This is the seventh and last post of Spectrum’s 2019 Summer Reading Group. Each post is drawn from chapters of the book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.
Hearing conflicting stories about the wisdom of Peterson’s social commentary, I have tried to sort my thoughts on his work. A deep dive into his podcasts, plus reading his book, has shown me why some find his voice instructive.
If I were to venture to summarize Peterson’s model for contending with chaos, it would be this:
Competency will save the world.
Peterson postulates this will happen when naturally occurring hierarchies are occupied by responsible people. Fear oozes out from his message about where society is going, yet his remedy is a fearless, individualism that seeks competence.
While encouraging his followers to accept hierarchy as the natural state of society, Peterson offers no support to the subversive gospel ideal that those on top of the hierarchy should consider their position in the context of “the least of these.” I am reminded of the Gwenyth Paltrow film adaptation of Jane Austen’s, Emma. At a picnic, Emma, from her vantage of village prima donna, speaks bluntly to the homely spinster, Miss Bates. Mr. Knightly, the classy neighbor bachelor, says, “Badly done, Emma,” and points to the responsibility that Emma has to be compassionate. I had to explain the meaning of the interaction to my children years ago when we watched the film. I offered the analogy of how it might feel in certain situations if I, as an educated, healthy, upper middle-class woman, chose to humiliate someone not so fortunate because of the way she spoke. It would be rude, and particularly unkind, to highlight someone’s missteps. Peterson’s position and advice to the world seems a bit “Emmaesque” to me.
Peterson is a proponent of free speech, saying speaking is part of learning. He bristles at laws that seek to mold language patterns to respect diversity, and he stimulates his followers to yearn for the good old days before people sought to be identified as “woke.” For some, Peterson has become a hero, because of his refusal to use mandated gender-neutral pronouns at University of Toronto, where he is employed. I heard him speak about this, and he said if a student were to ask him to use a particular pronoun that he would honor the student’s wishes. He just does not like to have government mandating his pronoun usage. Sounds sensible to me. However, Peterson’s advocacy of free speech does not occur dispassionately, since he stokes resentment in white people. In this way he is dangerous. His frame of reality does not include the context of abuse and disrespect which, relatively recently, surrounded people of color, women, and those who identify as LGBTQ.
Typically in dominant culture, the privileged have been silencers. From the pinnacle of the hierarchy, the white man has been able to speak freely. Culture has shifted. Others have found their voices. An excellent riffer, Peterson delivers a sort of improv, that seems to frame the moment. His stories craft an absurdity, or foolishness, to describe others, and, in that way, he bonds with his audience, consolidating his platform by uniting people in the task of castigating another. Ironically, while he scapegoats, he finds power in the claim that he is being scapegoated by mainstream media and mainstream academia.
Peterson’s push for individualism seems to accept that it is best to go back to an unregulated “golden age.” Yet, there is no “golden age” for women or people of color or those who identify as LGBTQ.
Peterson’s words show little respect for the goal of universal human rights, as he casts recent strategies that have sought to enact structural justice as having greased a path for societal shift to Maoism/Genocide/ Marxism/Chaos. Peterson’s proclivity to an all or nothing cognitive distortion shows a flaw in his work.
Shunning politics as a force for equality, Peterson prefers to let society stay in its “natural” competence-based hierarchy. In my interaction with his work, I cannot remember Peterson recognizing the potential for political action to be used to promote human rights. His slippery slope fear does not give the appropriate acknowledgement to the ways that political institutions have acted to seek to correct structural inequities. His solution to most anything is an empowered individual who will keep agency and use privilege in the optimal way for the good. This sounds alright, but can we not use other strategies as well? Does historical evidence support that empowered, competent people will act unselfishly for human rights? Does Peterson’s fear place him in the category of being undemocratic? Should one be concerned that so many people in a democracy value Peterson as an ultimate social commentator?
