Monday, August 6, 2018

12 Rules for Life

Endure 24, June 2018
Peterson's 12 Rules, reviewed:


1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

4 Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient) 

8 Tell the truth -- or, at least, don't lie

9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't

10 Be precise in your speech

11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

****

1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

I was already doing this on account of my running.  Even at the end of a marathon because it is more efficient to run that way, with your body aligned over the top of your feet as they hit the ground.  Standing or sitting I might tend to slouch a bit more.  But I do very much agree with this rule, and will continue to apply it, running or not.

But I can definitely see the point of this rule, as well, from a non-running perspective.  I do think posture can have a positive effect on outlook, but I don't think it looks great to always be puffed out and beaming like a lunatic.  So, apply in moderation (this applies to all 12 Rules, and I'm sure Peterson would agree with my moderation qualification).

This chapter includes extensive observations on the behaviours of lobsters, ostensibly included to illuminate points about human evolutionary psychology, territoriality, and hierarchy.  Peterson is big on hierarchy and is at pains to show how human origins in the animal world, a thinly veiled socio-biology, have resulted in such 'archical behaviour in humans.  And how, in fact, we thrive upon and need vertical stratification and strife in order to achieve both individual and collective goals.

This lobster bit is meant to reel us in, but for me it had the opposite effect to such an extent that I considered not reading the book.  I found the lobster bit hokey, and disagreed quite strongly with the Bloomblurb on the back of the book calling this section on lobsters "breathtaking".  It was not.  Besides, how is a lobster supposed to keep his or her shoulders back standing straight up?

Actually I thought quite a few times about Spongebob Squarepants during this chapter and it made me laugh.  The book is not without humour, but overall it is a very serious book, quoting Nietszche and Dostoyevsky frequently, and evoking Heidegger throughout.  I really really dig the seriousness of this book, just not the lobster bit quite so much.

2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping

This is an interesting one in that it assumes the reader has already internalised the rule "treat others as you would treat yourself", and then counter-intuitively flips it around.  I really don't think the order matters though, as long as you've internalised the rule to do better for both others and self.

The interesting thing here is that Peterson assumes the reader is already a 'moral' person, trying not just to think of themselves all the time, and treating others better than they might treat themselves.  We know it is wrong to do so, and therefore make attempts not to be selfish, to focus on others' problems as a way of taking us out of ourselves, and our self-centred concerns.

So I do very much agree with this rule.  You cannot take care of others if you have not, first, taken care of yourself.  When I took swiftwater rescue training near Kitimat, British Columbia in the late 1990s they taught us how to pull someone out of a swiftly moving river.  The way not to do it?  Don't get in the river, and don't tie the rescue rope to yourself as you throw it out into the current.  Both will result in your own, and the other's, death.  Take care of yourself as best you know how, then treat others with equal care.

Now, I should mention that each chapter of this book is accompanied by an illustration (a drawing) that is meant to resonate with the content of the chapter.  Chapter 2 shows a child looking at a painting of a biblical scene with bodies in various states of ageing and decrepitude.  The child motif recurs throughout, highlighting the intergenerational knowledge transmission aspect of the book: these are rules to teach your children, to pass on through time.  The bible is a theme throughout.

So far, a biblical tome about teaching the children well, and one that has the reputation of being a 'darling of the American right' (as a security guard at Vancouver airport told me upon seeing the book in the tray I had readied for scanning).  So far so good?

I don't know, but I really liked chapter 2, and this is really where the book started to pick up for me.  It maintained its momentum for the entirety and subsequent chapters, in the sense that I couldn't poke holes in the 'internal' logic of its arguments, despite often having that hierarchical, patriarchal, right-ish flavoured tang about them.  I kept reading.

Through chapter 2, Peterson mentions dual-aspect theory of experience that resonates really well with map-based metaphorical thinking.  Not only can life be experienced in terms of chaos/order, but it can be experienced also subjectively (from within) and objectively (like a map).  Peterson, like Nagel, is, in a very liberal-humanist vein (i.e. not really right wing, more maybe a bit neoliberal) trying to get us to pull ourselves out of ourselves and our constrained ways of thinking.

Another book that I really like that did this is Adam Roberts masterful speculative fiction work, The Thing Itself.  Both Peterson's Rules and Roberts Thing resonate together by presenting the Kantian worldview (of rules, of phenomena) in very accessible ways, de-ontologically, i.e., not based on what we (think we) know, but based upon a liberating logic that leapfrogs dread due to the clarity of its aim and vision.

