An Antidote to Peterson

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Jordan Peterson, Penguin, 2018

I first saw Jordan Peterson last summer on a provincial train journey, travelling from my home town of Ellesmere Port to Liverpool city centre. The Canadian’s stony grey face and heavy eyebrows were striking, and I can only characterise his overall physiognomy as ‘presbyterian’. A pointed, jabbing finger reinforced the preacher-like impression. His shirt was buttoned to the top, like a vicar missing the collar. Peterson’s mouth worked out a sentence now and then,  between dramatic pauses and eccentric hand gestures, but I couldn’t hear a word. The young man beside me, engrossed by this apparent preacher or prophet performing on his smartphone screen, was wearing a pair of earphones. Merseyside is religious to the extent that most of our grandparents are Christians, in the Irish Catholic tradition. But Roman fervour, to my knowledge, hasn’t trickled down the generations with any vigour. Plus the stylish suit wearing twenty-something sitting next to me on his daily commute certainly didn’t seem the type for Sunday sermons. He caught my staring and probably suspected me a wannabe thief, so Peterson and this disciple soon departed the train. As the months passed, the awkward incident gradually drifted to the back of my mind as just another odd public transport encounter.

Only recently I saw that face again, on my television screen, barking at the Channel Four journalist Cathy Newman. He was not a religious preacher, I learned, but a clinical psychologist. This came as something of a surprise, but my slight fear on that train of some new presbyterian sect operating in Liverpool subsided. He was just an eccentric right -wing academic who liked to shout at women on live television; Canada’s answer to David Starkey perhaps, but nothing to bother about, I thought. Our third encounter came a few months ago, when my best friend made a peculiar suggestion to me. He left school when we were sixteen, to work on an apprenticeship in Liverpool, but has ever since maintained our shared interest in modern history, often recommending to me the latest accounts of Stalingrad and the Tet Offensive. We were enjoying a drink in the pub outside his workplace when, after a few pints, he suddenly revealed to me a newfound fascination in some dazzling Professor of psychology called Jordan Peterson, whose lectures and talks could be found online, if I was interested. I gulped as my brain started to whizz. In his work attire – a suit and tie – he eerily resembled Peterson’s disciple on the train. Like him, my friend had been spending his train journeys to work watching Peterson’s Youtube channel, which the Professor in his new book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos boasts has been viewed by ‘up to eighteen million times as I write this’.

Before this new bestseller hit bookshelves Peterson had authored only one other volume, a recondite psychological anthology called Maps of Meaning. His rebirth in 2018 as a popular author is thanks mainly to YouTube, the hardy midwife which has delivered Peterson to the smartphones of young men across the country, and the world. The birth pangs resulting from this online-to-print transition are obvious from the first pages of 12 Rules. The introductory ‘Overture’ has the internet’s fingerprints all over it, beginning with a pale story recounting the professor’s discovery of the ‘question and answer’ website Quora which reads likes the diary entry of an aged uncle discovering broadband. Since the grandiose foreword, by his colleague Norman Doidge, compares Peterson to both Jesus Christ and Socrates, I was left more than a little disappointed by the tepid opening of the book-proper. Yet his origins on Quora illustrate Peterson’s unique position as a writer who has developed by watching his audience rather than reading others. He does not write to his audience blind, as writers traditionally have. With the web offering near instant feedback to his lectures and videos, Peterson is all too aware of his followers’ thoughts and wishes. In 12 Rules, he revealingly quotes verbatim the early responses to his Quora posts: ‘They said such things as “I’m definitely printing this list out and keeping it as a reference – simply phenomenal,” and “You win Quora. We can just close down the site now.”’ Clearly pleased with the gratification this brought him, and undoubtedly smart, Peterson found the third ingredient in his rise to prominence while ‘observing the rise of YouTube’. He began posting vlogs and lectures online, equipped with a comment box to gauge reactions and a Patreon page to bring in the cash. This trim setup is the medium through which my friend and so many others became enraptured with the Professor’s perfervid oratory. Now they are buying his books as well. Kerching.

