Ideals for Living: The need for guides on how to live a better life

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, May 2nd 2018

How many times do you hear people say that these are ‘grim times’? It has become commonplace – but a bit of perspective and history is needed. These aren’t after all as grim times in the UK, or the West, as they were in the 1980s in terms of economic dislocation and the Cold War, and nor are they anywhere as dark and foreboding times as the 1930s and the march of fascism and world war.

They are certainly times of confusion and as such many people are looking for guides, signposts and recommendations on how to live a better life. They also explain the search for simplicity and for reducing some of the most complex areas to easy to read and understand lists.

Infamously, list-ism reached beyond satire with the so-called ‘Ed Stone’ in the 2015 UK general election. Labour’s six central pledges were carved in stone to show how seriously they took them, in what quickly became a tombstone for Ed Miliband’s leadership and for Labour’s electoral fortunes.

On a different scale are the various manifestos of modern life. Some are self-promotion and vanity exercises such as Hong Kong businessman Sir David Tang, while some are send-ups of the whole industry, such as Scottish writer Bill Duncan’s ‘self-hate’ book on Calvinism, and others more serious and substantial. In the latter camp is the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her ‘Dear Ijeawele: A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions’, just published in paperback.

Written before the birth of her own daughter the manifesto began as a letter to her friend Ijeawele and her daughter Chizalum Adaora. Adichie’s suggestions are filled with warmth, love and hope, as well as a faith in the potential good of people if they are given the right support. They are informed by her Nigerian upbringing and culture and have a universal resonance: a mixture that adds to their charm and voice.

There is an empowering spirit running through the fifteen: ‘Anger is a troubling word. Allow is about power’; a belief in the liberatory force of reading and books: ‘Teach Chizalum to read. Teach her to love books.’ A constant is encouragement to question: ‘Teach her to question language. Language is the repository of our prejudices, our beliefs, our assumptions.’

But there are also suggestions that have proven contentious to some. Number eight states: ‘Teach her to reject likeability’ and continues: ‘Her job is not to make herself likeable, her job is to be her full self, a self that is honest and aware of the equal humanity of other people.’ Fine sentiments, but some critics have pointed out what is wrong with likeability and who chooses when it becomes, if it all, a problem.

There are observations about the coming of adulthood and rites of passage from romance and love to sex: all appropriate. What adds to Adichie’s book is that it carries its politics with a sense of grace, for example, in writing that ‘In teaching her about oppression, be careful not to turn the oppressed into saints.’

Being a talented writer (and author of such acclaimed novels as ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ and ‘Americanah’), Adichie is more than aware of the power of words and the avoidance of preaching or exclusion. She writes that: ‘Try not to use words like misogyny and patriarchy too often … We feminists can sometimes be too jargony, and jargon can sometimes feel too abstract.’

Overall, Adichie’s manifesto is filled with humanity, light and a softness of touch. The book’s text and sentiment feels like a gift from the author to her friend and daughter that started off as a private exercise and ended up public property – such are the perils of the modern writer. Its only real failing is that it has too much hope and light, whereas humanity in any age has yet to prove itself the equal of such sentiment. Still it is good to aim high.

The same could not be said of Jordan B. Peterson’s ’12 Rules of Life: An Antidote to Chaos’, published at the start of this year. Peterson has been an academic for over two decades – without causing many waves or making too much of an impact for himself.

All of this changed recently as he has carved a reputation as a defender of free speech and supporter of what is called the ‘alt-light’ (which is seen as part of the alt-right). Camille Paglia called him ‘the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan’, while John Crace in ‘The Guardian’ summed up ’12 Rules for Life’ as ‘Blessed are the Strong, for they shall inherit the Earth.’ On top of this his heated exchanges with Cathy Newman on ‘Channel 4 News’ in January this year have made him an internet sensation – with nearly 9.5 million hits on YouTube and rising.

Peterson’s guidelines for a good life are very different from Adichie. For a start, his offerings are addressed to adults for them to act upon. More than that, the whole tone is markedly different – bleaker and more pessimistic.

His twelve rules have, on first glance, the appeal of well-spun homilies and warm, kind-hearted platitudes. Underneath his titles such as: ‘Make friends with people who want the best for you’ (No. 3), ‘Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today’ (No. 4), and ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street’ (No. 12), there are a variety of observations about humanity, some of which have insight and an acute eye for detail.

This is true of the last rule where he shows that he can see the value in the small things in life. Thus, the beauty of cats, their independent spirit and mystical characters that deign to share their lives with humans, is movingly explored. But even this humble example shows part of the other side of this book that is influenced by Christian ideology, which doesn’t have to be automatically a bad thing, but isn’t in his pen always tolerant, big hearted or understanding of others.

Peterson likes to capitalise and is attracted to the power of the big statement -such as pointing out that there is ‘fundamental, biological and non-arbitrary emergent truth’. He states that the world is divided into binaries – men and women – that gender isn’t fluid but fixed, and that the choice for the future is between ‘order’ and ‘chaos’, the latter representing ‘the eternal feminine’ and the former, the masculine.

Moreover, Peterson does not always apply his own twelve rules. Number nine is titled: ‘Assume that the person you are listening you might know something you don’t’. He writes: ‘Genuine conversation is exploration, articulation and strategising … but mostly listening. Listening is paying attention. It’s amazing what people will tell you if you listen.’

But across the book and elsewhere in his pronouncements Peterson displays the exact opposite characteristics. Rule number ten is ‘Be precise in your speech’, yet he is happy to use as some of his central concepts words which he never adequately pins down such as ‘Being’ and ‘chaos’, while also throwing about and caricaturing the terms post-modern, Marxist and feminist.

Elsewhere in the book he writes: ‘Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganise the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your own household, how dare you try to run a city?’ Apart from the absence of humility running through his own writings, Peterson would detest the comparison of the above argument for minimal state conservatism, and that of late 20th century Western feminism. I doubt he is even vaguely aware of such commonalities, for he has demonised and stereotyped his opponents.

What Adichie and Peterson illustrate is that in an age of noise, rage and confusion, people are looking for guides and manifestos for modern living. There is a link to the decline of traditional Christianity across the West and even more so the older, established pillars of authority and expertise. Thus, in an age where the Ten Commandments are set in the far distant past, we end up with the comic creation of the ‘Ed Stone’ as people are continually trying to cut through, make an impact and be understood often with the most transparent platitudes.

This is our fate: the balance between the particular and the universal, and the struggle between competing menus and rules for modern life – from conservatives, radicals, those pessimistic about the human condition, and those who choose to believe in the best of humanity, from those positioned at the centre of the world’s elites, to the emergent and once marginalised voices finding greater voice, including in the heart of the most developed economies. Adichie writes from a grounded Nigerian experience and is aware of the uniqueness and difference of what has made her and what will shape Chizalum’s life; Peterson writes as if his privileged Western outlook is with little qualification the dominant story of the world.

If all this seems a bit of a mess – it is about the absence of any consensus on fixed terms with conservative voices such as Peterson emphasising certainty and rigidity in the face of change, while others such as Adichie celebrate this fluidity and ambiguity. There is an element of hope in this, as previous silenced and oppressed groups challenge their once subordinated status.

The longer view of all of this would understand how far we are from any blanket sense of ‘grim times’. Adichie herself put it well at the weekend in an interview with Lisa Allardice, talking about the rise of the #MeToo movement and other new voices, observed that: ‘I feel optimistic. But cautiously optimistic … It’s either the beginning of a revolution, or it is going to be a fad. We just don’t know … I do see in women a sense that ‘We’ve done, this is it … No’ and it gives me hope.’