In October 2016, a Californian science fiction writer decided to read a self-help book. The writer had previously worked on a webcomic that had gained some praise and had just published a tie-in novel to space-opera themed RPG card game. Jon Del Arroz was already open about his support for Donald Trump and modern American right-wing politics, so it isn’t a great surprise that he chose Gorilla Mindset by Mike Cernovich. The ‘self-help’ here was not a gateway to the politics but rather the politics were a gateway to the self-help book.
Cernovich already had a reputation among the alt-right and in MRA communities – a reputation he leveraged through the US presidential election via conspiracy theory mongering about Hillary Clinton’s supposed ill-health and the notorious ‘Pizzagate’ nonsense. Gorilla Mindset was just another way to monetise his internet notoriety.
According to Del Arroz, Cernovich’s book helped reshape his career:
“Gorilla Mindset helped push me there. I don’t know what it was, I can hardly pinpoint the direct lines that motivated me, but I do know it came from this book, along with some helpful support along the way from some awesome sci-fi and fantasy authors in the field who showed me they cared. It triggered something inside of me that let me say: go out there and just be honest. That will resonate. I had to tell myself that every day in the early days since coming out of the closet as a free speech warrior. Those tricks that Cernovich talks about in his book – talking to yourself in the mirror, tricking your mind into a new psychology, it’s very important, actually. It works 100%.”
Whether it did so, I’ve no way of knowing but it really does seem to have reshaped his internet persona. I’ll let readers consider the details of that example in their own time.
Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is both utterly different from Gorilla Mindset and very similar. The differences are obvious:
- GM is styled as a manual – lots of dot points, practical tips and even worksheets.
- 12 Rules are more literary, the advice is more general and is punctuated with a quasi-philosophical discussion.
- Of the two it is Peterson’s book that is more obviously ideological.
Style and genre aside, the two books overlap. Cernovich has bold headings like:
Gorilla Mindset shift: Treat yourself like a treasured and trusted friend.
Whereas Peterson has “Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are helping”. It’s a subtle difference but a common message around self-care. Peterson’s lobster themed chapter is entitled: Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back, whereas Cernovich gives you a step by step guide (with unintentionally hilarious photos) on the difference between slouching and literally standing up straight with your shoulders back.
The commonality of the message is not surprising. There are only so many plausible potentially life improving tips available. Cernovich and Peterson both offer advice on eating healthy, paying attention to your kids, being mindful, actively listening, setting personal goals and listening to (and modifying) your inner voices. Cernovich has the advantage of giving more detailed advice on what exactly to eat and what exercise to do – pushing his work closer to the related wellness movement (including lists of vitamin supplements). Peterson is more vague and quasi-philosophical but the broad concepts have a substantial overlap.
The value for good or ill of such generic advice is debatable. Offered without specific knowledge of an individual it might help or do nothing or be actively bad. Even innocuous advice like ‘eat healthily’ can be misapplied.
In some cases, we can see this spectrum of advice that mutates from ‘good but vague’ to ‘vaguely disturbing’ to ‘scarily toxic’.
Consider Peterson’s advice:
“RULE 3 MAKE FRIENDS WITH PEOPLE WHO WANT THE BEST FOR YOU
If I stay in an unhealthy relationship with you, perhaps it’s because I’m too weak-willed and indecisive to leave, but I don’t want to know it. Thus, I continue helping you, and console myself with my pointless martyrdom. Maybe I can then conclude, about myself, “Someone that self-sacrificing, that willing to help someone— that has to be a good person.” Not so. It might be just a person trying to look good pretending to solve what appears to be a difficult problem instead of actually being good and addressing something real.” -Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (pp. 81-82). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition
The broader idea of avoiding toxic relationships may well be good advice. Peterson’s spin on a person being ‘too weak-willed and indecisive to leave’ shifts this into a nastier more judgemental spin, with an aspect of victim blaming.
Cernovich though, has a similar line but it’s evolved into something more disturbing:
“When you develop ruthless focus, you may learn that many of your friends and family members aren’t friends at all. They are people who use you for their own ends and become deeply offended when you start living your own life.“ -Gorilla Mindset
It is a step along a line from Peterson who advises being friends with people who want the best for you but there’s a logic that joins the two. After all if Cernovich is making you better then your true friends should welcome this change and not get disturbed as you become a kale-drinking crypto-fascist with excellent posture.
But even Cernovich seems tame compared to the veteran masters of pseudo-psychology: Scientology. L. Ron Hubbard’s “Dianetics” started his own path towards the cult-like religious group. Dianetics was a less subtle mix of generic advice and an odd SF themed mock-Freudianism. For Scientology, the comparable concept is the ‘suppressive person” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suppressive_Person – a concept used by Scientology to pressure followers into cutting ties with any friends or family who are critical of involvement in the organisation.
Scientology, Cernovich and Peterson each have a relationship with mainstream psychology that highlights their differences and similarities. Scientology sees psychology as a false science and as an enemy to their own discipline but in doing so it mimics psychological concepts and terminology. Cernovich’s Gorilla mindset presents itself as adapting psychology. The ‘mindset’ term is borrowed form Dr Carol Dweck (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carol_Dweck#Mindset ) but the Cernovich’s book itself has little to do with her work (indeed mya be wholly at odds with it) other than the term ‘mindset’. Peterson, on the other hand, is a psychologist both as an academic and as a practising therapist. Yet in all three there is a common theme of overcoming subconscious drives that are holding you back from success.All three (and the self-help genre in general) has a common theme of cleaning yourself up so as to enjoy success.
