I had never heard of Dr. Jordan Peterson just four months ago. Although there's a chance I might have seen his name last year when he was making headlines for his remarks on Bill C-16, legislation intended to amend the Canadian Human Rights act so that concepts of gender identity and gender expression would become protected grounds for Canadians, and any discrimination or hate speech involving these concepts would be outlawed in the Criminal Code. Peterson argued that the legislation imposed limits on free speech, essentially amounting to government-mandated compelled speech. His public opposition to the bill was quickly labelled as "anti-LGBTQ" by most media, and this adjective was also appended to Peterson's name in news headlines. This infamy was not good for Peterson's image; he was denied a research grant for the first time in his career, and the University of Toronto, where he is a psychology professor, threatened disciplinary action. I think a lot of people started hating him without ever really listening to his argument, or perhaps only listening to it through a biased perspective to begin with.
I'm not going to go into the details of this issue too much, there is plenty of discussion already on the internet regarding it. However I will say I thought Peterson's argument introduced me to a lot of ideas that I had never really considered before; an example being that extreme political correctness can actually be a form of oppression. I agree with a lot of what I've read, and I think his critique of left-wing ideology, and it's heavy focus on the individual's rights rather than their responsibilities, has some merit. I certainly can see how this line of thinking can be stretched to a dangerous extreme, in the same way that radical right-wing ideology is dangerous and oppressive. On the other hand, I feel that his interpretation of Bill C-16 was perhaps a little hyperbolic; it seems rather sensational to compare our government making the protections against gender discrimination more inclusive to the murderous Marxist regimes of the 20th century. I understand his argument but I think he overreacted.
Anyways, I first learned of Peterson when I was invited to see him participate in a theological/philosophical debate back in January. The debate's topic was "Is there meaning to life?", and suffice to say it was quite an interesting discussion. I found that out of the three participants, I agreed with Peterson's views the most. I also appreciated his ability to articulate expressively and expound on his ideas. I was curious about why people seemed so excited to hear him speak (he received raucous applause) and talk with him (his book signing line-up afterwards lasted hours), and it wasn't until later that I learned about the international fame (or infamy, depending on who you ask) he had garnered recently.
So after that talk, and a few other YouTube videos later, I decided I was sufficiently interested in his ideas to read something he's written. I thought about reading his first book, Maps of Meaning, but it sounded a little too academic and it might have been hard to absorb much reading it casually. His second, recently released book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is targeted towards a much more general audience, so despite its cheesy and pompous title I decided to read that one.
Much like everything else I've read or heard by Peterson, I found that there was a lot of truth in 12 Rules for Life, and also a lot of opinions and anecdotal evidence. For a self-help book I suppose this is par for the course though; Without a doubt though, I think there is some great advice and interesting concepts presented in the book. From the reviews and reactions to 12 Rules for Life, and in general any comment on Peterson's entire perspective on life I've read, I find that most opinions are pretty extreme. Some describe the book as the pompous, repetitive, and condescending ramblings of an old white university professor with no empathy or understanding of modern issues - while others seem to praise the book, and Peterson, as a Messiah to lead them from the apocalyptic society of liberalism and political correctness that they are surprised to have found themselves in. I suspect that the demographic of the latter opinion fits a very specific profile: Conservative, White, and Male. Either way, I believe the underlying issue with both ends of this spectrum of opinion is one of entitlement. Living with the expectation that your government, or your race, or your gender, or your society is reason enough to be owed happiness and success in life. This is why I think both these factions of individuals react so extremely to the ideas Dr. Peterson asserts as they are meant to shoot down this fallacy.
Overall, the book doesn't shy away from some weighty topics, like the meaning of existence, dealing with tragedy, and the underlying dominance hierarchy and gender roles which Peterson suggests are biologically intrinsic to our species. Peterson's rules are rooted in these fundamental concepts, and he pulls from a variety of sources when exploring them. Ancient and modern history, classic philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, Kant and Nietzsche, psychologists like Freud and Jung, and a variety of religious texts...but mostly the Bible. In fact, I think someone more averse to Christianity might be quite put off by the amount of time Peterson devotes to discussing the Bible's meaning. While not Christian by any means, I am certainly open to reading about it's theology due to the overwhelming impact it's had on our history as well as our modern society.
