It was at the end of 2017. I was still processing my feelings towards Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I hated it. It disregarded, if not disrespected much of what I loved about Star Wars was about and what it meant to loyal fans. Luke Skywalker was one of my greatest fictional heroes of all time and I had to watch in horror what the movie had in store for him. All the while, mainstream media drilled it into my head that I was a bad person for hating the movie, and I’m probably a racist for hating on Kelly Marie Tran and John Boyega. All I could think to myself was, what the hell are they talking about…
This led me to a long online journey as I tried to understand what was going on. The issue, as I have found it, is insidiously systemic. Perhaps one day, I will write about it openly. But it that won’t be happening anytime soon – not when it’s dangerous to do so when you’re trying to maintain an online presence. Just as importantly, there is still much for me to look at and consider. This is an issue that requires the widest perspective possible, even if it includes things I grossly disagree with.
What I would like to say right now, though, is that this journey led me to be aware of Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a Canadian clinical psychologist and academic. He rose to global prominence when videos of his classes and talks appeared in YouTube and consistently garnered huge viewership. The problem with doing this is that lectures made for a specific group of people, like a college class, will always find people who don’t appreciate them out in the open. Peterson certainly collected his share of detractors in the process.
Like the admonishment of fans who didn’t like The Last Jedi, I also didn’t quite understand the negative perception towards him. I had to go through several of his videos and interviews before having some idea, which led me to his new book at the time, 12 Rules for Life. I twiddled my thumbs over it for months before deciding to get a copy through Kindle back in March 2019. Then I read the foreword and Rule 1… but didn’t open it again another two years. I could barely will myself to flip through my research textbooks, let alone this, a non-fiction book whose bits and pieces I’ve already come across thanks to all of the Peterson videos I’ve watched.
The release of its sequel, Beyond Order, spurred me to read the book again. I found, and promptly bought, physical copies of both books online. Reading my textbooks still felt untenable. But other books seemed approachable, so I figured it’s better to read something than nothing. And I have to say, 12 Rules for Life is definitely something.
There have been quite a few negative labels which both social and mainstream have slapped over the name Jordan Peterson. Thanks to his challenging of political correctness on such a grand scale, he’s been accused of nearly all the bad things you could call a white man. It culminated to some people openly wishing for his demise when he was seriously ill for much of 2019 and 2020. It was my hope that I would at least see where the harsh criticism was rooted from by reading the book in its entirety.
I could write thousands of words in reaction to the things I read from the book, analyzing each of his 12 rules. I also had to fight the urge of dumping a lot of information about Peterson in this review that aren’t necessarily relevant to the book. But I would like to keep this relatively short and focus on the things that grabbed my attention from within the book itself.
Peterson frames a lot of his rules as metaphors. And then he elaborates each one in a seemingly meandering manner through stories of his personal and professional life. He also draws from a wide array of sources. Peterson often cites psychoanalysts and philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzche, Jung and Sigmund Freud in his talks, so it would be expected to see the same names in the book. He also makes several references to a variety of sources from history to classic literature to pop culture. With 220 endnotes, it’s safe to say that the book is well-researched.
One thing I can’t help but note is that Peterson draws a lot from The Bible. Three or four rules into the book, I realized there was a pattern to it. While the book doesn’t shy away from directly quoting from The Bible, Peterson is able to keep the preachiness to a minimum, taking a much more analytical approach to the stories and passages in an effort to justify his rules, which are far more cerebral and less straightforward than, say, The Ten Commandments.
Right from the start, I was already on the lookout for the things that gets some people outraged. I wanted to know just how solid or close to the truth Ta-Nehisi Coates was when he allegedly framed Captain America’s arch-nemesis, The Red Skull, as a parody of Peterson and the book.
Unless I completely missed it, his stance against Canada’s Bill C-16 and use of preferred gender pronouns are not referenced anywhere in the book. I know there were those who don’t like the lobster metaphor, which is extensively written about under Rule 1. But it’s hardly egregious by my estimation. I also looked for the reasons why Peterson is portrayed as a symbol of toxic masculinity. It wasn’t until more than halfway through the book, when Peterson writes about his defense of the patriarchy, which I happen to find compelling. Even so, it’s hard to pin any of the 12 rules as being specially decreed for men.
