Wednesday, January 31, 2018

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos: The Eternally Feminine. Part One Of My Book Review

Fresco showing a woman so-called Sappho holding writing implements, from Pompeii, Naples National Archaeological Museum (14842101892)
By Carole Raddato - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,


If you are not familiar with professor Peterson, the new guru of conservative men, you might wish to read my earlier post on him.  His shtick is to give therapeutic advice about how to make one's life better, while firmly placing that advice into a politically and religiously conservative (and, in his case, very dismal) worldview.

For example, the advice to clear your desk and to put your life in order is ultimately explained as the first step in the battle for the Being, in the battle of making the world a better place and in the battle against the next totalitarian wave to come, the postmodernist far left wave breeding and multiplying in universities, which will one day kill millions, just as Stalin, Hitler and Mao did.

Professor Peterson himself has stated that his acolytes are ninety percent male (1).  In one interview he explains that by saying that YouTube itself is a male form of online exchanges, and his lectures are on YouTube.  But I see a different reason for his gendered following:  His messages are equally gendered, though not always bluntly.

This book review is an attempt to look at that gendering.  It's not a review of everything his book says, though I begin (in this post) with a more general overview of what I see as his basic organizing principles and main themes in the book. The remaining two posts will cover the book's views about women, biological sex and gender.

About The Main Themes of The 12 Rules for Life

The first, and most central theme of the book is about order and chaos.

Order is desirable, chaos is frightening and dangerous.  Though Peterson does note that we should walk along the edge of order and chaos, to keep some balance between the two, and though he does admit that chaos, too, has its good points (creativity, say), and that order, when taken to extremes, can be stifling (though I'd note that it's also dead at its extreme), he largely forgets to make those distinctions in the body of the book.  Even the last words in the book title tell us that he is giving us an antidote to chaos, not to order.

For Peterson, order is based on rules and hierarchies.  He views hierarchies as something that exists in our inherited biological tendencies, and he believes that human hierarchies are largely based on competence.  Lobsters have hierarchies, after all, and have survived for hundreds of millions of years!  That's competence for you.

Rules are necessary, because without rules we get chaos. 

The hierarchies and rules he prefers are the old ones, the ones that tradition has proven will work.  That "proof" is based on his assumption that ideas, too, can be subjected to the kinds of arguments evolutionary psychology uses:

If something (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, male hierarchies?) has survived for so long, then that group of ideas must have been advantageous in the evolutionary sense.  Those who believed in certain ideas thrived and left a lot of offspring, who, in turn, thrived and left a lot of offspring?

Peterson is a traditionalist, according to his own views.  He believes in the old ways of organizing the world and argues that those ways are the best bulwark against chaos.

Chaos, by the way has a sex.  It's the eternally feminine in Peterson's ideology, while order is masculine.  The antidote he provides us is therefore against concepts Peterson sees as feminine. 

That chaos actually does not have a gender or a biological sex, is important to keep in mind, because the reader of Peterson's book will travel through the whole story in an atmosphere where chaos is feminine, something outside organized society, something "other," something men face every time they are turned down for a date.

That many jobs involving organizing, arranging, cleaning and accounting in today's societies are female-dominated jobs or that most wars, associated with male activities in Peterson's worldview, create the most extreme kind of chaos is immaterial for the purposes of his book.

The second central theme of the book, repeated ad nauseam, is that life is brutal, hellish and short.  Life is suffering.  We cannot avoid that suffering, which makes happiness a futile and vacuous goal.  The best we can hope to achieve is to have suffering with meaning.

Not only is life suffering, but human beings are vicious, capable of the most horrible cruelty and torture you could ever imagine (2)!  Civilization is simply a thin coat of makeup over that ravening beast that crouches behind your eyes.

All that keeps us from learning about our inner beasts is order, preferably old traditional order, and the pure luck that history didn't select us to be the concentration camp guards in Hitler's Germany or the executioners in the My Lai massacre. Because we have been lucky by not being selected for the role of the torturer, we close our eyes against the demons that eat away all light in our souls.

I am a gloomy goddess, quite willing to accept that life is not exactly a ballet in a rose bed (even with the thorns) and that human beings certainly have shadow sides.

But Peterson is something else! Indeed, so extreme are his views about life as a long walk through hell and about other human beings as auxiliary demons that he must spend a few pages explaining why that shouldn't make us agree with one of the mass murderers in the Columbine school shootings, who decided that humans were so disgusting and life so torturous that the kindest thing to do would be simply to get rid of as many humans as possible.