The Professor, though, is not as clever as he thinks, and his shift from an audiovisual to written medium has not been altogether smooth. From the off there are some superficial indicators of this – for example, the writer’s tendency to cite standard philosophical and literary sources as though they are completely recherché: ‘it was an ancient story in the Book of Genesis – the first book of the Old Testament.’ I can only thank the professor for this divulgence or, should I say, revelation? This recurring tic in his writing is further amusing when Peterson broaches foreign literature. We are introduced to ‘the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky,’ ‘the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche,’ ‘the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov,’ and ‘the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’. This is not mere nitpicking from a pompous undergraduate; Peterson’s over egged and clumsy referencing is just one of the rocky crossovers between being a ‘Youtube intellectual’ and a writer. The exoticism of European literature is clearly intended to buttress his less sophisticated writing, and chaperone a largely book-averse fanclub through the library. Whatsmore the process is reciprocal. While he gives them Nietzsche, they give him an internet lexicon to carry forth into the bestseller section of Waterstones. The first paragraph of ‘Rule One’ ends with a jarring ‘ha ha’ after a poor joke. This is only the firing gun on Peterson’s online comment section lingo – the rest of the book is splattered with incidental emojis: ‘This is just one of the many things that make psychologists wonderful – :)’. The blurring of Peterson’s online and literary personalities is no mere of stylistic gripe. The book’s central concept – in both senses of the word, a plan of writing and a plan of sale – the 12 rules, are also caught in the warp of Peterson’s keyboard schizophrenia.

There was something of a crisis in television a few years ago. Not in marketing, but rather in artistic integrity. When an episode of the major network shows (Game of Thrones, Sherlock etc.) aired, an electric pulse ran through the internet, on sites like Twitter, Tumblr, and various fan pages. Dedicated viewers would speculate and guess on future developments, and suggest their own resolutions for plotlines. There was an inverse correlation between the attention networks paid to these fans, and the quality of the drama. It turned out that reactive writing was very often poor writing, and the question arose: who holds the whip hand, the writer or the audience? The question in television remains unanswered, it has merely been postponed – with the rise of streaming that buzz of audience reaction has dissipated since few people are watching the same television at the same time. But with the publication of 12 Rules for Life, this problem of an interactive audience has graduated from television to literature, for it is obvious that the Professor is desperate to please. I first noticed this when, early on, he attempts to set out his worldview as a competition between the forces of chaos and order. Peterson is a conservative writer, and so it came as little surprise to me that his driving motivation is the maintenance of an ordered society. Anthony Quinton, in the mid twentieth century, had already identified that as one of the staple factors of anglosphere conservatism.

What shocked me about Peterson’s opening remarks – and I suspect it was intended to shock people like me – was his almost entirely superfluous assertion that ‘order’ is necessarily masculine, and it’s opposite ‘chaos’ necessarily feminine. Further it is no accident that, making this attachment between women and chaos, Peterson chose to subtitle his book ‘An Antidote to Chaos’. This subliminal chauvinism rings the frequency of a dog whistle, intended to alert the senses of a specific audience: the angry young men who have praised him since those early days on Quora. A large part of his following consists of young men whose political identities – formed in part by a toxic cocktail of romantic rejections and internet porn – feel deeply moved by the Professor’s assertion that: ‘female lobsters identity the top guy quickly, and become irresistibly attracted to him. This is a brilliant strategy, in my estimation. It’s also one used by females of many different species, including humans.’ They appreciate a scientific explanation for that high school crush’s decision to decline a prom invite. The prevalence of so-called ‘anti-feminism’ amongst young men on the internet is a topic over which much ink has been spilt – the subject flared up again after an ‘incel’ massacre in Peterson’s home city of Toronto. I do not wish to dwell on it too much, for the fact that there is a more interesting tendency buried within Peterson’s cynical attempt at audience capture: his relentless effort to mix competing ideas for the sake of keeping his readers happy. This is syncretism in its most mercenary form.

