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A Few Words of Praise for Jordan Peterson

The controversial professor’s uncommon sense

Marc Lewis

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos

Jordan Peterson

Random House Canada

448 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780345816023

Twelve Rules for Life? Who goes around giving people rules these days? Jordan Peterson spent much of his adult life studying and teaching the psychology of religion. Maybe that’s where he got the idea. According to the Bible, God gave Moses ten rules for life, and Jesus gave his followers quite a number of guidelines. But rules seem to have gone out of style, especially lately. We like lists a lot. We like suggestions, about what to eat, what to wear, how to be productive, how to get the abs we want, and sometimes even how to find fulfillment. But we don’t usually like being told what to do. Who are you to say? Isn’t it all relative?

Peterson certainly doesn’t flinch from telling people what they ought to do. In 12 Rules for Life, “should” appears 135 times, “must” 168 times, and rules replace chapter titles throughout. This isn’t the gentle touch we’ve come to expect from self-help books. And this is a self-help book, though that’s not always apparent. There are the many layers of philosophy, religious psychology, evolutionary theory, primatology, politics, historical vistas painted in outrageous colours, and yes, a certain amount of ideology underlying his advice. Yet the rules are still what rise to the top. Peterson wants to instruct us on how to improve ourselves.

The tone of the book can be shocking. Peterson could rightly be accused of coming on brash and combative, bombastic, and authoritarian. But that’s not all he is. He is also conversational and intimate, sometimes rancorous and disparaging, other times meek and self-critical, by turns harsh and compassionate, and very often funny. There’s no sense of a seasoned strategist single-mindedly leading his troops. The Peterson who speaks from these pages is not the voice of a movement or an ideology. This is the voice of an individual addressing other individuals. And while he could be a lot more careful about whom he knocks out of his path, his energy and intelligence, his astonishing aim and unbridled honesty, make it worth the ride—and the bruises.

Peterson provides twelve rules for how to improve our lives and the lives of others. The rules—tell the truth, set your house in order—sometimes sound trite, about as profound as the “No place like home” plaque that hung in your grandparents’ living room. Others seem wise but hopelessly global and abstract. For example, “Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” applies at so many levels, in so many contexts, it loses any obvious relevance to self-improvement on the ground. Other rules are so specific they could be lifted out of a self-help book for parents or pet owners. (“Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.”) But however unusual, even mystifying, the rules may sound, each leads down a corridor of angst to some painfully familiar personal or societal wound.

But why would today’s reader even get that far? How could Peterson’s authoritarian stance and wacky phrasings lure hordes of especially young male readers from his online lectures to his book? Peterson has somehow taken a rule-resistant subculture, suspicious of authority and even of certainty, and sold it an instruction manual. I think part of the magic is his very insistence that there is a right way to think and to act. That may feel like water in the desert for a generation buffeted by contrasting opinions, none of them firmly anchored, and an absence of standards for choosing among them. He reminds us that we can tell right from wrong if we pay attention and look both inward and outward. Be honest with yourself, he insists. Stop doing things you know to be wrong. That’s not a moral edict as much as a show of respect for our capacity to figure things out.

Perhaps surprisingly for some of his critics, Peterson’s exhortations are softened by compassion. Today’s young people are squeezed between progressive politics and the need to excel and compete. Men seem unsure if it’s valid even to identify as a man. They cringe, and they see themselves cringing. Young women appear just as lost in an equivalent set of contradictions. We lose courage and retreat to passivity. So stand up for yourself, Peterson urges. Recognize your accomplishments wherever they lie. He praises us for our resilience, for persisting in our pursuit of value and meaning and avoiding the slide into nihilism. And if you can’t accomplish your goal right now, he advises, break it down into sub-goals. Here he’s being a good cognitive behavioural therapist, and that’s another form of compassion: helping people where they are most likely to trip up. All told, he comes across more like a coach than a preacher or teacher.

