Revisiting 12 Rules for Life: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back

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 to make them less wordy, 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.

I’ve been hearing a lot about Jordan Peterson recently; he’s been the face of a couple political controversies and also a psychologist with a focus on studying archetypes, so there’s a bit of overlap there that makes me interested in him. When I was reading Jeffrey Tucker’s A Beautiful Anarchy (Amazon affiliate link), one thing that Tucker pointed out is that to really read a book and gain its full benefits you need to take a moment to write about what you have read, so I will attempt to do the same with Jordan Peterson’s book, since I am inevitably drawn to figure out what the fuss is about.

If you just want to hear what I have to say about the book, I’ll probably write a review of the book once I’m done. I’m actually as much interested in his Maps of Meaning, since I love anything about archetypes, but I’m a little stingy to spend $50 on a book.

So, attend carefully to your posture. Quit drooping and hunching around. Speak your mind. Put your desires forward, as if you had a right to them— at least the same right as others. Walk tall and gaze forthrightly ahead. Dare to be dangerous. Encourage the serotonin to flow plentifully through the neural pathways desperate for its calming influence.

Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon affiliate link)

This first rule is about posture and dominance, but largely as it relates to the interior psychological life. I’ve included what I consider to be the most cogent quote, but there are a few interesting points I’d like to spitball on.

In the prologue, it is stated that Jordan Peterson considers the focus of his life the study of the 20th century’s totalitarianism. Although a lot of this chapter’s focus is on the internal workings of the brain, like serotonin, there are discussions of why it is good to have people who believe they can fight. There is an emphasis on the difference between peace, which can come between people who are willing to practice violence, and the potential for suffering and dominance that happens when people eschew the practice of violence in its entirety.

The primary illustration at the start of the table is the fight for dominance among lobsters, which is intriguing if not a perfect analogy for human life, but when Peterson dips into clinical psychology, especially with examples of addictive behavior and agoraphobia, the important lesson of being able to address the problems that come with being averse to conflict for whatever reason (upbringing, traumatic experiences, worldview) and get over them by identifying why they occur and how they impact one’s daily life are probably the golden takeaways of the chapter (which, since it comes in the chapter’s title, is probably not a huge surprise).

Peterson: By following the tactics that lead you to appear successful and confident to others, you expose yourself to a feedback loop that encourages you to have good results that will further improve your success and confidence. This stands as a counterpoint to the destructive cycles mentioned earlier in the chapter.

To draw a comparison to religion, the examples of clinical study that Peterson states are often drawn from a world of Edenic innocence into confrontation with flaws and evil of the practical modern world when they begin to have problems. Accepting one’s flaws and intentionally working around them is the suggested solution, as this will allow one to practically approach the matter.

My interesting takeaway: Assuming that everything is good leads to one heck of a collapsing schema, and if your schema collapses so does your worldview, and that creates a problem for you. Peterson mentions this, but I don’t think he develops it very much here (it is probably not on topic for the chapter itself, though it may be of interest).

That’s the first chapter of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I’ve enjoyed it so far. It’s probably not for everyone. It’s moderately accessible, but it is heavy on a loquacious speaking style that appeals to someone like me who enjoys the rich interleaving of the humanities and psychology, but may irritate some people. Author’s note: I’ve revised this sentence for clarity, but I’m pretty sure I thought I was being clever by making it so wordy.

Reflection

It’s interesting that Tucker’s work comes up in the beginning of this piece. I’ve read a lot of Rothbard and other thinkers who are (perhaps nominally) in Tucker’s school of thought since I first wrote this.

However, I feel like Tucker was influential for a while (perhaps because of his claim that the Pope called for one of his books to be banned), but both his work and him as an intellectual seem much less relevant than they did when I first encountered him.

I will speculate that there is a reason Tucker doesn’t have the position that other thinkers in his position have. One is that he’s awful at personal branding and he hasn’t been able to really put himself out there. Another is that he seems to have problems with building connections, owing to fights with others in the libertarian movement and the fact that he has a lot of self-aggrandizement on his Twitter feed.

One lesson to learn from that is humility and grace. While I found Tucker’s work to be interesting, he’s not someone who gets talked about because he seems to have self-exiled himself from the greater conversation.

Also, while I’d still recommend A Beautiful Anarchy if it were in print,

Moving on to the Jordan Peterson bit, now.

I actually got Maps of Meaning (Amazon affiliate link), and it’s a tremendous book. I don’t know that I really wrote about it, and I got it in audiobook format so I can listen to it instead of reading it. That’s a downside because of how it relies fairly heavily on graphs, but I believe by that point I’d also listened to some of the accompanying lectures that include some of those.

One complaint I had with Maps of Meaning is that I really should have read all of Jung’s Man and His Symbols (Amazon, you guessed it, affiliate link) first. Peterson reads the audiobook himself and it’s great as far as production value and quality goes, though you have to like the sound of his voice.

I’m not sure what I meant when I called this quote the most cogent, but it’s certainly a great quote to collect the essence of this chapter.

Since writing this post, I’ve gone to grad school and started writing more as a professional than as a mere hobbyist. I believe there’s something in Beyond Order that touches on this, but I’ve only read the wonderful overture at the time of writing.

This advice about how you carry yourself in the world is a major part of that. It’s not all of it, but it’s significant.

With that said, I don’t think I really understood what I was getting into. I waffled on expressing my admiration for Peterson, which I may have still been developing at this point. I definitely don’t speak in a committal way throughout this.

As a pacifist, I think my musings on violence and peace are errant. It’s not about the unwillingness to use violence, it’s about the unwillingness to take a stand. Good people can accomplish almost anything without force if they stick to principles, but that’s something that requires sacrifice.

The part about cycles holds up: you want to avoid the destructive cycles, and one part of the “stand up straight” element of Peterson’s teaching is about how to get out of them.

The other part is to focus on doing what you ought to do, and do it consistently, because both errors and right actions have a compounding effect.

The problem is that sometimes errors are innocent, and it’s very difficult for people to grasp the idea that an error that doesn’t seem evil can still cause harm.

If you’re interested in the idea of schema collapse, it’s definitely covered a lot in Maps of Meaning, with Peterson giving some good and interesting examples. At the lightest end, it includes an example about how if your car works you don’t think about it, but when it doesn’t work it plunges you into chaos and confusion. It gets progressively darker from there to deal with the various forms of events that can cause such things, but that’s not a point to belabor at this instant.

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