(Un-)Reading: Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules For Life

Reading this book was a very disappointing experience. Reviews of 12 Rules For Life parade Peterson as a kind of intellectual prophet, and the blurb itself claims its author to provide, in the four hundred pages or so that make up the book’s unnecessary long run, “nuanced messages about personal responsibility”. The review that follows is going to be very far from brief, but my short review is this: for all its verbal bravado, 12 Rules For Life is nowhere above your standard self-help book, offering half-baked messages grounded on shaky – and problematic – fundamentals. If you badly need advice on how to set your life in order, save yourself some time and just read through the Table of Contents (the rules are summarized there), and save the cash you would have spent on a movie.

For the most part, the rules themselves are good. Rule number 11 has got to be my favorite: “Don’t bother children when they are skateboarding”; but number 4 is also one I’d personally recommend to my own friends: “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.” Rule number 6 (“Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”) is fine for personal matters (e.g., don’t criticize your friend for not having a savings account when you get your coffee from Starbucks every day) but shouldn’t be used to silence people who wish to speak their thoughts about the government and public affairs. If I were reviewing the table of contents only, my rating for the book might have been a little higher. But unfortunately, Peterson has to ruin it by actually writing.

The author puts up a very intellectual air, especially in the beginning. He provides a short history of the book’s conception in an overture that doesn’t fail to namedrop the likes of Milton, Goethe, Dante, and Heidegger, just so you remember that – y’know, this isn’t one of those books –  and he discusses the first rule by explaining, in painfully granular detail, the biology of lobsters. The posturing makes sense in consideration of the rest of the book’s contents: he is setting the readers’ overall impression of the book by reminding them that this isn’t just another self-help book, this has all been carefully considered by a man who reads wide and thinks deep, but it’s also painfully obvious. For all the facts about lobsters that Peterson is able to deliver, hardly any of them are very essential to understanding his very simple recommendation of facing life confidently.

His veneer of criticism and insight soon breaks down in Rule 2, where he finally gets to the fundamental idea that drives his 12 rules for life. For Peterson, the universe – or at least our experience of it – can be summed up by two forces: order and chaos. This philosophy has so much reliance on preconceived notions of the two concepts, with order being obviously good, and chaos being the categorical negative. There is nothing entirely unique with this approach, as binaries regularly appear in pre-modern philosophies, such as in the Christ/Satan, Angel/Demon dualities of traditional religion.

Peterson defines order as the following:

“Order, the known, appears symbolically associated with masculinity (as illustrated in the aforementioned yang of the Taoist yin-yang symbol). This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic, and arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery. Order is God the Father, the eternal Judge, ledger-keeper and dispenser of rewards and punishments. Order is the peacetime army of policemen and soldiers. It’s the political culture, the corporate environment, and the system. It’s credit cards, classrooms, supermarket checkout lineups, turn-taking traffic lights, and the familiar routes of daily commuters. Order, when pushed too far, when imbalanced, can also manifest itself destructively and terribly. It does so as the forced migration, the concentration camp, and the soul-devouring uniformity of the goose step.”

Peterson (46)

Skipping, for now, the obvious bias towards masculinity, one realizes the very static and conservative feature of Peterson’s Order/Chaos conception of the universe. For Peterson, Order and Chaos are categorically diametrical – order is the system, and chaos is the destructive force that seeks to upend it. Peterson fails – or rather, denies – being critical towards this idea, utterly failing to mention that what many in his position as an upper-middle class white man perceive as order are exactly what is causing what he believes is chaos for others in a less privileged position. The credit cards, the corporate culture, the globalized industrial marketplace which has caused a boom in comfort and convenience for the Western world is also the main driving force of the proxy wars occurring in the Middle East, the very cause of forced migrations of refugees into European shores. It was the Nazi drive for what they believed was a social order dominated by the Aryan race that drove millions of Jews into concentration camps. It is as if the symbolic significance of the yin-yang symbol, among one of Peterson’s favorites in this book, has escaped him entirely. Human experience has thus far been an ocean of Chaos, with a small speck of Order accessible only to the privileged few.

For Peterson, Order is definitively masculine. And this is apt because for him, the male has historically been the main driving force for human achievements. Like he says, men have been the engineers, bricklayers, and operators of heavy machinery. But one must consider that there has been no point in history when the operators of heavy machinery were ever at the lead in human society. Quite the opposite, the. closest one has to be to the machinery, the lower one ranks in society. Sure, women have historically been at a disadvantage against men at matters domestic, economic, and political. But the bricklayers themselves are subservient to the true masters of human society: the upper percentiles, the warlords of feudal societies, and the landlords, bankers, business-owners, and oligarchs of the postmodern era.

