But the characterization of him as an “icon of hate speech and transphobia” and the universal enemy of polite society is about as real as a Hollywood villain. Peterson has skyrocketed to notoriety in part thanks to the disbelieving rage of commentators claiming he is “dangerous.” Another employee told Vice that Peterson was “responsible for radicalizing and [a] influx of alt-Right groups, especially on college campuses ”. Peterson began his new role as a provocateur with a perfectly reasonable protest – he refused to respond to a request that he “speak his pronouns” at the University of Toronto, where he is a professor.
I interviewed him for Spikes at the time – in 2016 the only people who had heard of him were those of us who kept an eye out for free speech attacks. Far from a threat on campus, Peterson attempted to engage in a public debate (literally in Campus Square) about why he decided to take a stand for free speech. It didn’t inspire an alt-Right rebellion – in fact, it was shouted out by a crowd of enraged students.
For me, the most interesting thing about Peterson is his claim that free speech is an important principle that must be defended even if it gets you fired or slandered. But that’s about all; his latest brand of “pop-psychology meets self-help philosophy” always struck me as lackluster. More importantly, he was often apolitical. Peterson seems to have struck a chord with lazy guys who like to be told to sit up straight and brush their teeth. If that’s the extent of the alt-Right threat, I think we’re fine.
There is nothing revolutionary about his lobster theories either – the idea that, like crustaceans, humans tend towards hierarchies and thrive on serotonin-induced advancements as we progress socially – because that they just look like biological determinism, warmed up for a modern age. When it comes to the trans issue, Peterson is about as inflammatory as the thousands of feminists refusing to use words like “cis” and “womxn” when Twitter activists ask them to. In the 2019 ‘Debate of the Year’ announced between Peterson and Slavoj Žižek, the leftist of the two emerged victorious – not by exposing his opponent’s inherent prejudices, but simply wondering why Peterson was so obsessed with the ‘ personal change ”. More shocking than his refusal to buy into what trans activists want him to say is Peterson’s inability to see narcissism at the heart of his mantra for a good life.
Even though Peterson was the most heinous thinker to walk the earth in 2020, there is still a question of free speech at the heart of this bizarre story of tearful editors. There are a lot of things in Penguin’s wallet that one could get excited about. (A recommendation from ‘books for understanding Brexit’ included Ian McEwen’s fictional rant, The Cockroach, which would cringe even the lightest Brexiteer.)
The question is, if you work in a publishing house, why would you expect to be politically okay with every job? The post is already a closed shop – an author’s success hinges on their ability to appeal to right-wing social media commentators as much as their ability to sell in Waterstones. We must celebrate the idea that a wide range of books are available to the public. Reading books that you don’t agree with is the only way to check whether your own ideas stand up to scrutiny. Since when has openness to new ideas made you a fanatic?
We could chuckle at the sloppy behavior of the Canadian Penguin employees. But it’s important to understand that they haven’t learned their tendencies to censor the wind. From platformless speakers in universities, a practice that has existed since the 1980s, to banning delusional books in the name of public decency, freedom of speech has always been restricted by ‘ifs’ and’ ifs’ and ‘s. But”. At the time of the obscenity trial in 1922, the Sunday Express described James Joyce’s Ulysses as full of “impure follies … filled with appalling and revolting blasphemies.” The article claimed that such a publication was dangerous for the public, because “the greater the artist, the greater his moral responsibility”.
No one has yet succeeded in producing a book to match the genius of Joyce’s opus, but it might be a little easier to produce a counter-argument to people like Peterson. Instead of crying over ideas we don’t like, we should always have the courage to come up with better ideas.