Peterson’s rules strike me as the parts of a tree one can see above ground—the branches and twigs and even the buds and leaves. But branches and foliage have to grow from roots, and the roots of 12 Rules are Peterson’s underlying themes, which connect to the philosophical and moral foundations of his thinking. These extend from the ancient Greeks, through the Bible, to philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, authors such as Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn, and psychologists Freud, Jung, and Rogers. These noble lineages are shown to evolve alongside the ignoble lineage of world events, the often horrifying inflection points of societal growth and collapse, the corruption, oppression, even genocide that Peterson wants us to avoid in the future by studying the past. To face, struggle with, and begin to contain the excesses of human savagery is the fundamental purpose of our intellectual and moral heritage, he claims.

The central and perhaps most abstract of Peterson’s themes is the relation between order and chaos. He applies this seeming duality to evolution, societal oscillations over the course of history, current systems of government, and of course individual lives. Other themes include responsibility; self-awareness and conscientiousness; bravery versus cowardice, and especially the importance of speaking out against falsehood; attention and effort, which are diametrically opposed to expedience—that’s a big one; and the necessity of facing evil within ourselves, recognizing its impact on others, and identifying goodness as the counterforce needed to contain it.

The subtitle of the book is An Antidote to Chaos, but this doesn’t mean that chaos is all bad. The idea Peterson wants to impart, drawing from sources as diverse as Taoism and primate dominance hierarchies, is that too much order and too much chaos are both destructive. Order means certainty and stability. That’s generally a good thing. Human systems, whether cultures, governments, or personalities, are by their nature orderly. (In fact, all systems in nature, from living organisms to ecosystems to galaxies, are orderly.) Knowledge, frames of reference, and the reservoir of cultural guidelines available from previous thinkers are all forms of order. But too much order holds both good and bad things in place. It leads to oppression and totalitarianism in societies, dominance and bullying in social transactions, and narrow-minded self-centeredness in personality and attitude. Moreover, too much order stultifies. It entrenches what’s familiar and obstructs change.

Chaos means uncertainty or disorder. But the chaos to which Peterson offers an antidote is specifically the confusion infecting his younger readers, floating and directionless due to an absence of values and norms. And indeed, we frequently encounter media portrayals of a lost generation of young men who are underperforming at school and university, addicted to porn or videogames. In Peterson’s view, their helplessness is magnified by the postmodernist claim that there is no objective frame nor any objective means for comparing one frame with another. All is interpretation. This is a contemporary tragedy, he feels, a breakdown of the order young people need to hoist themselves up enough to set a course for the future.

Peterson wants to guide, nudge, cajole, and convince us to find the proper balance between order and chaos, in our lives and in our society, and to recognize the temporal relation between them. Things progress by stages, from one system of order, through chaos or dissolution, to another system of order which can be more beneficial—or not. By understanding this universal trajectory we can better diagnose what goes right and what goes wrong when one social system bumps up against (or replaces) another.

I found Peterson’s discussion of order and chaos fascinating but also disturbing. I was disturbed not by what he got wrong but by what he missed. I studied the relation of order and chaos for nearly two decades, as a psychologist and neuroscientist, in league with other scientists from across disciplines. We were caught up in complexity theory, or chaos theory, a paradigm shift that began in the 1970s and 1980s and completely rejigged our understanding of systems. Complexity theory reconfigured several disciplines at the same time. Physicists could now see how molecules affected each other reciprocally until more coherent forms (like convection currents) emerged from their interaction. That’s order out of chaos, which sounds like Peterson’s favourite dance. In biology, the science of complexity made sense of evolution, ecosystems, and organic growth, all of which follow a progression of stages from order, through chaos, to reorganization.

