21 January 2018
It is uncomfortable to be told to get in touch with your inner psychopath, that life is a catastrophe and that the aim of living is not to be happy. This is hardly the staple of most self-help books. And yet, superficially at least, a self-help book containing these messages is what the Canadian psychologist Jordan B Peterson has written.
His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an ambitious, some would say hubristic, attempt to explain how an individual should live their life, ethically rather than in the service of self. It is informed by the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Dostoevsky – again, uncommon sources for the genre.
I doubt it has the commercial appeal of The Secret (wish for something and it will come true) and it certainly strays markedly from the territory of How to Win Friends and Influence People. But then Peterson is in a different intellectual league from the authors of most such books. Camille Paglia estimates him to be “the most important Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan”.
Peterson, 55, is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto who shot into the headlines in 2016 after refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns at the university which new legislation, Bill C-16, compelled him legally to. Following this he was either hailed as a free-speech martyr or castigated as a transphobe. Demonstrations broke out on campus, and he has been the subject of a campaign of protest by trans activists. More controversy followed when he publicly defended James Damore, the sacked Google employee who suggested there were innate gender differences, as being no more than the scientific consensus.
He certainly doesn’t sit well with the usually left-leaning academic establishment. Apart from anything else, he believes most university humanities courses should be defunded because they have been “corrupted by neo-Marxist postmodernists” – particularly women’s studies and black studies. This has led him to be branded a member of the alt-right – although his support for socialised healthcare, redistribution of wealth towards the poorest and the decriminalisation of drugs suggests this is far from the whole story. He defines himself as a “classic British liberal”. But he also says – when challenged for being a reactionary – that “being reactionary is the new radicalism”.
Peterson has largely been in the news for his blazing, outspoken opposition to much of the far-left political agenda, which he characterises as totalitarian, intolerant and a growing threat to the primacy of the individual – which is his core value and, he asserts, the foundation of western culture.
I first came across Peterson not in any political context but as a teacher of story. His online videos contain extensive deconstructions of narratives and myths, both ancient and modern. I watched his videos on the psychological significance of biblical stories. Although I am a lifelong atheist, for the first time the Bible started to make symbolic sense to me. Peterson can take the most difficult ideas and make them entertaining. This may be why his YouTube videos have had 35m views. Even his biblical lectures have been watched 5m times – quite a figure for a theological analysis of the Old Testament. He is fast becoming the closest that academia has to a rock star.
Peterson’s worldview is complex, although 12 Rules makes a heroic attempt to simplify it into digestible material. It might be encapsulated thus: “Life is tragic. You are tiny and flawed and ignorant and weak and everything else is huge, complex and overwhelming. Once, we had Christianity as a bulwark against that terrifying reality. But God died. Since then the defence has either been ideology – most notably Marxism or fascism – or nihilism. These lead, and have led in the 20th century, to catastrophe.
“‘Happiness’ is a pointless goal. Don’t compare yourself with other people, compare yourself with who you were yesterday. No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life. You conjure your own world, not only metaphorically but also literally and neurologically. These lessons are what the great stories and myths have been telling us since civilisation began.”
Peterson studied political science before shifting to psychology and became obsessed with understanding, at a time when the cold war was ongoing, how two sets of beliefs could be so deeply held it brought the whole of humanity to the brink of destruction. It has driven him ever since to reflect on human nature and the often irrational way in which we generate belief systems.
His first book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (1999), is a profound but often impenetrable tome that, to quote his biographer, describes the “structure of systems of beliefs and myths, their role in the regulation of emotion, creation of meaning, and motivation for genocide”. It all feels a long way from his latest book, which has chapter titles such as, “Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and “Rule 11: Do not bother children when whey are skateboarding.” But the philosophy at the heart of it is the same.
I Skyped Peterson in Toronto before his visit to London to lecture and promote the book. In the (vain) hope of knocking him off balance, I led with: “Who the hell do you think you are? Moses?”
He simply laughed. “No, I think I’m someone who is properly terrified. I’ve thought a lot about very terrible things. And I read history as the potential perpetrator – not the victim. That takes you to some very dark places. Also, this book isn’t only written for other people. It’s a warning to me. I’m also saying: ‘Look the hell out because the chickens come home to roost.’ If I’ve learned one thing in 20 years of clinical practice, it’s that. I swear I’ve never seen anyone get away with anything in my whole life.
“Nietzsche pointed out that most morality is cowardice. There’s absolutely no doubt that that is the case. The problem with ‘nice people’ is that they’ve never been in any situation that would turn them into the monsters they’re capable of being.”
So if “nice people” get the chance to disguise their dark impulses from themselves, are they likely to indulge those impulses? “Yes. And a bit of soul-searching would allow them to determine in what manner they are currently indulging them.”
The fact of our essential darkness may, perhaps, be seen transparently in the flood of hatred, abuse and rage that is now clearly visible on anonymous Twitter feeds. It was “so-called normal people”, not sociopaths, who were responsible for the atrocities of nazism, Stalinism and Maoism. We must not forget, says Peterson, that we are corrupt and pathetic , and capable of great malevolence.
