Summer Reading Group: 12 Rules for Life, Chapters 9 & 10

This is the sixth post of Spectrum’s 2019 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan Peterson. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, is an unlikely presidential contender and yet he has captured my imagination because his candidacy is summed up so well by his logo based on a Midwestern bridge. We have had enough divisive talk of walls. It is time to build some bridges, both literally and figuratively.

I worry that the divide over political and religious issues has become so vast that we can’t even communicate with those on the other side. In the past, as long as we could agree on the facts, we could at least discuss our different perspectives and interpretations. This is where true postmodernism shines in that it provides the tools to help us deconstruct dominant narratives, check our own privileged perspectives, and see things from other viewpoints. However, there is an increasing tendency to treat facts as ignorable, malleable, or even just offer alternatives. This relativistic caricature of postmodernism is just as dangerous as religious fundamentalists and conservatives used to say it was and should be opposed just as vehemently as fundamentalism itself.

Into this gap steps Peterson’s ninth rule, “Assume that the person you are talking to might know something you don’t” (256). This rule more than any other explains why I chose to read Peterson’s book together even though I find him intolerable. He might know something I don’t and I’d like to find out what that is. We might know some things he doesn’t and I’d like to hear those in response, too. If we are going to bridge our gaps, this is a good way to start but this rule alone won’t get us all the way.

Since Peterson goes on to describe his psychoanalytic approach in this section, I was hoping to have someone trained in psychology write this review. But, perhaps that would have been unnecessary since as Peterson admits, no matter the theory or basis of the therapist’s approach, just the fact that they offer a way to organize our scattered minds is immensely helpful.

Peterson shares the story of a young woman who made the shocking claim in a psychotherapy session that she thought she might have been raped… five times. He goes on to describe how easy it would have been for him to manipulate the situation to fit his ideology. If he were the adherent of a “left-wing, social-justice ideology,” he would have thought the following: “I could say that her suspicions of rape were fully justified…. she had indisputably been subject to violent and illicit acts, unless she had consented to each sexual move explicitly and verbally… she was an innocent victim” (239). On the other hand, if he were the adherent of a “conservative ideology” (which his less-weighted description suggests he might be) he would have thought this: “I could tell Miss S that she is a walking disaster…. she is a danger to herself and others… if she goes to singles bars and drinks too much and is taken home and has rough, violent sex (or even tender, caring sex), then what the hell does she expect?”

Either approach would have foisted his own ideology onto her impressionable mind and organized her life both in the past and going forward from that point on around either a liberal or conservative framework. That, he says, would have been adverse. Instead, he decided to listen and in doing so let her listen to herself. In this way, she could organize her thoughts and come to a better understanding of just what happened to her. Though he admits that even after many sessions the situation remained ambiguous.

This approach may feel frustrating. Those of us who understand that the Me Too movement is based on a systemic problem where certain patriarchal males assume that they can leer at women and access their bodies with impunity will find his lack of advocacy appalling. Those of us who believe in personal responsibility and accountability for one’s own actions will find his lack of calling out her poor choices and dangerous accusations unconscionable. She left therapy with him “somewhat less ill-formed and vague” than when she had first met him but at least Peterson says, “she didn’t leave as the living embodiment of my damned ideology” (240).

And yet, despite the discomfort, this process of listening without proselytizing is the next step in forming a bridge. How then should we listen? Peterson suggests following Carl Rogers’ method where “Each person can speak up for himself only after he has first restated the ideas and feelings of the previous speaker accurately, and to that speaker’s satisfaction” (246). I admire this goal and wish that Peterson would seek to implement it himself when describing liberal ideology, feminism, and postmodernity in his book and online lectures because he makes straw men of them all which I find completely unsatisfactory.

Still, after listening well, true conversation may ensue. If listening is not mastered, the conversation becomes a dominance-hierarchy exercise. A particular type of this conversation in which the participants try to attain victory for their point of view will be all too familiar to those who frequent the commenting section of this website and I would dare say those who listen to Peterson’s online lectures, many of which seem quite focused on attaining victory for the rational view Peterson has obtained through a very Cartesian process of thinking things through in his own mind.

Instead, Peterson rightly calls us to mutual exploration in which the participants are allowed to express and organize their thoughts in order to solve a problem or arrive at a better understanding of truth rather than insisting on the a priori validity of their own opinions. “This kind of conversation constitutes active philosophy, the highest form of thought, and the best preparation for proper living” (253).

