As is probably evident from the content of this blog, I’ve gotten in pretty deep with self-improvement-type topics. My Instagram feed is increasingly full of coaches, therapists, and spiritual writers. It’s a positive, empowering space (peppered with the occasional millennial-despair meme account I still follow).
But it is impossible to even glance at this cozy corner of the internet and not notice the glaring truth that it’s populated mostly by women. It’s not anywhere near an even split. Men are an endangered species around there.
Now, perhaps it’s not surprising that women are more drawn than men are to internet spaces for reflection, self-improvement, empowerment, for reasons we needn’t bother going into here. But don’t men need something like it?
I mean, glancing generally at the news and the unfiltered spaces of the Internet, you might well ask: are men okay?
Jordan Peterson is fairly well-known for a clinical psychologist. He’s also a voluminous YouTuber/podcaster, posting lengthy lectures about Jungian psychology and how to apply ancient wisdom from the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh to modern life.
He’s also famous for some political stands he’s taken in recent years against what he sees as the creeping dangers of rabid progressivism. Google it if you’re interested.
His star rose due to the political stands (because ADD LINK conflict pays, y’all), but he would rather think of himself first and foremost as a public professor. On the basis of his heightened name recognition, he published 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. As it promises, it’s 12 rules that Peterson believes are the key to developing character and living a worthy life.
As a whole, I found the book (like Peterson himself) full of contrasts. Deeply embarrassing, but also kind of sweet and avuncular. Fascinating and challenging but also terribly dense, as though he’s missing a chunk of every point he’s trying to make.
In the grand scheme of things, his rules, once he gets around to listing them, are great:
- Stand up straight with your shoulders back.
- Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping.
- Make friends with people who want the best for you.
- Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
- Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.
- Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
- Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).
- Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie.
- Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.
- Be precise in your speech.
- Do not bother children when they are skateboarding.
- Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
We could meditate on those alone and have a good time. Except for the skateboarding one, on which more later, the rules make sense on their face, and all seem like pretty good guideposts for living a good life.
But of course, he doesn’t stop there. Each chapter contains Peterson’s explanation of what he means by a rule, in prose that is personal and rambling and cerebral. He alternatively gives his evidence in the form of personal memories, clinical anecdotes, and Jungian interpretations of stories from the Bible. Sometimes it takes many pages for him to explain what he’s getting at. It’s tons of generalizing and much of it would be tagged  on Wikipedia. But for all that griping, the book had me fully engaged and thinking the whole time, typing notes out on the silly little Kindle keyboard, and that’s got to count for something.
What we have, by the end, is a guide for how to be a particular kind of good person: one who stands up for what he believes in, who works hard and succeeds at his endeavors, who maintains a pragmatically positive outlook, who is honest and unafraid to probe his own flaws and improve them. Who takes care of himself and those around him. Who demands excellence of himself, as a moral duty.
Why do I use male pronouns? It all strikes me as such masculine—even macho—self-help. Which isn’t to denigrate it, but just to wonder: is this the men’s version of my self-improvement internet? Is this what the fellas turn to when they feel a need to grow and change?
If it is, Peterson doesn’t know it. I’ve heard him say (in my own  moment, I can’t be arsed to find the link) that it is a mystery to him why his following is so crowded with young men, and not with women. But he must know how unbalanced his ideas are, if attracting a mixed crowd is his goal. Right out of the gate in Rule 1 (“Stand up straight with your shoulders back”) he comes out swinging with anecdotes about how lobster brains work, how dominance hierarchies are embedded into them, how subduing or being subdued by another male lobster will, through the workings of serotonin, change the lobster brain, rendering loser lobsters depressed and laconic. All this to say that you, human reader, will have a better life if you stand up straight with your shoulders back, like a serotonin-rich alpha lobster.
Oof. Is this what men like? I wouldn’t say it resonated with me (as they say on my side of the Internet gender partition).
I don’t begrudge men this, for a moment. Even if we can’t share our wellness spaces (and even if it’s because they actively stay away from my side of the therapy economy), God knows they need something.
But here’s the rub. Peterson can’t stop himself, even when he’s ahead, even when he’s ten rules deep and going strong, and we’ve learned a good deal about how one might interpret the story of the Garden of Eden, and we’ve convinced ourselves to treat each other and ourselves with dignity and respect. No, he has to get into it. The conflict. Just as you get the sense he’s convinced himself that he deserves to be famous for his depth psychology and not for those shouty viral videos…he does a thing.
Rule 11, purportedly about not bothering children while they are skateboarding, is about how we ought to think about “patriarchy” so as to better the lives of both men and women, both boys and girls. I dare to summarize it thusly: adults (read: women, as women are all the examples he gives) do far more harm than good by attempting to protect children (that is, evidently, boys) from the suffering and danger inherent in a life worth living. Moreover, the feminism Peterson imagines, the one that demands the diminishment of masculinity to make room for the empowerment (masculinization, he coughs) of women, ends up harming women in the long run: it fills the world with bad men.
This chapter is Peterson at his dense worst. He doesn’t bother to understand what he’s refuting. But worse, it reminds you, just as you begin to trust him, that even though Peterson was doing Jung and the Bible for years, it’s taking a public stand against progressives that made him a star. Again, conflict, deployed well, is a ticket to success. Even if he fancies himself the reasonable guru, his numerous followers found him on the parts of YouTube with all the all-caps titles. No matter how much he pretends it isn’t the case, he is a star because of the brand of male resentment that burbles everywhere these days. All that to say: it’s a little hard to take him seriously when he tries to don the hat of objective critic of gender relations.
This brings up something that troubles me about therapy for the fellas: has it always got to resist women? My female corner of the wellness internet has nothing negative to say about men. But it feels to me, in my casual (and very much ) observation, that men’s self-improvement, self-actualization, whatever have you, always boils down to being about not women. As though men were the negative space made up of whatever is not feminine, and their very existence depends on separating from the feminine. (Although Peterson would be the first to tell you that it is the feminine that is typically represented as the dark, the night, the passive. Again, I say, gesturing generally at all of this citation needed.)
All that aside for now. If it weren’t for rule 11, and for Peterson’s reputation in general, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the book. Not to say that it’s without its flaws, but it’s a thought-provoking read all the way through, even if you end up tearing at your hair a bit. I think we have to understand this moment that Peterson is a big part of.
But we might be able to understand it a little more concisely from Olive, a sturdy character from Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent novel City of Girls:
“The field of honor is a painful field,” Olive went on at last, as though Peg had not spoken. “That’s what my father taught me when I was young. He taught me that the field of honor is not a place where children can play. Children don’t have any honor, you see, and they aren’t expected to, because it’s too difficult for them. It’s too painful. But to become an adult, one must step into the field of honor. Everything will be expected of you now. You will need to be vigilant in your principles. Sacrifices will be demanded. You will be judged. If you make mistakes, you must account for them. There will be instances when you must cast aside your impulses and take a higher stance than another person—a person without honor—might take. Such instances may hurt, but that’s why honor is a painful field. Do you understand?”
I think Peterson would understand Olive, even if it would be slightly ironic, all things considered, that a lesbian character from a book called City of Girls basically could scoop him in a paragraph.