Jordan Peterson, Canadian academic and scourge of the politically correct, begins his Australian tour this month. Here, liberated from the paywall of our latest issue, is Steve Kates’ review of his book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”. Please subscribe and make sure there are more
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos
by Jordan B. Peterson
Allen Lane, 2018, 448 pages, $35
Jordan Peterson (left) may well be the deepest, clearest voice of conservative thought in the world today. In the space of less than a year he has risen from being a relatively obscure professor of psychology at the University of Toronto to becoming perhaps the most articulate defender of the values of the West to have arisen in the last fifty years. I can think of no one in recent times who has been able to reach such depths of understanding, but with such an extraordinary ability to make plain his meaning to such large numbers of people. You should, of course, read his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, but you should also watch as many of his online presentations as you can if you are interested in understanding, and preserving, the values of our Western civilisation.
This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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He came to my attention in three stages. The first was through a battle he fought with the government of Canada over amendments to its Human Rights Act. What drew my attention were only in part the issues themselves, but probably more important for me was that he is a professor at my own alma mater in the city where I was born and grew up. The issue that made him newsworthy was that the Canadian government had made it illegal not to use the specific pronouns an individual wished to have applied to them in conversation. As Peterson put it as part of his testimony to the Canadian Parliament, the issue was that “refusing to refer to a person by their self-identified name and proper personal pronoun” constitutes gender-based harassment which could get you fined, and if you refused to pay the fine, could land you in jail. This is from his testimony:
I don’t think the people who initiated this legislation ever expected that there would be an absolute explosion of identities, first of all, and also of so-called personal pronouns, as there has been. I think Facebook now recognizes something like 71 separate gender identity categories, each of which in principle is associated with its own set of pronouns. So linguistically, it has become a parody. It has become linguistically unmanageable. Words can’t be introduced into the language by fiat. I can’t think of a time when that actually worked. We are not sure how words enter the common parlance, but it’s certainly not that way. So the legislation devolves into a kind of absurdity.
He then goes beyond the issue of personal pronouns into a full-scale attack on the cultural Marxism that is now standard in universities across the globe:
I’ve been following the battle of ideologies on campus for a long period of time. I suppose I have some expertise in that. There is an ideological war that is ripping the campuses apart. It’s essentially between an ideological variant that is rooted in what has come to be known as post-modernism, with a neo-Marxist base, and modernism, I would say. That’s accounting for all the turmoil on the campuses. I see this as an extension of this campus turmoil into the broader world …
I said that I believe that this is a vanguard issue in a kind of ideological war and that I’m not going to participate on the side of the people whose ideological stance I find unforgivable and reprehensible, especially the Marxist element of it. I announced that I wasn’t going to use these words because I don’t believe they are instantiated to protect anyone’s rights. I believe the ideologues who are pushing this movement are using unsuspecting and sometimes complicit members of the so-called transgender community to push their ideological vanguard forward.
It is rare to have any such thing said by anyone anywhere, but the number of professors at established universities who will say this kind of thing is vanishingly small. It was this that made me aware of Peterson’s existence, but it was the Lindsay Shepherd affair, which came next, that truly brought Peterson to my attention.
Lindsay Shepherd was a twenty-two-year-old teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, a small town in southern Ontario just up the highway from Toronto. In her class in communications, she played a three-minute interview with Peterson from TV Ontario (a provincial version of the CBC) in attempting to show both sides of the debate over the use of pronouns. She had also shown the other side from that debate, but it was her providing a platform of any kind to Peterson’s views that was beyond the pale so far as the university was concerned. She was hauled before a three-person tribunal and would have been severely reprimanded if not actually sacked, except that she had had the foresight to bring along her laptop, on which she recorded the entire forty-three-minute inquisition, which she then released to the media.
She turned out to be tougher and shrewder than the tribunal. The entire recording should be listened to in full if you are interested in the modern university Left. It is a sensation. Among my favourite moments was the disturbing notion presented by one of the academics in the form of an equation, that Opinion minus Evidence is Prejudice (O-E=P) with the only form of evidence permissible being publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Once control over what is published in peer-reviewed journals is sealed up, certain ideas can never be presented within an academic environment. The enemy seems to have been “Alt-Right” opinion. Students must therefore be provided with a “critical tool kit” before they hear different opinions. Try this on for size:
Everyone is entitled to their opinions but we have a duty as educators, as scholars, as academics, even as public intellectuals to make sure we are not furthering the kind of what I call charlatanism.
Her most telling response (although not to this particular statement) cut to the heart of the matter, and they had no answer:
But when they leave the university they’re going to be exposed to these ideas, so I don’t see how I’m doing a disservice to the class by exposing them to ideas that are really out there.
