Jordan pulls no punches in his public statements, calling entire university departments illegitimate and advocating for their de-funding, calling people who espouse “Leftist” or “socialist” views intellectually naive, subscribers to a murderous ideology, malevolent. blah blah blah
I imagine Jordan should expect people to pull no punches in return. So…okay….
Jordan’s book, 12 Rules for Life, is, let’s say, questionable? It might even be harmful, in certain cases. This is what I think most needs to be carefully considered because as a general Rule of Life, I’d say “First, do no harm” is a good place to start, and Jordan’s advice fails on that account in some ways. It does have good pieces of advice and interesting insights, don’t get me wrong. But just because someone says some good things doesn’t mean they are right about everything! And keep in mind, if you talk to practically anybody for, like, an hour, they are going to have interesting insights! Like, head down to your local pub and have a chat with the fellow sitting there knocking back a couple. He probably has some great things to say! (Probably kids too….although why are you sitting down with kids in a pub?) 😉
As a guidebook to life, I’m sorry, but there are just too many places it needs to be qualified, and some key places where I think it’s gonna cause do more harm than good.
It is difficult to separate the good from the bad because “12 Rules for Life” is a puzzling mixture of science, pseudoscience, common sense folk wisdom, classic Dad-advice, surprisingly-misinterpreted philosophy and Biblical references, and a paradoxical lack of critical reflection in key places. This is precisely the opposite of what “The Antidote to Chaos” should be. I have met no small number of psychologists, educators and others who express mystified frustration that ‘questionable’ psychology is misinforming people in such large numbers that they find themselves having to repeatedly, effortfully, indeed exhaustingly, challenge and disabuse people of beliefs that they’ve adopted from Jordan. I’ve heard from therapists who struggle with their clients who’ve adopted self-blaming beliefs, parents express concern about his parenting advice, educators talking about others bringing what they see as harmful practices into their classrooms while citing Jordan-logic, and a wide array of people expressing their concern at how “people they know” are exhibiting distressing, demeaning and disappointing behaviours, seemingly as a result of becoming a “Peterson fanboy”. (Granted, his fans are not all boys, but that phrase is the one I most commonly encounter when people express concern about Jordan’s recent public teachings.) From my own experience, I find comments and questions about Jordan coming into my classrooms, office hours and professional collaborations frequently, and usually in ways that suggest concern, dismay and even disbelief that Psychology research could have led to some of the views that Jordan espouses. Wading through the verbiage and often-esoteric claims spread across far more domains of knowledge than Jordan, or anyone, could legitimately be an expert in, is confusing, and when you encounter some instances of ‘questionable’ reasoning, it throws the rest into question.
Let’s examine the facts of Jordan’s advice. For this essay, we’ll focus on his first piece of advice, which was so important and rock-solid that he used it to launch his book. He also frequently talks about this piece of advice in public appearances (e.g., appearing on Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, etc.). It stems directly from the lobster-logic that has become well known enough to be meme-ified. This advice is one of the key pillars of his entire edifice of argumentation. And it is definitely harmful, some of the time.
“Stand up straight with your shoulders back.” This is Jordan’s first Rule of Life. It is intended both metaphorically and literally. And in both cases, it is terrible advice.
First, the literal — in terms of body-posture, “stand up straight with your shoulders back” is exactly the wrong advice to give people who have poor posture (which is the population this advice is relevant for, of course; telling this to people who already stand up straight with their shoulders back is kinda beside the point….).
Sure, this advice might SOUND good, perhaps, for a few different reasons:
1) you’ve heard it before; this is standard, age-old Dad advice. I heard this my entire childhood from, yep, my dad. It’s nothing new; it’s just man-philosophy put into a pithy phrase, and then repeated so often it begins to sound like “it must be true”….
2) people who ARE confident go-getters do generally seem to stand this way. Heck, Amy Cuddy even gave a now-famous, although widely panned, Ted talk about this…. Think of the winners and leaders and movers & shakers you’ve known throughout life; they certainly don’t mope around with rounded shoulders, hunched backs and a cave-in defining the centre of their chests. No! They stand straight and tall. Like athletes. Soldiers. Real Men.
