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Lobsters Don’t Have Shoulders
They don't have shoulders, Jordan Peterson, you dipshit.
I wrote this in 2018, but Peterson is unfortunately still punditing, so it remains relevant. It’s from my book Chattering Class War, which you can purchase here if you’re so inclined.
“Look for your inspiration to the victorious lobster, with its 350 million years of practical wisdom,” professor and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson gushes manfully in his best-selling advice book 12 Rules for Life. “Stand up straight, with your shoulders back.”
If that sounds ridiculous, it is only because it is ridiculous. To state only the most obvious problems, lobsters don’t have shoulders. They are creeping arthropods with segmented limbs; they do not look like people, and none of their joints can be reasonably described as shoulders. Lobsters also do not stand up straight; they crawl across the sea bottom. Peterson refers to dominant lobsters as having an “upright and confident posture,” but lobsters don’t have skeletons, much less postures.
“Stand up straight like a lobster” isn’t even coherent enough to be bad advice, much less good advice. It’s simply nonsense gibberish—and that’s before you get to the assertion that contemporary lobsters have been around for 350 million years, which is about as accurate as saying that humans have been around for 100 million years because that’s when placental mammals first enter the fossil record.
So what does Peterson think he’s talking about? Ostensibly, his claim is that lobsters live in hierarchical societies. Low-status lobsters supposedly have different brain chemistry from high-status lobsters, and that different brain chemistry affects their posture. From this, Peterson concludes that human hierarchy is natural, and that if you model your posture on that of a high status lobster, you will change your brain chemistry and be more successful.
Shorn of the logical fallacy of scrambling cause and effect (hypothetical shouldered lobsters stand up straight because they are successful, they aren’t successful because they stand up straight) the reasoning is the equivalent of arguing that sloth bears eat their children if the children are unhealthy, so human mothers should eat any premature children. The difference of course being that sloth bears are a lot more closely related to us than lobsters. They even have shoulders.
Peterson thinks he’s deftly weaving scientific fact and sweeping moral lessons; he fancies himself a more swaggering, virtuoso Malcolm Gladwell or at least a Jonathan Haidt. But he doesn’t even minimally know what he’s talking about when it comes to lobsters—or, for that matter when it comes to postmodern philosophy, or when it comes to virtually anything he talks about in his book. Debunking him is an exercise in frustration not because he makes especially good arguments, but because he’s not so much making arguments as spewing bullshit, and who wants to roll around in bullshit? How can you debate evolutionary theory with someone who thinks lobsters stand up straight? How can you talk about Derrida with someone who thinks the philosopher is a gender theorist, and clearly hasn’t read a decent summary of his work, much less the work itself? 12 Rules For Life isn’t a rigorous ethos. It’s an elaborate performance of incompetence. Peterson is a man who thinks that he can impress you by writhing around on his belly, snapping his hands like claws, crawling into a pot and boiling himself. It would be funny if it weren’t embarrassing.
So yes, like the lobster, Peterson doesn’t have a brain as we understand it. He does, though, have a persona. He is, in his own mind, the chief lobster; the high status male with shoulders back, bravely intimidating all those weaker, lesser beings who don’t understand invertebrate posture. You could even see his transparently preposterous arguments as a kind of dare—a swaggering, Trumpish assertion of authority and power via a vaunting refusal to do any of the reading. Power is its own logic, which means that the really powerful can dispense with logic altogether.
In fact, much of the meat of Peterson’s book isn’t argument or philosophy, but anecdote. Peterson tells you a lot about himself in 12 Rules for Life—or, more accurately, he tells you one thing about himself, over and over. That one thing is perhaps best summed up by an already infamous passage from the chapter focused on Peterson’s fifth rule: “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.”
If this rule were put into effect, it would mean strangling all infants who wake their parents up in the middle of the night, which would be all infants. And, based on Peterson’s accounts of his interactions with children, that would be okay with him.
