This is the first installment of a 12-part series that will analyze the practical wisdom of Jordan Peterson’s popular new book, 12 Rules for Life. The format will involve a quick summary of Peterson’s viewpoint followed by my analysis.
In Proverbs 6:6-8, the wise King Solomon exhorts his listeners to go to the ant and consider its ways. In the first chapter of 12 Rules for Life, saintly professor Jordan Peterson exhorts us to consider another arthropod: the lobster. Not just any lobster, mind you, but the cock who successfully claws its way to the top of a status hierarchy and now dominates a whole community of lobsters.
You have heard professor Peterson say: Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back. He goes on…
Go to the dominant male lobster, you weaklings. Consider his strength, his competence, and his confidence. Consider further that he has ample mating opportunities. 😉 Most importantly from a psychological perspective, notice that his brain is high on serotonin.
Have you ever stood up to a bully? Even defeated him? If so, you have felt one of the most euphoric feelings in the world – especially if girls were watching. And, guess what? Your brain was high on serotonin, too, just like the lobster’s!
It is unfortunate that most people are too weak to fight back against bullies. I do not mean physically weak; I mean spiritually weak. These are the kind of people who are prone to compassion and self-sacrifice. They are naive and easily exploited by malevolent people because they cannot fathom how anyone might have malicious intent against them. When bullied, these people are tolerant, which allows evil to flourish.
And that is how totalitarian dictators arise, didn’t you know?
So, don’t be a pushover. Stick up for yourself so people will respect you. It will help you feel more confident. And acting confidently will lead to even more respect. The end result of this feedback loop could be a serotonin high worthy of the lobster!
It is true that, if you assume a posture of confidence, people may treat you with respect. It is also true that this respect will likely boost your self-esteem. So, if you’re looking for a way to lift your spirits, you could start by following Jordan Peterson’s Rule #1. But there is a problem. What happens if people see through your facade of confidence? What if your peers are not impressed? In other words, where else do you go if your external wellspring of self-worth is dry?
Perhaps you can find another external source of self-esteem. Perhaps, like Jordan Peterson himself, you can take a more direct, biological approach. When your friends no longer stimulate your brain to release serotonin, you can ingest a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, which keeps your body’s existing serotonin in your system longer. This may not seem as ennobling as imitating the lobster, but it still gets the job done.
In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis observed, “If I pay you to carry me, I am not therefore myself a strong man.” Does the same hold true regarding strength of spirit? Does it make sense to call a man whose self-worth is entirely dependent on external supports a strong man? Or would it make more sense to describe him as spiritually weak?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter how we describe him. Peterson makes it clear in Maps of Meaning that value judgments tell us nothing about the objective world of facts. If he is correct, then it makes little sense to distinguish externally-dependant self-esteem from any other kind. Self-esteem is merely a subjective judgment of the value of the self, after all. And, if two people esteem themselves equally, even if one is a billionaire philanthropist and the other a drugged up loser, no one can say that there is any objective difference between their respective judgments. And that is a “fact.”
Or is it? Maybe professor Peterson is wrong about values. We know that confidence can be distinguished from overconfidence by means of an objective assessment of an individual’s strength. The strong man is confident; the weak man merely brash. Perhaps, similarly, an appropriate level of self-esteem can be distinguished from an artificially-inflated sense of self-worth by means of an objective assessment of an individual’s character.
Whatever the case, Jordan Peterson’s understanding of spiritual weakness is wildly different from mine. It is worth quoting him at length.
“Sometimes people are bullied because they can’t fight back . . . But just as often, people are bullied because they won’t fight back. This happens not infrequently to people who are by temperament compassionate and self-sacrificing— particularly if they are also high in negative emotion, and make a lot of gratifying noises of suffering when someone sadistic confronts them (children who cry more easily, for example, are more frequently bullied). It also happens to people who have decided, for one reason or another, that all forms of aggression, including even feelings of anger, are morally wrong.”
