12 Rules for Life: The Cons

Alas 12 Rules for Life isn’t perfect. As much as I think the book did a good job of identifying its target market, and using theology as a foundation for understanding human behavior in a fascinating way, ultimately the book leans too heavily in this direction.

For instance, the tag line of the book is ‘An Antidote to Chaos’. The opposite of chaos in his definition is Order. He states in Chapter 2 that Order is Masculine and Chaos is Feminine but does little to back this up with hard evidence. To me, it’s him preaching to the choir. It’s a fancy way of rehashing an old trope by men that ‘women are so confusing’.

From a woman’s perspective, I’m sure they could make the same argument, that order is feminine, and masculine is characterized by chaos. Using the same traditionalist standards Peterson leans on in the book, women have historically kept the household in order, cooking, cleaning, making sure kids are fed, bathed and homework complete. They take more interest in managing the household finances day-to-day, and perhaps most importantly, take care of the kin-keeping with family and friends that’s necessary to maintain healthy social cohesion and establish community. Sounds pretty orderly to me.

By contrast men are self-centered, lazy, messy creatures who leave the toilet seat up, don’t clean up their razor clippings from the sink, and discard dirty laundry throughout the house. They drink excessively, and do a poor job of managing money. When they do engage with their children, they either don’t discipline effectively, or become unhinged tyrants that terrorize their kids. Taken to the extreme, it’s men who start wars. What could possibly be more chaotic than that?

I’m intentionally stereotyping to make a point. I don’t actually think that men and women can be divided into stupid, simple caricatures like this. Peterson is quick to demonize identity politics, but he plays the same game, simply dressing it up differently. He relies on the story of Adam and Eve and the fact that Eve is the one who picked the apple from the tree of knowledge, and Eve who gave it to Adam, to suggest that this is the original source of chaos, and ergo chaos is feminine. But bear in mind, history is written by the victors.

This is where he starts to violate his own rules, particulary 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t, and 10 Be precise in your speech.

Take rule 9. What if you choose to not listen at all? What if the person speaking to you isn’t a person, but rather data? If this rule was important to Peterson, he would have to acknowledge the validity of other arguments, and present them in their entirety, as juxtapositions against his own point of view. It’s not that they don’t feature at all in the book. Certainly he tears down a number of ideas, but they’re often straw men. Immediately labeling people who disagree with you as post-modern neo-Marxists, one step removed from Stalin or Mao, does nothing but weaken Peterson’s position. But hell it sells books…

This brings me to the next point, Be precise in your speech. If there is one thing this book is not, it is precise in its speech. 12 Rules for Life is 100 pages too long, deviates significantly from other non-fiction works like say a Malcolm Gladwell, and is written in an academic or philosopher’s style in many places. By that I mean the language is excessively complicated window dressing to make a simple idea sound more profound than it actually is. And if you’re going to start comparing your opponents to Stalin, well you better be damn precise in your speech.

The final chapter, Pet a cat when you see one on the street, is the most heart-felt and gut wrenching chapter of the entire book. It details Peterson’s struggles with his daughter’s medical condition. In my opinion, he would have done better to bring this chapter closer to the beginning of the Rules. I understand why it’s at the end, but no chapter does a better job of humanizing Peterson. He’s a person, with the same struggles as the rest of us, and I think he could have softened up potential skeptics by presenting this version of himself earlier.

In Conclusion

Peterson’s book is an important work. It takes itself too seriously, and tends to be rambling and pedantic. But in a world where people are too quick to play the victim, seeing oppressive forces of the world keeping them down wherever they turn, Peterson is a refreshing taste of taking charge of your own life. What’s clear to me is that Jordan legitimately wants to see people achieve their best, to rise above who they are today and meet their potential. Although he isn’t always precise in his speech, and can come across malevolent, I believe that in his heart, he just wants to see the world become a better place.

I encourage others to read the book. There are more than a few nuggets of wisdom inside, presented in ways that are very different from the self-help books you see from the typical motivational speaker. My only recommendation is that you bring a healthy dose of skepticism to the endeavour. It will help you distinguish opinion from fact, and leave you in a more balanced position to absorb the good parts of the Rules, while avoiding the mess around its fringes. Social media has done a tremendous job of splitting us into tribes. To move past this clumsy tribalism, individuals should read as much as they can from all sides of the aisle, and Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is no exception. 3.5 out of 5 stars for me.

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