I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), breaking down each chapter into halves so I can give each a fair treatment. I just finished the chapter dedicated to the fourth rule.
Even though this is a much shorter chapter, I’m continuing my practice of splitting each chapter into halves for the sake of analysis. This should be fine, because there’s a lot to think about in this chapter.
In fact, this chapter has something of an intimate connection to me because I think that this, above all, is one of Peterson’s teachings that I latched on to from previous exposure to his lectures and it’s interesting to see him expand on it.
“Once is never. Twice is always.”
One idea that stuck with me from reading The Expanse (which I maintain might be one of the best sci-fi novel series of this generation because the average novel in the series belongs in a top fifty list of all 21st century sci-fi novels so far) is comes from a statement that once is never and twice is always.
What that means, taken from the metaphorical to the literal, is that something that happens once can be dismissed.
But things that repeat have a way of iterating across time in ways that are suspect and dangerous. You don’t want to let things get to that point.
And I think that for not doing things you hate, there’s an important idea here.
You can hate something you’ve experienced. I’ll use the morally neutral example of being sick. Nobody likes being sick, though they may like some things that come with it if they’re particularly starved for leisure time. If you’ve never been sick, though, you don’t have the relationship with that to have a bond with it.
That’s one thing that’s important to note here because Peterson’s rule isn’t a call to reject openness.
There might be some things that have qualities that make you hate them. For instance, I’ll probably never deliberately harm an animal in my life, even though my pacifism is reserved for humans and I’m far from a vegetarian. Unless society goes off the rails and I have to hunt to survive or there are wolves coming after me, that’s something I detest because I know how hurting things makes me feel and I know that feeling extends to animals.
But the problem is that sometimes those associations are false. You need to live life despite the hardships and not use a distaste for things as an excuse for inaction. My pacifism is active; I don’t just avoid harming people, but I actively advocate for not harming people.
If you’re in doubt, there’s only harm in trying something once if it violates some injunction or you have overwhelming consequences. Maybe I’ll get over my (entirely rational) fear of heights and go skydiving some day and find out that I really like it.
Jordan Peterson isn’t talking about avoiding that sort of thing here.
Understanding What You Hate
To riff on sci-fi again, there’s an idea in Star Wars that fear leads to hate. That dates back to the Buddhist themes in George Lucas’ work, but it’s not entirely wrong.
It’s also incomplete.
What you hate (in the real sense) is that which feels you with a sense of potential future annihilation. It’s alien, or difficult to comprehend, or a known danger.
And it’s something that you have a history with. The modern use of the word hate (or phobia) for negative preferences better described as bigotry is one great abomination brought about by shifts in the English language, though it’s still sometimes correct in how it’s used.
When you do something that you know turns you into a danger to yourself, that action becomes hateful. Jordan Peterson illustrates this with an example from a client.
What my client was perceiving—at least as far as she was concerned—was not a single event, hypothetically capable of heading those involved in it down a dangerous path, but a clearly identifiable and causally related variety or sequence of events, all heading in the same direction.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
There’s another element of hateful action, which is that which brings shame. We’re more prone to use the word odious here, though the meaning in the Latin from which it is derived is functionally identical.
An addict considers their own behavior odious. Someone in too deep beneath a web of lies or fraud considers their own behavior odious. A man who complies with a tyrannical state considers his own behavior odious.
We correctly understand that we live, in essence, at the edge of a cliff.
We are ultimately powerless in pulling away from the cliff. We could, ostensibly, choose not to live. But this is a poor solution to the problems of life.
However, we are also aware, on an instinctual level if not by observation of the consequences, that taking improper actions while standing on the precipice is a life-threatening behavior.
And we hate that which sets us in existential risk, whether from moral hazard, physical distress, or social devastation.
Sometimes we have already fallen, and what we hate are the actions we take that led us over the edge, but which we continue to take despite the desperate need to claw our way back to solid ground.
The Truthful Self
One of the best ways to avoid odious acts is to know yourself.
“To thine own self be true,” as Polonius has it, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That “self”—that integrated psyche—is in truth the ark that shelters us when the storms gather and the water rises.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
This isn’t the modern New Age sense, though I question some of how Peterson presents this. For starters, I would never have suggested quoting Polonius, who is a bumbling fool and perhaps even a figure for comedy–the Fool may be profound, but a fool rarely is.
Jung’s idea of the integrated psyche is something like this:
A person who knows themselves, acts on that knowledge, and repeats the process until they have confronted the depths of their shadow and the heights of their anima/animus.
I might read an overly romantic simplification into Jung here, but I think that it’s a good starting point.
The idea of knowing yourself is more important than doing what you want. One consequence of the modern/post-modern move toward feelings over fact–brought about by a correct skepticism about knowledge but a misguided desire to divest from the fruit of the tree of good and evil–is that it leaves us aimless.
Feelings are spirits, little different from any other wheels in the head. They become all-consuming and possessing, but they have little chance of approximating the truth.
Living by feeling and pretending to have self-knowledge is an ultimately destructive aim.
Rather, one must know oneself in a genuine sense, that of discovery. That knowledge is rarely comfortable.
The Deadly Element
The worst part about not doing things you hate is that you need to be consistent with it.
And this is something to deeply consider, if you are concerned with leading a moral and careful life: if you do not object when the transgressions against your conscience are minor, why presume that you will not willfully participate when the transgressions get truly out of hand?Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
This is the lesson that we learned from the death camps of the 20th century, and the purges, and the hatred of others.
Every single action that leads to disintegration is an unravelling. It is not the pathway to it, but the very being itself.
It is a step that takes people to the grave.
The deadly element of doing something you hate is that it programs you to do more things which you hate. It turns a man into a serf and leaves him with nothing.
This does not mean, of course, that anyone who is not perfect has accomplished nothing in the striving.
It means that many people who consider themselves good have only the fair weather to thank for their success. When their desires and whims get in the way, or if the graces of God are insufficient, actual hardship assails them, how do they act?