I remember taking my daughter to the playground once when she was about two. She was playing on the monkey bars, hanging in mid-air. A particularly provocative little monster of about the same age was standing above her on the same bar she was gripping. I watched him move towards her. Our eyes locked. He slowly and deliberately stepped on her hands, with increasing force, over and over, as he stared me down. He knew exactly what he was doing. Up yours, Daddy-O—that was his philosophy. He had already concluded that adults were contemptible, and that he could safely defy them. (Too bad, then, that he was destined to become one.) That was the hopeless future his parents had saddled him with. To his great and salutary shock, I picked him bodily off the playground structure, and threw him thirty feet down the field.
No. I didn’t. I just took my daughter somewhere else. But it would have been better for him if I had.
What’s striking about this passage is the queasy combination of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement, the slippery labile vacillation between an extreme fantasy of disempowerment and an extreme fantasy of ogreish assertion. Peterson turns an inconsequential encounter on the playground with a child into a full scale assault on his masculinity, complete with barely sublimated rape fears (“Up yours, Daddy-O.”) He frames his interaction with a two-year old as an apocalyptic struggle for dominance. “Our eyes locked.” It’s like he’s in an old-West style shoot-out, which ends with him literally murdering his enemy—because throwing a two-year old thirty feet could be reasonably expected to result in the child’s death.
Peterson didn’t actually kill the boy, he assures us. But he wishes he had. That wish is framed, not as a character flaw, nor even as a joke, but as an imprimatur of righteousness: “it would have been better for him if I had.” Dominating the weak (this is after all a two-year old) is a good thing; might is literally right.
One of Peterson’s subheadings is “Patriarchy: Help or Hindrance?” The answer, obviously, depends on whether you are the patriarch or not—and Peterson desperately wants to be that patriarch. The playground anecdote is especially naked, with the fear of emasculation prompting Peterson to spurt involuntary visions of violence and patriarchal mastery. But other vignettes deliver the same message.
In one, Peterson faces down Denis, a large, strong, alcoholic working class French Canadian who wants money. Peterson touts his own steely calm and sincerity, which earns the other man’s (lobster-like?) respect. In another story Peterson implies that he talked a mentally ill friend out of attacking him. Back in the chapter about child-rearing again, he boasts about refusing to let a grumpy child watch Elmo, and instead holding the boy down to force him to sleep. “He struggled, mightily, but ineffectually. He was, after all, only one-tenth my size. I could take him with one hand.” Peterson is large. Peterson is wise. Peterson is powerful. In every dominance contest he is the most dominant. And if you don’t believe him, just ask him—though maybe move the children to another room first.
The one exception to Peterson’s litany of empowerment fantasy anecdotes, arguably, comes at the conclusion of the book, where he discusses his daughter’s chronic arthritis. As a child, the girl had multiple surgeries and she continues to face constant debilitating pain.
In describing his daughter’s suffering, Peterson does not, for once, arrange the stories to center his own awesome victories or to show how he defeated and overcame weaker, less wise people. Instead, he talks about his daughter’s ordeal and his own fear and sadness. The world, for once, is not organized to show Peterson’s awesomeness. On the contrary, the world, in this last chapter, doesn’t seem hierarchically organized at all. It simply seems cruel and unfair.
Peterson doesn’t use the term, but in discussing his daughter’s illness he is attempting to grapple with theodicy—the question of human evil. In a world with a just and knowing God, why do children suffer?
Peterson isn’t necessarily a theist himself, but as a substitute for a belief in God he has an almost parodically strong status quo bias. One of his rules is “set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world”, a dictum that would, if followed to its logical conclusion, invalidate the careers of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and every other activist ever, insofar as none of them had their own lives in perfect order, because human beings aren’t perfect. Peterson believes hierarchies are built into our DNA, he identifies powerfully with patriarchs. When he talks about reformers and people who want to change the world, the first example that leaps to his mind is the Columbine High School shooters. Reformers, in Peterson’s book, are ideologues, despots, and ghouls; they’re Stalin and Mao. And yet, Peterson’s daughter suffers; the world is unjust. How do you reconcile that?