Though many of his readers may be drawn together in their habitual dislike of women, that is not to say the Peterson cult is one homogenous group. The young internet Right is a perverse coalition of New Atheism’s remnants, and neo-reactionaries who wish to return society to the Christian dark ages. The Professor knows these contradictions well, and thus takes great pains to massage them. The most forthcoming example is his excruciating attempt to meld together ‘classical liberalism’ with Bible studies, under the laughable auspices of ‘the conservatism of evolution’. In these moments, the writer becomes little more than a huckster.

He tries to balance the messianic feelings of his more eccentric online followers with the, quote, ‘classic liberal western Enlightenment’ tradition for which educated friends in Canadian academia know him. In Doidge’s foreword we find an example of Peterson’s reputation as a liberal martyr in such circles: ‘when Jordan would take a classical liberal stand for free speech, he would be accused by left-wing extremists of being a right-wing bigot.’ Contrast this with the rather less ‘enlightened’ attention the Professor pays in 12 Rules for Life to biblical exegesis. Self-help has never been so pious, particularly when he shames readers with the accusation that ‘everyone falls short of the glory of God’, but optimistically carries this up with a call for evangelical attempts at self improvement: ‘you could help direct the world, on its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell.’ This is more than grandiloquent phrasing; Peterson also employs scripture to support his malign ideas about modern women. After recounting the story of Eden, he jibes: ‘it is for this reason that Eve’s daughters are more protective, self-conscious, fearful and nervous, to this day’. Alongside rather megalomaniacal calls for the reader to ‘atone for your sinful nature and… once again walk with God in the Garden’, Peterson in other passages orientates himself toward the modern conservative fight of the ‘little guy’ against state tyranny: ‘many bureaucracies have petty authoritarians within them, generating unnecessary rules and procedures simply to express and cement power’. But the same could be said of the religious paradigms he is soapboxing for. Contrary to his following’s claim that he is merely drawing examples from biblical narratives, in 12 Rules Peterson quite wholeheartedly recommends scriptural passages as the way things ought to be. Minced into hopeless incomprehension, these competing ideas are intended to sell books rather than illuminate any greater truth. Naturally a writer who does not know what he thinks leans inevitably towards verbiage, and there is plenty of that in 12 Rules for Life. A choice example reads: ‘the most profound religious symbols rely for their power in large part on the underlying fundamentally bipartisan conceptual subdivision.’ This is elevated PR speak, PR being the most appropriate comparison for a man who’s driving motivation is to sell himself.

Given his difficulties with coherent writing and thinking, it seems on reflection quite peculiar that I and others so deferentially refer to Peterson as ‘the Professor’. Stephen Fry, the stupid person’s genius, fell into this habit in May when he appeared alongside Peterson at a debate on the not at all tired subject of ‘political correctness’. The moniker ‘Professor’ has the effect of affording 12 Rules an undeserved intellectual pedestal. His young followers on the internet Right still maintain the maxim of their race-baiting hero Ben Shapiro that ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’. At its heart this exposes the self-aggrandising but pretty well established tendency of reactionaries to split politics into sensible conservatives and ‘lefty-luvvies’. Peterson’s academic credentials offer this inclination great sustenance, for the 12 Rules appear to be the measured and cerebral manifestation of hard-to-define conservatism. The rules are instincts, deconstructed and then restored methodically as a 2.5 centimetre-wide sliver on the bookshelf. Tellingly, a friend in Oxford recently said to me of Peterson, ‘he’s scary because he’s clever.’ Indeed, whether you are a worshipper of him on the Right, or a critic on the Left, it is impossible to avert one’s eyes from his perverse effort to dress up as an intellectual.