For professor Peterson, Judeo-Christian virtues—compassion, self-sacrifice, and “turning the other cheek”—are spiritual weaknesses. This is partly because Peterson believes that morality is derived from observation of human action. Considering action alone, there is little difference between an inability and an unwillingness to fight. For Peterson, as for Nietzsche, the idea that internal strength can sometimes manifest as virtuous passivity is excluded. As Nietzsche puts it,
“A quantum of force is equivalent to a quantum of drive, will, effect – more, it is nothing other than precisely this very driving, willing, effecting, and only owing to the seduction of language (and of the fundamental errors of reason that are petrified in it) which conceives and misconceives all effects as conditioned by something that causes effects, by a “subject,” can it appear otherwise. For just as the popular mind separates the lightning from its flash and takes the latter for an action, for the operation of a subject called lightning, so popular morality also separates strength from expressions of strength, as if there were a neutral substratum behind the strong man, which was free to express strength or not to do so. But there is no such substratum; there is no “being” behind doing, effecting, becoming; “the doer” is merely a fiction added to the deed: it posits the same event first as cause and then a second time as its effect.”
For both Peterson and Nietzsche, the pacifist is weak by definition. Likewise, the man who sticks up for himself is the strong one. Peterson’s Nietzschean mistake climaxes at the end of his first chapter, where he references the Christian metaphor of “bearing your cross,” but inverts its meaning:
“To stand up straight with your shoulders back means building the ark that protects the world from the flood, guiding your people through the desert after they have escaped tyranny . . . It means shouldering the cross that marks the X, the place where you and Being intersect so terribly. It means casting dead, rigid and too tyrannical order back into the chaos in which it was generated; it means withstanding the ensuing uncertainty, and establishing, in consequence, a better, more meaningful and more productive order.”
If that is what “shouldering the cross” means to Peterson, something has gone terribly wrong. One can’t help but wonder what the gospel story according to saint Peterson might look like: a burly warrior-Jesus marching forward with a masculine stride, an impressive cross perched easily over his shoulder while he proves to onlookers how truly competent he can be. Yikes.
But I say unto you: Humble Yourself, and Embrace Suffering.
The greatest Christian saints willingly lay down their lives for others, and some even rejoice amidst their torture and martyrdom. That is because, in Christianity, bearing the cross is an acceptance of suffering, humility, and even death. Any who willingly endure these three things on behalf of others demonstrate what Christianity calls love. A good clinical psychologist will have a measure of this love for patients. Every good parent instinctively feels it toward their children.
When beloved ones are suffering, the lover is in agony and desires to save them. However, as professor Peterson acknowledges in his first chapter, the instinct to protect loved ones from suffering can become perverse. Peterson has harsh words for doting mothers who stunt their children’s development by protecting them too much. Peterson even sexualizes their perverse love by calling it “Oedipal” – an undesirable side-effect of his having read too much Freud.
Peterson fails to realize that the love of a father can become perverse in a similar, but opposite way. Where the overprotective mother provides for her child’s every whim, the overprotective father is withholding. Where she coddles her child, he engages his in roughhousing. While she tends to make her child soft and easily exploitable, he makes his child prickly and combative. What else is Peterson’s call to imitate the dominant male lobster if not the hyper-masculine advice of a father-figure seeking to inoculate his children against suffering?
Both the helicopter mother and the spartan father pervert Christian love by missing the value and necessity of suffering. A child who avoids suffering by hiding in his mother’s arms has not yet learned to love. A child who has merely hardened for battle against the difficulty of life has not yet learned to love.
Let us consider, once again, the situation of bullying. The correct answer to bullying is not effeminate weakness. Nor is it right to answer bullying with masculine violence. The proper response, I would argue, is a Christian one. If you see someone being bullied, hunch over and embrace the victim, enduring the bully’s blows upon your own back. If you are the one being bullied, turn the other cheek. This may allow the bully to take advantage of you, to be sure. But it is the only way to save his soul.
Thank God professor Peterson does not act much like a dominant lobster. He does not walk with his chest puffed out. He is not combative and status-obsessed. On the contrary, Professor Peterson is humble. He is deferential and lets others speak before imposing himself. It was Peterson’s humility and long-suffering during an interview with Cathy Newman which launched him to fame. Had he been assertive or combative, our deeply Judeo-Christian culture would have instinctively sided with Cathy. Peterson “defeated” her by continually turning the other cheek when facing her barrage of bullying questions.
As Jordan Peterson enjoys his new life of fame, my prayer for him is that he never follows his own advice from chapter one of 12 Rules for Life by placing value on his social status or by becoming a combative right-wing political pundit. I further hope that his followers will learn more from Peterson’s personal example than from his book: becoming loving rather than self-confident; forgetting themselves for the sake of others rather than imagining themselves as heroes; and finding their self-worth in a life that is truly, objectively, worthwhile.