When engaging in this type of conversation, it is vital to follow Peterson’s tenth rule, “Be Precise in Your Speech” (259). Although, I wonder if a better distillation of this rule would have been, “If You See Something, Say Something,” because he spends the majority of this chapter describing the dangers of ignoring small issues until they become overwhelming or arguing about everything rather than the more manageable issue right in front of you.

He focuses primarily on marital relations and that is certainly a big issue and one that he must be confronted with often in his practice. However, I think his adage that there are very few things in a marriage that are not important enough to fight about applies equally well to broader family, religious, and political communities.

I have succumbed to the temptation myself to ignore the issue, stay silent in the face of oppression, lie to avoid offending, leave rather than stand up for what is right. This is because the conversations around age of the earth, LGBTQ+ equality, church membership, women’s ordination, etc. have all been argued ad nauseum, and generally in wide ranging dysfunctional dominance-hierarchy arguments that do more harm than good. I long to experience the philosophical and focused conversation that Peterson suggests. At its best, Spectrum is one place I have found this to be possible.

Peterson seems to think the only way to transform society is to help one individual at a time learn to be competent in the existing hierarchies. I think we need to transform society, deconstruct hierarchies, and create opportunities in order to make room for all individuals. Perhaps we can build a bridge to meet across this vast divide one issue at a time. One can only hope.

Brenton Reading lives with his wife and three children in Shawnee, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City), where he practices Pediatric Interventional Radiology.

Book cover image courtesy of Random House.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

How would Peterson address a situation where one partner in the conversation/discussion believes profoundly that the other is a pathological liar whose comments ought not be trusted?

Your seem to self-contradict here by implication of what you are saying. I can be wrong, so maybe you can clarify.

Firstly, “we” don’t do anything. I, you, and he, and she does, and we abstract that into “we” when there are some consolidated output we can measure. Hence, the reality of your proposed need would work exactly along the lines of Peterson’s ideals when it comes to individual’s doing something to achieve a certain goal. In order to achieve something, there’s a requirement of a certain level of competence, especially something as complex as restructuring societal axioms and construct. Any coordination of human function requires hierarchy, in the very least functional and contractual. I’m very interested of your vision for humanity that doesn’t have these elements.

Secondly, it’s not really clear as to how your hierarchy of both value and functional directives would be different in a sense that it’s still a hierarchy. You still have schools that grade students. You still have teens that judge “hotness”. You still have businesses with bosses among some other competing businesses with bosses. You still have parents and children. You still have competitive structure of females to choose the best-fit biological male for future reproduction.

I’m assuming that you don’t advocate of wiping everything we have until now and starting over with tribal individualism, right?

All of these are hierarchical structures that you can’t eliminate. Hence, your vision of deconstructed hierarchies is somewhat unclear.

I think he would refer them to rule 8, “Tell the truth - or at least don’t lie.” :slight_smile:

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I think there are some things that we do better together. I can do my best to keep my family safe and secure in a wild west type world; but, they will be much safer and more secure if the collective “we” have decided to pool our resources and come up with communal laws and institutions to make a better world.

There is a level of emergence at play here where our communal cooperation leads to a level of complexity beyond the sum of our individual parts.

It may be true that coordinating such a complex community requires hierarchy; but, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t deconstruct existing hierarchies. An extreme example from the recent past with current implications would be the hierarchical assumption that men were above women and whites were above blacks. This is clearly born out in paintings of election days in the 1800s where a bunch of white men got together to decide how things should run. That sociopolitical communal situation definitely needed some serious deconstruction which it got with the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement. Individuals could try to make a difference all they liked; but, it was only by coming together en masse that they actually made a difference.

So, what I mean by deconstructed hierarchies is not the elimination of hierarchies (although some may need to be eliminated). And, I agree with Peterson that competence is a more natural way to organize people where those that perform certain tasks well move to the forefront. Deconstruction of societal norms is necessary when competence is assumed based on characteristics like skin color and gender that don’t correspond to actual competence.

In addition, deconstruction of heirarchies should take into account Jesus’ incisively deconstructive insight to James and John (Matthew 20) when their mother tried to get them spots at the top of the heirarchy. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

So you favor a sort of meritocracy? So you would not favor Harvard’s way of divvying up its slots, or affirmative action?

Or are you willing for some to suffer so that your sense of justice is attained, regardless of merit? And why should your sense of justice be the deciding factor and not another’s?

