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.

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Wally's picture

For sure, he tried to change Marxism (much to the detrement of those of us opposed to capitalism today, I'd argue) but what is there that points to him having stopped being a Marxist around 1940? He certainly continued to engage and work with other Marxists of the Frankfurt School into the 1960s.

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Cassiodorus's picture

@Wally He and Theodor Adorno stopped being Marxists when they started writing what eventually became "Dialektik der Aufklarung." I suppose you could check the Rolf Wiggershaus biography to be sure one way or another. Anyway, at that point Horkheimer became profoundly pessimistic about the direction of history. I'm sure Hitler's conquest of France at that time didn't help things.

Occasionally in the Marx opus (and more prominently in the Engels opus) you'll see speculation about the revolution being "inevitable." They didn't do it too often because, judging from context, they knew they were speculating and they knew they didn't really have any solid ground to say such things. It comes out most boldly in the "Communist Manifesto," which was a propaganda piece meant to egg on the revolutionaries of 1848. But they said such things, and it's a very long way from that kind of stuff to the discussion of the "iron system" in the chapter on the culture industry of the "Dialectic of Enlightenment," said chapter having been completed by 1944.

I'm sure Horkheimer worked with all sorts of people. He and Adorno, IIRC, had jobs with Paul Lazarsfeld, who was definitely not a Marxist.

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Wally's picture

@Cassiodorus

I have difficulty considering him to be a Marxist, too. But my guess is that he still self-identified as a Marxist, at least in terms of his philosophical methodology, 'til his dying day. The likes of Peterson (I'd throw in Boghossian and the "Cynical Studies" folks) as well as the whole array of "Grievance Studies" advocates all seem to identify Horkeimer as a Marxist, too.

I spent this morning re-reading now deceased Leszek Kolakowski's (who definitively turned away from the Marxism he once professed and actuated) chapter on the Frankfurt School from his Maincurrents of Marxism triology and also this article by Ingar Solty which I think is pretty insightful:

Max Horkheimer, a Teacher Without a Class

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Cassiodorus's picture

@Wally At any rate, and to get back to the review, it's bizarre that Peterson would bother to find out who Max Horkheimer was, only to lump him in with Jacques Derrida and the Khmer Rouge as "cultural Marxists." Maybe that's the route to a bestseller today, when publishing houses are generally in decline -- go out and find someone in the literature who intelligent people ought to know about, and then say something stupid about that someone.

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Wally's picture

@Cassiodorus

. . . for his takes. Not too long ago, somebody got him to admit that the only Marx or Marxist theory he had actually read was the Communist Manifesto.

No doubt that's why he goes on about "cultural Marxism" which is what right wingers started painted all Frankfurt School folks with an all too broad brush way back in the 1960s. My guess is that the spectre of Angela Davis really set them off, especially with her being mentored by Louis Althusser.

To be sure, most of the Frankfurt School people tried to move beyond and away from theory grounded predominantly in and around class analysis (and that's a pretty, pretty weird kinda Marxism imo). Problem was/is they completely overemphasized superstructure almost as if any political economy didn't exist. And Peterson, Boghossian and the rest of the "Cynical Theories" / "Grievance Studies" critics all pretty much fall in the same trap (I just got the Cynical Theories book and just having skimmed through it, I think I can safely make that preliminary assessment).

Hang in there, I'm heading back into and down the rabbit hole.

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or Deridda or Herkheimer--there does seem to be an inexhaustible supply of middle European philosophers with whom one MUST be familiar; as a person of WASP ancestry and cultural upbringing I consider it far more important for me to understand my own heritage and determine what parts are worth salvaging, such as some literature, the horticultural legacy and the notion that farming is an honorable career.

I don't know about Peterson's scientific expertise, but it strikes me he doesn't know much about history. Has he not heard of witch hunts, foot binding, and so on? Or the fact, well I consider it fact, that the Christian notions of marriage and chastity were themselves a reaction to the decadence of the Roman world, in which concubinage was simply a part of life and enslaved persons were routinely used for sexual gratification.

Now, his principle 6, on the face of it, and I don't know how he explains it, sounds reasonable enough. We all know of so called "environmentalists" who themselves live the most lavish of lives. Maybe someone could explain, please.

Is Peterson an author one ought to read?

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Nastarana

Cassiodorus's picture

@Nastarana

Is Peterson an author one ought to read?

No.

