‘The world is divided into two principles: order and chaos. Order is male and chaos is female.’ Danyl Mclauchlan investigates the strange philosophy of number one best-selling author and thinker Jordan B Peterson, author of 12 Rules for Life.
This article was originally published on February 8, 2018
Professor Jordan B Peterson is having a moment. I’d never heard of him – such is the nature of my left-wing social media filter – until his triumphant interview on UK’s Channel Four went viral a few weeks ago. At about the same time reviews – mostly cruel – of his new book penetrated my online bubble. As I write, 12 Rules for Life is a number one bestseller on Amazon; Tyler Cowen rates him as one of the most influential public intellectuals in the world; left-wing groups are protesting his appearances on campuses across North America, and he earns $50,000 a month in donations from his online supporters.
Peterson is a psychoanalyst, a popular but controversial lecturer in psychology at the University of Toronto and a right-wing Youtube celebrity with millions of mostly young men flocking to view his lectures which have titles like Identity Politics and the Marxist Lie of White Privilege or Biblical Series IV: Adam and Eve, Self-consciousness, Evil and Death. He first rose to prominence when he publicly defied a Canadian law about using preferred gender pronouns for transgender people, earning him the admiration of the right and the undying enmity of student activist groups the world over. In much the same way progressives circulate video clips of Rachel Maddow or Ta-Nehisi Coates destroying sexism or racism, people on the right share footage of Peterson annihilating political correctness or postmodernism.
Peterson looks like Billy Bob Thornton playing his character in the film adaptation of his life: he’s tall and slender and elegantly graying; his voice has an odd cadence that is both theatrical and calm. He self-identifies as a classical liberal and a sort-of Christian. His house is filled with Soviet propaganda posters which he’s collected for years and placed on almost every wall to constantly remind him of the evils of Marxism. His beliefs are a complicated syncretism of Christianity, Taoism, Nietzsche, psychoanalysis and hand-picked components of evolutionary biology.
How does it all work? You know, I’m still not totally sure, but here’s the basics: the world is divided into two principles: order and chaos. Order is male and chaos is female. This has been the case since evolution divided life into male and female categories two billion years ago. Order is safety and light and consciousness; chaos is frightening and unconscious and dark. Chaos is the black cave, if you get his drift. Peterson isn’t saying women are bad. Not at all. No, chaos is a part of life: order and chaos complement each other. Chaos is bad though, and women symbolise it, and have since the beginning of time. That’s just a fact.
Also a fact: life is an endless series of ruthless dominance contests in which the strong triumph and obtain access to fertile, desirable females and the weak submit, and don’t. You can prevail in these evolutionary struggles, keep chaos at bay and bring order to your life by following the insights found in great literature – Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Milton – and The Bible. Especially The Bible, which is the foundation of western civilisation containing the encoded wisdom of countless generations. Its stories are cryptic though, and must be carefully unravelled: happily Peterson’s biblical deconstructions always align perfectly with his unique Nietzsche-Taoist-Darwin tinged view of the world, almost as if a trove of redacted, repeatedly mistranslated bronze-age folk-tales could be interpreted to mean literally anything.
I was willing to go either way with Jordan Peterson. We don’t have enough right-wing intellectuals around, for my money, and one of my favourite works of political philosophy is Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man. Even though I don’t agree with much of it, it still blew my mind and I was hoping Peterson could deliver something similar. But if he turned out to be a crackpot then I could write a cruel, mocking review, and that’d be fun too.
Spoiler: I think Peterson is mostly a crackpot. If the serial killer from Se7en wrote a self-improvement book for wayward teens and new parents it’d be pretty close to 12 Rules for Life. Not all of the book is like that: Peterson is a psychoanalyst and lecturer: he’s got some valid points, some interesting research; he’s got patient cases and anecdotes, some good-if-vague advice, and I’m always there for takedowns of the Marxist left. But most of the text consists of his life-is-pain-and-dominance-because-evolutionary-biology-proves-Jungian-archetypes-in-the-Book-of-Genesis routine, wedded unevenly to his admonitions to straighten up and fly right.