Is the liberal view of things so obvious that there need be no discussion? Are those that would disagree with you bigots, deplorable and appalling because of their opinion?

I think there are situations like higher education where some have been unfairly excluded. The centuries old problem of favoring white people over people of color in university admissions has led to a systemic inequality that wouldn’t exist if actual merit had been the only criteria for admission all along. In this case, affirmative action may be required to restore equality.

I would alleviate suffering as much as possible. However, I don’t want my sense of justice to be the sole deciding factor in how we treat one another. I think we should engage in honest discussion on this topic and thoughtfully come together around ideals of justice that work for us all. (I must be feeling hopelessly optimistic this Sabbath morning!)

I find the liberal point of view increasingly obvious and that is precisely why I think true discussion as described by Peterson is so important. And, no those that would disagree with me are not automatically bigots, deplorable and appalling. Even if some of their opinions are accurately described by those categories they are complex humans and should not be reduced to the worst of their opinions unless they insist on it themselves.

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I don’t disagree, except potentily in how we go about determining whether hierarchy is false… And how we go about eliminating these false hierarchies.

I’d like to hear your thoughts on that .

You seem to think that dropping less competent students in an environment where they would likely be at the bottom of the barrel of the high-competence competitive environments … is a good idea? It’s such a well-known and well-researched issue by now to think that it’s a bad idea, since it both builds negative stereotypes of “black incompetence”, and it hurts the students who need to work twice as hard to catch up, with large percentage of drop outs who can’t handle the load.

Well that’s depressing. In an attempt to address a deeply problematic systemic issue with a one time fix, I guess unintended consequences shouldn’t be surprising.

There are so many factors that have lead to this unequal situation that we need a much more comprehensive plan. Given the first paragraph of my post, I of course favor the Douglass Plan.

Rather than determining whether hierarchies are false (they certainly exist) I think we should be concerned with whether they are just. Hierarchies might be unjust if they require a scapegoat (e.g. dehumanizing immigrants), exclude others based on gender (e.g. not allowing women’s ordination), privilege a certain race (e.g. disallowing or disenfranchising minority voters), or seek to limit civil rights based on religious belief (e.g. Christian uproar over the SCOTUS gay marriage ruling).

The common thread among these is an us vs. them lack of empathy and a focus on individual, personal rights and privileges of those in the majority over the best interests of the community as a whole. I find it strange that with all of Peterson’s interest in the Bible and Christianity he misses the emphasis on justice and community.

Those of us at the top or with the most potential to move to the top of these hierarchies often feel threatened or oppressed when injustices are called out. I think this demographic feels particular affinity for Peterson’s ideas. Rachel Held Evans used to offer my favorite response, “Sharing civil rights with other people is not the same as being persecuted by them.”

How would you define justice as it relates to what you are discussing above? Do you think it’s based on objective markers or certain subjective perception of fairness?

I would define a just system as one which provides equal opportunity for everyone. There are definite objective markers in some cases such as women not being allowed to be ordained or differences in funding between inner city vs. suburban schools. In other cases it is more subjective such as minority opportunities in higher education or female representation in STEM professions where they feel unwelcome and excluded.

I’m not sure that we could coherently make justice to be about “equal opportunity”… perhaps you meant to refer to immoral discrimination based on ethnicity and gender that we see as unjust? That principle doesn’t coherently fall into “equal opportunity for everyone” concept, since there can never be equal opportunity for everyone given physical, geographic, biological/genetic, and psycho-social constraints.

“Equal opportunity” ideal is both incoherent, and is actually undesirable by certain implications, since there will always be people who do something far better than the rest by mere means of certain genetic makeup and/or heritable skills passed on from generation to generation, and the infrastructure and network of established relationships to make best use of these skills. A son of a friend may have a better chance of landing a job, for example, than a large list of qualified candidates, since trust and reciprocity can be of greater value than certain level of baseline competence that can be trained on the spot.

Hence, this ideal is both unrealistic and incoherent when it comes to both defining what justice is, and expecting the rest of the society conform to that ideal.

I’d like to provide a more coherent definition of justice you may consider. We find it as such both in Biblical narrative and historical context of our Western justice system as we trace it from its primitive origins. I’m doing a brain dump here, so forgive the lack of references.

