Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.
There’s no time like the present, and the present belongs to Dr. Jordan B. Peterson. The clinical psychologist and University of Toronto professor has a runaway bestseller on his hands with 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, released in January; he is, at this moment, the most-read Canadian. Peterson, who published only one previous book nearly 20 years ago, gained traction as a public intellectual thanks to a YouTube channel featuring his lectures — 12 Rules is in a sense the capstone and payoff for that newfound virality. And because his views on masculinity, which appeal to an overwhelmingly male audience, are subject to varied interpretations, it’s theoretically worth digging into the man’s great opus. After all, a common retort to those who would dismiss Peterson as a crypto-alt-right crank is: “Have you even read his work?”
Another complaint Peterson’s fanboys lob at critics is that they resort to the dreaded ad hominem attack — that they cannot look beyond a prickly persona to reckon with the ideas and arguments the good doctor puts forth. But any reader of 12 Rules is forced into deep consideration of exactly who Peterson is, for he serves as the principal subject. Although styled as a self-help book, this droning brick is a tribute to the author’s ego, a string of declarative sentences and self-answering questions connected by little more than a monomaniacal admiration for dubious archetypes. It’s a way for him to get lost in the weeds on his favorite topics and offer copious anecdotes on his everyday wisdom. Best of all, no one can interrupt him.
You get a whiff of Peterson’s misplaced pride straight out of the gate, when he explains that the “rules” conceit spawned from his comment on a Quora post that asked: “What are the most valuable things everyone should know?” The list he wrote up went modestly viral, which he brags about, even supplying viewership stats and some fawning praise from other Quora users. Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with Quora, but it’s a bit like if Reddit and Yahoo! Answers fused into a single traumatic brain injury. The site’s newsletter is a stream of breathtakingly ignorant and frequently racist queries: “Do autistic adults disappear off the face of the planet?”; “Why does China seem soulless?”; and “Is it possible to push a new born baby back into the womb?” Anyone with a high school degree should be embarrassed to participate in this community, let alone construe popularity within it as something other than a mark of bare literacy.
Oh, well. The damage is done, and 12 Rules exists. So what are these rules? Impressively, they’re the dullest stuff in here: Help yourself, make decent friends, don’t lie, pursue what’s meaningful, etc. Much of it is reducible to “pick yourself up by the bootstraps,” or to borrow a gag from The Simpsons, “Get Confident, Stupid!” For Peterson, everything comes down to “dominance hierarchies,” meaning his tips are geared toward weak-willed people (okay, man-children) who want to climb atop the heap. He starts with a chapter of pop science, explaining that just as female lobsters “identify the top guy quickly, and become irresistibly attracted to him,” females of many other species, “including humans,” adopt this strategy. Yes, by page nine, he already has a working theory of Chads. It doesn’t come with a endnote source.
But if you expected a lot more bogus evolutionary psych or neuroscience, you’d be disappointed. Peterson soon abandons the likes of crustacean-primate analogies for long, long digressions on the Bible (there are passages where he actually summarizes its plot) and exhortations like: “Don’t, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, be a girlie man.”
In between there’s always Peterson. We read about Peterson’s interactions with friends, colleagues, patients and family. These stories are meant as illustrations, yet like the retreats into mythological analysis, they rarely pertain to the guiding “rule” of each chapter, more often revealing flashes of disturbing rage and cruelty. When, in youth, an old friend brought a stoned buddy over to his apartment: “I said that he shouldn’t have brought his useless bastard of a companion.” On whether the ruin visited upon New Orleans by Katrina was truly a natural disaster: “A hurricane is an act of God. But failure to prepare, when the necessity for preparation is well known — that’s a sin.” The chapter devoted to his parenting techniques, “Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them,” makes room for fantasies of violence (“it would have been better” for a misbehaving kid on the playground if Peterson had picked him up and thrown him “thirty feet” instead of taking his daughter elsewhere) and an aside on how much he despises Elmo of Sesame Street: “I always hated that creepy, whiny puppet. He was a disgrace to Jim Henson’s legacy.”
Very normal, very insightful.