3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

This makes sense too, especially if you think about how easy it might be to do the opposite given ulterior motives and downright devilishness.  By the latter I mean sometimes it feels good to be bad, and that can become reflected in the company we keep.  This could be so easy to do, to start hanging with a shady crew because of that 'feel-good/freedom' factor of 'being bad' (or maybe even Breaking Bad).

If we follow this rule I think we might find our friends-list is a bit sparser than before, that we are only picking people we can really rely upon to take our interests to heart, and to treat both our- and them-selves very well, and with reciprocation driving the relationships forward.

I see in this reciprocal-action aspect (and in the intergenerational knowledge aspect mentioned above) a very anthropological approach to life and philosophy.  This did not hurt my appreciation of the book.  On the contrary it heightened it.  So far so good, I was on board with the first three rules, agreed with them, and wanted to keep driving forward along with Peterson, who writes and thinks, like Nietszche, with a hammer, in hard crystalline chunks of thought and short declarative sentences.  So far so biblical, so poetic.

(By this time, as well, I was wondering if this was a self-help book, a work of philosophy, or psychology, or what?  It turns out it is all of these things, though on the back it is listed as "Psychology -- Self-Help", and the 'data' for the book quite often draws upon Peterson's extensive experience as a clinical psychologist).

4 Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today

Makes a lot of sense, but in the day-to-day fray of existence, it is very easy to forget.  To what, to whom, against which person or thing should I compare myself (if I were to do such a thing), by way of measuring my progress towards some goal, some improvement I want to make in myself?  Ok, but first you have to want to have a goal, you have to want to compare yourself to anything at all (as opposed to just being, or even just muddling through, as many of us do much of the time).

But what we can get into the habit of doing is comparing ourselves to something that represents a cop-out or a very low baseline, and this makes it easy to look good.  We do this all the time when we say anything like "well, at least I'm not" x (where x is someone who is currently perhaps not doing well, is in a ditch, or is performing poorly).  The baseline for comparison must always be yourself, not someone else.

And if you compare yourself to yourself too long ago, you are essentially comparing yourself to someone else again (and thus presenting a false baseline).  Thus the essential 'yesterday' in this rule.

These rules are, by the way, in very Kantian vein, universalisable.  Kantian de-ontology requires this condition, that all the rules apply all the time everywhere.  It is precisely why we need to be careful with rules (but not with applying them too strictly if they represent a careful selection of all potential rules available).  We know what trouble can arise with the idea of a rule is taken to extreme or too literally.  It results on a Rule-bag Archipelago, a series of misfortunate happenings base on overzealous application of de-ontological logic, become complicit with murderers' and Nazis questioning  because suddenly we cannot lie to save the life of someone on the run.

Peterson loves to cite Solzhenitsyn as the ultimate individual who stood up to ideological power, who questioned the reigning powers-that-were (Stalinism), and that individual speaking truth to power is, for Peterson, king.  Individualism, a kind of Kantian-anarchy, based upon the cognitive power of the person acting according to their own atomistic consciousness (and thus free of the distortions of collectivised consciousnesses of both fascistic and communistic varieties), has the power to internalise key rules for living and apply them against chaos (as the subtitle of this books suggests), for order.  For the universe tends towards the former, and therefore we (each of us separately, but reciprocally networked together by our transcendent ability to each apply rules consistently and in action) must push towards the latter through the application of the universal cognitive power of the rules (within the strictures, of course, of the data in relation to any given problem at hand).

5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

This is where I thought the book might start to go south again, but I was wrong.  Peterson's logic continued to hammer home, to strengthen, and to elucidate the human condition.  I do not have children, but I began to look at them in a new light.  I already knew, at the very least, how manipulative and aggressive children can be if you let them get away with things.  Establishing who's boss through strict boundaries as to what kind of behaviour is acceptable and what is not can require a remarkable amount of creativity and fortitude from a parent.

For Peterson this falls just short of corporal punishment, and has, at times, physical aspects.  One must prepare to do battle, and the only acceptable outcome is a win.  The consequences of not winning are simply too dire, especially when in comes to one's future as a parent and the lifetimes of relationships that stretch out before each and every parent (or not-parent, for each and every one of us has been a child at one time, with parents with whom we have various kinds of relationships).

This chapter made me think of my childhood and why my parents may or may not have made certain choices about how to deal with the way we behaved (or more importantly the ways in which we absolutely did not behave, and how they tried to correct this).  My parents are both teachers of young (elementary school or younger) children, and are therefore conversant in the language of boundaries, early learning, rules, and rewards.