3) it’s easily-packaged, easily-expressed advice, so it gets repeated over and over and over again. But, this form of communication is itself dangerous; it IS the basic approach to propagandistic rhetoric that is designed to make people nod in agreement and let their critical thinking skills have a snooze. It is the approach to reasoning that lets people FEEL GOOD about themselves, without having to seriously challenge their thinking or consider nuance. It’s the kind of thinking that extremists, ideologues and spin-masters emphasize. It’s the kind of thinking that insecure people will find soothing — you might call it Snowflake Thinking. We’ll explore this fully in Part 4: Collective Assholeification.
But just because it SOUNDS good, and just because people with high self-confidence and such do stand this way, does not mean it’s the path to posture improvement (and the attendant self-worth improvement that is promised). “Correlation does not equal causation” is one of the basic truisms of science.
“Stand up straight with your shoulders back,” when applied in the wrong way or to the wrong people, is like saying — “people who are fit and healthy run 5 miles far more often than people who are not. Therefore, people with broken legs, muscular disorders, obesity problems, lung issues, cardiovascular disorders, or say, young children and the elderly, should get out there! Run 5 miles dammit! Accept the Challenge of Health! Accept the terrible existential responsibility of being a mortal, biological creature, destined to weaken and die, and Fight against it! Rage against the dying of the light! Pump those legs! Get that body moving! After all, the opposite, being a couch potato, is BAD for you! So, run 5 miles! Set your gaze upon a star! Go go go!!”
Imagine if the aforementioned people took this obviously ridiculous advice and forced themselves out onto the jogging paths and sidewalks, straining to cover their daily 5 miles so they too can be healthy and strong. Those who failed or injured themselves could be called weak, told they need more self-discipline, they need to stop whining and being resentful, and Sort Themselves Out. There are only two sets of people who will benefit from this 5-mile advice: those who are already fit and strong but just need some pep-talk encouragement; or the legions of physiotherapists and doctors and pharmacists who will have to treat the countless injuries that come from the poorly-prepared masses out there in their running shoes, gritting their teeth, straightening their shoulders, and trying to awaken their running giants within….
If someone without already good posture takes Jordan’s advice, throws their shoulders back and straightens up, they are following a recipe for chronic pain, poor flexibility, and all sorts of physical problems. Because “straightening up” is not the road to good posture. Ask any physiotherapist, Alexander-technique practitioner, yoga instructor, qi gong expert, osteopath or back doctor. When you try to straighten up and thrust your shoulders back, you might, at best, achieve momentarily good-seeming posture through the temporary stiffening of certain muscles. But this results in a huge amount of energy expended to maintain an inefficient posture, which one has no choice but to give up when it comes time to do practically any other movement that’s part of everyday life, PLUS it rigidifies muscles that throw the entire body into poor alignment, thereby worsening posture over time.
Instead, if you want genuinely good posture, if you want to stand like a confident lobster for realz, you need to undertake a process of softening and stretching certain muscles (in particular, those that pull the shoulders forward and torso down), strengthen and exercise certain others (in particular those that pull shoulders into a roll&dropped position, those that align the head properly rather than slumping forward, and those that engage the core). Once the right muscles are stretched, the head is aligned, and the core is strengthened, good posture is the result. You kind of “balance and unroll” the body into a more efficient, relaxed, and balanced posture. And it starts with softening, stretching, and activating the core. NOT with engaging “the will” and trying to “stand up straight with your shoulders back”.
So, for all you Jordan-fans out there trying to thrust your shoulders back so you don’t look like the skinny weakling getting sand kicked in his face on the beach like those old Atlas ads in comics that Jordan talks about — it’s time to stop listening to Snowflake Advice designed to coddle you into feeling good about yourself by never really having to change or challenge you. Instead, go to a physiotherapist, learn how to stretch your muscles properly, then learn some proper techniques like the Alexander technique and Pilates, to strengthen your core and authentically lead yourself towards good posture.