So, the University of Toronto’s Jordan Peterson, who the Guardian describes as one of Canada’s leading public intellectuals, has written a self-help book called “12 rules for Life”. I read it so you don’t have to.
Honestly, the things I do for you folks.
First things first: the book is not some cheap attempt by Peterson to profit from his recent notoriety. In fact, the book seems to have been in the works well beforehand and has its origins in a Quora post that got a lot of likes (I am not making that up – how could anyone make that up?). So if you’re looking for insight into the events of 2016-2017, this isn’t the place to go.
No, this book delivers what it promises: Jordan Peterson’s views on life (deeply religious, as it turns out) and 12 rules for dealing with it. Maxims, if you will. If you want to see them, they are here. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about any of them. They mostly amount to: have standards, be truthful and mindful, take responsibility for yourself, and live a meaningful, examined life. They may not be the 12 rules I would pick, nor are they mostly worded the way I would word them, but they are not stupid. As self-help rules go, they’re as plausible as anything Oprah ever plugged. And she, apparently, is Presidential material.
But Oh Dear God the exposition.
This could be a 100-page book as easily as the (brace yourself) 440-page tome it actually is. But Peterson is a titanic pub bore. If you let Cliff Claven loose on the Bible, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and Heidegger and told him to write a self-help manual for people to become more rigid and uncompromising, this is the book he would write. It’s not that the book lacks insight: some of the stuff Peterson derives from his own experience as a clinical psychologist is worth reading. But most of it is just showing off. There is simply no need to illustrate the point “pursue a meaningful life” with ten pages about the temptation of Christ and a precis of The Grand Inquisitor. The purpose of this approach is not to convince the reader of the rightness of the maxim, but to convince her of the erudition of the author. My favourite part is when he literally tells the reader “you don’t understand anything.”
While the book does not deal with recent controversies, it is helpful if you want to get a beat on who Peterson himself is and what his politics are. Accusations that he is some kind of con-man or an opportunist on the make are, I think, wide of the mark. His conservatism is pure and deeply felt. His obsession with myths and religious practices is a reflection of his belief that they are the source of our society’s rules and rituals, and that these are the foundation of Order. And Order is good, according to Peterson, because it lets everyone know the rules and without rules no one knows how to behave. Behaviour, according to him, is deeply rooted in evolutionary psychology; our rules and rituals are ways of dealing with what we inherit through evolution (hence a lot of weird diversions in the text about things like the sexual behaviour of lobsters). When you screw with the rules – when you introduce too much chaos into the system (he allows that a little bit is ok) – then you are quickly on the road to nihilism and totalitarianism. You thus disrupt order at your peril and on the you do. Not. Screw. With. The. Rules. This is, effectively, the conservatism of Metternich and the Bourbons.
But – and here’s where things get interesting – his notion of order is profoundly gendered. He is really big on dualities and returns frequently to the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang, which he believes symbolizes both female/male and chaos/order. I know nothing about Taoism, but the Chinese scholars I asked about this latter duality were extremely dubious about this interpretation (“this person…does he have a contemporary political agenda?” asked one). But, two points. First, Peterson actually equates Ying-Women-Chaos, Yang-Men-Order. And order is good and chaos is bad (mostly). Second, this duality stuff matters to him. Things are A or B, Black or White. You can see why notions like gender fluidity simply don’t compute for him.
And so, yes, the book explains why the guy might feel triggered by the concept of transgender pronouns. It explains why he believes, as he said in a recent interview with Christie Blatchford, that in light of #metoo and the re-drawing of gender norms, maybe men and women can’t work in the same offices anymore. It explains comments like “women: if you usurp men they will rebel and fail and you will have to jail or enslave them”, or his belief that feminists support the rights of Muslims because of their “unconscious wish for brutal male domination”. It’s why he thinks about achievement and people to be emulated, for men he lists John van Neumann and for women he lists Anita Ekberg and Monica Bellucci (it’s in chapter 2). If Spinoza came back to life and asked to write an apologia for the ethics of Mad Men, he would look a lot like Jordan Peterson.
But forget the politics. The central truth of this book is that Peterson is deeply and irritatingly boring. That a man this tedious could ever gain global celebrity and notoriety is somewhat mindboggling. If there is a reason to fault the man’s enemies – particularly at U of T – for anything is that he couldn’t have done it without them. If you want an indictment of the modern woke left, it is that they created this monstrosity. He’s certainly not talented or interesting enough to have done it on his own.