Professor Jordan B Peterson has lately been tested in ways that would surely have stretched Job himself to his limits. No, I’m not talking about Penguin Random House Canada’s inundation with complaints by staff opposed to the decision to publish Peterson’s new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.
Rather, as Peterson outlines in the modestly-titled ‘Overture’ of his follow-up to 12 Rules for Life, I refer to the period from 2016 to 2020. which saw a precipitous decline in his health, culminating in being placed in an induced coma in a Russian clinic after having become addicted to benzodiazepines. As well as being diagnosed with double pneumonia while in Russia, Peterson also contracted Covid-19 during a stay in a Serbian hospital. (There is no mention here of the all-meat ‘lion diet’ that Peterson adopted in mid-2018, and which he somehow fails to link with the ‘anxiety spike’ he experienced in early 2019 despite a not at all surprising connection between forgoing fruits and vegetables, and poor mental and physical health.)
Let me assure you that I take no pleasure in stating these facts. We have each been visited by chaos and swallowed up at one point or another, and where once Peterson’s fans – like the good doctor himself – may have sought consolation in the Russians (the literary, not the medical kind), they now look to Peterson himself for a light in the darkness.
Beyond Order is a better book than its predecessor, more assured and, frankly, less weird, even if most of the contents of the two books – ‘a matched set, like yin and yang,’ Peterson writes – is essentially interchangeable. A commentator more inclined than Peterson to yoke together the art and the artist might even venture so far as to observe that the Prof has been softened by his brushes with truly stygian misfortune. While, like 12 Rules, Beyond Order abounds with folksy advice dressed up as scholarly wisdom, there is mercifully much less of what one reviewer called, in reference to Peterson’s first set of rules, ‘authoritarian nonsense’ (OK, that was me, and there’s still quite a bit of authoritarian nonsense here – Peterson thinks we need to harden up at funerals, which seems like odd advice from someone whose profession has had quite a lot to say about the negative consequences of suppressing emotion, but there you have it).
The book’s cover, quoting the New York Times, touts Peterson as ‘the most influential public intellectual in the world right now’. Leaving aside the possibly backhanded use of the word ‘influential’ here (as opposed to, say, ‘brilliant’, ‘astute’, or ‘insightful’), might we not reasonably expect such a figure to apply at least a veneer of academic respectability to a book that, while aimed at the same wide readership that snapped up five million copies of 12 Rules for Life, mixes Heideggerian ontology with Harry Potter?
Yet Beyond Order contains a mere ninety-two notes, thirteen of which refer back to Peterson’s own work, and vanishingly few in-text references. And if you’re wondering which intellectual powerhouses make an appearance in Beyond Order’s acknowledgments, you may be surprised to find the names not of our top Freudian psychoanalysts or Darwinian determinists but reactionary grifters like Ben Shapiro, Douglas Murray and Steven Crowder.
And then there is the question of what to do with statements such as these:
- ‘Question: Who are you – or, at least, who could you be? Answer: Part of the eternal force that constantly confronts the terrible unknown, voluntarily’;
- And, ‘Dreams are statements from nature. It is not so much that we create them. They manifest themselves to us’. (There are multiple variations on this theme.)
As a man who has said many times that he chooses his words with precision, and who has variously claimed to be an evolutionary biologist and a neuroscientist (neither of which is true), you would think Peterson would be more careful to avoid claims that, far from appearing to have any evidentiary basis, sound like the kind of New Age windbag Deepak Chopra might come up with in one of his more undignified moments.
Even statements with a less unscientific ring, for example ‘that anything sufficiently threatening or harmful once encountered can never be forgotten if it has never been understood,’ barely rise to the level of nonsense the more you think about them (the reference for this alleged truism is… a 2003 paper co-authored by Peterson).
Worse, Peterson’s professed rejection of dogma, encapsulated by Beyond Order’s sixth rule, ‘Abandon ideology’, is contradicted on practically every page. Here’s a rule for life for you: everything is political, including, and perhaps especially, that which disavows politics. One of the most dissonant aspects of this book is the way Peterson criticises Freud and Jung, two of his intellectual heroes, for focussing too much on the individual psyche and not enough on the role of community and society in shaping mental health while, at the same time, contemptuously dismissing the idea that the state of the world might be causing his clients’ profound psychological distress.
Speaking of his clients, it isn’t always clear if Peterson has gained consent from them to tell these stories. This feels particularly egregious in the case of a chapter concerning the writing down of painful memories in which Peterson recalls counselling a female client to consider that she had not in her childhood ‘[been] molested by an overpowering and malevolent force’ as she had told him because there was only two years’ age difference between her and her attacker when the incident occurred. (This is not the first time Peterson has engaged in this sort of gaslighting.) Elsewhere, Peterson writes of taking a vegan client – another young woman, described as ‘a real-life version of Sleeping Beauty’ – to a butcher’s shop in a bizarre, and seemingly unmerited attempt, to ‘overcome her fear of life’. Once again, rather than seeing how his client’s revulsion towards meat might indicate a principled stand against killing animals, Peterson pathologises her, presenting her as sentimental and infantile.
It’s difficult to know exactly what to make of these case studies, given that Peterson supplies the reader with few details about them. (At least one, a tale of ‘political correctness gone mad’ involving a client whose employer apparently banned the use of the word ‘flip-chart’ because it might be offensive to Filipino workers sounds, frankly, apocryphal.) It never seems to have occurred to him that striving to make the world a more just place might, rather than indicate a lack of humility or sense of moral superiority, be among the most meaningful things a young person can do. Peterson’s insistence that your own life must be beyond reproach before you can begin to take action to address social injustice is not a prescription for self-improvement so much as political apathy, or at least an acceptance of the status quo. If that isn’t conservative ideology, I don’t know what is.
