By the Strike of a Match, or Her Good Strike of Lightning
by Natasha Chaykowski
“Hey you! Just wanted to let you know that I think you are dangerously retarded. Hope you have a fucked up day!” Derek W wrote pithily to me from the discreet address firstname.lastname@example.org one smoky afternoon late July past. The dues paid for being the first signatory listed in an open letter penned collaboratively with my colleagues from a number of organizations, urging Arts Commons—a performing arts hub in Calgary, Alberta—to reconsider hosting Jordan Peterson for a “one-of-a- kind uplifting lecture, where he discusse[d] overcoming life’s biggest obstacles, how to improve oneself, and his new book: 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.” People phoned me at work to call me fascist. Someone named Dwain Lowe emailed me (from his iPad) to tell me that he thought I was a Nazi. “This has only damaged your brand. I (and many I know) will no longer be supporting your organization.” Bye, Dwain, our brand will miss your years of ardent patronage. I was called a “far-left ideologue,” whatever the fuck that means. “This petition leader Natasha Chaykowski quite the feminist that would be triggered,” along with a link to an article I wrote in 2015 about the limits of feminism, ironically enough. Strangers lamented together on Facebook about the days when people “like me” would fall by the wayside of the persistent biological churning of evolution; the demands of natural selection, the logic of the fittest surviving. According to such strangers—Scott Nichols, someone named Barb, and another named Ron, who, it occurred to me, darkly, could be friends of my parents in a slightly alternate reality—I, and my whining kin, wouldn’t last one minute if things were how they should be. How they might be again, in an apocalyptic scenario. A natural order. “Attrition to the snowflake genepool!” Scott cried into the heavens that smoky July. It’s a weird feeling to witness complete strangers on the internet wish that you’d starve to death, post-apocalypse, if you first survived being “ravaged by criminal gangs.” The smoke, travelling swiftly eastward from BC wildfires sparked by unapologetic lightning, burned my eyes, lingered in my chest, slinked its way into my mood most days that month.
What none of his proponents seem willing to admit is that their feverish, foaming-at-the-mouth feelings about Peterson are the direct result of his having legitimized a deep fear. He has unmoored this fear from shame, dusted it off and given it a platform. Fear that women are taking jobs away from hard-working men instead of staying home with the kids. Fear that women have the power of retribution, to destroy a man’s career, if he’s sexually assaulted her. Fear that immigration will lead to proportionately less-white classrooms in elementary schools. Closer to home in the art world, fear that BIPOC will be prioritized for job positions, awards, opportunities and funding. Fear that trans and non-binary people threaten traditional ways of being, undermine the neat, if violent, binaries that our society has leveraged to create structures of power. Fear that small strides made by marginalized communities might result in loss for those who’ve reigned supreme in our hierarchies, our social order, heretofore. Such gains are articulated as chaos—and symbolically, feminine—by Peterson; they undermine what he believes is a biologically determined hierarchy—the proper, masculine, order that exists from crustaceans to stories in the Bible. So, it follows: it must be natural. Chaos—or ardent striving toward equality—is, for Peterson, a particular contemporary malady, and he’s got a cure to peddle. His bullshit pseudointellectual treatise unfurls the argument that hierarchies are the result of millions of years of evolution, and are in fact a natural, non-socially constructed phenomenon; inequality, according to Peterson’s over-simplified and unsubstantiated neuro- and evolutionary science, is part of a dominance hierarchy that all humans partake in, a hierarchy as arcane as time, as perennial as the sunrise, and “old- er than trees,” to use his bromidic language. Dominant lobsters have more serotonin so they stand up straight. Human males, too, can invoke this ancient power of dominance by standing up straight. Lobsters, Peterson fails to mention, don’t actually have brains. But still, you should stand up straight, as an alpha lobster would. Tell the truth. Make your goddamn bed. A prescription written for all, signed by Peterson, that unfortunately only works on the particular ailment of being a dejected privileged person, threadbare and weathered by all this feminine chaos in the air of late.
Our open letter was met by Arts Commons with crickets, and a flaccid statement issued to the press by President and CEO Johann Zietsman about Arts Commons’ position that “freedom of speech means not censoring some- one because we don’t agree with what they have to say.” I forwarded him, and several staff members1—Aaron, Leslie and Alynn, all real people made of muscle, marrow, skin—the messages I’d received from Dwain, from Derek W, in case there was any doubt about the sincerity of our claims that hosting Peterson and his frenzied disciples makes it such that it is not safe for us, nor the artists we support, to work within that building, as we were required to as staff of artist-run centres that programmed vitrines within the brick-and-mortar institution of Arts Commons. No one replied. I was confounded: how could these individual humans with names and memories and birthdays—our ostensible colleagues—build such an insurmountable institutional wall through their silence? How could they outright ignore our reasonable request for a safe place to work? My hurt quickly morphed into hot anger, which then bore some branches, one off in the direction of wonder: what could compel such cruel disregard on the part of these individual people?
