like so much self-help advice, just eat less or exercise more, without any real practices for changing your behaviour so that actually starts to happen. But he perhaps does do all this in his clinical practice and in his web-based courses, which I haven’t looked at. So this is not really a criticism per se. And overall, he does present a set of rules which are essentially a vision of right living and right Being ….along with a literary and philosophical tour de force of intellectual discussion of ideas and thinkers, mainly from a masculine point of view, and clearly targeting to some extent young men as his audience. It is not surprising that he has become a cult and culture hero to that audience. And exposing it to thinking and ideas that will lead some to deeper explorations of the ideas he discusses and of other thinkers. Hopefully some of that audience will go on to do their own exploration of these ideas and of other thinkers.
There are plenty of reasons that Jordan Peterson may not be the right cup of tea for individual readers, who may disagree with him on some subjects, or simply find the style of his writing uncongenial. But the hysterical and irrational hatred he has provoked, largely on the left and feminist sides, is completely over the top. I’ve done some random fact-checking and the majority of the strong criticism is misquoting him, or mis-attributing credibility-destroying arguments to him[vii]. I have also come across critics who simply baldly state some of his ideas as if the mere statement of them without explanation will get him rejected[viii]. The overreach of the social justice and feminist movements has created a large audience for someone who offers an alternative vision for understanding the world. To the extent that this vision is heavily linked to the real values of the Western enlightenment I can only applaud. Given the assault on reason, science, evidence-based decision making, free speech, ethical practices, fact-based political debate, human rights, and democracy itself currently underway in many developed countries, I can only hope that many people take up Peterson’s most essential wisdom to “Stand up straight, with your shoulders back”, “tell the truth” and “pursue what is meaningful”.
[ii] Financial Times. Atheism in America. 3 Feb 2012, Available at https://www.ft.com/content/d2239780-4d4e-11e1-8741-00144feabdc0
[iii] Ken Wilber. No boundary. London: Shambhala, 1981.
[iv] David Deida. The way of the superior man. Texas: Plexus, 1997.
[v] Ken Wilber. Boomeritis. A novel that will set you free. Shambhala, 2002.
[vi] Ken Wilber. A brief history of everything. London: Shambhala, 1996.
[vii] Caitlin Flanagan. Why the Left is so afraid of Jordan Peterson. The Atlantic, Aug 9, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/08/why-the-left-is-so-afraid-of-jordan-peterson/567110/
[viii] Dorian Lynskey. How dangerous is Jordan Peterson, the rightwing professor who “hit a hornets’ nest”? The Guardian, Wed 7 Feb 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/feb/07/how-dangerous-is-jordan-b-peterson-the-rightwing-professor-who-hit-a-hornets-nest
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