Here are the last two rules:
Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
The longest chapter is devoted to a rule that sounds commonsensical, if one were to use a “plain reading” hermeneutic to interpret it. Peterson unpacks this simple sounding rule to create a diatribe against forces — government, the academy — that have pursued means to level the playing field to cultivate restorative and structural justice.
Part of Peterson’s societal critique is that the recent shifts have made life too difficult for white men. He attempts to address the psychological problems of white men who have become despondent and violent, using the example of his long-time friend, Chris. Chris, as a teenager, had a realization of the historically poor treatment of indigenous people in Canada. Peterson links this realization to Chris’ self-destructive path to suicide. Noticing a decline in mental health of university students, Peterson connects this to white men embracing a collective guilt or gloomy pall with regards to the fate of the planet and the evil capacity of humanity. For Peterson, this is worse for young men who are framed as benefitting from the patriarchy and who feel their accomplishments are unearned. Peterson asserts that boys are suffering for being disagreeable or aggressive, and he thinks these traits are to some extent necessary for men to thrive and to achieve at a level that can be appealing to women. While compelling, the story of Chris seems to give only a thin layer of support to Peterson’s analysis.
Peterson frames the vision of equality to be a sort of scapegoat upon which his listeners can vent their wrath. Frequently, he returns to the idea that we all would prefer a brain surgeon who has been certified on the basis of competence, not equality. A little reflection reveals that Peterson is using this example as a strawman argument. Most people who advocate for structural justice do not want equal outcomes but instead seek to implement changes that can level the playing field.
“You preachers of equality, the tyrant-mania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue” (location 5287).
Peterson impugns the motives of people who want to make things better, saying they have an insidious, anti-human spirit. This blanket character assassination shows that Peterson is not acting in good faith as a conversation partner. Reading Stephen Ambrose’s depiction of Eisenhower in the 1991 biography, Eisenhower: Soldier and President, first showed me the wisdom in choosing not to question another’s motives. For Peterson, a fear of minimized individual agency feeds into demonization of those who work toward equality.
“If you cannot understand why someone did something, look at the consequences — and infer the motivation” ( location 5313).
Showing little understanding for the contextual genesis of identity politics, Peterson frames it as a sort of devilish force that will inevitably lead to chaos. The term “identity politics” was formed in 1977 by the Combahee River Collective as black women sought to have voice. After Johnson’s Great Society, it seemed that the coalition strategy of political change became neutered by the weaponization of identity. Without allowing time for the trajectory of the Great Society to unfold and provide a remedy to centuries of injustice, loud voices weaponized identity with cries of “welfare queen” or “black super predators.”
The one who controls the story is the most powerful, and hegemonic forces have used tropes based on identity in a way that continues to undermine the project of addressing past wrongs. Certain narratives find traction to frame the problems of African Americans as being caused by flawed individuals. Thus, a singular anecdote can become an overwhelming narrative that will allow larger, more longstanding problems to be hidden. The phrase identity politics originally meant to give voice to those who had been neglected. More recently, the concept also includes people in the context of gender.
Basing his analysis on the existence of a dark side in everything, as described by Jung and Freud, Peterson points to the dark side that we face now when society has tried to account for previous inequities by cultivating inclusive mores about race and gender. Peterson settles on Nietzsche’s ressentiment as the key description of what motivates political forces now.
Peterson’s fear of Marxism apparently blinds him to the need to address the insidious hegemony within capitalism that has weaponized identities online for marketing purposes. As Peterson notes, “Identity can be fractionated down to the level of the individual.” He wants that statement in all caps. “Group membership cannot capture that variability,” he says. But, algorithms can. Capitalism has captured an unseen power that has the potential to push society toward the chaos about which Peterson rails. Capitalism now uses a crafted identity, often formed against out groups, to manipulate people and combat individual agency. This project will make it difficult for individualism to exist in the way that Peterson pines for it.
Are distinctions formed only on the basis of power? Linking his answer to a fear of Marxism, Peterson says no. I suggest that he may be harnessing too much energy to address an obsolete question. Currently, algorithmic capitalism functions to curate distinctions, power struggles, identity groupings, tensions, and strife for marketing purposes. Some of Peterson’s shtick about power is like arguing which cassette player is best — passé.