Despite his chin-stroking, some of the most provocative moments in the book derive from Peterson’s vindictive prejudice far more than any process of ratiocination. In Rule 6, paying particular attention to child-raising, he avers: ‘parents should come in pairs so the father of a newborn can watch the new mother’. In a paltry attempt to distance himself from both the personal abuse and government discrimination single-parent families have suffered thanks to such sentiments, he insists ‘I am not saying we should be mean to single mothers,’ paying lip service to politesse before continuing, ‘but that doesn’t mean we should pretend that all family forms are equally viable. They’re not. Period.’ The commanding finality of that ‘period’ may lead us to assume that his spiel rests on a speck of evidence. Alas, he dedicates a mere 213 words to this attack on single mothers, without the use of single reference. In this instance, Peterson’s cloak of citations falls away to reveal the shrieking malevolent beneath. His academic title is a shield for criticism but little more; the endnotes of the book are a stream of abstruse journal articles, but it would be foolish to seek the kernel of Peterson’s worldview there. That elusive driving belief cannot even be found in the titular 12 rules. Gather them together, and notice the central vacuum:

  1. Stand up straight
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful
  8. Tell the truth
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother with children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one

They read like the advice of a folksy if not slightly overbearing relative, but a philosophy they do not make.

The engine of Peterson’s belief can only be sought out with some determination. It is not signposted, nor is their a headline. He quite inadvertently reveals it in Rule 3, the innocuously named ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’. Peterson’s ludicrous character must have come from somewhere, and we find some hint of his origins in this, the only fully autobiographical part of 12 Rules for Life. Having grown up in the freezing wilderness of Fairview, Alberta where there are no homeless people because ‘they passed out at three in the morning and froze to death’, he recounts the parallel courses of two separate childhoods: his own, and his friend Chris’. The writer’s presbyterian austerity, we learn, is longstanding: ‘I did not like teenage parties. I do not remember them nostalgically. They were dismal affairs.’ In a small town trope, he was close in childhood with ‘the girl I later married’. Stacked up against ‘Chris’, who we learn developed an unhealthy penchant for smoking marijuana, the young Peterson seems positively monkish. Notwithstanding his somewhat sanctimonious self-presentation, I feel deeply with Peterson’s childhood experience of trying to make good of oneself in a place of scarce opportunity. He writes, ‘everyone who eventually left the Fairview I grew up in knew they were leaving by the age of twelve.’ Any son or daughter of my hometown could have written that sentence, and of course we had our own ‘Chris’ back in school. Yet from this point of affinity Peterson deviates again to one of his rules, instructing the reader to cast off people like Chris and ‘make friends with people who want the best for you’. He uses the different experiences of himself and his friend (one a successful ‘public intellectual’, the other a drug addict who committed suicide in his thirties) to repudiate the unsuccessful and the downtrodden: ‘use your judgement, and protect yourself from too-uncritical compassion and pity.’

These are bitter memories, and the insensitivity they have fostered is clear. His point is one that many conservatives would defend in more sensitive language: that the individual has absolute responsibility for themself, in both prosperity and poverty. But in Rule 3 there is no psychological or Biblical bluster to back this up, only the bleak examples of his own life. Regardless of his academic pretence, Peterson’s rules are the prejudices of a lifetime, made ornate. The long winded references and patchwork of scientific study throughout the rest of the book are mere substitutes for the kind of personal anecdote that he fully indulges in Rule 3. Many of the rules, such as ‘stand up straight with your shoulders back’, could quite easily be the advice a conservative father gives to his son on the first day of school. Who that son might turn out to be is the frightening prospect. Nonetheless, the Peterson ideology is achingly quotidian. It is a justification for everyday conservative prejudices, and 12 Rules for Life is more than anything an unpleasant autobiography on false pretences. Finishing the book, I was left dejected by its philosophical desert. This is not a political statement. Roger Scruton’s How to be a Conservative operates on a similar pretext to Peterson’s bestseller, yet despite disagreeing with the central principle of Scruton’s self-help book for right-wingers, I at least enjoyed its stylish defence of the subject. But 12 Rules for Life has added nothing of value to our world. Alas, it has made a spiteful smalltown boy from Fairview, Alberta very rich.