“RULE 6 SET YOUR HOUSE IN PERFECT ORDER BEFORE YOU CRITICIZE THE WORLD
Clean Up Your Life Consider your circumstances. Start small. Have you taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to you? Are you working hard on your career, or even your job, or are you letting bitterness and resentment hold you back and drag you down? Have you made peace with your brother? Are you treating your spouse and your children with dignity and respect? Do you have habits that are destroying your health and well-being? Are you truly shouldering your responsibilities? Have you said what you need to say to your friends and family members? Are there things that you could do, that you know you could do, that would make things around you better? Have you cleaned up your life? If the answer is no, here’s something to try: Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today. Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is. Inopportune questioning can confuse, without enlightening, as well as deflecting you from action. You can know that something is wrong or right without knowing why. Your entire Being can tell you something that you can neither explain nor articulate. Every person is too complex to know themselves completely, and we all contain wisdom that we cannot comprehend. So, simply stop, when you apprehend, however dimly, that you should stop. Stop acting in that particular, despicable manner. Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak of with honour.” -Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (pp. 157-158). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
Cernovich is more succinct (and also more determined you should exercise)
“If you feel unfilled, stop doing whatever it is you’re doing. Try something else. Walk the streets until you’re exhausted. Repeat this every day.
When you finally see what you want, your life will change.” – Gorilla Mindset
If you had to waste money on either book, the ratio of generic good advice mixed in with woo-woo nonsense is about the same. There’s less overt reactionary ideology in the Cernovich book but more weird advice on protein powder. Peterson won’t make you take cold showers. Both are cheaper than becoming a Scientologist.
Better yet I’ve filtered out the potentially useful advice from both books:
- Try to eat healthy foods.
- Exercise regularly.
- Look at some of your immediate concerns and make some small, manageable goals for dealing with them.
- Pay attention to your kids (if you have some), respect them and don’t let them be brats.
- Be nice to other people but don’t let unscrupulous people take advantage of you.
- Take some time out to do something vaguely spiritual, from your religion (if you have one) to take a walk somewhere scenic.
- Set yourself some reasonable, achievable goals and work towards them.
The *how* of doing those things is actually the difficult bit and neither Peterson nor Cernovich really help in that (and at times are actively harmful). Like Polonius in Hamlet, general advice is easy to give but hard to act on.
Yet even apparently safe advice (e.g. Cernovich’s emphasis on a healthy lifestyle) has a sinister side. With his target audience of right-leaning young men in a culture where fat-jokes and ableist abuse is common, the emphasis on physical fitness looks more sinister. It is part of a more subtle message that sees success as a package with health and that a lack of either is from being “weak-willed”. Couple that with dangerous advice (e.g. ‘supplements’ will cure your depression) and you have a system for the exploitation of troubled men. Jordan Peterson isn’t as crass to suggest wacky supplements but his (inconsistent) reductionism in Chapter 1 on serotonin puts him only a few steps away.
One additional point in Peterson’s favour is that he avoids promising achiveing your goals via wish fulfilment. For Cernovich this is primarily about changing you psychological state which will then lead to success. It’s borderline magical thinking in that he does imagine a non-supernatural explanation (you’ll get better at doing stuff, in general, making it easier to fulfil your ambitions). Even so, the results he promises are ambitious:
“As an example, I was sitting on my couch in Venice Beach when I started visualizing myself writing out of cafes across the world. Two years later, that’s where I am.” – Gorilla Mindset
This though seems rather tame compared to the 2006 book “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne.
“Your life right now is a reflection of your past thoughts. That includes all the great things, and all the things you consider not so great. Since you attract to you what you think about most, it is easy to see what your dominant thoughts have been on every subject of your life, because that is what you have experienced. Until now!
Now you are learning The Secret, and with this knowledge, you can change everything.” – The Secret
“Thoughts are magnetic, and thoughts have a frequency. As you think, those thoughts are sent out into the Universe, and they magnetically attract all like things that are on the same frequency.
Everything sent out returns to the source. And that source is You.” – The Secret
Peterson is far more moderate and realistic, suggesting only that people set themselves positive goals and readjust their goals with experience:
“If you bend everything totally, blindly and willfully towards the attainment of a goal, and only that goal, you will never be able to discover if another goal would serve you, and the world, better. It is this that you sacrifice if you do not tell the truth. If, instead, you tell the truth, your values transform as you progress. If you allow yourself to be informed by the reality manifesting itself, as you struggle forward, your notions of what is important will change. You will reorient yourself, sometimes gradually, and sometimes suddenly and radically.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 225). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
This is certainly a much more responsible approach than Cernovich’s and vastly more sensible than magical claims of The Secret.
Where next? In Part 8 I went to step even further away from Peterson and look at some of the roots of these ideas historically. Then I’ve one or two more essays on aspects specific to Peterson’s book and then probably a conclusion. Having 12 parts to these essays would be aesthetically pleasing.