Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life Lecture
A road trip and a review
Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has rocketed to fame from being a relatively unknown college professor to online sensation to enemy of the left and then leader of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” in the span of a single year.
Haters have called Peterson a “dangerous rightwing professor,” “custodian of the patriarchy,” and a “pseudo-intellectual” but all attempts to dismiss and discredit him have only helped to promote him. Why? Anyone who digs deeper than the snarky opinion pieces that attack his audience more than his ideas often find his actual work to be anywhere from innocuous to inspiring, but certainly far from dangerous.
I found his work over a year ago. I was first drawn to his ideas on personal responsibility, then I became intrigued by his personality assessments that he sells online, and then I started to watch his YouTube series on “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories”.
He is a prolific speaker and his online lectures can be between one and two hours long, so I only made it through the first three or four of this series. I enjoyed the lectures and found many of his ideas aligned with or explained mine.
In “Biblical Series III: God and the Hierarchy of Authority” Peterson’ uses lobsters as an example to illustrate how many of our motivations and behaviors have been baked in to our neurochemistry for hundreds of millions of years. Our consciousness enables us to make decisions — we are not slaves to our instincts — but we are still highly influenced and persuaded by them.
“We are separated by lobsters on the evolutionary time scale somewhere between 350 and 600 million years ago and the damn neurochemistry is the same. And so that’s another indication of just how important hierarchies of authority are. They’ve been conserved since the time of lobsters. These hierarchies are older than trees. What is real from a Darwinian perspective is that which has been around the longest time.”
The heirarchies that lobsters respond to look a lot like the heirarchies humans respond to. For example, even lobsters are drawn to the bad boy, the James Dean rebel without a cause, or the hero who risks life and limb to get the girl.
“The archetype of the sexual attractiveness of the masculine spirit that is willing to forthrightly confront the unknown.”
In the videos I watched, he touched on topics like, sexual desire, mating, PTSD, story telling, imagination, and other topics that charged me up. I got paper out to take notes so I could absorb more. I look forward to going back to them.
Peterson sees the world much like I do. He sees men and women as being different from each other — not as being inferior or superior — just different. Men and women each have their own strengths and weaknesses which are often complementary but sometimes create great conflict. He believes that much of the mysteries of the world can be explained through science, that humans are influenced as much by our biology as by our capacity for higher thought. He believes one of our biggest struggles is between our desire for immediate pleasure and satisfaction and our conscious knowledge that the potential consequences may harm us later, or that what we want is not always what we need or what is best for us. But instead of going on a hunch as I do, he has years of study and research to support his insights.
When I first became aware of Peterson he wasn’t controversial. He was just a quirky professor from Canada with a skinny frame and a fractured voice who posted his lectures on YouTube some time last winter. Peterson went viral after posting three videos criticizing political correctness and then proclaiming that he would not use the gender neutral pronouns xe and ze even if required by law because governmental control of language was a slippery slope into thought policing and an end to free speech. He said of the newly created pronouns;
“they’re connected to an underground apparatus of radical left political motivations. I think uttering those words makes me a tool of those motivations. And I’m going to try and be a tool of my own motivations as clearly as I can articulate them and not the mouthpiece of some murderous ideology.”
From that scandal, his audience grew. All publicity is good publicity, right? Then this year, a debate with Cathy Newman launched a viral and lasting meme — So you’re saying that… — when he met her emotional attempts to antagonize him and manipulate and misrepresent his views with his patient, consistent and jovial demeanor, putting in stark contrast his commitment to his ideas against her compulsion to avoid true intellectual engagement in favor of painting him in a negative light.
When his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos came out, I ordered it and began reading it immediately, hoping it would be a condensed version of his lectures and even at almost 400 pages would require far less time to absorb than hundreds of hours of YouTube videos. Then, when he added new stops on his lecture circuit to promote the book with a stop within a 5 hour drive of my house, I immediately bought a ticket.
Attending the lecture
I drove to the lecture with Steve Baker, who runs The Pragmatic Libertarian Facebook page. Steve is a lively, inquisitive and knowledgeable driving companion. His audience is different from mine but we share some of the same interests, namely politics and the arts. In addition to making the trip go quicker, I got to hear more about his libertarian views and his experience in the music business. We both have strong opinions and, like me, he found Peterson’s ideas to be quite down to earth and innocuous — even inspiring and necessary.
