The Phenomenon

Dr Jordan Peterson is an unlikely social media superstar. A career academic in his native Canada (aside from 5 years at Harvard), few had heard of him until he took a stand against what he considered to be an anti-Free Speech piece of legislation (Bill C-16) in 2016. Though articulate and lucid in debate, he lacks the emotionally manipulative rhetoric of a political firebrand. As one might expect of an academic, he has published many learned articles but, until 2017, only one book (Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief in 1999) which although fascinating, costs £40 in paperback and is hardly a work likely to enjoy ‘popular’ appeal.  Furthermore, unkind people have suggested that he sounds like Kermit the Frog. Peterson himself was willing to send himself up in this regard, appearing with a Kermit glove-puppet:

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but even this self-effacing nod to his detractors misfired when he posed with a frog puppet that had full, ruby-red lips, allowing the cretinous U.S. ‘Alt-Right’ to claim him as a fellow traveller with Pepe the Frog/Kek.

And yet, for all this, in the few days following his Channel 4 News interview conducted by Cathy Newman, the video of the exchange racked up over 3 million (and counting) views, as well as articles and opinion pieces in most British newspapers. You can watch it here, though I’ll assume you already have:

The interview (as well as the person of Peterson himself) garnered traditional and social media interest for a number of reasons. It took place in early January during a somewhat fallow news period. For long-time Peterson fans like Douglas Murray (and, well, me) it was exciting to see a figure we admire appearing on the UK mainstream broadcast media — not in the three-minutes-to-nine slot on the Today programme, but given a full half hour on TV. For others it was an opportunity to hear someone express views that they found appealing, perhaps for the first time, and yet without the Alt-Right serving of bile that we have come to expect from anyone who questions the “liberal orthodoxy”. Some no doubt found Peterson to be exactly the sort of caricature of the vile misogynist right-winger they had feared (and secretly hoped to find).

The aftermath of the interview did, sadly, take a nasty turn. It is reported that the Channel 4 news journalist and presenter Cathy Newman received a great deal of abuse and even death threats as a result. Jordan Peterson received abuse and threats too, but that is nothing new for him. The issue concerns social media keyboard warriors on both sides but largely, it seems, on Peterson’s ‘side’. (Though this has been disputed by those who have trawled social media for evidence.)

Debased Debate

The way media interviews are nowadays reported, especially on social media, drips with hyperbole. Politicians are not ‘interrogated’ or ‘challenged’ (let alone merely interviewed), but ‘destroyed’ or ‘demolished’. We are not invited to watch interviews, but rather ‘car-crashes’ (normally a putative ‘car-crash’ for the interviewee, rather than the interviewer). The Peterson/Newman interview was perhaps not a car-crash, but it was uncomfortable at times. Cathy Newman was out of her depth, but why should we expect anything else? Why should we expect a journalist (any journalist) to be able to interrogate, in detail, an academic on his or her own territory?

Newman is obviously sharp and intelligent, but it’s worth noting that she read English at LMH (Oxon), and not psychology (or philosophy). Also, her experience as a journalist has been largely in the area of politics. (I intend no criticism here. I have a degree from the same university and also, like Newman, a degree in English.) Thus, when she challenged Peterson (more than once) to justify his point of view, it was all too easy (as well as accurate and reasonable) for him to reply, ‘because of my scientific research and decades of clinical practice’. I suspect the problem for people like Newman (and for most journalists) is that they rarely get to interview people like Peterson — viz. academics who have read exhaustively, researched carefully and thought long, hard and in detail about the topics they write and speak about. Interviewing a government minister who only received his or her brief last weekend is child’s play in comparison. It is one thing to puncture the easy soundbites of a smooth politician, and quite another to demolish the world-view of a public intellectual on his or her own turf.

Interview or Disputation?

