Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist who has taught at Harvard and the University of Toronto. He is something of a celebrity, mostly through his YouTube and TV appearances, where he comes across as cool, urbane, polite and determined. I have watched, three times now, his interview on the UK’s Ch4 where he politely bested the interviewer, Cathy Newman, for twenty minutes, to the point where she simply couldn’t proceed. That interview has been seen more than 1.6 million times on YouTube. He has recently been in Australia to launch this new book, which I thought I ought to buy. I have since discovered that two of my children also bought it, quite independently, as did my next-door neighbour and another friend. All thought it was good, though in different ways.
Peterson is well–read and thoughtful. His 12 Rules are not especially unusual, and you can find them here. They are directed at the individual rather than the community. It is the argumentation in the chapters that is the key to his book. He uses examples from his clinical practice, his own life and a wide range of sources. While he writes accessibly and well, from time to time I thought he over-argued. ‘Yes, yes,’ I wanted to say, ‘got that.’ But he would sometimes go on, and on. Summarising the argument is quite difficult, but I’ll have a go. To live sensibly is to be in a state of conscious Being, for your life then has Meaning. If I have it right, Meaning is the development of character in the face of suffering. We do like what we are used to, our comfort zone. That is Order. Outside it is Chaos, or at least potential Chaos. That scares us. But unless we have at least one foot in Chaos we will find life boring and stuffy, and we will not be in a real state of Being, for we will not be developing our character.
Now reality has a lot of Chaos in it, and we need to realise that a great deal of what we take for granted, or perhaps object to, is the outcome of millions of years of social and individual development. Human social order, with its ‘dominance hierarchy’, has been about for half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism either, for that matter. It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy — that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artifact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment … [We] have lived in a dominance hierarchy for a long, long time…. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees. If you want to know more, the first chapter will tell you about the lobster, which has been about for longer than we have, by far, and it exhibits traits of familiar social order. Yes, the biggest lobsters do very well, get the best females, and control their territory. Quite a small proportion of any society does most of the production of anything that is thought valuable, and quite a small proportion gets most of the goodies, wealth and honour. It has always been like that, he says. Protesting about it, as though there is some kind of general solution, is futile.
If you are going to grow up properly, you need to understand and operate within the dominance hierarchy of our own society. It’s do-able, for most people, if you agree that you do want to do it, and make it a real goal. You need to stand tall, put your shoulders back, and act as though you are important in the scheme of things. Not in an arrogant way, but in a self-confident way. Your life will improve as you make more little successes. (Rule 1) You won’t be as wealthy as Gina Rinehart or as successful as (I was going to say Steve Smith), but you will be a lot happier than you would be if you just sat there and whinged about the existing order (see ahead to Rule 4).
You will need to look after yourself in every way. Apparently we take what the vet says about the treatment of our dog far more seriously than we do about what the doctor says we should do about ourselves (Rule 2). You should choose your friends carefully (Rule 3), and monitor how you are going with respect to yourself and your past, not to someone else altogether (Rule 4). If you have children, you need to ensure that they understand about discipline, so that when your stint as parent is over they are able to discipline themselves (Rule 5). And let them do some things you think might be dangerous. First, they have to learn, and second, they will want to explore the limits of safety, whether you are there or not (Rule 11). Be sure to have sorted yourself out before you tell others how they should behave (Rule 6). Do what is important to you, not what is expedient (Rule 7). Don’t lie (Rule 8). Listen to others rather than talk over them: they might have something worth saying (Rule 9). Use your words carefully, so that you say what you actually mean (Rule 10). Be kind, even affectionate, where you can be (Rule 12).
As I said earlier, none of this is exceptional, and most people of my age will have discovered these maxims, or truths, for themselves. Life is a great learning experience. If it was only this extended advice there would be little to mark him out from other homily-offerers in the past, like the Rev Norman Vincent Peale (the power of positive thinking). But Peterson’s argument is much more fundamental. This is the world we have, and it is marked by social and biological systems that are millions of years old and therefore extraordinarily powerful. We might wish to change them (and indeed much of the last five centuries or so have been marked by strong desires all over the world to change what people did have). Root-and-branch desires for change, Peterson says, always fail. The revolutions just exchange one set of rulers for another. Order goes to Chaos then produces another Order, quite like the old one. It is much better, he says, to recognise what is reality and adapt to it.
It is this perspective, I think, that has made Peterson such an object of visceral dislike, even hatred, on the left of politics. One reader has already provided a link to a review of the book found in the LA Times Review of Book. It provides a good example of the kind of thoughtless bile addressed to Peterson. The author of the review, Houman Barekat, is not known to me, but the thirteen paragraphs of his review contain almost nothing about the book itself (the little there is, dismissive) but a great deal of personal abuse and vilification of Peterson. The latter must be used to it. His style must also drive critics from the left wild, because it is polite, careful and straightforward. He doesn’t rant, and sticks to his brief.
From Peterson’s perspective, feminism and other ideologies of protest fundamentally miss the point. ‘Patriarchy’, as he says, is one of those terms that you pull down from the sky as though it explains everything. It doesn’t, he argues. Indeed, it explains nothing. Same with capitalism or, if we were in the old Soviet period, communism. They are just futile terms that help one explain why one is discontented, but do nothing to help one get out of that frame of mind.
One reading got me this far. I think the book needs a second reading, so that I get to grips with the central arguments more forcefully. In the meantime, it is absolutely worth reading. If one thinks he is wrong, it is important to explain to oneself why one thinks so, not — as I have read a few times in reviews so far — just dismiss him with abuse. Aspects of the book, especially the search for explanations in our distant past, remind me of two other books that I took most seriously, Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind, and the Peases’ Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps.
I think Peterson is right about the perpetual ‘dominance hierarchies’ in human societies. But that doesn’t mean we cannot improve the society that we have. Of course we can, but as I have suggested several times, it is best done by incremental change, not by sweeping visions that then have to be implemented, always poorly. In the meantime, individuals following Peterson’s rules have a decent chance of living fuller, richer and more satisfying lives.