If order is masculine, then it follows that Chaos must be feminine. In the following passage, Peterson subverts the narrative of patriarchal oppression of the female by arguing that it is because women are choosy that men have become the domineering and aggressive creatures that they are. Peterson paints the male as a very accepting and definite creature, which must constantly fight with the mercurial and eternally choosy female.

“Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters (unlike female chimps, their closest animal counterparts). Most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85% of men as below average in attractiveness. It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, “No!” For the men that is a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date. Human female choosiness is also why we are very different from the common ancestors we shared with our chimpanzee cousins, while the latter are very much the same. Women’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are.”

Peterson (47)

Peterson naturally obviates from having to study with a smidge of criticism why women are statistically more apt to reject random strangers on an online dating site – that statistics on a similar vein reveal that 25% of rapes have been known to begin from online dating, and that annually 16,000 abductions and thousands of rapes are being conducted by internet predators. In the UK, rape cases have been observed to increase by a factor of six between 2009 to 2014, concurrent with the rise of social media and online dating. And while rape has been known to occur towards men, it shouldn’t take too much mental gymnastics to consider how differently this situation must affect men and women browsing through strangers’ profiles.

For someone who is taking on the guise of a critic, Peterson appears more than willing – nay, is encouraging us – to accept these predetermined dualistic concepts as the fundamental axioms on which his twelve rules for life are predicated without any real critical questioning. This is what separates Peterson from the likes of Foucault or Zizek, thinkers that have paved much in the way towards our deeper understanding of the power dynamics that have shaped society, and how these dynamics are used to empower and at the same time oppress its different members. He wants us to aspire for order and fight against chaos, without ever stopping to ask why we must be so attracted towards Order in the first place. Order is the concentration camps. Order is the same democratic society that pushed to power authoritarians like Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte into the highest political stations in their corresponding countries. Order is the same structure that for a long time denied women the right to an education, or a voice in politics. Order is the United States and Russia funding proxy wars in a struggle for control over the Middle East, leading to thousands upon thousands injured or dead in a war from which they have zero prospects of ever benefitting.

But the book gets progressively worse. In Rule 11 (“Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”), Peterson somehow navigates a discussion on allowing children to make risks and learn from their own experiences into a defense of the patriarchy.  Peterson begins by stating that any form of heirarchy has a winner and a loser, something that ought to be obvious to anyone with a basic reading of dialectic philosophies. But then Peterson concludes that the patriarchal structure around which our current society is shaped was not for the subjugation of women, but rather for the benefit of both men and women.

“It looks to me like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, stretching over collective millenia, to free each other from privation, disease and drudgery.”

Peterson (360)

He defends this statement by naming a number of examples of men performing deeds that brought great benefit for women. He mentions Arunachalam Muruganantham, who found a way to manufacture sanitary pads for women at low costs, and became known for spreading awareness of unsanitary menstruation practices among women in India. He also mentions James Young Simpson, who in the 19th century developed anesthetics to aid in deliveries, particularly among women with deformed pelvises. But acts of scientific discovery and empathy towards women do not make for an argument against patriarchal oppression. The patriarchy does not refer to individual men practicing acts of hate or ignoring the rights and needs of women. Peterson’s arguments create a straw man version of the idea of the patriarchy and pretends as though he’s answered the problem. Rather, the patriarchy refers to culture and society as a whole – in a word, as a system – of the beliefs practices that are ingrained in societal consciousness and dictate how we live and work.

It’s therefore not surprising that Peterson fails to take account of the fact that for much of political history women have not been allowed to vote or participate in civic activities, or that women have long been in a fight for their right to be educated on a level equal with men, or that the Bible’s New Testament itself propagates the idea that women should not be allowed the privilege to voice out their opinions in matters of leadership, or that our primary measures against rape is focused on inhibiting female self-expression rather than controlling male violence. Once again, Peterson denies criticism to the social order he is trying his damned hardest to protect, serving a blind eye to the fact that the patriarchy is in fact an oppressive social order, and that men have for much of history failed to protect – rather, worked hard to decline – women the same rights and privilege they enjoy.

I wanted to like this book. I really did. I was expecting to be engaged by an incisive mind that brings to fore truths to help settle the constant flood of anxiety in our postmodern society – you know, like his blurbs say he will. Instead, Peterson reverts to the same dogmatic assumptions and privileged misconceptions that don’t even go an inch out of the box, in a messy attempt to defend a crumbling status quo. And what’s worse, I think, is that the book has been read by millions of people around the world, resulting in waves of individuals who now subscribe to his misguided philosophy. That the world produced another bad self-help book, to me, is business as usual. But the fact that Peterson now serves as a voice of reason for a huge fraction of the current generation, arguing against the existence of the patriarchy and that capitalistic oppression doesn’t exist, or is at least not that bad – that thought alone is going to haunt me every night.

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