As an aside, it's Peterson's dismal worldview that makes it hard for me to see why his acolytes would want his advice, though of course what he is really selling is the idea that they can climb up the traditional hierarchies and thus avoid the worst of the earthly hell (3).

Peterson's third main theme is Soviet Russia and Mao's China as examples of what will happen if the traditional Western hierarchies would be successfully destroyed by the radical far left on university campuses.

The preface to the book, written by someone else, mentions that Peterson's house has walls and walls covered with Soviet era posters, which he bought on eBay when the communist Soviet Union died.

The preface writer had a different point to make about the posters staring at Peterson every morning at breakfast, say, but to me they tell a different story: In his world the danger of totalitarianism always comes from the left, in his world genocide is a lefty phenomenon only, and religion is the bulwark standing against it, especially the Old Testament type of religion.

It's not the Rwandan genocide, for example, that he agonizes over, it's what Mao and Stalin did to millions, and it's not the many religious wars the world has experienced over centuries that cause death and suffering, but the secular wars of the twentieth century.

As his fourth theme, Peterson employs myths and religious stories as parables for moral and ethical understanding.

He mostly mines the Old Testament for such stories, though he gives a nod or two to Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, too, and even interprets Disney movies and fairy tales for us.   That his selection of myths and religious stories might be biased, as a mirror to the past,  is good to keep in mind while reading the book, just as it's a good idea to keep in mind that it's Peterson who interprets the myths and stories for us, and others might interpret them very differently or include different myths and stories.

Finally, the book reveals Peterson as a politically conservative writer with a particularly strong dislike (even hatred) of feminist arguments, a dislike of "identity politics" and some discomfort with the attempts to redistribute income to relieve suffering.

He is not, however,  a climate change denier or a believer in only the most minimal of governments, though he is not pleased with attempts to combat climate change by blaming human beings for it, and he is certainly not pleased with those on the left who criticize Western religious thought, capitalism or the largely male traditional hierarchies.  Rather, he believes that those structures deserve the gratitude of all who live in the political West. 

The above is the background for the twelve rules Peterson proposes in his book.  Many of the rules appear to have a contrived connection to Peterson's fundamental ideas (or at least could be justified in much more proximal ways), many of the rules look like common sense, though some of them might cause real problems for the person who follows them, depending on where that person is in the traditional hierarchies Peterson so loves.  In a way the rules themselves are a thin layer of makeup over the "truth" Peterson wants to tell us.  Yet the rules are not necessarily bad in themselves.

Before we continue (in the second post of this series), two warnings.

First, Jordan Peterson has spent decades putting together his arguments from the great smorgasbord of all kinds of philosophies, studies and theories.  What he has picked on his own plate reflects not only what is served on that smorgasbord, but what he prefers to eat (lobsters...).  To properly critique the ideas that he proffers us from that plate, as truths, we'd need to have the knowledge of all the dishes on that giant and exhilarating table of ideas.

That's one way of stating that I'm not a chef at that feast, but yet another diner, and that I don't know the correct recipes of all the dishes.  But some I do understand, and those are the ones I use in this review about Peterson's views on women and on sex differences.

Many other criticisms are perhaps possible, and those who are experts in the various sub-fields he interprets are strongly encouraged to join such conversations.

Second, Peterson uses empirical evidence like a knife; to slice and dice out the conclusions he prefers.  This means that he links only to those studies which support his arguments, omitting those which fail to support them and even omitting the criticisms of the studies he relies on.

His book is a polemic against feminism, postmodernism and various forms of what he calls far left radicalism, and such a use of empirical evidence matches his goal.  But it's crucial to keep in mind that the evidence he proffers is not of the decisive and final nature he assigns it. 


(1)  He also notes, in that context, that the men's eyes light up when he talks about responsibilities, rather than about rights.  But in Peterson's world the two do go together, because what some view as rights he views as the fair rewards for greater competence and greater responsibility.

(2)   Peterson is not discounting the ability of people to do good.  He seems to assume that doing good requires an active effort of the will and that doing evil comes to us quite naturally.  On the other hand,  acting on "agreeableness", a stereotypically female personality characteristic, is not viewed as doing good. 

(3)  Though immense chunks of Peterson's book are also an ode to traditional masculinity, the kind which might appeal to conservative men, especially those who regard recent attacks on certain forms of masculinity (the so-called toxic masculinity, based on othering women, the so-called rape culture etc) as a wholesale war against all men or at least against all white men.


The second post in the series can be found here, and the third post here.