Review: 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote for Chaos

I give this book a highly qualified single thumbs up. I think it’s alright, but I wouldn’t recommend it to most people.

Throughout JBP’s twelve rules the reader can discern glimpses of these two truths, like catching momentary sight of a distant campfire in a forest, but Peterson is, to my mind, oddly reluctant to face them directly:

Forgiveness is actually something we need.

Love gives meaning to life.

So, what’s good about this book? It’s a good self-help book. It takes some good things from current counseling and psychotherapy techniques and makes them both highly accessible and attractive, and that’s something that can really help people. Also, it rehabilitates the language of hell and chaos, making them concepts that can be actually discussed. Even if his understandings of them are a bit idiosyncratic, I see this as a very good thing. Hell and chaos are real experiences, and we need ways to talk about them.

Me personally, I didn’t get much out of the book. The bits that were good advice were largely repackaged versions of things I’ve been lucky enough to hear my whole life from my mom, my dad, and various other folks, and the other bits were, well, not that good.

The rest of this review is about the bits of 12 Rules for Life that I most disliked. I should say again that I do think it’s a decent book, but I also think the most interesting parts of it are where it’s wrong.

The Culture Wars, or Why This Review is Useless

The longest and worst chapter in 12 Rules for Life is Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding. It’s the longest because JBP has quite a list of things to shake up into his cocktail of complaints—leftists, the patriarchy, shiftless friends, hierarchies, violence, postmodern neo-Marxists, stories about being a kid in Canada—and it’s the worst because it’s where JBP dives headfirst into the culture wars. It’s entertaining, and it has some thought-provoking bits, sure, but it’s also where JBP gets the most dumb. I have a theory that culture wars actually make their participants dumb by incentivizing intellectual punching over intellectual honesty. JBP is by no means the worst example of this, but he does get in over his head repeatedly in this chapter. To take just one example, he is at pains in this chapter to explain the problems with the idea that “all gender differences must be regarded as socially constructed”. Supposedly his ideological opponents believe this. This is just goofy, though—no one really believes this. JBP is making a textbook strawman argument. Speaking of textbooks, here’s a little excerpt from a textbook called Language and Gender by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell-Ginet. A quick Google search shows that this book shows up on the syllabi for many introductory Women’s and Gender Studies courses, so presumably it is a good example of the kind of thing we should be fighting with all our strength, according to Peterson:

This book will focus on gender as a social construction – as the means by which society jointly accomplishes the differentiation that constitutes the gender order. While we recognize that biology imposes certain physiological constraints on the average male and female, we treat the elaboration and magnification of these differences and the erasure of differences among males and among females as entirely social. This does not mean that individuals are helpless pawns shaped by external social forces: the social emerges as individuals develop their own perspectives, react to others, and interpret others’ reactions to them.

🤔

So JBP gets sloppy when he gets into the culture wars. It’s an unfortunate fact that in a culture war things get messy. Mischaracterizations, mendacity, and vitriol are unavoidable. The culture war itself is, apparently, unavoidable. Given that this is the situation we’re in, and Dr. Peterson is in it much more deeply than I am myself, how are we to judge these failings in his book? A couple of options present themselves. We could say, strawmanning and derision of opponents are never acceptable, out with this charlatan! We could say, well his opponents are much worse! Ignore his failings, they’re the ones who are really lying and cheating! We could say, well, let’s try to take the good from him and leave the bad—his life advice is really pretty good, and he doesn’t spend that much time trashing his enemies, so we’ll just pretend those parts aren’t there. Or we could actually pick a side in the culture war. It’s important to note that there are not just two sides in the war; there are least five or six, probably more like a couple dozen, but it’s also important to note that you can’t be an army of one. Some allegiance is required if you’re going to join. (And here’s an uncomfortable thing about it: it seems like our allegiance is based more on the feelings we have about the people we see ourselves jumping in with than their ideas.)

In a just world JBP’s position in the public sphere would be that of a harmless purveyor of self-help advice. Instead, we have this crazy world where he is sucked into the vortex of the culture war, dragging his followers behind him. One might think, based on some of the content in his book about honesty, admitting oneself to be wrong, practicing moderation, etc., that his followers would be less likely to be dragged into these endless bouts of nonsensical ground war (the only way for an average person to engage in the culture wars), but a survey of r/JordanPeterson does not support this idea. Over half of the posts are fully about the nonsensical ground war (either actively skirmishing, or doing some kind of after-action review), and the remainder seem to be either straight-ahead fanboying or earnest, fairly dumb young men asking earnest, kind of dumb questions about life or philosophy. Of course, we shouldn’t entirely take his followers as a measure of the man himself, and the sheer fact of the culture war excuses some stupidity, but the main point I want to make is that public perceptions of what JBP is are way way off. Those public perceptions are largely that he is some kind of YouTube cult leader (see Appendix). I’m not sure how true this really is, but I suspect it’s much more true that he’s a decent psychiatrist who really wants to help people.