12 Rules for Life, as its title suggests, is divided into 12 chapters, each of them explaining one of the 12 Rules. I am going to write down some of my thoughts on each of them below.
Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back
We are all lobsters. Really smart lobsters that don't live in water anymore and also have invented highways and brain surgery. But at our core, we have the same biological circuitry when it comes to our social organization, according to Peterson. Essentially, he wanted to make the point that life is naturally hierarchical, and some people are at the top of the "dominance" hierarchy, and some are at the bottom. It is a tough reality to swallow, because there wouldn't be a hierarchy if everyone was at the top of it. Someone has to be at the bottom.
Peterson reasons that by understanding this, and looking at studies done on lobsters, as well as humans, it is clear that there are physiological differences between those at the top and those at the bottom of the hierarchy, caused by different chemical balances in our brains. By standing straight, with your shoulders back, you assume a position of confidence and willingness to take on the challenges of the world in front of you. This is the behaviour of those at the top of the dominance hierarchy, or social ladder, or food chain... whatever you want to call it. By physically behaving in this manner, you begin to feel the same way. You tell your brain (I know that's weird to say) that you want to be happier and more confident; Peterson suggests that it becomes a positive feedback loop as well.
In general, I can't really disagree with this advice. I notice the difference when I actively posture myself in this way, with my chin up, shoulders out etc. You are more inclined to say yes, take on responsibility, and defend your own ideas and opinions. However, this rule is definitely geared towards males, and as I noticed later on, that's a recurring theme with this book...it might as well have been called 12 Rules for Guys.
Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for
This chapter was mostly an investigation into the meaning behind the Book of Genesis; while interesting I don't think it really had much to do with the rule itself. Peterson also introduces one of the main themes of the book in this chapter: the idea that Order is inherently masculine, and Chaos is intrinsically feminine. He doesn't provide any citation for this claim so I can only presume he made it up. He provides an explanation, but I didn't find it to be very convincing,
“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. [...] Chaos—the unknown—is symbolically associated with the feminine. This is partly because all the things we have come to know were born, originally, of the unknown, just as all beings we encounter were born of mothers. Chaos is mater, origin, source, mother; materia, the substance from which all things are made. It is also what matters, or what is the matter—the very subject matter of thought and communication.”
I could probably come up with an equally plausible sounding argument for Order being a feminine concept and and Chaos being a masculine one. It was funny to me that Peterson harks back to this idea so frequently in the book, since the book's full title is "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos"...So these rules are an antidote to females?
While I don't see the point of this arbitrary comparison to genders, I agree with what Peterson says about Order and Chaos later on, and specifically the balance we must strike between the two in our lives,
“To straddle that fundamental duality is to be balanced: to have one foot firmly planted in order and security, and the other in chaos, possibility, growth and adventure. When life suddenly reveals itself as intense, gripping and meaningful; when time passes and you’re so engrossed in what you’re doing you don’t notice—it is there and then that you are located precisely on the border between order and chaos.”
It is akin to the state of "Flow" defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the heightened state of mental focus we achieve when we are immersed in a challenging, yet familiar, situation. If you can mediate the time you spend outside your comfort zone effectively, you can find great fulfillment and happiness in your day to day life.
Rule 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you
Most of this chapter was Peterson's personal history and upbringing in rural Alberta. He describes the type of people he grew up with; some of them ambitious and devoted to becoming better people, and some who accepted fate and were nihilistic. He uses these experiences to prove the validity of this rule. He talks about the idea that people maintain relationships with others even if they are not mutually beneficial, because the more giving person may feel a sense of charitable morality, or empathy towards the other person, so they end up becoming a dependent source for their friend's well-being. In particular, Peterson describes the fallacy that "helping" someone is always beneficial; he argues it can sometimes be self-serving and detrimental to the other person's well being:
“Maybe you are saving someone because you’re a strong, generous, well-put-together person who wants to do the right thing. But it’s also possible—and, perhaps, more likely—that you just want to draw attention to your inexhaustible reserves of compassion and good-will. Or maybe you’re saving someone because you want to convince yourself that the strength of your character is more than just a side effect of your luck and birthplace. Or maybe it’s because it’s easier to look virtuous when standing alongside someone utterly irresponsible. Assume first that you are doing the easiest thing, and not the most difficult.”
