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Why being normal is the new normal
Self-help advice might seem painfully obvious, but those who struggle with “normality” need it
The magazine in which this piece was originally published (Standpoint) has ceased publication — at least for now — and its online archive has also disappeared. To that end (and as promised last week), please find below a piece I wrote for it in April 2019.
It represents an attempt to deal honestly with the Jordan Peterson phenomenon, in part by drawing on work by another self-help writer, Amy Alkon. It was written before Peterson fell ill, and — as you’ll see — before JK Rowling inserted herself in the hugely contentious transgender issue.
I still stand by an argument I first made in it, to wit: adults who build their identities on fandoms and children’s books are, well, a bit broken.
I have edited one date, for reasons of accuracy.
Once or twice a week, I get books posted opportunistically through my mailslot. They’re from publishers hoping I’ll review them. My policy is to give all comers a 100-page chance but to review only those I find really striking (in any one of various ways).
Two books received like this were Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life and Amy Alkon’s Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. Both are self-help. For a long time they languished at the bottom of my “chancers” pile, even the 100-page taster foregone. I’d read precisely one self-help book: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I did so on instructions from my pupil-master 17 years ago. An habitué of bookstores, I nonetheless let shelves of “self-help” groan under their own weight. The thought of reading more self-help than Carnegie’s famed effort made me want to swallow my own face.
However, Peterson became newsworthy for reasons unrelated to his book while I had to copy-edit an Alkon piece for another publication, so I read both on flights to and from a friend’s wedding in Corfu. And found myself feeling for the people who read them, not because either book is bad, but because so many people—including huge numbers of young people—need to be told obvious things about how to comport themselves. At one point I turned to my partner and asked, “Do these people not have parents? Surely parents are there to teach you to avoid slouching, or to wear deodorant, or be kind to animals.”
“My parents did, and your parents did,” came the response, “but not other people’s parents.”
My sympathy gland enlarged, I resolved to pay attention to those around me who wanted to be “normal”, who wanted to find a comfortable niche in the strange and fragmented modern world we’ve made for ourselves. “Normies”—although still the majority—are surrounded and interpenetrated by an efflorescence of peculiar sub-cultures, most of them online, and many of them newly influential. And the people in them—while capable of being tech-savvy and clever—often do not know that wearing odd socks to a job interview is, ahem, not a good idea.
There is something to be said for normality, for averages, for social rules. Anyone who thinks Jordan Peterson in particular is running some sort of cult need to realise that people read his book because they have no idea, and that fact is not their fault. My parents brought me up with Debrett’s, of course. I learned things like “no brown in town” and “always fight your battles from the front.” From my father (ex-Royal Navy) I suspect I did view philosophy as a form of self-help, although I never called it that. I later became aware of the gag where Virgil tells Dante librarians in Hell are buried upside down in seething mud because they classified self-help books in the philosophy section.
Peterson in particular has copped real stick for being a poundshop philosopher. This is partly because the quality of his writing varies depending on what he’s saying. The self-help advice is expressed clearly but it’s also trivial. Let children compete; take care of your body; try not to look too desperate on a date.
The parts of the book dealing with philosophy are carried over from his first book, Maps of Meaning. They’re poorly written in the only sense that matters, which is that he fails to communicate his point to the reader. He doesn’t even have Adam Smith’s excuse that you’re supposed to read the first book before attempting the second, because they’ve clearly got very different markets.
Peterson’s big idea is the “archetype”. I can best describe it as a kind of moral or normative template that runs through all human mythologies across different cultures. He thinks there are several of these—although he’s coy about what they are—and that people can draw upon them as a framework to give their lives personal meaning.
If you went through his work with a fine-toothed comb you’d end up with a list of pretty familiar storytelling tropes—the classic male hero, the moral or steadfast woman—but he never lets you get that far and would probably call you a philistine (or threaten to slap you) if you tried to describe his archetypes with that level of clarity.
