November 27, 2020

The bullies of the era do not come shouting foul epithets and derogatory names. They do not come proclaiming their strength. Ever since victimhood triumphed over heroism, the bullies of our world have instead come proclaiming the language of the hurt and upset, of weakness and suffering. It’s become such a tried and tested tactic we barely even notice it anymore.

Where once a person would have assaulted another person, verbally or otherwise, to win in the era of “oppression” the would-be victor must claim that they themselves are the ones who have been assaulted. Where once the loser would have wept, today the would-be winner must weep: very early, very fast and as insincerely as occasion necessitates.

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This was the case with the attack on Suzanne Moore, whose stupendous account of her fall-out with the Guardian is a fine reminder of the laws of modern combat. The people who edged her out of her place of work did not do so firstly by calling her derogatory names; they did so by pretending — falsely — that she had used such names of them. They pretended that she had been “transphobic” against them. They lied about what she had written and they pretended that her words even made them feel endangered. In doing so Moore’s accusers got their victimhood in early.

As Moore narrates, the crunch point came when a trans employee at The Guardian announced her resignation, despite having already left weeks earlier, claiming that Moore had made them feel “unsafe”. It is a clever little trick, because of course there is nothing in any Suzanne Moore column that could make anyone at the paper feel unsafe. Unless the Guardian was a well-known hotspot for gangs of volatile thugs looking to beat up trans people, which seems unlikely. The suggestion is clearly insincere or deluded.

But the trick works, because so few adults want to call bullshit on the bully-words of our time. Not just because the bully-words are the words of the oppressed, but because they come cloaked in this language of impossible-to-disprove suffering. Who are you to say that the other person does not feel “unsafe”?  How can you prove they don’t?

Suzanne Moore’s testament of what it feels like from the inside to deal with these latter-day Torquemadas would be familiar to many working in publishing, too.

On Monday of this week Penguin Random House announced that the bestselling psychologist Jordan Peterson has a new book scheduled for release in March. Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life follows up on the huge success of Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which sold more than 3 million copies after its release in 2018.

Just to put that in some much-needed context: when a book sells that many copies it essentially pays for almost all of the poorly-selling books that might clog up the publisher’s lists. It is the sort of book that a publishing house dreams of, one which pays the salaries of countless people as they shepherd through numerous publications which they hope might find an audience but alas don’t. For under-pressure editors, it is a lifeline.

And yet the reaction within Penguin did not appear to be uniformly positive. Indeed at a meeting organised by Penguin Random House in Canada there was quite a scene. At an “emotional” townhall at the publishers on Monday, several employees confronted the management about their decision to publish another book by Peterson, while dozens of others staff “filed anonymous complaints”.

The complainants within Random House were apparently consistent in their line of attack. One suggested that Peterson is “an icon of hate speech and transphobia” and “an icon of white supremacy”.  One “junior employee”, who claimed to be a member of “the LGBTQ community”, said “I’m not proud to work for a company that publishes him”.

In the current economic climate it might be said that somebody of any community should be pleased — rather than proud — to work for anyone at all. Besides which, there is no right to be “proud” of the company you work for, let alone to agree with every editorial decision it makes. But by making somebody feel “un-proud” Penguin Random House has of course committed a crime against the person; they had made someone a victim.

Some suffered even worse trauma, and according to one employee, “people were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives”.

Of course the compassionate response might be to suggest that anyone who cries at such an occasion should ordinarily be regarded as too mentally fragile to work anywhere, let alone at a place in which such life-affecting ideas are discussed.

But it got worse, because whenever a certain number of people work out the rules of a game, and how far they are permitted to go, then some will stretch them to see how much more they can get away with. So one employee apparently claimed that publishing Peterson could negatively affect the employee’s “non-binary friend”, an especially ingenious line of argument.

The “non-binary” bully-tactic has been tried for some time, where people claim to be something they do not understand and cannot prove exists but insist gives them the right to tell everyone else what to think, say and do. But it might be regarded as something of overreach to claim that you only have to know a magical non-binary person in order for yourself to also be allowed to decide what is and is not publishable.

On and on the complaints went. One employee claimed that since June (that is, since the death of George Floyd) Penguin Random House “has been doing all these anti-racist and allyship things and them publishing Peterson’s book completely goes against this. It just makes all of their previous efforts seem completely performative.” There are many things to say in response to such a claim. One is that of course the publishing house’s previous efforts were performative. Why should a Canadian publishing house take any responsibility for the actions of a Minnesotan policeman?  Of course any and all such acts of “allyship” are completely insincere and meaningless.

Still the question lingers, which is why a book by Peterson should in some way go against what has happened since the death of George Floyd? The defamatory insinuation contains the nastiest little claim, that it is self-evident why a publisher should not publish a book by Jordan Peterson: because it is self-evident that such a book would be racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic and every other one of the other apostasising spell-words of the time.

As much as they may lament the fact, the job of a publisher is to make a profit, to publish books people actually want to buy, and were any of the complainants to be given a serious role in their company then soon they might not even have a job to feel un-proud of.

There is also a huge market at the moment for books that promote a particular progressive message, most of which are aimed at children and some of which make some fairly contentious claims; as far as anyone knows, there has never been any attempt to stop these books from being published, tedious as it is to see bookshop windows covered in them.

Yet that tolerance cuts one-way, and of the 70 or so anonymous messages to the Penguin “diversity and inclusion committee” apparently only a couple were in favour of the decision to publish Peterson’s book. That level of intolerance and dull uniformity is striking, and suggests that these employees clearly fail to understand that feeling “hurt”, “un-proud” or having your friends feel potentially “negatively affected” are none of them reasons to refrain from publishing a book. Even if the book did not pay your salary.

What we see is a new generation of people who do not know how to think, act or behave. In some cases they genuinely haven’t grown out of the stage of development where it is appropriate to cry if you do not get your way. The answer to all this remains the same: which is that the adults must reassert themselves.

Anyone so badly affected by the potential publication of a book with which they are not in total agreement should be invited to resign from their jobs and their positions advertised the next day. The number of smarter young applicants available to replace them would — I would predict — be very large, and they would include a better class of free-thinker than the nasty little doctrinaires who have taken over the Guardian, Penguin, the New York Times and many other organs in recent years.

Both Moore and Peterson have smoked out the bullies, but it is time we saw through the principle intimidation tactic of our time, ripped away the pretence of victimhood and told the people who cry victim that we have little need of them.