Review: Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Penguin, 2018).
By Cole Hartin
It’s difficult to know how to characterize the sprawling 400+ pages of 12 Rules for Life; it evades categorization almost as much as Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. Peterson’s first book was a celebrated scholarly tome, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Routledge, 1999); it had all the opacity of rigorous scholarship, and assumed its readers would know the terms of Peterson’s discipline. 12 Rules is written for a much broader audience. As Peterson explains in his introductory Overture, the idea for the volume was germinating as he wrote a list of rules for life in an answer to a question on the popular Quora.com. From this list, each essay was developed more fully along the lines of each rule, but there is no clear thread tying them altogether. Each chapter can stand alone, save for some cross-referencing, and has something of an ad hoc feel, both in its subject matter and in Peterson’s impassioned but sometimes repetitive style.
It is striking from the outset how countercultural this book is. For example, as a student of theology, I was once advised by a mentor to tread carefully when preaching about the Law in the Old Testament: I should opt for words like guidelines or lessons when talking about God’s commandments. More generally, we live in a world in which rules are denigrated and viewed suspiciously as external inhibitors to personal freedom and expression of the self. Peterson use of rules in the title is telling and sets him apart as a refreshingly traditional thinker in a world that has done all it can to leave tradition behind. Among other things, it is this strong stance, this willingness to heed the great voices of the past, that makes Peterson so polarizing.
Throughout the book there are recurring themes, such as Peterson’s use of evolutionary biology to makes sense of various 21st-century vices, or in another vein, his odd but strangely compelling Jungian reading of Scripture. These are interwoven with stories from Peterson’s experience in psychological practice, and even with tales from his family life. And in every chapter, there are usually a few paragraphs in which Peterson breaks from his more restrained voice into exhortations to live truthfully and face suffering, which feel something like a pre-game pep talk or an evangelical sermon.
Some of Peterson’s logic baffles me (such as his is/ought assumptions from evolutionary biology), and I am left unsure of the book’s contribution to scholarship, yet his work nicely straddles the line between academic and popular work, allowing generalists a glimpse into his thought process without too much jargon. On a practical level, 12 Rules provides some helpful psychological insight into how one should lead a well-ordered life, and I have been surprised at how useful such insight is.
12 Rules is listed as a self-help book, probably the first such book I have ever read. I have taken a lot of his practical tips into my life. For instance, in chapter 10, “Be Precise in Your Speech,” Peterson writes of the importance of identifying little problems in your relationships, being open to the possibility that your partner is at fault, but also that you are at fault, and to be truly open-minded about this. Rather than letting little relational issues slide for the sake of peace, it is better to talk them through — even if they are painful, and even if the conclusion is that one should stay silent — in order to ensure the relationship is healthy. Ignoring small issues only allows them to snowball until they wreck all in their path. I suppose this is something I had already come to learn, but what wonderful advice it would have been going into some relationships. In this respect, I can see why Peterson is such a hit with young men. This practical wisdom helps them to make their way in the world.
Not all of Peterson’s volume is aimed at rules for day-to-day life. It also incisively uncovers some of the pointed edges of what he perceives as prevalent Marxist and postmodern-leftist ideology. One of Peterson’s most powerful arguments comes in his able exposition of the pernicious doctrine behind those who would push for equality of outcome as a societal good. I suspect it is more pertinent to Canadians than Americans given our current political climates, but I think it applies shockingly well to the leftward trajectory of North Atlantic Anglicanism.
Peterson underscores the undesirability of equality of outcome by using examples of gender and racial inequality. In the former case, he notes two irreconcilable beliefs: that gender is socially constructed, and that it is also biologically fixed.
The insane and incomprehensible postmodern insistence that all gender differences are socially constructed, for example, becomes all too understandable when its moral imperative is grasped — when its justification for force is once and for all understood: Society must be altered, or bias eliminated, until all outcomes are equitable. But the bedrock of the social constructionist position is the wish for the latter, not belief in the justice of the former. Since all outcome inequalities must be eliminated (inequality being the heart of all evil), then all gender differences must be regarded as socially constructed. Otherwise the drive for equality would be too radical, and the doctrine too blatantly propagandistic. Thus, the order of logic is reversed, so that the ideology can be camouflaged. The fact that such statements lead immediately to internal inconsistencies within the ideology is never addressed. Gender is constructed, but an individual who desires gender re-assignment surgery is to be unarguably considered a man trapped in a woman’s body (or vice versa). The fact that both of these cannot logically be true, simultaneously, is just ignored (or rationalized away with another appalling post-modern claim: that logic itself — along with the techniques of science — is merely part of the oppressive patriarchal system.) (pp. 314-15, emphasis original)
When it comes to the inequality of outcome between different races, and/or levels of (dis)ability, specifically with respect to remuneration in the workplace, Peterson asks which group identities or categories count, and who decides. For instance, he notes,
The U.S. National Institute of Health, to take a single bureaucratic example, recognizes American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, and White. But there are more than five hundred separate American Indian tribes. By what possible logic should “American Indian” therefore stand as a canonical category? Osage tribal members have a yearly average income of $30K, while Tohono O’odham’s make $11K. Are they equally oppressed? What about disabilities? Disabled people should make as much as non-disabled people. OK. On the surface, that’s a noble, compassionate, fair claim. But who is disabled? Is someone living with a parent with Alzheimer’s disabled? If not, why not? What about someone with a lower IQ? Someone less attractive? Someone overweight? Some people clearly move through life markedly overburdened with problems that are beyond their control, but it is a rare person indeed who isn’t suffering from at least one serious catastrophe at any given time — particularly if you include their family in the equation. And why shouldn’t you? Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractioned right down to the level of the individual. That sentence should be written in capital letters. Every person is unique — and not just in a trivial matter: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability. Period. (pp. 315-16, emphasis original)
It’s this point that is particularly suggestive for theological discourse across Christian division, whether they be cultural, ideological, or denominational; it is far timelier for Anglicanism in particular. Peterson reminds us of the value of individuals as such, rather than our fighting for the inclusion or separation of particular groups within the Church, or vying against other parties. And however important one’s group identity may be, it is comparably worthless to the infinite value and unique character of each individual.
My application of Peterson’s thought in the Church tends to drift toward elevating immediate pastoral and familial discourse with people we know, rather than aiming to preserve or change whichever legislative documents are up for debate. It means connecting with people as individuals, getting to know them, praying with them, instead of assuming their cultural heritage or party affiliation define who they are. For me, it means realizing that episcopal or primatial letters to government officials on the need to combat this injustice are far less useful than getting to know our neighbours, including those with whom we worship. Indeed, Peterson’s wisdom here is a reminder that our life together starts with renovating our very own hearts, confessing our own sins, praying ourselves, rather than trying to fix the world (or the Church).
This is not to downplay the character of the Church collectively. Though I think Peterson is right to point out the problems with identity politics, the Church as the Body of Christ gives us a vision of the group, that, instead of subsuming the individual, veritably frees her to be herself, functioning in and with the whole body. “There is one body, but it has many parts,” and thus, while Peterson aptly diagnoses the problems we face, it is the Church that offers a place for individuals to flourish together without them having to sacrifice themselves to the crowd.