“Archetype theory” (for want of a better phrase) comes from Carl Jung, the other founder (along with Sigmund Freud) of modern psychoanalysis. For my sins (and partly because I’m a novelist who was first a classicist) I’ve read quite a bit of Jung, as well as quite a bit of Jung’s later popularisers—particularly Joseph Campbell, he of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest there is something in Peterson and Jung and Campbell’s claims at the highest level. That is, there really are about a dozen narrative structures and maybe about 20 character composites that appear over and over again in myth and fiction—with minor variations—all over the world. Structuralists call these “tropes” and it’s the structuralist understanding of them that informs online repositories of popular culture such as TV Tropes (which is, as the webcomic XKCD suggests, the most extraordinary time sink on the internet).
I suspect the most popular of these (one thinks of the Aeneas-Dido narrative in Virgil, for example) probably have a biological basis, although I don’t know how to go about proving that. Wriggling further out along the limb on which I’ve deposited myself, I’m also going to suggest one of the reasons literary fiction often sells poorly is because it sets out to subvert tropes in ways many people dislike.
Relatedly, authors, directors, and playwrights can accidentally (or deliberately, if they’re very skilled) invoke a trope and create a firestorm of interest and sales (and, sometimes, opprobrium, if the trope has been tweaked enough to make people’s hair stand on end but not enough to make them pull that hair out by the roots).
Peterson uses stories and archetypes to ground his belief that improving your personal character makes the world better. This is paired with a dislike not just of socialism but rationalist philosophy in general. He’s basically a “global” traditionalist. He really believes custom contains mysterious wisdom in the old-fashioned sense that we should follow it without trying to understand it. And he thinks this wisdom is the same all around the world.
In that sense his hatred of postmodernism is the narcissism of small differences. Both Peterson and the postmodernists dislike rationalists (because rationalists try to create models through which the world can be understood), and empiricists (because empiricists try to interrogate the world with their senses). Both think knowledge is constructed in some way inaccessible to us. They simply have different approaches to liberation. Postmodernists talk about tearing down “violent” hierarchies while Peterson argues hierarchies are often there for good reason.
But—putting aside all the pokes at him, many of them ideologically motivated—his advice is sound. Baby barrister me started out in the trial division of the Queensland Supreme Court in what is sometimes known euphemistically as “the regions”. And most of the people who finish up in front of the beak in Australian country towns simply haven’t been parented. All the things we think are absolutely standard and should come pre-installed don’t. Families are a mess, there’s domestic violence; kids don’t go to school, or if they do they don’t learn anything; toddlers subsist on junk food. I have seen fat, toothless 19-year-olds in the dock.
A sense of Peterson’s soundness comes from reading Amy Alkon’s very different work of self-help. A stronger writer, she is aware in a way Peterson isn’t when she’s at risk of seeming faintly ridiculous: her chapter on the importance of ritual, for example. Nonetheless, much of what she says is so similar to his and both are such meticulous scholars that I started mining their footnotes, only to discover they often use the same research.
This is particularly noticeable when it comes to what Alkon calls “embodied cognition” and Peterson’s Rule No 1: stand up straight with your shoulders back. It turns out you really can shift other people’s perceptions of you (and your perceptions of you) by carrying yourself differently. Your body isn’t just ground transportation for your brain. What you do with it matters.
My mother threatened to stick a broom up my backside if I slouched. I didn’t need Alkon and Peterson; I had my mother. Other people didn’t have my mother. Maybe this is a good thing. My mother took no nonsense, least of all from me. It also suggests people who mock kids for reading Jordan Peterson and following his advice somewhat slavishly have what I’m going to call “parenting privilege”.
It’s all very well for people like you and me who have been brought up normally to take a pop at him. And yes, we’re (still) the majority. Most people are, in fact, brought up normally. However, a sufficiently large number of people have been “dragged up” (to use my mother’s expression). They haven’t been taught to wash themselves, to say please and thank you, to stand their ground, to avoid pointless comparisons of themselves with wholly dissimilar others.
