It is tempting to file the most recent spat involving Jordan Peterson under “Interminable Identity Politics Controversies”. We could then log-off without reading any further and enjoy the day, happily divorced from the minutiae of the author’s latest debacle.
The TL;DR of the affair is that some of the Canadian staff of Penguin Random House are protesting the company’s decision to publish Peterson’s latest book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, since they are opposed to Peterson’s allegedly dangerous ideas.
Such a stance has garnered support from some sections of the press. Nathan Robinson writes in The Guardian that Peterson’s work need not be published because “nobody has a human right to a lucrative book contract”. This rather dodges the harder question, though. Instead of asking whether people have a human right to be published (obviously, they do not), should we not ask what duties a publishing house has to the public, particularly one as large and influential as Penguin Random House?
The problem with the protest from Penguin Random House’s staff is that, in claiming that Peterson’s often quite run-of-the-mill views are too dangerous to publish and without value, they appoint themselves as today’s philosopher kings. To claim that the ideas of an author as widely read as Peterson (his last book sold five million copies) are without value is to announce humanity’s arrival at the end of history. We should hope that such an announcement is premature. Given the multiple crises confronting humanity, I hope the identity politics of Penguin Random House staff is not the last word on society, culture and economy.
Is the metric for determining whether writing is publishable its conformity with the historically specific politics of the highly-educated elite that dominate the publishing world? Really? Is it not the purpose of any literature, both fiction and non-fiction, to make the reader see the world in a different light? Publishers necessarily tread an impossibly contradictory line when determining what is worthy of publication. By the dominant publishing standards of today, however, the most daring, innovative and consequential writing will often appear to be devoid of merit, and even dangerous, precisely because it demands that we reconsider our conception of what constitutes good writing, or good ideas.
Take the work of gender theorist Judith Butler, beloved by those of the liberal-Left who attack Peterson, and who claim that the grounds of politics is that of identity and acceptance. Butler’s seminal books, Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter, argue that both gender and biological sex are not essential human characteristics, but produced over time by our use of language. These ideas undoubtedly contradicted popular thinking on gender in the 90s when they were published. It’s therefore not unreasonable to suggest that had publishers then been unwilling to publish ideas which contravened their political inclinations, the concepts that the staff of Penguin Random House use to criticise Peterson today may never have come to light.
To be clear, it is not necessarily that writing that changes how we view the world does so because the ideas are so brilliant, their adoption changes our approach to the problems we face. Rather, such writing changes the course of history because of the conversations it starts. To return to Butler, her work has been the subject of significant dispute, both inside and outside of academia. The emergence of such fierce and impassioned debate shows it was right to publish her work; the conversation it provoked has itself produced ways of thinking that would not otherwise have emerged.
When Penguin Random House published Peterson’s first book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, they were therefore absolutely correct in their judgement that the book was worthy of publication. Read by millions, it has sparked significant debate on the nature of social relations. Publishers will often get the assessment of whether a piece of work is publishable wrong, but to demand that such an assessment take into account a book’s conformity with the prevailing ideology is sure to increase the likelihood of revolutionary works going unpublished.
It is hopefully obvious at this point that to say that a book is of publishable quality is different from saying that a book’s ideas should be taken as correct. Publishers do not (yet) have to include disclaimers at the start of every book stating that therein lie the ideas of the author alone, and that these ideas are not endorsed by the publishing house. This is because, contrary to Left-liberal desires, debates do still happen in the public sphere, and such debates allow for a rational evaluation of the worth of particular ideas with respect to others. This finds no clearer example than in the case of Jordan Peterson.
In April 2019, Peterson debated Slovenian “superstar philosopher” Slavoj Žižek on the issue of capitalism and happiness. The debate was a disaster for Peterson. He came across as uncertain and under-read. He was woefully unfamiliar both with Marxist theory and Žižek’s prolific body of work. The decisive blow for Peterson’s panacea of self-help in a world marked by domination came when Žižek pointed out that Peterson’s own engagement in politics is the refutation of his claim that in order to lead good lives individuals must first “put their own house in order”.
The recorded video of the debate has over two million views on YouTube. It is hard to imagine a Jordan Peterson fan watching this debate and discerning much rhetorical or argumentative prowess on Peterson’s part. Surely Penguin Random House staff could not dream of any better refutation of Peterson’s ideology?
For Peterson’s ideas to be refuted is not an isolated incident. A year previously, transgender vlogger Contrapoints (Natalie Wynn), performed an excavation of Peterson’s ideology. Discussing the haphazard nature by which Peterson stitches divergent philosophical concepts and political events together, Contrapoints thoroughly discredited Peterson’s overused characterisation of Left-wing ideology as postmodern Neo-marxism (a term, which Contrapoints proves, is a contradiction in terms). This video has garnered over three million views, illustrating that this genre of content breaches the echo chamber to reach and convert those who have previously found alt-right ideology persuasive.
Perhaps most importantly, 12 Rules for Life was a gateway into the psyches of this era’s discontents. That a self-help book which claims that society is inherently about domination can achieve such popularity speaks not to the radical evil of those who read Peterson, but rather to their severe disaffection with modern society. It is perhaps only because those ideas found some sort of purchase in contemporary discourse that the likes of Žižek or Contrapoints can find such a uniquely effective opportunity to speak to such disenchanted constituencies, demonstrating both the false promise of Peterson’s work and the possibility of an alternative.
Penguin Random House should unapologetically publish Peterson’s next book as planned in March 2021, and they should do so without silly platitudes that try to paint him in a favourable light to his critics, such as by pointing to his support for gay marriage. We should care less that his new book is another opportunity to engage with him, and more that it is a renewed opportunity to engage with his supporters.
I sincerely hope that Peterson continues to teach, continues to publish books and continues to engage the world as a public intellectual. Only then do we have the opportunity to show not simply that he is wrong, but why he is wrong.
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