(The bit in 12 Rules for Life with the lobsters has been over-discussed to the point where it’s not even worth talking about anymore, in my opinion. I’ll just say this: it would be much easier to engage with Peterson if he ever actually explicitly told us what his point is supposed to be about the lobsters. Is it that I should be extra super concerned about my place in the human dominance hierarchy? Because if that is supposed to be the point, he could just say so.)

Forgiveness?

My thesis here is that forgiveness is a prerequisite for spiritual health and maturity.

I don’t consider myself fully qualified to speak on this topic. Let me instead quote Miroslav Volf, the Croatian theologian, from his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace:

We also bear the burden of forgiveness because when we are forgivers we are restored to our full human splendor. We were created to mirror God.

Peterson fails to engage with even the possibility that this might be true. He complains (yes, complains) that it’s all unfair.

In response to the confused reasoning in evidence on pages 114 and 115 of my edition of 12 Rules for Life, let me lay out some of the actual “traditional wisdom” that JBP claims to hold so highly.

Dr. Peterson asks,

…vengeance seems a moral necessity. How can it be distinguished from the demand for justice? After the experience of terrible atrocity, isn’t forgiveness just cowardice, or lack of willpower? Such questions torment me.

Vengeance for wrongdoing is, in actual fact, a moral necessity. It does not simply “seem” a moral necessity.

After the experience of terrible atrocity, forgiveness is not cowardice or lack of willpower. It is a miracle of grace and should be understood as such. It is also the only way to experience restoration and freedom as a victim. Vengeance is a burden humans cannot properly bear, not because we are weak but because it is corrosive, destructive, and leads all too often to cycles of increasing destruction and chaos. Vengeance is a moral necessity, but it is not ours to carry. How then can we live in a world that is anything other than infuriatingly unfair and morally incoherent?

In the book of Deuteronomy, in the cadences of the old King James, the Old Testament God says, “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.” In Romans 12:19 St. Paul instructs the early Roman Christians, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.”

Is this a solution? Yes. Is it easy or comforting? Does it answer our immediate rage for justice? No, not really. But it directly the addresses the real problem of the moral necessity of vengeance in a way that JBP does not, or cannot. It says, “yes, this is a real problem; no, it’s not your problem”. The problem belongs to God.

Of course, all of the above is only remotely tenable if you’re willing to accept that God is real and that “vengeance belongs to the Lord” is a phrase that has some kind of real, non-metaphorical meaning. If you’re not willing to accept that, JBP’s blind confusion and complaining might be the best you can get.

Now, you may feel that this is unfair to JBP. He certainly doesn’t seem to be blind or complaining all the time. Well, granted, I guess. Not all the time. But let me unpack one more bit of what certainly appears to be willful blindness on page 115, in JBP’s attempt at interpreting Nietzsche.

Nietzsche & Love

JBP shares the story of a former client who came from a difficult past and and an abusive family, who “rejected the sins of her forefathers” to become “truthful, and independent, and hard-working, and smart”. This is good! If this is due to JBP’s influence as a clinician, I celebrate his success. But when he turns to explain his client’s success, he starts with this quote from Nietzsche (pulled from Walter Kaufmann’s anthology Existentialism From Dostoevsky To Sartre):

Distress, whether psychic, physical, or intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism (that is, the radical rejection of value, meaning, and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations.

Out of context, this does support JBP’s point: in some situations what doesn’t kill you can in fact make you stronger and better. The problem with JBP’s usage of this quote, though, is that it really undersells Nietzsche. From that Kaufmann anthology, here is the same passage in fuller context. It’s worth reading slowly:

BOOK ONE: EUROPEAN NIHILISM

I. Nihilism stands at the door: whence comes this uncanniest of all guests? Point of departure: it is an error to consider “social distress” or “physiological degeneration,” or corruption of all things, as the cause of nihilism. Ours is the most honest and compassionate age. Distress, whether psychic, physical, or intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism (that is, the radical rejection of value, meaning, and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations. Rather: it is in one particular interpretation, the Christian moral one, that nihilism is rooted.

II. The end of Christianity—at the hands of its own morality (which cannot be replaced), which turns against the Christian God: the sense of truthfulness, highly developed by Christianity, is nauseated by the falseness and mendaciousness of all Christian interpretations of the world and of history; rebound from “God is the truth” to the fanatical faith “All is false”; an active Buddhism.

