The Return of Jordan Peterson

The book they couldn’t cancel has arrived

The book they couldn’t cancel has arrived. Jordan Peterson may be a prolific writer and vlogger with followers around the world eager to read his work, but the completion and publication of his new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, looked uncertain only a matter of months ago, and not just for the obvious, Covid-related reasons affecting us all.

The staff revolt at Penguin Random House Canada against publication of this work drew a lot of attention. Less widely covered are the private struggles Peterson has undergone over the past year against addiction to a drug in the benzodiazepine class, the agonies of withdrawal, and the torments of akathisia, an ailment that can make sufferers uncontrollably nervous and restless. You can beat akathisia. Fortunately for his followers, it’s a bit harder to quell a restless intellect.

Peterson was mostly out of the public eye in 2020. In the new year, he has taken tiny steps toward resuming his role as a figure offering advice to millions, grappling with some of the most divisive issues of our time, and spurring fierce loyalty, often among young men put off by identity politics and a culture of grievance, and equally spirited attacks from those who accuse Peterson of everything from misogyny to transphobia to apathy in the face of looming eco-disaster.

Jordan Peterson

One might think that the last thing the world needs is another self-help book, but Beyond Order is a hybrid of genres. It offers a series of essays on how to live responsibly and productively, but Peterson goes way beyond self-help bromides, drawing on cases from his clinical practice to illuminate errors that people are prone to make and the outcomes they can expect from choosing one course of action over another. References to Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, and Jung woven into the narrative suggest that Peterson has situated his practice within a theoretical framework that itself rests on decades of study and reflection. His mind has roved far and wide.

The point is not to gush about Peterson’s erudition, but rather to give a sense of the idiosyncratic nature of his practice. After all, the authors named here might not seem to offer templates for easy self-improvement. They led troubled lives and wrote dark tomes from which one could extract themes of nihilism and despair.

Underground man

To take one example, look at Dostoyevsky’s 1864 work, Notes from Underground, which Peterson has praised in his lectures. It famously begins, “I am a sick man. I am an unattractive man. I believe there is something wrong with my liver.” Consider the fate of the protagonist. In “A Story of the Falling Sleet,” the story comprising the latter part of Notes, the bitter and alienated narrator finagles his way into attending a dinner with a handful of more socially acceptable acquaintances who make no secret of their disdain for him. Then, as the others sit engaged in chatter about salaries and social status, ignoring the narrator, the latter begins to act more and more strangely until an unbearably awkward and ugly scene develops and he must leave. He could have tried harder to fit in.

The narrator’s revolt against the falsity and superficiality of the company of Russians who have warily let him into their social circle does not lead to happiness and fulfillment. Rather, his atrocious conduct climaxes in humiliation and a flight through the dark and frigid streets of St. Petersburg, leading finally to an encounter with a stranger, a call girl, to whom he vents about the brevity and futility of existence. With his fixation in this and other works on despair, mental illness, and murder, Dostoyevsky might seem an odd choice for Jordan Peterson to hold up when advising people on how to turn their lives around and find fulfillment.

But in truth Dostoyevsky is not so far afield at all. His characters live in changing times, with new doctrines coming to supplant more traditional ideas, much as in our world today, where relativism and postmodernism fuel identity politics, and radical ideology comes to hold sway not just in academia but in the corporate world, entertainment, sports, and other spheres.

Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man rejects what is fashionable and socially acceptable. In other works, like The Possessed, which Peterson discusses at some length in Beyond Order, the conflict is more explicitly ideological. Dostoyevsky warns about the dangers of new doctrines that have come to hold sway in some social circles. “He could see that the adoption of a rigid, comprehensive utopian ideology, predicated on a few apparently self-evident axioms, presented a political and spiritual danger with the potential to far exceed in brutality all that had occurred in the religious, monarchical, or even pagan past,” Peterson writes.

Peterson seeks to drive home that rejection of and rebellion against false idols, newfangled doctrines, and the misuse and corruption of language for ideological ends is a personal choice that can lead to changes in how we live and see the world around us and fight for our goals. The impetus finds support in the writings of Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche, but the results, while potentially dramatic and disconcerting, are not necessarily tragic at all. We in 2021 can emulate the decisiveness and independence of certain troubled personages in literature, can be as boldly defiant as the Underground Man, but potentially reach a much better outcome in our careers and lives.

Real-life cases

One of the many ambitious and driven people to whom Peterson has offered counseling in the course of his career is a woman who worked at a corporation where the HR department had a hair-trigger response to any complaints about allegedly insensitive language.

Surely we can all agree on the need to treat co-workers with respect and avoid using derogatory or offensive terms, but some of the examples in the case Peterson relates here are hard to believe. An edict came down in the woman’s office against use of the term flip-chart, on the grounds that the former part of the phrase is a slur sometimes used to demean to Filipinos. (You learn something every day. Bet you had no idea, the last time you told someone to stop being flip, that you were using a racial slur.)

