12 Rules for Protecting Life (Part Three)
This is Part Three of "12 Rules for Protecting Life: An Antidote to Abortion"—which applies Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life to the issue of abortion.
Rule #5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
On the surface, this rule may sound pompous and self-serving—the kind of thing you’d expect from not-to-be-bothered parents who won’t deign to be inconvenienced by their kids. But that isn’t it at all. This principle is not primarily for the benefit of parents. It’s for the safety and well-being of children. Jordan Peterson is a big fan of kids, but he’s been around enough of them to know that they’re not the innocent cherubs society makes them out to be. Young children need no instruction when it comes to selfishness and savagery. Peterson writes:
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Imagine a toddler repeatedly striking his mother in the face. Why would he do such a thing? It’s a stupid question. It’s unacceptably naive. The answer is obvious. To dominate his mother. To see if he can get away with it. Violence, after all, is no mystery. Violence is the default. It’s easy. It’s peace that is difficult: learned, inculcated, earned.
The reason you shouldn’t allow your children to behave in ways that cause you to dislike or even hate them is because doing so places them in very real danger. If you doubt that, then you’ve never spent any time with a relentlessly aggravating child and seen how quickly your own behavior can become cruel and vindictive in response. Peterson points out that, statistically speaking, two-year-old children are the most violent people in the world. “They kick, hit and bite, and they steal the property of others.” Fortunately, they’re also small and impotent; parents are not. When parents lash out in anger they can do actual damage—which is why it’s so important to correct unruly children before they drive you past the breaking point. And even if you can tolerate boorish behavior in your child, the rest of the world most certainly will not.
Unfortunately, disciplining your children demands far more time, energy, and resolve than the alternative—at least in the short run. Appeasement is easy; engaging in a battle of wills takes backbone. I say that as a parent who has failed frequently on this front—yielding too quickly to keep the peace. Thankfully, my wife is a courageous and faithful woman. In fact, I had her read Peterson’s entire (rather lengthy!) articulation of this rule because it so encapsulates the character and commitment I’ve seen in her for the past 18 years. She loves our children fiercely, and she crosses them regularly. Some day they’ll thank her for it. Why? Because correction provides children with a lifetime of protection and provision. Peterson puts it this way:
Parents who refuse to adopt the responsibility for disciplining their children think they can just opt out of the conflict necessary for proper child-rearing. They avoid being the bad guy (in the short term). But they do not at all rescue or protect their children from fear and pain. Quite the contrary: the judgmental and uncaring broader social world will mete out conflict and punishment far greater than that which would have been delivered by an awake parent. You can discipline your children, or you can turn that responsibility over to the harsh, uncaring judgmental world—and the motivation for the latter decision should never be confused with love.
Jordan Peterson believes that the best way to protect children from coming to a bad end is to teach them how to behave properly. But how does that relate to abortion? I see two connections. First, the assumption that underlies Peterson’s reasoning is that it is fundamentally wrong to harm a child. That has huge implications with regard to abortion. If it’s wrong for parents to neglect disciplining their children—for the harm that might befall them as a result, then it is certainly wrong for parents to intentionally harm them to death. Some will complain that this is an unfair comparison since it involves born children and unborn children, but Peterson notes earlier in 12 Rules just how arbitrary this distinction is. Human babies, “compared to other mammals of [the same] size,” are born more than a year early. “The essentially fetal baby,” as Peterson puts it, “is almost completely dependent on his mother for everything during that first year.” This creates a real problem for those who justify abortion because of the fetus’ utter dependence upon the mother—unless they’re going to defend infanticide too.
The second connection is this. Abortion itself is one of the cultural costs of allowing selfish, antisocial behavior to go unchecked. When children behave badly, the consequences are relatively minor. When teenagers and young adults do the same, the carnage increases exponentially. This is especially true in the realm of sex. Consider again that almost 90% of American abortions are performed on unmarried women. In times past, fornication was publicly scorned. Then we became more “enlightened.” In times past, a man was expected to marry a girl if he got her pregnant. Now we expect the girl to have an abortion. Does that really make for a better world? Jordan Peterson doesn’t think so: “The old answer was ‘get married’… and it’s an answer people should still listen to.” He goes on to observe the following:
I don’t think we’ve had an intelligent conversation about sexual morality in our culture probably since the invention of the birth control pill, so that’s about 50 years… In the immediate aftermath of the birth control pill, there was the idea that sex could now be decontextualized. It could occur in the absence of permanent relationship, let’s say, and that would be an okay thing. And that it could also be something that could be done casually for recreation and without guilt. I don’t think any of those things are true. I don’t think there’s any evidence that they’re true. I think they’re dangerous delusions… [You can’t] reduce sexuality to casual pleasure without reducing the person that you’re having sex with to nothing but the provider of casual pleasure.