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@Nastarana I saw him in a number of youtube clips to get an idea what he was about, and he seemed to be very dishonest. In one appearance I think it was Cambridge (Uk), he created a strawman environmental movement which wanted people to forgo electricity, cars, jets, etc. That is, literally live as if it were 1800. This is a common troupe of right wingers and without any substance. He constantly prattled on about "cultural Marxism" as if just invoking the phrase somehow validated and proved his points.

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that only someone who has spent his entire life in academia could possibly think that modern business rewards and promotes competence.

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Nastarana

Raggedy Ann's picture

@Nastarana
Pleasantry

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"We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us." E.M.Foster

Cassiodorus's picture

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Cassiodorus's picture

Over at Reddit/WayOfTheBern they think that I endorse Jordan Peterson because I wrote a review of one of his books. But hey, guys, don't read the review to find out that I think Jordan Peterson is full of crap.

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Wally's picture

@Cassiodorus

Especially: "(Peterson is) contributing to a generally reactionary world-view masked by pretenses of being "apolitical."

On the other hand, I can understand how some folks don't want to spend a nanosecond discussing such a bankrupt intellect.

I think, in contrast, it's at least something to do to discuss the Petersons of the world to dismiss their crap, which has become ridiculously popular.

If I thought there was any hope, I'd argue that it's important to develop a counter-hegemony to such crap rather than just being anti-hegemonic which is thus limited to a deadender critique.

The few critics to your piece at WotB seem to be proudly "class reductionist," just totally dismissive of "cultural Marxism." I somewhat share such a perspective in terms of emphasis but I don't totally reject concepts like "intersectionality" as long as they are considered in a Marxist base-superstructure relational context. They seem to dismiss or ignore the superstructural part of the relationship just as the "critical theory" folks do the same vis-a-vis the base. I think Marxists like Raymond Williams, Perry Anderson, and E.P. Thompson were on the right track. But I don't see anyone today really carrying on their work towards any kind of praxis with other contemporary "leftists", maybe coz the latter are rather clueless and not all that leftist but rather centrists in service to global corporate monopoly capitalism and the duopoly.

So it goes.

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Cassiodorus's picture

@Wally You're really hit the nail on the head here.

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"Every election is fake." -- Janna Ordonia, from "Star vs. the Forces of Evil"

intellectual landscape"; I think it was during the Cold War years that American, I can't speak for Canada, intellectuals began abandoning their responsibilities. Mexico had Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes, we got Hemmingway and Updike. Definitely the short end of the intellectual stick for us USians. I used to go to the public library and deliberately seek out foreign authors in translation because I found the contemporary American writers unreadable.

I might disagree with Mr. Robinson about how that state of affairs came about. And, I have no intention of succumbing to the familiar ploy of the fan base ginning up so much hype that their fave becomes a must read for the rest of us. Right now I am reading my way through the Cambridge Ancient History--I know, British imperialism, but at least it gives you a detailed overview of what we know about the ancient world--Braudel's trilogy about the beginnings of the modern world, and White Jacket by Melville, so, no, I doubt I will make time for Peterson.

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Nastarana

Cassiodorus's picture

@Nastarana When I was plotting out my list of interesting authors to discuss in my forthcoming book, I had: Aldous Huxley, Paulo Freire, Karl Marx, Margaret Atwood. So I had a Brit, a Brazilian (and a rather European one at that), a German, and a Canadian. Now I'm thinking of putting in discussions of Henry David Thoreau and of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. They might have to share a chapter; they're only Americans.

I received my MA degree in English at the beginning of 1992 at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California. (As a footnote, when I wandered into the Department of English on my way to do something else about sixteen months ago and then wandered right out, I noted that nearly everyone I knew is long gone from that place.) Anyway, when I was there, I immediately gravitated toward discussions of British literature over American literature. When I was there, the professors who taught American literature taught courses like "California literature" (portraying California as something it's not), or "literature and alcoholism" (you know, Eugene O'Neill, Ernest Hemingway, and that depressing bunch).

There's generally just much less TO American literature than there is to Brit Lit.

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Just an aside, homo sapiens are a specie. Neaderthals were human. Some of us still carry their genes. Otherwise, thanks much for well thought out essay.

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Cassiodorus's picture

@Tipper Every little compliment helps at this point!

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"Every election is fake." -- Janna Ordonia, from "Star vs. the Forces of Evil"