“Where books are burned, in the end people will burn”.
19th Century German author and literary critic, Heinrich Heine, spoke these words, and they were more than just a well sounding maxim. Totalitarian regimes thrive wherever ideas contrary to their own are suppressed. They thrive when books are burned.
Harvard literary professor Duncan White echoed these sentiments, penning a piece for the New York Times called The Authoritarian’s Worst Fear? A Book. He referenced authoritarian regimes around the world - those of China, Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines, North Korea - and their attempts to curb the internet and censor books. White critiqued the United States’ diminishing role in standing up against the erasure of intellectual freedom abroad.
He wrote that “wherever authoritarian regimes are growing in strength, literature that expresses any kind of political opposition is under a unique, renewed threat”.
However, he need not look to distant shores for examples of this. North America is facing its own form of authoritarianism and attacks on freedom of expression.
The recorded censorship of books goes back to 221BC when Quin Shi Huandi, the first Chinese emperor, ordered an entire library be burned to the ground to solidify his grip on China. Since then, various forms of book burning and censorship have been used to effectively control the minds of the populace and eliminate dissenting ideas from taking hold.
The Catholic Church decreed in 1543 that no book could be printed or sold without its permission. This was echoed by the many rulers of Europe thereafter, such as Louis XIV of France (1661-1715).
Unsurprisingly, the Hitler Youth engaged in the practice of book burning during the 1930s. Any book written by a Jewish author, a communist or a humanist was fed to the flames. "From these ashes will rise the phoenix of the new spirit", said Joseph Goebbels - the Nazi party’s Minister for Propaganda - as 20,000 volumes of so-called offensive books went up in flames in 1933.
German occupiers methodically controlled not just books, but theater, opera and radio in occupied territories during World War II. In France alone, 2,242 tons of literature were shredded and burned.
In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah El Sissi imprisoned independent writers, raided bookstores and forced libraries to close. Islamic State terrorists burned more than 100,000 rare books and manuscripts housed in the Mosul Public Library. Lebanon banned Schindler’s List for its positive depiction of Jews.
And in the past decade, China has banned nearly all bookstores, books, authors and academics who don’t toe the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) party line. Employees of Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay Bookstore were detained on mainland China for trafficking what the CCP declared to be illegal books because they criticized leading members of the CCP.
Censorship, book burning and authoritarianism is not something unique to China, the Middle East or developing economies. It reared its ugly head in New York City recently, where Spotify staffers took exception to Joe Rogan Experience episodes - because they felt that some of the content was transphobic - calling (unsuccessfully) for the show to be censored.
And just this week, Vice reported that several staff at book publisher Penguin Random House Canada (PRHC) protested against the publication of psychologist and author Jordan Peterson’s sequel to his remarkably successful book, 12 Rules For Life, creatively titled 12 More Rules For Life - well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?
According to Vice, PRHC held a town hall meeting where “people were crying about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives”. PRHC’s diversity and inclusion committee reportedly received more than 70 anonymous messages about Peterson’s book from staff. Only “a couple” of people writing in were in favour of the decision to publish. The original 12 Rules was banned by New Zealand booksellers because of a dubious link between his book and the tragic events that transpired at a Christchurch mosque in March of 2019. The ban was short-lived.
Peterson is a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and his work has been cited over 12,000 times, more than 5,000 of which came before his emergence as a major public figure around 2016/17.
According to one PRHC staffer, Jordan Peterson 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.”
Just how they came to this matter-of-fact conclusion is unclear, but unsurprising in a world where a slight deviation away from the prevailing social narrative renders one a far-right Nazi, even if you happen to be Black like Candace Owens, gay like Peter Thiel, or Jewish like Ben Shapiro. So long as you don’t subscribe word-for-word to the prevailing ideas, make no bones about it... you are an alt-right, sexist, racist Nazi bigot.
In an interview with The Times, Peterson challenged his critics to find "a single phrase that marks me as a prejudiced person regarding sex, race, ethnicity or, indeed, any of the multiplicity of identities that have become so quickly and strangely dominant in our culture so recently”.
The far-left’s distrust of Peterson stems from his 2016 refusal to use transgender pronouns such as ze and zir. "I've studied authoritarianism for a very long time - for 40 years - and they're started by people's attempts to control the ideological and linguistic territory" he told the BBC.
Peterson has gone on record on Joe Rogan’s podcast as saying that, if asked by a trans individual to address them with these pronouns, he would. However, he said that he was against the legal ratification of speech under Bill C-16, which went before Canada’s parliament, and covered hate speech provisions.
"There's no way I'm going to use words made up by people who are doing that - not a chance", he said.
