12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson (Penguin Random House, 2018)

"Chaos is the domain of ignorance itself. It’s unexplored territory" - Jordan B. Peterson.
"Chaos is order yet undeciphered" - José Saramago (The Double)

jordanThe book ambitiously seeks to find common ground between a series of dichotomies such as crime vs punishment, Christianity vs Atheism, sacrifice vs impulsiveness, constraint vs liberty, fidelity vs promiscuity and, most important of all, order vs chaos.

It is the work of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a clinical psychologist  and professor of psychology who has taught at Harvard and Toronto universities.

More by design than accident, Peterson has become a key social media influencer thanks to numerous TV appearances plus a series of university and public lectures posted on You Tube. The book summarizes his core beliefs and advocates rules which he maintains will help us become better citizens with the added advantage of helping to fulfill our ambitions.

He states that “making your life better means adopting a lot of responsibility, and that takes more effort and care than living stupidly in pain and remaining arrogant, deceitful and resentful.” Central to his argument is that the weak are lured by the promise of unfettered freedom which only leads to chaotic, self destructive habits.

12 rulesIn the broadest terms, I would not take issue with many of his views. I agree with him that we must all work to become more responsible, stop telling lies and aim towards an “essential goodness.” However, his insistence that individual needs always come first is not necessarily a recipe for greater social harmony.

Putting one’s own house in perfect order before criticizing the world (Rule 6 ) is proposed as being preferable to slavishly adhering to group identities. Peterson loathes most ‘-isms’ (with the notable exception of capitalism!) and he especially hates left-leaning postmodernism and Marxism/socialism. The latter he rejects for claiming that the problems plaguing humanity would vanish if different people had the money. While it is undoubtedly true that any forced redistribution of wealth would create major challenges, the alternative is simply to bow to the inevitability of the rich-poor divide. In an interview with Russell Brand, Peterson argued that “If you strengthen the individual, you ameliorate inequality” but this seems like a feeble claim. The rich and successful mostly act to defend their own interests rather than paying heed to the greater good of all.

His opinions on gender are even more controversial. While Peterson insists he is not opposed to equal opportunity, he maintains that all outcomes cannot be equalized. Innate male traits, he affirms, mean that men navigate towards STEM jobs while female traits make women more likely to choose lower paid caring professions like teaching and nursing (“Boys’ interests tilt towards things; girls’ interests tilt towards people”).

Moreover, men, he argues, are better equipped to succeed in competitive fields and demanding jobs. They are less inclined to be agreeable and are more aggressive and this “underlies the drive to be outstanding, to be unstoppable, to compete, to win—to be actively virtuous, at least along one dimension. Determination is its admirable, pro-social face.” All this means that Peterson feels justified in concluding that the male-female divide is an unchangeable fact of life: “We are not equal in ability or outcome, and never will be.”

Peterson is thus fiercely opposed to any who see masculine dominance as the root of most social ills, stating “There isn’t a shred of hard evidence to support any of their central claims: that Western society is pathologically patriarchal.”

In some respects, his arguments about the need for men to become more ‘manly’ are similar to those of Robert Bly who, in ‘Iron John’, identified the phenomenon of the ‘soft male’: “Here we have a finely tuned young man, ecologically superior to his father, sympathetic to the whole harmony of the universe, yet he himself has little vitality to offer”, wrote Bly. Peterson’s message to such types is even blunter and unambiguous: “Toughen Up, You Weasel.”

The consequences of remaining feeble and passive are grave, he says, since these “conflict-averse people let people walk on them”. Furthermore, they face problems finding suitable female partners since “no clear-seeing, conscious woman is going to tolerate an unawakened man.”

Needless to say, such opinions have been ridiculed and attacked by liberals and feminists alike but his views have struck a chord with many alienated young men. His dismissal of “the insane and incomprehensible postmodern insistence that all gender differences are socially constructed” is music to their ears. The Guardian’s interesting series of podcasts presented by Iman Amrani poses the question ‘Is modern masculinity in crisis?’ and  illustrates how pervasive and persuasive his arguments have become.

A large part of Peterson’s appeal is his unflustered and eloquent style which makes him a fearless and feisty opponent in debates. He speaks better than he writes though. Large sections of the book are rambling and skippable even though he is extremely careful with his choice of language (Rule 10 – Be precise in your speech). He devotes far too much time reflecting on biblical texts or classic works of literature like Dosteovsky, Solzhenitzyn and Milton.

In interviews, he is more impressive. He makes mincemeat of lazy journalists who try to put words in his mouth. A Channel 4 interview went viral when he turned the tables on a woman who tried to score cheap points on the topic of gender inequality.

But while he is in his element when debating with intellectual inferiors, his arguments are far less convincing when faced with experts like Sam Harris and Slavoj Zizek. As atheists and moral realists, both Harris and Zizek challenge the Judeo-Christian basis to many of Peterson’s more outspoken views.

In 12 Rules, Peterson writes “The Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of Western civilization you decide to act as if existence might be justified by its goodness”. He refuses to assert that he believes in God but prefers to keep his options open by saying merely that he acts as if God exists. Whatever spin he puts on his faith there’s no doubt that revels in the role of severe preacherman.

The spurious authority he draws from these ancient texts emboldens him to reason on the basis that “chaos is symbolically associated with the feminine” and that “order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity”. It could therefore be argued that ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Feminism’ would have been a more honest title for this sprawling and self-opinionated book.