Arts Commons, like all institutions, is born of humans, but ultimately, it is something greater than its discrete, fleshy, constituent parts. A wayward gestalt. A living creature that—like an animal, a human, any living organism—is compelled by its subconscious desire to survive at whatever cost: the behaviour of self-preservation. Institutions are of us, but exceed us, in the way that, although I am made of 37.2 trillion cells, I can decide to drink another cup of coffee if I want to. I made that decision, not my cells, although they certainly would have had a complex modicum of influence upon it. They, working together, enabled my hand to pour it, then bring the cup to my lips. They shuttled electricity happily through my mesolimbic pathway after I took that first hot sip. I, however, am more than the sum of their machinations.
If an institution can be likened to a living creature, emulating biological structures and replete with its own agency, desires and impulses—none of which are completely within the purview of the humans that comprise it—it follows that it may likewise be vulnerable to the laws of evolution, the imperative that foregrounds our existence.
For example, it may inherit random mutations—like an abhorrent CEO, a politically and socially apathetic staff, or a Board of Directors looking at a bottom line—that may make survival more likely. Maybe that’s why Leslie never answered my email, or why Aaron was willing to defend Arts Commons in the wake of another controversy, this time around the institution’s subsequent transphobic actions and hypocritical act of censorship of a video-based work about trans visibility by Montreal-based artist B.G-Osborne in The New Gallery’s former window space in the +15 Galleries at Arts Commons. Maybe that’s why our pleas were met with silence. And, maybe that’s why Dwain, Scott and Derek were so incensed by our open letter that they felt compelled to take time out of their days to let me know just what a degenerate I was; they, too, are the mutated genes of a creature, an institution. They’re the laymen components of patriarchy; the neurons of a brain in a body under threat; the cells of the adrenal medulla signalling to release the hounds, the hormones: time to fight. Patriarchy is bigger than them, but it needs that cascade of norepinephrine and epinephrine to survive. It needs those grunt-working cells, those Dwains, those Scotts, those Dereks.
Institutions in any context can proffer such examples. In the wake of the release of the most recent UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in October of this year, Katie Warrick, interim chief executive of the World Coal Association, released a statement that said, “credible experts continue to see a role for coal for the foreseeable future,” and that coal should still be considered a sustainable source of fuel; its extraction and combustion should not be hindered by the IPCC report’s findings that “irreversible changes in major ecosystems and the planetary climate system may already have been reached or passed. Ecosystems, as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic tundra, may be approaching thresholds of dramatic change through warming and drying. Mountain glaciers are in alarming retreat and the downstream effects of reduced water supply in the driest months will have repercussions that transcend generations.” Good clean coal. Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, has known about global climate change since a report landed on his desk in the 1970s, and has spent the better part of his career and the budgets available to him on an expansive and decades-long propaganda campaign to discredit the science of carbon emissions and their impact on our planet’s ecosystems (when he wasn’t getting tangled in genocidal geopolitical situations, peddling gas to whoever’d buy it).
The list goes on. Our clothes, our phones, the computer at which I sit writing this, are all made with unethical labour in the global South, during the kind of workday that would make most of us weep were we to witness it. Animals are treated cruelly for the sake of easy access to the massive quantities of meat needed to sustain a typical North American diet. Unprecedented wildfires are burning as people are being unjustly killed because of their identities; droughts and floods are devastating swaths of the earth as many Indigenous communities still don’t have access to clean water; coral reefs are disappearing, like the Arctic and Antarctic ice, as women are being sexually assaulted; infants are encamped as the oceans rise, all at the behest of institutions—creatures lusting to survive—and those who enable them to.
All the logistics of these things are planned, computed and carried out by humans within the organism of capitalism, but are ultimately outside of the control of any one of the gestalt’s parts. That all such things continue speaks, again, to each institution’s desire to survive, despite that its host planet, and constituent species, are both alarmingly (for some) at risk of not existing very soon. How else can we possibly make sense (without talking about actual evil) of someone like Warrick, someone like Tillerson, being so ready to risk the future of literally everything living right now? How else can we possibly make sense of Aaron, of Leslie, of Alynn, of Johann Zietsman being so willing to undermine the fundamental rights of certain humans? Of a complete stranger wishing me dead for expressing concern for the safety of the artists I work with? Peterson writes in 12 Rules for Life that “Mother Nature is hell-bent on our destruction.” It seems to me that the structures of his order—institutions at the top of a dominance hierarchy—are the ones hell-bent on destruction and ultimately, the real chaos. Mother Nature is out on the fucking streets, throwing bricks at cops, protesting her abuse.
But, I can’t believe every institution is built to harm. Like all creatures, institutions must also sometimes have the potentialities for radical good in them. Particularly smaller ones, grassroots ones—the artist-run centres writing open letters, radical environmentalists, Black Lives Matter—built to be malleable, adaptable, fighting for change. Such institutions are disrupting the dominant hierarchies, challenging the alphas unrightfully at the top, dismantling socially built realities of oppression, undermining biological predisposition and the righteous claim to accept one’s predetermined position in the social order and stand up straight. They are intervening in the processes of evolution; they won’t bide their time, and wait for the ones on top—Arts Commons, patriarchy, capitalism—to go extinct. Whether by the strike of a match, or Her good strike of lightning, those on top will eventually have to burn to the ground2. Our survival depends on it.