Thoughts on the Jordan Peterson Phenomenon

What to make of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon? His YouTube videos have been watched by millions. His book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, is a national bestseller. He is supposed to be especially popular with young men. As if on cue, one of my 20-something sons recently asked me what I thought of him.

Jordan Peterson on YouTube

To investigate first-hand, I’ve watched a couple of hour-long Peterson videos, and I’ve read his 368-page book. I like much of what he says. He offers an eloquent antidote to the cultural message we hear today about victimhood and identity politics. He affirms some deep and enduring truths about the human condition. He is politically incorrect, but in a nice Canadian and educated way.

My first impression of Peterson from watching the videos is that the man can talk. The book, too, is a river of words pouring out in well-crafted sentences full of the earnest sincerity you would expect from someone who grew up in a small town on the far northern plains of Alberta. As for the content of the book, it’s worth reading, although I think all the main points could have been conveyed in a booklet one-third its length.

At the risk of violating copyright law, let me offer a crib-note summary of the book with a few of my own comments along the way. If I’m not quoting Peterson directly, I’m paraphrasing him. My own comments should be obvious.

In the introduction, Peterson immediately connected with me by citing the late Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn. One cannot really understand the 20th century in all its horrors without being familiar with his great work, The Gulag Archipelago that chronicled the Soviet prison camp system. Peterson takes aim at the modern idea that happiness is our right as human beings. Solzhenitsyn wrote that the “pitiful ideology” holding that “human beings are created for happiness” was an ideology “done in by the first blow of the work assigner’s cudgel.” (p. xxvii)

In the West, we are withdrawing from our tradition-, religion-, and even nation-centered cultures to avoid group conflict, but increasingly falling prey to desperation of meaninglessness, and that is no improvement at all. (p. xxxii)

We require ordering principles or chaos beckons. “We need to stay on the straight and narrow path.” (p. xxxiv)

Rule 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back

The first 11 pages of this chapter are devoted to the behavior patterns of lobsters. In great detail he describes their habits of mating and staking out territory. The eventual point is that we should avoid slumping around like a defeated lobster. “You step forward to take your place in the dominance hierarchy, and occupy your territory, manifesting your willingness to defend, expand and transform it.” (p. 27)

Rule 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

Here Peterson contrasts order and chaos. He prefers order. With order, things work. We’re stable, calm, and confident. When a friend betrays you, or your business fails, when the IRS audits you, that’s chaos. “When the ice your skating on is solid, that’s order. When the bottom drops out, and things fall apart, and you plunge through the ice, that’s chaos.” (p. 37) We should be on the border of order and chaos, with one foot in each.

Peterson talks a lot about building heaven on earth. He has described himself as a Christian, and he is familiar with many of the stories in the Bible, especially the Old Testament, but a lot of more orthodox Christians would differ with many of his assertions. For example, he writes, “Perhaps Heaven is something you must build, and immortality something you must earn.” (p. 53) This follows the story about the fall of man from Genesis 3, but I would challenge that as the right conclusion. “He also writes, “Heaven, after all, will not arrive of its own accord. We will have to work to bring it about. …” (p. 63) He seems to leave the door open here for utopian thinking, even though it’s clear elsewhere that he doesn’t believe that.

Elsewhere in the chapter, he offers this all too truthful observation of mankind: “Only man could conceive of the rack, and iron maiden and the thumbscrew. Only man will inflict suffering for the sake of suffering.” (p. 54)

Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

The chapter starts with engaging stories of growing up in Fairview, Alberta. He quotes from Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, another deep Russian thinker on the human condition. Peterson notes that our misery may be aimed at those more successful than us, an “attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live.” (p. 81) “Things fall apart, of their own accord, but the sins of men speed their degeneration. And then comes the flood.” (p. 81)

Peterson advises to choose friends who are good for you, whose lives would be improved if they saw your life improve. That strikes me as not overly profound, but still good advice for teens and young adults.

