Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Jordan Peterson. Penguin Random House. 432 Pages. Rs 482 (paperback).
Who exactly is Jordan Peterson?
Depending on who you ask, you can get any of the following answers: the most influential public intellectual of his generation, an argumentative misogynist, a YouTube philosopher who has revitalised the concept of manhood, or a maxim-spouting ideologue who cannot stand Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Michel Foucault.
The New York Times has described Peterson as a “stately looking, pedigreed voice for a group of culture warriors who are working diligently to undermine mainstream and liberal efforts to promote equality” as well as someone who “eviscerates identity politics and political correctness, and...delivers stern fatherly lectures to young men on how to be honorable, upright, and self-disciplined”.
In 2016, Peterson, a hitherto uncelebrated clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, gained overnight attention following his opposition to Bill C-16 in Canada, which introduced “gender identity and expression” as prohibited grounds of discrimination.
Peterson condemned the legislation because he felt it would stifle free speech by making it compulsory to address individuals with their preferred personal pronouns instead of the pronouns that their physical appearances suggested.
Two years later, Peterson’s stock rose even higher after the publication of his second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which sold over five million copies and was translated into more than 50 languages.
Now, after more than a year in the wilderness, during which he had a near-death experience and woke up from a coma in Russia, Peterson is back.
His new book, a sequel to his previous bestseller, is called Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Published in March 2021, Beyond Order, much like its author, is a fascinating paradox, laced with intelligent lessons and imperfect deductions, occasionally insufferable, yet frequently interesting.
There are two things that Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life argued for at its core: hierarchies in life can be based on competence, not exploitation; and hierarchies constitute an orderly mechanism that evolves and regulates itself to make life and civilisation possible.
Beyond Order, though superficially indicative of a challenge to this original premise, actually supplements it. Peterson does not intend to show that order is overrated. Instead, his focus is on how order needs its existential counterpart for progress to actualise.
This counterpart, hailed as “chaos”, is the focal point of the 400 pages or so that Peterson has churned out under the most extraordinary circumstances.
Placed in a nine-day coma by doctors in a Russian clinic as a result of his addiction to benzodiazepines (a class of drug that reduces anxiety through sedation and muscle relaxation), Peterson awoke one day to find himself strapped to the bed, trying to remove the tubes inserted into his arms, and leave the intensive-care unit he had entered upon realising that the Russians had a solution for his ills that North Americans were either too ignorant or too scared to implement.
Just a few months later, as the world was reeling from the pandemic of Covid-19, Peterson, still very much in convalescence, was rattling off the pages for Beyond Order, whose introduction provides an honest and painful exposition to the trauma undergone by the author and his family. (Peterson’s wife was also recovering from cancer at the time.)
Many among the millions of Peterson’s online followers (mostly white young males) have hailed Peterson as a neo-Christ in the wake of recent events. In Beyond Order, however, Peterson returns to his familiar role of playing Moses by putting together a listicle that may initially reek of the reductionism of fridge-magnet philosophy, but on deeper exploration reveals something far more engaging.
Take, for example, Rule VIII, which says: “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible." Such a formulation is rather simplistic at first glance, leading to the natural query: 'and then what?'
Read on and you discover the answer, the purpose of beauty in life, as envisioned by Peterson:
“We live by beauty. We live by literature. We live by art. We cannot live without some connection to the divine — and beauty is divine — because in its absence life is too short, too dismal, and too tragic.”
For those familiar with Peterson’s structure and style of speaking on YouTube, Beyond Order’s format comes as no surprise.
Peterson starts with a proposition that seemingly verges on a truism, before proceeding to unpack it with the help of case studies from his clinical practice, slightly obscure examples from the Bible, very obscure examples from Jungian psychology, and a dash of popular culture references. (In Beyond Order, it is a duopoly shared by Disney and Harry Potter!)
All this means that the book is inundated with digressions, and is definitely not the self-help guide you should try to read while sipping coffee after a long day at work, with one eye on the cricket score.