Let me give you an example of how it all mixes together. Some people who are prescribed medication by their doctors don’t take it, Peterson explains in Chapter Two. Even those who have had organ transplants and who need to take immunosuppressants to prevent their body from rejecting the donor organ sometimes fail to take their pills, and this failure can be fatal. In fact, studies show that people are more likely to give prescription medication to their sick pets than they are to themselves. Why? What does it say about humanity that some people are more likely to save their pets’ lives than their own?
If, like me, you’ve been brainwashed by the Luciferian hubris of rationalism you might look for answers in the research literature on medication noncompliance. This suggests that discontinuing medication correlates to age, income, educational level and the severity of a drugs’ adverse effects, and you might wonder if people who can afford to medicate their pets are members of a demography more likely to continue any form of prescribed medication, while pets don’t have the agency to discontinue a drug if they don’t like the side-effects. But thinking like that won’t get you millions of hits on Youtube so Peterson looks for answers in the Old Testament.
You see, we learn in the Book of Genesis that God created a bounded space known as Eden, which means “well-watered place” in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. He created Adam and Eve, who were naked and not ashamed of it, thus not self-conscious. A serpent appeared. So paradise symbolises order and the serpent chaos, and this represents the dichotomy of Taoist totality. The snake also symbolises the eternal human proclivity for evil, and not even God can create a bounded space that precludes this. The serpent is able to trick Eve, and perhaps this is the reason women are more protective, self-conscious, fearful and nervous than men. She eats the apple of the tree of life and becomes self-aware. She then gets Adam to eat the apple, symbolising the way women have been making men self-conscious “since the beginning of time”, mostly by rejecting them. Also, the creature in the story is a serpent because human vision evolved to detect snakes, so they gave us the vision of God, and this is why Mary, the eternal archetypal mother is depicted in Renaissance art holding the Christ Child in the air, far away from serpents. Adam and Eve became aware of their nudity to protect their egos, because they felt unworthy to stand before God because “Beauty shames the ugly. Strength shames the weak. Death shames the living – and the ideal shames us all.”
God then curses Adam and Eve, telling Eve that women are now cursed with the pain of childbirth, symbolising the expansion of the human cranium that gave us self-consciousness and its evolutionary arms race with the size of the female pelvis. Thus God expels humanity out of the infancy of the unconscious animal world and into the horrors of history itself. So that’s why people are more likely to medicate their pets more than themselves, and leads to Peterson’s second Rule for Life: that you should consider the future and think “What might my life look like if I was caring for myself properly?” and that you should treat yourself as if you were someone you were responsible for helping.
If you’re thinking “That last bit is . . . not bad advice, but what the fuck?” then I’ve successfully conveyed the Jordan Peterson experience.
The advice isn’t the point, of course: the aim of the book is to communicate Peterson’s grand, unified theory-of-everything, and the advice is a listicle to hang it all on. There’s a lot I could say about Peterson’s system, especially its dubious, often wrong “just-so” stories about evolutionary biology. But the book is a target-rich environment so I’m going to limit myself to one of Peterson’s pet subjects: the evil, insane, anti-human, world-threatening, neo-Marxist, gender-bending left-wing curse of postmodernism.
As Peterson has previously established, the Book of Genesis proves that there is evil in every human: Christianity restrained the human tendency towards evil but with Nietzsche’s announcement of the death of God in the 19th Century the stable, virtuous moral societies of the Christian world collapsed, leading to the death camps and the gulags. Now, he explains, we live in a world with no values, in which academics brainwash their students with postmodernism and teach everyone that there is no meaning and that gender is just a social construct, and this explains the chaos of the world around us.
