On November 25 I reported on a fracas at the publisher Penguin Random House Canada, where employees were outraged at the company’s decision to publish a sequel to Jordan Peterson’s 2018 best-seller, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, the sequel being Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. As I said, “It looks pretty much like what it purports to be: more self-help, more rules. It will be published in March of next year.”
The objection to the new book isn’t based on its contents but on Peterson’s published or spoken opinions on other subjects. From my previous post:
Four Penguin Random House Canada employees, who did not want to be named due to concerns over their employment, said the company held a town hall about the book Monday, during which executives defended the decision to publish Peterson while employees cited their concerns about platforming someone who is popular in far-right circles.
“He is an icon of hate speech and transphobia and the fact that he’s an icon of white supremacy, regardless of the content of his book, I’m not proud to work for a company that publishes him,” a junior employee who is a member of the LGBTQ community and who attended the town hall told VICE World News.
On Wednesday a writer in the Guardian came out justifying the employees’ beefs, and similar sentiments were echoed by bloggers like P. Z. Myers. Unfortunately, the article, like the critiques of Myers and the employees themselves, fails to distinguish between Peterson’s (supposed) bigotry expressed outside of the book, and what’s in the book itself.
The column is written by Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs and a Guardian writer (click on screenshot to see it):
First, we get an indictment of Peterson’s views. As I have stayed away from his writings and talks, for I think he’s weird and I haven’t been able to muster up interest in reading him, readers who know more about Peterson can judge these claims:
It’s not reasonable to claim that employees who object to publishing Peterson are “censorious”. A publisher is not a Kinkos. Penguin Random House rejects far more books than it accepts, and it does not treat all points of view equally. It does not publish works of Holocaust denial or phrenology. It has standards, and it’s reasonable for employees to argue that Peterson does not meet those standards. After all, he has suggested that gay marriage might be a plot by cultural Marxists, that women wearing makeup in the workplace is “sexually provocative”, that trans women aren’t women because they’re not “capable of having babies”, that women cannot handle truth, and that transgender activists are comparable to mass-murdering Maoists. He peddles debunked scientific theories and dangerously dodgy diets. I have gone through his work myself and shown that he is a crackpot, whose writing is devoid of basic reasoning and full of wild unsubstantiated claims. When Pankaj Mishra wrote a critical review of Peterson’s work in the New York Review of Books, Peterson called Mishra a “prick” and said he’d “slap [Mishra] happily”. The things he says are often false, prejudiced and dangerous. What possible obligation does a publisher have to publish the ravings of bigots?
I looked up only one of these accusations, the claim that Peterson thinks that “trans women aren’t women.” It goes to a YouTube video, and his views given there are distorted by Robinson, for Peterson’s careful to distinguish between biological women on the one hand and biological men who assume a woman’s gender identity (he avers that the latter must be treated with respect). But I can’t be arsed to investigate all of the other claims, as to me they’re irrelevant to his new book of advice.
A publisher has no obligation to publish anyone, but none of these opinions have anything to do, I suspect, with Peterson’s new book—likely, and like its antecedent, a combination of the anodyne and the clever. Repeatedly throughout Robinson’s article, he conflates Peterson’s views listed above (if they’re fairly represented, which I doubt) with what’s actually in his new book. The implication is that if a Bad Person publishes a Potentially Good Book, that book should be rejected. Here’s what Robinson says:
Believing that a prestigious publisher should not give such a person a contract is not the same as believing that they should be punished for speaking, or that they should not have access to the internet, a printer, or the marketplace. It’s important to make this distinction clear, because many conservative claims about being “censored” actually just amount to demands that their opinions be elevated far beyond their worth – that evidence-free, bigoted speech be given any prestigious platform it demands, with criticism seen as proof that the critics are intolerant.
