12 Rules for Life: A Review in 3 Parts

Jordan Peterson, possibly the most polarizing figure from today’s academic world, released 12 Rules for Life in early 2018. Having just finished reading the four hundred or so page book, I wanted to share my thoughts while they’re still fresh.

First some background on my introduction to Peterson. Like many, when his name came up, it was from a second hand source. Getting your information second hand means you’re getting it with all the biases of the messenger. Given a desire to dislike Peterson in light of what I thought were his “views” at first I didn’t question these second hand accounts too readily. His flare for dramatic language, labeling his detractors as totalitarians, or post-modern neo-Marxists (whatever that means) raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

My mother gave me a copy of Peterson’s book for Christmas last year. Technically it was the copy my brother wasn’t reading and when asked if I’d read it, I thought why not? In my opinion, if you’re going to make a judgment on something, get your information straight from the source. It’s a game of telephone distortion otherwise.

Before digging into the book itself I watched a number of Peterson’s lectures and speaking engagements on YouTube. Instead of disgust, I found myself nodding along to the majority of his arguments. He is nothing, if not articulate and well-spoken. Expecting a loud-mouthed blow hard, Peterson is actually fairly mild and calm in his discussions, rarely raising his voice unless seriously and unfairly provoked.

As someone with a hobby interest in psychology and personality types, and an education in economics, I was curious about what he had to say about human decision making, and the biological and psychological reasons for certain economic outcomes in western society. What I wasn’t expecting was the degree to which his arguments are informed by theology and biblical stories. This seems unscientific at first, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, which I’ll get to later.

The point of this background is to ask other readers to think critically about the lens through which they read Jordan Peterson’s book. If you lean Left on the political spectrum, don’t cast Peterson as the uncaring, patriarchal brute you want him to be. He isn’t perfect, but it’s difficult to argue he doesn’t care about people and humanity more broadly. For those who lean Right, be careful not to buy Peterson’s arguments hook, line and sinker. Just because he can string a cogent argument together doesn’t mean that there aren’t viable alternatives to issues which he discards as unsolvable.

What you have to be careful with around someone like Peterson (a type 8 on the Enneagram personality typology in my estimation) is the speed at which they can make an argument, and the means by which they can effectively bully that argument past you simply because they are processing at a higher speed. If there is never an opportunity to slow down the discussion, stop, pause and ruminate on a difficult concept, you’ll find yourself nodding along, forgetting about that potential landmine because it’s suddenly three ideas in the past.

Here is an analogy to make it more clear. On one computer you have a large hard drive, filled with software and documents, anything you need to answer a question and formulate a solution in a pleasing format. Think the full Microsoft Office suite of programs.

The second computer has a smaller hard drive, a much slimmer suite of programs, but a faster processor and more RAM (aka working memory). The second computer crunches through problems much faster than the first. The catch is that it doesn’t have the same suite of tools as the first to answer every question thrown its way.

If you only ask a certain type of question, the second computer is going to appear more intelligent all of the time because it’s going to get you an answer swiftly. You’ve met that person before. They are quick witted, with an answer to everything, and you struggle to get a word in edgewise.

But this is an illusion and an artifact of in-person debate. If ideas are instead debated in essay form, the cream rises to the top. Here, the first computer’s greater wealth of knowledge becomes a more significant asset, while higher processing speed loses some of its value.

And this is where I’d like to leave the discussion, before proceeding to parts 2 (the Pros) and 3 (the Cons) of the review. Peterson is the second computer. His YouTube lectures and debates with slower-witted TV reporters make him look brilliant. His book on the other hand, although filled with a number of intelligent observations, is also a pedantic slog of concepts that don’t always hold together under careful scrutiny.

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