Penguin Random House, Random House Canada, Toronto:  2018, 409 pages.

 12 Rules of Life:  An Antidote to Chaos.   Dr. Gordon Peterson. 

Dr.  David Harley

The name Dr. Jordan Peterson has emerged from seeming obscurity as a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and a practicing clinical psychologist to become a highly controversial international bestselling author.  With sales of over five million copies his 12 Rules of Life has been translated into numerous languages and he is now conducting sold-out lecture tours in Europe and Canada.  Last year he published a sequel entitled Beyond Order:  12 More Rules of Life that is also selling off the shelves.  He is however not a man for whom fame has come without a price.  For despite having many devoted and admiring fans there are those who hate him with equal passion.  Who is this man and what is his message?

Living his life in comparative peace, Peterson first came to public attention in Canada when he openly criticized Bill C-16 or the Act to Amend the Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to introduce gender identity and expression as prohibited grounds for discrimination.  He argued that the law would classify the failure to use the preferred pronouns of transgender people as hate crimes.    His challenge was not as to the discretionary right of people to be referred to by the pronoun of their choice but rather the failure of any second party to comply with their choice.  As such, he argued calling a transgender person ‘he’ when they identified as being ‘she’ could be classified as a hate crime.  This Peterson argued was an absurd limitation on freedom of expression.

This came to a further head when in November 2017 a young teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University named Lindsay Shepard for discussion purposes showed a video recording taken from a major network television show of an interview with Peterson critiquing Bill C-16 in her Canadian Communication in Context class.  A complaint from one of the class members resulted in her being reprimanded by faculty members who said that she may have violated Bill C-16 by showing the video and holding a debate.  This was not a friendly reprimand but indeed highly hostile.  She went into the meeting with a tape recorder and the meeting was recorded word for word.  It revealed an alarmingly aggressive and threatening encounter reminiscent of the inquisition.  The staff concerned subsequently issued a public apology.  However, one was left with the feeling that this was issued through necessity rather than regret.  Moreover, the case went to further illustrate the truth of Peterson’s argument that this was not just a matter of the use of pronouns but a highly contentious restriction of freedom of expression revealing additionally the strong undercurrents of prevailing political views in some of the social sciences and humanities departments of Canadian universities. 

As the debate continued around the increasingly restrictive and politically correct culture within universities, more discussion emerged regarding the prevalence of what are referred to as Critical Race Theory, Post Modernism and Neo-Marxism.  For example, it is routinely presented as a fact in most social work and sociology departments that only white people can be racists as all other races can only be guilty of engaging in racial stereotypes.  Racism is therefore exclusively white because white people enforced racial stereotypes through colonial power to actively discriminate.  The presentation therefore becomes one where the lens imposed on both history and current society becomes one of white versus nonwhite.  Reverse Racism or the view that nonwhite people can be racist is denied as a possibility in that non-white people can only be accused of racial stereotyping.

Equally, feminist views that see history through the lenses of men oppressing women involves a similar dialectical structure where the relationship is defined in terms of an imposed hierarchy.  Whites are oppressors of blacks. Rich are oppressors of the poor.  Men are the oppressors of women.   The Marxian lens of bourgeoisie and proletariat is translated as oppressor and oppressed.  In this manner Critical Race Theory can be seen to blend in with Neo-Marxism. 

Identity politics involves the view that gender in humans is a matter of conscious decision rather than biological determinism. One has the right to identify as whatever gender one wishes and to be regarded as such by others without discrimination.  Moreover, there are multiple genders to which one can identify.   A.K. Rowling the author of the Harry Potters series recently reaped the whirlwind when she suggested that gender could be simply determined by menstruation.  This resulted in an intense series of personal attacks upon her that have continued into the present.