Sometimes the difficult thing is leaving someone you care about.
Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today:
There's not much to disagree with in this chapter. Peterson talks about how it can be easy to feel overwhelmed in life, how the things you need to do and the things you want to do all pile up on each other and you end up not doing anything because it stresses you so much, so you escape into expedited pleasures that distract you from reality. Peterson stresses that it is important to remember Rome wasn't built in a day. Rome took time for herself and to do things she enjoyed, in addition to continuing to make progress on building herself as a city. If she tried to only focus on building herself all the time, she would tire herself out and become upset and might lose all motivation towards becoming a city at all. Rome was built in a healthy, dedicated way (with probably some slavery too) and this is the same way you should build your life (minus the slavery).
Another important point made in this chapter was how this sort of method will bring you happiness and fulfillment, long before you actually achieve all your goals. As long as you make positive progress towards a goal, or complete some necessary task you had to finish, you will end your day feeling happy. It is not where we are, but what direction we are going that brings us happiness. I believe this wholeheartedly, and I think it is the best motivation you can have for getting out of bed and tackling life. You may not know where you are going to end up in the future, but if you can decide what direction you want to go, you aim your sights in that direction and work.
Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
This chapter was essentially parenting advice. I think (but don't know) being a parent is way too complex and unique of a situation to try to distill good advice down to a single rule, or even a few pages of explanation. The whole chapter was basically examples from Peterson's experience as a parent which showcased what a good dad he was, and explaining exactly how you can be like him. It came off as pretentious to me.
Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
This chapter was like 3 pages and I'm unsure whether that means Peterson didn't think it was very important, or that is was so important and self-evident that it didn't warrant much explanation. I think it's definitely something important to keep in mind, but hard for a lot of people to practice, for whatever reason. If I could some other idioms to describe the rule's meaning, and possibly be alternative rule wordings, they would be:
- Be the change you want to see in the world
- Don't call a kettle black if you are a pot
- He who smelt it, dealt it
Rule 7: Do what is meaningful, not what is expedient
You know a chapter is going to be a heavy one, conceptually, when it starts with "Life is suffering. That's clear.". Peterson talks about the concept of delayed gratification, or sacrificing something in the present to attain something better in the future. He explores the origins and history of the concept of sacrifice, and how it makes us uniquely human.
Later on in this long chapter, Peterson shifts into a discussion about meaning and what is meaningful to him. He explores how this question has changed over the centuries, through its roots in early Christian beliefs to the 19th century where critics like Nietzsche claim that the Christian-centric morality of society had been replaced by a religion of science, which derived morality from logic and rationality. Peterson describes the deconstruction, and eventual reconstruction, of his personal foundations of belief. From his extensive study of the history of, and the psychological factors involved in, the authoritarian and fascist regimes of the 20th century, Peterson recounts his struggle with understanding and accepting these atrocities and how humans could be collectively responsible for them. He comes to the conclusion that we as humans have the capacity to do evil, malicious things that set us apart from any other species. This truth, that some acts are just inarguably evil, became the bedrock upon which Peterson built his beliefs about meaning and morality. Like Descartes' cogito ergo sum, to find truth you must first establish axioms, and so Peterson reasoned that meaning is found in acting in a manner such that you move away from these evils, to both prevent and abolish the willful suffering that humans be subjected to,
“Suffering is real, and the artful infliction of suffering on another, for its own sake, is wrong. That became the cornerstone of my belief. Searching through the lowest reaches of human thought and action, understanding my own capacity to act like a Nazi prison guard or a gulag archipelago trustee or a torturer of children in a dungeon, I grasped what it meant to “take the sins of the world onto oneself.” Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced—then the good is whatever is diametrically opposed to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening.”
There is another quote Peterson mentions in this chapter which I thought a lot about, it is by the psychologist Carl Jung:
“No tree can grow to Heaven, unless its roots reach down to Hell”
I think it is relevant to Peterson and his belief system, rooted in the understanding of absolute evil and the need to reduce its presence in the world around you. We must know what "hell" is in order to reach towards heaven. In less abstract terms, I think Jung is positing that a holistic understanding of the domain of human experience is vital to developing your personal morality; even more valuable is having experienced the so-called highs and lows, because you will never understand something as well as something experienced first-hand. In other words, I believe the bad times in our lives can help shape and improve us as ethical individuals, if we want them to.
