The orderly side of a chaotic reputation

“12 Rules for Life: An antidote to chaos” by Jordan B. Peterson

Jordan Peterson is a polarizing figure. In a world where extreme opinions become the norm, his matter-of-fact stance are often criticized by the liberals as dangerous ideas. Without ever reading or listening from himself directly I had thought that Peterson was just one of those provocative right wing commentators such as Rush Limbaugh or nut job Alex Jones.

But then I listened to a podcast interview with him, and the few little things he said have actually been fact-checked and deeply analysed before he talks, and actually makes sense. Then I watched some of the several controversial videos of him, and the many criticism of him seems like taken wildly out of context.

For example when asked in an interview by a feminist whether a transgender woman is a real woman, his answer was: depends on the definition, for instance according to the biological definition a real woman is someone who can produce babies, so in that regards transgender woman is not a real woman. A bold and harsh fact, one that perhaps is not politically correct to say in this hyper-sensitive era, which eventually gives him the label of transphobic without intending to do so (because he then clarifies that he supports the choice that transgenders make, but that was not the question, and from the look of it never the intention of the interviewer).

Still, I felt indifferent. Few years passed and then I stumbled upon yet another meme of Peterson accused of some controversial stance (controversial in the context of identity politics), with me proceeded to read one of the media articles covering it. And again it feels incomplete, so I listened to another (longer) podcast interview with him to figure out the man behind the controversy.

But no matter how much snippets about him that I watched, read, or listened to, I will never get the big picture, as the things that he said and the reputation that he end up having doesn’t seem to match. That is, I thought, unless I finally read his book. And true to my tsundoku-ist nature I just happen to already bought this book a while ago. And so, I decided to give it a go.

In a world where good causes become overblown and over-exploited by the so-called social justice warriors, where the very causes that fight for human rights and equality are suddenly used for extreme entitlement and to play victim – which makes quite a lot of liberal minded people become frustrated when looking at the reverse injustice -, Jordan Peterson seems to serve as some kind of a voice of the harsh truth, an orderly reason to the chaotic reality.

And this book, with all its flaws, represents his compilation of just this: 12 rules to bring back order to the chaos occurring in our personal world. Here are the rules:

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you.
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone is today.
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
  8. Tell the truth—or, at least, don’t lie.
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
  10. Be precise in your speech.
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

Now, as you may have noticed, in a glimpse these rules look nothing more than a back-to-basics kind of self-help advice. And you’re absolutely right. The book turns out to be such a dull one for a man as controversial as Peterson. I had expected something more edgy just like his spicy talks and debates. Moreover, the elaboration of the rules oftentimes can get way offtrack from the theme of the rules, while at other times it is filled by only meaningless gibberish and cliches.

Only occasionally that we hit upon Peterson’s true nature that provide our judgements and biases with sobering cold shower of raw truth. But when it does, it’s mind blowing, like his theory of unspeakable primordial calculator, or his description of the evolution of lie, or his interpretation and elaboration of the story “There’s no such thing as a dragon.”

And so, as it turns out, Peterson is a fantastic speaker and debater, but he’s just not that good of a writer. In fact, if you only read the 12 list above, you wouldn’t miss that much. But, BUT, it’s maybe worth sticking with the book, skim read it if you must, as the occasional bursts of brilliance really live up to his reputation as a clinical psychologist and a former Harvard professor that was popular with the students. It is also provide a glimpse of Peterson’s private life, which he’s surprisingly quite open (even vulnerable) with the stories of his family, friends, even his dog Sikko, and what happened to his daughter Mikhaila, that could give us more puzzle piece of information to the big picture about this man.

All in all, like Peterson himself, is it hard to put a label on this book. Some parts are no doubt worthy of a 5 star, others a dull 1, while most of the stuff written here are a borderline between 3 and 4 stars. So, for a book with thin margins between good and bad, I thought I’d resort to pettiness: 3 star for the overall average, and most specifically for hating Elmo (“that creepy whiny puppet”). Oh, never ever change Mr Peterson.