Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Man up! A review of Jordan Peterson's "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos"

I've just sent the following review to The Salisbury Review, for inclusion in their next issue. If anyone spots any howlers (grammatical or factual), please let me know:

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Jordan B. Peterson, Allen Lane, £9.99

Two years ago, Jordan Peterson was a relatively obscure psychology professor at the University of Toronto, without a book to his name since 1999. He then began releasing videos on YouTube, criticising political correctness in general, and, in particular, the Canadian government’s Bill C16, which made discrimination and “propaganda” against transgender people illegal. Peterson rapidly became a poster boy for young, educated men fed up with the cultural Marxist indoctrination they’d been relentlessly subjected to by teachers and lecturers who evidently viewed heterosexual white boys as privileged, misogynistic, homophobic racists, and who treated any expression of scepticism regarding their pseudo-egalitarian, identity politics agenda as heresy...

...By the time Professor Peterson sat down to be grilled by Channel 4 News presenter Cathy Newman at the start of 2018, he had become a hate figure for progressivists. Instead of trying to establish what the professor believed, Ms Newman turned the interview into a show-trial. Soon, frustrated by her inability to elicit any actual hate-speech from her seemingly mild-mannered guest, she started putting words into his mouth: within the course of 30 minutes, she used the phrase “so what you’re saying is” - or variants thereof - over 30 times. The reaction to the encounter was remarkable: within three months, it had been viewed over nine million times on YouTube, and many on the Right had hailed it as the cultural equivalent of the Brexit vote - i.e. an event signalling a refusal by people with perfectly normal opinions to be shamed into silence by a contemptuous elite. To underline the scale of Peterson’s triumph, the new book he was promoting immediately shot to the top of bestseller lists on both sides of the Atlantic, despite - or perhaps helped by - generally hostile reviews.

Peterson’s twelve, rather anodyne-sounding rules don’t, at first glance, seem particularly contentious - e.g. “Be precise in your speech”, “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)” and “Tell the truth - or, at least, don’t lie.” But a handful set New Left alarm bells ringing. For instance, “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” is a call to behave in a manly fashion: the concept of manliness is a red rag to many leftists, who seem determined to extirpate masculinity among western males (with or without the aid of surgery). ”Make friends with people who want the best for you” warns against against exacerbating whiny losers’ sense of victimhood by showering them with undeserved compassion. (Given that leftists seem to be addicted to flamboyant displays of sympathy for members of their designated pet victim groups - because it gives their own lives a sense of purpose and meaning - Peterson’s message is tantamount to asking crack addicts to “just say no!”) As for the injunction, “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them”, this, again, will upset many leftists, as it suggests the role of parents isn’t to be “friends” with their naturally loving, creative, wise offspring in order to protect them from society’s spirit-crushing influence - their job is to discipline the selfish little savages as early as possible to help them become responsible, popular adults, rather than annoying, grown-up toddlers unable to cope with the demands of real life.

By far the shortest chapter in the book concerns what is possibly the key rule: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.” Taking aim at those who “appoint themselves supreme adjudicators of reality,” Peterson addresses the essential nihilism which fuels the social justice warrior’s malign compassion: I’m unhappy because life is harsh and unfair - I don’t need to change, the world needs to change, and anyone who doesn’t share my sense of outrage is a heartless monster. Peterson suggests that miserable social justice warriors address their own beams before tackling other people’s motes: “Don’t reorganise the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city?”

Leaving aside the current furore over the spurious issue of transgenderism, the majority of the attacks on Peterson have come from feminists enraged by his rejection of their core belief that they’re the victims of masculine prejudice, which has not only created a gender pay-gap, but is also responsible for the paucity of women in, for instance, boardrooms and university engineering departments. As Peterson points out, women are generally more concerned with having a life outside work than status-driven men, and are more interested in people than things (hence their numerical advantage in humanities departments). There is no sinister plot: evolution has programmed men and women to be interested in, value, and be good at different things.

There is hardly anything in 12 Rules for Life:  An Antidote to Chaos with which a conservative would violently disagree. But is it any good? It certainly isn’t bad, but, for a work which advertises itself as an “antidote to chaos”, it’s surprisingly chaotic. First, it’s a rather unsuccessful amalgam of different genres: it has the form of a self-help book, but the rules seem arbitrary and strangely unmemorable. Second, it’s often hard to discern a connection between the material in each chapter and the rule it’s supposedly supporting. Third, Peterson’s eclectic, scatter-gun,”thinking aloud” approach can lead to confusion, compounded by occasional lapses into slang and academese. The examples from his own life - his rugged, small-town upbringing in the frozen wastes of Alberta, his academic career, his experiences as a clinical psychologist - are illuminating, but some of the other material - in particular the quotations from Great Books and sudden lurches into mysticism (“Meaning is what emerges beautifully and profoundly like a a newly formed rosebud…”) - sit oddly alongside snippets of homespun philosophy and statements of the bleeding obvious. Fourth, Peterson has simply tried to cram in too much. For a book whose aim is to inoculate young people against the enervating sense of meaninglessness produced by the culturally suicidal tenets of moral relativism, it’s far too baggy and discursive; I found myself wishing that he had produced two tightly focussed books, rather than one lumpy, unfocussed one.

Still, when so many of Peterson’s academic colleagues seem intent on destroying the foundations of western civilisation, it would be curmudgeonly not to welcome the emergence of one of the few willing to engage in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy.

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