OF THE MANY psychologists who will write self-help books in North America this year, relatively few will be published by Random House. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is not especially interesting, mainly comprising a mishmash of sensible but unremarkable observations about the importance of standing up to bullies and respecting yourself, interwoven with trite Darwinist generalizations about the tendency of human society to replicate the brutal hierarchies of the animal kingdom, and a few tidbits of received right-wing wisdom. How does such banal material wind up at the top of the best-seller charts? One obvious answer is that the intellectual bar for popular psychology books has always been disarmingly low. But there is more to it than that.
It seems reasonable to surmise that it was the author’s vast online following — rather than his credentials within his scholarly milieu — that recommended him for publication. Penguin has published Peterson in much the same spirit as Simon & Schuster had planned to publish another reactionary blowhard, Milo Yiannopoulos, last year: as an internet celebrity whose notoriety would pretty much guarantee sales. The intellectual heirs to the obnoxious right-wing shock-jocks of yesteryear, today’s self-styled, PC-baiting controversialists enjoy an enhanced profile in the era of digital social media. They are, in and of themselves, a publishing phenomenon. Seen in this light, it is tempting to treat their literary efforts with the indifference typically reserved for the ghostwritten autobiographies of twentysomething sportsmen, which proliferate according to the same cynical commercial logic.
But that will not make them go away. That there is an enormous market for this kind of tub-thumping — particularly among young men — is an unignorable fact of contemporary culture, and it is worth examining, not least because it has some bearing on the polarized political landscape we currently inhabit. Though he is neither as avowedly extreme nor as daft as Milo, Professor Peterson is cut from the same cloth. They share not only a certain strutting affinity for the limelight, but also the victimhood complex that is the philosophical foundation of the so-called alt-right, along with the half-baked intellectual arguments that sustain it. In a widely viewed YouTube video, Peterson claims to have debunked the idea that white privilege exists by pointing out that there are many factors other than race that might hold a person back in life. One suspects it is to this kind of content — rather than insights such as: “Children can be damaged as much or more by a lack of incisive attention as they are by abuse, mental or physical” — that he owes his celebrity.
That Peterson is also vehemently anti-Marxist would be relatively unremarkable were it not for the fact that, in many of his online disquisitions about what he sees as a left-wing takeover of campus culture, he uses the terms “Marxism” and “postmodernism” almost interchangeably. Not only are these two schools of thought very different from one another, they are also in certain respects mutually antagonistic. You don’t need an MA in critical theory to figure it out: the travails of the Democratic Party during the primaries for 2016’s presidential election highlighted, in a very public and destructive way, the ideological fault lines in US progressive politics. The bitter schism between the Hillary Clinton camp — which mobilized aggressively around identity politics — and the old-school leftists who rallied around Bernie Sanders ultimately helped clear Donald Trump’s path to the presidency. (Historically, the burgeoning of identity politics in US campus culture in the 1980s and ’90s went hand in hand with the ascendancy of postmodernist ideas that explicitly repudiated Marxism.) It’s not just that this sloppy use of language exposes Peterson as an intellectual lightweight; the tendency to causally conflate various disparate phenomena that one happens not to like — in this instance, postmodernism, Marxism, and political correctness — is the calling card of the paranoiac.
It might be said in Peterson’s defense that he is not a political scientist by trade: he is a psychologist dabbling in politics. But it’s hard to disentangle the substance of his psychological “advice” from the political ideology that drives him. “Before you help someone,” he counsels, “you should find out why that person is in trouble. You shouldn’t merely assume that he or she is a noble victim of unjust circumstances and exploitation.” He goes on: “It is far more likely that a given individual has just decided to reject the path upward, because of its difficulty.” It stands to reason that someone espousing this kind of radical individualist credo would have little truck with advocates of social justice, who tend to think in structural, big-picture terms. What he’s advocating here isn’t just that his reader adopt a philosophy of radical resilience in relation to his or her own life, but that all compassion toward others be renounced; the reader ought to see other people’s struggles as their just deserts — the culmination of their moral shortcomings — and treat them accordingly. It is an ugly, mean-spirited treatise against human kindness.
Quite apart from anything else, this is particularly galling for the implicit insult it blithely dishes out to the many thousands of young people who have flocked to Peterson for precisely the kind of succor he supposedly finds it beneath himself to give. Peterson even makes a point of warning his readers that people who hold themselves out as saviors are often creepy narcissists. Coming from a man who very deliberately positions himself as a prancing messiah-cum-surrogate-dad for gormless dimwits everywhere — peddling “Rules for Life,” no less! — this is staggeringly disingenuous.
