Richard Poplak reviews 12 Rules For Life by Jordan B Peterson, ‘the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now’.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
Jordan B Peterson
Allen Lane, 2018
This is just the fucking worst.
Imagine a self-help book written by the Darth Maul of tenured campus bad boys, an act of trahison des clercs so severe that it calls into question the entire five-thousand-year academic project—a book that seeks to make accessible to a general audience a mélange of mysticism, philosophy, psychology and dietary recommendations, assembled into a package so intellectually low-cal that it would be hilarious were it not basically a to-do list for a generation of tiki torch-wielding neo-Klansmen.
I speak here, of course, of 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B Peterson, the once-obscure University of Toronto Psychology professor who acquired a legion of super-fans after posting a series of self-help talks on YouTube. Peterson’s profile went supernova after he put his stamp on the identity politics debate with a lecture called ‘Identity Politics & The Marxist Lie of White Privilege’, which would be note-perfect as a Key & Peele sketch, but is incomprehensible as anything else. His YouTube channel, as the new book’s Introduction reminds us, has many millions of views; and the Publisher of this publication [Publisher’s note: Poplak means The JRB] reckons his sales figures are comparable to that of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century [Publisher’s note: they’re probably better on a year-on-year basis], which makes Peterson that rarest of things in our Age of Idiocracy: one of precisely two bonafide intellectual superstars.
And what sort of intellectual does the Idiocracene usher forth? The kind that writes a self-help book for assholes, basically. 12 Rules for Life is a Gladwellian shotgun blast of childhood anecdotes, Bowdlerized mythology, common sense behavioural techniques, grossly undercooked philosophical concepts (Heidegger’s ideas get a proper reaming here), along with a soupçon of mystical Christianity, a dash of Eastern religious-type stuff—oh, and emoticons. (¯\_(ツ)_/¯) It’s all ready-made for the Trump era, where resentment of ‘postmodern’ campus lefties and their intersectional, Black Lives Matter, materialist tendencies have become fodder for prime-time alt-right outrage.
Peterson honed his persona on television, so it’s not entirely ad hominem to say that the author photo on the jacket offers a stark warning. The Professor is depicted with his chin sinisterly raised as he gazes up at what I imagine to be a classical sculpture he has never before encountered—as if that were even possible. The pretension is ramped up over the course of the Foreword, which is written by Dr Norman Doidge, author of the bestselling [Publisher’s note: yup] The Brain That Changes Itself, who offers an encomium of Peterson so effusive that the book instantly takes on the air of a self-published manuscript written by a lay intellectual who once audited a Phil 101 class at the Winnipeg Technical Institute, circa 1983. But how’s this for some insight into the man the New York Times describes as ‘the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now’:
‘They had art,’ says Doidge of Peterson and his wife’s middle-class Toronto home:
[B]ut they were overwhelmed by a huge collection of original Socialist Realist paintings of Lenin and the early Communists commissioned by the USSR. Not long after the Soviet Union fell, and most of the world breathed a sigh of relief, Peterson began buying this propaganda for a song online. Paintings lionizing the Soviet revolutionary spirit completely filled every single wall, the ceilings, and even the bathrooms. The paintings were not there because Peterson had any totalitarian sympathies, but because he wanted to remind himself of something he knew he and everyone would rather forget: that over a hundred million people were murdered in the name of utopia.
Yeeeaah, I’m not so sure about that line of reasoning. While I’m no shrink, Peterson actually is—a shrink, I mean. And I wonder whether he’d buy that nonsense from a patient. Why not just ask Siri to send a daily ‘Lenin was bad news’ reminder? Or—even better—why not just remember it inside your own head, along with a decent banana bread recipe and your wedding anniversary?
Indeed, a staunch Tyrannophilia runs through the book like a fugue—the tyranny of the Self, the tyranny of the Ideal Individual, who must take his place at the centre of Being (as per Heidegger, thank you very much) and at the centre of the mystical sign of the cross (Peterson experiences this motif in a dream), which represents ‘suffering and transformation’.
‘How could the world be freed from the terrible burden of conflict, on the one hand, and psychological and social dissolution, on the other?’ asks the Professor. ‘The answer is this: through the elevation and development of the individual, and through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being and to take the heroic path.’
This sounds like a man who has to walk through snow to get to his university office.
How did Peterson become such an effective Iron John bromide machine? He is a clinical psychologist, a professor of psychology, and a renaissance-style polymath, which in his case means cinching seven or eight basket-weaving disciplines together into one spectacular black hole of knowledge, a negation of the very principles of rigorous scholarship. Peterson appears to have read widely, which is to say: not deeply. Many academic bullshit merchants have done queasy work jamming thinly understood Big Concepts into stocking-stuffer books, but never have they tried to force Charles Darwin, Carl Jung, Jesus Christ, Goethe, Dante, Erich Neumann, Yeats, and literally hundreds of others into a fucking Huffington Post listicle.
The book, if you hadn’t picked this up from its title, is divided into twelve chapters, each concerned with a Rule for Life, such as Rule 6: Set Your House in Order Before You Criticize the World, or Rule 11: Do Not Bother Children When They are Skateboarding. It has a self consciously old-timey feel about it, like a hipster barbershop or a cocktail list at a TripAdvisor-approved speakeasy. This serves as a major clue concerning Peterson’s politics: nostalgia is the gateway drug to hyper-conservativism. ‘Hopes can be disappointed,’ noted the conservative intellectual Mark Lilla. ‘Nostalgia is irrefutable.’