Beyond Order

No worker of Filipino extraction had actually complained about the use of the term. It appears that the firm’s administrators just had way too much time on their hands. On the heels of this edict, they went on to rule out a number of other terms that people had thought to be innocuous, including “master key,” which they took to be a reference to slavery. The employee wrote to Peterson, expressing her concern about the slippery slope on which the internal culture of her firm now found itself, not to mention the self-righteousness of those who decided it was their right and prerogative to dictate how others could express themselves.

“When and where do we stop? If a tiny minority of people even hypothetically finds some words offensive, then what? Do we continue to ban words endlessly?” she asked. She conveyed to Peterson signs that she had picked up on that the mandates handed down from the firm’s directors were having a harmful effect not only on her own conscience, but on the mental health and productivity of some of her colleagues, who did not want to speak out.

The reader senses that concerns of this nature, about outlawed or prescribed language, not to mention mandatory bias training, are fairly widespread in the corporate realms of Canada and the U.S., but that many employees are too anxious about their careers to voice such concerns publicly. Hence they turn up in missives between employees and their shrinks. Reflecting on his experience with this patient, Peterson writes, “Those events seemed to form a coherent pattern, associated with an ideology that was directional in its intent, explicitly and implicitly. Furthermore, the effect of that directionality had been manifesting itself, by all appearances, for a reasonable amount of time, not only in the corporate world my client inhabited, but in the broader world of social and political institutions surrounding the corporation for which she worked.”

Peterson’s patient in this case was a refugee from a former Eastern Bloc country where ideology had squelched personal freedoms as a matter of course for many years. It was all the more psychologically harmful to be in the position of objecting to the curtailments of freedom going on around her at work while lacking any idea of what to do or how to make her concerns known. But, in the end, she did take a stand. She began to apply more broadly the skills and talents she had cultivated as a developer of in-house educational projects for her firm.

Taking on speaking roles at corporate conferences, she maneuvered herself into a position from which to challenge at many venues the rampant manias and ideologically driven excesses of our day, though she let the “flip-chart” issue fall by the wayside. This was not an easy step to take. The fear of reprisal was real, and she had to work hard to develop her public speaking skills and make herself widely available as a speaker. “These moves challenged her deeply—but the consequence was an expansion of personality and competence, as well as the knowledge that she was making a genuine social contribution,” Peterson relates. The Will to Power, properly understood.

Imagine the effects on our corporate culture if more people followed the courageous example of this woman. Moral courage can of course take many forms, but the bottom line comes across in Peterson’s simple adage: do not do what you hate. Much of the wisdom imparted in Beyond Order is one or another variation, applied to many social and cultural contexts, of this theme.

Another of the anecdotes in Beyond Order has to do with a young gay man who was in an abusive relationship that made him depressed and anxious, but, for complex psychological reasons, was unable to see the situation for what it was. This patient clung to a view of people as essentially good and incapable of violence, even after a fight in which the boyfriend shoved him so hard he fell down. Peterson took time really to get to know this client and understand what was going on in his head. He offered advice that boiled down to an exhortation to grow up, to part forever with the rosy view of human nature that led him to imagine that a genuinely abusive or wicked person could not exist.

To this end, Peterson asked the patient to read a couple of books about atrocities carried out by ordinary Germans and Japanese in World War Two, and pursued a number of specialized treatments, including hypnosis. The outcome, in the end, was positive. The patient shed his naivete about the world and came to see that the boyfriend truly wished to harm him, to inflict pain and rage for the sake of it. This blunt realism about the human propensity for evil was not easy to impart, but the patient undoubtedly came out better. This is the kind of wisdom you need to get on in the world.

None dare call it censorship

The third chapter of Beyond Order is entitled “Rule III: Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.” It is a long elaboration of a blunt message: pretending that people, ideas, memories, and social conditions are not real, or imagining through a kind of cognitive dissonance that they are not valid issues and could not or have no right to exist, is no way of dealing with them. This wisdom applies on  many levels, the personal as well as the political, but it is lost on many of Peterson’s enemies, who have gone to extreme lengths not only to try to silence his voice, but to dress up their efforts in respectable garb. If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, then the suppression of viewpoints by any other name is just as odious.

One of the shabbiest exercises in journalistic chicanery in recent memory is a December piece by Nathan Robinson in The Guardian. Robinson says that publishers are well within their legal rights to refuse to give Peterson book deals, which of course is true. He goes on to argue against publishing Peterson at all and suggests that the world needs more, not fewer, internal revolts at publishing houses that have the audacity to propose releasing a book by Peterson or other politically incorrect figures. This is where the argument gets truly weird.

Peterson’s book is unworthy of publication, you see, because it is wrongheaded, contains bad arguments, and, when you come down to it, lacks “social value.” Robinson tries to lend support to this assessment with a series of straw-man caricatures of Peterson’s views that bear little relationship to what Peterson has actually said or written.

Identifying himself as the editor of a small magazine that proudly follows an editorial policy favoring some submissions over others, Robinson goes on: “If Jordan Peterson or Henry Kissinger submitted an essay, it would be rejected. And yes, it would be because we ‘disagreed’ with the opinion—we don’t publish arguments we find morally debased and poorly reasoned, by people whose views we do not wish to promote as sensible and worth listening to.”

