I’m standing in line outside the Beacon Theatre. As the sun goes down, I find myself wondering why I made the drive from Philly to attend a Jordan Peterson (JP) presentation in Manhattan. As a junior in college, I sit through lectures every day. Do I really need another one? Yes, apparently, because I feel lucky to have a ticket. The other people in line probably feel the same way. A sign on the sidewalk says “Sold Out.”
I take my seat and glance around at the 3,000 JP fans crowding into the theater. We’ve all read his international best-seller 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote for Chaos. But it’s strange that a book with a corny title could draw such a diverse and unlikely audience. Why are college kids, seniors, and more than 1,000,000 YouTube subscribers watching and listening to a plain-talking author who tells them that responsibilities are more important than rights?
As JP moves from point to point in his three-hour lecture, I begin to take notes. Specifically, I try to figure out what’s so appealing about this man and his rules for life? And so, here are 12 reasons I like 12 Rules.
1. I like his style. Some critics have called JP a smooth-talking conservative guru who leads people (mostly men) astray with simplistic answers and show-biz sermons. In person, however, he comes across as anti-charismatic; a stern-looking, plain-talking, beady-eyed psychology professor with an Ontario accent.
2. He knows his material. Even though JP talked for nearly three hours, he spoke off the cuff the entire time, no notes or prompter needed. It was amazing to see him focus on potentially-boring psychological and philosophical topics, and yet manage to keep a huge audience sitting in captivated silence or laughing out loud.
3. He understands the importance of purpose. College students today get plenty of experience in the sterile world created by political correctness, a world of freedoms that are largely without meaning. JP makes it clear that politics are not going to save us, either as individuals or as a society. Finding the kind of meaning in life that illuminates our existence is not a freebie. It has to be earned.
4. He defends his ideas. The first of JP’s 12 Rules is “Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” He also phrases the same idea somewhat differently: “Adopt a stance of ready engagement with the world.” JP makes it clear that – whether or not the idea is compatible with our desire for a kinder, gentler world – hierarchies exist. Struggle for dominance is the norm, in the animal kingdom and in human society. Others may disguise their aggression with politically correct language, but they are really seeking to dominate. Always be aware that life is a struggle. Stand up straight, keep your shoulders back, and be ready to defend what you believe.
5. He shows that structure can be liberating. Each of his 12 Rules is really a starting point for detailed discussions of effective ways to manage your life (in his three hours at the Beacon, he only got through six of the 12). He explains why you should “Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping” (Rule 2) and why you should “not bother children when they are skateboarding” (Rule 11). JP’s simple tips lead to big insights.
6. He offers a refreshing framework for America’s civic life. JP argues our national debate is focused too much on the concept of rights. Instead, he argues, there should be more focus on responsibility. Life is suffering, JP claims, but the best way to deal with this unavoidable suffering is by taking up the burden of struggle. The acceptance of responsible struggle is the pathway to living a meaningful life.
7. JP may be a secret existentialist. I am a big fan of the 20th-century French existentialists, and one does not have to dig deep to see their influence on JP’s philosophy. Another JP, Jean-Paul Sartre, wrote that because man is ultimately free to define his nature, he bears an incredible responsibility. For Sartre, as for Peterson, our freedom comes at a heavy cost; but, it is a cost we must pay in order to live a meaningful life.
8. JP convinced me that majoring in philosophy was not a mistake. My science-oriented peers often argue that the advent of modern scientific findings makes the existential philosophizing of people like JP obsolete. I have been told many times by friends in the biology and chemistry departments that philosophy is useless. Compared with science, they say, philosophy can have no right answer. But in his book, JP shows that the quest for truth in science is directly linked to the quest for truth in philosophy.
9. JP’s book combats poisonous ideas in postmodernism. Most of my friends on campus have been swept up by the ideas of postmodern thinkers and moral relativists. They may disagree with biology students that philosophizing about meaning is “useless.” But you will be hard-pressed to find any student who is confident in the idea that anyone has the right answer to the question “what makes life meaningful.” For JP, the quest for meaning is helped by rules and responsibility.
10. JP understands that lack of purpose has harmful consequences. For someone on the outside looking in, a lack of purpose among college students might seem like a minor problem. But as someone enveloped in campus culture, I strongly disagree. Many students are paying a heavy price for living in a wonderland of choice. Colleges and universities constantly push the ideas of freedom and student rights. Heavy drinking, casual sexual relationships and other forms of hedonistic behavior are commonplace. Most of it is done in the name of being young and free. But if this is an okay way to live, why do so many of my friends complain of feeling anxious and depressed? Why do they often end up in tears at the end of a night of hearty partying? Why was I having similar problems? I think JP’s focus on responsibility offers students a better path, not only for their four years at college but for the rest of their lives.
11. He cautions us to stand our ground against counterpunches from critics, and he shows his readers how to do it. 12 Rules is being constantly derided, mocked and dismissed by liberals and trendy commenters. JP is often accused of the cultural crime of insensitivity. He is censured for being offensive. But JP sticks it to people who make the mistake of thinking he’s an easy target for PC inquisitors, and he does it without being either passive or belligerent. He tells us to stand strong, be precise in our speech (Rule 10) and say what we really think.
12. He tells us to grow up, to replace empty ideology with responsibility. He advises us to get our own lives in order before telling others what to do (Rule 6). Do what’s meaningful, JP writes (Rule 7), not what’s easy. Those are important messages for college students. We have become accustomed to having our every desire satisfied as soon as we first desire it. We don’t like it when someone tells us we are living meaningless lives, and the solution is hard work. JP reminds us of the fact that, to paraphrase the end of William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” we are the masters of our fates. We are the captains of our souls. Yeah, I know, that’s a trite thing to say. But, thanks to Jordan Peterson, I also know it’s true.