Authoritarianism is having a moment here in the United States and Jordan Peterson has the right tone to capitalize on it. In 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Peterson proclaims his 12 practical self-help rules with an authoritative voice that demands attention for better or worse.
I’m shocked and disappointed by the choice of Jordan Peterson’s book as the summer reading group. I don’t believe there is benefit in giving attention to someone who believes the idea of white privilege is a myth, that masculinity is suffering oppression, that political correctness is an attack on free speech, and that freedom of speech trumps the protection of disadvantaged groups from hate language and discrimination. Much can be deduced from the company Peterson keeps, which include right-wing political pundits like Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro, all of whom are associated with the intellectual Dark Web’s attack on progressiveness.
Sure, on the surface, Peterson’s 12 rules sound fairly innocuous, and he coats everything he says in a confusing mix of biblical references and erudite-sounding philosophical ideas, which makes him sound believable, but if one digs deep enough, his positions are rooted in a horrifying mix of pseudo-science, faux-intellectualism, xenophobia, and misanthropy. Peterson does not believe in gender equality, social justice, or making the world a safe place for those who identify gender beyond male/female. These types of positions, in my opinion, go against everything Spectrum and Adventist Forum stand for.
Spectrum and Adventist Forum represent a safe place, within the Adventist landscape, for progressive theology, social justice, inclusivity, diversity, and compassion. In the polarizing climate we live in, both politically and denominationally, what we need is to read together a book that reminds us of what brings us together. Jordan Peterson does not represent the respectful, thoughtful intellectual conversation we aspire to nurture in this community. In fact, he is the opposite of this. I have no desire to learn how to live life from someone who holds the viewpoints Peterson does, particularly when there are brilliant, forward-thinking theologians and writers publishing thoughtful work that would have elevated the conversations in this community and whose books we might have explored together this summer.
I am sorry to disappoint you in this way. I can assure you I didn’t intend to make Spectrum any less of a safe place by choosing to read and critique Peterson’s book this summer.
I chose this book because several friends recently asked me what I thought of it. While I shared some of your critique with them, I hoped that reading his book together here would provide a better understanding of why he has found such a large and enthusiastic audience including friends of mine and why so many others find him the incarnation of evil as you do.
My further goal with this book is to better understand the deep divisions which run through society, the country, the church, and even through families. I would like to think that we could find bridges to reconnect with one another. That won’t happen if we only interact with those we agree with.
Brenton, your brief introduction brilliantly sets the stage for this task. Having recently been in graduate classes in anthropology—the epitome of the segment of higher education of which Peterson detests—I can attest that Peterson polarized my colleagues. The tensions he stimulates are echoed in the academy. Or, at least they are in Birmingham. Within the context of my graduate cohort, who were pursuing peace and human rights, Peterson had a following. He also had hard core critics. I hope this study can help us untangle the errors that Peterson includes in his verbose analysis of how to cope with the chaos that is life, as well as acknowledge what he gets right.
The key point to the problem might be in your observation, Brenton:
“However, it is my hope that we can take a more nuanced, non-dualistic approach to this book than the author himself employs.”
For example, it is easy to see that Peterson does not honor his own rules. Right away I see this in relation to numbers 6 and 9. Yet for Peterson, the point is not the rule, but the tangential chain of ideas that he tethers to the rule. Parenthetically, I’ll just say Rule 11, the longest chapter in the book, turns out to be a doozy.
To me, one concerned about justice and compassion can convince in the game of ideas, when one uses the tool that can approach situations at a slant, instead of straight out endorsement or critique. So, I hope somehow this discussion can proceed as you suggested, Brenton, in a non-dualistic fashion.
I share the goal that Spectrum and Adventist Forum represent a safe place in the landscape of faith. I am grateful for each one in this community who strives to make it so.
Peterson is often misunderstood largely because many people who are unfamiliar with his broader body of work generally react to soundbites as opposed to the broader structure of his rather complex worldview. He is a very complex thinker, and his “Maps of meaning” book is one of the most complex books I’ve ever read. It reminded me of “Process and Reality” by Whitehead when it comes to the meticulous scale of complexity that was outlined in the book.
12 Rules was written to be a much more accessible and simpler read, but I’m not sure that it was written to resonate at the level of the “signified verbiage”. It packs more meaning than mere narrative. And there’s much more to the book than meets the eye. Peterson is a fan of Existentialist philosophy, one can’t understand the contents of this book apart from the ideas and ideals of existentialism philosophy. It’s much richer reading experience, and he attempts to structure existentialism narrative through progressive outline of the “rules” (which are more like observed regularities than rules) that he is using as guideposts for his broader existentialist narrative.
