Book review: Jordan B. Peterson, "12 Rules for Life"
Book review: Peterson, Jordan B. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018.
This review is prompted by an interesting little headline from an article on Vice: "Penguin Random House Staff Confront Publisher About New Jordan Peterson Book." The lead is interesting too:
During a tense town hall, staff cried and expressed dismay with the publishing giant's decision to publish 'Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.'
Okay so what's the big deal. It's a publishing house, and prospects for the for-profit book industry have never looked worse. And we'll be getting a new book by Jordan B. Peterson.
Here are two complaints from Random House employees about Peterson that were voiced in the Vice article:
“He is an icon of hate speech and transphobia and the fact that he’s an icon of white supremacy, regardless of the content of his book, I’m not proud to work for a company that publishes him,” a junior employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community and who attended the town hall told VICE World News.
Another employee said “people were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives.” They said one co-worker discussed how Peterson had radicalized their father and another talked about how publishing the book will negatively affect their non-binary friend.
So apparently there's a problem here, with Random House's decision to publish Peterson's new book. Yes I am aware that there was a previous, well-researched, review of Peterson's previous book, in which a number of Peterson statements (Scott Oliver, its author, does especially well with the discussion of lobsters in Peterson's chapter 1) are debunked. You are best advised to read that review, which I linked in this paragraph. And yes, I know that 12 Rules for Life is over two years old. I am writing this review to lay bare what I think is the central flaw of that book. I think we can expect Peterson's new book to repeat the central flaw of the previous one.
What the protests at Random House turn up, and what the old book turns up, is that Jordan B. Peterson in fact parades himself as a conservative despite all of his pretenses of being apolitical. This phenomenon needs to be discussed in the American context. Peterson knows who his audience is -- they're self-described "American conservatives." (Peterson himself is a Canadian conservative, from Alberta, Canada's version of Texas, no less.) "American conservatives" have been a hot item for the past forty years -- you've got one political party that competes for their affections, and another party whose political figures occasionally "reach out" to them. And nearly everyone in America believes those two political parties are the only two political parties worth their attention. Perhaps this explains Peterson's popularity in America.
There are plenty of avowals of "conservatism" in this supposedly apolitical book. Here's the most blatant, on pages 118 and 119:
Even more problematic is the insistence logically stemming from this presumption of social corruption that all individual problems, no matter how rare, must be solved by cultural restructuring, no matter how radical. Our society faces the increasing call to deconstruct its stabilizing traditions to include smaller and smaller numbers of people who do not or will not fit into the categories upon which even our perceptions are based. This is not a good thing. Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. We have learned to live together and organize our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand which sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works. Thus, altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good, given the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.
I suppose this is some sort of doctrine. Its connection to any reality I can name is foggy at best. If any of Peterson's acolytes want to explain this passage to me I'd be willing to listen. Here's how I see it. We are in fact living in a rather exceptional time in the 200.000-year existence of the human species. In our time, starting at least 250 years ago, social revolutions have occurred frequently, starting with, for instance, Europe's conquest of the planet, the spread of democracy (and capitalism) around the planet, two world wars, the "Great Acceleration" of all industrial processes (not to mention the Earth's total population ballooning from 1.65 billion in 1900 to 7.2 billion last year), the Internet, and now climate change and the pandemic. And it's not really as if we've worked out the resultant society. What we have now is a society in which transgendered people (and war veterans) have fantastically high rates of suicide, hundreds of thousands of people are left homeless, and people die in automobile accidents at intolerable rates. In fact, for the past 250 years, at least, we've lived in a dynamic time in which "altering our social being" has been done carelessly because it hasn't been done carefully. The idea of doing it carefully will be the point of further social revolutions, or at least that's the idea behind the good ones. That's life on Earth, today.
Peterson's modus operandi is to write a lot of innocuous-sounding prose, which goes on for some pages until he comes out and says things which really make you wonder about him. Nobody's going to question him when he says "It is better to have something than nothing. It's better yet to share generously the something you have. It's even better than that, however, to become widely known for generous sharing" (168). And nobody's going to question chapters of his with titles like "Be precise in your speech," "Do not bother children when they are skateboarding," or "pet a cat when you encounter one on the street." But then in the middle of such chapters he'll say things like "It looks to me like the so-called oppression of the patriarchy was instead an imperfect collective attempt by men and women, extending over millennia, to free each other from privation, disease, and drudgery." (304) Does he think that's a nice thing for a man to say? Of course, no acute history of gender roles accompanies that last observation of his.
In places Peterson likes to group together rather disparate things he doesn't like as if those things were all in fact in the same group, when they're not. In a section called "Postmodernism and the Long Arm of Marx" (306-307), he attacks an imaginary entity called "cultural Marxism." In this attack, he equates Max Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida, and the Khmer Rouge. Horkheimer, for those who don't know, was a German pessimist who stopped being a Marxist around 1940 and whose philosophy was largely influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer. He's a rather useful writer to know: I'm quoting him in my writing. Derrida was not (as Peterson claims) the "leader of the postmodernists," but rather a French patron of "deconstruction" who used a lot of esoteric language that didn't really say a lot. And the Khmer Rouge were a Cambodian death squad largely motivated by tribal hatred. But to Peterson these individuals and groups were all of a kind.
Or here's another clustering:
You can use words to manipulate the world into delivering what you want. This is what it means to "act politically." This is spin. It's the specialty of unscrupulous marketers, salesmen, advertisers, pickup artists, slogan-possessed utopians and psychopaths. It's the speech people engage in when they attempt to influence and manipulate others. It's what university students do when they write an essay to please the professor, instead of articulating and clarifying their own ideas. It's what everyone does when they want something, and decide to falsify themselves to please and flatter. It's scheming and sloganeering and propaganda. (209)
All of those unscrupulous so-and-so people. So what about the scrupulous ones, performing the roles Peterson named? Look, everyone uses spin, not merely to get what they want, and sometimes for good purposes. As a university student, I've written papers to articulate and clarify my own ideas instead of to please professors, and gotten inferior grades for it. Jordan B. Peterson uses spin in his book, that's for sure. The problem with scrupulousness, and thus also with manipulation, is with content, not with spin.
There is a chapter in "12 rules" larded down with "personal responsibility" messages (Chapter 6, titled "Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world"). In this chapter, Peterson adopts the voice of a psychological counselor and tells people to get their acts together without any sort of reference to how the world is. It is full of advice like "Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong" (157). Or here's another gem: "Don't blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don't reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility." (158) The problem with such messages is that they might really work for some people but not for others. For the others, Peterson argues, "if you are suffering -- well, that's the norm. People are limited and life is tragic" (158). Too bad. Changing the social order, Peterson implies, is the proper province of those who have no motive to change the social order.
If we are to judge from 12 Rules for Life, Jordan B. Peterson is a mediocrity. Occasionally he entertains us with explanations of Taoism (43) or of B. F. Skinner (130-132) that the Taoists or Skinner could have done better than he did. People might get something from his self-help advice if it weren't weighed down by so many poison pills. Why worry about this guy? Is he the best our society can do as far as popular non-fiction writers go? That's something to worry about. Before and during my Mom's withering-away and dying of dementia in 2018, she habitually watched "Dr. Phil," a TV show about the problems encountered by an insufferable, domineering therapist named Phil McGraw. You have to wonder about a society which gives such people careers to do what they do. I guess we're getting a new book from Peterson, though. Thanks Random House Canada. Whatev.