For those of us just joining me, I’ve been reading Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Amazon Affiliate link). The core lesson in the 11th chapter of Peterson’s book is a little different from the title, and I’ll probably spend more time trying to unpack the points rather than giving a blow-by-blow of Peterson’s argumentation.
The fundamental themes of this chapter are sort of two-fold:
- How to treat risk
- Understanding social behavior
I don’t know if this is necessarily a great dichotomy to break it down into, but I’ll explain my thoughts in a bit:
So the first part of my understanding of the chapter has to do with risk. We live in a society that has become incredibly risk-averse (just look at the number of regulations on the books!). Peterson argues that risk is fundamental part of exploration.
Basically, the idea is that risk is going to be the mechanism through which people are going to express their character; taking risks is brave but it also has a fundamental psychological need.
That need is competence. Having a certain amount of non-intervention in your personal decision making, even before you reach the point in your life at which you make “wise” decisions (as an aside; this also goes for people who never make “wise” decisions) having some agency trains you in how to exercise agency.
Having seen my fellow millennials and my students struggle with this, I can say that the inability to take risks is something that is a major problem and seems to be brought on at least in part by the lack of risk that students find in their daily lives.
The other irony of this is that since risk fulfills psychological needs, people will find their risk wherever they can, even if people try their best to keep them from risk. Like with teenage rebellion, anything made too risk-free becomes valueless.
Rather, Peterson argues that the people who try to control others’ risks (like those who put “skatestoppers” up to prevent skateboarders from attempting stunts) tend to destroy others’ pursuit of these psychological needs.
This often fosters or is the direct result of resentment, which I’m not going to go into too much detail on here (anyone who’s read Nietzsche in depth knows roughly how that process works). Peterson lays out examples in Sartre and Derrida and argues that the modern postmodern philosophy, especially when it is derived from Marxist roots, draws from an inimical approach to other classes, rather than a legitimate desire to benefit the world.
To get more to the point of social activity, however, the ability to function with risk, or perhaps more particularly bad experiences, which are often a consequence of risk, is a major predictor of social success. Peterson recounts an example of working on a railway line crew.
The crew had an initiation process, consisting of minor pranks and a demeaning nickname for each new employee.
The people who didn’t fit in got increasingly harsh treatment primarily because they complained about the harsh treatment they received. It became clear that when they had bad experiences, they didn’t know how to handle them.
So while the idea of removing risk from someone else’s life may seem obviously benevolent, Peterson argues that the risk both prepares people for e better future, but also is a core part of understanding the world that people cannot do without.