So here Robinson admits that if it were up to him, publishers would release only work that he finds politically congenial, but he denies that this amounts to suppression of speech. His argument is an exercise in tautology. It seems incredible to have to point this out, but anytime we disagree with someone’s views, it is because we find them, at bottom, to be morally flawed and/or insufficiently well reasoned. Whether we say “I beg to differ” or “your views are debased” or “you’re full of shit!” or something even less civil may depend on how polite we are, and on the circumstances, but in the end, these reactions come down to the same thing.

We may never see a feebler excuse for the banning of a viewpoint than Robinson presents here. If Robinson had his way, no major publishers would ever release the work of conservatives, and he doesn’t seem at all concerned about the precedent he establishes. If people of a different political mindset applied the same reasoning, progressive authors would never get their work into print either. The outlawers of incorrect opinions would simply have the excuse of saying, “Hey, I’m not engaging in censorship, just declining to publish work that is without social value.”

An unfinished argument

One of the chapters in Beyond Order is entitled “Rule VIII: Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.” This chapter, in which Peterson waxes eloquently about the salutary effects of sparing no effort to make your personal environment just right, expands on a theme he has expressed in the past. Not everyone buys it.

Some of Peterson’s opponents are eloquent, and none perhaps more so than philosopher Slavoj Žižek, whose debate with Peterson in Toronto on April 19, 2019, has racked up more than 3.1 million YouTube views. A highlight of the debate was a question that Žižek put to Peterson, in response to the latter’s precept that one should put one’s own house in order before attempting to change the world. What if your house is in disorder precisely because of larger, external conditions, Žižek asks. For example, he points out, you might live in a repressive state like North Korea where, to extend the analogy, rules and laws and the abuse of power make it impossible to straighten out your house.

Žižek also points out that there could be cases where the imperative to perform discrete and simple tasks (“put your house in order”) leads people to believe that they’ve done their duty and can leave so much else undone. It gives people an excuse to get by with doing very minimal, rote duties like organizing recyclables and ignoring more urgent issues. These are solid points, well put by Žižek.  Peterson’s rebuttal here has to do with the value of exposure therapy and the proven utility of facing one’s demons, and he argues that if done properly, such an approach can contribute both to setting one’s own house in order and to a broader societal stability.

Peterson quotes Jung about how taking a personal problem seriously can better equip someone to deal with a social problem. Sometimes the problems in a relationship are microcosms of larger issues, and dealing with them has implications far beyond the context of the relationship. “I believe that you do solve what you can about yourself first before you can set your family straight, and before you should dare to try to set the world straight,” Peterson argues.

Basically, Peterson expands on his original point without really addressing the kinds of hypothetical scenarios Žižek has raised. Imagine that a couple enjoy an ideal relationship, that they are totally adept at keeping the romance going when left to their own devices, but they happen to live in a totalitarian state where military assignments or the arbitrary quartering of troops in homes or the jailing, torture, or murder of imagined dissidents by paranoid authorities makes the relationship unsustainable.

It’s possible to imagine circumstances where no amount of setting one’s own house in order will be of much use, where the implementation of measures on a national level—the adoption of something akin to our Bill of Rights—is really in order. It is a critical point. Unfortunately, Peterson gives Žižek only a tiny mention in Beyond Order and leaves the Toronto debate, and Žižek’s objections, unresolved.

Of course, putting your whole house in order before trying to change the world is not exactly the same as making one room in it as beautiful as possible. Maybe Peterson did learn from the Žižek debate, and refined his argument into something a bit more logically defensible.

Do not go gentle

Peterson is fond of citing the longer Dostoyevsky novels in his lectures, or what we might call the Big Five (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, The Possessed and The Adolescent), and occasionally shares his views on shorter works like Notes from Underground. Reading Beyond Order, one might think of a work that is relatively unknown even among those who appreciate the importance of Dostoyevsky. The 1846 novella The Double is about Golyadkin, a citizen of St. Petersburg, who finds out that he has a Doppelgänger, a man also named Golyadkin who has a wildly different personality but is physically impossible to tell apart from himself.

The “real” Golyadkin, or Golyadkin senior, as he is known, faces increasing social ostracization and alienation as Golyadkin junior steals the show, attending parties and winning prestige while making Golyadkin senior accountable for his misdeeds. In the unforgettable final scene, a horse and carriage carry Golyadkin senior off to a remote point in the woods as the double and a huge throng of revelers stand outside a house cheering and jeering.

In his bouts with near-fatal illness and would-be censors, Peterson has lost none of his rhetorical bite, his piercing eloquence, or his intellectual honesty. The politically correct junior Golyadkin—a hypothetical persona more acceptable to the guardians of correct opinion—has failed utterly to usurp the place of the senior Golyadkin, or of any honest citizens who adopt the precepts that Peterson has set forth. Golyadkin senior is not going off silently into the dark.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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