By preaching the gospel of stoicism, Peterson has become something of a poster-boy for the kinds of folk who like to angrily bemoan the coddled entitlement of millennials. That many among this demographic are themselves coddled millennials is merely the tip of a giant iceberg of hypocrisy. Take, for example, this passage on the virtues of standing up for yourself:
If you say no, early in the cycle of oppression, and you mean what you say […] then the scope for oppression on the part of oppressor will remain properly bounded and limited. The forces of tyranny expand inexorably to fill the space made available for their existence. People who refuse to muster appropriately self-protective territorial responses are laid open to exploitation …
This is eminently sensible advice. It would also double as a pretty persuasive précis of the logic underlying much of the social justice activism that Peterson and his acolytes find so upsetting: in everything from Black Lives Matter to #MeToo to LGBTQ activism, people are trying to break the cycle of oppression by redrawing the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable, in order to protect themselves from abuse. At the heart of this activism is a recognition that culture matters — that the words we use, the way we speak to and about one another, have consequences in the real world. But his advice is not meant for these activists. In the face of their struggles, the angry young men of the internet who comprise Peterson’s target audience play dumb with the rest of us, affecting affront and bewilderment at the sensitivities of “snowflakes” and “social justice warriors.” The right to exercise an “appropriately self-protective territorial response” does not extend to those groups.
Arguably the most manipulative feature of 12 Rules for Life is the author’s repeated reference to procreation as the driving force of human behavior: time and again this or that proposition is supported by reference to the mating patterns of humans or animals. Given that so many of his readers appear to be young men struggling with masculinity issues, this is fiendishly clever in its appeal to their deepest insecurities: reinvent yourself as a brutal Nietzschean strongman and you’ll get some. (The patriarchal loathing for women implicit in this formulation — which presents them as markers of success or failure, rather than people to be connected with on a human level — hardly needs spelling out.)
About 70 pages into the book, Peterson reveals that he found teenage parties “dreary and oppressive,” because the music was too loud and “[e]verybody drank and smoked too much.” Is it just possible that this entire flimsy intellectual edifice has served a therapeutic function? That all this bitter railing against the excesses of ’60s and ’70s counterculture — complete with ungracious gloating over those slackers whose lives fell by the wayside — was merely an elaborate exercise to help him get over the fact that some cool kids once shunned him at a party? It would be churlish to make such an inference in earnest, although one ought to be instinctively wary of anyone who looks back with nostalgic fondness on the priggishness of 1950s America. (“Was it really a good thing […] to so dramatically liberalize the divorce laws in the 1960s?” he muses.) Marxism has been out of fashion for quite a long time, and most evidence suggests that kids don’t party nearly as hard as they used to. And yet the weird anti-hippie animus persists.
Psychoanalyzing the author might be fun, but it’s not very constructive. A more worthwhile line of inquiry is to consider why his work resonates with so many people, as it clearly does. These are indeed difficult times to be a young man, particularly if your sense of your own self-worth has been predicated on your perceived superiority to women and minorities. But even for those who aren’t particularly hate-filled or bigoted, times are hard. As Malcolm Harris explains in his excellent book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, young people today find themselves subject to unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety as they move from hypercompetitive schooling to an increasingly fraught and precarious job market. It is in the context of 21st-century neoliberalism that the appeal of a book like 12 Rules for Life starts to make sense. The present generation is having a much harder time of it than their Baby Boomer predecessors: they have inherited the freedoms of social permissiveness, but in an economic environment that is altogether more unforgiving. It’s a jungle out there, so look out for number one. In this sense, at any rate, Jordan Peterson is indeed a thinker for our times.
Except it can’t work. Human beings will never be reduced to insentient, atomized strivers, because we have souls and are social creatures. With this patchwork credo, Peterson is destined to go the way of other crackpot theorists like the behaviorists and eugenicists in whose footsteps he follows. Delivered with his customary steely-eyed, media-savvy aplomb, his spiel may be alluring and intoxicating to a young person down on their luck. The book’s subtitle — “An Antidote to Chaos” — is instructive in its frank admission of its emotional pitch: many people do indeed feel that the world is a very messy place, and Professor Peterson is offering to help you tidy it up in exchange for the modest sum of $26. But the leap from internet sensation to serious writer entails greater intellectual scrutiny — by readers less vulnerable and less credulous than his fan base — and on the printed page he is found wanting.
The world is full of snake oil salesmen; why should this one concern us particularly? Because male self-pity is a killer. There’s a white supremacist in the White House, and far-rightist violence — both Islamic and Anglo-Saxon — is a clear and present threat. In the wake of yet another mass shooting in the United States — the high school massacre in Parkland, Florida, where a teenage gunman has taken 17 innocent lives — it’s high time we gave up the complacent pretense that toxic machismo is merely an adolescent affectation or a symptom of some nebulous thing called “mental illness.” Yes, it’s a pathology; but it’s also an ideology, a system of thought in its own right, with its own intellectuals and proselytizers. In the current climate it behooves us to be extra vigilant about the creeping normalization of reactionary chauvinism, and call it out when we see it. What happens in the realm of discourse has consequences in the real world.
Admittedly it’s not always easy to distinguish between a harmless retro eccentric and a peddler of poisonous and potentially murderous ideas. So let’s take stock: Masculinist persecution myth? Check. Repeated appeals to Darwinism to justify social hierarchies? Check. A left-wing conspiracy to take over the culture? Check. Romanticization of suffering? Check. Neurotic angst about “chaos”? Check. Like many of his sort, Peterson sees himself as a defender of the best traditions of Western civilization and the Enlightenment. But there is an old adage: if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, chances are it’s a duck.
Houman Barekat is a writer and critic based in London, and founding editor of Review 31. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books, 2017).