So if we are all monsters, how are we to be saved? The first thing is to understand how our worldview evolves. Crucial to this is a 20-year-old experiment on inattention – the famous Invisible Gorilla experiment. This involved recording two teams of basketball players and playing back the game to observers, who were asked to count the number of passes their team made. During the game, a man in a gorilla suit walks on to the court, pounds his chest and then walks off. More than 50% of the observers, astonishingly, did not notice the gorilla at all.
Why is this so important? Because, as Peterson notes, you only see what you aim at – not only metaphorically but also literally and physiologically. Your perception is adjusted to your aims. So if your aims are dark and corrupted, you will see the dark and corrupt things that facilitate your aims. And if your aims are high, you will see different things. Belief colours perception. This fits in with his claim that you must pursue proper meaning rather than happiness.
“It’s all very well to think the meaning of life is happiness, but what happens when you’re unhappy? Happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at – because it’s not an aim. And if happiness is the purpose of life, what happens when you’re unhappy? Then you’re a failure. And perhaps a suicidal failure. Happiness is like cotton candy. It’s just not going to do the job.”
But how do we build meaning? By putting it before expediency. Which is quite close to simply “acting right”. Peterson believes that everyone is born with an instinct for ethics and meaning. It is also a matter of responsibility – you need to have the courage to voluntarily shoulder the great burden of being in order to move towards that meaning. This is what the biblical stories tell us. The great world stories have a moral purpose – they teach us how to pursue meaning over narrow self-interest. Whether it’s Pinocchio, The Lion King, Harry Potter or the Bible, they are all saying the same thing – take the highest path, pick up the heaviest rock and you will have the hope of being psychologically reborn despite the inevitable suffering that life brings.
Peterson’s biggest analysis of story has been the Bible. He lays out how the Adam and Eve myth shows the coming of self-consciousness – and therefore an awareness of mortality, vulnerability, the future, and good and evil. Everyone in the story immediately starts to lie and dodge the blame – Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the serpent. Then they give birth to Cain and Abel, and the first act of human history is for Cain to murder his own brother out of resentment against him and God alike, and then lie about it: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Peterson talks a lot about the power of resentment in his writings. We hate those who are better than us (God, Abel) and want to destroy them, then lie to hide from the consequences. “Consult your resentment,” he says. “It is revelatory. Don’t underestimate malevolence and don’t underestimate the utility of your capacity for malevolence. If you’re weak, you should turn yourself into a monster. It’s a funny thing, that ‘monster’ is better than ‘nice’. But it’s not as good as ‘not monstrous’. And that’s the next thing to achieve. But cowering in your basement resenting everyone is the real pathway to darkness.
“You have to notice when you’re feeling homicidal. Let’s say you go to work and someone bullies you. If you notice, you’re fantasising some pretty nasty stuff. That tells you two things. The first is that you’re not as nice as you think. And the corollary of that is, you’re not as useless as you think.”
“God”, in Peterson’s formulation, stands in for “reality” or “the future” or “the logos” or “being” or “everything that isn’t you and that you don’t know”. And the principal discovery of early mankind is that “God” can be bargained with, through sacrifice – which is no more than saying if you sacrifice the pleasures of the present, reality is likely to reward you in the future. It’s not guaranteed, but it’s the best option you’ve got.
Having said that, and noting that his lectures are purely about the psychological rather than the theological value of the Bible, Peterson is a devout Christian. “Yes. Which is a form of insanity. The ethical burden is ridiculous. God might swipe you down even though you’re doing the right thing. But it’s your best bet. There is a great level of reality out there which we don’t know and don’t understand. We can bargain with it, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything and God can turn on you. That is the thing about life. There’s no guarantee of success.”
Does he believe in life after death? “I don’t know that I even believe in death! I’m not sure we understand anything about the role of consciousness in space and time. I don’t think the world is the way we think it is. I’m not a materialist. Whatever is going on down there at the subatomic level of matter is so weird that the people who understand it don’t understand it.”
The last chapter of Peterson’s book, misleadingly titled “Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street”, goes into the personal struggles he went through when it was discovered that his daughter, Mikhaila, had a rare bone disease. For many years, Peterson, his wife and daughter fought the illness, which clearly caused Mikhaila terrible suffering. It is also on record that Peterson and his daughter have suffered clinical depression. It is impossible to be sure, but it seems clear that the agony of these experiences has had a major impact on him and how he comes to focus on the underlying darkness of life.
There is much more to be said about Jordan B Peterson. He is a strange mixture of theologian, psychologist, conservative, liberal, wit and lay preacher. He’s a powerful advocate of the scientific method who is not a materialist. He can go from cuddly to razor sharp in a beat. His primary concern, however, which underpins nearly everything about him, is the defence of the individual against groupthink, whether on the right or the left.
“Your group identity is not your cardinal feature. That’s the great discovery of the west. That’s why the west is right. And I mean that unconditionally. The west is the only place in the world that has ever figured out that the individual is sovereign. And that’s an impossible thing to figure out. It’s amazing that we managed it. And it’s the key to everything that we’ve ever done right.”
Peterson’s 12 rules
Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back
Rule 2 Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping
Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you
Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today
Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world
Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie
Rule 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t
Rule 10 Be precise in your speech
Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding
Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street
12 Rules For Life by Jordan B Peterson is published by Allen Lane (£20). Buy it for £17 from bookshop.theguardian.com