Note: This is a repost of a blog series that I started in January 2018. Because this was prior to the blog being syndicated on PeakD, and it was some of my most-viewed content on the old blog. I’m going to be editing these slightly, but I’m also going to be adding my own thoughts as I re-read what I wrote. You can find the original post here.
For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link). The core lesson in the 11th chapter of Peterson’s book is a little different from the title, and I’ll probably spend more time trying to unpack the points rather than giving a blow-by-blow of Peterson’s argumentation.
The fundamental themes of this chapter are sort of two-fold:
- How to treat risk
- Understanding social behavior
I don’t know if this is necessarily a great dichotomy to break it down into, but I’ll explain my thoughts in a bit:
So the first part of my understanding of the chapter has to do with risk. We live in a society that has become incredibly risk-averse (just look at the number of regulations on the books!). Peterson argues that risk is fundamental part of exploration.
Basically, the idea is that risk is going to be the mechanism through which people are going to express their character; taking risks is brave but it also has a fundamental psychological need.
That need is competence. Having a certain amount of non-intervention in your personal decision making, even before you reach the point in your life at which you make “wise” decisions (as an aside; this also goes for people who never make “wise” decisions) having some agency trains you in how to exercise agency.
Having seen my fellow millennials and my students struggle with this, I can say that the inability to take risks is something that is a major problem and seems to be brought on at least in part by the lack of risk that students find in their daily lives.
The other irony of this is that since risk fulfills psychological needs, people will find their risk wherever they can, even if people try their best to keep them from risk. Like with teenage rebellion, anything made too risk-free becomes valueless.
Rather, Peterson argues that the people who try to control others’ risks (like those who put “skatestoppers” up to prevent skateboarders from attempting stunts) tend to destroy others’ pursuit of these psychological needs.
This often fosters or is the direct result of resentment, which I’m not going to go into too much detail on here (anyone who’s read Nietzsche in depth knows roughly how that process works). Peterson lays out examples in Sartre and Derrida and argues that the postmodern philosophy, especially when it is derived from Marxist roots, draws from an inimical approach to other classes, rather than a legitimate desire to benefit the world.
To get more to the point of social activity, however, the ability to function with risk, or perhaps more particularly bad experiences, which are often a consequence of risk, is a major predictor of social success. Peterson recounts an example of working on a railway line crew.
The crew had an initiation process, consisting of minor pranks and a demeaning nickname for each new employee.
The people who didn’t fit in got increasingly harsh treatment primarily because they complained about the harsh treatment they received. It became clear that when they had bad experiences, they didn’t know how to handle them.
So while the idea of removing risk from someone else’s life may seem obviously benevolent, Peterson argues that the risk both prepares people for a better future, but also is a core part of understanding the world that people cannot do without.
Reflections from 2021
In hindsight, I think the name for this rule is more appropriate than I first gave it credit for. The central lesson in this chapter is something like the following:
Do not interrupt the process of accepting and dealing with risk that is part of standard development. The desire to prevent disaster is noble, but it needs to be reserved for when it is necessary because the cost of limiting all risk is forestalling all future success.
One thing that I now understand about risk is that it’s most important to have a strong compass and then act boldly. As the Bard once noted, “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.”
The problem is that anyone is a coward who finds themselves incapable of dealing with risk. We can attribute this to moral weakness, and that’s certainly true in a broad sense, but there’s also the question of those who have never experienced risk.
For instance, the lockdowns over the past year have shown a broad and near-universal cowardice. I remember being in the classroom doing some long-term substitute work for a former coworker when the pandemic was first spreading through the States.
I realized that by the end of the year there was a good likelihood that at least one of my students would be dead.
I had thought that it was going to be because of the virus, not suicide and illness of despair. However, when better knowledge about the virus became available we persisted with our initial (and, at the outbreak, correct) risk aversion, even if the cost of doing this was a year of life for every youth whose education and social experiences went on hold. We should not let our descendents forget that this was a choice of cold and calculated cowardice, a decision to put the fear of our death above the life of our own children.
We are going to be damned for it.
But let us return to the task at hand.
Dealing with risk and learning to deal with risk are fundamental requirements for people to become their true heroic selves. By fixating squarely on the terrain of safety (i.e. order), people become incapable of dealing with risk (i.e. chaos). The consequences of this are more significant than they may seem, because order stifles positive development.
In a hypothetical scenario, however, where development is unnecessary, the danger would still exist because chaos always erodes order. The trend of the universe is entropy, and while it is possible to live a human life with this as a minor consideration among the many concerns of life (even though the concerns of life are themselves entropic, e.g. hunger), it is not possible to operate on a societal scare without a confrontation of the dragons that exist in the waters we have not yet explored. Eventually they will crawl up on land if left unchecked.
Although I first thought the social behavior that Peterson illustrates in the second half of this chapter to be entirely distinct from the original topic, I now realize that it is not.
He was highlighting the social issues that face people who have never learned to confront the risk and danger of the world. The example of Lunchbucket, the hapless railway worker who came up as the subject of ridicule by the other workers, is an example of a person who is unaccustomed with risk.
I am, of course, similar in many ways. I am comfortable with the risk of speaking my truth into the world, if only because I may be the only person who believes many of the things I believe who currently lives and the dead progenitors of my school of thought are quickly passing outside the boundaries of living memories (and the preservation of their thought and philosophy is wasted on outside observers who lack the spiritual convictions to see as they saw).
But I am an intellectual and a coward regarding the world. My background is uncomfortably bourgeois and artificial in orientation, and there are things which I cannot conceive of myself undertaking. Many of these would doubtless be good for me, but they seem the undertakings of another man.
The short of this is that I am more Lunchbucket than the railway workers, and that is probably not a good place to live.
Or, to make things more simple, my own sheltered upbringing makes me less able to confront certain things that would have been ordinary for people of a different age and background.