Jordan Peterson has been called “the most influential public intellectual in the Western world.” I mostly think of him as “that guy the alt-right uses to pretend to be smart.” A psychology professor at the University of Toronto, Peterson rocketed to fame by insinuating Canada including trans people under civil protection would lead to censorship and Stalinism, something absolutely no civil rights lawyer of any standing agrees with.
Still, it got him a lot of attention. He rakes in a nice living through his Patreon for YouTube videos, not to mention sales of his book 12 Rules for Life. The international bestseller has become the new Secret, and is incredibly popular with a certain segment of mostly young straight cis white males. Some of whom have gone completely bananas and cult-like over the man.
I just recently figured out both why Peterson inspires the devotion he does and why his roadmap to a better life is flawed and dangerous. It came when I was watching Natalie Wynn, aka Contrapoints, aka the Oscar Wilde of YouTube. In her video, Wynn compares 12 Rules to “those A.A. meetings that I refuse to go to.” That’s when I got it.
Peterson’s rules for life are standard self-help. They even come in the traditional twelve steps form. There’s nothing wrong with the advice on its own. You should tend to your own affairs before you start running around trying to fix others, practice honesty, seek a higher purpose/power, etc. If that was all Peterson was doing with his work he’d be as remarkable as the psychology section of a secondhand bookstore.
What makes the difference is the framework that Peterson hangs this good advice on, his notorious post-modern neo-Marxist conspiracy nonsense. If you want a good breakdown of why none of those words actually describe what Peterson is afraid of, watch the Wynn video I linked to above. That’s not the focus here.
Peterson’s worldview is a typical alt-right one, albeit he is very careful to be the “nice” one in that group. It postulates that “the West” is under attack from gender and sexual minorities as well as censorship in the guise of activism. He radically inflates calls for diversity and consequences for bigotry into broad, homogenous movements with unified malicious intent.
Proven, workable self-help programs rely on a very basic formula, one that Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t invent but did perfect. True change comes only from a place of surrender, and surrender generally only happens when life becomes unmanageable. You ever hear someone say, “The first step is admitting you have a problem?” That’s wrong, the First Step is admitting you’re powerless over the problem, with follow-up steps requiring the breaking down and rebuilding of the person. You have to replace a lot of your resentments, anger and anxieties with healthier positive things that substitute what is hurting you.
Peterson’s dedication to his post-modern neo-Marxist fantasy is a roadblock to that. Its primary purpose is to shore up the persecution complex of the privileged looking to blame increased parity for minorities for their own personal lack of success and happiness in life.
His rules are marginally effective because they are busywork, the illusion of growth. They are the spiritual equivalent of giving a starving person a candy bar. Sure, it’s better than nothing, and it will help them in the short term, but candy bars can’t be the whole diet of a healthy person. All his self-help accomplishes is to hand out sidequests to the unhappy while simultaneously feeding the root causes of their misery with assurances they don’t need to change their core.
The result is that Peterson fans will get the high of new change, what A.A. calls the pink cloud, but they don’t channel that elation into anything but superficial improvement. The world is still going to move on. Patriarchy, heteronormativity and white supremacy are still going to exist and yet young straight white men will still as individuals fail. Hiding behind progressivism and an imagined social justice warrior army as the cause is no better than an alcoholic assuring themselves that if they only drink on weekends they will be fine. It’s a lie in service of the need to self-destruct.
I’m going to give Peterson the benefit of the doubt and assume his rules are meant well, but he undermines all the good he might be doing with fragile identity politics coddling. Until his fans really take the time to deconstruct their fear and worry, Peterson’s rules are going to be Band-Aids on mortal wounds.
If you're looking for less toxic self-help books, I recommend Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Chris Grosso's Dead Set on Living, Melody Beattie's Codependent No More, Charles Duhigg's The Power of Habit and Candace B. Pert's Molecules of Emotion.