12 Rules for Life – Follow-up

Well…I promise I’m not trying to milk this for all it’s worth.  But I realized that after “finishing” the review of 12 Rules for Life, I’d failed to answer my starting questions from Part 1:

  1. What is about [Jordan Peterson] or his message that generates commonality between such disparate groups?
  2. What kind of person, with such a prestigious CV, is so willing to go out on a limb [against political correctness]? Is he really courageous, or is there some other reason?

I think the answer to #1 is pretty simple.  Peterson’s appeal lies in his embrace of core values, like honesty, hard work, integrity, and self-respect.  Any belief systems that value the individual and accountability are going to gravitate towards his message, which puts a big emphasis on you, the individual, taking action – making your life better and making the world better.  So that is what seems to make his following so diverse.

To the second question – my takeaway from reading 12 Rules is that Jordan Peterson is a religious person.  Not necessarily a Christian or even a deist in the traditional sense, he nevertheless holds certain beliefs, and he adheres to them faithfully.  Peterson is the greengrocer in Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless” who has chosen not to display state-mandated slogans in his shop window, because he has decided to “live within the truth.” That’s what drives his courage.

I was telling my mom about the book, and she recommended this interview which just came out last Thursday. Though nearly an hour, it goes by very quickly…  I haven’t seen Peterson so emotional before, and it brings out a different side of him, less of the academic and more of the personal, even self-conscious.  He does cover several of the main points of 12 Rules as well.

In January, Peterson announced he is working on a “better book,” a sequel called Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, scheduled for a January 2020 release. I’m looking forward to reading it, not only to compare with the first book but to see the progression of his ideas and how the past two years of publicity may have changed (or not) his messaging.

Aladdin 2019 – Reaction (No Spoilers!)

A couple of months ago I mentioned I was looking forward to two Disney remakes this year, Aladdin and The Lion King.

Well, my siblings and I just got back from Aladdin, and I was not disappointed!   It’s funny, beautiful, moving, and action-packed.  Dare I say it??  I like it better than the cartoon original.

It is also my favorite Disney remake so far, even more than Beauty and Beast, my previous favorite.   Aladdin stays true to its origin – a story of adventure, humor, and romance – and doesn’t try to be more than a good, old-fashioned kid’s movie.  (Yes, Jasmine has her own song and subplot, but it fits her character arc and doesn’t seem incongruous.)

So if you have any reservations, I say give it try, you may be pleasantly surprised!

12 Rules for Life – Part 3 of 3

I’ve decided to share these quotes in the order they appear in the book, plus occasional commentary. All quotes are from the 2018 hardcover edition.

Key:

  • plaintext – Worthy quotes
  • bold – Favorite quotes
  • italics – Quotes I disliked

12 Rules for Life: Best and Worst Quotes

The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism.  It’s not communism, either, for that matter . . . We (the sovereign we, the we that has been around since the beginning of life) have lived in a dominance hierarchy for a long, long time. (p. 14) – Agreed, seems pretty self-evident.

. . . the familiar Western images of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and the Pietà both express the female/male dual unity, as does the traditional insistence on the androgyny of Christ.  (p. 42) – “traditional insistence on the androgyny,” what is he talking about?

You should take care of, help and be good to yourself the same way you would take care of, help and be good to someone you loved and valued. (p. 62)

. . . a villain who despairs of his villainy has not become a hero.  A hero is something positive, not just the absence of evil.  (p. 78) – Exactly!

. . . winning at everything might only mean that you’re not doing anything new or difficult.  You might be winning, but you’re not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning.  (p. 88)

Ask yourself: is there one thing that exists in disarray in your life or your situation that you could, and would, set straight?  Could you, and would you, fix that one thing that announces itself humbly in need of repair?  (p. 94)

What would your life look like, if it were better?  (p. 100)

The Old Testament Israelites and their forebears knew that God was not to be trifled with, and that whatever Hell the angry Deity might allow to be engendered if he was crossed was real.  Having recently passed through a century defined by the bottomless horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, we might realize the same thing.  (p. 105) – This is a terrible example of conflating all evils with “judgment from God.”  It’s not biblical (see Job).  Granted, Peterson here is speaking of the “Old Testament God” as a concept, not necessarily as a real Person.  But this kind of thing is what I meant by “repurposing the Bible” to fit a philosophy.

. . . if  you look close enough, the biggest of lies is composed of smaller lies, and those are composed of still smaller lies – and the smallest of lies is where the big lie starts. (p. 228)

People think they think, but it’s not true.  It’s mostly self-criticism that passes for thinking . . . Thinking is an internal dialogue between two or more different views of the world. (p. 241)

The past is not necessarily what it was, even though it has already been. (p. 267) – On second reading, I’m not exactly sure this makes logical sense, but I get the gist of it, and it’s a hard truth.