Psychology, cognitive science, and developmental science were equally infected by complexity theory. The visionary Francisco Varela showed how cognition emerged from feedback between the organism and the environment, the brain and its sensory surround. The resultant perspective, “embodied cognition,” reverberated through neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Complexity theory has revolutionized psychology—Peterson’s field, and mine—replacing boring models of human behaviour, based on conditioning, with elegant models of learning that can account for mob psychology, inter-group cooperation, religious conversion and—most interesting to me—personality development. These phenomena fall squarely within Peterson’s zone of concern.

Both in the science of complexity and in Peterson’s guide to self-improvement, chaos is the transitional ground where order breaks down, novelty abounds, and newer, better systems of order can emerge. Given this convergence, why does Peterson ignore complexity theory? I’d have expected him, as a philosopher and psychologist, to be tickled that it substantiates his intuitions about order and chaos and extends them across the social and material phenomena that constitute known reality.

It seems Peterson is not particularly interested in linking his message to hard science. One reason for this may be pragmatic; he has been successful in reaching his audience by assuming a rather unique form of authority, based on his own experience and grounded in his interpretations of knowledge traditions rooted in the humanities, religion, and philosophy. He borrows liberally from the social sciences, including psychology. He cites findings from developmental and personality theory, dips into relations between intelligence and competence, and dissects social trends. He grabs factoids from biological science, for example in his discussion of dominance hierarchies and the relation between submissiveness and adaptive failure. But further than that he is unwilling to venture. And I think he has good reason to be cautious. Even cognitive science, which is located somewhere between the social and natural sciences, would not be likely to forgive his metaphoric applications.

Another reason for avoiding the hard sciences may be Peterson’s distrust of the objectivism and positivism that ground them. Following Nietzsche, his greatest hero in the philosophy hall of fame, he characterizes knowledge, even and especially ­scientific knowledge, as a flawed framework, because it reifies what is already known. Peterson wants us to treat knowledge with a certain disdain. “You might start [the project of self-improvement] by not thinking…refusing to subjugate your faith to your current rationality and its narrowness of view.” Instead he wants us to pursue our own exploration, make our own discoveries, and decide for ourselves what’s important and what’s true. That’s one avenue of discovery that science, even in its most contemporary trappings, simply doesn’t allow. Scientific insight must be consensual.

It seems to me that Peterson’s distrust of scientific orthodoxy bumps up sharply against his call to respect cultural repositories of hard-earned knowledge. Don’t be stupid, he admonishes. Pay attention to what’s been laid down in our painstaking journey through cultural evolution. He wants to be informed by the canons of collected wisdom. But how does he reconcile this with his insistence on self-discovery? There really is no firm answer. And maybe that’s the point: there’s a field of mutability between knowing and not-knowing, and that’s the condition for societal transformation and individual growth.

Peterson’s rejection of conventional scholarship allows him to cherry-pick data from across fields to support whatever arguments he thinks will benefit from it. He does not undergird his most far-reaching claims, his truly stunning reconceptualizations, with a coherent body of data or a theoretical framework to ground them. Why not? Because, I think, his mantle of authority comes from his personal journey, discovering meaning in his life through facing and resolving the challenges we all have to face. His data base is experience, and it’s open source. Furthermore, he believes it gives his students and followers the shake-up they need, not through the piling on of analysis and argument, not through an edifice of tightly worded propositions, but with the personal, naked voice of bluff authority. His writing is both authoritarian and intimate. His voice is oratorical, dramatic, vivid, emphatic, even inspirational—rather than expository and conscientious. And it works.

Although this is not a book for academics, and has generally not been critiqued as such, Peterson will no doubt be challenged by other academics and scholars for his neglect of academic protocol. And certainly he has ruffled other feathers. Progressives find his pronouncements on masculinity regressive and argue that his focus on the individual obscures structural causes of social problems. Polemicists who reject the very idea of authority accuse him of cultural chauvinism. These are what we might call group gripes, and I think they lose relevance because Peterson isn’t a group; he doesn’t belong to an ideological sect with an agenda to push. He speaks and writes as an individual with his own unique view of things. He also identifies his readers as individuals, each struggling with a unique blend of biological, geographical, cultural, economic, and social influences. The problem is that, in launching his messages in a homemade rhetorical style, making his own rules, he can offend these individuals, too. People who feel extremely vulnerable, due to gender identity issues for example, may find it difficult to rebut or defend against claims that remain ungrounded in scientific evidence or consensual forms of debate.