And it’s dangerous. The obsession with archetypal masculinity, and ancient (inherently conservative) social structures, is perhaps the most unwelcome feature of the new right: it quickly takes on the contours of a death cult. But to have truly lived in this terrible age—to have properly grasped the mendacious insanity of the identity politics double negative—you really have to read Jordan Peterson in South Africa. Come ye faithful scorned North American males, come and shoot an elephant in one of our many hunting lodges, your trigger hand steadied by the musky-smelling game ranger in his khaki kortbroek as the shot rings out over the savannah. Then read Peterson with a gin and tonic in hand, watching as the sun sets over Aafrikah.
Somewhat disappointingly, Peterson’s views are less ecstatically or mystically repressed-homoerotic than you’d think. They’re simply misogynistic: his empathy, for women in particular, regarding women in particular, stops at the tip of his pen. But he does believe men are under threat, and that this poses existential civilisational difficulties. Order in the archetypal narratives, he reminds us, is represented by the male; chaos by the female. (It is literally too painful to quote him on this.) Nature—which he defines, per Darwin, as that which selects—picked the traditional family structure for mammals over two-hundred million years ago. It worked for sabre-toothed tigers in 75,000 BCE; it must work for Homo sapiens in 2018.
Should we not question some of these verities? Do we need to live like cave-folk in order to find happiness? Peterson doesn’t seem to believe such interrogations are necessary, mostly because of something called ‘dominance hierarchies’, which are the primary ‘facts’ of nature. ‘The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It’s not communism, either, for that matter,’ asserts Peterson.
It’s not the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy—that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artifact. It’s not even human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence.
Well. If, like me, you get the sense that this shit runs jauntily alongside National Socialism, fear not, because remember!—Peterson disdains ideology. He’s far more interested in the mystical proto-scientific guff that, hey, if you’re up for it, provides the scaffolding behind toxic ideologies.
One way to sum up Peterson is to call him Hobbesian, which is an insult to Hobbes, so let’s not. That said, without rules—his rules, to be specific—the world is a hard zero-summy type of place, with alphas and betas and gammas all vying for the same hot chicks, the alphas coming out on top, so to speak, every time. He and his acolytes tend to characterise empathy, both in the social and political realms, as a form of moral relativism—one of the great bugaboos of the nineteen-eighties neo-conservative movement, resuscitated here as a negation of the absolute virtues that are inherent in the hero narrative and other archetypal ‘maps of meaning’ (to borrow the title of Peterson’s first book). The intellectual bear trap here should be obvious: that in the social and political realms, absolute virtues are not applied absolutely. Peterson steps into the trap and keeps on walking.
It’s worth noting, though, that the interrogation of the ‘power relations’ inherent in functioning societies—i.e., not mythical or archetypal fan fiction-created societies—tends to be a necessary endeavour, largely because it steers us towards virtuousness, not away from it. Virtue is not hardwired into us and then ignored by Millennials who are on their phones all the time; nor is virtue some latent human power waiting to be uncovered by the application of twelve pithy rules. In the real world, virtue is encoded into our societies through both custom and its political extension, laws—which in turn take their power from precedent, and which in most cases, due to various and manifold inequities, are not applied equally, and not with equal rigour. In other words, our social systems, along with our mores, evolve; they are also fallible.
In Peterson’s construction, moral relativism—along with its handmaidens, ideology and nihilism (and by extension despair)—take root because we ignore these fundamentals, and are thus constantly forgetting archetypal notions of virtue. Owing to the complexities of our modern social relations, all sorts of weird people have got it into their heads that they can circumvent the natural order—hence transgender bathrooms and black woman playing presidents on the telly. Viewed this way, such acts of social chutzpah do not represent transformation or progress, but an upending of and an assault on Nature.
I’ll spare you the pseudoscience that follows, but perhaps the most risible aspect of Peterson’s outlook is that social relations can’t be governed by kindness, nor can they be tweaked for fairness. It’s been proven that serotonin can be self-administered by a simple change in attitude, he tells us, so stop complaining about being discriminated against and change your posture. (This is an actual Petersonism, I shit you not.) It’s not for us to restructure society, or to moderate and perhaps improve on, say, the Scandinavian welfare state. (Peterson wouldn’t lower himself to such base political considerations.) It’s for individuals to pick themselves up, pull up their socks and, as per Rule 1, ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’.
In other words, stop whining and get on with the hero’s journey, you big wusses.
For Peterson, as for many of his followers, egalitarianism is merely a gateway drug for USSR-style communism. The problem, according to this crew, is not the fascism inherent in white male resentment, but the fascism that arises from trying to ameliorate the effects of white male dominance. No ‘privilege’, per se, exists—just a postmodern neo-Marxist construction that attempts to realign privilege, to unmoor nature from itself.
Peterson, it should now be clear, is a crank of drunk uncle proportions. But he is also the ‘the most influential public intellectual in the Western world right now’, which should not be mistaken for an exaggeration. It’s all caved in on itself, the Western world and its various satellites, in their various stages of orbit decay or escape velocity—we’re all Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angelus Novus’, gazing at the detritus of history, blown back to the future by the force of the mess. And there’s Jordan Peterson, waiting for us with his rulebook, reminding us to eat a decent breakfast, to pull our flies up, and to refuse futzing with pronouns to accommodate the transgendered.
12 Rules For Life is paleo-intellectualism crossed with a Hallmark card. We’re all going to die in a ball of fire.☹
- Richard Poplak is a filmmaker and journalist. His latest book is Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes, co-authored with Kevin Bloom. Follow him on Twitter.