III. Skepticism regarding morality is what is decisive. The end of the moral interpretation of the world, which no longer has any sanction after it has tried to escape into some beyond, leads to nihilism. “All lacks meaning.” (The untenability of one interpretation of the world, upon which a tremendous amount of energy has been lavished, awakens the suspicion that all interpretations of the world are false.)

A full engagement with Nietzsche’s take on nihilism and Christianity is out of the scope of this essay, but I want to make three brief points about the full context of the passage that JBP quotes.

First, JBP is avoiding the full implications of Nietzsche’s thought, either because he is unaware of those implications or because it’s more convenient for him. If he fully engaged with it, he would have to answer some harder questions: if you are interested in recommending parts of the Christian moral tradition, how do you square your use of Nietzsche, who argues that Christianity is the source of nihilism, with that recommendation? You approvingly quote Nietzsche, who states that Christian morality is at the root of nihilism; you also recommend bits of traditional Christian morality as a cure for nihilism. What gives? The most good faith interpretation I can give here is that JBP realizes he is getting close to some very deep and complex conflicts, so he chooses to avoid them to make things easier for his readers. The other interpretation is that JBP is not equipped to handle Nietzsche.

Second, my own contentions in this essay also conflict with Nietzsche! My claim is that Christianity is not so dead and mendacious as Nietzsche would have it, and that Christian morality, particularly around forgiveness, offers real solutions to real problems. In this at least I am happy to flat out disagree with Friedrich.

Finally, Nietzsche’s actual point in the passage quoted, in contradistinction to JBP’s construal of the point, is that if you are weak, honest, and compassionate (if you represent Nietzsche’s idea of “Christian morality”), then distress of whatever kind leads to nihilism and an inability to live with your system of “Christian morality”. Nietzsche actually says exactly nothing here about how people might “learn good by experiencing evil”, as JBP puts it. Do we need to construct or discover some kind of more workable moral guide than the worn-out mushy suggestions of late liberal Protestantism? Yes! But to the idea that we really need to “learn good by experiencing evil”, that we could get it all straightened out by “[learning] from [our] own abuse that it is wrong to push people around”, I gotta say, Jordan, this ain’t it, bud.

Sloppy Philosophy

It seems that Peterson more or less takes his own advice, “be precise in your speech”, until it comes to philosophy. His treatments of Nietzsche are often a bit of a mess, as shown above, and when it comes to terms like “meaning” and “nihilism” he is regrettably vague without even an apology for the necessity of being vague on these points.

This kind of sloppy language is on display again at the end of Rule 12, Pet A Cat When You Encounter One On The Street. Peterson writes,

Thinking leads inexorably to the abyss. It did not work for Tolstoy. It might not even have worked for Nietzsche, who arguably thought more clearly about such things than anyone in history. But if it is not thinking that can be relied upon in the direst of situations, what is left? Thought, after all, is the highest of human achievements, is it not?

Perhaps not.

Something supersedes thinking, despite its truly awesome power. When existence reveals itself as existentially intolerable, thinking collapses in on itself. In such situations—in the depths—it’s noticing, not thinking, that does the trick. Perhaps you might start by noticing this: when you love someone, it’s not despite their limitations. It’s because of their limitations. Of course, it’s complicated.

At this point I am furious with Peterson. He begins by taking us calmly and clearly through an important moral argument, showing that the goodness of Being itself is not to be questioned. Good. I agree. But the way he dodges, avoids, and then underplays the necessary positive conclusion is intolerable. Love gives meaning to life. The moral argument Peterson is taking us through leads directly to this conclusion, and he even chooses love as an illustrative example for what he claims is his point—but why, why, does he claim that the point here is something as weak and completely defanged as “noticing does the trick”? This is not the point. “Noticing does the trick” is not only meaningless, it allows the reader to entirely miss the actual truth that this passage should lead to: love gives meaning to life.

To this evasive, mealy language, compare the words of Czesław Miłosz, a writer who, like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, lived through some of the most brutal years of the 20th century under Soviet rule and won a Nobel Prize for his writing. This is from his memoir Native Realm: A Search for Self-Definition:

Yet only such an experience [the experience of Eastern Europeans in the tragedy of the 20th century] can whet our understanding, so that we see an old truth in a new light: when ambition counsels us to lift ourselves above simple moral rules guarded by the poor in spirit, rather than to choose them as our compass needle amid the uncertainties of change, we stifle the only thing that can redeem our follies and mistakes: love.

Appendix: An Annotated JBP Bibliography

As suggested above, the culture war is not my main interest, but I think it’s worth diving into it a bit more here. This annotated bibliography is meant to explore some of the vortex of conflict around JBP by poking into a few different intellectual echo chambers.

