12 Rules for Life. Jordan Peterson.

Peterson, Jordan. 12 Rules for Life. Random House, Toronto, 2018. NF; 4/18.

This is an unusual book that has been successful but controversial. Peterson is originally a small-town Alberta Canadian but has also taught and researched at Harvard, and is a still-practising clinical psychologist. His first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief focused on his interest in mythology and religion, but he’s also a successful educator, consultant, academic, and maybe a bit of a freewheeling bad boy (he’s done dozens of labour jobs, built quirky buildings, flown stunt aircraft, etc. etc.). There is a deeply religious or quasi-religious foundation to his ethics and metaphysics, and he crosses traditional right and left boundaries at will, inevitably annoying all sorts of people and clearly okay if not a bit pleased with that. It might annoy some people, for example, that he appoints himself advisor to just about everybody and writes this difficult book with 12 rules he obviously thinks everyone should follow.

There is a foreword by Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge. He’s in favour of rules (the Ten Commandments were after all not guidelines but directions, failing to follow which our prospects for civilized behaviour were poor, Doidge says). He likes the perspective of people like Peterson who come from a farm or a very small town, are self-educated, and go to university against the odds. He characterizes Peterson as interested in self-deception, facing things we do not understand, being wary of ideology, telling children the truth. For Doidge Peterson’s overriding rule is “you must take responsibility for your own life. Period.” Sounds good to me.

The “Overture” by Peterson tells us that the great myths of the past weren’t about what people and the world were, but with how a human being should act. He sets a dichotomy between Order and Chaos, identifying Order with masculinity and Chaos with femininity (which immediately alienates every feminist of course), and then defines Being as sort of walking a tightrope between the two. Being he tells us was for Heidegger the “totality of human experience”. In respect of it, says Peterson “I don’t have the whole story. I’m simply offering the best I can manage.” So it sounds like he is saying human experience writ large is Being, ideally balancing Chaos and Order which represent masculinity and femininity.

Anyway, Dr. Peterson is offering to boil how a human being should act down to 12 Rules. But when he elaborates on some of them he enters only tangentially-related territory. Let me list his Rules and try to comment on what I imagine he is really up to as he discusses each one.

1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Peterson is evolutionarily psychological in his outlook (so am I). Lobsters, he tells us, are phylogenetically older than humans by a factor of 100 or so, but just like humans they show a hierarchy of winners and losers. And the losers among lobsters act like losers (fail to present their pinchers, cringe, back away from confrontation…), and the winners act like winners (stand straight with their shoulders back, metaphorically speaking). “The bottom of the dominance hierarchy is a terrible and dangerous place to be” and there is not much difference between the mayhem that leads to it and strength of character. Want to avoid that nightmare? Go and do thou like the dominant lobster, he says.

2. Treat yourself like someone you’re responsible for helping. Here, as well as making the strong and reasonable point implied in the rule itself, he talks about his idea of Order and Chaos. Order is the judge, the internal God, and Chaos is the origin, source, mother; the substance from which all things are made. One sex here isn’t superior to the other, but the roles they play in biological and human life are definitely different. It is women’s capacity to say no that has shaped humans into the “creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are”. Are you, “bucko”, (she is asking herself) suitable for continued propagation or not? The Old Testament morality teaches that if you take responsibility for yourself “you could help direct the world, and its careening trajectory, a bit more toward Heaven and a bit more away from Hell.” As well, presumably (if you are a male) as convincing females you are worth the trouble and risk of mating.

3. Make friends with people who want the best for you. This chapter narrates some of Peterson’s experience with early friends in small-town Alberta. I take the gist of it to be that some people are frankly evil because they fail to understand their responsibility to be otherwise.

4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. I like this one because following it helps me. I’m impressionable (awful to admit), and inclined to do its opposite. I need to be reminded that “… because mediocrity has consequences both real and harsh, (our own) standards are necessary.” Our own standards.

5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. Here we have a diatribe on today’s permissiveness in raising children based on the idea that there is some sort of natural human capacity for developing conscience and self-control. That idea is overvalued, says Peterson. It’s damaging to children when parents who fear conflict don’t dare to correct them. Punishment is sometimes necessary. He says we should limit rules and use minimum necessary force, parents should come in pairs, and parents should understand their own capacity for being harsh, vengeful, arrogant, resentful, angry, and deceitful. But follow their instincts fearlessly. I’m with him on this one although dear, lovely, and wonderful though they all are, I wish to God I’d done a better job with my kids.

6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world. Here Peterson focuses on nihilism as exemplified by serial killers. His advice is to stop doing what you know to be wrong, quit blaming others, God, or the world for your problems, and set about slowly and sensibly improving yourself. Hooray.

7. Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient. Is life about maximizing pleasure or about minimizing suffering? This leads to an evolutionary analysis of sacrifice, which is delayed gratification, leading to more for me in the future and more for others who will then collaborate/cooperate with me. A child who can’t share or trade can’t have any friends because having friends is a form of trade. All this pretty well reiterates Peterson’s ethic I think.

8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie. It takes a lot of courage and faith in your values to tell the truth rather than an expedient lie. “Taking the easy way out or telling the truth – those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.” Amen to this one as well, in spite of the serious challenge it entails.

9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t. This appears to be about humility in conversation and relationships, but is presented as a principle of psychotherapy, with extensive examples involving rape and sexual abuse. True listening is rare and difficult, because it lets go of rehashing existing ideology in favour of being open to the possibility of honest and difficult personal change. Easier said than done I’m afraid.

10. Be precise in your speech. An essay on perception and how our selves are extended into the world we create boils down to courageously and exactly identifying what is wrong when things (specifically in an example marriage) fall apart. Another exhortation to difficult honest thinking translated into correct verbal information.

11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding. The title here is whimsical. Peterson is talking about what the politically correct world in its mistaken belief that gender is a construct has done to aggressive and risk-taking behaviour. To boys, in other words. Letting boys be boys is as necessary to humanity as letting girls be… is it boys?

12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street. Not to oversimplify, this is primarily about kindness and resilience in the face of misfortune. Peterson’s daughter had terribly disabling arthritis as a child and we hear about coping with that.

I’m interested, having just read Pinker on the Enlightenment, that those two authors see different values as critical: for Peterson it’s how we behave, focused on personal responsibility, that counts. For Pinker what matters is measuring the world and governing our behaviour according to what we observe. Peterson says there is a heroism to genuine Being (he idolizes Neitzche, Steven Pinker thinks the German philosopher is the devil incarnate), and he tells us in his Overture that “the willingness to take on that responsibility is identical to the decision to live a meaningful life.” This to me is the style of telling it like it is that sets Peterson apart from most recent authors of similar books of advice.

There are other differences between Peterson’s 12 Rules and what ten thousand tedious self-help books tell us. Peterson strikes a chord that resonates millions of people’s tuning forks at a time when more and more reasonable people are fed up with the extreme ideologies of the left and the right. You could argue that Peterson is further to the right than the left and I think that’s correct, but there are also reasonable voices like that of David Frum describing how the extreme right has gone off the rails too. Most self-help books (I confess I don’t read many of them) seem either to describe the random values of a fabulously lucky person, or to parrot dietary or ideologic common wisdom that runs concurrent with Oprah or Sean Hannity. This one nails current political issues at the same time as it helps us think about ourselves.

Whatever your political views, if you can find your way through this dense and at times exasperating work and try to maintain equanimity, it has the capacity to change and (yes) maybe help you.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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