It seems ironic therefore that Jordan Peterson began his last book by talking about lobsters, because from the cut of his jib to the roles of his gender he prefers clean lines. As the biblical prohibitions suggest, such lines have many advantages; they are helpful with direction and certainty. Of course, as the existence of lobsters proves, they also have their limitations.
The phenomenon of Jordan Peterson, called “the world’s most influential public intellectual” in The New York Times, has been widely discussed. His book 12 Rules for Life sold in the millions. Peterson’s rise to public notice began when the Canadian parliament was considering Bill C-16, a bill that would ban discrimination against people on the basis of “gender identity” or “gender expression.” Peterson reacted by putting out a series of videos that attacked the bill as a threat to free speech rights. Since then he has become increasingly prominent as an exponent of order in what he often portrays as a confused and ideologically muddled age.
Peterson’s new book, Beyond Order, is again about order, offering 12 more rules for life. He notes that in the Bible the world begins “Tohu va-Vohu” — unformed and void, or what he designates chaotic. Needless to say, the chaos still peeks through. How do we make our way through the havoc of life and deal with the certainty of pain? Peterson offers a guide with some helpful advice that, like the rules of kashrut, also declares a lot of life to be out of bounds.
His first rule is, “Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.” You will notice that the wording makes the rule unobjectionable. There are very few partisans marching for careless denigration. More deeply however, Peterson is taking aim at a tendency, justly derided among conservatives, for people to belittle social institutions without recognizing the time, effort, wisdom, and utility that raised them in the first place.
Why do people do this? Some of it is careless, no doubt. But it is often because these institutions have themselves proven unjust, secretive, and even destructive. And because those who defend them sometimes do so without an honest reckoning with their shortcomings. Yet Peterson consistently favors the established hierarchy, in ways bound to evoke unease even among the like-minded. A modest example: Peterson writes,
If a subordinate exposes the ignorance of someone with greater status, he risks humiliating that person, questioning the validity of the latter’s claim to influence and status, and revealing him as incompetent, outdated or false. For this reason, it is very wise to approach your boss, for example, carefully and privately with a problem.
This may lead you to believe that he is fonder, or at least more protective, of bosses than is healthy for an institution. What follows cements that impression: “Someone newly promoted to a management position soon learns that managers are frequently more stressed by their multiple subordinates than subordinates are stressed by their single manager.”
That is simply not true and there is ample psychological literature to prove it. The reason it is not true is actually remarked upon by Peterson in another context in a footnote later in the book: “We now know that even the emotional and bodily response to stress differs completely when that stress is voluntarily faced rather than accidentally encountered.” My assistant does not know what I will ask, or when. Control of the environment is calming; being subject to the desires, legitimate or not, of another person is inherently stressful. The presumption that being in authority is more difficult than serving authority is a mistake those in service are unlikely to make.
The continuation of the paragraph above elaborates on the admirable nature of most authority:
Such experience moderates what might otherwise become romantic but dangerous fantasies about the attractiveness of power, and helps quell the desire for its infinite extension. And, in the real world, those who occupy positions of authority in functional hierarchies are generally struck to the core by the responsibility they bear for the people they supervise, employ, and mentor.
This is a startlingly benign view of power. In the wake of rampant sexual scandals in the church and other religious institutions, sexual harassment in virtually every industry, racial, ethnic, and other kinds of discrimination, corruption in government and finance and the media and so forth, unless we are willing to very severely restrict the use of the word “functional” in the sentence above, power deserves more scrutiny than this too roseate view would allow.
Peterson explains his own and his family’s struggles with health, which have been considerable — and are painful to read about. This is not the book of someone who blithely coasts through life unaware of the difficulties people face. He is a serious person and is genuinely engaged in trying to improve the lives of his readers and patients. Much of his advice is both valuable and, occasionally, even beautiful:
Your life becomes meaningful in precise proportion to the depths of the responsibility you are willing to shoulder. […] A bricklayer may question the utility of laying his bricks, monotonously, one after another. But perhaps he is not merely laying bricks. Maybe he is building a wall. And the wall is part of a building. And the building is a cathedral. And the purpose of the cathedral is the glorification of the Highest Good.
When I read this passage I remembered a beautiful rabbinic story of two men who were carrying stones. When a passerby asked what they were doing, one answered, “I’m carrying a stone.” The other answered, “I am building the Temple of Solomon.”