Assume ignorance before malevolence. No one has a direct pipeline to your wants and needs – not even you.  (p. 320) – Good advice for managing conflict.

When [boys] told off the teachers, they were pushing against the authority, to see if there was any real authority there – the kind that could be relied on, in principle, in a crisis. (p. 331) – Yeah, I’m not really buying that one.  Backtalk is backtalk, let’s not romanticize it.

Maybe the environmental problem is ultimately spiritual. If we put ourselves in order, perhaps we will do the same for the world. (p. 364)

12 Rules for Life – Part 2 of 3

A solzhenitsin
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by Evstafiev
[CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“No one could stand up for communism after The Gulag Archipelago – not even the communists themselves.” (12 Rules for Life, p. 310)

I would like to think that’s true.  Unfortunately, admiration for Joseph Stalin is, by all appearances, far from dead.  The mass murderer has been rebranded as a WWII hero first and dictator second. While not all Russians subscribe to that narrative, there are some who are nostalgic for the USSR.

I once briefly dated someone who felt that way.  It wasn’t apparent on first impressions, but, as we got to know each other better, I learned he was an ardent Stalinist, fully heroizing Stalin and believing all the bad to be exaggerations, lies, or American propaganda, or (barring all that) nothing any worse than what U.S. presidents had done.  Though born in a former Soviet republic, he was not really old enough to remember life in the Soviet Union, yet to him it seemed to be a Golden Age he’d missed out on.

There is really no arguing with someone so dogmatic about their beliefs.  In a certain sense, I can empathize.  I have very strongly anti-communist views, and they are shaped by my family’s background just as, I am sure, his beliefs were cemented by his background.

Chaos, Order, and Communism

There is one place in 12 Rules for Life where Peterson refers to the atrocities of the 20th century as being central to his motivation for formulating his philosophy.  He wanted to know why and how such things could happen.  Throughout the book, he calls out Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China as examples of what can go wrong when, in his viewpoint, you don’t successfully walk the fine line between Chaos and Order.

What are Chaos and Order?  From the Overture (aka introduction):

Order is where the people around you act according to well-understood social norms, and remain predictable and cooperative.  It’s the world of social structure, explored territory, and familiarity . . .

Chaos, by contrast is where – or when – something unexpected happens . . .  It’s Creation and Destruction, the source of new things and the destination of the dead (as nature, as opposed to culture, is simultaneously birth and demise). (p. xxviii)

He adds that Order is symbolically masculine and Chaos is symbolically feminine.

If this sounds at all familiar, it’s no coincidence.  True to his fame, Peterson draws largely upon mythology and Easter and Western religions in this book, including Yin and Yang.  It would be an understatement to say that Peterson uses these narratives as mere analogies.  More on that later…

It’s hard to argue against what seems to be self-evident: the world (both civilizations and uncultivated nature) is essentially binary or polar, in everything from hot vs. cold, north vs. south, and theft vs. charity.  Which is not to say there is no room for nuance or gradients.  It’s just that we live in a world where contrast is the framework upon which everything else hangs.  While, through a Christian lens, I see the moral contrast as being instead Good vs. Evil (and without a gender, symbolic or otherwise), Peterson’s case for Chaos vs. Order – neither one innately immoral unless taken to excess – is a compelling stance.

He always goes back to the Cold War as an example of when Things Fall Apart.  Some may find this repetitive, but I have to say this really hit home with me.  My dad fled a communist country when he was a teenager.  My closest college mentor was a Soviet dissident, and in his case, he escaped a sentence to hard labor.

One of the worst things anyone ever said in my presence was “I’m interested in communism,” with the same nonchalance that you might say “I might want to take up golf.”  It’s a nonchalance that doesn’t understand the broken families, trauma, and unspeakable hardships brought on by that ideology.  I’ll take my former friend’s dogma over nonchalance any day; a casual treatment of the subject is doubly offensive.  (To be fair to the speaker, they didn’t know my personal backstory.  I could have said something, but the context of the conversation was too frivolous to even go there.)

Peterson, at least, gets it, and he takes it seriously.

The Bible References – A Christian Perspective

The biggest complaint I see about this book is the “Bible talk.”  And yes, there are a LOT of biblical references in 12 Rules.

Peterson starts out in the first chapters by retelling the Genesis story of Creation, including Cain and Abel and Original Sin, and later on in the book talks about Jesus’s life and death as well.  You’ll often see mentions of God, or what might be more accurate, “god” with a capital “G.”