Peterson presents his ideas in an uncomplicated way, tying together scientific studies, literature, religion and anecdotes to illustrate how the laws of science, internal conflicts and competing ideologies have played out over the course of history. As we are both the subject and the audience for his research, his assertions resonate when we hear them. Many of his statements confirm my own beliefs, while others revealed a new truth or challenged my assumptions. He makes me think and question.
I’ve been writing about attraction and sexual dynamics for years and despite attracting the scorn and derision of mobs of anonymous internet trolls, my writing has also been embraced by readers who compliment my ability to “state the obvious” and approach uncomfortable topics (sex, desire, betrayal) with both common sense and compassion. I never believed my ideas or opinions were iconoclastic despite having that label applied to me. I believe that, like Peterson, I’m simply describing the world I live in, I’m observing patterns in our behavior — with special focus on when we act out of sync with what we say we believe. Actions speak louder than words and how we behave and act often betrays our true thoughts, even as we will deny them outwardly and to ourselves. Our culture is so screwed up right now, it is so intensely engaged in a battle between the ideal world and the real world, between how we wish were were and how we really are, that any discussion of uncomfortable, unflattering truths of human nature are quickly dismissed or distorted. This has gone on for so long and we are so personally and emotionally invested in our noble idealism that objective observations are now shocking.
I also note a common tone in the articles criticizing Peterson: snark. As people want to belong, their snark signals to readers that associating with Peterson, agreeing with him or taking him seriously in any way will exile you into the status of the socially shunned and disrespected outsider. In similar fashion to criticism of the president, vigorous discussion of ideas is bypassed in favor of criticizing the person or the audience.
The shade thrown at young men by modern culture (Peterson’s audience is mostly male although it seems that is changing) does more to prove the need for someone like Peterson than to prove his irrelevance. As men are struggling more in school, succumbing to addictions, suffering with depression at increasing rates over the past decades — to only mention their startling suicide rates — it’s no wonder that a self-improvement speaker who targets them and their needs directly is drawing passionate crowds.
What Peterson actually says
Peterson encourages men to grow up, take responsibility for their lives, treat themselves and others with respect, be committed to honesty, be humble, focus on self-improvement, and to surround themselves with a positive and encouraging support system.
The attacks on Peterson have been irrational and obtuse. His advice to men is so universally helpful and instructive that the only reason to denounce him is because he challenges the dominant social narrative that insists women are oppressed and men are the oppressors. As our patriarch oppressors men have no right to complain or hope for better for themselves. Feminism has taken such an antagonistic and misandrist turn in recent years, painting men as the cause of all societies’ problems that daring to reassure men that they have value and worth and can do great things is a scandal of great magnitude.
Why wouldn’t we want to encourage men to find meaning and purpose in their lives? Even if we were to agree that men are universally bad or that the patriarchy is oppressing women, wouldn’t we still find value in Peterson’s message?
“There’s nothing good about people who don’t grow up, don’t find the sort of meaning in their life that sustains them through difficult times as they are certain to encounter difficult times and they are left bitter and resentful and without purpose and adrift and hostile and vengeful and arrogant and deceitful and of no use to themselves and no use to anyone else and no partner as a woman. There’s nothing in it that’s good.” Jordan Peterson, from Channel 4 Debate with Cathy Newman
The attack on Peterson’s attempts to help men find meaning and purpose in their lives makes no sense in a compassionate society which is why it inevitably exposes the underbelly of feminism that wants to erase men, that is pushing not for equality but for supremacy. Otherwise a message of improvement would be celebrated. We all rise together when we are strong, mature, competent and compassionate, right?
The attempts by the press to misrepresent his ideas fails in large part due to his dedication to Rule 10: “Be Precise In Your Words.” Going back to his book, his lectures, and videos as sources against the attacks lobbed at him, readers will not find evidence of any controversial, hateful rhetoric that has been attributed to him. Instead they find a thoughtful, careful, analytical man presenting his ideas in an organized manner.
If his critics had read his books, it wouldn’t come as a surprise that Peterson would take issues with laws threatening to punish people for misusing pronouns when he has clearly warned about the importance of being precise in your words as well as the potential for language to be used as a tool to manipulate and control others. This goes to the heart of Peterson’s problem with political correctness: It’s a form of censorship and censorship is anti-truth.
“Political correctness is the elevation of moral posturing about sensitivity over truth.” Jordan Peterson
Coincidentally, Peterson started his lecture in Charlotte with Rule 10. After a brief introduction from Dave Rubin from The Rubin Report, who informed the audience that Peterson was two days away from his birthday, Peterson came on stage to applause and an impromptu “Happy Birthday to you…” serenade by all that seemed to genuinely surprise and warm him. From the fifth row, I’d dare say we made him blush!