In place of academic discourse, scientific proof, and well-defended steps of argument, Peterson talks to us largely through narrative, a form of communication he holds dear. He relies not on knowledge but on stories—Bible stories, personal accounts, psychoanalysis, mythology, autobiography, his own journey, and those of his clients in therapy. Stories, Peterson argues, connect us to a reality based on experience, not knowledge, where we can meet each other with humility and spontaneity, rather than “conniving and scheming.” Other scholars aiming to make an impact on people’s lives have also relied on narrative. Brené Brown, Frans de Waal, and Oliver Sacks were able to put their theories and data aside and tell compelling stories—stories that touch us intimately—as the vehicle for their most profound messages.

I’ve discovered the value of story in my own work in addiction. I started writing about addiction because, having been there myself through most of my twenties, I wanted to make sense of it. So I went to the tools of my trade and studied the neuroscience of addiction. I wrote about the brain changes, the specific neurophysiological processes that go on, when people get addicted to drugs. But I hung these scientific details on a narrative frame. I told about my own struggles in one book and the struggles of other people in another—stories smudged with self-acknowledged dirt, clothed in the neutrality of science. My books weren’t intended as self-help books, but many people have thanked me for the help they provided. What moved them most were not the neural points of reference but the stories, and what they meant for their own hopes and hardship.

But stories pose a trap into which Peterson has fallen hard. Stories are built on drama; they don’t work without it. And drama grabs at the emotions of teller and listener, couples them, and then moves wherever it wants to move: to extend the excitement or the pathos, the struggles of the characters, and the ending that serves as a final relinquishment. Stories are completely unbounded by external criteria. They don’t owe allegiance to any discipline and instead are quite ready to invent their own. Stories can’t be evaluated for truth. They can be evaluated for their persuasiveness, their coherence and artfulness, how well they satisfy, but that’s about it.

By assuming the role of an authority, without accepting or even acknowledging the rules of scientific or academic argument, Peterson sets himself up to get lost in his own stories. I see this as particularly hazardous for someone so clever, so deeply intellectual and creative, and so ­emotionally driven. (He publicly acknowledged to Dave Rubin, a well-known talk show host, that he has a problem with mood regulation—certainly a risk factor for stepping over the line. I should know.) It’s impossible to check a self-proclaimed authority who soars and dives through layers of scholarship by intuition, making brilliant off-the-cuff associations and arranging them in a compelling tale. No one can verify whether and when his account is valid, except by some truly mystical inference based on the coherence of his narrative and its power to convince.

Peterson sometimes claims the mantle of truth for what is merely a compelling account. For example, I was astounded to read that “the society produced by Christianity was far less barbaric than the pagan—even the Roman—ones it replaced.” I’m no historian, but in Sapiens Yuval Harari provides compelling evidence for the opposite conclusion. While the Romans did throw a few hundred “subversive” Christians to the lions, the Roman Empire was stable for long periods, and it largely tolerated its subjects’ religious diversity without attempting to convert, or systematically murder, those with divergent beliefs. Harari compares this reign with the fifteen hundred years of bloodshed that followed, highlighted in my mind by the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the occupation of the Americas, whereby entire populations were wiped out, for the most part intentionally with the Catholic Church’s approval. One of Harari’s most compelling examples of Christian savagery is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in sixteenth-century France, in which, to the delight of the Pope, “between 5,000 and 10,000 Protestants were slaughtered [by Catholics] in less than twenty-four hours”—far more than the number of Christians killed over the centuries of Roman rule. Peterson never claims that Christianity was perfect—not even close—but his take on the character of Christian civilization seems utterly wrong. And yet his version makes a great story, loaded with drama: “All of this was asking the impossible: but it happened,” he proclaims.

