In 2018, Penguin Random House Canada (PRHC) published Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s self-help book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which has thus far sold more than 5 million copies worldwide. Last Monday, the company announced that they would be publishing a sequel entitled Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.
The preorders for Beyond Order have already propelled it onto Amazon’s top 10 bestselling titles list, but not everyone is excited for the book’s scheduled March release.
Vice reporter Manisha Krishnan reported this past week that a good number of employees at PRHC called out the company’s management team during a town hall meeting, while dozens more filed anonymous complaints about the decision to publish Peterson’s book. One employee characterized Peterson as an “icon of white supremacy,” while another claimed that “people were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives.”
“The company since June has been doing all these anti-racist and allyship things and them publishing Peterson’s book completely goes against this,” said another employee. “It just makes all of their previous efforts seem completely performative.”
As far as right-wing thinkers go, though, Peterson is relatively tame. He’s a traditionalist who promotes a worldview that strikes many people, including yours truly, as a tad bit anachronistic, and his tendency to see a Marxist boogeyman behind even the most anodyne progressive talking points can induce prolonged bouts of heavy sighing. He also sometimes struggles to string together coherent arguments accessible to those who aren’t well-versed in the magniloquent language of the academic world.
But a lot of the criticism directed at Peterson has been inspired as much by out-of-context video clips and uncharitable interpretations of his work as it has by accurate, good-faith reporting on his sincerely held beliefs. The aforementioned allegation that he’s an “icon of white supremacy” is, for instance, utterly nonsensical, as anyone who has listened to Peterson’s lectures on Hitler and the Nazis can tell you.
Truthfully, Jordan Peterson is not the knuckle-dragging, far-right extremist that some of his critics would like you to believe he is, which is one of the reasons why Krishnan’s story about PRHC employees shedding tears over the announcement of his new book invited so much attention and mockery. If someone like Jordan Peterson is considered too offensive and dangerous to warrant a platform, is there room for any conservative voices in publishing at all?
If the outrage over PRHC’s decision had come from consumers, activists, or some other politically motivated contingent of progressive-minded critics, this story wouldn’t be nearly as troubling as it is. There’s nothing remotely unusual about ideological factions trying to stigmatize the ideas of their political opponents. Progressives do it. Conservatives do it. Even moderates and centrists have been known to get in on the action. Peterson’s critics have been doing it to him, too—or at least trying to, though his massive popularity would seem to indicate that they haven’t had much success.
But there are some people on the extreme left who, rather than simply trying to stigmatize the ideas they don’t like, have endeavored to obstruct the general public’s access to those ideas. They refuse to trust individual consumers with the freedom to decide which speech to consume and which speech to ignore, and would instead prefer to establish a censorious culture that makes it nearly impossible for right-wing figures like Peterson to get their beliefs out into the public sphere to be discussed, debated, and analyzed.
We’ve already seen that culture start to take root in academia, both in Canada and the United States. The ramifications of its expansion into the publishing industry would, of course, be disastrous, especially for those of us who regard the openness of that industry to be its most redeeming quality. That’s why we can’t just dismiss the drama that unfolded at PRHC as a trivial, isolated event.
The top honchos at PRHC can’t bend on this. They need to not only stand by their decision to publish Peterson, but to do so unapologetically and without even the slightest hint of regret. If they fold, it will bring the industry one step closer to becoming a political echo chamber. That’s not the outcome any of us should be rooting for.
Some of Peterson’s supporters have gone a step further by suggesting that the PRHC employees who object to the publication of his book should be fired. I couldn’t possibly disagree more with that suggestion. The publishing industry is an industry that prides itself on creating space for a diverse range of thinkers to express their thoughts, feelings, and opinions. It is in the spirit of that tradition that PRHC gave members of its staff an opportunity to voice their discontent without having to fear any professional repercussions. It is no more appropriate to demand that those employees be “canceled” for taking advantage of that opportunity than it is to demand that PRHC cancel the upcoming release of 12 More Rules for Life because of the perceived offensiveness of Peterson’s beliefs.
If you believe, as I do, in the singular importance of the publishing industry’s role as a conduit for the free exchange of ideas, you should applaud Penguin Random House Canada, not just for its decision to move forward with the publication of Jordan Peterson’s book, but also for respecting its staff members’ right to criticize that decision. PRHC employees have had their say, and Jordan Peterson will have his when his book arrives in stores next year. It will then be up to consumers to choose which of those two camps they support, and that is exactly how it should be.