Okay: what even is postmodernism? Peterson doesn’t really define it, except as a nefarious Marxist plot which is causing feminism to destroy the economy. And, although he doesn’t make this distinction himself, Peterson is talking about philosophical postmodernism: literary postmodernism with the self-referential novels and unreliable narrators and so on is probably okay, and not destroying the world. Philosophical postmodernists don’t like to define the term either (or anything else) but the story goes something like this:
Prior to 1500 AD you have the pre-modern world in which almost everyone believed that the way you found out about reality and morality and the way we should behave and live our lives was through divine revelation, holy books or the wisdom of the ancients, which was generally received through divine revelation. Then you got people like Bacon, Galileo, Copernicus and Descartes who argued that the way we find out about reality is to use reason and mathematics and figure things out for ourselves. This was an amazingly powerful idea and it kicked off the scientific revolution and the enlightenment and led to the development of rationalism, capitalism, nation-states, liberal democracy, industrialism and “historical progress”: ie the modern world. Modernity!
But by the mid-twentieth century you’ve had centuries of imperialism, two World Wars, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, totalitarianism in the Soviet Union and the dawn of the Cold War, and some intellectuals felt that modernity wasn’t working out super-well, and that the philosophical assumptions behind it – rationalism, individuality, capitalism, historical progress etc – should all be re-examined. Thus, postmodernity, which one thinker defined as “scepticism towards metanarratives”, the metanarratives being rationalism, capitalism and so on.
The first postmodernists drew on a number of philosophical sources, primarily Marx, who was a critic of modernity but still operated in the modern tradition in the sense that he made claims about the truth of allegedly scientific laws governing human history, society, economics, and psychology; Nietzsche, who questioned the very validity of truth or scientific concepts, arguing that these were merely artefacts of language; and Freud’s theories of repression, unconsciousness and desire, and his practise of psychoanalytic literary criticism, in which “moral truths” about society and the human psyche can be gleaned from literary sources (eg, famously: we all want to kill our fathers and sleep with our mothers because Sophocles’ Oedipus). Now, Jordan Peterson hates Marx, but Nietzsche and Freud are his favourite philosophers: keep that in mind because it’s going to be important later on.
Postmodernism has come under attack from two very different directions. The first is the right wing critique which Peterson advances, and for which he’s become a cause celebre: that postmodernism is a Cultural Marxist plot to take over our universities and destroy western culture. But the second critique, articulated by philosophers outside the postmodern tradition, academics in the physical and social sciences, liberal intellectuals and some thinkers on the radical left – most notably Noam Chomsky – is that far from being either a global threat or a “ruthless criticism of everything that exists”, postmodernism, while occasionally interesting and useful, is mostly incomprehensible, masturbatory bullshit, and that the bulk of what postmodernists say can be decoded into either simple truisms or meaningless gibberish.
People much smarter than me insist that philosophical postmodernism is a real and vital field, and that, as with advanced physics, the language is difficult because the concepts are very complex. But whatever its merits, postmodern texts are famously inaccessible, and because of this, the controversy outlined in the second critique, and the wisdom in the old saying that universities are separate schools and departments united by a common central heating system, relatively few students who pass through universities, and few academics who teach at them actually encounter much postmodern theory. Academics as a class are predominantly left-wing, but this isn’t because of postmodernism or cultural marxism. They’re left-wing for the same reasons teachers and nurses are generally left-wing and farmers and small-business owners skew to the right; a combination of social forces, self-sorting and self-interest.
Are the social justice groups that Peterson and his followers war with online and at campus protests products of postmodernism? Let’s think about that. Are feminist movements like MeToo motivated by Judith Butler’s gender performativity theory, or the fact that the criminal justice system is broken when it comes to preventing or punishing sexual assault? Are Black Lives Matter inspired by the Frankfurt School, or the fact that police in the US routinely assault and murder young black people? Do Bernie Sanders’ supporters, who advocate for socialism understand a single damn sentence of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, or are they reacting to the conspicuous failures of the form of capitalism ascendent in the west for the last thirty years?