To take on example from the interview, the idea that the ‘gender pay gap’ (insofar as it exists) might be due to some fundamental (and gender specific) variations in character and personality between men and women, rather than due to a misogynist conspiracy on the part of shadowy boys’ club elites, seemed novel (or perhaps unbelievable) for Newman, and her floundering made uncomfortable viewing. Her frequent, but clumsy, attempts to précis Peterson’s position on X or Y has led to dozens of satirical memes (ungallant, perhaps, but a long way from abuse or threats):

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I can’t help thinking that adopting a more ingénue approach would have been more fruitful. You may remember that Michael Parkinson’s interview technique involved forcing interviewees to elaborate by giving them the space to do so. Parky would ask a question — “So, you were born in Barnsley?” — receive an answer — “Yes, in 1964” — and then he’d just nod, steepling his fingers. No-one likes an uncomfortable silence, so the guest would carry on talking, even babbling: “Bloody awful place, Barnsley. Hated it. Good beer though. Great pubs. But, God, it was miserable. I murdered my aunt in Barnsley, actually.”

The journalist equivalent is the “What do you say to those who…?” approach. Andrew Neil is probably the current master of this technique — “Prime Minister, what do you say to those who accuse you of being an unemotional automaton?” This establishes the interviewer as a neutral voice, a seeker of truth rather than an adversary. I have no idea whether Newman was a Oxford Union hack in her day, but her rôle qua interviewer was not (or should not have been) that of ‘opposing the [Petersonian] motion’. But Newman is a successful TV journalist and I’m not, so far be it for me to offer any lessons in sucking eggs.

Channel 4 is to be applauded for devoting 30 minutes to an interview with an interesting contemporary thinker. Cathy Newman is to be applauded for being willing to take him on, however much we might think she could have handled it better. There is too little high quality, intellectually stimulating debate on TV and this was a rare example of the genre.

But the people who have failed in every sense are the (supposed) ‘supporters’ of Peterson who have weighed into Cathy Newman with vile invective, online abuse and even threats of violence (not only against her but against her young children). There will be many feminists who would be appalled by my saying this, because it implies that I regard the online abuse of women and girls as more serious (i.e. morally worse) than the online abuse of men, but I’m afraid I do. When that abuse of women comes from other females then I say, ‘Physician, health thyself’, but when it comes from men, then I think (other) men ought to say something.

What few remember from the Peterson/Newman interview is that in his very first answer, Peterson talked about what he undoubtedly sees as a crisis of masculinity. It is a crisis so great, in his view, that he is well-known to shed tears while talking about it. That is a fascinating, and unusual, point of view which was passed over rather too quickly in what seemed to be Newman’s haste to challenge him over his view of ‘feminism’. It is surely odd that a man who has much to say about men’s urgent need to become better human beings is more likely to get hauled over the coals for what he has said about women.

Poisonous Discourse

As for those (mostly, I assume) men who have sent disgusting tweets to Cathy Newman in ways that have failed to respect her as a journalist, as a woman, and as a human being: they may well think they are supporting Jordan Peterson but in actual fact they are undermining him. Peterson issued his own rebuke to them:

It’s easy to imagine, I suppose, who many of these trolls might be… insecure and angry men, sitting in their y-fronts in their bedrooms in their mums’ houses, so desperate to listen to someone — anyone — who seems to justify their hatred of women, that they latch on to anyone who uses some of ‘the words’, anyone who seems to offer any criticism of ‘feminism’. It is equally easy to imagine (or deduce, in fact) that they have never managed to understand so much as a sentence of what Peterson has written. The beautiful pleas for open debate and free speech, for tolerance and respect, for men to be better men; the discussions of Nietzsche and Freud, the continual nods to Aristotelean Ethics — all of this rich intellectual hinterland has passed them by.

To hurl abuse at a journalist who has already (arguably) come off worse in a televisual joust with a thoughtful interlocutor is not to position yourself with a thinker like Peterson, but to have missed his entire point. You are not on the side of Free-Speech, but merely useful idiots for its opponents.

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