We are behavioural beings after all.  One of the ways that readers will object to Peterson is his emphasis on Skinnerian behavioural outcomes.  But when applied to children, and thinking what it might be like to have to bring up a child, I think it would be very natural to want to have some baseline behavioural psychology in place.  Therefore, I agree with rule 5, that if a child is being a real bastard, a little jerk, you fix it right then and there through the application of your superior adult knowledge and experience.  You fix it firmly and fairly and without violence.

It might take a thumb-thump or two (my own grandfather loved to surprise me at least once a year with one of these, and it damn well worked), or a finger to the chest; it might once in a lifetime take a spanking, but persistence will result in something resembling respect.  I am glad that my father brought me up in a strict household, in the sense that there were rules that were meant to be followed.

At my father's memorial service last month I quoted The Loney: "you will come in time to thank the man who made your mind".  Strictness and adherence to rules have the potential to make minds, for good, and for the better.  Peterson's Rules are far from misplaced in this regard.  The world might very well be a much better place if everyone followed (and debated and questioned) them.

6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world

By this time I know both that I will finish this book, and that I will read it again...soon!  The previous chapter on children was exceptionally clear and convincing, and in the present chapter, about setting one's house in order, Peterson switches into top gear with an opening discussion of mass-murders, e.g. the Columbine and Sandy Hook mass shootings.  If you were not convinced in the previous chapter that letting children take advantage, manipulate, and overstep boundaries, with potential criminal outcomes, the present chapter brings it home.

We explore here the depths of abnormal psychology, illuminated again by liberal doses of the Bible, Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Heidegger, and Solzhenitsyn (these are the key 5 for Peterson).

At the very moment I read this page, there was an active shooter on Toronto's Danforth Avenue, an unfortunate almost Jungian synchrony that made reading this chapter both very eerie and exceptionally effective.  What are the consequences of anti-human outlooks on life?  Peterson is at great pains to demonstrate that such (postmodern) outlooks have real consequences.  Not that the shooters were necessarily reading Foucault and Butler before performing their heinous acts, nor that society is so infected with such thinking ungrounded by morality that it results in increasing occurrences of phenomena like mass-murder, but that one must be very careful not to lend credence to sloppy or slippery thoughts that might lead to unintended consequences.  The direction we travel is largely in our hands, and we have many tools with which to make some good decisions to avoid tragedy (Peterson's book included).  Peterson himself is a case in point.  He read Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, et al, and comes out (perhaps years later, yes), on the other side, with a clearer sense of direction than before.

Perhaps the call, therefore, is for a return to precursors.  Of course both the postmodernists and Peterson (definitely not a postmodernist, nor even an alt-righter thankfully) read Nietzsche.  If so, let's return to that key thinker on his own terms: let's be better, more radical Christians rather than garden-variety atheists.  This was Dostoyevsky's message too, if we've read him correctly, with due care and attention.

Rule 6 is a re-stating of a maxim to be your best self before you attempt to make changes in others.  How would they take you seriously otherwise?  This is a call to take the high road, to pull each other up out of the slime of existence, to make the world a better place, one house at a time, each ideally stocked with a copy of Peterson's Rules on the coffee-table right next to the Bible and the existentialist classics.  The Kantian (anarchist-individualist) utopia awaits.

7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

So many people are going to set their heels in right at the start of this book.  I did not.  I went with the flow, I was critical, I believed!

OK, so rule 7 is a bit banal, but after chapter 6 we needed a bit of relief (I mean it's all relative at this point).  But, again to Peterson's credit, we do tend to do this.  We tend to pursue expedience over meaning, and it often boils down to not being able to see the map of our existence outside of ourselves.  In this sense it is not just about delayed gratification or correct application of de-ontological structures.

It is about meaning-creation in an inherently chaotic world, and about finding ways to push back and use the chaos that is all around in creative ways the result increased sense of meaning in our lives.  This is way beyond by now, so the second half of the book is just a ride.

8 Tell the truth -- or, at least, don't lie

The rules get more fun towards the end (especially the last two, which we'll get to).  I mean, #8 is a tough one in a sense because followed too strictly it could be problematic, but Peterson isn't talking about hiding Jewish folk on the run during WWII (but he does love to bring up the Nazis and the Communists, and Hitler and Stalin lot, in very equal measure).  Peterson is talking about generating a personal practice that, through consistent application, will become a collective (and thus societal) practice of more truthful behaviour.  What if Trump followed this rule?  If he really did (truly), he would essentially no longer be Trump (and that would be a very good thing).  This realisation alone made me think there is something very valuable happening in 12 Rules.  It seems to withstand various thought experiments about its application in the real world very well.