We’ve known for decades that some people who don’t really have it in them to be parents nonetheless learn—usually from books. So, likewise, some people have to learn how to “adult” out of a book. And once they do learn that’s great because having people around who understand manners, personal hygiene, animal welfare, not being a bully—regardless of how they came by that understanding—makes the world a more pleasant place for the rest of us.
In that sense, Peterson’s claim that improving oneself improves society is almost certainly true. “If the young men who read Jordan Peterson actually do what he says,” says a relationships counsellor friend of mine, “they will indeed make themselves more attractive to members of the opposite sex. I have been doing this job for 20 years. I know this is true.”
Both Alkon and Peterson are also critical of how pseudoscientific is much of the self-help literature with which they compete. “This book does not contain The Secret,” Alkon says in her wise-ass Detroit way. “Supposedly, if you want a new car, you just picture it and think grateful thoughts about it (as if it were already yours) and some pocket in the universe will unzip and out will drop your fabulous dream ride, right into your life.” Maybe self-help has to be written anew for each generation, and Jordan Peterson is Dale Carnegie for our times.
“Normality” took a battering in the second half of the 20th century. Lots of people were angry about it and did their level best either to tear it down or render it definitively gauche. Who wanted to be normal? Normies were dull. From the playwrights who festooned theatres in the 1960s and gave us things like Marat/Sade to the Beats and the 1968 countercultural slogan IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID, people irritated with the status quo sought to put a landmine under it and blow it up.
Hammering the normies and transgression for the sake of transgression became a thing and is still a thing. Except, as Irish commentator Angela Nagle observes, it’s become an end in itself, at once “negative, nasty, and nihilistic”. Now it lives online in festering cesspools frequented by people who have no idea (and whose absence of ideas is not their fault) but who need rules and want normality. These are the Internet’s unloved lost boys and lost girls. With little leverage and less hope for enjoying what we normies still consider the basic elements of a decent life—marriage, work, house, community—they have found Jordan Peterson (also online; he started with YouTube videos) and Amy Alkon and the rules and ritual they crave.
And dear lord, those rules and rituals are needed, because so often people who aren’t normies are still children, even once they’ve turned 30. Not a week goes by when there isn’t a monstrous internet conflagration over some utter triviality, from politicians dancing to novelists daring to write characters unlike themselves. A recent sacrificial victim is children’s author Amélie Wen Zhao, who withdrew her first book from publication despite having signed a half-million-dollar three-book deal.
Accused of racism and cultural appropriation and “causing harm”—those tired standbys of the outraged and talentless—she wilted. None of the critics had read her book. When she abased herself, apologising to the Twitter mob, I saw in my mind’s eye academics paraded in dunces’ hats while surrounded by Red Guards carrying big character posters.
These days, literature’s culture war explosions take on a particular form. Gone are fights over bad language and sex in Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Ulysses. Instead, they’re about Young Adult books. Science fiction. Fantasy. Teenagers never lay the mines, but the blow-ups are about the genres most dear to them. We are two generations into a Peter Pan era where people refuse to grow up.
This is where I’m supposed to offer platitudes about how it’s OK if some people’s favourite novels are all meant for children while Disney makes all of some other people’s favourite films, but I refuse. When you cease being a child, put away childish things is close enough to Peterson’s pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient to do advisory work.
If you are emotionally devastated by the leftward lean of science fiction to the point of launching a campaign to “take back” the genre; if the moral struggle that gets you out of bed each morning is purging racism from young adult fantasy novels; if you feel besieged by the political predilections of self-declared gamers (or betrayed by the politics of game reviewers); if you use films about comic-book characters to form your worldview; if you cast about for a metaphor to describe your deepest beliefs and find only Harry Potter . . . you are still a child. You need to step back and work out why your identity is so invested in escapist fancies designed to appeal to confused children halfway through puberty.
And when it comes to Harry Potter, Peterson should make “read another book” his Rule 13.