Sex in the modern world has become exceedingly self-serving. We might even call it childish. In separating sex from commitment and childbirth, we’ve made it all pretend and make-believe. It’s like kids playing house. There is little if any concern for the needs and well-being of the other person. They are merely a means to an end—a provider of casual pleasure. When grown-up problems arise, the game suddenly ends—until a new partner can be found. Perennial immaturity is one of the very real-world ramifications of this unnatural compartmentalization of sex. Jordan Peterson explains it like this:
There are three things you don’t know until you have a baby. The one is that you didn’t grow up, yet. Because you don’t actually grow up until someone is more important than you. You can’t. So people think they grow up if they don’t have children but they don’t. They just think they do... There’s this pristine element to the potential relationship between parents and children that’s terribly devalued in our society. It’s almost as if we’re willfully blind to it. I think it’s an absolute catastrophe because there’s very little in life that can compare to establishing a proper relationship with a child.
Peterson continues the same theme in a separate lecture:
When people are young—and I think this is particularly true in the modern world—they seem to often regard the possibility of having a child as an impediment to their lifestyle, and in some ways I suppose that’s true [but] having a child in your life is actually something that’s remarkable, almost beyond belief. You can have a relationship with a child that is better than any relationship you’ve ever had with anyone in your life, if you’re careful and if you’re fortunate.
In a tragic twist of irony, our cultural efforts to eliminate the heavy-handed parenting of yore have resulted in far worse outcomes for the children we’re ostensibly trying to protect. Parents too. We won’t spank kids or discipline them in meaningful ways, but we will kill them in the womb. Under the guise of compassion, we’ve exchanged the lesser violence for the greater. We’ve exchanged corporal punishment for abortion. We’ve exchanged the fear of God for the sociopathic fear of nothing. “To hold the no excuse for physical punishment theory,” Peterson argues, “is also to assume that the word no can be effectively uttered to another person in the absence of the threat of punishment.” It can’t. “What no means, in the final analysis, is always ‘If you continue to do that, something you do not like will happen to you.’ Otherwise it means nothing.”
Parents who are unable or unwilling to say no to their children set them up for a lifetime of unnecessary anguish. In the process, they leave them uniquely vulnerable to the dual threats of crisis pregnancy and abortion. When children grow up without having to sufficiently reckon with the demands of that unfathomably crucial two-letter word, is it any wonder that they become adults who are unable to utter it when it counts the most? Abortion does not happen in a vacuum. It’s performed with a vacuum—at least the surgical variety, but it is the end result of a million prior compromises and failures.
If parents are “the arbiters of society,” as Peterson maintains, they must “learn to tolerate the momentary anger or even hatred directed towards them by their children.” If they don’t, it might literally cost them the lives of their grandchildren. Sadly, it is often parents who pressure their minor daughter to abort. Having failed to provide the parental boundaries that could have protected her, they rush in to “fix” the problem by again taking the easy way out—no matter how devastating the impact to their progeny.
Nobody likes abortion in the truest sense. Yes, people make use of it and perfidiously argue its utility, but only the ignorant or deranged like abortion for its own sake. So if you’re going to limit your children to only the behavior you like, doesn’t that forswear abortion entirely—which nobody in their rational mind does like? Are there any sane parents in all the world who dream of someday having an abortionist for a son or daughter? There are no guarantees when it comes to parenting, but when you put in the work—by not letting your kids get away with things that make you dislike them, you make the world a less welcoming place for abortion. If all parents did that, abortion would all but disappear.
Rule #6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
I suppose the first question to ask is this. Is publicly opposing abortion a means of criticizing the world? And if it is, does that explain Jordan Peterson’s reluctance to broach the subject? To answer the initial question, we must look at the way Peterson talks about injustice in the broader context. Does he give any indication that being publicly critical of something amounts to an unjust criticism of the world? If not, to what extent does the reasonableness of the complaint depend upon the “order” of the complainer’s own house? Peterson’s advice is to “consult your resentment”—which he calls a “revelatory emotion.” He writes:
[R]esentment always means one of two things. Either the resentful person is immature, in which case he or she should shut up, quit whining, and get on with it, or there is tyranny afoot—in which case the person subjugated has a moral obligation to speak up.
In other words, giving vent to every resentment is childish and unnecessary, but never giving vent to resentment might be even worse. Jordan Peterson’s own entrance into the public spotlight came amidst just such a venting—when he publicly opposed Canada’s Bill C-16 and refused to be compelled to use genderless pronouns in the classroom. To some, the issue of preferred gender pronouns may seem obscure and unimportant, but forced speech is one of Peterson’s lines in the sand. “I won’t mouth the words of ideologues,” Peterson explained, “because when you do that you become a puppet for their ideology.”