Rule 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

“Perhaps you are overvaluing what you don’t have and undervaluing what you do. There’s some real utility in gratitude.” (p. 89) The first step is to take stock of ourselves. Like buying a house, we need to know whether flaws are structural or cosmetic: “You need to know because you can’t fix something if you don’t know its broken — and you’re broken. You need an inspector.” (p. 93)

The past is fixed, but the future could be better. “The present is eternally flawed. But where you start might not be as important as the direction you are heading. Perhaps happiness is always to be found in the journey uphill, and not in the fleeting sense of satisfaction awaiting at the next peak.” (p. 94)

Peterson writes that Bible is the product of “the collective human imagination,” which is itself the product of forces operating over unfathomable spans of time. (p. 104) Most Christians would not accept that statement, believing that the Bible is the product of the Holy Spirit working through men. This is one of a number of places in the book where Peterson sounds more like an evolutionary psychologist than a Bible-believing Christian. Yet he manages to come down on the side of a biblical, Christian worldview in most places, and he takes the teaching of the Bible seriously, in contrast to most academics.

“Search until you find something that bothers you, that you could fix, and that you would fix, and then fix it. That might be enough for the day.” (p. 108) “You are less concerned with the actions of other people, because you have plenty to do yourself.” (p. 110)

Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

Here is the heart of Peterson’s conservative political message: “Each person’s private trouble cannot be solved by a social revolution, because revolutions are destabilizing and dangerous. We have learned to live together and organize our complex societies slowly and incrementally, over vast stretches of time, and we do not understand with sufficient exactitude why what we are doing works. Thus, altering our ways of social being carelessly in the name of some ideological shibboleth (diversity springs to mind) is likely to produce far more trouble than good, given the suffering that even small revolutions generally produce.” (p. 118–19)

Kids who don’t learn to behave will not make friends. We need other people to be reminded to think and act properly. When we drift they nudge us in small ways to get back on track.

Two general principles of discipline: Limit the rules, and then use the least force necessary to enforce them. On p. 137, he offers a nice summary of what sort of rules we should set for our kids. I won’t list them all, but here are a few: Do not bite, kick or hit, except in self-defense. Eat in a civilized and thankful manner. Learn to share. Pay attention when spoken to by adults. Take care of your belongings. Act so that other people are happy you’re around.

Rule 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

Peterson quotes the chilling words of Eric Harris, one of the Columbine killers, who had a cold-blooded hatred for his fellow man. The message in this chapter is about taking responsibility for ourselves. We can choose vengeance or personal transformation.

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Peterson endorses delayed gratification. He calls it bargaining with the future. “We learned that behaving properly now, in the present — regulating our impulses, considering the plight of others — could bring rewards in the future, in a time and place that did not yet exist.” (p. 165)

He talks about Christ dying on the cross as the archetypal story of a man who “gives his all for the sake of the better.” He talks about Christ taking on the full depths of man’s depravity. He doesn’t mention the resurrection. He discusses the “Christian revolution” on pp.186–87, how Christianity challenged the slave culture, gave all people dignity, ended infanticide, and taught that even the lowliest of persons had rights.

Rule 8: Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie

“What should you do when you don’t know what to do? Tell the truth.” (p. 205) [I would add that you should tell the truth when you DO know what to do, too.]