Nothing in the lecture was notably different from the book. In fact, having read the book and listened to it on audible, I might have been disappointed that I paid over $100 for a ticket to his lecture when everything he said was available free online or for far less on Amazon. But, to be honest, I didn’t go thinking I would hear something new. I went to meet and shake hands with the man who has given validity to my own ideas by showing me the research that supports them. There’s comfort in having something tangible to support that you aren’t full of shit. I have always loved biology, philosophy and psychology but I never studied them in any significant way and never had anything to “back up” my ideas outside of trusting my gut. I simply lined up what I sensed to be true about people and the world with the actions and behaviors I observed.
My other reason for attending was to see the crowd. There’s nothing I like more than being in a room full of smart, handsome men but to be in a room full of smart, handsome men who share my take on the world, who are committed to learning and growing, and who search for meaning and purpose in their lives was both intoxicating and refreshing.
At the event, in line to pick up our tickets, the other attendees were all extremely friendly and vibrant. One man wore the same jacket and nearly the same shirt as my travel companion Steve and joked with him about their mutual sense of style and they took a selfie together. In the line for the VIP badges (I got a VIP ticket), we chatted with two well dressed, articulate men who shared our enthusiasm for Peterson. One had just dropped off his daughter at banjo camp in the mountains and shared how he is instilling an appreciation for arts and music in his children.
I got my tickets a few weeks before Steve got his so we didn’t sit together. Instead, I sat between two men toward the front. On my left was a man in sales who brought his wife and children to the lecture. Clearly Peterson and his ideas were important to him and something he wanted to share with his family. He said he first learned about Peterson after watching the viral debate with Cathy Newman. He was curious about the people around him — me as well as others — asking poignant, questions; How did you hear about Peterson? What do you think of him? What is your life like? Are you married? Dating? Do you have any children? He referred to his wife as his best friend and love of his life. Between them were their son and daughter, in their teens, but she was listening and she smiled, waved hello and nodded her agreement with his statement.
He wanted to know about other people’s lives and motivations, what makes them tick. He had the energy of a salesman; direct but approachable, curious and assertive. On my right was a young man who traveled from Raleigh to attend by himself. He was a biologist who studied the mating habits of mussels. He was clean cut and handsome with trendy glasses and a pocket square in his shirt. He was unmarried and didn’t have kids. By appearances alone, he seemed to be the epitome of Peterson’s audience: a young man looking for meaning and purpose in his life.
Where the man on my left had established his career and family, the man on my right had his future still ahead of him. He told the salesman he learned about Peterson through his interest in self improvement.
I later learned that this young man not only appreciated and studied the ideas of personal responsibility, self improvement and was searching for meaning in his life but to come to this place he had gone through a dramatic personal transformation as his mind opened up to the truth of the world versus the propaganda and lies sold to the youth.
I was quite shocked to learn that in his youth, he had been a socialist anarchist and a violent agitator who belonged to Antifa. Questioning the other members of Antifa when things didn’t line up for him caused a backlash against him which made him become aware that the group was cult-like and intolerant and did not allow dissent or free thinking. To have been sucked into a crowd like that and to now have grown into a successful, hard working man, dedicated to science, nature, free speech and self-improvement is evidence to me of a truly inquisitive and open mind. The level of personal honesty to face mistakes in thinking in his past and own them as a part of his history creates the real tolerance for and appreciation of self and others as we all have our own complex and flaw-filled journeys.
Changing his life around through discipline, hard work and personal responsibility, this man exemplified the characteristics praised by Peterson. Holding yourself accountable for your choices, taking responsibility for your mistakes and even accepting credit for your successes is the same thing as giving order to your chaotic life. Taking charge of your life is the same as giving your chaotic life order. Finding order — better yet, creating order — out of the chaos reduces pain because when you recognize that you are responsible for creating your own pain and suffering you realize also that you are capable of creating your own joy and hope. You can minimize your suffering and expand your pleasure — pleasure being the things that afford you real meaning — responsibilities, purpose, relationships. Your chaotic neurochemical drive to seek immediate pleasure at all costs is weakened in the face of your conscious awareness.
After all, once you recognize that you are the cause of your problems, you can be the solution to them as well. Other people can’t be changed, the past can’t be changed, but with effort, discipline, and knowledge we can change ourselves. We can improve. We can create lives with meaning and purpose! In the words of Jordan Peterson, “Who the hell would be opposed to a thing like that?”