In his bestselling book, Jordan Peterson offered the world his antidote to chaos: a collection of 12 rules for life.
They are: 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back; 2: Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping; 3: Make friends with people who want the best for you; 4: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday not to who someone else is today; 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them; 6: Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world; 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient); 8: Tell the truth — or at least, don’t lie; 9: Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t; 10: Be precise in your speech; 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding; 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
These 12 rules are thoughtful and wise. If followed, they will lead to more self-esteem, healthier habits, and stronger relationships. They also call for tolerance, patience, and belief in the notion that we all have something to learn from others — even those with whom we disagree.
There’s no 13th rule in which Peterson suggests that to live a meaningful life one should pick up a deadly weapon, walk into a mosque, and murder innocent Muslims in the middle of prayer. But for Whitcoulls, a New Zealand book store, there may as well have been.
The retailer decided to pull Peterson’s bestselling book from the shelf “in light of some extremely disturbing material being circulated prior, during and after the Christchurch attacks,” per one customer service representative. It’s entirely unclear to what they are referring. It’s also irrelevant.
If there’s a critique to be made of Peterson’s book, it’s that it can sometimes come off as shmaltzy, or in the case of his patients and their successful trajectories, a tad superficial. There are moments that feel repetitive and drawn out, as if Peterson wrote a chapter where a paragraph might have sufficed.
But it is first and foremost a stunningly logical, well-reasoned self-help book about two things: how to look inward and be better as an individual, and how to look outward and be better as a member of society. Both of these are values we should all be focused on. Neither are values that encouraged the Christchurch shooter to commit his unspeakably evil acts. The book is worth reading, and his rules are worth following.
That Peterson’s book contains nothing quite so objectionable is ancillary to the point. His words happen to be mild, inspirational, and inoffensive. But even if they had been extreme and problematic, Whitcoulls’ response would have been ill-advised.
They are, of course, within their rights to sell whatever books they choose for whatever reasons they choose. That is their prerogative and in conversations about free speech and suppression, we should be precise in making this point. But as a consumer, I would definitely take my business elsewhere if my book retailer starting banning content that its leadership found objectionable.
The greatest defenders of speech should be writers, readers, publishers, and yes, sellers of books. But these days, censorship scores you points, and standing up for what were once considered universal and liberal principles earns you scorn and condemnation.
There are only so many groups of people that could possibly be interested in fighting this fight and turning the tide on what has become a nasty and far too frequent occurrence. Unfortunately, the people who should be on the front lines of this battle are often fighting for the other side.
We live in a time in which the definition of words like “offensive” or “troubling” seems to be growing by the minute. Each time we allow the mob to redefine what it means to offend, we grant them the tools to further expand the list of things we are no longer allowed to say.
The Christchurch shooter murdered 50 worshippers and injured many more. We cannot bring those people back. But it is a disturbingly ill-fitting tribute to lives stolen by intolerance for Whitcoulls to turn around and promulgate its own intolerance.