Postmodernism as a philosophy is difficult to define.   Indeed, many would argue that it is not a philosophy as there is purportedly no coherent presentation of itself.  Rather, being rooted in chaos theory and relativism, its inconsistencies are presented as inherent aspects of its philosophy.  As such, struggling to get a grip on exactly what it is leaves the impression that pining it down to specifics is akin to nailing a custard pie to the wall.  It seems rooted in the concept that there are many truths and that contradictory positions can be held at the same time without issue.  From the vantage of anyone trained in analytical philosophy Postmodernism is difficult to take seriously and can present itself as a mere excuse to escape the responsibility of adhering to rational consistency. But where there is a clear expression of ideas, exponents such as the French thinker Derrida put forth ideas explosive in their content and political implications:

“According to Derrida, hierarchical structures emerged only to include

(the beneficiaries of that structure) and to exclude (everyone else, who were therefore oppressed).  Even that claim was not sufficiently radical.  Derrida claimed that divisiveness and oppression were built right into language—-built into the very categories we use to pragmatically simplify and negotiate the world.  There are “women” only because men gain by excluding them.  There are “males and females” only because members of the heterogeneous group benefit by excluding the tiny minority of people whose biological sexuality is amorphous.  Science only benefits the scientists.  Politics only benefits the politicians.  In Derrida’s view, hierarchies exist because they gain from oppressing those who are omitted.  It is this ill-gotten gain that allows them to flourish. Where Marx reduced all human activity to economics, Derrida reduces all human activity to relationships of power which in turn become the oppressed and the oppressors.”

I am mentioning these more philosophical or esoteric issues to explain the sources of the militant reaction to Peterson’s ideas that others might present simply as an interesting read.  The reaction arises because it is these prevailing dogmas and their adherents that are threatened by his ideas and their implications.  Thus, ideas that in and of themselves would generally be regarded as benign to the general reader become a war cry to those vested in these other belief systems.  Under the general title of political correctness, these topics form parts of a growing number of topics in which debate, and the expression of noncompliant opinions are deemed offensive to the individuals concerned and outside of the realm of permissible freedom of speech.

Implicit therefore is the apparent assumption that if any minority group find any term or expression or idea to be offensive then it needs to be struck from permissible expression.   Those guilty of offending are then not simply wrong or entitled to a different opinion but malicious and worthy of public censure and contempt.   The expression of these ideas is deemed both offensive and psychologically damaging to parties susceptible to them.  As such it would appear that the rights of the majority to freedom of speech becomes held ransom to any minority finding any opinion to be offensive.  It takes little consideration to realize that this will lead to ridiculous situations that would so restrict the ability to express anything other than sanctioned opinions that freedom of speech would be reduced to freedom to express what has been approved.  Arguably, this is logical outcome of the introduction of the banning of so-called hate speech.   Given that it is difficult to distinguish between ‘hate’, ’dislike’, hold up for ‘ridicule’ or any other host of terms used that can cause offence, language proves to be plastic in respect of its legal interpretation.  Simply put, however, to hurt or offend others deliberately is ‘hateful’ and therefore a crime.  The old adage that sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me has obviously gone by the wayside.

Having provided some backdrop or content in which to see both Peterson’s views as well as the sectors regarding him as being so offensive, I will proceed to the book and his ideas themselves.

The book entitled The 12 Rules of Life12 is divided into 12 chapters with each chapter expanding upon the rule that becomes the heading for that chapter.  The 12 rules are as follows:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders straight
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Befriend people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to the   useless person you are today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue the meaningful, not what is expedient
  8. Tell the truth. Or at least don’t lie
  9. Assume that the person that you are listening to knows something you don’t
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

SDo not bother children when they are skateboarding

Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

It is beyond the scope of this essay to explore each of these rules to which a chapter is devoted in the book.  I will select rules 1, 5 and 11.  I have selected the first because I believe that it is an important window into the understanding of Peterson’s view of the biological roots of behavior and 5 and 11 because they deal with the topic of upbringing and parenthood.  I assume that if the reader of this essay is sufficiently peaked in interest, they will obtain a copy of the book and read all of the chapters.