“Taking the easy way out or telling the truth — those are not merely two different choices. They are different pathways through life. They are utterly different ways of existing.” (p. 209)

And then Peterson adds an observation that speaks to our current political discourse: “You can use words to manipulate the world into delivering what you want. This is what it means to ‘act politically.’ This is spin. It’s the specialty of unscrupulous marketers, salesmen, advertisers, pickup artists, slogan-possessed utopians and psychopaths.” (p. 209)

The totalitarian believes he knows all he needs to know: “All I know is all that needs to be known.” (p. 210) Peterson warns against “the great threat of total systems.” Communism rose from ashes of religious belief. The inferno of Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, killed tens of millions. (p. 219) “A totalitarian never asks, ‘What if my current ambition is in error?’” (p. 224) “All people serve their ambition. In that matter, there are no atheists. There are only people who know, and don’t know, what God they serve.” (p. 225)

Peterson ends the chapter with a kind of ode to the truth. “To tell the truth is to bring the most habitable reality into Being. Truth builds edifices that can stand a thousand years.” (p. 230)

Rule 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

About listening: “You can be pretty smart if you can just shut up.” (p. 244)

Before answering, try restating the ideas and feelings of the other person as accurately and fairly as possible. This helps you avoid making straw-man arguments. If you “give the devil his due,” you might learn something, and if you still disagree, you can make stronger arguments that will hold up. (p. 246–47)

“If you listen, instead, without premature judgment, people will generally tell you everything they are thinking — and with very little deceit.” (p. 248)

Rule 10: Be precise in your speech

This chapter turns out to be mostly about communication in marriage. He talks about being honest in a marriage, talking things through. To specify a problem is to admit it exits. It may hurt to discuss it, but “the alternative to that single sharp pain is the dull ache of continued hopelessness and vague failure and the sense that time, precious time, is slipping away.” (p. 276) Talk things out honestly. “Ignored reality manifests itself in an abyss of confusion and suffering.” (p. 281) We can’t discuss everything and settle everything from the past or the future. But we can say, “This exact, precise thing — that is what is making me unhappy.” (p. 282)

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

This is the best chapter in the book. It is coherent and profound. The theme is that we should not artificially shield kids from taking risks and seeking adventure, especially young men. This is where Peterson is at his best in challenging the “safe space” attitude in our culture.

Peterson writes that people don’t seek to minimize risk; they seek to optimize it. He challenges people who say mankind is a plague — Eric Harris, the Club of Room. If it’s objectionable to say the world would be better without Jews, blacks, or Muslims, why is it OK to say it would be better with fewer people?

The chapter includes a good discussion of the attitudes of men and women toward marriage, and the decline in educated men relative to women. He talks about how culture can be oppressive, but also how it offers great gain: The thoughts and words we inherit, the infrastructure of society, the comparatively uncorrupt political and economic systems, the technology, the wealth, the lifespan, the freedom. (p. 302)

Peterson challenges the focus on group identity. “Every person is unique — and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability. Period.” (p. 316) He writes about working for a railway line crew one summer in Saskatchewan. The traits of the men who were accepted by the crew: tough, entertaining, competent, and reliable. No girlie men need apply! (p. 328)

Women don’t want to have to look after an unemployed man as well as children.

If men are pushed too far to feminize, they will become more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology. He notes support for Trump is part of this process. We should let boys be boys when they are young. Every manifestation of daring and courage is not criminal.

Rule 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Me petting a cat in Caesarea, Israel, during our 2017 visit.

The most coherent chapter is followed by the most meandering chapter. There is not much here about cats. Four pages in, there is no mention of cats, and then he writes, “First, however, to other things.” (p. 338) A lot of the chapter is about his daughter Mikhaila’s rheumatoid arthritis. When she was young, she required a lot of surgery, including having a hip replaced. The message by the end is to stop and smell the roses, pet the cat, take pleasure in the small things in life because big things can go terribly wrong.

In the concluding chapter, Coda, Peterson talks about his “pen of light.” He offers more worthwhile observations, such as our need to apologize to our spouse for being an idiot: “What have I done wrong, and what can I do now to set things at least a little bit more right?” (p. 357) “The world is a forum for sharing and trading, not a treasure house for plundering.” (p. 364) “There’s a worthy and noble ambition: strength in the face of adversity. That is very different from the wish for a life free of trouble.” (p. 365).

My concluding thought for now on Jordan Peterson is that he is an intellectual force for good in the world.

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