To go by his writing, Peterson does not seem to be a Christian.  He has identified as Christian in the recent past (2017), but truthfully, that label doesn’t mesh with the way he talks about God in this book.  At times I found it actually offensive, nothing like the “preachiness” other readers may be expecting as they flip through the pages.

He doesn’t seem to take the Bible as holistic truth, as a Christian does, but rather as a book of universal truths, formulated by humans.  He retells Bible stories in a way I had heard of but had never read before – in the most symbolic and broad sense.  God is symbolic, Adam and Eve are symbolic, etc.  Once in a while, some of his commentary made me look at a passage in a different light, for the better.  Most of the time, though, I was either upset with his handling of the Scripture or just about laughing over it.  Watching him try to condense and stuff the Bible into his philosophy was like watching someone stumble around in shoes two sizes too small.

For a Christian, this is a very serious problem with the book.  In order to sort out the gems from the duds, you have to read it critically, because Peterson, if nothing else, is a persuasive and authoritative writer.  If you are a Christian who holds him in very high esteem, you’re going to be disappointed by what is not even theology, but a general repurposing of the Bible for his philosophy.  It’s as if Hollywood made a movie about your family member and changed their whole personality.  It’s not ok.

I struggle with whether to purchase books like this.  Due to its scope and some really good parts, it is one I wish to re-read, but I’m not sure I’d like to display it on my bookshelf when much of it is so problematic.

The Book He Should Have Written

After finishing the book, I stand by my first impression.  Peterson should have written a memoir, or a novel.

The personal anecdotes are not many, but each one was fascinating, from his run-ins with his friend Chris to his daughter’s struggle with childhood arthritis.  I also enjoyed the scenarios from his clinical practice and hearing about advice he had given various patients, and the thought processes that go into being a psychologist.

Peterson certainly has an appreciation for literature.  I loved the references to The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground, and Disney’s Little Mermaid.  It made me want to go back and read those books and find things I’d missed.

In the next part, I’ll share the best and worst quotes.  There’s quite a few, and mostly good ones.

12 Rules for Life – Part 1 of 3

So… I have this get it back to the library ASAP (fines are accruing), but I can’t seem to write a short review.  I tried, I really did, but it’s hopeless.  Here is Part 1, and I hope to have Part 2 up tomorrow.

First, some background…

Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson June 2018
Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As I mentioned in a previous post, my purpose in reading this book was to see what the fuss was about.  Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto (and formerly at Harvard and McGill), has become a controversial figure in recent years, for voicing his views on forms of political correctness which he sees as threatening to freedom of speech.  It’s a long story which you can read about on Wikipedia, and I only mention it to give some context.  Peterson, whose YouTube lectures attract millions of followers, went on two years after the publicity to publish his 2018 book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.  This book became a huge bestseller.

Why read the book if you can watch the videos?  I’ll be honest, though I’ve seen a few interviews with him, I didn’t find them interesting enough to want to watch more.  (Maybe I’m still sick of college lectures.)  Also, what fascinates me most is not his speaking, but:

  1. His following and fans, who come from many different backgrounds (conservatives, libertarians, Christians, atheists).  What is about him or his message that generates commonality between such disparate groups?
  2. His motive.  What kind of person, with such a prestigious CV, is so willing to go out on a limb? Is he really courageous, or is there some other reason?

Finally, I’m generally interested in the phenomenon of cultural leaders.  In this case, that is people who, for good or bad, end up speaking for a large number of other people (who felt like they had no representative before) and also being influential by providing mentorship or guidance to those people.

I was hoping the book would get to the core of these questions.  I was also curious if this was a modern classic in the making, or just another trend…

The Rules

To start off with, there are (refreshingly) very few political references in this book.  For the most part, it’s what I’d call “popular philosophy” with sprinklings of self-help, most vividly in the twelve chapter titles or “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 else 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 (let kids enjoy an adventurous childhood)
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street (appreciate the little everyday blessings)

IMO, the advice, while not all-encompassing, is mostly solid.  If you’re going to pick twelve principles to live by, you could do worse.

At this point, I realized I was probably not the target audience, because several of these values I learned from my parents (except #1…they tried, but I still have “nerd posture”).  Peterson is known for his father-figure persona, and if you had never heard this advice before, I think it would make a big impact.

Well, that’s all I can fit in to this post tonight…

Part 2 will cover:

Chaos, Order, and Communism

The Bible References – a Christian Perspective

Part 3 will be:

Best and Worst Quotes