Chapter 1 will certainly surprise readers when they begin it as given the title of the book the last thing that one expects to read is an account of the behavior of lobsters.  Lobsters are presented as a topic as examples of complex adaptive behaviors that are not learned but rather programmed involving their security, reproduction and hierarchical ordering.  Lobsters as crustaceans are among the oldest existing examples of early evolved life that have been able to successfully endure the ages.  As such, these behaviors are seen as having been tested and found advantageous in terms of survival both to the individual lobster as well as the species.  The implicit lesson in this example is that it is biology that determines the behavior of the lobster to engage in a hierarchical structure and not the individual lobster that oppresses other lobsters.  Assuming man as being an evolved species and as fully a part of the animal kingdom, then one could make the same argument about hierarchies within human society the implication being that such structures are not imposed through conscious decision as much as they arise organically as part of our collective genetic programming which in turn is a direct result of an evolutionary process based upon successful adaptation and survival. 

Whereas this example can be viewed as a simple and interesting account of the complex behaviors of living creatures, when applied to political theories human behavior the implications can be extremely threatening.  For example, the traditional relationship of the sexes becomes an outgrowth of adaptive roles found useful over the ages and not a relationship viewed simplistically as the oppression of male over female.  Equally, gender roles become an accumulation of successful behaviors proven over time to have adaptive value.  In this manner the apparently simple account of lobsters poses an inherent threat to Gender Identity Politics, Militant Feminism, Neo-Marxism and Critical Race Theory none of which in the current environment of the Humanities and Social Sciences within universities can be questioned or challenged without serious consequences both personally or professionally as the reaction to Jordan Peterson has clearly demonstrated.  But whereas he remains largely a bête noir in those circles, his popularity in circles outside of those enclaves has been demonstrated by the sales of his books and his growing following.  This in turn has focused attention on the stark contrast between a minority sector militant in their beliefs, the pursuit and prosecution of heretics and the public at large.

The point here is not so much the rightness or wrongness of any belief, but rather the closing down of an arena of ideas and opinions freely expressed in favor of what takes on the appearance of a blend between the Spanish Inquisition and witch hunts.  Given the traditional role of universities as places where the free expression of opinion has traditionally exceeded that of the outside community, the apparent reversal of roles seems to some to threaten the very nature and value of those institutions.

Chapter 11 deals with the overprotectiveness of much of modern parenting and the lack of building the qualities of resiliency by virtue of attempts to eliminate risk.  Peterson’s argument is that children and in particular boys like to take risks and where they are not provided, they are created.  He is not suggesting that we allow children to play in the traffic, but he is suggesting that the extent to which we attempt to protect children against themselves is presenting a severe impediment to their growth.  Little boys are increasingly not allowed to be little boys partly for fear of encouraging what are perceived to be negative aspects of male behavior such as competitiveness, aggression and risk-taking but also out of a general overactive protectionism that intercedes wherever possible to ensure that children do not suffer the natural consequences of their own actions.  There is nothing new in these arguments however it is of relevance to bring them up for discussion.  In 1927 Bertrand Russell published a book entitled On Education:  Especially in Early Childhood where he specifically stated that it was desirable wherever possible to have children experience the direct consequences of their own actions.  This he believed grounded children in reality by direct interaction with the principles of cause and effect.  Herbert Spencer in his book Education, Intellectual, Moral and Physical published in  1861 made similar arguments by suggesting that discipline derived from the direct experience of consequences of actions is preferable to punishments imposed by external authorities.

There is much that is both interesting and provoking in Peterson’s book.  It provides an interesting combination of psychology, neurology, philosophy, biology, literature interpretation, Bible study and therapeutic advice.  Small wonder that there is something for everyone both to entice as well as to offend.  Some of his followers are guilty of reading into him what they want to hear and do little credit to his arguments as they are actually presented.  Some critics are equally guilty of the same process by rejecting all of his arguments based upon being offended by some of them. 

The overwhelming strength of Peterson is to place arguments out where they should be which is to say in the public forum of free expression and thereby provoke discussion. This, however, appears to be precisely where his most hostile critics do not seem to want it to be.   However, what is increasingly characteristic of all sides is a lack of tolerance for differing opinions in general and a combative positioning more reminiscent of a European soccer match than an exchange of opinions. Ironically, in this age of diversity, there seems to be little appetite to accept differences of opinion.

In terms of criticisms,  I would like to highlight only three due to limitations in space. 