In both theory and practice, Jordan Peterson is an advocate for standing up to tyranny—even and perhaps especially the small ones. How could so many “ordinary, decent people” do the terrible things that defined the Nazi and Communist states? They had simply gotten in the habit of refusing to say “no.” They’d tolerated a hundred lesser evils, and “by the time no seriously needed to be said, there was no one left capable of saying it.” Peterson’s argument in Rule 6 is not that you shouldn’t stand against injustice. His point is that you shouldn’t flippantly blame outside forces for problems that you may well be causing yourself:
Fix what you can fix. Don’t be arrogant in your knowledge. Strive for humility, because totalitarian pride manifests itself in intolerance, oppression, torture and death. Become aware of your own insufficiency—your cowardice, malevolence, resentment and hatred. Consider the murderousness of your own spirit before you dare accuse others, and before you attempt to repair the fabric of the world. Maybe it’s not the world that’s at fault. Maybe it’s you.
Kris Kristofferson wrote a song a half-decade before I was born that I’ve grown rather fond of. It’s called "To Beat the Devil"—inspired by Johnny Cash. It tells the story of a poor and idealistic singer who’s trying to convince people that the things they complain about are things they could be changing. Sound familiar? The devil—in the form of an old man—tells the singer he’s on a fool’s errand. People would rather complain than take responsibility. But the singer walks away undaunted, refusing to believe that his message is a waste of time. It’s the same message Jesus espoused in the Beatitudes. First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. Before you complain or criticize, make sure that the problem is not somehow tied to your own behavior. Do an exhaustive examination of your own life to see if there’s anything you can change to make things better.
For those whose hearts are grieved by the violence and injustice of abortion, I would argue that part of putting your house in order entails doing something in the service of abortion-vulnerable women and children. For parents facing a crisis pregnancy—assuming it wasn't brought about by violent assault—the pregnancy itself is evidence that your house is not in order. Pregnancy, after all, is a normal outcome of a specific behavioral choice. So, if pregnancy creates an immediate crisis, it’s fair to say you had no business having sex. When crisis pregnancy reveals that someone’s house is not in order, the question then becomes what to do about it. What is the pathway to putting it in order? Peterson recommends the following:
Stop acting in that particular, despicable manner. Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak of with honour.
One of the reasons that putting your house in order precludes abortion is because abortion is not something you can speak of with honor. Some people try to, but they are bending reality to fit a falsehood. It doesn’t work. The only way to maintain the fiction is to forfeit your soul. You either learn to tolerate the lies or you become someone who believes the lies. It’s hard to say which is worse. When faced with a crisis pregnancy, the only pathway towards putting your house in order is to protect the life and future of your child. But that is just the beginning.
Deciding against abortion eliminates the most immediate threat to your child’s life, but all of the underlying problems remain. Carrying to term doesn’t make them magically disappear—not by a long shot. This, I believe, is why Jordan Peterson is so reluctant to enter the public abortion debate. Quoting Leonard Cohen, he says there’s no decent place to stand in a massacre. “And what [Cohen] meant by that,” Peterson explains, “[is that] sometimes ... there is no good decision left. No matter what you do, it’s wrong.”
Those who oppose abortion must be willing to grant that there’s an element of truth to Peterson’s assessment. It’s wrong to have an abortion, but it’s also wrong to have a baby you can’t take care of. Both result from what Peterson calls sexual relationships that are “bent and warped and demented out of shape.” The “eternal debate about abortion,” he continues, is the “surface manifestation of a much deeper problem.” I agree with that completely, but the reason I’m willing to stake my claim unequivocally on the anti-abortion side of the equation is because having an abortion and having a baby out of wedlock are not moral equivalents. Both are wrong, but they’re not wrong in the same way. One should be against the law; the other must not be against the law. One is permanent and fatal. The other can be overcome by putting one’s house in order. For the sake of the child, marriage or adoption should be seriously considered. At the very least, significant lifestyle changes must be made.
To summarize, crisis pregnancy is evidence of an out-of-order life. So too is abortion. In fact, abortion is the opposite of putting your house in order. Abortion is the futile attempt to maintain the status quo at any cost—even the cost of violently ending the life of an innocent and helpless human being. To try and maintain the status quo by having an abortion is to simply maintain disorder and chaos. Your individual house will never be put to right through abortion, and our collective house will never be in order so long as it’s legal to kill the most innocent and helpless members of the human community. As Martin Luther King, Jr famously said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
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