So, it’s not a book about what you may think it is about. In the book he attempts to deconstruct the typical narratives about human nature, and then reconstruct it in a way that’s congruent with our “biological telos” and functional reality that we find ourselves occupying.
Hence, the first rule tends to be the most misunderstood, since it’s not really about posture or justification for patriarchy or brutality of nature. It’s merely an observation of regular reality that we find ourselves in, and recognition that we live as a society of “replicating individuals” for a rather specific reason of figuring out “contextual morality” that helps us collectively with future encounters of certain settings in reality. And in taking that varied replication + trial & error competitive strategy we have mechanisms by which we collectively both self-evaluate our relative success in respect to ourselves and those around us.
So, the first rule isn’t about the posture, but explaining that we exist in such configuration for a very good reason that’s not arbitrary at all. It also doesn’t describe such structure as “good” since it’s a rather brutal and harsh, but “necessary” in terms of the mechanism by which life was designed to function to find the best possible combination of individual’s structure, behavioral ideals, and setting configuration in which we could exist with minimal amount of suffering.
The subsequent “rules” proceed to construct Existentialist perspective as to how to deal with reality that we find ourselves in, largely because it’s rather harsh. So, we can decry it as “fundamentally unfair”, or we can recognize certain “teleological validity” and “inherent wisdom” in such structure, and keep tuning it to function for our collective benefit. And that’s where the rest of the “rules” come to play, since these structure relational strategies that both elevate individuals and societies to more tolerable state of existence that’s more viable than merely complaining about inequity and claiming that successful people are such at expense of those who are not.
The book attempts to structure psycho-social behavioral model without resorting to “isms”, which I think people can appreciate, which is why it finds a great degree of resonance in today’s American psyche. Peterson is notorious for approaching the solutions from position of “ignorant idealism” that avoid or deny the above-described reality and claim that we can get ourselves out of the present-day states by merely imagining better states and collectively reifying these into existence in spite of such reification clashing with some of the fundamental nature of who we are and why we exist as societies of competing individuals to begin with.
What? Why would anyone create a new word “Postmodernism” for simply critical examination of things. Not likely that that is really the definition of Postmodernism. When you see people fleeing postmodernism you realize that people are actually understanding it and it’s major deficits in logic thus the supporters of it now want to redefine it as something far more innocuous.
I hear what you are saying about the definition of postmodernism which for a modern rationalist is frustratingly slippery. I suspect postmodern philosophers would find the difficulty in pinning one definition down quite satisfactory. But, I don’t think Caputo is describing simply a critical examination of things in this quote.
Postmodernism as described in his quote rejects the idea of a grand metanarrative from which all things are judged. Instead, the dominant narratives are deconstructed so that the complexity of things can be appreciated and viewed from other perspectives. Not every perspective is equally good and not all interpretations are equally valid (i.e. it is not relativism); but, one can learn something from all of them. And while the dominant perspective need not be rejected outright, exploring different perspectives demonstrates that it is not the only perspective and indeed may not be the best.
I used to be far more accepting of Postmodernism when I thought it was just was questioning the meta-narrative. I think what has happened today with Jordan Peterson is he is able to explain it and we see the results of the postmodernist doctrine all around us. Loss of the individual instead and acceptance of everything is about whatever group you belong to. Which brings about identity politics. Identity politics gives us the intersectional views where we see people combining their group victim hood to be the most victimized person in society and you must be treated special because social justice requires some kind of reparations. So we see all of this happening and we see universities losing all ability to dialog for fear of triggering the victim-hood of people. Then the loss of freedom where these supposedly victimized students can’t tolerate a conservative speaker on campus, so they protest someone like Ben Shapiro. Then when they can’t logically debate they rush to the victim-hood complaint and say. He is racist etc. Which is why an orthodox Jew like Shapiro gets accused of being a Nazi by these triggered people. Peterson also does well in showing that this postmoderism was ripe for take over by Marxism. And today numerous political progressives have taken off the mask and identify as socialists. (which is what early 19th century progressives said they were progressing to instead of just jumping into communism) A good 30 minute video by Peterson the subject is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f5rUPatnXSE
Looking forward to learning more about Peterson’s thought, and the discussion of them. Thanks for organizing us, Brenton, and for this introduction that provides an overview of the basic framework of his thought (and some of the possible shortcomings of it). Looking forward to the conversation.