Anyone ever accused of lying knows how much it hurts.  But we all remain children at some level, full of defence mechanisms, and overblown senses of our own niceness.  We think we are good people when very often we are not.  We justify, we fudge, we are self-serving and manipulative.  We want to get what we want after all (not necessarily what we need...see rule 7).

Peterson points out that we are not as nice as we think we are, and that it requires very careful reflection to begin to build a core of resilience against our own worst natures.  We do have badnesses hard-wired within.  It is a kind of super-man (or -woman) that can rise above them.  But it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to do so each and every day.  Peterson is very much helping in this regard.

**9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
(**This is my favourite rule)

After rule 9, the rules become quite a bit more 'lefty'.  Peterson knows this, and 'admits' to lefty beliefs that he holds, mostly around unfair distribution of wealth in society, and how to remedy inequality.  Perhaps he is showing his true 'Canadian-ness' here, or simply his liberal side, but any question as to whether Peterson is a martinet or not I think are laid to rest in the final four chapters of 12 Rules.

Rule 9 is a case in point, because it makes assumptions about 'the other' that can only be read as compassionate, liberal, and generous.

It also takes the default (and very Freudian) position of listening.  This again might be down to Peterson's clinical psychological practice, but if so, it works, and it is inherently liberal in outlook.

This might also be the hardest rule to put into action.  We tend to think inside our own brains, and to assume perfect knowledge (for some reason).  We tend to act like we already have the map.  What we actually have is a map, and a very partial and sketchy one at that.  Furthermore, that map is infected by subjectivity that blurs its boundaries and clear lines, names and signposts very significantly.  Someone else always has another map, their view from above that they think is right.  To get two such beings to come together and actually listen is nothing short of a miracle.

I have rarely seen it happen, but I think with Peterson we have a much better chance of increasing its frequency (i.e. of actually assuming the 'other' or Other might know something we don', and that is worth listening to, considering, and internalising into our own map).

10 Be precise in your speech

The flip-side of rule 9 is rule 10.  We switch from listening to speaking and when we do so we must communicate back to the other person (dialectically, or in conversation) that we have actually understood what they've said BEFORE we go on to make our own points.

What this might mean in practice is, actually literally, repeating back to the person with whom we are having a conversation or argument, what they've just said to us, and having them verify that our understanding of what the other has said is correct.

This might seem pedantic; it might seem overzealous, but it might also in practice avoid a lot of chaos, strife, and unnecessary conflict.   Who does not want to avoid a fight, a conflict, or an argument.  Ask yourself, if you like these things, what are your ulterior motives, your hang-ups, what's your deal?  We all have at least some issues.

Peterson is consistently counter-intuitive throughout.  We think him a right-winger (well, this is partly because of what he's said before about boys being boys, and them having hard time in the world today, while girls having it comparatively easy and the like), and sometimes he might be, but this is a very a-political book, and thankfully so.

This is a book about communication, about value- and meaning-creation, and it builds up a philosophical foundation from first principles, as the best works of philosophy must do.  It does so with admirable economy and force, without artifice, and yet in a way that is not hostile to creativity (even artfulness...think Nietzsche here, or any time you might be in doubt as to where Peterson is coming from).

11 Do not bother children when they are skateboarding

We are letting the light in now, we are being liberal, taking risks, exploring, staying open to the world, in a way to which only children (and a few select adults) can do justice.  This is the essence of what is meant by letting children skateboard.

It is all too easy to think of some rule-creating and -following adult being the exact same type of person that would become irate about noisy chaotic skateboarding wielding children.  Peterson (again counter-intuitively, and not disingenuously) does not fit this stuck-in-the-mud adult mould.  I feel that Peterson is probably the type of person (risking an ad hominem observation here) who becomes more liberal as he ages.  From this, I take inspiration.

12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

Peterson likes dogs, and starts this chapter talking about dogs.  So he is saying in essence that whatever kind of person you think you are, be a different one.  Pet a cat even if you are a so-called 'dog person'.  Both dog- and cat-being have their strengths.

Reading the bible as a tool-kit of metaphors for living also has immense strengths.  So does reading Nietzsche.  And reading Dostoyevsky (though beware the Notes from Underground, for that text is suspect.  Instead read The Brothers Karamazov, and look to Alyosha for instruction on how to avoid nihilism).

I like Peterson a lot and as mentioned above will immediately begin reading his book again.  It resonates (though doesn't wear this as a badge on its sleeve) with other 'Kantian' texts, but it does so without being a rigid designator, and without being against a certain liberality, and even occasional 'fun'.

****

These are the 12 Rules.  Follow them for a better life.  I believe this, without irony.  Well done, Peterson (...slow clap).






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