Students are not being taught to pursue truth or to think for themselves but to have at their disposal prefabricated answers to the difficult questions that others, such as the Jordan Petersons of the world, might raise. It was notable that the university backed down the moment the recording became public. It was clear to them as well as everyone else that there was no defending the university’s position as a community of supposed scholars, seeking truth wherever it might be found. A tactical retreat it may have been, but a retreat all the same.
This episode put Jordan Peterson on the map for me. I’m not sure a day went by over the succeeding three months that I did not listen to some video he had recorded or read something he had written. But that was a local Canadian event, internationally of interest mostly to academics. The next stage is what has made him world-famous, his interview in January this year with Cathy Newman on Britain’s Channel 4 in relation to the publication of the book under review.
In retrospect, it was an error on the part of Channel 4 even to interview Peterson, but then if they were to interview him, to have provided him with half an hour to present his views, and even then to have sent in an inadequately-prepared interviewer who found herself in unfamiliar depths. Her interviewing technique has been ridiculed everywhere. It essentially consists of something like this:
Jordan Peterson: ABCDE.
Cathy Newman: So you’re saying ABWXYZ.
The interview is absolutely not to be missed (online editor: the clip has been embedded below). It is good that Channel 4 has left it live in spite of the ridicule Cathy Newman has received. I would say it’s a template for everyone from the Right of the political divide when finding themselves on the wrong end of a hostile interview, except that there is only a single Jordan Peterson, with very few as brave, knowledgeable and clear-minded as he is. It is the most one-sided interview I have ever seen, with a now-famous “gotcha” moment in the middle, where Cathy Newman was literally lost for words. Practised though she undoubtedly is in interviewing hostile guests, and aware that in the media the words must flow continuously, so befuddled was she by Peterson’s answers that she was forced to stop and rethink, and had nothing to say for a long time. And far from this being the disgrace for her others have made out, her own professionalism is what allowed Peterson to capture the moment, since she was relentless in trying to destroy the arguments he was presenting, as relentless as he was in trying to establish the points he wanted to make.
Peterson was interviewed a few days later and asked about the interview with Newman. These are excerpts I transcribed myself.
She laid out two sets of ideological presuppositions … her set and my set. The set of ideological positions she laid out from my side bore very little relation to what I think or say …
She would ask me a question that wasn’t really a question but a barb with bait on the end of it. She would say what I said which had nothing to do with what I had said. She was fabricating on the sly the person—the villain—that she hoped I would be and insisting that was me and denying that it was a lie …
I was watching her after the first minute like a clinician … And I truly don’t believe that anything she said in that entire interview was true on its own …
The form of conversation was not one designed to further our knowledge of the truth, which is the highest form of conversation …
Her claims became so preposterous and self-contradictory that it was difficult to remain completely detached. And this was the crux of the interview … she had asked me in her self-righteous manner just what gave me the right to offend someone and hurt their feelings, and I thought about six things at the same time, but the first thing I thought was, you’re a journalist, that’s the last question in the world you should ever ask someone, if you have any genuine integrity as a journalist because that’s all you have as a journalist. You have the right to offend people and hurt their feelings. So I called her out on that …
She couldn’t make her reputation and her living that way using those tactics—those were not tactics of seeking the truth but they were almost tactics of domination …
The interview with Cathy Newman has made him famous for the moment. His book should make him famous for the ages.
The title is 12 Rules for Life, which makes it sound like a self-help book, which in some ways it is. The proper title should be more along the lines of, The Philosophical Roots of Western Civilisation. In our secular times, it is something like a Confucian tract for a civilisation that has lost its way and refuses to be guided by religious teachings.
But with all its depth, it is amazingly readable, accessible to anyone with a moderate level of education and a willingness to listen. Each of the twelve main chapters has more or less the same structure: a personal adventure that sets the scene, a development into lessons that might be learned from the great literature of the past, then further investigation of these ideas, all followed by a one-sentence conclusion that is by no means merely the summation of what came before.
The aim, self-help though it might superficially be, is not to tell you how to become happy, but to explain how to prepare yourself for a life that is guaranteed to be filled with suffering and adversity. He is not trying to be Mr Gloomy, but is instead telling you that in this world of intense pain, constant woe and frequent disappointment, that life is worth living if you understand what you must expect to find as time goes on, as you age, and as you are forced to endure the difficulties that will come your way. Things are hard, and there are obstacles at every turn, and you won’t always get your way, or even very often. But if you have the right approach, then you can get on with life and be content in the only way it is possible to be content. Moments of happiness will occur, if only occasionally and all too briefly. It’s the journey and not the end. It is about how to get on with that journey and stop complaining.
