Like most novelists, I am a firm adherent to the W.H. Davies principle of finding time to stand and stare. I was once sauntering down London’s Regent Street when a gentleman hared out of a department store, closely followed by two rather healthier specimens. They flung him to the ground, upon which large quantities of merchandise started falling from his pockets. I was fascinated, both by the level of violence the shop’s security was using and by what a captured thief actually says when he’s being subdued. (Clue: not ‘You got me bang to rights.’) After a moment or two another bloke came over to me and a couple of others gawping on the public pavement. ‘Move along there,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing for you to see here.’ I replied as anyone would when a stranger starts ordering you around: ‘Who the bleeding hell are you?’
The same question came to mind when reading Beyond Order. Jordan B. Peterson published the successful 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaosa couple of years ago, quite no-nonsense in tone. ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’ was number one; ‘Tell the truth’ number eight. Now he presents us with 12 more rules. Are these self-help books? And before we start listening seriously to someone telling us to ‘Try to make one room in your house as beautiful as possible’, let’s look at Peterson. Why should we follow his rules for life rather than those of Bimini Bon Boulash?
Peterson had been leading a blameless life in the groves of Canadian academe until, in 2016, the Canadian parliament passed a law prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of gender identity. Many transgender people, as well as those unwilling to conform to gender stereotypes, think it’s important to be able to choose the pronouns they use. Peterson, though acknowledging that it would be jolly rude to refer to Jan Morris, say, as ‘he’, questioned the proliferation of invented non-binary pronouns, such as ‘zie’ and ‘per’, the rather ungrammatical codification of the singular ‘they’ and, most importantly, what the merry hell parliament was doing trying to control people’s speech in this regard. His haranguing of a weedy mob on campus quickly became a YouTube favorite. A richly amusing debate on local television followed in which a colleague of Peterson’s demonstrated just how absurd the proposals were:
‘Here’s a great little tip for people who are despairing at the possibility of remembering all those pronouns. What I do is program in the person’s pronoun next to the person’s name in my smartphone. So whenever I’m out and about, and I’ve forgotten whether one of my transgender friends uses zie or zer or they and them or something else, I just look it up and it’s really super-easy.
As with all attempts to engineer linguistic usage, the appropriate response is what Regina George might say to Gretchen Wiener in Mean Girls: ‘Gretchen! Stop trying to make zie happen. It’s Not. Going. To. Happen.’
If only we could all have such opponents in a debate, you might think. Peterson went on to build his sudden fame into worldwide celebrity, putting talks about all manner of things on YouTube and engaging in enjoyably robust exchanges with intelligently flabbergasted journalists — I recommend an interview with the excellent Cathy Newman, in which both appear to be enjoying themselves a good deal. (Death threats followed, however.)
Peterson — though rarely coming out with anything much that would be thought objectionable, rather than worth discussing — is now a sort of bogeyman for millennials to scare each other with. When Penguin Random House Canada announced that it was publishing this book, a general meeting of employees was held. As reported by VICE: ‘People were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives. [One employee] talked about how publishing the book will negatively affect their non-binary friend.’ You may find this amusing, or you may wonder whether the book you yourself are writing is going to have to be approved in advance, without being read, by the non-binary friends of junior employees of your publisher.
Anyway, here is the book itself, which, unlike the weeping juveniles, I happen to have read. It is pretty odd, I must say. The rules are quite old-fashioned Canadian Presbyterian in tone. Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement. Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens. Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship.
How is this going to work in practice? Peterson’s readers, surely, are drawn from the class of persons who are already firmly convinced about social order, hard work, hierarchy, tradition and so on. They aren’t likely to need his book unless they are planning to give it in a passive-aggressive way to their non-gender-conforming snowflake children.
The fact is that this is not really a self-help book at all. Cunningly disguised, it is a Savonarola-like jeremiad about things going to the dogs. If you don’t do what Peterson says:
‘Then you will come to curse man, reality and God himself for producing such an impenetrable maze of impediments and barriers. Corruption will beckon to you, led as you increasingly will be by dark, unexamined motivations. This will impoverish your life, your community, your nation, and the world. This will in turn impoverish Being itself.’
On the other hand, things might go on much as before, one suspects.
This is a genuinely frustrating book. I wish, for instance, that the positions Peterson chooses to pick a fight with were better documented, rather than (quite often) the beliefs he imagines his opponents to hold. He goes to the Met in New York and looks at a painting (a little digging suggests he’s talking about a Guido Reni.) There are people looking at it. ‘I thought “They do not know what that painting means. They do not understand the symbolic meaning of the mandorla.”’ How does he know? It might have been an outing for a bunch of Guido Reni scholars.
More worryingly, there is a tale of a client of Peterson’s whose employer is said to have banned the use of the word ‘flipchart’ on the grounds that it might be derogatory to Filipino employees, once insultingly known as ‘Flips’. I just don’t believe this story. The racial slur is quite unknown to the OED, and any investigation of the new taboo placed on ‘flipchart’, including the source which Peterson cites, only turns up conservative voices bemoaning the ludicrousness of any ban. Of course there are cases of people objecting to words apparently close to racial slurs but etymologically distinct — black students have complained about their professors using the word ‘niggardly’. But you need to be very sure of your ground here, both of the facts and that the choice of usage was genuinely innocent — unlike a former colleague of mine who used to enjoy telling me that he was looking forward to eating faggots and peas for his dinner. The flipchart story, as so much here, just looks a lot like projection.
As an old-fashioned liberal, I ought to be on Peterson’s side: the defense of free speech against official or mob control; the injunctions to read and listen to other people, especially those who know what they’re talking about. But he makes it so hard. For one thing, he writes terribly badly:
‘This variance in ability (as well as the multiplicity of extant problems and the impossibility of training everyone in all skilled domains) necessarily engenders a hierarchical structure — based ideally on genuine competence in relation to the goal.‘
His evidence too often looks constructed for his own convenience, or conjured out of some frankly weird readings of Harry Potter and Disney movies; and he is apparently totally lacking in humor.
The moment, however, when I really started to wonder whether I wanted his guidance about how to live was when, advising us on how important it is to make one room in your house beautiful, he describes his own. In his living room, no more than 12ft square, he hangs
‘…some large paintings…Soviet realist/impressionist pieces, some illustrating the second world war, some representing the triumph of communism. There was even one… on the ceiling, where I had attached it with magnets.’