Sunday, May 20, 2018

On Jordan Peterson and 12 Rules for Life

This book has been misunderstood.  I may misunderstand it.  It will likely be misunderstood in the future.  It is demanding of the reader.  Professor Peterson is verbose, in love with his insights and impressed with his scholarship.  In some sense he is under the spell of his own work, eating his own dog food, as it were.  Now that I have finished the book, I forgive him for that because it breaks new and necessary ground intellectually.

I am very happy I found it and read it.  When I discovered Dr. Peterson I was in Brisbane, up in the middle of the night because of jet lag.  I turned on the TV to an interview with him.  The topic was the #METOO movement and the problem of workplace sexual harassment.  I expected to hear one of the two identified sides of the debate, either that it was horrible that this has gone on for so long or that it was largely an exaggerated new category of victim-hood by a few, perhaps righteously aggrieved, man-haters.

What I heard instead woke me up like a shot of strong espresso.  Using a new workplace policy at NBC as an example (no front-to-front hugging in the workplace), he warned that while this was an issue that demanded remedy we should be aware that doing so is toying with a very powerful force in human relations and the answer did not lie in simple categorical solutions like prohibitions and penalties.  He was very sure that such would make the problem worse while at the same time admitting something had to be done, right now, and prohibitions and penalties were all that could be done right now.  He was genuinely perplexed and struggling with the notion that the only remedy available at this time seemed to be one that would make things worse.

As was also my experience reading the book, in this television interview Professor Peterson put into words something that I felt but had not yet verbally articulated.  I was surprised by this in a I didn't realize I felt that way manner.

I immediately reached for my laptop and googled him.  I found out he was a Canadian psychology professor who had recently become controversial because of his refusal to adhere to a policy at his institution that required the use of specific pronouns when referring to trans-gendered people in class lectures.  He refused to adhere to a policy that prohibited words, as if words were the problem.  His cause quickly became a favorite flag for the alt-right to wave as support for their anti-PC tropes.

Oh no.  His popularity among the incels and the Trump voters did not at all jive with the reasonable, intelligent and enlightening gentleman I had seen on the TV, so I ordered this (his most recent book) off of Amazon anyway.  I reasoned that if I didn't like it I could sell it at the Strand and only be out a few bucks.

Having read it now, I can't say that I like it, but I can say that I found it deeply intellectually stimulating and thought-provoking.  I understand myself better after having read it, particularly the cultural conditioning of my youth and young adulthood. 

Much of the book, particularly the early chapters, is discussion of the book of Genesis as cultural mythology.  The concept of original sin is very deeply ingrained in the Western psyche.  We all suspect on some level that we suck.  This is why rule #2 is "Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping."

His discussion on this point revolves around the observed fact that people are more compliant with prescribed medication regimes for their pets than they are for their own medication prescription regimes.  People give their pets their meds properly over 80% of time while only self-administering their own meds about 60% of the time (I have observed this phenomena in my patients, my family and in my own history).  Why the difference?  Because Adam bit the apple.

The book arose out of work Professor Peterson did on an internet site called Quora, a place where people can ask questions which others answer.  I post about hospice on Quora now.  His work there became very popular, as he tells it, and the 12 rules were actually an answer to a question, something he details in the foreword.

Here are the 12 rules:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  5. Do not let your children do anything which makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7. Pursue what is meaningful rather than what is expedient.
  8. Tell the truth--or, at least don't lie.
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children while they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

His expositions on these notions make up the book.  He states the rule and then departs on a provocative and thoughtful discussion, often about something seeming to be completely unrelated to the rule, and then brings it all back at the end of the chapter, often demonstrating that he didn't mean exactly what just reading the rule suggests.

I wonder if this contributes to the fact that this book is widely interpreted as being supportive of the gun-toting alt-right bro-culture which has embraced his work as some sort of existential manifesto.  He has become both widely popular among the tribal political cultures of the neo-fascist right and also a straw-man target for the alt-left.  Perhaps they are only reading the list of rules, but it may be more complicated than that.

He is frankly critical of Marxist ideology and Stalinist history in the book, seeing them as out-growths of the easy solutions of wealth-redistribution and central authority. Nietzsche, Freud, Solzhenitsyn and Jung are intellectual heroes to him.  He is quite well-informed about Buddhism despite his singular focus on the Western canon. 

Beyond that, he expresses compassion for aggrieved single white males, particular the "omega" males from incel literature, as being poorly served by left-leaning ideologies focused on the plight of oppressed minorities. He doesn't argue against these social justice movements, he rather notes that there are people who are left behind.  He further argues that patriarchal structures have perhaps persisted because of their success rather than as the product of a malevolent conspiracy among the privileged.

He has a point, but it is important to note that he doesn't argue that this means these structures should be preserved.  He rather argues that their contributions should not be categorically dismissed as unwanted in the overall discussion moving forward.  I think this is the message the alt-right is so thirsty to hear from someone not identified with extreme polemics.

Do I recommend you read it?  If you like to think, I do. 

Is Professor Peterson the father I never had? No, but I wish my dad had read his work.