Rule 8: Tell the truth, or at least don't lie
This rule was kinda dumb. Well not dumb as in wrong, but self-evident. I don't think you are going to help anyone by telling them to not lie. We are all told as children it's bad to lie. Everyone knows this. If someone lies, it's not because they want to, it's because they have to to make up for some other wrong they've done or some other inadequacy in their life. That’s what needs to be addressed in my opinion, not how they cope with it.
Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
Or, listening to people is important and something everyone should try. I'm fully convinced that I've met people who don't listen when they are talking with someone, ever. They are simply there to defend and reinforce their own knowledge and opinions and to keep them intact, mentally. I don't know how people like this ever learn anything new if they're not willing to risk being wrong.
That's basically it. I wholeheartedly agree with JP on this one, listening to others with the humility to assume you are wrong will lead to enriching conversations and a better world-view. Peterson describes this type of exchange very eloquently:
“A conversation such as this is one where it is the desire for truth itself—on the part of both participants—that is truly listening and speaking. That’s why it’s engaging, vital, interesting and meaningful. That sense of meaning is a signal from the deep, ancient parts of your Being. You’re where you should be, with one foot in order, and the other tentatively extended into chaos and the unknown. You’re immersed in the Tao, following the great Way of Life. There, you’re stable enough to be secure, but flexible enough to transform. There, you’re allowing new information to inform you—to permeate your stability, to repair and improve its structure, and expand its domain. There the constituent elements of your Being can find their more elegant formation. A conversation like that places you in the same place that listening to great music places you, and for much the same reason.”
Rule 10: Be precise in your speech
This rule is similar to rule 8 although I definitely didn't really get what Peterson was going for with most of this chapter - it was very abstract and explained through mostly open-ended questions. Essentially though, Peterson suggests that being precise and detailed with your words will uncomplicate your life and lead to personal clarity, in the same way that not lying will help. Or else you will end up in a Costanza-esque web of lies and vagaries that will stress you out and lead you in the wrong direction.
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
I feel like JP saved his controversial opinions for the end of the book, in the hopes that he will have effectively won you over by this point with his more reasonable opinions and advice, so that you will be agreeable and primed to accept his thoughts on gender roles.
This chapter is essentially Peterson lamenting on the woes of men in our modern society. We have been marginalized and type casted into the role of oppressor. All men have been labelled guilty by society for continuing to uphold the patriarchy and as result have now been ostracized politically and culturally, so says Peterson. We have become the oppressed, forced to adapt more feminine traits and personalities and this is leading to cultural degradation.
I cannot side with Peterson in this view. On the one hand, I think that men do have a culturally contrived advantage over women with respect to various social hierarchies - political, corporate, social etc. I also think we are seeing positive changes in our collective cultural zeitgeist to improve this inequity. While some people may hold onto the mindset that Men and the male-dominated power structure of society are the source of their problems, I don’t think this is a commonly held belief and I certainly don’t think this mindset has negatively affected a man’s chances at success in society, or that “boys are suffering, in the modern world” as Peterson phrases it. If a man feels disparaged by society's gradually equalizing gender roles, it simply means they never wanted to compete on a level playing field in the first place.
Peterson also cries out against the decline of male students within humanities studies in universities, and frankly it sounds like he is just upset that his field of study is becoming a “girls” field:
“Are the universities—particularly the humanities—about to become a girls’ game? Is this what we want? The situation in the universities (and in educational institutions in general) is far more problematic than the basic statistics indicate. If you eliminate the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs (excluding psychology), the female/male ratio is even more skewed. Almost 80 percent of students majoring in the fields of healthcare, public administration, psychology and education, which comprise one-quarter of all degrees, are female. The disparity is still rapidly increasing. At this rate, there will be very few men in most university disciplines in fifteen years.”