And he builds his case by reference to the great literature of the past, both religious and secular. Biblical tales, as well as Greek myths, Chinese, Islamic and Hindu religious teachings, along with our own philosophical and scientific traditions, he writes, have been crafted across the ages by many minds who have revised these stories which others have then read because they explain, at a deep psychological level, the world we are in and the ways in which we must deal with the problems we meet. Many important truths are also found among the less profound stories we read, in Homer Simpson, Superman comics and the ancient fairy tales whose messages we absorb to help us make sense of the problems associated with being.
But within the structure of this brew, it is the readings from Western civilisation, based on reflections on our own way of life, that provide us with the answers and guidance for living in the world as it is, and at a deeper level that goes well beyond the superficial changes occasioned by our technological advances and the proliferation of modern gadgetry.
As an example of what you will find in the book, here’s the opening para that leads off the discussion of Rule 7: “Pursue what is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient)”:
Life is suffering. That’s clear. There is no more basic, irrefutable truth. It’s basically what God tells Adam and Eve, immediately before he kicks them out of Paradise.
The simplest, most obvious, and most direct answer? Pursue pleasure. Follow your impulses. Live for the moment. Do what’s expedient.
The obvious answer, perhaps, but the wrong answer. And what our biblical stories, along with so much of our mythology and philosophical reflection, represent are sets of instructions based on the observed successful life choices made by countless individuals over countless generations. The traditions are entirely based on lived experience as our human ancestors attempted to deal with the challenges they faced:
Then we started to tell stories. We coded our observations of our own drama in these stories. In this manner, the information that was first only embedded in our behaviour became embedded in our stories.
These stories delineate the straight and narrow, deviations from which are invitations to disastrous outcomes, not necessarily immediately but over time, and not necessarily for any individual but for societies as a whole. The book is a reminder that there is profound wisdom available to us all that will guide us through life.
I will continue here with a bit more from Chapter 7, focusing on the nature of our highest civilisational values, where the principles he discusses cross over into how we have managed our economic problems. The rules for life are about getting on with being, not to blame others but to take personal responsibility, to test oneself against the hard realities everyone is bound to meet, rather than just remain a passive bystander to life. And as I read the book, the relevance to the nature of a market economy was so striking and so frequently encountered that in the end I came to the conclusion that he had purposely not drawn specific attention to this inescapable overlap, which he would undoubtedly have been aware of. I will therefore discuss only briefly his coded economic message, but also warn that this is peripheral to the rules he has outlined, but by no means peripheral to the communities in which we live. He would recognise the connection I am about to draw and its relevance to what he has written.
Thus, in this discussion of Rule 7, a few pages past the discussion of Adam and Eve, we come upon this, in a passage you are guaranteed never to find in an economics text:
Here’s a productive symbolic idea: the future is a judgmental father. That’s a good start. But two additional archetypal, foundational questions arose, because of the discovery of sacrifice, of work. Both have to do with the ultimate extension of the logic of work—which is sacrifice now, to gain later. [His emphasis]
This is central to the nature of a competitive market economy, where individual entrepreneurs examine the future and apply the capital they have to attempt to earn future returns over and above the value of the capital they have expended. The individuals who make these decisions, who live on the border between order and chaos, are crafting a better world, they hope, but at great potential risk to themselves. This is the point he makes, although he is not specifically discussing economics:
Action came first (as it had to, as the animals we once were could act but could not think). Implicit, unrecognised value came first (as the actions that preceded thought embodied value, but did not make that value explicit). People watched the successful succeed and the unsuccessful fail for thousands and thousands of years. We thought it over, and drew a conclusion: The successful among us delay gratification. The successful among us bargain with the future. [His emphasis again]
And that takes us only halfway through the chapter. From this, he turns to the question of good and evil, and it’s still only Rule 7. You will have to read the book for yourself to find out what he said about good and evil, and about everything else as well. I can do no more than encourage you to read the book. There is nothing else like it and I cannot praise it enough.
Steven Kates is an economist who lives in Melbourne. His book Free Market Economics, now in its third edition, presents an approach to dealing with economic problems that parallels Jordan Peterson’s approach to dealing with life’s problems in general. Bibliography
Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Canada:
Testimony by Jordan Peterson and Jared Brown, among others
BBC4 Interview with Cathy Newman
Jordan Peterson analyzes Cathy Newman in his famous interview on Channel 4.
Recording of Lindsay Shepherd interview
Raffi Grinberg. 2017. “Lindsay Shepherd and the Potential for Heterodoxy at Wilfrid Laurier University”