Peterson reconciles it, unfortunately, with a move that goes back to Job’s comforters: he imagines himself in the position of God. He argues that “existence and limitation are inextricably linked”. To have a meaningful existence, humans cannot be all powerful; therefore his daughter’s illness is necessary for meaning in the universe.
He then goes on to compare childhood illness to the narrative need for Kryptonite in the Superman comics. Superman was too powerful; writers couldn’t come up with reasonable challenges for him. So they invented Kryptonite to weaken him and make more interesting stories. Just so, God created childhood leukemia because watching humans was boring him and he thought the screams of children and the agony of parents would add narrative interest.
You see the problem. If God or the universe thinks that we need childhood leukemia to make existence meaningful, then God or the universe is a monstrous ogre. And siding with God/the universe here makes you a monstrous ogre too.
Peterson is more empathetic towards his daughter than towards anyone else he discusses. But ultimately he decides that the suffering of all of them is right and good and even (given the Superman analogy) entertaining. Again, like Job’s comforters, Peterson insists that suffering is meaningful and necessary; it is part of God’s plan. Peterson is privy to the mind of God, and so decrees that inequity, patriarchy, and his own daughter’s illness are all good and right. The ogre father eats you—or throws you across the playground—for your own good.
Trying to answer the theodicy problem leads Peterson to set himself up as God—which is why the theodicy problem isn’t so much a question as a trap. That’s the conclusion of Stanley Hauerwas in his book God, Medicine and Suffering (1994), where he argues that the theodicy debate is what happens when God and morality are severed from the experience of a community of worship. For Early Christians, he argues, “Suffering was not a metaphysical problem needing a solution but a practical challenge requiring a response.” In other words, when you see a suffering child, you shouldn’t say, “Why is there evil in the world?” You should say, “How can I help this child?”
The search for sweeping meaning in suffering is a way for people to distance themselves from suffering. Job’s comforters tell him that he did something to deserve God’s wrath in part because they want to reassure themselves that they aren’t going to be next—and in part, perhaps, because they want to reassure themselves that they don’t have to help him.
Peterson positions himself throughout his book as the one who knows and the one who has power. He distances himself carefully from those he sees as weak—the children he disciplines; the women who whine and refuse to admit how they’ve benefited from patriarchy; his mentally ill friend who Peterson accuses of being a kind of proto-postmodernist rebel, filled with hatred for the world. “Are you so sure the person crying out to be saved has not decided a thousand times to accept his lot of pointless and worsening suffering, simply because it is easier than shouldering any true responsibility?” Peterson asks. And what is the true responsibility Peterson shoulders? It is simply the responsibility of not responding to others’ suffering. Peterson’s twelve rules are really only one rule: power is virtue, so do not acknowledge kinship with the powerless.
This is, I think, the reason that Peterson is so fascinated with lobsters. You’d think that if you were looking for an animal analogous to humans, you’d talk about apes, or at least mammals—if you want to find out what humans are like, look at things that are somewhat akin to humans.
But Peterson doesn’t want to feel kinship. He chooses lobsters precisely because they are ugly, insect-looking, crawling things—because they are, flagrantly, obviously, ludicrously, not people. To look to lobsters for tips on human behavior may be to anthropomorphize lobsters. But it is also to dehumanize people.
Human hierarchies are not lobster hierarchies. But Peterson wishes they were, because when one lobster dominates another lobster, no one cares. Peterson wants you to be a lobster so you see other people as lobsters—alien invertebrates, with no claim on your sympathy or humanity. When those other lobsters suffer, you don’t need to do anything about it, because who cares about lobsters anyway? Just shrug whatever you have in place of shoulders, and crawl away.
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