Peterson writes that: ‘It is impossible to fight patriarchy, reduce oppression, promote equality, transform capitalism, save the environment, eliminate competitiveness, reduce government, or to run every organisation like a business. Such concepts are simply too low-resolution.’ And yet incredibly baggy concepts like ‘political correctness’ and ‘post-modern neo-Marxism’ – whatever that is – are frequent targets of his, in this book and elsewhere. The reality is that most people, unlike Peterson, understand that betterment of the self and the world both begin with small, incremental acts, and that such acts need not be predicated on a belief in the perfectibility of either.
Peterson’s views on marriage and relationships are similarly steeped in the political conservatism that he openly identifies with, yet repudiates the ideological nature of. He apparently regrets living with his present wife before they wed. Divorce, he says – sounding for all the world like a fundamentalist Christian marriage counsellor – is ‘a trapdoor’, a way out of ‘not [having] to face what must be faced’. No word on why divorce might not be the most effective way of facing abuse or lovelessness in a marriage.
Women, those embodiments of the universal principle of chaos, are declared to be fakers, scolds, and tormentors. Peterson unironically diagnoses a case of ‘classic Freudian hysteria,’ and insists that there is something wrong with women ‘who would not perform whatever sacrifice necessary to bring a child into the world by the time she is twenty-five, or thirty-five, or worse, forty.’ Never mind that both voluntary and involuntary childlessness are complex social and medical phenomena. In the same vein, we’re told that any woman who has an affair with an older man must suffer from a personality disorder.
Even JK Rowling, whose Harry Potter book series is a constant reference point, isn’t described as clever or talented, but merely ‘intuitive’. Meanwhile, nature – archetypically female for Peterson, as it is in many cultures – is ‘hell-bent on doing you in, in a million horrible ways’, which at least somewhat justifies our merely ‘unfortunate’ exploitation of it (infer from that what you will). For a man engaged in as much earnest catastrophism as Peterson is, you’d think he’d be a bit more worried about climate change (which he largely denies) and the environment (which, in a move typical of the modern conservative, he thinks is worth sacrificing for the prosperity of some, for now).
It isn’t just women Peterson seems confused about. Let’s take four more examples, among many, of the thinness of his intellectual patina:
- Peterson claims that crime, alcoholism, drug abuse and lack of education are ‘problems that generate poverty’. But aren’t these issues more likely to result from the condition of being poor rather than lead to it? What of racism, sexism, or ableism, or other forms of systemic disadvantage? What about wealth inequality? Or precarious work? Or capitalism itself, which depends on slave-like conditions for millions of workers while the same amount of wealth owned by the poorest half of the world’s population is concentrated in the hands of just eight men?
- In Rule One – ‘Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement’ – Peterson states that the meaning of the old adage that ‘It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game’ is that the best player is not the winner but the one ‘who is invited by the largest number of others to play the most extensive series of games’. Surely, this is as just as misguidedly outcome-focussed as the priority to win? Isn’t the adage in fact a moral one that has at its heart the ideas of individual effort and fair play regardless of the results?
- For a man famous for drawing on examples from the natural world to explain human behaviour, Peterson is curiously ignorant on the subject of animals. It’s not true, as he writes, that animals have no conception of the future or temporality. To offer just two counterexamples, crows have been observed to bury acorns to retrieve and eat in the future, and many species grieve for lost family members – surely indicative of some nontrivial psychological relationship to the past.
- In Rule Eleven – ‘Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant’ – Peterson conceptualises addiction as a ‘living monster’, fuelled, on the one hand, by the neurotransmitter dopamine, and on the other, the sorts of character flaws listed in the rule’s title. You would think that a man with lived experience of addiction would know better than to simultaneously demonise the condition and invoke the extremely limited chemical theory of addiction as a causally sufficient explanation.
In each of these examples, again, we can see ideology at work, as well as the kind of sloppiness that it can bring about. While being Jordan Peterson the man looks a lot like hell these days, being Jordan Peterson the writer must be anything but. You could do it yourself. Here’s all you need: take some seemingly unobjectionable bromide, illustrate it with a story from Western folklore, popular culture, the Bible, or your own clinical practice (because, really, what’s the difference?), and finally obscure the political nature of your project with discredited or misapplied gobbets of psychoanalysis or evolutionary biology. Repeat until you have enough material for a book about 100 pages too long.
It would take another article of this size to reckon with the unlikely appeal of Peterson’s bespoke brand of humourless Canadian Presbyterianism. One thing those of us on the left can’t do, however, is dismiss a worldwide readership in the millions as some kind of cult or aberrance. No doubt, as a close-reading student of the classics, Peterson has learnt a thing or two about the power of telling stories we would like to be true. But, in terms that Peterson himself would be familiar with, such wishfulness may be no more than projection – the habit, Jung argued, whereby individuals project archetypal ideas onto things they don’t understand out of a desire for a more ordered, predictable world.
The truth is that the contemporary alt-right where Peterson has found much of his support is not an Arcadia of free thought and hard truths, but a fairyland of old prejudices reanimated by the magic kiss of YouTube. ‘Outrage culture’ is often associated with the online left, but it’s how Peterson began to make his way in the world beyond academia – by railing against a largely contrived threat to his freedom of speech on gender pronouns – and it’s what sustains the right-leaning ‘intellectual dark web’: from Sam Harris’s simultaneous disavowal of identity politics and embrace of what we might call the politics of white grievance, to Joe Rogan’s recent, laughable claim that straight white men are being ‘silenced’ by ‘woke culture’. It’s hard to come away from Beyond Order without feeling like the ‘modern anxieties’ Peterson offers an antidote for are more particular than universal, and much closer to home than he realises.
Image: Gage Skidmore