Photo via Quilette

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson,  Random House Canada (January 23, 2018)

Self-help books are obnoxious publications by and large. Their guidance is often cheerleading crankery; their authors range in personality from coach to messiah. Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is, thankfully, not a self-help book, at least not consistently. Solicited by a literary agent after Peterson’s star rose on the internet, its audience must be inferred from its advice.

“We’re pack animals,” he writes in the Overture. “Beasts of burden. We must bear a load, to justify our miserable existence.” Peterson’s advice, where he gives it, is to toughen up, be honest, and take responsibility for what you know to be right or wrong. The belief we can bring about a world without misery and suffering has only brought more of it into the world, and leaves us less able to cope with the share that is inevitable. With assurances like this, it’s doubtful 12 Rules will make Oprah’s book club.

For the few who do not yet know him, Peterson is a Canadian professor and clinical psychologist who burst onto the cultural stage by taking a stand against government-mandated gender-neutral pronouns. He first made his position known in September 2016, by posting a video to YouTube explaining the potential ramifications of Bill C-16, which enshrined gender expression in the Canadian Human Rights Act. His stand brought Peterson enormous media attention, including that of libertarians and conservatives who had long written off university campuses as the Alamogordo of the culture wars. Remarkably, Peterson weathered the hatred he also attracted, kept his job, and kept talking. He posted more lectures on YouTube and appeared wherever requested for interviews. His reputation snowballed.

12 Rules is Peterson’s second book, but the first he has written since becoming a public commentator. As such, it has a little bit of everything—psychology, anecdotes, parenting advice, references to film and literature, criticism—all wrapped loosely about those dozen precepts for which the book is named. The rules themselves exemplify the traditional, at-times banal, sort of guidance you might expect from someone who isn’t really comfortable telling people how to live their own lives. Make friends with people who want the best for you. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie. Be precise in your speech. Those sorts of things.

Less conventional rules include standing up straight with your shoulders back (this is about hierarchy, not posture), not letting your children do anything that makes you dislike them, and petting a cat when you encounter one on the street (which, essentially, is taking time out for the small things that bring you happiness). Preceding every rule/chapter is an illustration of Peterson’s children, Mikhaila and Julian, the two of them usually considering some work of art or cultural artifact.

Boiled down from forty or so popular contributions Peterson has made to the Q&A website Quora, the 12 rules aren’t so much rules as the articles of an ennobling moral code. What their apparent triteness suggests, and Peterson makes clear, is that we already know what the problems are. We’re lying to ourselves when we say we don’t, likely because admitting years of error is humiliating, and it necessitates the kind of change that is very difficult. The rules are not there to eliminate all difficulties, but to eliminate those which are relatively unnecessary:

Perhaps, if we lived properly, we could withstand the knowledge of our own fragility and mortality, without the sense of aggrieved victimhood that produces, first, resentment, then envy, and then the desire for vengeance and destruction. Perhaps, if we lived properly, we wouldn’t have to turn to totalitarian certainty to shield ourselves from the knowledge of our own insufficiency and ignorance.

Peterson recognizes that many such rules can be gleaned from the great works of the humanities. Nonetheless, some of the psychological, philosophical and narrative techniques he uses to exemplify them often seem circuitous, and at times disjointed or a little weird. For example, in the chapter dedicated to Rule 2, “Treat Yourself Like Someone You Are Responsible For Helping”, Peterson subjects the Book of Genesis to an evolutionary interpretation, arguing that the expulsion from Eden signifies the rise of self-consciousness and the widening of the female pelvis for childbearing. His treatment of early stories as products of our collective imagination may serve to remind readers that he is a university professor, and not a working man’s philosopher.

There are two kinds of readers who will pick up 12 Rules, and Peterson has written the book with both of them in mind. The first are clearly the young men who have contacted him for guidance and out of gratitude after watching his YouTube videos—men who have admitted confusion or deep despair about their place in the world. During his now infamous interview with Cathy Newman, Peterson claimed to have received 25,000 such letters since June of 2017, “from people who’ve told me I’ve brought them back from the brink of destruction.” Such a reader is implicit throughout the book, in Peterson’s many references to men being rejected by women, and in his recognition that boys are falling behind. This book, or at least the rules, are for them.

