Birmingham Symphony Hall
Dr Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Penguin Random House (2018)
REVIEW by Dr Roshan Doug
Dr Jordan Peterson who is a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Toronto University, has made a name for himself on the internet, gaining millions of followers, ruffling proverbial feathers and causing a rumble. In doing so, he is – quite frankly – a breath of fresh air. That’s not a hollow hyperbole, but a justifiable truth. There are very few writers and thinkers who have a charismatic, captivating appeal. Peterson certainly has that and it was clearly evident on his visit to Birmingham’s Symphony Hall last week.
Peterson is a polemist and no stranger to controversy. His work is influenced by Carl Jung and disliked by many feminists as well as left-wing activists. To me, he is that rare commodity, an indefinable entity. He is the contrarian accused of bias by opposing factions. He has been labelled right wing, inherently conservative, apologist for capitalism, misogynistic and even a racist. And yet, he continues to enjoy the popularity in social media especially amongst young men.
Peterson is currently on a tour promoting his new book, 12 Rules for Life. It’s a thinking man’s self-help manual that addresses edgy but pertinent issues of anthropology and social ethics. What is the role of the individual as a parent, a child, a citizen? Is a human being a social-political construct? Is our behaviour predominantly nurtured or genetically induced? What does evolutionary behaviour teach us? And what can we learn about ourselves from such unlikely creatures as lobsters?
During his talk, Peterson tells us that 12 Rules is split into chapters and that each chapter discusses an aspect – a rule. He delves into these right from the first chapter that tells you to stand up straight with your shoulders back to the final chapter that highlights the importance of domestic animals (that we should all pet a cat when you encounter one on the street). On the surface, the advice he gives is nothing but what could be construed as common sense (always tell the truth, for instance) but there’s no doubt that this ‘advice’ is influenced by his reading of Jungian philosophy and layered with mysticism. Chapter 4 that directs you to compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today, touching upon relativism is particularly interesting whilst Chapter 10 that instructs you to be precise in your speech is enticing for any budding writer or English teacher. But, as someone who is becoming spiritual, I also liked Chapter 7 – pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient). Here Peterson is referring to you as a person, as an individual – pursue what is meaningful to you. It’s the local narrative that’s important not necessarily the grand, the universal questionings. Put your own house in order before you tackle the problems of the world. Stand up straight; make your bed.
I have nothing against his advice. I might even suggest my own rule: look at the world as it is, not how you imagine it to be. No. I think Peterson’s advice is strongly warranted. There are, for instance, many (young?) people who fall into the trap of getting involved in political activism – feminism, gay pride, plight of the refugees, climate warming, tuition fees, EU etc. – before they’ve sorted out themselves and their own domestic surroundings. Why aren’t we teaching young people about responsibility, about self-respect, about civil duty? Why do we teach them their rights before we teach them their role as citizens, as entities part of society?
In a world of political correctness and left-wing leanings – whether in politics or social policy – it makes a pleasant change to have people like Peterson challenging dogma, ideology and received wisdom. In recent months, he has openly challenged Canada’s Bill C-16 to protect gender-neutrality and the language pertaining to it. This particular legislation gives individuals the right to define themselves as they feel, whatever they feel and we – as bystanders – have to adhere to their choices. Peterson is right that sometimes, the need to challenge what we are offered as a dogma is an undeniable necessity – indeed, it’s a prerequisite for progress.
Peterson argues that we are living in a time of perpetual obfuscation and constant flux whether in discourse re culture, race and nationality or gender politics. Such a climate is blurring the metaphorical boundaries re. self, society and identity. This is significant because each of these channels lead to questions about who we are, our relationship with social progress, history and our future. It’s not suffice to say that it’s all for the good of diversity and individual freedoms. With the gradual fading away of hierarchical structures and clearly defined perimeters, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to engage in relevant, meaningful discourse. People are far too ready to shut down voices, far too ready to throw accusations of your argument as a defence of inequities of patriarchy and capitalism and, far too ready to label you xenophobic or offensive.
In this respect, proponents of libertarians like Peterson argue that one of our most cherished bastions of western democracy is now under threat: freedom of speech and expression. The State’s curtailing of what can or cannot be said – lest it should offend someone or some group – is gaining more and more currency amongst left-wingers. It is happening at the expense of our rights as individuals and a nation. Who are we? What is an individual? To Peterson all western democracies appear to offer individuals rights but they fail to highlight responsibilities. Marriage is fading away as an institution, the Church is losing its role, the number of single mothers are on the rise, and feminism has caused an imbalance in the status of love and marriage. Coupled with the fact that we are now bound by law to use politically correct language, modernity and the situation pertaining to it is becoming more and more problematic – infringing upon our own thought and language.
This process, this erosion of civil liberties, starts with the bias in education, media and law. This is specifically in regards to the former and its portrayal of critics and academics who try and promote a critique and alternative perspective and practices. Education is also obsessed in pushing forward a left-wing agenda that give credence to gender politics and other minority interests. When reality or a set of facts don’t fit in with a specific ideologue, such fields turn a blind eye to the truth. And anyone who warns of the dangers of pandering to minority groups and their concerns – or who argues that dominant cultural groups must be defended – is often accused of being blinkered, narrow minded or a bigot.
Peterson also argues that our emphasis on promoting equality, diversity and egalitarianism has been at the expense of western countries’ sense of individual cultural identities. In espousing and promoting values of multiculturalism, western democracies have foregone their own history, interest and heritage.
Despite this, some critics – notably Pankaj Mishra, Peter Hitchens, Julian Baggini and Hari Kunzru – have criticised the book for its simplicity, its colloquial style, its register and its use of the personal pronoun. Oddly I found that these very features added to the enjoyment of the book – they made them accessible to the lay-reader. This is plain speaking at its best.
In higher education, there is – I have to say – insurmountable diatribe disguised as research that makes me despair. Unlike many of the serious books aimed at an academic audience, Peterson’s book is far more readable, informative and entertaining. It’s just a refreshing read. His promotional talks are likewise – good humoured, wide ranging in references and well-researched. I like that kind of a presentation.