None of this is accidental. He has been carefully curating his public profile for years, posting prolifically on his Youtube channel, speaking publicly and making himself available to media outlets of all kinds. He has a devoted following and earns a decent income from Patreon via donations from viewers of his long and complex videos.
His reputation is as someone who thinks deeply about the meaning of life and the significance of ancient mythology for the problem of Being. However, he has been pushed into the mainstream in the guise of a champion of the Right courtesy of his embroiling himself in a rather strange and silly war in his university over the use of pronouns. In the process he has become a champion of that most favoured and misused slogan of the Right, freedom of speech. Right on cue, he has published a book.
I'm not one to listen to endless hours of people talking on Youtube. I lose concentration after about 10 minutes. Frankly, for a person with a reputation as a deep thinker Peterson's politics are surprisingly conventional. Freedom of speech divorced from any care about which vulnerable people you might hurt, the equation of anything progressive and collective with Marx/Stalin/gulags, the glories of strong individuals. The usual guff you hear from conservative, privileged white men.
Fortunately his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is not much about politics and a lot about his actual area of expertise, clinical psychology. This meant I could read it right the way through and quite enjoy it, not to mention find a lot of food for thought.
If you were to assign 12 Rules for Life to a genre, it would be self-help, or perhaps pop psychology. You know: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus; The Five Love Languages; How to Win Friends and Influence People; Games People Play. These books aim to take the findings of psychology and communicate them in simple language in a way that might help readers towards self-understanding, improved relationships or greater success. They typically revolve around a simple idea and use this idea to analyse a range of situations and dilemmas. They are sometimes helpful, but often they are illustrations of the old adage, 'when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail'. Accessibility can slide into vacuity.
Peterson's book certainly looks like this kind of book. Its title promises you a finite and manageable number of things you should do to make your life better. His introduction outlines a simple idea - that human life represents a tension between order and chaos, and the secret to an authentic life is to walk carefully along the boundary between the two.
The chapter titles (the 'rules') also promise simplicity, helpfulness and sometimes a little bit of fun. Some have a 'motherhood and apple pie' feel to them - stand up straight with your shoulders back, treat yourself as someone you are responsible for helping, make friends with people who want the best for you, tell the truth, assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't. Others promise a bit more fun - do not bother children when they are skateboarding, pet a cat when you encounter one in the street. And there is just enough there to hint at something a little more challenging - do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them, pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient), be precise in your speech.
However, once you dive in, you quickly realise that this is not your normal self-help book. He draws from a wide range of sources - the stories of the Old Testament (especially the story of the Fall and of Cain and Abel), the history of 20th Century dictatorships, the lives and experiences of his friends, neighbours and family and, of course, his own specialist area of clinical psychology.
Much of the attention in my social media circle has fallen on his sympathetic use of stories from the Bible and other ancient mythologies. His only other book is a detailed exploration of the meaning and use of such mythology and he talks about this a lot in his lectures and interviews, as well as in 12 Rules. However, he is not an orthodox believer. His use of the stories most reminded me of Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces drew on a wide selection of mythical stories to outline an archetypal 'hero's journey' which ordinary people could use as a guide for living.
When you draw on mythology in this way you are not taking the stories on their own terms or trying to discern what their authors meant by them. Rather, you are using them to illustrate conclusions you have already reached, often from quite different sources. In Peterson's case, his primary source is his own field of clinical psychology, in particular the psychoanalytic tradition of Freud and Jung and their philosophical predecessor Nietzsche, with additional references to evolutionary psychology.
This yields a lot a valuable stuff. For instance, 'stand up straight with your shoulders back' provides a fascinating description of the prevalence of dominance hierarchies in the animal world and ultimately also in human societies. 'Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them' is a common-sense explanation as to why we should teach young children self-discipline and the results when we don't. 'Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't' discusses the value and importance of listening genuinely and sympathetically to others, not just in formal counselling sessions but in our day-to-day lives. 'Treat yourself as someone you are responsible for helping' shows us ways to guard against self-sabotage and to allow ourselves to grow and develop as people.