This is a good example of cherry-picking statistics. The study Peterson cites in this excerpt is actually a study on why there are so few women in STEM disciplines in University. These are still heavily dominated by men and, more importantly, statistically will result in higher paying jobs and more career opportunities. In my opinion, the issue shouldn’t be that there are so few males in the humanities, it should be that there are too many people in these disciplines at all! We don’t need more english and history majors in the workforce, we should want university graduates’ skills to align with the needs of the economy. And also, this “overall disparity” in university attendance is highly misleading. Peterson suggests it is “rapidly” increasing. Does this chart look rapidly increasing to you?
I'm not sure why Peterson is making a big stink because there are 10% more women university graduates than men. If it stabilized at this level I think that would be perfectly fine. If I had to rationalize why, I think that Peterson would agree that because of the biological and physiological differences between men and women, there are indeed some big, heavy, manly labour intensive jobs that men are more fit to do in general, and do not require a university education. Since these jobs are needed, and because a man could make a good living straight out of high school by getting such a job, I don't see why this is a problem. If Peterson does believe in gender roles, then I think he shouldn't be so upset over uneven distributions of male-females in different areas of society.
Later on, Peterson makes a ridiculous argument to suggest the historical patriarchy that our culture is built on should not be considered a hindrance to women. I’m not saying it should or shouldn’t be, as it is a massively complicated and multi-faceted issue, but the counter-examples he provides are silly. He points to the work of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the inventor of the tampon, Dr. Earle Cleveland Haas, the inventor of tampax, and Gregory Goodwin Pincus, the inventor of the birth control pill, as examples of just how altruistic our male dominated society has been and that it can’t possibly be considered oppressive because of these female-related inventions that men have graciously bestowed upon women. Now, I’m not saying these weren’t great, helpful invention, but to suggest that these men didn’t benefit greatly from these inventions, which just happened to apply solely to women, and to then use that as evidence for the non-oppressive nature of society itself is absurd and offensive to all the women who have been oppressed and abused by men throughout history.
The rest of the chapter is more of the same sort of apocryphal prophesying into why feminizing men will be the downfall of humanity. Peterson points to classic mythology like Hansel and Gretel, films like Disney's The Little Mermaid, and anecdotes like classmates doing donuts in parking lots to justify why men need to act like "men" and why feminine traits are actually just not very valuable traits for anyone, man or woman.
Now, I get that Peterson is trying to defend that fact that gender roles are a thing, and they matter, and that they are inherent to us. I understand that, and I agree with him that gender isn't just a social construct; any rational individual should be fine with accepting this. I just think his reaction to this new-wave ideology that gender should be disregarded, and that you may choose to identify as any gender you want, is a little extreme. I fail to see any evidence provided by him that the minority who believe in this ideology is causing society to crumble into chaos. Like any ideology or opinion, the validity and value of it will be determined en masse by each and every one of us, when we choose what to believe and how we act. At least I hope.
Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
Peterson's last rule ends the book not exactly on a high-note, as the chapter is actually quite sad, but I think he conveys an important and realistic understanding about life itself. He mentions it throughout the book, but chose to expound on it in this chapter: Life is suffering. Our existence is bound by our limitations, and we are defined by these limitations.
Peterson tells the story of his daughter, Mikhaila, and her lifelong struggle with a rare bone disease she has been afflicted with since she was a child, polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA). She's had to fight through daily pain for years, had to be dependent on painkillers to be able to sleep, and then had to experience the horrific symptoms of withdrawals from these drugs. She's had to have hips replaced, bones fused, and no shortage of trips to the hospital in her short lifespan. It was an emotional story, and I really commend Peterson for the sacrifices and duress that he and his family were able to endure so strongly. Peterson uses this personal story to reinforce perhaps the most important lesson of the book: the moments of happiness we experience make life bearable. They are not owed to us, and we cannot be sure how many such moments we will have, but interleaved through all the struggle and chaos that pervades our existence, we find these moments that allow us to escape and enjoy life in the present. Peterson advises us to pet a cat when we see one in the street, which is a metaphor for being aware of, and taking advantage of, the opportunities for happiness that are always around us. In addition to this, I'd add that finding the opportunities to make others happy is one of the most meaningful aspirations you can have in life. Easing the suffering of the people around you in small ways can make big differences.