Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life recently came out and while I haven’t yet read it, I thought it would be nice to return to his first 12 Rules book. Jordan Peterson is someone who has had a rough patch the last couple of years. After being in the spotlight for some time he had to retreat because of an addiction for which he went to rehab and the fact that his wife became very sick with cancer. All in all, not good. But now he’s back and who knows if he’ll return with political commentary or other things.
What first struck me after rereading 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is that there is a strong divide between what can be called ‘political Peterson’ and ‘psychological Peterson’. Though in public debates he will often cite psychological research, there is quite a difference in goals between the two. Which is why there are really two ways of reading 12 Rules for Life. You can read it as a political book, or you can read it as a self-help book. Many critics of his will focus on the political interpretation, while many of his followers will focus more on the self-help interpretation.
Let’s start with the political interpretation. This interpretation is the one he gets most attacked for. If we take chapter 1 on standing straight with your shoulders back, we get an explanation about societal hierarchies and that they have a biological basis as they can be found in lobsters for example, with who we have a common ancestor. Many critics of Peterson see this claim as a defense of the hierarchies which are seen as dominant in our society, for example that men should dominate women or white people should dominate black people. There is also a lot of criticism against Marxism and communism and some claims that these ideologies have creeped inside academia in the form of identity politics. Peterson being strongly against identity politics (something I agree with) criticizes these theories in his book.
This is to say that there are definitely political elements in Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. That is not to say that this is a political book. In my opinion, it isn’t and it’s the main reason why critics of Peterson get him wrong. They try to focus on the political instead of looking at the psychological side of the claims he makes. When not connected with his overarching philosophy, his political claims (and those of everyone for that matter) aren’t fully realized to be criticized completely. Even though Peterson has a lot to say about society, he isn’t as much of a political thinker as many would like to believe. First and foremost, he is a psychologist with an interest in Jungian psychoanalysis and totalitarian regimes.
Which brings me to the self-help side of his first book for casual readers. This book is first and foremost a self-help book. The title claiming that you should put rules on yourself in order to live a better life is definitely an ethical claim. And all in all, the message is pretty straight forward. Life sucks but here we are so you better take some responsibility to make this world a little less shitty. Peterson gives a lot of reasons why you should do this but in the end that’s the only thing he really says. Obviously, this implicates a whole different way of standing in the world (maybe with your shoulders back), but the message is rather simple. But maybe that is exactly why he is so popular. He is saying things which are so essential to human life, that most of the time it isn’t being said because we all believe this. Because it is so self-evident, we don’t really say this. But sometimes it needs to be said and the message is rather hopeful. You can make the world a better place by taking responsibility. All you have to do, is do it.
I disagree with Peterson a lot on some political issues, but on his psychological themes throughout the book I mostly wholeheartedly agree. Many of those who dislike Peterson, dislike him because of his political opinions (which obviously need to be criticized), but this is to disregard his psychological underpinning. Claiming that one should take responsibility in life isn’t a bad claim and we should acknowledge that.
Jordan Peterson is still a highly influential intellectual, only because of that alone will he stay relevant for some time. The threat of identity politics hasn’t subsided and thus his criticism against that ideology is still valuable. We should try and take Peterson seriously, because what he says gets a lot of attention. And I believe that this is deserved. It also means that we should criticize the points he actually makes instead of the caricatures that we create. Just like we should criticize Marx for the claims he makes and not the caricature that some critics make him to be. To create a caricature is to create a simplified version of the problem and this doesn’t help anyone. We have to take responsibility for ourselves that we’ll criticize the things worth criticizing instead of just following the herd.