He became an icon to some and an effigy to others for suggesting that dominance hierarchies are as old as evolution. This is where the lobsters come in. Peterson uses their territorial and mating habits as an archetype of the behaviours that play out across different species, including humanity. He urges readers not to behave like a defeated lobster, but to change their habits – to literally stand up straight – to create a positive feedback loop that will improve their brain chemistry and set them on the path of success.
Among the most surprisingly controversial of Peterson’s recommendations is the idea that you should “clean up your own room”. It seems he hit a raw nerve with activists when he added: “I don’t know how you can protest the entire economic structure of the world if you can’t keep your room organised.”
It is interesting to contrast the reaction to Peterson with the reaction to another book Penguin released the same year as 12 Rules. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility has triggered no anguish within staff ranks. It is also a type of self-help book, which encourages white people to see everything through a prism of race in order to become actively anti-racist. DiAngelo’s central point, that we are often blind to the structures we are socialised into, is sound. She argues that, as a consequence of this socialisation, white people can’t help being racist. It seems she knows a lot of people who recite anti-racist mantras but have never engaged with the intrinsic and extrinsic barriers to change. She therefore takes this hypocrisy to be typical of all white people and charges companies up to $US30,000 a session to lecture their employees on it.
That is not to say she is insincere. DiAngelo’s personal anecdotes repeatedly describe situations in which she has behaved badly toward black people in her life, or had racist thoughts. She seeks atonement for her own racism in foisting a very Catholic concept of the indelible stain of whiteness on those who are Caucasian by birth or have been conferred honorary whiteness by virtue of their success as a race. Mind you, the idea she perpetuates of whiteness as equated with success is a pernicious piece of racism in itself. For what it’s worth, DiAngelo is Jewish.
So the great irony of these two self-help books is that their authors seem to need them most. But neither seem particularly helped by the insights in their defining tomes. Granted, Robin DiAngelo has faired better, taking in tens of thousands consulting fees off the back of her bestseller, while Peterson spiralled into anxiety and dependence following the release of his.
Nonetheless, they have made a big impact in the Western world. Contrasting the theses of the books offers us a window into the new political alignments taking form. If Peterson’s core thesis is “we must fix ourselves”, DiAngelo’s thesis is “we must fix other people”.
This perhaps explains why the authors have been labelled conservative and progressive respectively, or at least why people identifying with these classifications gravitate towards the author with whom they perceive themselves as aligning. Penguin junior staff are drawn to the notion of fixing a radicalised father or protecting a non-binary friend from being “negatively affected”.
Mervyn Griffith-Jones, the barrister who led the prosecution of Penguin over the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, would have approved. As he announced in his opening statement, the novel was not something “you would even wish your wife or servants to read”.
This notion that we must guard the supposedly feeble-minded and less educated under our protection from ideas that might lead them into dissent from our own worldview sits comfortably with the demands of the Penguin activists. The circle of history is almost complete; both the publisher and the lobster might be surprised at the side of history they’ve ended up occupying.
Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director, strategy and policy, at strategic communications firm Agenda C.
Parnell Palme McGuinness is managing director of Agenda C.