About the Guy:
It you follow much of the current political discourse around the US, it is hard not to come across this man. A professor at the University of Toronto and a clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson has appeared in the news, pops up all over Youtube, and was a participant in one of this year’s Munk debates (an event that I found sorely disappointing in contributing much to the discussion of political correctness, save for Stephen Fry’s comments). Peterson’s following stands by him with a zealous devotion; his opponents find him little more than a charlatan with a poor understanding of postmodernism.
To be honest, at times I find myself in agreement with some of the ideas he espouses, though often I have arrived at similar conclusions through perhaps a somewhat different dialectical approach. At other times I cannot help but to sense a degree of posturing, disseminating ideas that are not fully thought out, full of sound and fury, but missing some key infrastructure.
When I saw that he wrote what appeared to be a self-help book with the bold title of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, I found myself intrigued as to what the result would look like when he took the time to put some of his suggestions down in written form, a vastly different medium from his usual extemporaneous conversations or recorded lectures. On principle, I have a distaste for anything smacking of self-help. I have often held, perhaps both stubbornly and incorrectly, that those who need to rely on the values and advice of others to discover how to properly live their lives have not immersed themselves in a practice of sufficiently exacting introspection and value construction. That is to say, those individuals who have not made an effort toward establishing their own set of standards and principles in a near-independent manner.
In any case, I thought this would provide an excellent opportunity to see a great deal of Peterson’s ideas all together in one convenient package. Thus, my idea to go through the book, and to write a response to each of his twelve rules, examining whether the rule correlates with my own strictures, or to see how it differs. More (or less) than criticism or praise, I intend to record more my reactions as I read through, and go from there.
Rule 1: Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back
Peterson has received a good deal of criticism for his ideas seeming to be shouldered by the naturalistic fallacy. Essentially a misstep in logic that equivocates the natural with good. Such an appeal to nature is rightfully worthy of suspicion, and this first rule might be interpreted as relying on such. However, let’s look at this with the subtitle of the book in mind: An Antidote to Chaos. Thus, the goal for each of these rules must be to combat a lack of order in one’s life, one dosage at a time.
Old, Creaky Brains
The point is simple and uncontroversial among the scientific community: the psychological mechanisms at play in determining one’s mental state are still relatively rudimentary. Within an evolutionary approach, it is generally accepted that our mental hardware is old, and hasn’t undergone many significant changes in tens of thousands of years. The neurotransmitters are all the same, the hormones, the proteins, all of it. The very neurons with which we take selfies, perform musical scores, and built the Burj Khalifa are essentially the same in their structure as when our ancestors were the most primal of hunter gatherers.
This first rule then seems to me less about determining a moral dialectic, and more about how we can consciously utilize the millennia-year-old structures of our neural circuitry to get the mental results we seek, to avoid feeling like shit. This first rule suggests a way to ‘hi-jack’ these primitive psychological mechanisms by emulating behavior found in dominant (and thereby, usually, less anxious) creatures, as dominance provides, arguably, all five levels of Abraham Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs for an actualized human being. All starting with an improvement of posture.
Onward to Posture
Posture is perhaps the most ancient of gestures. David B. Givens, Director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies in Spokane, WA, pointed out in 1986 that the motion of looming has an ancient history, standing up straight is millions of years old in a way. There is a direct correlation in the evolutionary history of species that that which is above you can defeat you (or even munch you up). Animals of all sorts determine their place in their species’ hierarchy by competitions of such posture, with defeat leading to weakened displays of that species’ posture, and inherently, a lower place in the hierarchy. With powerful psychological changes for both the creature proven dominant and the one that has become subordinate, there is a very tangible relation between physical display and internal mental processes.
Where You Stand
With humans, this need for establishing oneself in the social hierarchy remains, though it has become much more complicated to determine exactly where one fits than before. Thousands of years ago, if you successfully mated, that was pretty much a solid baseline. Your genetic line continued, imperative fulfilled. Now, social groups are malleable, amoebic constructions, with the lines blurred. One can belong to multiple groups at a time, with various degrees of devotion. All at once you might belong to the social groups of businessmen, Church-goers, Americans, book club members, and Redditers. No longer are you just part of your tribe or people, but of multiple tribes all at once. Within each, your mind works to establish just where you fit into it all. Your Reddit posts might get all the upvotes, but your business affairs have landed you in debt.
Determining then one’s status then seems to become a calculus of which social spheres merit the most reward for being competent (and thereby likely dominant) within them. A further consideration is that some social groups are open, while others seem plastered on you for life (if a book club is awful, you just leave and easily replace it; if your country is rotten, emigrating, and subsequently successfully immigrating elsewhere, is much more difficult).
Embodied from Toe to Scalp
Experience is inherently embodied, and the body does have certain preexisting parameters, much as Steven Pinker goes to great lengths to explain in his 2002 book, The Blank Slate. We cannot (yet) rid ourselves of these entirely, though the human mind is complex and its development rather plastic, some things just will continue to be there: an inherent human nature, albeit not in the traditional sense that religions might posit. Rather, it might be better to think of these tendencies as human natures.
One of these is simple. A confident posture can simulate confidence, which often might be enough to give one the proper boost toward attaining the state in honest. Serotonergic feedback loops can be activated, boosting mood and self-esteem. Much as contracting the facial muscles into the form of a smile often has a noticeable psychological effect.
As a first dose toward a reduction of the chaos in one’s life, standing up straight seems a reasonable suggestion. Should one be in a state of defeat, such a gesture is an immediate, tangible instruction. It requires no introspection, no evaluation beyond that of a single measurement, the degree at which your head hangs.
Of course, any true changes in one’s life, any actual rise from a defeated status cannot be changed by a transformation in one’s presentation of oneself, but rather only by actual gains in competency. How that competency might become manifest, that is to be determined by the individual. However, I can easily imagine that gains in proficiency/competency are more difficult to achieve if one presents themselves in the very manner of an incompetent, skulking person. Properly attained, competency may breed confidence.
The People I Mentioned:
Givens, David B. (1986). The Big and the Small: Toward a Paleontology of Gesture. Maryland: Linstok Press.
Maslow, A. H. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370-396.
Pinker, Steven. (2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.
And a link to a cool article about our brains: