Revisiting 12 Rules for Life: Tell the Truth– Or, At Least, Don’t Lie (Part 1)

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). Peterson’s approach to truth-telling at first seemed to echo Kant, but as I read deeper I learned it was more nuanced (and perhaps more far-reaching than even Kant’s categorical imperative).

Early in this chapter, Peterson includes an anecdote from his time in a clinical preparation program. When a resident at a mental health facility asked where his cohort of students was going and if they could come with, Peterson had to come up with a response.

There were only two, as far as I could quickly surmise. I could tell the patient a story designed to save everyone’s face, or I could answer truthfully. “We can only take eight people in our group,” would have fallen into the first category, as would have, “We are just leaving the hospital now.” Neither of these answers would have bruised any feelings, at least on the surface, and the presence of the status differences that divided us from her would have gone unremarked.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

But he builds further to explain why neither of those options would have been acceptable. Peterson’s aversion to lying seems, on the surface, even perhaps a tad neurotic.

However, we would not call someone who washes their hands every time they work with food neurotic.

It is in this way that Peterson considers the act of truth-telling to be important. It is a matter of hygiene, of–perhaps–holiness, and setting oneself apart from the dangerous path of expediency (see Rule 7).

In this case, Peterson’s honesty was useful because it caused a little friction in the short term, but was helpful in mitigating any miscommunications or feelings of betrayal down the road.

Further, he explains his case using an example from his clinical casework with paranoid individuals.

Peterson remarks that he often would have paranoid clients tell him of dark fantasies and horrible notions, and Peterson’s approach was to tell his clients how horrible their notions were, not to rebuke them but as a sign of honesty–by showing his repulsion, they knew he was being honest with them in a world where many others would prefer to leave such a thing aside. His openness built trust where there seemed to be no room for such a thing (Stephen R. Covey would likely agree).

He was paranoid, not stupid. He knew his behaviour was socially unacceptable. He knew that any decent person was likely to react with horror to his insane fantasies. He trusted me and would talk to me because that’s how I reacted. There was no chance of understanding him without that trust.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

He continues to recount an incident with a landlord of his, an ex-biker who was trying to get his life back on track, but also in the throes of alcoholism. When he tried to convince Peterson to buy something so that he could have money to fuel his addiction, Peterson defused the situation by responding logically. By honestly talking to their common cause (the landlord wanted at some level to end his self-destructive cycle, and Peterson wanted the best for him [and, of course, a sober landlord]) and refusing his landlord, he was able to achieve a positive breakthrough, at least to a limited extent.

No, we were two men of good will trying to help each other out in our common struggle to do the right thing. I said that he had told me he was trying to quit drinking. I said that it would not be good for him if I provided him with more money.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life

One of the major points that Peterson makes is that lies allow people to manipulate the world. They are the tools of Milton’s Satan and people who cannot handle the realities of the world, who use their power to change the way the world seems to be. Inevitably, of course, lies are hollow, but if they can bear fruit to their users that consequence is often shifted to other people.

The life-lie, the concept of which Peterson attributes to Albert Adler, is a particularly prevalent one of these: someone starts with a naive goal, then winds up with a need to justify that goal. It could even be the case that someone settles on a single guiding star (for instance, “immigration is bad”) and then builds their worldview around that one point, ignoring both whether such a thing is even true and whether or not such a thing is a solid foundation for a complete life.

This chapter is going to require a second part, because Peterson continues into some good points that I’m going to need to break down separately.

The key concept so far, however, is that lies have consequences, and frequently stem from the desire for expedience; the feeling that it is necessary to accomplish one goal at the cost of other virtues.

Reflection

Aha, the first concession of needing to split a response into two parts.

I really like this chapter, and I’d forgotten about the avoiding lying as hygiene metaphor.

I don’t remember if that’s Peterson’s invention or my own, but I think it’s actually a good analogy.

One thing about lies is that they compound and live lives of their own. One reason I’m a pacifist is the idea that violence follows its own logic (an idea I’ve heard espoused by the eminent Michael Malice, though I can’t remember if he attributed it to someone or not). Lies are the same way.

You might think that you get ahead with a lie (or with violence) but the consequence of choosing that path, which is ultimately one of expedience, is that you wind up creating something with a life of its own.

It’s akin to opening Pandora’s box, where the only thing one is left with is hope–in this case only the hope that damage can be undone! We might also compare it to summoning a demon or creating Roku’s basilisk, depending on the way the consequences of a lie manifest in the world.

The problem with all lies is that they are a denial of universal truth, which I suspect is something I discuss in the second half of this.

Further, lies enable us to live less than our best life. If we were at a point where we could be well and truly honest, we would have no place for deception. This is not an argument against privacy, because there are always those who seek to destroy and even honesty does not prevent the encroachment of mortality, but it is an argument for the need to live at all times in such a way that one does not lie.

Another thing that’s interesting is that since reading 12 Rules for Life I have read Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago (personal advice; get the abridged version unless you have a tremendous tolerance for the depths of human cruelty and suffering), and one of Solzhenitsyn’s great theses is the argument that one ought never to live by lies. In fact, the idea was not only central in several of his essays, but also spawned a brilliant book by Rob Dreher called Live Not By Lies (Amazon affiliate link; I thought I’d written a review of this, but apparently not) in honor of Solzhenitsyn.

One thing about honesty as well is that being maximally honest (which often involves focusing just on the important details) is a path to clear communication. It is very rare to encounter someone so hateful that communicating with them clearly cannot solve issues, though it is certainly possible to find these petty vindictive types from time to time.

I’ll follow up with more thoughts when I get to the second section. This was a relatively short piece because I split it in two, and I want to make sure that I don’t wind up retreading too much stuff in my reflections upon it.

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