Where I find Peterson most appalling, however, is in his cavalier treatment of suicide and flights of misogynist fancy. Having related the lurid details of a friend’s suicide and its aftermath, to no real purpose, he abruptly segues with this sentence: “Recently, I was invited to give a TEDx talk at a nearby university.” A few pages after idly speculating that a different friend took his own life due to cannabis use and nihilism, he frames depression as bitter jealousy and laziness: “Maybe your misery is the weapon you brandish in your hatred for those who rose upward while you waited and sank. Maybe your misery is your attempt to prove the world’s injustice, instead of the evidence of your own sin, your own missing of the mark, your conscious refusal to strive and to live.”
You can’t help but worry about the people seeing this man for therapy. The vilest reminiscence from his professional practice is also among the clearest indicators of his thoughts on women generally. It concerns a woman who told him that she may have been raped on several occasions but couldn’t be sure of this, since the encounters happened in the context of nights spent drinking. Whatever Peterson wants us to take from this tale is lost in his dehumanizing language. The client, he writes, “was vague to the point of non-existence.” A paragraph later: “She had no self. She was, instead, a walking cacophony of unintegrated experiences.” And again: “You’re so vague and so non-existent. You’re a denizen of chaos and the underworld.”
This is how he describes a possible victim of sexual assault who struggled to articulate her trauma.
Speaking of “chaos” — he notes that this force is intrinsically feminine, while countervailing “order” is masculine. Which makes the book’s subtitle, “An Antidote to Chaos,” rather troubling. Moreover, 12 Rules abounds with hypotheticals centered on female infidelity, and when Peterson does flip the genders, the imaginary husband’s betrayal turns out to be the wife’s fault: “Some earlier care and courage and honesty in expression might have saved her from all this trouble.” He lashes out at mothers he perceives as failures, even wondering if the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin might be blamed on the women who gave birth to them: “Was something amiss in their crucial relationships? It seems likely, given the importance of the maternal role in establishing trust.”
Bizarrely, he turns what might have been the most interesting rule (“Do not bother children when they are skateboarding”) into a defense of patriarchy, informing us that men invented tampons and the birth control pill, as if either product has solved an issue completely and forever, or was in no way a reflection of male control over female bodies. When trying to explain the absence of women in top positions at law firms, he wants us to trust that it “isn’t because the law firms don’t want the women to stay around and succeed.” It won’t surprise you that the Biblical incident he returns to repeatedly is the fall of Adam and Eve, nor that he calls women “Eve’s daughters” and belittles their upper body strength.
What use is this to anyone? Peterson seizes every opportunity to show his ass — he includes, I swear, a couple of smiley face emoticons to persuade you he has a sense of humor — but the book is a failure because he abhors the premise. Probably the funniest self-own in here, amid far too many to count: “Advice is what you get when the person you are talking to wants to revel in the superiority of his or her own intelligence.”
But aside from a vehicle for Peterson’s sociopathic interpretations of Disney films and incel dog-whistles, what else is 12 Rules supposed to be? His unorthodox literalism regarding Christian theology (hell and sin are both quite real, just not as you understood them in Sunday school), combined with a swipe at the atheist scold Richard Dawkins in the foreword, suggest that Peterson’s role is as religiously rationalist preacher. This patrician status squares with the profoundly sad blurb from the National Review: “Firm but caring… Peterson speaks the way I always wished my father had.”
From the sales of 12 Rules and Peterson’s success on the lecture circuit, we must conclude that plenty of men are in need of a paternal figure. With blind conviction and brutal candor — you can’t accuse him of lacking either — Peterson fills that niche. There’s the tough love aspect, where he tells them to stop being losers, and the rewards that follow, as in the assurance that “consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time.” The metaphor of making a child eat their vegetables and saying “good boy” after every bite is entirely literalized in an example involving Peterson’s son. Yet there is no nutrition to his ghoulish gospel, and per the fusillade against his ideological villains, be that Marxism, feminism or postmodernism, its current vogue as a revolutionary ideal is no evidence of its value.
Besides, what right does he have to find fault in us? Rule 6: “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.” That is to say, there may be no utopian project, no push for civil rights or basic dignity, unless the suffering crowds have become morally infallible. Surely Peterson wouldn’t claim to meet that standard himself — unless his tribe is just one more cult.
And yeah, that’s one more ad hominem for the road.