“Unsullied! Slay the masters, slay the soldiers, slay every man who holds a whip, but harm no child. Strike the chains off of every slave you see!”
Jordan Peterson’s Twelve Rules for Life comes with a fascinating subtitle: it bills itself as “an antidote to chaos”. In the text, and throughout his speaking and writing, Peterson makes his position abundantly clear: established order and clear categories (always associated with masculinity and patriarchy) are what make humanity human, and chaos, change flux and femininity threaten the entire human existence. He even goes so far as to spin a metaphor of the chaotic feminine being subdued by the patriarchy to create civilisation:
“Chaos, the eternal feminine, is also the crushing force of sexual selection. Women are choosy maters (unlike female chimps, their closest animal counterparts). Most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 percent of men as below average in attractiveness. It is for this reason that we all have twice as many female ancestors as male (imagine that all the women who have ever lived have averaged one child. Now imagine that half the men who have ever lived have fathered two children, if they had any, while the other half fathered none).
It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, “No!” For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs with devastating force every time they are turned down for a date. Human female choosiness is also why we are very different from the common ancestor we shared with our chimpanzee cousins, while the latter are very much the same. Women’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are.
It is Nature as Woman who says, “Well, bucko, you’re good enough for a friend, but my experience of you so far has not indicated the suitability of your genetic material for continued propagation.”
Sadly, it doesn’t end there:
“You know you can say, ‘Well isn’t it unfortunate that chaos is represented by the feminine’ — well, it might be unfortunate, but it doesn’t matter because that is how it’s represented. It’s been represented like that forever. And there are reasons for it. You can’t change it. It’s not possible. This is underneath everything. If you change those basic categories, people wouldn’t be human anymore. They’d be something else. They’d be transhuman or something. We wouldn’t be able to talk to these new creatures.”
Set aside for a moment the repellent sexism of these texts. Chaos is as much a part of human life as anything else we find unique about ourselves. We’ve never been in control of even our own societies, we’ve always been exposed to radical changes, and those who say otherwise are as delusional as Xerxes was when he lashed the sea with chains. Between plagues, wars, revolutions and massive cultural shifts, a stable, static society is a myth made by those who benefit from the intentional erasure of our collective history of struggle and resistance to oppression.
Myths of a Golden Age are of course common among humans. As far back as Hesiod we see the expression of the eponymous Golden Age that was the Titanomachy, when people apparently knew what was right and didn’t need laws to enforce upright behaviour. The Roman Empire had no shortage of educated men who wrote in glowing terms about the Republic and its virtues. And even the Renaissance, while it drew a lot from classical society, had a strange attachment to the High Medieval and their epics of chivalry, as evidenced by compositions such as Handel’s Rinaldo and Orlando Furioso and England’s long – standing fascination with the Arthurian Legend. There seems to be a human tendency to romanticise the past, regardless of what it actually looked like at the time, and the explanation is simple enough: any change, no matter how positive in the long run, is uncomfortable, painful and takes a lot of adjustment. And changes aren’t always positive, as the black plagues and civil wars that marked the end of the Medieval period show. In such a time of crisis, it is natural to look back to times when life was more peaceful and suggest that the current crisis is a result of society decaying from that high point, where people were moral and everything worked. The logic is faulty: in most cases the crises experienced are a direct result of the failings of the society being valorised. Nonetheless, it is an exceedingly compelling argument.
Consider for a moment the case of anthropogenic climate change. In the long run, there is cause for optimism. Humans are remarkably adaptable and resilient, we have the weight of modern industrial technology behind us and looking back historically we’ve survived any number of apocalypses that should by all rights have killed us (Yersinia pestis might well have depopulated the old world had fate been a little different, and we appear to have lived through several supervolcano eruptions, albeit by the skin of our teeth). We will live through this catastrophe, and in a millenium we may well have built a just, peaceful and human society for the first time in our history. For now, however, we face chaos on an unprecedented scale. Even if we manage to mitigate the worst effects, our society, or way of life and our very nature shall have to change radically and in ways we can’t predict. We can’t stop this. We can’t force the climate of the entire world to bend to our whims. Changing the political and economic structures of an entire society so that they disrupt the climate less is even harder. Even in the best – case scenario, our economy, our culture and our way of living will change drastically, and we will have death and destruction on a massive scale to contend with. All that’s left to us is to face the storm as best as we can, with grace, dignity, kindness and hope. But that position is one radically opposed to Peterson’s idea that we can impose an order on the world from above: the Dragon of Chaos that he posits patriarchal society as having slain is in fact immortal, and takes its destructive nature primarily from our societies having restrained it. The society that Peterson suggests that we return to in order to save ourselves is in fact the very society responsible for our current predicament.
On a more personal level, queer and trans people must embrace chaos if we are to make any sense of our lives. For trans people in particular, life is full of change. From the physical process of transition, to working out new boundaries and relationships with one’s parents, to even such things as dating or figuring out how to dress, we once again are faced with radical changes that we can’t control even a little: all we can do is once again face them with grace, dignity and humour. To a lesser degree, we also introduce this kind of uncontrollable, wild, chaotic change into society at large, which perhaps goes some way to explaining why the likes of Peterson dislike us so much. In refusing to fit or stay within the categories that Peterson et al. impose on us, we threaten the system of the world that they cling to, threatening his conception of order and becoming in his eyes embodiments of chaos. No wonder they loathe and fear us so much.
In this light, it seems that rhetoric of order and opposition to chaos is primarily a viewpoint born of power and privilege. In the same way as the police and capital impose the interest of the privileged in the economic sphere, Peterson et al. aim to impose it in the social sphere, albeit with significantly less success. It is thus understandable that those that take a hegemonic position would see the world in this manner. But as before, dark clouds are on the horizon. As inequality increases and fascism becomes a stronger force, fewer and fewer people will have the luxury of believing that the forces that shape us can be controlled by human agency. Ultimately, as climate change gathers force, none of us will. So, what are we to do? Peterson’s proposed solution of fighting harder to protect a manifestly broken order is cruel and won’t work. Instead, I propose that we embrace the Dragon, and for those of us who have it, embrace our own draconic, chaotic nature. We can’t stop change from occurring; nobody’s ever been able to do that. We can, however, face change with dignity. And being agents of change ourselves, we can create the changes we wish to see.
Peterson’s culture heroes are long dead and forgotten, along with their cultures. Who now remembers Gilgamesh and Enkidu and their adventures? Who remembers Hector with his great bronze spear, or Perseus and the Gorgon that he slew? Our heroes, those whom we tell stories about these days, are rather different. You might even find one that resonates with my argument at the top of the page…