The Conformist Who Disrupts
Perhaps the most remarkable quality of Beyond Order is that every time the reader hardens their impression of Peterson, he makes them reconsider instantly.
In Rule VI, when Peterson exhorts us to “abandon ideology”, it seems easy enough to understand why a somewhat sanctimonious 58-year-old cannot sympathise with the lot of “woke” activists who want to change the planet:
“When you are a mid-twenty-year-old with nothing positive going on in your life and you are having great difficulty even getting out of bed...you need to get your priorities straight, and establishing the humility necessary to attend to and solve your own problems is a crucial part of doing just that.”
But then, the same Peterson who has produced this passage talks about his euphoria as a liberal in his younger days, about how he is still eccentric enough to view more than 1,000 paintings a day on eBay before adding to his home décor, which is dominated by macabre Soviet-era paintings.
For all the caricature that he has been subject to as a secret card-carrying member of the alt-right, Beyond Order proves that Peterson is one of the rare centrists of our hyper-ideological age.
Yes, he believes that there is a “neo-Marxist” takeover of academia, and for the most part, he is only half-right (as demonstrated in an enlightening face-off with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek). But he also believes that liberalism and conservatism are equally indispensable in the political ecosystem.
Yes, Peterson is deeply sceptical of those who want to tear up all social structures that have become entrenched on account of “unconscious bias” and “systemic prejudice”.
But at the same time, Peterson is grateful, compassionate, and kind towards his opponents, preferring sensible dialogue over ad-hominem derision every single time.
The problem with Peterson is that he defies categorisation, refusing to be boxed into a type who stands up for a particular section of society. Peterson’s conformist tendencies are not a nod to any identity fringe group, but rather a recognition of what he regards as being the positive legacy of the human species.
On everything else that is far more transient, Peterson is eager to question, to challenge, to disrupt. This intriguing ambivalence is captured neatly in Beyond Order when Peterson writes:
“Every rule was once a creative act, breaking other rules. Every creative act, genuine in its creativity, is likely to transform itself, with time, into a useful rule.”
What's Next For Peterson?
If the interviews to promote Beyond Order are any indication, Peterson has more books lying in store. It is likely that Peterson will address what his year of “absolute hell” with drug addiction and detox meant for his conscience at some point in the future.
He may even be tempted to improve upon his debut book, Maps of Meaning, by producing a more nuanced version of an all-encompassing explainer on existence.
And, of course, there is always the chance that 12 more rules for life will spring forth (Peterson’s original list on Quora comprised 42 rules).
Once the pandemic is reined in, Peterson could start a fresh lecture tour, for live interactions are where he is at his unadulterated best.
In 2019, Peterson toured over 160 cities, speaking in front of a combined audience of 500,000. Whether he still has the enthusiasm or the energy to do something similar will be interesting to see.
As always with Peterson, what he does is not as important as what he purportedly represents. As reiterated in Beyond Order, Peterson is a compelling personality with many layers to his knowledge and character. But, for most of the world, Peterson remains one of two things – the messiah of free speech and open debate or the sophisticated defender of structural tyranny.
Those subscribing to the former view will never probe why Peterson chose to hobnob with Hungary’s Victor Orbán (hardly an ambassador of free speech) or why his views on postmodernism cannot stand scholarly scrutiny.
Those accepting the latter perception will never accede to how much of Peterson’s worldview overlaps with the traditional left-liberal order, choosing to believe instead that what he does is peddle “fascist mysticism”.
A victim of the polarised zeitgeist that we all inhabit, Peterson is also one of the few polemicists of our times who can wrestle with the contemporary fault lines of ideology and still hope to get his message across.
What he needs in order to facilitate his messaging is neither hero worship nor blind denunciation, but a willingness from his audience to follow what could have been Rule XIII in Beyond Order: “Be patient and reasonable before you arrive at any conclusion."
Priyam Marik is a freelance journalist based in Kolkata.
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