Peterson wants children to be free to enjoy the beauty of skateboarding and mourns the loss that has come by a social emphasis on safety. He believes people should receive accolades when they are willing to take a risk, and he enjoys seeing people in various sports progress in physical capability in the 20th century. He implies that individuals could also progress socially, and if individuals were left to their own devices, they would proceed in excellence. (Unhindered by laws and judicial oversight?) I suppose African Americans and women, among others, would disagree.
Rule #12: Pet a cat when you encounter one in the street.
This is an example of Peterson’s granular approach to living. Notice beauty. Interact with those in one’s context. Cats have agency and just enjoy existence. All would benefit when one notices this. People, like cats, can be social or antisocial.
In this chapter, the reader learns the poignant story of his daughter’s illness. Mikhaila Peterson has become somewhat of a YouTube celebrity in her own right, particularly on the topic of the benefits one will get from a pure meat diet. Peterson describes his own journey with suffering and says we all must accept the inevitability of this. As one accepts the pain in life, one can still pause to note the value in others. One should pet a cat.
The vehemence with which Peterson fights post modernism reminds me of the fish who says it dislikes water. Whether or not one acknowledges it, post modernity is in the air, and, reality is interpreted in multiple ways. Peterson says this is destructive and nihilistic. While acknowledging the complexity of the world, he remains focused on individualism and demonizes a collective strategy or group cooperation to solve problems.
Ignoring one of Covey’s Seven Habits for Highly Effective People (1989), Peterson does not seek to understand those who do not agree with his ideas. He rails against higher education, claiming that the social sciences are doing horrible things: promoting resentment and undermining confidence in humanity. Yet, while he gives strategies to confront resentment, he also promotes resentment; this is another example of not applying his advice to himself.
Sometimes, Peterson’s Kermit the Frog pitched voice grates, seeming to chase tangential irrelevancies. Peterson’s work does not fit in a box or category, and one of his spiels is that he does not like boxes and categories. Peterson appreciates Bible stories that describe a struggle, like the one with Jacob wrestling with the angel. However, I find no evidence in his work that he has realized the paradoxical power of grace or that he has an understanding of the value of prophetic imagination. That is to say, I can’t see that his social prescriptions include the task of working for restorative or structural justice in the vein of Jesus Christ or the minor prophets.
His work seeks to empower white men (or anyone, he claims) on a journey of responsibility. With the subtitle, Antidote to Chaos, the 12 Rules book states that the archetypal man is order, and the archetypical female is protective and destructive and chaotic (location, 5931). Despite certain gender inclusive aspects, critics wonder if this book offers an antidote to women?
Some have said that there is a spiritual crisis amongst white men. I salute Peterson’s efforts to help address this. Perhaps, allowing unhindered skateboarding represents one remedy. Yet, some of Peterson’s riffs into what should, and should not, be societal norms are contrived in my view. Peterson asserts that men who perceive they have been pushed to feminize have responded by a gravitation to harsh fascist political ideology. He says that is why men admire Donald Trump. By the way, from the beginning of Trump’s presidency, Peterson has had a strong critique of President Trump based on the breech of Rule #8: “Tell the truth, or at least don’t lie.” Parenthetically, I think that Peterson makes one of his strongest cases in support of Rule #8.
I continue to subscribe to Peterson’s podcast. On occasion, I am willing to make some time to listen to what he has to say. On the other hand, I am not sure that, as he has shot to fame, he is willing to acknowledge value in the variety of voices that speak in the post-modern era.
I’ve heard Peterson say that if he were to add a 13th rule, it would admonish people to enjoy beauty. Have one beautiful room in one’s home, for example. So, perhaps, I should broaden my characterization of Peterson’s model to say that:
Beauty and competency will save the world.
The model is interesting, but not comprehensive.
Carmen Lau is board chair of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
Book cover image courtesy of Random House.
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