Some of the intellectuals affiliated with these groups try to articulate their views using postmodern jargon, but if you “purge” the social sciences and humanities departments of postmodernists, as Peterson urges (he describes himself as a classical liberal, which seems to mean ‘someone who opposes all modern manifestations of liberalism’) all you’ll accomplish is a more comprehensible, coherent activist left.
But, Peterson might argue, aren’t left-wing political parties and western society in general dominated by relativism and nihilism, the pernicious postmodern doctrines that there’s no such thing as reality or truth, and that all beliefs – no matter how monstrous – are just as valid as each other? Are they? Really? There are postmodern thinkers who – somewhat problematically – claim it is true that there is no such thing as truth, and that all value systems are relative. But are these views prevalent on the political left? It seems to me that, what with climate change, Piketty, implicit bias tests and gender pay gaps, the contemporary left is very vigorously Team Rationalism, Team Science, Team Reality-is-Real, and Team Aghast at the Alternative Facts and Fake News Ascendent on the Right.
If anything, much of the contemporary left veers too far in the wrong direction away from moral relativism. One of the central tenets of liberal democracy is pluralism: the hard-won idea that not all moral values are equal, but that individuals have the right to determine their own values, within certain parameters, because if the state tries to act as the total arbitrator of all moral value, things quickly degenerate into centuries of genocide and civil war. I agree with Peterson that there’s an ominous drift away from pluralism and the related commitment to free speech among factions of the left. But that’s like, the opposite of relativism.
And the rejection of pluralism is also a problem on the right. Specifically it’s a key characteristic of Jordan Peterson. Despite his advice in Rule 8 (“Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”) Peterson literally demonises his ideological opponents as anti-human Luciferian totalitarians. But when he warns about postmodernism or Marxism what he’s usually complaining about are the tenets of liberalism which is less a plot to destroy western civilisation and more one of its defining qualities. And the real irony is that Peterson’s critique of liberalism, rich with Freudian psychoanalysis, his insistence that social interactions are mediated by power and Nietzschean elevation of narrative or moral truth over rationalism, is incredibly postmodern.
Which makes sense, when you think about it. Postmodernity is there to criticise the status quo, and plenty of left-wing values are now the status quo, especially in academic and cultural circles. People who champion those values still think of themselves as outsiders: rebels; revolutionaries speaking truth to power. In much the same way some Labour and Green MPs keep jumping onto social media to attack the government because they haven’t adjusted to the fact that they are the government, much of the academic and cultural left still see themselves as free-thinking radicals despite enjoying full-spectrum dominance of their institutions and its values for decades.
I think that’s why Jordan Peterson is so popular: why he’s touched such a nerve. He is, bizarrely, a counter-cultural figure, vaguely analogous to Timothy Leary. Leary told kids to drop out and take LSD, Peterson is telling them to read The Bible, tidy their rooms, and that men-are-men and women-are-women, because that is now a radical, subversive, counter-cultural message.
And he’s far from the worst thinker the alt-right and its millions of angry young men could embrace. His advice is somewhat sensible, mostly, eventually; he celebrates (some) literature; he insists that he hates totalitarianism and Nazis; he tells millennials to improve their posture. And he seems like a fitting adversary for the campus left, who are protesting and no-platforming him with vigour because his unrepentant stand on gender pronouns, rambling pontifications about Adam and Eve and suggestions that communist revolutions might have their downsides are triggering them and making their learning environments unsafe. Jordan Peterson is not for me, fallen and polluted anti-human non-Being that I am. But maybe he is the public intellectual that both the alt-right and the radical left simultaneously need and deserve.
12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B Peterson (Allen Lane, $40) is available at Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed, free daily curated digest of all the most important stories from around New Zealand delivered directly to your inbox each morning.