30 December, 2022

I read 12 Rules for Life

 …and I didn’t completely hate it. Until I did.

Each year, I try to read a book which has been widely discussed as being terrible, so as to have an independent opinion on it. This year’s selection was Dr Jordan B Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, subtitled ‘An Antidote to Chaos.’

In the introduction, sorry, “overture,” 🙄 he explains how the book grew out of Quora contributions. This makes perfect sense. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the “rules” as they exist in chapter headings. It would probably have made a pretty good long-form listicle but instead, he had a book deal and 400 pages to fill. This means that in describing, explaining and justifying each “rule,” he goes off on bizarre tangents which can end up turning what started out as reasonable suggestions into very, very bad advice.

As mentioned, I did not hate this book straight away. Up until about half way through, I was willing to give Dr Peterson the benefit of the doubt that like, say, Morrissey or Glenn Greenwald, he had started out reasonable (if challenging) and then become so addicted to his own iconoclasm as to lose all perspective.

Yeah, nah.

Dr Peterson’s rambling justifications for his rules boil down into three categories: psychological, evolutionary, and Biblical. In fact, as a psychologist, he makes a fascinating Biblical scholar. I say that in all sincerity. It’s in his interpretation of evolution that he really starts to come a cropper. He dances dangerously close to eugenics but despite this, maintains deep sympathy for men who find themselves at the unfortunate end of natural selection. It’s easy to see why he is the intellectual of choice for young men who want to blame women for denying them sexual gratification.

So let’s address the misogyny directly. It’s clear that Dr Peterson is deeply enamoured of what some might call “traditional values,” particularly when it comes to gender roles, and defines “chaos” as anything which doesn’t conform to these narrow definitions. As such, he delves deep into the animal world for examples of gender inequality. These examples are undeniable of course, except for the fact that humans, while also products of evolution, are not animals. We have evolved to a point where animal behaviour like eating one’s own vomit, procreating in public, and infanticide are now frowned upon. I’m sure Dr Peterson would not advocate for any of those things. We have also reached a point where we can control our own development, meaning if anyone should wish to do a job traditionally delegated to the other gender, they can, and why shouldn’t they?

This is a book written by a man, about men, for men. In Dr Peterson’s view, it’s man’s world. Women just live in it and men tragically have to live with them. At one point he denies the patriarchy exists because a man invented tampons. In the next chapter he says the patriarchy absolutely exists and that’s just the natural order of things.

And this is the point where he falls into the perennial trap of using his qualification to justify what are little more than feelpinions. In defining order as masculine and chaos as feminine, he makes the assumption that his experiences are more valid than anyone else’s for no other reason than that he has experienced them or indeed, is capable of experiencing it. It’s as ridiculous as a woman saying a knee to the groin doesn’t really hurt on the grounds that she doesn’t find it too painful so the rest must all be male drama. There is a good reason no woman has ever said this.

Throughout the book, Peterson reiterates what a big fan he is of Freud. It’s ironic that not since Freud has anyone inadvertently revealed so much about himself while professing to speak about others.

It’s not to say that there aren’t nuggets of wisdom in here. To set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world is undoubtedly good advice. I look forward to a time when Dr Peterson takes it.


  1. Brilliant summary, I sat on a beach with someone who really liked it shredding it all day,"dumb....lame...dumb...that point's sensible...dumb...(repeated)"

    1. There are certainly some sensible points in there. It's just that he negates half of them with his reasoning and the other half are just obvious common sense.