A Donald, for the Educated Reader
Jordan B. Peterson (2018), 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Allen Lane, 409pp. hardback, £20, reviewed by Dr Ed Dutton
The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson exploded onto the mainstream in the UK in January this year when a hostile interview by Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman went viral. In 12 Rules for Life, Peterson, a former Harvard lecturer, provides us with one rule per chapter. The ninth rule is ‘Assume that the person you’re listening to might know something you don’t.’ In this chapter, Peterson discusses different kinds of conversation and dissects ‘the conversation where one participant is trying to attain victory for his point of view.’ In such a conversation, Peterson notes, the speaker will ‘denigrate and ridicule the other point of view,’ use selective evidence, and basically try to impress the listeners with his or her wit. It is a ‘dominance-hierarchy’ conversation in which the aggressor will desperately defend ‘the hierarchy within which he has achieved success’ (p.249).
For Newman, this was the hierarchy of Political Correctness. Her only aim was to humiliate the adversary who dared to question its assumptions. Peterson argues in this book that inequality is inevitable because our brains function similarly to those of lobsters. They track our relative status, producing more serotonin if it is high – which makes it likely to get even higher – and reducing the production if it is low, making us likely to sink into depression and apathy. Accordingly, you can never eliminate inequality; although Peterson looks at ways you can try to increase your serotonin levels, such as posture. Oxford-educated Newman’s response was: ‘So you’re saying we should be like lobsters?’
Peterson refused to be riled. As a psychologist, he knew he was dealing with somebody low in Agreeableness (he told her as much), verbally skilled yet logically deficient and easily indoctrinated. He gradually turned the interview into a form of psychotherapy. Peterson employed a form of Socratic questioning of Newman, and through so-doing he destroyed her. Or rather, more powerfully, he allowed her to destroy herself. This virtue-signalling individual was enabled to see just what she was. There was a lengthy, cringing, fumbling silence in which she could find no come-back. ‘Gotcha!’ gloated Peterson. This interview is part of the reason for the best-seller status of his book.
And it certainly contains some fascinating insights. In explaining why you should ‘Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,’ Peterson argues that we often get our questions backwards. We might ask: ‘Why by do people become alcoholics?’ But, explains Peterson, considering the suffering that life involves, you would expect people to drink heavily and so become dependent on alcohol. Surely, we should instead be asking: ‘Why do people not become alcoholics?’ Turning the question on its head often helps you to solve seemingly intractable problems.
In psychology it has been shown that your own rating of the kind of personality that you have – based on personality assessors which ask you to assess yourself on such statements as ‘I often have dark thoughts’ – is less accurate than peer-ratings. Peer-ratings correlate more strongly with the objective life outcomes which would be expected by the kind of personality you supposedly have. And, of course, this extends to Newman who will most likely assert, ‘I believe everyone’s of equal value’ or ‘I’m not racist’ but may not live their life as though they really believe this. You’re not racist and everyone’s equal. You live in London? So, presumably, roughly half your friends are non-white.
This is certainly a readable book. Its assertions are illustrated by personal anecdotes and exegeses of canonical Western literature and texts from world religions. Throughout human history, there have been people who have taken essentially trite observations on how to live a good life – ‘Tell the truth,’ ‘be precise’ – and repackaged them as original insights. To wit, ‘How could the nature of man ever reach its full potential without challenge and danger? How dull and contemptible would we become if there was no longer reason to pay attention? Maybe God thought that His new creation would be able to handle the serpent and considered its presence the lesser of two evils?’ (p.47).
These people are what the German sociologist Max Weber called ‘charismatics.’ They arrive at a time of crisis, make a cold world seem warm once more through emotional oratory, inspire a movement, and change the world: Buddha, Socrates, Christ, Lenin . . . as well as public intellectuals like Nietzsche, Sartre and Schopenhauer. They appeal today to the marginalized, to those for whom the world is an unforgiving place, to those who were hitherto ‘the norm’, namely men, Christians, Europeans, religious believers, heterosexuals, cis people, and traditionalists.
But as you get towards the end of the book, you may start to realise that something rather thought-provoking is actually happening to you.
They attempt to make themselves seem erudite and profound by showing how they have unearthed these insights from revered texts and myths in ancient, nebulous religions (which they have interpreted in an entirely subjective way). They woo you with their life story, their conversion to these penetrating ways of thinking, the hardships they’ve overcome following these ‘deep’ ideas (such as their young daughter having arthritis, or dealing with a suicidal friend) and which you could too, if you would just follow them. Their arguments may seem logical:
‘How could the nature of man ever reach its full potential without challenge and danger? How dull and contemptible would we become if there was no longer reason to pay attention? Maybe God thought that His new creation would be able to handle the serpent and considered its presence the lesser of two evils?’ (p.47).
Thoughtful stuff . . . but just think about this rehashing of the Irenaean theodicy, just for a moment.
They appeal to the marginalized, those for whom the world is a cold place. In this instance, this seems to be all who were ‘the norm’ until relatively recently: men, Christians, Europeans, religious believers, heterosexuals, cis people, and traditionalists.
Perhaps Peterson knows what he is doing. Tradition has been turned on its head. We need a Donald Trump for the ‘educated reader’ who can inspire the new marginalized to overthrow their oppressors and return us to a society that works; to one in which we don’t ‘deconstruct our stabilizing traditions’. Be a manly man, he adjures us, for ultimately that’s what women want. They’re selected to want it; your genes will pass on. Be strict with your children, they’ll grow up better. Shun friends who are nihilistic, leftist odd-balls; they’ll drag you down with them. And all this is built on a new religion, a kind of libertarian theology which draws upon Christianity, Greek myth, Hinduism, and which elevates aspects of Western literature to portholes into what ‘lies beneath.’
A new charismatic is needed. Maybe Peterson is the man for the job. But even if he isn’t, 12 Rules for Life will make you think.
Dr Edward Dutton is the author of How to Judge People by What They Look Like (2018). He has published widely in psychology, in journals such as Intelligence and Personality and Individual Differences