Rort! Rort! There was a clattering of barstools in the twittersphere as Jordan B Peterson, guru du jour, threw a punch at Pankaj Mishra, the lustrously barbate and erudite critic and essayist. Writing in the august New York Review of Books, Mishra had given Peterson’s book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, a right drubbing, noting that it is “packaged for people brought up on BuzzFeed listicles”, and accusing him of “harmlessly romancing the noble savage”. Peterson reared up like an adder, calling Mishra “an arrogant, racist son of a bitch”, and saying: “You sanctimonious prick. If you were in my room at the moment I’d slap you happily.” Not since Norman Mailer klapped Gore Vidal has there been such an entertaining literary spat.
Twitchforks were hoisted and righteous torches ignited as (predominantly male) supporters and detractors weighed in.
So here it is: Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, ploughing a furrow these past years of applying the wisdom and meaning of mythology to neuropsychology and morality of today. He shot to fame in 2016 when he refused to use gender-neutral pronouns at the university — which new Canadian legislation compelled him to do — and this got him labelled either a free-speech warrior or a transphobe. Peterson rails against snowflakes and political correctness and casts the far left as totalitarian and intolerant. He took to YouTube to explain his philosophy, where his lectures have racked up a staggering 45-million views and along the way he has collected half-a-million Twitter followers.
So any new book by Peterson was going to gain a lot of attention.
The title, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos, is self-explanatory. Peterson sets out a dozen maxims, based on his studies and on many years practising as a clinical psychologist. Chapters have names such as Stand up straight with your shoulders back and Tell the truth — or at least don’t lie, and he pulls in wisdom from the Bible, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Dostoevsky and... lobsters.
Looks to me like a lot of lobsters out there, out-lobstering each other, stirring up the seabed, snatching at Peterson’s feelers, wagging their crusty tails at each other
Peterson uses lobsters — which share many of the same neurological structures as humans — as an intriguing illustration of hierarchical societies. If lobsters lose fights on the seabed their serotonin drops, they get depressed, and they tumble down the hierarchical ladder. Simply said: humans must fight depression if they are to succeed, and Peterson goes on to suggest how this can be achieved. In other words, we must man up.
The response has been frenzied. There are many people who love him, but a lot who don’t.
The novelist Hari Kunzru wrote: “Reading Peterson is like being shouted at by a rugby coach in a sarong.” Maclean’s magazine called him “the stupid man’s smart person”, while closer to home Richard Poplak in the Johannesburg Review of Books called the book “a self-help book for assholes, basically”. 12 Rules for Life, he summed up, is: “paleo-intellectualism crossed with a Hallmark card.”
From the stools at the back of the cyberpub here — where I’m having a quiet buchu-infused gin and wishing I weren’t, because it is foul and I should have just had a glass of chenin — I think it is all very amusing. Looks to me like a lot of lobsters out there, out-lobstering each other, stirring up the seabed, snatching at Peterson’s feelers, wagging their crusty tails at each other.
Guys, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water here, or should it be the lobster out with the seawater? I had an (admittedly quick) whip through the 12 Rules and rather liked what I saw: the chapter on not allowing your bratty, undisciplined children ruin a lunch party, for instance. Or how to tackle the admin you’ve been avoiding. Do good. Delay gratification. You know, that kind of thing.
Alt-right? Fascist? I don’t think so.
WATCH | Jordan B Peterson on 12 Rules for Life:
Peterson is not the “public intellectual” that everyone is claiming him to be. Michel Houellebecq and Bernard-Henri Levy are proper public intellectuals; so are Camille Paglia and Richard Dawkins.
Peterson is just the latest in a very long line of popular psychologists/self-help, and spiritual pundits, from Desiderata to M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled to Neale Donald Walsch to Eat Pray Love to Malcolm Gladwell’s famous Ten Thousand Hours. So pick up the barstools, sheathe the claws, read the book — or at least more than five lines into a review of it — and take from it what is useful to your life. Soon there will be another guru on the horizon peddling life advice. Imagine how many YouTube hits Kahlil Gibran would have had? After all, it was he who said: “Say not that I have found the truth but rather that I have found a truth.”
PS. When Vidal went down on the floor as Mailer decked him he said, immortally: “Words, as always, fail Norman.”