The first of these is that Peterson spends considerable time criticizing what he refers to as false Marxian dialectics which is to say viewing things through the lenses of contradictory opposites.  Marx divided society into workers versus the owners of the means of production, bourgeoisie versus proletariat, rich versus poor etc.  This Marx derived from the German philosopher Hegel whose theory of world history was based upon a dialectic by which he meant opposing forces that built up to a point of crisis and then resolved through resolution.  Neo Marxian theories are considered those that place all social issues into a similar dialectic format and opposing opposites.

The criticism launched against this way of looking at things is generally that it simplifies issues by artificially dividing complicated situations into black and white contradictions thereby distorting problem through an overly simplistic lens.  Moreover, in keeping with the Marxian interpretation, the polarities of the dialectic are regarded as inherently confrontational building in intensity towards an inevitable crisis or conflict and then resolution.

This is one of the main criticisms used by Peterson to criticize this approach to social and political issues.  However, Peterson himself might be seen to fall prey to a similar temptation in dividing experience into ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ which becomes a permeating theme through the book as well as its subsequent sequel Beyond Order.  As a therapist, Peterson identifies chaos as a threatening lack of self-control either derived internally or because of reacting to real crisis situations.  Hence, order is equitable with successful adaptation and emotional self-regulation.  Chaos and order have therefore both an internal psychological reality as well as a physical, external reality.  External chaos can cause internal chaos just as internal chaos can cause external chaos. 

However, if the words order and disorder are substituted for order and chaos it is possible to see these words not describing two different things but rather one being the opposite or absence of the other.  Chaos has the advantage of being more dramatic a term but also insinuates a difference of kind or existence.  Defining disorder is the simple matter of substituting not ordered.  Defining ordered can equally be done by substituting not disordered.  In other words, the dialectic can be reduced to mutually defining opposites neither of which would have meaning without the opposites and as such form polarities that are not mutually exclusive and confrontational but rather mutually necessary to define each other’s meaning.  Consider for example the polarities of positive and negative in an electrical motor where each works in unison to create motion as proof that opposites do not necessarily have to involve conflict.

Despite the fact that the use of dialectics can be useful in terms of organizing discussion and insights, I would suggest that the inherent reductionism involved in any arbitrary separation into discreet categories has the potential for distortion by denying the existence of shades of grey.  The forced placement of complexes into either process of categorization can and invariably must be systematically misleading.  Having said that, this provides an interesting lens through which to view and make sense of reality provided that it is understood to be one lens of many.  The juxtaposition of opposites is not necessarily Marxian.  Zoroastrianism for example, reduces the world to the light and the dark.  Sigmund Feud reduced human affairs to a thanatos or death drive and an eros or life drive.  Christianity might be said to reduce human affairs to a battle between good and evil.  Suffice to say, polarizing reality is a good way to get a conversation going provided that it is not used as an excuse to close down the conversation altogether.  Whereas on one level or another in each of these examples they might be interpreted as a dialectical, each viewed carefully can equally be viewed as interacting processes of action and meaning.  How for example could a man be good if it was impossible to be bad?  Whereas it is simple to identify extreme examples of good and bad, it takes little time to enter a quagmire of dispute over individual examples.  The same could be true of terms like rich and poor, fat and thin, tall and short.

Secondly, the manner in which Peterson explores the genetic and biological roots of behavior in generating social hierarchies grounds human behavior within the perspective of other living creatures.  Such insights are valuable.  However, the view that social hierarchies among humans are determined in the same manner and with the same ongoing advantages tested over generations in terms of adaptability and survival is more problematic.  The English philosopher Herbert Spencer became responsible not only for the creation of sociology but also for promoting the theory of society that became known as social Darwinism and it was he and not Darwin that coined the phrase ‘survival of the fitest’.  The view that the cream will eventually rise to the top found great favor in the USA where newly wealthy millionaires could believe that they had risen to the top because of superior skill, ability and talent and as such the poor deserved to be poor.  Just as nature eliminates the sick and feeble in favor of the strong, so society sheds its surplus.  This is a view and philosophy that the American writer Ayn Rand brought into the 20th century and continues to find adherents within the class of those who regard themselves as belonging to her class of capitalist supermen.