This appendix is also why I’ve chosen to focus the body of this essay they way I have. Some of the criticisms I’d want to make have already been made, so I’ll just leave them here.

Note also that most of the articles here are not responding to 12 Rules for Life. This review has focused on bits of that book, but I’m also interested in the broader JBP phenomenon.

The Religious Response

Understanding Jordan Peterson by Alastair Roberts

“These religious elements aren’t peripheral features of Peterson’s account of reality, even though they aren’t the most immediate aspects of his thought that Peterson presents to the world.” This is my impression, too, which makes some of Peterson’s evasions and insecurities even more fascinating. What actually is his deal?

What Peterson shares with Pelagius by Giles Fraser

“Both Peterson and Pelagius want human beings to be self-fixers. Augustine, on the other hand – and what became orthodox Christianity with the official denunciation of Pelagianism – believes that human beings cannot save themselves but can only be saved by God, and God alone.”

The Leftist Response

Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism by Pankaj Mishra

This piece is truly a masterpiece of insinuation, with its attempt to paint JBP himself as an out-and-out fascist by associating him with actual historical fascists. Those historical fascists were super into myth and mysticism, true, but JBP’s Jungianism is not that kind of mysticism. It’s contemporary psychotherapy, not ambitious myth-building.

But also truly, one of the most interesting ways to look at Peterson is to examine what he doesn’t say or talk about. Mishra calls out that JBP “never [identifies] the evils caused by belief in profit, or Mammon: slavery, genocide, and imperialism” — which is an entirely fair point. In his haste to set out what’s good and what’s bad Peterson overlooks all kinds of evils, while at the same time claiming that he can guide us to order and goodness.

As a side note, it seems to me that many of the criticisms of JBP, aside from the cries of “fascist!”, are driven by resentment, or jealousy, or a knee-jerk response of “no meaning for you! no redemption allowed! no revelation!”

Comment response to “Episode 175 – The Dark Professor (1/9/18)” on r/ChapoTrapHouse

Redditor ThePerdmeister makes a strong case that JBP is actually dumb and confused about the political implications of what he’s doing.

Postmodernism Did Not Take Place: On Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life

Shuja Haider! Shuja Haider can be vicious, but he is also very smart and (I believe) intellectually honest. He’s worth reading here for his measured and knowledgeable dismantling of JBP’s pretensions to understanding postmodernism.

The Centrist Response

Book Review: Twelve Rules for Life by Scott Alexander on Slate Star Codex

A revealing comparison of Jordan Peterson to C.S Lewis. Scott Alexander is also a practicing psychiatrist, so it’s interesting to read his take on Peterson-as-psychiatrist.

A Field Guide to Jordan Peterson’s Political Arguments

“If someone is on TV talking about how suppressed their free speech is…their free speech isn’t being suppressed.”

Two big points: (1) the “free speech” thing is dumb and JBP is tilting at windmills, (2) JBP’s philosophy is sloppy, especially his political philosophy.

Order, but by Subordination: Jordan Peterson’s Reactionary Mind

This piece could really be filed under “the exasperated centrist response”.

“Peterson’s rhetorical strategy…triangulates between naturalistic defenses of the status quo, fear-mongering about the influence of Marxists, and long, tremulous descriptions of the horrors of Communist rule.”

The Exasperated Response

“I feel like I need to unsubscribe.” on r/JordanPeterson

The culture war actually hurts people.

“I’m a college philosophy professor. Jordan Peterson is making my job impossible.” on r/JordanPeterson

The culture war makes people dumb.

The religious hunger that drives Jordan Peterson’s fandom by Tara Isabella Burton

We’re seeing a vast “legitimate spiritual hunger for meaning”, but JBP’s stories can’t fill that need. Which sucks.

Comment response to “*Why* are Jordan Peterson’s philosophical opinions wrong?” on r/askphilosophy

Redditor iunoionnis has more patience than I for explaining Peterson’s evasions and lapses in logic.

Sorry, Jordan Peterson: rage isn’t a great look for a self-help guru by Nesrine Malik

“…in reality Jordan’s work is basically one part The Game and two parts Eat Pray Love for men. And that’s OK; God knows everyone is just trying to get through this wretched life and seeking self help to find some direction, but the skill in reading that map is in accepting that there are borders.”

Conclusion to the annotated bibliography

Is it possible that JBP is, in fact, a little baby demagogue practicing the accumulation of political power by telling his constituency what he knows they want to hear? It is possible. Is it also possible that he’s a decent psychiatrist who just happens to be recycling a bunch of right-wing culture war tropes that seem relevant to his psychiatric practice? I think so, yes. I don’t claim to be able to tell which is more likely.

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