This is not the sort of book that usually interests me, but what with the controversy surrounding this man, I decided to look it up. To my surprise, when I requested it at my local library I discovered that I was 67th on the hold list! The man has clearly struck a chord; I have never seen a hold list that long in our (rather small) library. Luckily the system seems to have bought more copies, so I only had to wait a couple of months to get my copy. The book lists 12 rules that are an “antidote to chaos”. Somewhat to my surprise, they are generally good rules, though some of them are rather obvious, and even a bit hokey. Since many of you are not going to read the book, I will list them here:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
- Make friends with people who want the best for you
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
- Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
- Be precise in your speech
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Peterson says he set out to write the book after trying his hand at answering a question on Quora: “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” He wrote something like 40 rules and the answer became very popular. Eventually he decided to write a book on the topic and in the process, he whittled the rules down to 12. He has said that he is writing a new book, so some of the rules that did not make it into this book will probably turn up in the next book. Professor Peterson is (was?) a practicing clinical psychologist as well as a professor (at Harvard and then in Toronto). The advice he offers is based on both an ideological position and empirical observation and experiment. The ideological position can be best described as Jungian and Stoic (though he is keen to make it appear more or less Christian; whether through sincere belief or practical necessity I am not sure), while the practical observation and experiment part comes from a life spent observing and treating Western people in modern Western society. He is clearly a kind and caring man who has seen many distressed patients and (like most people his age) has been through distressing things in his own life, and these observations and experiences have taught him practical and useful lessons, which he is eager to impart to his audience. He also believes that this audience has been badly served by the (relatively recent) domination of Western academia by post-Marxist (he prefers the term neo-Marxist) and postmodern ideology (he tends to conflate the two, and to overuse Marxism as an explanation for all that he dislikes; a weakness of the book). He thinks this meme-complex (not his term) is dangerous both to individuals and to the health of society as a whole; and he makes this charge in the book as well as in many of his talks and interviews. Naturally, this has led to a vicious (and frequently highly tendentious and unfair) backlash against him. This makes it hard to read the book without thinking about the wider “controversy”; readers approach the book with strong biases already in place. Right wingers may read into it more Right-wing themes than it contains (I don’t think he is very Right wing, certainly not a fascist) and Leftists tend to find in it more to hate than it deserves. Such is life.
Every rule gets its own chapter, and each chapter is a mix of practical advice, anecdotes from his practice and his own life, scientific facts (mostly of the pop-science variety and hence open to attack by specialists nitpicking about details), philosophy, history and forays into mythology (with a heavy Jungian emphasis). The first chapter begins with the infamous Lobster section (for some reason, Peterson decided to use lobster territoriality as his framework for a discussion about standing up straight and projecting confidence; not the best choice, since it has provided his critics with a rich source of jokes and dank memes). There are a lot of Biblical references (more than can be justified in my view, but his predominantly Christian audience may not mind) and a lot of repetition. Since he is something of a Jungian, this almost by definition means he is going to say many things that sound perfectly bonkers to rationalists and strict materialists. Especially if taken out of context, but sometimes even in context, these are beliefs that can be easy to make fun of. Some of them are not my cup of tea, but I personally don’t get too excited about them because I look upon them as analogous to religious beliefs. Some (many) religious beliefs strike me as weird, fantastical or frankly unbelievable, but I also know that the people holding these beliefs are not stupid. If you have a Dawkins style determination to laugh at any belief that does not meet certain criteria of evidence and rationality, then Peterson is certainly fair game. But if you dislike Dawkins for being “simple-mindedly rationalist” (and blind to his own inherited, irrational or evidence-free beliefs) in the face of this hugely complex thing called life, then to pile on Peterson for talking in Jungian mumbo-jumbo does seem a bit unfair.
His writing style is conversational, and he tends to ramble, which means a reader like me can skip over a lot of it. His advice is practical, sometimes humorous, frequently blunt and occasionally hyperbolic and as you may expect, these features provide another opening for anyone looking for quotes or phrases to attack and make fun of (for example, a subheading in one chapter says “compassion is a vice”; the discussion that follows is not in fact some sort of Nazi ode to hardness and cruelty, but if you are looking to attack the professor, this is an easy shot). If I were to sum up his philosophy, it would be that life is a constant oscillation between chaos and order, that “suffering is built into the structure of being” and that everyone has some darkness within them, and all this is not static but is a constantly moving target. It is important to have a common framework (what he has called “a low resolution common narrative”) that orders the life of a community and protects against chaos. It is also important to embrace chaos itself, since it is the source of all creativity and change. Everyone must develop the inner strengths that help him or her stay upright in the face of the hardships and chaos that are an inevitable part of life. The 12 rules are ways to improve one’s ability to navigate this treacherous maze. And shared myths and stories are what provides us with an understanding of this essential chaos as well as of the need for order.
Of course, the book would not be this controversial if it was just another individual self-help book. Professor Peterson’s own ambitions are clearly grander: his mission is nothing less than saving Western civilization or even civilization as a whole; and anyone with these ambitions is going to run into trouble. As he himself preaches, you should take responsibility for your actions and not whine about the consequences that naturally follow from your choices. He has chosen to be a modern-day prophet, he should not complain when he draws opposing fire.
Still, the full court press that has been unleashed against the book and this author by the postmodern Left (I use the term loosely) seems insanely out of proportion to anything said in the book; as far as the book conveys his philosophy and teachings, they are not some sort of Nazi plot against progress and humanity. He is not his own best friend in this matter though, and he can be short tempered and say things on Twitter (and in interviews) that are a bit too much and are easy meat for critics. For example, I can understand that he had an urge to slap the British-Indian propagandist and virtue-signaler par excellence, Pankaj Mishra (wouldn’t you?), but a person in his position should have known not to say it out loud.
In summary, if you are not in the market for a self-help book in which the self-help advice is generally sensible, sometimes obvious and massively padded with a mix of Jungian archetypes, Biblical exegesis, social commentary and classical liberalism, then you need not bother with this book. On the other hand, if you need some good advice and don’t mind Jung, the Bible or some bashing of the postmodern Left, then this may just be the book for you. Either way, “don’t believe the hype”..