Statue of the great philosopher Confucius in Shanghai. Photo: iStockT

Jordan Peterson: Set your house in perfect order before criticizing the world. Confucius: The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home.

Canadian clinical psychiatrist Jordan Peterson created a firestorm last year when he published 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Peterson claims that the welfare state, radical feminism, and identity politics have undermined traditional Western values of self-reliance. In the past 50 years, Peterson argues, Marxism and Post-Modernism have taken over academia and produced a monoculture in the humanities that silences dissenting (conservative) voices. Moreover, radical feminism and its mantra of “toxic masculinity” have made men insecure and defensive.

12 Rules for Life has made Peterson public enemy No. 1 among progressives, leftists and feminists. Ask progressives what accounts for Peterson’s appeal and they argue that his followers are sexist, bigots and racist. But it is easy to make the case, as Peterson does, that the West is in crisis, paralyzed by social and economic problems that democracy seems unable to solve. Wealth disparity has resulted in massive social dislocation, a lowering of living standards, alienation and widespread drug addiction. Suicide rates in the US have caused a reduction in life expectancy. San Francisco, the epicenter of the digital revolution, has more drug addicts than high school students.

Peterson’s bête noire is the various “isms” that have dominated the intellectual debate in recent decades: Marxism, Post-Modernism, and feminism. “Marx,” he writes, “attempted to reduce history and society to economics, considering culture the oppression of the poor by the rich.” That is not a new argument, but Peterson’s obvious hatred of Marxism leads him to overshoot his target: he blames Marxism for the Stalinist crimes in the Soviet Union. By that logic, democracy is to blame for the invasion of Iraq and the destruction of Libya.

Peterson is closer to the mark when he claims that in the late 1960s, following the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, the left could no longer defend Marxism while maintaining its intellectual and moral credibility. That’s when the left turned the Marxist emphasis on economics into an emphasis on power. Peterson calls it a leftist sleight of hand: ‘“Oh, it’s not about economic power, it’s about oppressed and oppressor in a broader sense.’ And that’s where we got the transformation into identity politics [i.e. “cultural Marxism”]. It was the Marxist oppressor-oppressed dynamic under a new guise.”

Corporate coup d’état

The political left, supported by labor unions, traditionally focused on job security, wages, affordable housing, and education. By the 1970s, when identity politics started to play a bigger role in national elections, a slow-motion corporate coup d’état was taking place in the form of “free trade,” tax cuts, deregulation and corporate financing of political causes and candidates, all with predictable results: Regardless of the party in power, wealth disparity exploded, as did the national debt and the deterioration of public infrastructure. Shuttling between Wall Street and Silicon Valley became essential for politicians seeking higher office.

This provides the context for the appeal of Peterson, the proverbial canary in the coal mine. While free trade left a trail of destruction in America’s industrial heartland, politicians “fired up the base” with identity politics, gun control, immigration issues, and even gender-neutral bathrooms; their political icons were in bed with corporate America. Tax cuts and the political inability to cut spending assures that the next generation inherits a national debt that requires annual interest payments that will soon exceed the annual budget for education.

The challenge for both Western individualism and Eastern communalism is to find that middle ground where both rights and duties are given equal weight

The debate Peterson has started seems both quaint and sophomoric. Conservatives stress self-reliance, progressives argue that people operate within a system that has institutional defects that need mending. Common sense dictates the two positions are like yin and yang – not mutually exclusive but complementary. Even Peterson, who often refers to the yin and yang, seems unable to make that connection.

“The proper way to fix the world isn’t to fix the world,” he says.  “There’s no reason to assume that you’re even up to such a task. But you can fix yourself. You’ll do no one any harm by doing so. And in that manner at least, you will make the world a better place.” It’s a fair point to make, and one that resonates with Peterson’s followers. On the other hand, an exclusive focus on self-cultivation would not have resulted in Martin Luther King’s march on Washington and the Civil Rights Act.

Price of the patriarchy

Peterson’s sudden rise to stardom says more about society than about him. His 12 Rules strike a chord with men struggling with addiction, unemployment, depression, and a sense of being uselessness and a failure. Reduced economic opportunity and that fact that females now outnumber male graduates is creating a generation of males who are full of self-doubt. These are among Peterson’s followers. He claims to have received thousands of letters from readers saying his 12 Rules helped them in their battle against addiction, to form positive relationships, take charge of their physical health and reconnect with estranged family members.

Progressive ideologues and radical women’s rights activists argue most of society’s ills were created by the “patriarchy” going back Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Freud and other “dead white male” icons of Western culture. Whatever the truth about “toxic masculinity,” men pay a hefty price for the privilege of being the patriarchy, especially in the US.

77% of homicide victims are men.

Men are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide.

Well over 90% of casualties in war are men.

93% of people in federal prison are men.

60% of people dying from drug overdoses are men.

Demonizing Peterson is a poor substitute for analyzing the conditions that explain his popularity. He gives his followers paternal encouragement to take charge of their own lives and to “Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient).” His unique package of self-help and conservative values is rooted in a Christian worldview, but his focus on self-reliance and community echo Confucian ethics. Bill Kelly, former lecturer of Intercultural Communication at UCLA, put Peterson in a broader cultural context:

“The challenge for both Western individualism and Eastern communalism is to find that middle ground where both rights and duties are given equal weight. Peterson seems Confucian because he appeals to the need for order, family stability, and strong social morality. But his emphases on self-reliance and academic freedom come from his wish to recapture classic individualist values that have given way to identity politics and group rights. In this respect, he is not Confucian. His overall point that changing society requires changing self first is the major premise of spiritual politics which has become more influential recently in the West. Of course, this outlook has also existed in Confucian China.”

Perhaps even Peterson can learn a lesson or two from Confucius, whose 2,500-year old Doctrine of the Mean, when compared to ideological trench warfare in the West, seems wise, humanistic, and even modern today. “Learn from the ancients but avoid their mistakes,” Confucius admonishes. One should be neither conservative nor progressive; one should be both.  One should focus on neither rights nor obligation; one should do both.

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Jan Krikke

Jan Krikke is a former Japan correspondent for various media, former managing editor of Asia 2000 in Hong Kong, and author of Quantum Physics and Artificial Intelligence in the 21st Century: Lessons learned from China.

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