Yet how would anyone know?

Let’s say that Peterson gets carried away by the thrust of his interpretations and sometimes crosses a line between veracity and supposition. Is that so bad? Can’t the truth be checked? Peterson is known for being ready to debate, and he’s very good at it. He trounces his opponents with bits of data and pyrotechnic rhetoric. He convinces us that he’s right. Yet the too-extreme stories start to add up. Is it true that “competence, not power, is a prime determiner of status” in reasonably well-functioning societies? The imbecility of quite a few European monarchs suggests otherwise. But the point is: Who’s to know? That kind of statement can’t be verified. Is it really generally mothers who overindulge their children, creating whiny, incompetent misfits in order to satisfy their craving for acceptance? I don’t know. Fathers can be just as indulgent, and there’s good evidence that overly strict mothering has the greatest negative impact on children’s psychological development. While I applaud Peterson’s skillful defence against so-called social-justice warriors, his insistence on the biological basis of sexual differences (not gender identity!), and his disdain for the rudderless void of postmodernism, I am unwilling to decimate every argument from those who see things differently, especially with the vehemence that often marks his rhetoric. Peterson decries extremism in his opponents, but he isn’t always careful to muffle his own.

I get another take on Peterson from my experience as a clinical psychologist. Since retiring from teaching and research (first at the University of Toronto and then in the Netherlands), I’ve gone back to practicing psychotherapy. I see people with a variety of problems, mostly involving addiction. Jason (not his real name) is a sixty-something-year-old American expatriate living and working in a large European city. His tortuous relationship with drugs has lasted over three decades and left him with a harsh, punitive internal critic. The result? Nearly relentless self-contempt, except when he’s immersed in work or high. Our sessions have focused on softening the tenor of his internal dialogue, and I recently tried a passage from 12 Rules as an aid. Peterson says “the self-denigrating voice…weaves a devastating tale.” Engage with the internal critic, he urges. Don’t listen to its exaggerated claims that you’re completely worthless. But don’t ignore it either. “Called upon properly, the internal critic will suggest something to set in order, which you could set in order…voluntarily, without resentment.” In other words, with a little work, that voice can become a valuable ally.

Jason needed a way to think about cleaning up his act without feeling cornered and shamed. He seems to have found it in Peterson’s formulations. Rather than sink into a swamp of self-denigration, which leads invariably back to drugs, he is now conversing with his internal critic, making the dialogue conscious, balanced, and flexible. His mood is improving. He has become more creative at work, and his drug use is beginning to decline. I’d like to think I helped promote some of these changes, but there’s no doubt that Peterson’s recommendations clicked for Jason. I’m trying them on with other clients too. There’s something precious in these pages—some treasure to be extracted.

I personally find myself agreeing with most of Peterson’s positions, and even those I don’t accept are provocative enough to get me thinking. What’s more, I admire the man. I admire his bravery, his determination to have his say, the intelligence he calls upon, seemingly as a duty to his audience, and his visionary formula for personal growth and interpersonal responsibility. I think his rules for life will help many people identify their goals, bolster their courage, and increase their reserves of care. His guidelines for honest but compassionate self-evaluation and empowerment are ideal footholds for people intent on moving beyond shame and stagnation.

Peterson’s extremism and his unwarranted prognostications should certainly be acknowledged and debated. But I applaud him for voicing unpopular sentiments that might have remained buried because they violate political fashions. Now that they have been spoken, they’ve become irrevocable elements of the public discourse on a broad array of social and political issues. It’s up to the rest of us to decide where they fit.

Marc Lewis is the author of The Biology of Desire and Memoirs of an Addicted Brain. Formerly, he was a professor of developmental psychology at the University of Toronto.

Related Letters and Responses

Leonor Barbosa Gonçalves University College London

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