Yet there is more to it than this. Psychology, and particularly psychoanalysis, has a long tradition of shading into philosophy. If you spend your life trying to help troubled patients adjust to reality, sooner or later you have to ask yourself what exactly is the nature of this reality and whether it is truly worth adjusting to. The centrepiece of Peterson's exploration of this question, and for me the high point of the book, comes right in the middle - 'pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)'. This chapter is worth the price of admission on its own. He explores the way our systems of meaning collapsed in the 20th century as our religious certainties were stripped away by the advance of science and reason. This left us dangerously close to the edge of chaos. He talks about the life-denying thoughts of people as diverse as the Columbine killers and the academic he shared a platform with who described humans as cancer on the face of the planet, and the tragic effects of the attempt to rebuild order through the all-encompassing secular philosophies of fascism and communism. For Peterson, this is not a simple problem. We can't retreat to the earlier certainties without colossal self-deceit. However, in his view we need to take up the challenge and find a way to live authentically, identifying what is meaningful and fulfilling for us and doing this as opposed to simply the thing that is easiest, most likely to please those around us or most likely to earn us a good income.
Other chapters follow on from this theme. For instance, 'Tell the truth - or at least don't lie' is far from a simple exposition of the commandment about bearing false witness. Rather, it explores the way what we perceive is not 'the naked truth', it is a highly processed and filtered interpretation of that truth. New information, particularly shocking or traumatic information, doesn't only add to our knowledge, it changes our perception of reality itself. For instance, a woman might see herself as a good dutiful wife in a happy marriage, but then discover her husband is having an affair. This information is not simply tacked onto what she already knows, it puts the things she previously thought she knew into question - not only about her husband and her marriage, but also about herself and the people she thought were her friends. Hence our task is not simply to 'tell the truth' but to discover it and rediscover it, and allow our discoveries to shape us and help us grow.
There's a lot to like here. Peterson is indeed a deep thinker and a skilled, thoughtful psychologist. He wants us to be better people, and provides us with a lot of insights that can help us achieve that.
However, he's not immune to the hammer-nail problem, and with him it takes the form that it takes for so many of his fellow psychologists. A life spent thinking about and practicing the disciplines of individual growth and psychological wellbeing can make them think that this is the answer to everything. If you think you are oppressed, stop letting people oppress you. If you are offended, examine why and let the offence strengthen you. If you are bowed down by past traumas, let those traumas teach you and contribute to your inner growth.
It's all well and good but it's not enough. People do need support to overcome the effects of trauma, but we should also act to prevent the trauma itself, for instance by not enabling sexual abuse and doing our best to avoid war. We do need to be less thin-skinned, but it wouldn't hurt privileged white men to watch their words a little more carefully. We do need to avoid gulags but not everything socialist or even Marxist is inevitably oppressive - and gulags are much more universal than Peterson seems to think. We even have them in Australia.
Along with this classic psychologist's mistake, Peterson often allows himself to be seduced by various forms of the 'is/ought' fallacy - what is, must be. Hence, the fact that men and women are unequal in almost every society leads him to assert that this is the natural order of things and we try to change it at our peril. The prevalence of dominance hierarchies in nature leads him to think that inequality is natural and good and egalitarianism is a perversion of nature. Along with his professional individualism, it's a recipe for not only conservatism but the kind of libertarian individualism that would do both Ayn Rand and his own hero Nietzsche proud.
I have seen recently (generally re-posted by right-wing people) that Peterson himself says he is not right-wing. He can say what he likes, the cap fits, and perhaps he would do well to apply his own lessons and assume his progressive critics know something he doesn't. Still, none of us likes to be put in a box and such labels are clumsy at best. Just because someone is on the right this doesn't mean they're always wrong. Those of us on the left could also learn a lot from Peterson about self-examination, authenticity and careful listening, not least to people like him.