Reading Peterson So You Don’t Have To – Part 1

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

I had largely ignored Jordan Peterson over the past few months as he oddly became a favourite of the alt-right. From my cursory glance, it seemed little more than an academic spruiking a book with a bit of outrage marketing built around a cliched anti-‘PC’/anti-college leftism. Complain about the kids-these-days or act as if student politics was some new phenomenon and it seems somebody somewhere will give you a platform. Say something snotty about pronouns and people even further to the right will declare you are a hero.

It was only more recently that the guy caught my interest (as I already mentioned here)  when I learnt that the book he was selling was a self-help book. Now I don’t have a good hypothesis about self-help books and I particularly don’t have well-formed ideas about specifically ‘positive thinking’ but I have a sense of a shape of a thing. I have a metaphorical wall of notes and photographs joined by red twine at which I point both vaguely and manically and say ‘You see? Huh? You see?’

It all fits together into a thing.

What’s on this metaphorical wall:

  • Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche 15 October 1844 – 25 August 1900)
  • Norman Vincent Peale (May 31, 1898 – December 24, 1993) author of The Power of Positive Thinking
  • Richard Nixon (a friend of Peale)
  • Donald Trump (who attended Peale’s church)…
  • …The Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan
  • Dilbert
  • Scott Adams and Scott Adams’s earlier business related Dilbert themed self-help books
  • The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Alt-right arse Mike Cernovich
  • Ayn Rand
  • L Ron Hubbard
  • Scientology
  • And Jordan Peterson

And the thing the wall is trying to illustrate is a manifold set of ideas that vary from the useful and positive to the overtly fascist – a mix of people genuinely trying to help other people with well-meaning advice through to the modern resurgence of far-right ideologues in current politics.

I don’t have a well-formed critique here. Indeed, I’m going to be making some half-baked assertions and comparisons. What I haven’t been able to do previously is to find a way to start.

Then I got a copy of Jordan Peterson’s recent book and a way in became clear.

I don’t know how many posts this will take but fair warning – it might be many or they may just fizzle out.

Peterson’s book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos’ is not a good book and it genuinely is not worth reading – it is barely worth hate reading. It rambles, it wanders off topic but not in an entertaining or funny way. Some of it is just a cranky guy sounding older than his years complaining about noisy children in fancy restaurants. Some of it is half-baked cultural criticism and some of it is bad Jungian/Freudian stuff.

There is no point talking about Peterson’s “views” as if there is a coherent ideology there. To some extent that is by design, as the whole book has an anti-ideology theme. Pick a revealing sentence and somewhere else there is a sentence that says the opposite. Pick a generalisation he makes and elsewhere he will demand nuance or shades on the same topic.

You can pick your way through Peterson’s 12 rules and ignore particular things and find the book to be largely liberal and maybe even useful. Alternatively, you can pick on the more problematic elements and see something quite nasty. But my aim is not to make a claim about what Jordan Peterson *really* means – as far as I can tell he means all of the books just as sincerely all the way through. It is a set of unfiltered ideas. If Peterson remains in the public eye and carries on with the punditry, some of those ideas will become more prevalent and others will fade but there’s no knowing which will be which.

I will be looking for certain ideas though – ideas that fit into the general shape of the ‘thing’ I describe above. The purpose is not to discredit Peterson’s book or even Peterson but to identify what that far-right finds appealing in the book and how it fits into this weird manifold of ideas that appears to be a precursor to 21st-century American-style fascism.



37 responses to “Reading Peterson So You Don’t Have To – Part 1”

  1. “Peterson’s book ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos’ is not a good book and it genuinely is not worth reading – it is barely worth hate reading.”
    You are such a fucking liar, floppy. Why not go and read Musashi’s Book of Five Rings and tell us how genuinely not worth reading that is too.
    Or perhaps you could enlighten us why the legions of young men reading this book are using it to turn their lives around. Successfully, by all accounts.


    • Apparently, the book makes many of the young men who read it turn their lives into a highly problematic direction. It’s not the first self-help book with a problematic message and it won’t be the last, but that doesn’t mean that such books shouldn’t be criticised.

      Liked by 2 people

    • You are such a fucking liar, floppy.

      Phantom, this is precisely why you stay in the spam filter, and why you belong there. Such intelligent discourse, and so conducive to polite conversation, wouldn’t you say? This is not Mad Genius Club, where you can toss out such nonsense and go unchallenged. If you would dial it back and talk like a rational adult human being, maybe we would converse with you.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I have been watching a dear old friend from high school slowly get sucked into this vortex, only his route to Peterson-ville was via Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. I don’t know what to make of that.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I picked up Harris’s ‘The End of Faith’ when it came out, and despite being inclined pretty favorably towards it (this was in the midst of the Dubya years), the book convinced me that Harris was smug, intellectually shallow, and completely dishonest. The subsequent years have demonstrated that my initial impression was too kind.

        Liked by 3 people

    • With the late Christopher Hitchens, I always remember that being Peter’s brother doubtless caused… issues.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hitchens certainly bested Tony Blair in their Munk Centre debate “Be it resolved that religion is a force for good in the world.” (2010). I actually cringed and felt sorry for ex-PM in a couple of spots. I never saw CH as a world-class intellect, but he sure was quick and clever in debates with that ability to come up with eviscerating lines.

        Liked by 1 person

      • PS — maybe I should have said “original thinker” there. The above sounds more arrogant and condescending than I’d prefer to be. Who am I to say anything about anyone’s smarts? I’m not even a neighborhood-class intellect. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

    • So, a day or two after this comment, my high school friend popped up with some sort snarky meme slamming my profession, drawn from Peterson-speak. I piped up with a short counterpoint and his response has left me feeling unsettled, sad and weird — where in the past our exchanges would always be done in good spirit, this time his response was condescending, full of stereotypes and outright hostility. He peppered a long response with my first name (condescension check), explained my profession to me (check) invoked the “some of my best friends are X” defense (check), and reacted negatively against points I never even made or insinuated. Within ten minutes, his comments had been liked by five bros all adding nasty comments about me and talking about how SJWs are fascists and socialists and don’t tolerate opposition and the political correctness has run amok and we are all free to espouse a single idea etc etc etc. Without any self-awareness or irony at all, one guy said he read encountered some feminist book at age 16, immediately saw through its fallacies and went directly to [opposite theorist] and hasn’t budged from the truth since then. They were mocking me (a fictional version existing in their heads, to be sure), but at the same time were unable to entertain that they might have something to learn from my informed direct perspective. I am still feeling vaguely sad and creeped out by this encounter because after 6-12 month of being Peterson-curious, my previously-eclectic genuine giggly curious friend has turned nastier, quicker to anger and was actually kind of mean to me.

      No real point to this, except to say that the gateway phenomenon is real. And that I am really liking the expression of solidarity that seems to be offered nowadays: “I see you.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • I had someone first-name me like that repeatedly in a Usenet post, back in the day. In my reply to him, I used his name in every sentence, sometimes three times in a row. (“Because, Pete, Pete, Pete, you’ve just…”) I don’t remember if he got the point or not, but I was hoping he would. Faults and all, he was one of the more tolerable of his cadre.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Cora. I think I may have lost a friendship of a couple of decades standing.


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