Peterson told the Toronto Sun that “These laws are the first laws that I’ve seen that require people under the threat of legal punishment to employ certain words, to speak a certain way, instead of merely limiting what they’re allowed to say. If they fine me, I won’t pay it. If they put me in jail, I’ll go on a hunger strike. I’m not doing this. And that’s that. I’m not using the words that other people require me to use. Especially if they’re made up by radical left-wing ideologues.”
The Torontoist enlisted Brenda Cossman, professor of law at the University of Toronto, to ‘fact-check’ Peterson’s conclusions. “I don’t know if he’s misunderstanding it, but he’s mischaracterizing it", she said.
Cossman says that while Peterson is arguing that the misuse of pronouns could constitute hate speech, “I don’t think there’s any legal expert that would say that [this] would meet the threshold for hate speech in Canada”.
It’s true that the Canadian Human Rights Act does not explicitly mention pronouns, so perhaps Peterson’s words were unwarranted. However, also unwarranted, was and is the response of the far-left to his personal, albeit public, position on the matter - “off with his head!” essentially. All because they don’t like how (a very tiny percentage of) his words make them feel, or because he holds (some) opinions that don’t align with their own ideology.
Heterodox Academy, a non-profit advocacy group of academics working to counteract what they see as a lack of viewpoint diversity on college campuses, especially political diversity, set out to answer this question using more objective and data-driven approaches to dissect sensational claims more specifically.
Peterson has directly addressed alt-right communities, saying that his interest lies in “rescuing young men” lost to white supremacist and mysogynist ideologies. However, Heterodox did indeed find that Peterson’s material appears to be digestible by the alt-right, and is distributed by people sympathetic to those ideas on the web.
Friedrich Nietschze, one of the most important philosophers and intellectuals of all time, was also criticized for influencing Nazi ideology, despite being hostile towards anti-semitism and nationalism. In addition, Nazis only made selective use of his philosophies - a little like the far-left picking up on one of the thousands of things Peterson has said to use against him.
If your work is embraced by members of hypothetical ‘Group X’, that doesn’t make you a member of Group X by default, or mean that you subscribe to the ideas of Group X. It’s a little like what many said about Donald Trump during his four-year reign - while it might be true that all white supremacists voted for Trump, it is not true that all Trump voters are white supremacists. This is a critical distinction, and a simple one that seems all but lost on those calling for Peterson’s head.
Ideas are an abstract thing. They can be interpreted in different ways. They can be cherry picked. You can find in them what you are looking for. This is why some can read the koran and find Islam to be a religion of peace, while others might find it a religion of war. The same can be said of other monotheistic texts.
Critically though, the Heterodox researchers concluded that “these analyses do not support the notion that Peterson himself is an extremist or Nazi-sympathizer, and none of us believe that such accusations are credible. We also think that it is highly unlikely that Peterson himself knows about these trends. Indeed, we were ourselves surprised by the findings”.
They went on to say that their findings should not be taken as an attack on Peterson’s character or motives. They instead encouraged Peterson to consider ways he may be able to make the same points, just as forcefully, while avoiding a particular set of tropes, such as the use of derogatory terms like ‘social justice warrior’.
Heterodox acknowledge that Peterson explicitly aspires towards a higher level of discourse and rationality than perceived among many of his interlocutors.
And it is said interlocutors who are perpetuating a concerning trend towards ‘with us or against us’ activism, and black or white thinking that fails to take into account complexity and nuance.
Peterson’s success isn’t because 12 Rules For Life was full of hate speech (it wasn’t) and appealed to disenfranchised youth looking to identify with nefarious causes like white supremacy. It was because the book ultimately provided young men (and women) of all colors and creeds with simple rules that would help them to both literally and proverbially clean up their rooms and stand up straight with their shoulders back. Ultimately, the book inspired them to take ownership over their lives. It provided many with a framework to best navigate this thing called life, a framework that many had lacked. This is testament to K-12 schools everywhere optimizing only for short-term standardized test results in lieu of long-term life skills.
In an increasingly sectarian world, Peterson provides many with an iconoclast to look up to, a sense of hope, and a positive feedback loop. Peterson’s teachings represented a higher ideal to aspire to. His world tour of 2018/19 took in over 200 cities at up-to 5,000 seat arenas. It is hardly surprising then, that they sold out the world over.
He is the first academic that I have seen crossover from Poindexter book-nerds like myself into the mainstream. I have life-long friends in their mid-30s - plumbers, electricians and carpenters - who read his book after hearing him on the Joe Rogan Experience, and went to see him speak in Melbourne (where Peterson delivered not one, but two sold-out shows at the 5,000 seat Convention Centre).
