IT’S no small matter to knock the Trump book of revelations, Fire and Fury, off the top of the bestseller lists. But an intense and provocative Canadian academic has done just that with 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote To Chaos.
Indeed, Jordan Peterson’s message is all too relevant to the era of Trump. His moment of notoriety came in 2016, when he refused to accept a Canadian law allowing cases of discrimination against “gender identity or expression” to be brought.
In lectures on YouTube, watched by millions, Peterson laid out his objections. He claimed he could be prosecuted by human rights laws if he chose not to call “a transsexual student or faculty member by the individual’s preferred pronoun”.
As Peterson wrote in Canada’s National Post: “I will never use words I hate, like the trendy and artificially constructed words ‘zhe’ and ‘zher’. These words are at the vanguard of a postmodern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is, in my professional opinion, frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100 million people in the 20th century.”
Well, there’s fighting talk. The campus protests have been noisy, as you might imagine. But Peterson is also resonating with a huge, mostly male audience. They are responding to the other side of his pitch: that, in the face of the mess and relativism of the early 21st century, we need to return to self-discipline and the exercise of personal responsibility.
As Peterson said in an interview at the RSA in London, “you can’t go out and assume you can change the world, if you can’t put your own private affairs in order. First: tidy your room!”
So far, so ideologically familiar. It’s all too attractive to an audience of angry Western white blokes, currently being triggered by a range of cynical operators in politics and media.
Yet if we want to critique him, we have to reckon with Peterson’s particular power. A key part of the professor’s schtick is that he backs up his traditionally conservative positions with a dazzling swirl of scholarly references from many disciplines.
When he performs this expertise on the media – notably his exchange with Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman – Petersen cites his sources and references with intimidating confidence.
But unfortunately, in this crazy postmodern melee he deplores, there are also some sharp scientists around – who are picking chunks of his research apart.
Take Petersen’s story about lobsters, and how they explain why humans will always endure power hierarchies – the strong over the weak. “It’s inevitable that there will be continuity in the way that animals and human beings organise their structures,” says Petersen.
But why connect us with 300-million-year old lobsters, who scrabble brutally for position and status all day long?
Peterson says that when we inject these crustaceans with the same brain chemicals (serotonin) that enable aggression in humans, their primitive scraps of brain respond similarly.
When lobster are moping around at the bottom of their pecking (or snapping) order, we give them Prozac, which increases access to serotonin. And just like us, they perk up.
Yet at this point in his argument, a hundred neuroscientists are waving their arms. They say that there are almost 50 molecules that are effective neurotransmitters: not just serotonin, but dopamine, noradrenaline, adrenaline, oxytocin. And that how all these operate, in the awesome complexity of the human brain, is a complete work in progress for neuroscience.
For example, there are studies that show brain matter decreases when we perceive we are of lower social status, particularly in the areas that help us cope with stress. What scientists call human “neuroplasticity” means that a different way of thinking about the world – for example, “all humans are unique and equal, and we have the power to make society fairer” – can rectify this decrease.
I have a lay interest in the science of play. The play scholarship argues that creativity and imagination (which must help us survive, otherwise we wouldn’t have evolved it) is what has propelled humans to occupy every niche on the planet.
Lobsters may indeed share some neuronal activity with us. But there they are on the sea-bed, stupidly fighting away with themselves – ready to be harvested by our ingenious lobster pots.
This is more than a dispute between nerds. If we are indeed the “runaway species”, as David Eagleman and Anthony Brandt put it in their recent book, then one of the things we can potentially run away from are the old gender definitions.
If we take our evolved human nature to be irrepressibly creative, then it’s completely natural that people might invent new, boundary-blurring sexual and gender identities for themselves – as religions, arts and cultures have done for millennia. Indeed, it’s continuous with the acts of imagination (and bravery) that we are currently celebrating with the centennial of the women’s vote.
Yet one of Peterson’s responses would be that this creative urge at the heart of the human condition can go way too far. He consistently claims that all his work stems from trying to answer a huge historical question.
How is it that, during the Cold War, humans held so dearly to their self-created belief systems that they nearly extinguished themselves and their planet? Peterson says we need to look at “the monster within us” to understand that. He claims Western individualism is a precious achievement – a tool that turns our fearful, panicky intuitions of weakness and fragility into something purposeful and effective.
All very dramatic. But it’s essentially a male drama. I think most men (certainly this one) are often alarmed at the aggression, nihilism and hedonism that can swell up inside them of a day. Peterson’s work provides maps of meaning which can make momentous, operatic sense of all that.
Chaps need to do work on themselves, and the professor may be of some help. What I reject is Peterson’s mean-spirited contempt for those who want to morph or transcend the old binaries altogether – and who want to be given respect for doing so.
But if I’m looking for an antidote to human destructiveness, I think I’ll find it more in a public realm where women are moving towards equality of participation at every level. Power has been so male-dominated, and for so long, that we are barely at the beginning of what our whole world could be like, if the larger part of the world fully got its voice and impact.
He’s a force, Jordan Peterson, and fully worth reckoning with. But for all his braggadocio, he’s only half the sky.
12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson is out on Allen Lane