If Germany’s footballers have been the biggest losers of the year to date, then the Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson has been among the biggest winners. His book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos — only the second he has ever published— has sold more than a million copies. His YouTube channel has 1.26m followers.
The cerebral Spider-Man at the heart of the so-called intellectual dark web (an informal network of academics who have resisted the current campus cultural revolution), Peterson began his rise to fame by opposing a 2016 Canadian bill that proposed to make “gender identity or expression” a prohibited basis for discrimination.
“I will never use words I hate,” Peterson declared, “like the trendy and artificially constructed [gender-neutral pronouns] ‘zhe’ and ‘zher’. These words are at the vanguard of a postmodern, radical leftist ideology that I detest, and which is . . . frighteningly similar to the Marxist doctrines that killed at least 100m people in the 20th century.”
You can imagine how that went down with the diversity police at Toronto University. But Peterson bravely refused to kowtow. “Under the guise of postmodernism,” he lamented, “we’ve seen the rapid expansion of identity politics throughout the universities . . . We’ve been publicly funding extremely radical, postmodern leftist thinkers who are hellbent on demolishing the fundamental substructure of western civilisation.”
Amen to all that. Amen squared.
Peterson is fearless. His 12 Rules for Life begins by contrasting order and chaos as ideal types to be found in both western and oriental philosophical traditions. Order, he notes, “is typically portrayed, symbolically — imaginatively — as masculine”, whereas chaos “as the antithesis of symbolically masculine order [is] presented imaginatively as feminine . . . Order is the white, masculine serpent; chaos, its black, feminine counterpart.”
This was too much for the media feminists. The New York Times published a crude hit piece that dubbed Peterson the “custodian of the patriarchy” and a proponent of “enforced monogamy”. Cathy Newman’s interview on Channel 4 News was intended to deliver the coup de grace by grotesquely caricaturing Peterson’s views. (“So you’re saying like the lobsters, we’re hardwired as men and women to do certain things, to sort of run along tramlines and there’s nothing we can do about it?”)
Yet, as Nietzsche observed, that which does not kill us makes us stronger. These botched attacks only accelerated Peterson’s rise to fame. British viewers marvelled at his saintly calm in the face of Newman’s tendentious questioning. New Yorkers, who generally act as if Canada doesn’t exist, for the first time took notice of the solemn, brown-suited “prairie populist” whom their local rag had tried and failed to take down.
As if to drive the politically correct into apoplexy, Peterson recently revealed he is an honorary member of the extended family of Charles Joseph, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist who has given him the name Alestalagie (“Great Seeker”). The Kwakwaka’wakw are an indigenous people of British Columbia. In today’s culture war, having them on your team is quite simply a grandmaster move.
In 12 Rules, Peterson’s central message is that we must “accept the terrible responsibility of life”. Rule No 1 is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” Number two is “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.” Yes, it’s self-help as only North America does it, but it’s old school, manly, “grow-the-hell-up” self-help. “Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world.” “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).” “Tell the truth — or, at least, don’t lie.”
“Suffering,” Peterson says, “is built into the structure of being.” Don’t make yourself miserable by pursuing happiness because, he rightly argues, “happiness is a great side effect. When it comes, accept it gratefully. But it’s fleeting and unpredictable. It’s not something to aim at.”
These are wise words. But there’s some whimsy too. Rule 11 is “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.” Rule 12 is “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” And central to Peterson’s defence of hierarchy (shock horror) is that analogy between humans and lobsters which gave Cathy Newman so much trouble.
There is only one problem with 12 Rules for Life, and that is that it deals only with normal life. It offers no guidance for the most difficult time in all our lives, namely the summer holidays. What follows, by way of a tribute to Peterson, are therefore my own 12 Rules for Summer, the product of more than half a century of immersion in the entirety of human culture:
1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back, unless you are the one carrying all the luggage, including the baby gear.
2 Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping get some sleep.
3 Make friends with people who want the best wine for you.
4 Compare your holiday destination with the one you went to last year, and not with the one where someone else is this year.
5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. Send them to camp instead.
6 Do not bother setting your house in perfect order: one of your older kids will probably throw a party in it while you’re away.
7 Pursue what is edible (not what is recommended on TripAdvisor).
8 Do not tell the truth about how much your holiday cost.
9 Assume that the person you are listening to knows something you don’t, such as the local language.
10 Be precise in your speech. Don’t order 12 beers when you mean two.
11 Bother children when they are on their phones. In fact, take their damned phones away.
12 If abroad, kick a cat when you see one on the street. Only the English really like cats.
“We have to rediscover the eternal values,” Peterson has said, “and then live them out.” Yes, and never more so than during the summer holidays. So here, be my guest, have 12 more rules:
1 Plan your journey to minimise stress. Perhaps order and chaos should fly separately this year.
2 Get off social media. And stay off.
3 Don’t carry your phone around.
4 Learn something new. (I recommend paddleboarding.)
5 Do two hours of work in the morning. It’ll stop you worrying. But otherwise switch off.
6 Read a great novel. (My choice this month is Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma.)
7 Take very long walks, the kind of exercise you seldom have time for.
8 Play a musical instrument, even if it is only a tin whistle.
9 Eat and drink less, not more, than usual.
10 Watch no TV (except the World Cup).
11 Take no more than five photographs and one video. That’s plenty.
12 Above all, stop making lists of rules.
Enjoy the summer, dear readers. By this time next year, the diversity police will have decided that the whole concept of a holiday is politically incorrect. Thankfully, we can count on Jordan Peterson to tell them where to go . . . on vacation.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford