Aggravated by nonsense, upset by chaos

Paul Tankard reviews 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote For Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson. Published by Penguin Random House.

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian professor of psychology who in 2012, as something of an experiment in communication, started posting answers on the social discussion website Quora and posting YouTube videos of his lectures, which became astonishingly popular.

In one,  he challenged a 2016 Canadian Government Bill to mandate the use of "gender-neutral" pronouns. There’s a great deal more to Peterson than that rather tangential debate, which drew him into unedifying clashes with various noisy ideologues. But it also drew from around the world invitations to speak, in which he amplified his powerful critique of postmodern thought, particularly in universities, which he blames for the "chaos" which as a teacher and clinician he sees in our culture.

This is his second book, and the first for a non-academic readership. Its structure was determined partly by the very high rate of "up-votes" received by  his posts to Quora, a list of 41 rules or maxims, in answer to the question, "What are the most valuable things everyone should know?"

I will get my criticisms of his book out of the way first. It is far too long, and the chapters are too lengthy. As a book offering guidance to life, people who can read at that length and follow his reasoning probably will not need the actual advice, and the people who most need it will get a bit lost.

Peterson’s public work is addressed to people  he sees as rendered confused, powerless and miserable by a lack of meaning and flight from the realities of life.

They (or we) have turned to increasingly wacky public ideologies, by which skill and competence are mistaken for arbitrary power, rather than taking responsibility.

His online presence has apparently resonated particularly with young men, who are defrauded by the dominant dogmas in schools and public institutions.

The 12 Rules themselves are an elegant mixture of the serious (7: "Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient"), the challenging (5: "Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them"), and the whimsically suggestive (12: "Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street"). 

They make immediate sense, at the risk of sounding a bit obvious, but in explicating each of them over 30-40 pages, he opens up myriad other issues.

Under Rule 6: "Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world", he diagnoses the mindset of the perpetrators of that quintessentially American phenomenon, the high school massacre. A critique of the leftist bogey of "social construction" and his challenging stuff about gender pop up unpredictably under Rule 11: "Do not bother children when they are skateboarding".

The book is academic; Peterson makes long arguments, he gathers evidence, he analyses texts. 

His discussion is grounded in personal and clinical experience, his reading in literature and mythology, and is carefully referenced. While it is easy to forget what rule you are reading about, most of what is there is deeply felt and thought-provoking.  Peterson is serious and passionate, and he says very carefully what he means and what he does not.

He offers a stern view of the world, perhaps, but these are grim times — all times are, Peterson would say — and attractively facile doctrines that let us off the hook, such as the cultural Marxists’ "social progress" or the neo-liberals’ "trickle-down effect", just will not cut it.

Peterson is tough and can be sharp.  He is clearly aggravated and appalled by nonsense. But he is motivated by a disinterested love, which wants to see people achieving their best. By doing our best, or striving to, we make our lives meaningful and have a better chance for happiness than we do by blaming the universe and making excuses.

- Paul Tankard is a lecturer in the University of Otago’s  English department.

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