When I learned that they had been taken by Peterson's ideas, I was a little perplexed and so I asked one of them 'why Peterson?'. "I like the way he speaks" was the answer. What I took that to mean was "I like the way he speaks to me". Peterson offers people a way to better understand the world around them, and therefore, to better navigate it, and better reconcile the suffering they no doubt have endured, are enduring, and will continue to endure throughout their lives - the suffering that is a tax we pay for living our lives.
These guys hadn’t picked up a book since they were forced to at high school, almost twenty years prior, yet they became enamored by Peterson and his ideas and his style of communication. They found a sense of refuge in his ideas, salvation even, that they couldn’t find in the short-term band-aid fix that comes with alcohol, sex and the accumulation of material goods. His teachings helped them derive more meaning from life. And without meaning, or purpose, waking up in the morning becomes an accomplishment.
Thousands of people have spoken about how Peterson’s meanderings - personal responsibility and traditional values - helped them pick up the shattered pieces of their lives. Anybody who has actually read his stuff knows this.
But as is often the case today, people form opinions based on what they hear others say about someone, or otherwise outsourcing their opinion to the position of the group they consider themselves a member of. In fact, 59% of links on social media are shared without clicking on them. People simply read the headlines and think, "this is an opportunity to signal my allegiance to position X", and share.
The Jordan Peterson subreddit is full of people posting the myriad ways they have attempted to make their lives better since discovering Peterson’s teachings. Some of them are as simple as photos of beds made, and desks cleaned. But as the old adage, often attributed to Zen Buddhism, goes, how you do anything is how you do everything. Tiny course changes can have a significant impact on where you end up over a long enough period of time - one percent improvement every day results in a 37X improvement over an entire year.
And it’s here that Peterson’s values - which mesh libertarianism, traditionalism, individualism, personal responsibility and cleaning up your room - come head to head with the collectivist and Marx-inspired social attitudes of the far-left.
This brings us full circle to Quin Shi Huandi 2,200 years ago - if an idea clashes with your own, if it prevents you from consolidating power - burn it.
While the desires of leftists to rid the world of misogyny, racism, transphobia and so on can only be commended, it is hard not to condemn the totalitarian way they’re going about it.
As Nietzsche said, when you fight with monsters, be careful not to become a monster yourself. What PRHC staffers are effectively attempting to do, is not all that far removed from Hitler Youth burning thousands of books that didn’t align with Nazi ideology. And they’re doing so based on nothing other than unjustified and sensationalist claims about Peterson’s character, and in complete ignorance of the positive and empowering messages that underpin his teachings and inspired the sale of 3 million copies of his book. The irony of course is lost on them.
It is only with the free expression of ideas, a free marketplace of ideas where the best ideas rise to the top (a little like economic liberalism in the 20th Century), that we can move forward and progress, lest we want to live under authoritarian regimes where a small percentage of the population decide what is best for all of us (like socialism in the 20th Century).
And what of that small percentage of the population? Who are they? In Penguin Random House Canada’s case they are first and foremost employees who have been indoctrinated into the woke politics of the Twitterverse and beyond. Politics aside, a quick LinkedIn search shows that the typical employee at a publishing house tends to be a ‘lifer’, someone who starts working at a publishing house straight out of college and continues working in publishing houses through to retirement. There’s nothing wrong with this as a career choice - we all have our predispositions towards either stability or novelty. However, it speaks to limited life experience and curiosity. It speaks to limited tolerance for ambiguity, which intersects with the intolerance of ideas.
Are these the kind of folks we want mandating what goes into the minds of the masses?
British author and political commentator, Douglas Murray, thinks not. He tweeted, "Any such 'tearful' staff should be fired immediately and their jobs advertised the next day. If you don't understand free speech you've no right pretending to work in a publishing house. Penguin Random House Canada should Reagan airport worker the lot of them."
Do we really want to go back to a time when the likes of Mark Twain's literary masterpiece, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was banned by the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts in 1885 because librarians there had deemed it “trash” and “suitable only for the slums”?
Fortunately, on this occasion at least, PRHC management have elected to press on and publish the book.
"We are open to hearing our employees’ feedback and answering all of their questions. We remain committed to publishing a range of voices and viewpoints."
Peterson’s last book, at a typical ‘85% net’ deal would have generated approximately US$60 million for Penguin. In a world of few hits and many misses, Penguin can ill afford to drop Jordan Peterson, just like his hordes of followers can ill afford to have him censored. In a world of noise, distraction and angst, having something to believe in is critical.
And so, if the far-left genuinely want less radicalization of white men, they could do a lot worse than to distribute copies of Peterson’s next book. After all, what disgruntled people on both extremes of the political divide really want is meaning and love.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.