CHRIS ROPER: In bed with a lobster
Psychologist and self-help author Jordan Peterson’s views may be offensive drivel. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be published ...
In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the jester (a sort of mediaeval columnist) Trinculo is shipwrecked with his aristocratic masters on an uncharted island. Seeking refuge from the storm, he stumbles upon Caliban, a sullen half-human, half-monster, and is forced to take shelter under his cloak.
"There is no other shelter hereabout: misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past," says Trinculo.
Our modern adaptation of the proverb, appealing in its (perhaps accidental) use of politics as a synonym for misery, is "politics makes strange bedfellows".
The saying, which originated in the mid-19th century, is generally taken to mean that a common cause can force you into an uneasy alliance with those who have widely different views and beliefs to your own. And in the following paragraphs detailing my own uneasy alliance, I am Trinculo, and Caliban — well, Caliban is Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson.
Last week, staff at Penguin Random House Canada, the publisher of Peterson’s self-help books, objected to the publishing of his upcoming Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, a follow-up to his international bestseller 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
They did a little more than object. As employees told Vice magazine, the company held "a town hall", and "people were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives".
"They said one co-worker discussed how Peterson had radicalised their father, and another talked about how publishing the book will negatively affect their nonbinary friend."
The company’s diversity and inclusion committee received at least 70 anonymous messages, with only a couple in favour of the decision to publish Peterson’s book.
Responses to this by the more conservative media were predictable. "Sobbing over Jordan Peterson’s ideas? Publishing is full of cancel-happy children," trumpeted The Telegraph in the UK.
"Jordan Peterson’s daughter says ‘crying adults’ at publisher of new book should be fired," reported Newsweek.
"Publisher’s woke staff revolt and cry over Jordan Peterson’s new book," wrote a Canadian publication called, whimsically one assumes, The Post Millennial.
Teaching people to think can never be bad, even if what they think is bad. It’s belief that’s the thing we need to be wary of
Some of the unradicalised among you might have only a hazy idea of who Peterson is, so allow me to ruin your existence by explaining. He’s been described as "the stupid man’s smart person" and "the professor of piffle" by his critics, and, by his fans, as "the most important and influential Canadian thinker since Marshall McLuhan" and "a kind of secular prophet … in an era of lobotomised conformism".
Basically, as dad-jokes are to comedy, so is Peterson’s dad-philosophy to actual critical thinking. Nobody wants to deny their dear old dad the right to try to achieve humour. In the same way, I see no reason to deny Peterson his right to try to promote a version of thought in his readers. Teaching people to think can never be a bad thing, even if what they think is bad. It’s belief that’s the thing we need to be wary of.
Sometimes Peterson brings the two together — dad-jokes and dad-philosophy — as in this sadly revealing moment that Jacques Derrida, an actual philosopher whom Peterson loathes and thinks is "the leader of the postmodernists" who have ruined life with their tricksy identity politics, would have pityingly disdained to deconstruct.
Unfortunately, I don’t have his restraint.
"Lobsters have more in common with you than you might think (particularly when you are feeling crabby — ha ha!)."
As cringeworthy as this is, it does reveal the dad-philosophy that is at the heart of Peterson’s self-help success. For example, the way his "rules", as gimcrack as they are, are telegraphed with heavy-handed titles that are then repeated in the chapter’s coda.
Some examples of his rules are: "Stand up straight with your shoulders back"; "Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding"; and "Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street."
I don’t want to spend too much more time on Peterson, because you get the idea, I’m sure. But it is worth one more digression, into the world of the lobster.
Quite why Peterson chooses the lobster as the analogy on which he builds his pro-patriarchy arguments, I don’t know. His posture rule, Rule 1, ends with: "Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350-million years of practical wisdom. Stand up straight, with your shoulders back."
I mean … couldn’t you have chosen an animal that actually has shoulders for your metaphor? (Coincidentally, Shakespeare describes Trinculo’s realisation that Caliban is not a sea creature in similar terms, as "Legg’d like a man! and his fins like arms!" If only he’d realised he was actually a lobster.)
Some of the lobster stuff is weirdly lascivious, especially since no butter is mentioned.
To the alpha males of Peterson’s philosophy, he addresses the following encouragement: "You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention."
It’s all drivel, even if it’s drivel that will buoy up the world view of those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo described by Peterson.
So what are we to make of staff at Peterson’s publisher tearfully calling for his next book to not be published?
There are degrees of freedom of speech. Deciding what those are is the difficult function of societies
There are many more books out there being published that have done, and will do, much more damage to various people’s human rights than Peterson’s "Twelve Shades of Lobster Red" ever will. Starting with the major religious texts, still being used to push death, misogyny and fundamentalist insanity by those who choose to read them in a certain way.
Alas, like Trinculo, I am forced to cosy up to Caliban, and take sides with the alt-lite "freedom of gibberish" crowd. When you start refusing to publish books that don’t agree with your world view — even if you can point to that book being weaponised by lobsters who are trying to crack everyone else’s shells — you’re trying to deny people the right to their own meaning. And that just makes you Peterson-lite.
This is not to say that I don’t think Peterson doesn’t have a damaging effect. The interminable array of academic examples he uses to give credibility to his simple ideas on masculinity, postmodernism, gender politics and the evils of communism (still a useful enemy in conservative discourse) serve to apply a veneer of respectability and rigour to the evil maundering of the right wing.
There are degrees of freedom of speech, and deciding what those are is the difficult function of societies.
It might appear paradoxical, even hypocritical, to argue for Peterson’s right to be heard while advocating for someone like David Icke, conspiracy theorist and believer in secret lizard overlords, to be refused a platform.
The difference is that Icke is actively spreading bald-faced lies that can kill, such as that Covid-19 is a hoax. (Dad-joke alert! Hey, what do you get when you cross a lizard with a lobster? Gareth Cliff!).
And it’s not to say that publishers, and people who work at publishers, don’t have the right to complain about working conditions or the ethics of their company, or to diminish any harm they say they’ve suffered.
But it is to say that if we’re going to refuse to publish self-help books because we disagree with them, we might as well be lobsters. I’d rather put my efforts into countering the bad arguments in the books.
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments?
Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.