Jordan Peterson's highbrow self-help book urges you to embrace your inner lobster
Controversial University of Toronto professor explores the ways humans give life meaning in his new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
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Jordan Peterson is many things to many people. A psychologist, professor and lecturer by trade, his fiery campaign against Canada’s Bill C-16, an anti-discrimination law he argues mandates politically correct modes of speech, transformed him into an overnight online celebrity, a champion of free speech to some, a conservative bigot to others.
The controversy surrounding the University of Toronto professor, particularly his refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns, is hardly surprising, given today’s climate of ideological extremism amplified by social media. It has revealed the deep ideological divide in our Trumpian age and attracted tens of millions of viewers to his YouTube channel and thousands of fans to his sold-out lectures. What does surprise is the sheer bloody mindedness of Peterson’s opponents and champions to misrepresent his actual ideas, most of which are quite mainstream in scientific circles.
Early reactions to his new highbrow self-help book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, reveal the same spectrum of wilful misrepresentation, completing Peterson’s transformation from student-friendly Canadian lecturer to international human Rorschach test.
So what are we talking about when we talk about Peterson? 12 Rules for Life, which explores Peterson’s ideas on the role of myths, ideology and biology on human behaviour, offers many tantalizing clues. If, for instance, you believe that social hierarchies and gender differences are entirely constructed by social and economic factors, you’ll probably throw 12 Rules for Life across the room about halfway through the first chapter.
That chapter is titled “Stand up straight with your shoulders back” and counsels readers to learn to stand up for themselves by, metaphorically speaking, embracing their inner lobster. The lobster, Peterson argues, shares some neurological similarities with humans, especially when it comes to social hierarchies. Studies show that lobsters who lose enough fights, (inter-lobster conflict being common on the ocean floor) and therefore lose their social status, produce less serotonin.
In other words, lobsters’ brains change as they tumble down the social hierarchy. The lesson derived by Peterson is the need to change your self-destructive habits and take control of your life, thereby improving your social status and brain chemistry.
This does not mean joining a lobster-style fight club. Peterson draws on reams of studies to show that fundamental changes to personal habits such as sleep and exercise schedules can dramatically improve serotonin levels, thereby increasing the chance of personal success and fulfilment. From there he draws in stories from world mythology and religious texts to show that humans derive great meaning from overcoming psychological and social obstacles.
Although Peterson believes, like many researchers, that our behaviours are rooted in humanity’s long evolutionary struggle to survive, he argues that we need not be defined by mere survival. Humans, Peterson argues, are different from other animals. For one thing, we possess a hyper-developed consciousness that forces us to contemplate our own mortality, giving us what moral philosophers call “the tragic sense of life.” Plainly stated, if we know we’re going to die one day, what is the point of doing anything?
This primal human paradox and the suffering it causes has given rise to humanity’s rich treasure trove of myths and stories, many of which Peterson explores with great creativity and insight, revealing their psychological truths. He then applies those lessons to our contemporary malaise of depression, social disengagement and moral nihilism.
Like the best intellectual polymaths, Peterson invites his readers to embark on their own intellectual, spiritual and ideological journeys into the many topics and disciplines he touches on. It’s a counter-intuitive strategy for a population hooked on the instant gratification of ideological conformity and social media “likes,” but if Peterson is right, you have nothing to lose but your own misery.
The Peterson Boot Camp: Three Tips for Being a Better Person
Three nuggets of wisdom gleaned from reading the University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules For Life
1. You are a monster, so get used to it
We all possess deep reserves of violent aggression; only by embracing and then taming aggression can we become productive citizens.
2. Set your house in order before you criticize the world
Any idiot can critique capitalism and tyranny, but you cannot make the world a better place until you clean up your own life.
3. Find your purpose
Life is full of suffering; until you find meaning in that suffering, you will waste your potential pursuing meaningless temporary gratification.
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