By CHARLES STAMPUL
Jordan Peterson may be the only clinical psychologist who believes that psychology is subordinate to philosophy and the one thing that psychology and philosophy both genuflect before is story. Story, or myth, predates religion and is, in fact, as old as language itself.
In his earlier book, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, Peterson connects the stories we share with our earliest ancestors with modern knowledge of behavior and the mind. It’s a textbook for his popular University of Toronto courses.
The one-time dish washer and mill worker spent nearly 20 years at the University before garnering international attention. In September 2016, Peterson released a couple of videos opposing an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act which he contended could send someone to jail for refusing to use a made-up gender identity pronoun. Peterson went on to testify before the Canadian Senate, and has emerged as a foremost critic of postmodernism on North American campuses.
Postmodernism is the “new skin of communism,” In Peterson’s view. The ideology has been so thoroughly discredited from an economic standpoint that those who still advocate for it, for either political or emotional reasons, have resorted to attacking the very process in which something can be discredited—reason and debate. At the same time they have worked to change the face of oppression away from those living in poverty toward individuals who don’t look or act like those who hold most of the positions of power and authority in Western society.
Peterson’s classroom is now the entire globe. Millions are watching his lectures and other videos on YouTube. For this new and greater audience, a more accessible, more affordable compendium than Maps of Meaning was called for.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is more affordable for sure, but only slightly more accessible. Part self-help book, part memoir, part Maps for the masses, it’s organized sprawlingly. Rule 2 (Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping), for example, opens with a discussion of biblical texts only addressing the lesson at hand at the very end.
In Rule 3 (Make friends with people who want the best for you), Peterson tells the reader about some of his experiences with troubled boys growing up in brutally cold, Fairview, Alberta. This is a compelling section offered as a setup, only the point at the end seems slightly off. We should not make or stay friends will people who do not want the best for themselves.
For those stuck in a downward spiral, however, Peterson serves up some simple but potent solutions. “Wake up at a consistent time…eat a fat and protein heavy breakfast,” and “attend to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around.”
Yet the overall tone is fairly downbeat. His purpose is less to build one up and more to keep one in check. “Who are you?” he asks in connection to Rule 4 (Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not who someone else is today). “You think you know, but maybe you don’t. You are neither your own master, nor your own slave. You cannot easily tell yourself what to do and compel your own obedience.”
In Rule 6, (Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world) he advises “Life is in truth very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction. Sometimes suffering is clearly the result of willful blindness, poor decision making and malevolence…But human control is limited. Susceptibility to despair, disease, aging and death is universal.”
The narrative and advice becomes more inspiring, however, in the book’s final chapter. Those who’ve stuck with it are well rewarded.
Peterson’s great insight, criticism of postmodernism aside, is that story is lifeforce. The individual needs a personal story consistent with a larger societal narrative. These together keep him moving forward, learning and growing and taking on responsibility. The lesson is directed equally at those too narrowly focusing on self-actualization, as those too prone to sulking and complaining.
Peterson is what might be called a cultural Christian. He won’t tell you that the stories of the Bible are true, only that they are important to read and understand. “The great myths and religious stories of the past,” he explains, “particularly those derived from an earlier, oral tradition, were moral in their intent, rather than descriptive. Thus they did not concern themselves with what the world was, as a scientist might have it, but with how a human being should act.”
It’s a philosophy any Rotarian would embrace. He writes, “In my own periods of darkness, in the underworld of the soul, I find myself frequently overcome and amazed by the ability of people to befriend each other, to love their intimate partners and parents and children, and to do what they must to keep the machinery of the world running.”
In a fascinating two-hour debate with neuroscientist Sam Harris over the primacy of morality over science, Peterson needlessly faltered. Bogged down in semantics over the meaning of “true” he failed to expose the obvious flaw in Harris’s view that science precedes morality, which is that science, with examples from history and the present is often corrupted. We should question the findings of academics who profit from either falsifying data or not looking at new evidence.
Peterson writes as he speaks, a style which might be called professorese. It’s an unapologetically wordy, borderline stream-of-consciousness which at times trades clarity and brevity for trance-inducing rhythm.
Peterson’s critique of postmodernism on college campuses may just as well be a criticism of college itself. Following the controversy at the University of Toronto he has been on sabbatical and has stated publicly that he is not sure when, if, or how he will lecture again.
“I had to get my act back together after all these things happened,” he said in a recent interview with Jocko Willink. “I told them [the university] look I’m going to be much better if I take this year and do what is necessary for this book that’s coming out and re-conceptualize what I’m going to be teaching.
“I have all these lectures recorded on YouTube. There are three years of some of them online. It’s not obvious to me why I should do them again. I have to rethink what I’ve been doing as a lecturer. With YouTube you can do something new, like this biblical series I’ve been doing. You can have it out to 100,000 people in one day.
“I like to do lectures about things I’m still learning about. It’s hard to do that at a university because you have to have an evaluation structure. People have to know what to expect. It has to be preplanned. That’s not so good if you want to do something that’s novel. So I have a lot of thinking to do and don’t know what’s going to happen this next year.
“People are ready for a message that’s not all freedom and rights we have been walking down that road for 60 years. Freedom doesn’t give life meaning. Responsibility is what gives life meaning.”