There are rules traditionally associated with boys more so than with girls. Stand up straight with your shoulder back (Rule 1), in particular, was something my mom and dad told me repeatedly for years. It was also one of the most fundamental things taught to me as a boy scout and in preparatory military training (it’s too bad insecurities about my height and build prevailed over all of them). But if we look at the rules intently, there is absolutely nothing that’s necessarily masculine or feminine about any of them.
Also, like many among the 12, Rule 1 is metaphorical. Going beyond physical posture, it’s about how we should face adversities in life. Even those which seem more straightforward, like assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t (Rule 9) offer several layers of nuance for readers to sift through.
As for his alleged far-right or alt-right leanings, it took a lot of thinking for me to understand. He does openly criticize socialism and communism. But that’s hardly a pure far-right stance. Neither is his reverence towards Christianity. If anything, I think he’s liberal-minded, but I get that from his talks and interviews. Peterson does a good job hiding his leanings in this book. A passage in Rule 9 under the subtitle Figure It Out for Yourself talked about a certain patient dealing with uncertainty about being raped, to which Peterson’s story concluded with..
I started the process, but circumstances made it impossible for me to finish. She left therapy with me only somewhat less ill-formed and vague than when she first met me. But at least she didn’t leave as the living embodiment of my damned ideology.Jordan B. Peterson (12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, p. 236)
He refused to influence his patient with his personal ideology. And it appears that while it’s an uphill battle, Peterson did what he could to do the same for the readers of his book.
So, no. I found no damning evidence that Peterson is a super Nazi. If you’re one of those who’ve been swayed by the media to believe that, perhaps it would be a good idea to listen to his talks intently and re-evaluate your opinion.
There are, however, a few things which I had a hard time taking. For example, Peterson begins Rule 9 by differentiating advice from psychotherapy. Whereas the latter to him is genuine conversation, the former is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his or her own intelligence. That is actually the second description. The first one is a lot stronger – advice is what you get when the person you’re talking with about something horrible and complicated wishes you would just shut up and go away. These are strong assertions which I found difficult to agree with. I’m sure such instances exist, especially when dealing with unsolicited advice. But I would always be wary of making such a sweeping generalization. Or maybe I just felt attacked being a college teacher who makes a living being a project or research adviser to students. I am even guilty of giving advice as recently as the previous paragraph. It certainly hits close to home for me.
Again… there’s nothing particularly political or ideological about this book or any of the rules. They may, however, be somewhat old fashioned. One review stated that this book is aimed at today’s young people. I initially thought that it was a strange thing to say, when just about anybody can learn something from the book. But then I thought about it some more and saw the reviewer’s point. It’s almost like Peterson is coming off as this elderly gentleman trying to pass on lessons to his grandchildren. Which would make sense. Even as among the youngest Gen-Xers, these rules still feel familiar to me. But I do have a feeling that not all of the younger Millennials and Zoomers may have that same level familiarity. If there’s one thing I blame my own generation for, it’s that we have tended to overcompensate for what we perceived as shortcomings of the previous generations as parents. Generally speaking… for better or worse we have been a lot more lax as parents compared to our own parents. We may have forgotten, or worse, chose not to pass some values on to the younger generation. If anything, 12 Rules For Life is a reminder that there are values and lessons that should never go out of style.
On one hand, I think this book is best read at a deliberate pace. There’s just too much substance to take in. I don’t know how many times I midway through any chapter or rule because of all the stories being told. Days after finishing, I now find myself going back to bits and pieces I found interesting, as well as parts I may had glossed over. On the other hand, there is a simplicity to the book’s message. I could just write down the 12 rules on a piece of paper and post it by my desk as a reminder and say that I got everything I needed from the book.
I ended up buying this book twice. But I don’t regret either times. The sequel, Beyond Order, is already on my desk waiting for me. I will probably take a bit of time before I start reading it seriously. For now, 12 rules are quite enough.