Tuesday, 27 August 2019

12 Rules for Life: a review

More than two years on from the Chimp Paradox I’ve read my second self-help book, or my second sort of self-help book, as I suspect Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is also atypical of the genre.

Like others with an interest in contemporary politics I’ve come across Peterson online and found him an intriguing character; my interest piqued by the hysterical overreaction of certain sections of the left leaning commentariat to even his most mundane pronouncements. I’ve seen him denounced as a dangerous ideologue and a hard-left bigot on the back of fairly innocuous, if distinctly untrendy, comments. Having now read three hundred plus pages of his work I’ve still yet to see any proper evidence legitimising such ad-hominem attacks, but I do understand why they are dished out in bad faith.

In summary the book is a series of didactic lessons spun from a mixture of philosophy and anecdotes that entreat the reader to accept the human life experience as fundamentally challenging and to work towards becoming better individuals. It’s very much about brutal self-honesty, recognising our failings and trying to find small but realistic ways of improving ourselves and more importantly the world around us. Peterson has a fundamentally socially conservative, anti-authoritarian worldview which is grounded in Christianity with a smattering of eastern and classic western philosophy. But he’s not trying to convert anyone, his call to something higher works just as well for atheists; it’s finding our personal meaning that counts, not finding god.

Is it an interesting and thought-provoking book? Yes. Is it profound? Not for me personally, but then I have a fairly individualistic, liberal-conservative outlook to begin with. Peterson is an intelligent man for sure, and there are some genuine bombs of insight dropped from time to time, but I don’t think he’s a great writer. At times the pedagogical mix of high philosophy and homespun wisdom comes across a little patronising, and though the arguments are intellectually well constructed they are just a bit too laboured at times. A tighter editor could probably have whittled away twenty five percent of the verbage without losing the messages.

So how about those ad-hominem insults, well it’s clear that his worldview runs counter to modish post-modern/nihilistic philosophies, and his strong moral backbone will be incongruous to those who prefer cultural and moral relativism. Once upon a time those holding the views he criticises might have fronted up to the challenge, but today the noisier sections of the commentariat tend to be hyper-sensitive and overly emotive when challenged, measured disagreement being replaced with hysterically overblown insults; he’s ‘hard right’, he’s ‘a bigot’, he’s ‘a misogynist’. 

Such screeching bad faith serves a double purpose. Firstly, it bypasses the need for coherent counterarguments, such as would require a decent level intellectual of horsepower. Secondly, the spray of logical fallacy demonstrates how ‘right-on’ the critic is, which at least signals virtue to the similarly minded who also lack the intellect to address the arguments head on. I can’t help but feel that if he was less white and leaned towards a religion that isn’t Christianity the same critics would offer him free pass to hold genuinely unpleasant views.

Peterson stands bravely and unapologetically in opposition to popular grievance narratives of oppression and victimhood, so it’s no surprise that he rattles the nerves of those hooked on such junk, whilst those who make a living peddling them sense threat from a man with a popular platform calmly dismantling their business models.   

Claims of misogyny seem to stem from Peterson’s warnings around the unwanted side effects of emasculating men with supposedly ‘progressive’ social engineering campaigns. It’s stretching to more than the absurd to find hatred of women in such views, though it’s true some of his best advice is probably more useful to young men looking to find purpose in life. What he does well, unforgivably well for his critics, is raise tough questions around how the biological characteristics developed over hundreds of thousands of years clash with fashionable modern concepts of ‘gender as a social construct’ (especially in the context of the identity politics industry). For Peterson it isn’t about the patriarchy versus the matriarchy, it’s about evolution and that definitely matters to the happiness of both men and women.

Some criticism stems from his use of the loaded term ‘Cultural Marxism’ to describe the pernicious effects of critical theory in academia. This can be arcane stuff; it’s certainly highly charged for those who both peddle and oppose such ideology. I think he’s probably right about the toxic affects of such charlatanry on post-modern philosophy, but the terminology is problematic. Many of those promoting what he refers to as ‘Culturally Marxist’ views probably don’t consider themselves part of that tradition even if they are heavily influenced by such woo, whilst for some grievance professionals it’s a pseudoscience they don’t really need even if it is convenient to their scam, whereas the genuine Marxists would probably reject such identification as too lightweight even if the workings are familiar. Better care should have been taken with terminology.

Ultimately, it’s a useful volume for people of all genders, sexes, cultures, creeds and ethnicities who are looking for a way beyond the cesspit of victimhood narratives and moral and cultural relativism. Such people have nothing to lose, as the only people who ever gain from such narratives are those who make a professional living selling them. If your willing to be honest with yourself and take small, positive steps to make yourself better, then Peterson can probably help.

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