Early conceptualization of justice, including the one that we find in Biblical narrative, is indistinguishable from the concept of truth and being right or correct, and in social context shapes as morality or expected behavior templates which were systematized, institutionalized and enforced by governing authority to perpetuate the practice of maintaining societal order and certain “tribal dominance”.

Certain egalitarian meritocracy does have a place in justice context, but it doesn’t define it. Likewise, certain welfare practices also have place in justice context, but these likewise don’t define it. That’s the larger trouble with the appeals to social justice as “the justice”, which it is not.

In short, justice is contractual. It exists in a scope of innumerable societal negotiations that over millennia of various iterations shaped behavioral conditioning practices of human being around the planet. You may have noticed, these expectations are contextual, and different cultures and national entities maintain different set of behavioral expectations.

But, in our societal setting, justice is equivalent to morality. So, we can simply describe it by pointing to certain unwanted behavior or lack of it, and saying that it’s not right in that particular context… and demanding certain corrective adjustment, given that we can demonstrably justify such behavior to be damaging either to individuals or societies at large. These behaviors are not merely limited to discrimination practices we find immoral. Justice has a much broader context that extends to very complicated intricacies of social morality and rights of individuals in scope of social contract that directs order in our society.

In fact, justice can very much be about the property and heritage rights that negate equal opportunity for all in certain scope, and extend better opportunities for some more than for other on the basis that they’ve earned these rights by providing value to the society that they serve. Hence, you can’t oversimplify these concepts to some vacuous concept of equality or equity that you wouldn’t be able to justify as more viable or moral.

I agree that justice includes but is not limited to the topic of discrimination. Thank you for the thoughtful dialogue.

I am not sure these issues are so clear cut.

  1. Dehumanizing immigrants. If they are breaking the law to enter, should that be allowed? I don’t think dehumanizing is good, but those on the left don’t mind categorizing those who disagree with them all kinds of things. Are Republicans who sported trump really truly Nazis?? It goes both ways.

  2. WO. The church voted this because the third world did not want it. They have a diffeinting view on gender roles than the west, so saw it as a threat. Moet western SDA’s would agree with it. Some would disallow on Biblical basis.

  3. Voter disenfranchising. On what basis? All are allowed to vote, and we don’t have Jim Crow laws any more. And to think that ID should not be required is to set up for voter fraud. (I think both these views are overblown)

  4. Gay issues. If the gay community was OK with live and let live, they would not have gone after the baker. They are not OK with that premise. They want to crush the opposition to gay marriage.

So, I don’t see these as hierarchies that need to be addressed.

It is wise to reject post modernism , it is totally self centered. Not in debt to history or convention in any form. The Great I Am has become the great Me. Definition belongs to me alone. A very malignant form of me. We are seeing it in high places.

Ok I think political discussions like this would benefit from the practical instructions on dialogue that I referenced in my article.

When Peterson recommends being precise in our speech he means that in part we should focus on one specific thing at a time. If we begin drawing in other issues the discussion becomes impossible.

  1. So, my comment on scapegoating should have ended with that. Adding immigrants was an unnecessary dig at the current administration. Any hierarchy where those who move to the top do so by scapegoating is unjust and deserves to be deconstructed. This is related to but separate from the issue of immigration.

2-4. Any hierarchy where individuals are excluded from an opportunity that would not impinge on the opportunity of others on the basis of sex, race, or any other unrelated personal characteristic is unjust and deserves to be decimated. (I wrote deconstructed here and my spell check preferred decimated. I think it is right for once. :slight_smile:) it is a fact that this has happened in the past with women and black men legally disallowed from voting. Therefore, it is not surprising that there are concerns over policies that may limit minority voter turnout in the present. It is a fact that women are not allowed to be ordained by church leadership at the highest level of the SDA church like their male counterparts. Attempting to justify this inequality by pointing to other cultures or the Bible only pushes the problem of the injustice into them. It is a fact that until the recent Supreme Court ruling most states in the US did not allow gay couples to marry. Allowing gay couples to marry or correcting any of the other injustices I mentioned in no way impinges on the freedom of others to engage in those opportunities. Cake baking is a separate issue.

Sad to hear mr PETERSON is in hospital psychology is a dangerous form of arts to play with . Lets hope they get better

Are you in favor of the church allowing third world countries to set the bar for church policies? Polygamy? Educational credentials (fake ones)? Financial policies? Domestic violence against partners?

If the third world overwhelmingly approves, that is good enough for you? You seem to abandon principled issues in favor of setting policies on local cultural norms.