Peterson’s call to responsibility, to depth, to seriousness, and to fidelity are welcome and powerful. His description of bringing beauty into one’s life (rule eight: “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible”) and of the trials of keeping couples together (rule 10: “Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationships”), as well as his psychological advice sprinkled throughout the book, will find many grateful readers. In a contentious age, he offers a welcome warning about the perils of ideology: “This is a terrible trap: Once the source of evil has been identified, it becomes the duty of the righteous to eradicate it. This is an invitation to both paranoia and persecution.”
There is certainly rampant ideological crusading going on. The outsize reaction on both sides to Peterson’s own writing exemplifies it. His take on the world is heroic, and expressed through myth in a Jungian fashion: “So, there exists a hero and an adversary; a wise king and a tyrant; a positive and a negative maternal figure; and chaos itself.” Obviously hypostasizing the male and female is a controversial stand to take these days, although until quite recently it was pretty standard. Nonetheless, the categories reflect Peterson’s general preference for traditional conceptual boundaries — a preference that can make it difficult to hear the salutary parts of his message. This passage encompasses the dilemma: “If you confront the suffering and malevolence, and if you do that truthfully and courageously, you are stronger, your family is stronger, and the world is a better place. The alternative is resentment, and that makes everything worse.”
The first part is clarion and helpful. The second is Manichean. The only alternative to truth and courage is not resentment. There are endless degrees of truth and of courage, not merely those of warriors and whiners. Moreover, sometimes resentment is both justified and helpful. In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:
When you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” — then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
There is a resentment that can spur to action.
King’s invocation of resentment highlights another overstatement in search of a sound critique. Peterson writes: “We have spent too much time, for example (much of the last fifty years), clamoring about rights, and we are no longer asking enough of the young people we are socializing. We have been telling them for decades to demand what they are owed by society.” King’s letter was written 58 years ago, but the phrase “clamoring about rights,” without distinctions between groups, sounds haughtily dismissive of some genuine struggles for everything from voting rights to same-sex marriage. Much of the book is framed as a guardrail against chaos. But what looks like chaos to some may be the legitimate demands of others.
One wishes to rescue Peterson from the excesses of his own rhetoric. My own tradition, Judaism, is far more about duties and obligations than about rights. Peterson is no doubt correct that the culture of grievance can go too far and threaten to steal agency from individuals and sap their self-confident daring. “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again” remains valuable personal advice, and no one delivers it with more panache and depth than Peterson.
And yet. When I read, “We literally make the world what it is, from the many things we perceive it could be,” I think: not such a clean line. Born to loving and successful parents in the second half of the 20th century in the United States, I might be reasonably charged with having considerable power to make my world what it is. But for a child born in a relocation camp in Sudan, or even for my geographical contemporaries who suffered things I did not in the integrated neighborhood in Philadelphia where I grew up, it is not so easy. Courage and responsibility are necessary, but so is recognition of the imbalances that need to be redressed. One of Peterson’s subchapters is titled “Sanity as a Social Institution.” Just so. One cannot elevate the individual without regard for the context. As a psychologist, Peterson realizes and writes about the sometimes crippling social and psychological factors that can disable us. But he seems fearful that if he gives them any genuine credence, he will be offering excuses rather than exhortations.
“I have never met anyone who was satisfied when they knew they were not doing everything they should be doing,” write Peterson. I, on the other hand, have never met anyone who knew they were doing everything they should be doing. The drumbeat of absolutism seems weirdly at odds with the discipline of psychology. Increasingly since Freud we have learned that we are partial, compromising, uneven creatures, often unaware of what goes on inside our own heads and hearts. Unconditional pronouncements, even when framed as calls to responsibility, are too surgical and sanitized for the reality of human life. We have very different starting points in this unfair world.
If your attitude toward the world is, “It owes me,” your complaint will embitter your own life and contribute little to the culture. Responsibility is important. But that responsibility demands responsiveness to others. If you don’t constantly renew your compassion for those who are systematically disadvantaged by society, you risk smugness and blindness. Responsible and responsive — in other words, which come strangely to my rabbinical lips, the truth is, we are lobsters.
David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple in Westwood. His most recent book is David: The Divided Heart (Yale University Press).