The second, arguably more numerous reader, will be people wanting to find out what makes Peterson tick. Such readers may be sympathetic or hostile. An inadvertent showman, Peterson has made mincemeat of many of his opponents simply by stating his positions and answering questions. As a practicing psychologist, he knows how to listen, and he’s good at detecting inconsistencies in what he hears, including undeveloped convictions. His careful choice of words and the honesty of his ideas allow him to face pressure seemingly unfazed, and to expose his opponents as ideologues rather than thinkers. If, as 12 Rules informs us, sin is the failure to prepare when the necessity for preparation is well-known, Peterson exposes the sinfulness of those who have tried to debate him.

Quite often in this book, Peterson is implicitly addressing the postmodern neomarxists who see Western civilization as patriarchal and oppressive and seek to dismantle it. You’re living a lie, he says, but it’s understandable. It’s part of an ongoing scheme to make things better, by pretending we can eliminate suffering from life. As for the dominance of men, he writes,

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

Peterson has been called the anti-snowflake, both for his bluntness towards opponents and his refusal to coddle his followers. 12 Rules nonetheless recognizes the power of victimhood, and the totalitarian bent of identity politics. Too many snowflakes make for some pretty devastating avalanches.

Three revelations about Peterson stand out and help to explain his worldview. One is that he witnessed the long-term suffering of his daughter, Mikhaila, who was diagnosed with an arthritic condition at age six. Though the book’s muted sense of human happiness respects the horrors of the Holocaust, the Soviet gulags and other twentieth-century atrocities, it is with Mikhaila’s story that Peterson’s reflections about the suffering of innocents become most persuasive.

The second revelation is that one of Peterson’s friends since childhood killed himself after a long descent into misanthropy and indolence. This descent Peterson elsewhere attaches to Cain, explaining how bitterness towards the world can rationalize not just suicide, but (mass) murder. Referring to the writings of the Columbine shooters, Tolstoy, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, he  argues that “people emerge from terrible pasts to do good, and not evil, though such an accomplishment can seem superhuman.”

Another revelation is that Peterson grew up in a very small town—Fairview, Alberta—which is remote even by northern Canadian standards. Though he defends traditional gender roles on scientific grounds, the class and regional elements of his experience may help explain his willingness to do so in hostile forums.

So far his opponents have done a very poor job challenging him on gender issues, partly because they’re obsessed with ascribing malice to them. There are instances, however, where his characterizations of men and women sound more primitive than necessary, especially where he speaks of mate selection. Crises of masculinity are particularly acute in working class environments because those men have the most trouble adapting their sense of manhood to modern white-collar ideas of success. For these pains, Peterson has no specific remedies. While he suggests that the odds are stacked against men competing with women, he also says it’s no wonder working class women aren’t marrying the men they outperform.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is sure to inspire some memorable conversations, and not simply those that Peterson himself is having with his interviewers. Just when it seems most cautious, the book advises you to confront your boss and stand up for yourself. Just when it seems most practical, it tells you it’s okay to drop out of engineering school and pursue a philosophy degree. Having waded into the culture war as an individualist, Peterson seems in no hurry to entrench himself, even though his material is continuously devoured by hungry, established tribes. As his occasional clashes with them on Twitter show, he is still getting to know them, and they him.

At least two very encouraging things have been proven by Peterson’s meteoric rise. One is that people on both sides of the political spectrum are happy to consider lectures on the arts, so long as they trust in the moral courage of the teacher. The other is that not all university professors are postmodern neomarxists out to overthrow the Western world. Each side already knew that about itself, of course. It’s just too bad one professor had to set himself on fire for a beacon to be lit. 

Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar currently living on a mountainside near Vancouver, British Columbia. He can be reached on his website at http://www.harleyjsims.webs.com 

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is a New Zealand journalist with a special interest in family issues. She began her working life as a secondary school teacher but always fancied the life of the scribe. Too late, she...