Jordan Peterson’s new book is great if you already agree with him

Depending on who you talk to, Jordan Peterson is either “the stupid man’s smart person,” or “the most influential public intellectual of our time.” After his controversial stance on the law surrounding gender pronouns in 2016, the University of Toronto psychology professor shot to international conservative stardom, propelled by lectures and YouTube videos where he offers his own take on everything from modern masculinity to free speech. His latest bit of controversy is a self-help book entitled 12 Rules: An Antidote to Chaos — for which he’s launched a tour — including a stop at UBC this Thursday.

Peterson has developed a knack for starting arguments wherever he’s brought up. But for all the hype, the reality leaves much to be answered. In 12 Rules, Peterson doesn’t create new ideas so much as he re-hashes old ones, giving an often nasty ideological tilt to what might otherwise have been a perfectly fine self-help book.

The gist

12 Rules is an ambitious project. Peterson believes that by analyzing stories across a selected (primarily Western, he admits) canon, he has distilled 12 moral principles or “rules” to living a better life.

His toolkit includes psychoanalysis, a fat stack of German philosophy and a lot of Bible verses. He throws in some anecdotes about growing up in small-town Alberta and his dreams about floating around in a cathedral for a personal touch.

The diagnosis: the world, and you, is torn between the eternally-opposing forces of chaos and order. We need chaos for its creativity and order for its stability, but right now we’ve got way too much of the first. This is bad, Peterson says, because the world is cold, unforgiving, and harsh — we won’t survive it unless we don’t put our own houses in order to face it.

The cure: get your shit together. Peterson views the world through an evolutionary lens: there’s bound to be a pecking order, and it’s in your interest to be higher up on it.

The prescription: 12 rules, some of them big, thematic changes — “treat yourself like someone you’re taking care of” — much of it small things that Peterson asserts have a big impact — “stand up straight with your shoulders back,” and the infamous “clean your room, bucko.”

Sometimes, this enters the realm of banal cliche — “compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not the useless person you are today,” which feels like a rip off of a Hemingway quote — but it’s generally run-of-the-mill self-help stuff. So what’s the problem?

The weeds

Peterson, an avowed enemy of Marxists and their postmodernist spawn, has a house plastered with old Soviet propaganda to remind him “that hundreds of millions were murdered in the name of utopia.”

It’s quite dramatic, imagining Peterson wandering around his house, glaring at his walls and muttering angrily. He’s still fighting the ghosts of Lenin and Stalin in an age where they’re no longer the Western world’s biggest problem.

12 Rules is not simply a book of advice. It is Peterson’s guide to fixing the world “through the willingness of everyone to shoulder the burden of Being to take the heroic path.” It’s aspiring, in any case, to be a philosophical text as much as a self-help one — which means you can’t take one and leave the other. This permeates 12 Rules with Peterson’s fearful reactionism and makes it hard to separate his advice from his boorish politics which, like him, are stuck in the 1950s — Peterson divides the world into “chaos, the eternal feminine,” which needs to be “cured,” and order, which is masculine. It’s implied that “feminine” impulses are somehow radical, dangerous and, while necessary, need to be controlled.

The general nature of self-help advice is that it should apply to everyone, or as close to as possible. From the get-go, Peterson kicks women to the curb.

In Peterson’s view, women occupy a given, subservient role because that’s how evolutionary psychology works. But he doesn’t offer any explanation for why hierarchies have to remain as they are — if social conventions never changed, the majority of us would still be serfs. Even if Peterson isn’t a misogynist, as he states, his views are those of a misogynist, in practical terms. From a reader’s perspective, there’s little difference.

Despite being disadvantaged, women are somehow the source of a lot of men’s problems.

“Women have been making men self-conscious since the beginning of time,” Peterson complains, describing the story of Adam and Eve.

“They do this primarily by rejecting them — but they also do it by shaming them ... the capacity of women to shame men and render them self-conscious is still a primal force of nature.”

In just a few pages, the tone goes from “sagely professor” to “sexually-frustrated 16-year-old whose girlfriend just dumped him via text.” It’s a fatally tone-deaf position, and an odd diversion of blame for a guy who’s all about personal responsibility.

Nothing new

12 Rules reads like a grandfather’s rant: long and repetitive, peppered with equal doses of dime-store wisdom and weird dating advice. You can’t shake the feeling that you’ve heard the damn thing already.

Peterson has a background in psychoanalysis, which, for him, is a fancy way of saying he often sees a lot when there isn’t very much there. For example, he uses the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty as an allegory for life itself without irony; he compares humans to lobsters and chimpanzees as if they’re equivalents; his oppositional loves for both Nietzsche (who hated religion) and the Bible is a bizarro cocktail of methodology for someone who is trying to present themselves as extraordinarily rational.

Although Peterson purports to be addressing a modern problem with modern methods, there’s precious little modern thought. Whether through neglect or because of his belief in a “cultural Marxist” movement, there’s little engagement with any major social movements or ideas from after 1960.

If Peterson is as serious about defeating these nasty folks as he’d have us believe, it’d be much more satisfying to see him actively tackling those ideas head-on in 12 Rules. Instead, Peterson rejects postmodernism in the same dismissive way that he asserts the media rejects him. He assumes he’s correct before the debate begins — itself a violation of rule nine: “Assume the person you’re listening to knows something you don’t.” It’s an argument, and a book, that only works for people for people who already agree with him.

The sad thing is, he’s not an awful writer. If he had chosen to write a plain book of advice, free of the pseudo-science, this would have been a project that everyone could glean something from. The world probably would be a better place if people told the truth, pursued things meaningful to them, and pet cats they encountered on the street (seriously, that’s a rule). Readers from outside Peterson’s crowd are looking for this Peterson — a kooky, wise professor turned life coach. Unfortunately, that Peterson comes in tandem with another one, and he’s a polarizing, irritating guy who cites as many dead German philosophers as he can to give his worldview the air of “eternal rules.”

If you want this brand of self-help, read Peterson’s inspirations, skip the middleman and develop your own thoughts and your own rules. Hell, it’s what Peterson would probably want you to do.