12 Rules for Life – Jordan Peterson

I’ve watched many of YouTube-sensation Jordan Peterson’s interviews, but it was rewarding to engage with his provocative approach to gender, culture, meaning and truth on paper. He’s a divisive figure – I think it’s because of the way his ideas are perceived to be used by less politically correct segments of society. But there are many mainstream ideas that need to be pushed against. I know this all too well from economics where mainstream ideology has thrown the world into unsustainable economic purgatory or debt and low interest rates! And political correctness isn’t the be-all-and-end-all. In fact, Peterson specifically pushes back against PC and I welcome this. I think need to contest ideas and risk offense to progress intellectually. While Peterson is bound to make errors, misspeak and stand on toes, he’s read and thought deeply about numerous subjects, has practiced psychology with patients over many years and makes a valuable contribution towards the betterment of society.

I enjoy the skilful way in which he draws on religion, history, psychology and archetypal stories to generate wisdom on key subject matter. For example, the ancient Taoist symbol of the Ying and the Yang, which represents order and chaos. Order is the known; hierarchy, structure, things and goals, which is the masculine element. Chaos is the unknown; life, meaning, feelings and risk, which is the feminine element. Obviously, gender activists would push back against these dichotomous gender representations and the mystical approach is open to criticism. But there really does appear to be wisdom below the surface. Men and women have broad differences in character. This doesn’t imply that men cannot fulfil feminine roles and visa versa but to deny the fundamental differences opposes reality and is dangerous.

It’s helpful that this approach doesn’t necessarily focus much on men and women specifically, but more on the feminine and masculine attributes and the way these find expression in individuals, society and culture. Additionally, I thought that the elevation, definition and appreciation of the feminine characteristics was profound. The unknown, life and meaning; questions like where did we come from? And where are we going? These are far more challenging and rewarding pursuits than what we tend to consume ourselves with every day. Once again, this isn’t to say that men cannot and do not apply themselves to these pursuits. But perhaps the female inclinations provide a head start? Perhaps this is why women are less likely to have mid-life crises or why they live longer than men? Maybe women just have a better grasp on what’s important? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think its very interesting to use these ideas to challenge our conceptions of gender, roles and relationships, rather than just pretend that no differences exist. I think we need to be aware of our strengths and weaknesses in order to improve, as individuals and groups of people, not pretend that they don’t exist.

Society holds equality as a panacea, but unequal distributions are actually far more common than equal. Inequality and hierarchies can be viewed across the animal world, in human incomes but also in creativity. Most scientific papers are published by a very small group of scientists, a tiny proportion of musicians produce most recorded commercial music, and a small number of cities have most of the human population. Equality isn’t an outcome that occurs naturally! While inequality reduction is potentially desirable in many circumstances, its dangerous to try and completely reorder societal structures for the sake of an unnatural outcome. Its certainly appears a stretch to argue that inequality is societies biggest challenge, if it is a naturally occurring phenomenon.

Peterson has been strongly influenced by the terrors of totalitarianism, which can be required in order to pursue equality. This is when the rubber hits the road politically. Many will argue that infringements on personal freedoms are required to pursue a greater good and that these aren’t particularly restrictive or totalitarian. Others will forcefully oppose any infringement on freedoms due to the slippery slope. I tend to fall into the latter camp, particularly if the infringements are being imposed by a politician in the capital who is far removed from reality. Returning to equality, I believe it’s far more important to focus political energies on the policy environment that allows rapid economic and social mobility, pulling the poor out of poverty as quickly as possible. By contrast, inequality focused policies tend to focus on Robin Hood approaches, taking from the rich and giving to the poor, which tends to reduce mobility and negate the original goal.

Peterson wades into the generational debate, arguing that Millennials have been taught two contradictory ideas about morality. First, that morality is relative, a personal value judgement. Second, that intolerance of others’ views and ideologies is appropriate. This is a bizarre and dangerous combination and quite an apt description if one looks around and the peculiar combination of tolerance and intolerance that surrounds us. As a Millennial, I worry about the political choices of my peer group, our political apathy and the push-back against free speech. There appears to be a massive chasm between the politically active on the supposed “left” and “right” but the majority are sitting in the murky middle, too afraid of the vitriol being spewed by the politically active on social media. I worry that we’re inadequately equipped for the challenges that face us economically, politically and socially over the coming years as we enter a period of economic, social and political upheaval, termed the 4th turning by Neil Howe.

There are many more valuable contributions on rules, hierarchy, religion, relationships and parenting within the book. All ideas… all open to criticism… but its good to see someone push back against the popular narrative and ruffle a few feathers in a well thought out and grounded manner. The 12-rules approach implies that the book doesn’t read like a gripping novel. There’s a mishmash of ideas but I think its’ worth ploughing through, engaging and sharing with others along the way as we try and navigate a better future.

The book is filled with maxim’s that will sound overly simplistic to some and profound to others. A few that I stuck:

Aim to be the person at your father’s funeral that everyone, in their grief and misery, can rely on.

What should I do when my enemy succeeds? Aim a little higher and be grateful for the lesson.

Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

There are no atheists, there are only people who know and don’t know what God they serve.

“No tree can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.” – Carl Jung

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