Downtime

Consider the Lobsters

The anti­–Jordan Peterson subreddit r/enoughpetersonspam is my favorite place to waste time.

Jordan Peterson at an event in Dallas, TX on June 2018 crossed out.
Jordan Peterson Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Wikipedia.

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Somehow, a few months ago on deadline, I found myself digging through a subreddit dedicated to someone who seemed like he must be the manliest man ever to walk the planet. He was “raised and toughened in the frigid wastelands of Northern Alberta,” had “flown a hammer-head roll in a carbon-fiber stunt-plane,” and “built a Native American longhouse on the upper floor of his Toronto home.” Was he the Most Interesting Man in the World? No, it was just Jordan Peterson, his titillating Random House biography mockingly supplied by my new favorite subreddit, r/enoughpetersonspam.

For the uninitiated, Jordan Peterson rose to fame when he took a very public stance against a Canadian bill that would extend the Canadian Human Rights Code to protect gender identity and gender expression. Peterson expounded on the thought policing of it all and indicated that this signaled the beginning of the West’s death march to the gulags. He became a lauded figure in conservative free speech circles. From there, he parlayed that notoriety into a book deal, and that book became a best-seller.

I didn’t know any of this when I heard Peterson’s name for the first time, from the mouth of someone I had been seeing. I’d known my boyfriend and I had different values. He was a libertarian who trawled Reddit and had some weird views on postmodernism. Since his parents had fled the Cultural Revolution, I figured I didn’t have any right to question his conservatism. Slowly, though, I became aware that he had strong feelings about this Peterson character. “Everyone wants to argue with Peterson but no one wants to engage with Peterson,” he sighed. I took this as a challenge. I would be a responsible human and investigate this guy’s beliefs objectively.

I dove into YouTube lectures and Joe Rogan interviews, and of course, Peterson’s recent self-help book, 12 Rules for Living. At first I thought my boyfriend’s Peterson fixation was a little funny, but I soon became alarmed and frustrated. I realized that Peterson wrote widely across a variety of subjects to add a veneer of intellect to his foul views about women and rape, Islam, and leftist college students. As I dug deeper and deeper into internet research, my notes on the horrors of Peterson’s ideology spilled over into three different note-taking apps, several Microsoft Word documents, and endless texts to friends. Reader, I had spiraled.

Enter: Feb. 8, 2018, 2:17 p.m. My best friend wordlessly sent me the r/enoughpetersonspam subreddit, the way I assume a sleep-deprived mother would offer her whining child a bottle. It seemed to be borne out of a similarly minded subreddit called r/badphilosophy, which apparently received such an influx of Peterson-related discussion they had to issue a moratorium.

Everything on this subreddit is meant to express an irreverent disdain for Peterson. It draws a bunch of diverse voices: feminists, of course, but also former Peterson admirers, philosophy professors, people of all political stripes. Members are jokingly referred to as “crawfish,” as in: There are currently over 8 million “asexually reproducing crawfish” subscribed to the year-old subreddit. (Peterson infamously uses the first chapter of his book to defend hierarchies in society by describing the highly stratified way lobsters reproduce. The humble crayfish is the group’s cheeky reply to that dubious argument.) There are dank memes, like this one about life-changing hygiene tips, and this one, which imagines the real-life origins of Peterson’s big ideas. This irreverent humor struck me as the perfect response to Peterson fans, who constantly claim that Peterson has been misunderstood or taken out of context by his haters, or that he simply knows more than you do. The subreddit takes the troll-y, flippant attitude that has radicalized so many men, and flips it back on one of their most prized intellectual figures.

There are also some moments of real reflection. In the “Ex-Lobster Tank,” former Peterson acolytes gather to share their experiences with the ideology they once subscribed to. I remember combing these early stories, hoping to identify the breaking point for each so I could strengthen my arguments for my own Lobster. But it always seemed to be more than one moment that did them in, a process that certainly wouldn’t be sped up by long-winded antagonistic dissertations. It can feel a little like being gaslit to engage with Peterson fans, maybe because they’re being gaslit themselves. Peterson is great at sandwiching harmful views between harmless generalities. I spent days alone on the subreddit, reading story after story about people’s attachment to a huckster who pretended to help them and then slowly weaponized that admiration. In the end, r/enoughpetersonspam helped me figure out what parts of Peterson’s ideology were worth seriously engaging with, and which were merely laughable.

I don’t know when exactly I put down my notes apps and gave up this obsession. I do know it took me months to end things with the Lobster, and even longer to stop earnestly discussing politics with him. But r/enoughpetersonspam became a salve for my political, ethical, and romantic frustrations. The more I aligned myself with the droll voices of the subreddit, the less my boyfriend’s views seemed like something that I personally had to fix. When he shrugged off a video of Peterson saying that feminists align themselves with Muslims (a glaring generalization to begin with) because of their “unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” I realized his fanboying wasn’t something that could be reasoned with. Debate was futile, and the relationship, I saw at last, was doomed. As one crawfish mod noted in an early post warning against disingenuous engagement, “Don’t allow yourself to be baited.”