As I said, I highly doubt that the upcoming book “elevated Peterson’s [other] opinions far beyond their worth”. Robinson’s argument, similar to that of other Pecksniffian censors, is that a book that doesn’t contain the author’s noxious opinions somehow, by virtue of being published, gives the publisher’s imprimatur—and additional status—to the bad stuff expressed elsewhere. Robinson goes on:
There is no problem, then, with staff arguing that Peterson’s work is not worth the company’s imprimatur. The real problem is that this doesn’t happen enough, that publishers are amoral and bring out books on the basis of whether they will sell rather than whether they have social value. The staff revolt against Peterson is a very rare instance of a publishing company being criticized on moral grounds for its choices.
Granted, publishing is a company, and profit is one aim. And one has to admit that Peterson’s new book, like the last, is liable to make the company a substantial amount of money. But quality counts as well, for many publishers, like Penguin Random House (my own publisher) take pride in pushing good products. You would not, I suspect, find Penguin Random House publishing a Peterson book about how to use personal pronouns. Did the company lose any cachet by publishing Peterson’s first book? Not to sensible folks, and already in 2018 he was been typed by many as a Nonperson. But wait! There’s more!
If book contracts are canceled, rightwingers will claim that they are being silenced for expressing “disagreement”, when the truth is that private parties are simply declining to financially reward noxious views.
No, the contract for Peterson’s book is not a financial reward for his noxious views; it is a financial advance for a self-help book that the publishers think is okay, that its ideas tempt an editor to engage with them, and, sometimes (not always) might sell well.
According to Robinson, canceling this book by refusing to publish it shouldn’t represent just a decision based on views in the book, but a punishment for views he expressed elsewhere. This is what Cancel Culture excels at: ruining every aspect of someone’s life if they don’t like that person’s views—even if the views have nothing to do with the object being censored. In fact, Robinson analogizes Peterson’s book with Henry Kissinger’s books, for Robinson (like Hitchens) sees Kissinger as a war criminal. I haven’t yet read Hitchens’s book, but I suspect that Kissinger truly was guilty of deeply immoral actions during his tenure as Secretary of State. But does that make his memoirs not worth reading? I don’t think so: one can gain some insight into the inside baseball of statesmanship (and into Kissinger’s own actions), and one important person’s view of history. It would be a loss to history, regardless of any of Kissinger’s distortions or self-aggrandizement, if his view of history were not to be published. He was a major player in his time.
The final conflation: Robinson brings up his own journal, Current Affairs:
If Jordan Peterson or Henry Kissinger submitted an essay, it would be rejected. And yes, it would be because we “disagreed” with the opinion – we don’t publish arguments we find morally debased and poorly reasoned, by people whose views we do not wish to promote as sensible and worth listening to. I’ll fight for the free speech rights of both men, but nobody has a human right to a lucrative book contract without regard for whether their opinions are sound or valuable.
Note that Robinson says he would reject the essay because he disagreed with the opinion, but then adds, as an afterthought, that another consideration should be that the publisher, by virtue of publishing a book, implicitly promotes all the author’s other views. But they wouldn’t be doing that: an essay is an essay, and the opinions in the essay can be judged on their own merit.
Publishing a book by people whose views you don’t like, but views that aren’t in the book, is no different from putting out a movie starring an actor who also has odious views. There are plenty of those! And there are plenty of books written by people whose views you may abhor. Christian fundamentalists or even middle-of-the-road religionists may find my book on evolution, or the one on the incompatibility of science and religion, offensive and disagreeable. Should Penguin Random House then not publish any of my books? I also criticize the Woke and the far Left on this site. Does that render me offensive and not worthy of being published?
It would—to some editors. But has Robinson considered that there may be some editors out there who like some of Peterson’s opinions that offend other people? Are his views on not wanting to be coerced to use preferred pronouns (though he uses them voluntarily), or on trans women being biological men with a woman’s gender identity, objectively immoral? Publishers may have standards, but they don’t all have values or missions that conform to Robinson’s. That’s the way publishing works. And his essay shows the modus operandus of Cancel Culture: if someone’s ideological views don’t align perfectly with your own, try to destroy those people in every way possible. For the Woke, it is the person—and not just their ideas—who must be taken down and “erased”.