It is easy to see how the rich could find such views very satisfactory but not so the ones at the end of the social order.  Moreover, as justifications of the status quo and social conservatism these would certainly provide a bulwark against revolutionary tendencies grounded in concepts of oppression or injustice.  Clearly, one can quickly identify the potential polarization of opinion triggered by this line of argument. 

I would identify two issues with the belief that social hierarchies are natural biologically determined structures.  The first is that whereas the structures themselves might be determined based upon proven evolutionary merit respective of successful adaptation, the quality of the individuals within those hierarchical structures may not be based upon inherent superior qualities of adaptation or skill.  Having a hierarchical structure is independent of the constituent members of that structure.  Secondly, the successful adaptation within a specific environment where that environment is consistent over much time does have proven value.  Throughout recorded history when there has been a dramatic change in climate, species incapable of adapting became extinct.  In similar manner, if the existing industrial capitalist system proves to be unsustainable, successful adaptation within it leads to the same ultimate end as natural catastrophes and climatic changes.  Again, Peterson would not argue that each and every person who rises to the top does so necessarily on the basis of superior merits.  However, a simplistic interpretation of his views could lead one to characterize his views as such.  More importantly, his arguments can be used to justify extreme forms of conservatism politically, personally and morally.

Finally, Peterson spends much time exploring the deeper meaning both symbolic and metaphorical of various texts including Star Wars, Harry Potter, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, the Bible and others.  I would argue however that sometimes the interpretation of a text can say more about the ingenuity of the interpreter than the original author or artist.  An interpretation plausibly presented does not prove that the interpretation must be the original intent of the producer or that it is the only possible interpretation to be put forward as a possible candidate where the clear expression or proof of the intent is unavailable.  If presented with a very large white canvas with a single tiny black dot in the middle, I might speculate that the intent of the artist was to convey social isolation or the contrast of the finite within the infinite or any other number of things.  If the artist states specifically what his or her intention was when creating the piece, then part of the problem is solved.  That does not however take away from the plausibility of other interpretations of possible meaning that were not the conscious purpose of the artist but perhaps unconscious manifestations of deep creative urges.  Once in that area however, any interpretation could be offered with very little ability to anchor facts in a verifiable terrain notwithstanding the fact that such efforts could qualify themselves as second-order creative expressions of meaning.

In this age of self-help manuals and a public yearning for direction and meaning, Peterson frequently offers practical and good advice based upon his clinical practice and personal observations.  His views about human behavior and their emotional needs are often grounded within a critical observation of himself.  Peterson comes across as a highly personable figure who would be the kind of university professor that most of us would wish for and some of us actually had.  In his sequel he mentions a Japanese saying that a nail that sticks up the most will be the first one to receive the hammer blow.  There is little doubt that the reaction within some circles university and otherwise to his expression of ideas exceeded his worst fears in terms of their aggressiveness and hostility.  He did, however, know that expressing them would hold him up to public scrutiny and potential attack.  This required considerable personal courage within a culture that rarely encourages independent thought and increasingly tends towards the suppression of ideas or opinions outside of those politically sanctioned.  However, if Peterson might have underestimated the initial hostility that he would encounter, he most certainly could never have anticipated the groundswell of public acceptance, praise and adoration that he would elicit from millions of readers across the world. There can be little doubt that his notoriety has been formed by its own dialectic between the radical left land the radical right.  What is abundantly clear is that the more conservative elements of society have rallied to his support in large numbers and far outnumber his detractors. 

One of the reviewers of Peterson’s latest book made the comment that he was the greatest public intellectual of our time.  I doubt that even Peterson would agree with that assessment.  Noam Chomsky who is himself frequently put forward as the most significant intellectual of the current age made the somewhat disparaging statement during a recent interview that Peterson might be the intellectual that we deserve.  I would revise that comment with the statement that perhaps Peterson is the kind of public intellectual that we may need.   Just as open competition in a free market is believed to stimulate the economy, so too should a free market of ideas stimulate discussion and thought.  If diversity is to be championed, let this also include diversity of opinion and an open forum of discussion.