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But He Didn’t Say That   Leave a comment

My first introduction to Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto clinical psychologist was when Brad asked me to watch an interview Peterson did with Camille Paglia. I didn’t care for the interview, mainly because Paglia likes to hear herself talk too much, but I did come away curious about Peterson, who up to that moment was a complete unknown to me.
Image result for image of jordan petersonI then caught his  interview with British journalist Cathy Newman a couple of weeks ago. Newman pressed Peterson to explain several of his controversial views, which is enlightening, but what struck me – more than his views — was the method Newman used in interviewing him. THIS is one of the main reasons I distrust the media today.First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem their view is offensive, hostile, or absurd.

It’s not new or unique. Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and various Fox News hosts all feature and reward this rhetorical technique. The Peterson interview showed so many successive examples that even our son, who couldn’t care less about politics or 90% of what Peterson and Newman were discussing, wondered why the interviewer kept inflating the nature of Peterson’s claims instead of addressing what he actually said.

I don’t dislike Cathy Newman. As British journalists go, she’s somewhat accurate and fair, although I don’t have extensive knowledge of her reporting. Restatement has a role in psychology and journalism, especially when trying to force a poor historian or an evasive subject to clarify their ideas. I suspect she has used that tactic to good effect elsewhere. It’s just that in this interview with Peterson, Newman relied on this technique to a remarkable degree, making it a useful illustration of a much broader pernicious trend. While Peterson was not evasive or unwilling to be clear about his meaning, Newman’s exaggerated restatements of his views mostly led viewers astray, not closer to the truth. She was telling people what she THOUGHT his words meant, rather than listening to what Peterson actually said.

Peterson began the interview by explaining why he tells young men to grow up and take responsibility for getting their lives together and becoming good partners. He noted he isn’t talking exclusively to men, and that he has lots of female fans.“What’s in it for the women, though?” Newman asked.

“Well, what sort of partner do you want?” Peterson said. “Do you want an overgrown child or do you want someone to contend with who is going to help you?”

“So you’re saying,” Newman retorted, “that women have some sort of duty to help fix the crisis of masculinity.”

Brad paused the interview at that point and asked me what I thought Peterson had said. I thought he posited a vested interest, not a duty.

“Women deeply want men who are competent and powerful,” Peterson asserted. “And I don’t mean power in that they can exert tyrannical control over others. That’s not power. That’s just corruption. Power is competence. And why in the world would you not want a competent partner? Well, I know why, actually, you can’t dominate a competent partner. So if you want domination—”

“So you’re saying women want to dominate, is that what you’re saying?” Newman interrupted.

The next section of the interview concerns the pay gap between men and women, and whether it is rooted in gender itself or other nondiscriminatory factors:

Newman: … that 9 percent pay gap,  that’s a gap between median hourly earnings between men and women. That exists.

Peterson: Yes. But there’s multiple reasons for that. One of them is gender, but that’s not the only reason. If you’re a social scientist worth your salt, you never do a uni-variate analysis. You say women in aggregate are paid less than men. Okay. Well then we break it down by age; we break it down by occupation; we break it down by interest; we break it down by personality.

Newman: But you’re saying, basically, it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top, because that’s what is skewing that gender pay gap, isn’t it? You’re saying that’s just a fact of life, women aren’t necessarily going to get to the top.

Peterson: No, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, either. I’m saying there are multiple reasons for it.

Newman: Yeah, but why should women put up with those reasons?

Peterson: I’m not saying that they should put up with it! I’m saying that the claim that the wage gap between men and women is only due to sex is wrong. And it is wrong. There’s no doubt about that. The multi-variate analyses have been done. So let me give you an example––

The interviewer seemed eager to impute to Peterson a belief that a large, extant wage gap between men and women is a “fact of life” that women should just “put up with,” though all those assertions are contrary to his real positions on the matter.

Throughout this next section, the interviewer repeatedly tried to oversimplify Peterson’s view, as if he believes one factor he discusses is all-important. Then she seemed to assume that because Peterson believes that given factor helps to explain a pay gap between men and women, he doesn’t support any actions that would bring about a more equal outcome. 
 

Her surprised question near the end suggested earnest confusion:

Peterson: There’s a personality trait known as agreeableness. Agreeable people are compassionate and polite. And agreeable people get paid less than disagreeable people for the same job. Women are more agreeable than men.

Newman: Again, a vast generalization. Some women are not more agreeable than men.

Peterson: That’s true. And some women get paid more than men.

Newman: So you’re saying by and large women are too agreeable to get the pay raises that they deserve.

Peterson: No, I’m saying that is one component of a multi-variate equation that predicts salary. It accounts for maybe 5 percent of the variance. So you need another 18 factors, one of which is gender. And there is prejudice. There’s no doubt about that. But it accounts for a much smaller portion of the variance in the pay gap than the radical feminists claim.

Newman: Okay, so rather than denying that the pay gap exists, which is what you did at the beginning of this conversation, shouldn’t you say to women, rather than being agreeable and not asking for a pay raise, go ask for a pay raise. Make yourself disagreeable with your boss.

Peterson: But I didn’t deny it existed, I denied that it existed because of gender. See, because I’m very, very, very careful with my words.

Newman: So the pay gap exists. You accept that. I mean the pay gap between men and women exists—but you’re saying it’s not because of gender, it’s because women are too agreeable to ask for pay raises.

Peterson: That’s one of the reasons.

Newman: Okay, so why not get them to ask for a pay raise? Wouldn’t that be fairer?

Peterson: I’ve done that many, many, many times in my career. So one of the things you do as a clinical psychologist is assertiveness training. So you might say––often you treat people for anxiety, you treat them for depression, and maybe the next most common category after that would be assertiveness training. So I’ve had many, many women, extraordinarily competent women, in my clinical and consulting practice, and we’ve put together strategies for their career development that involved continual pushing, competing, for higher wages. And often tripled their wages within a five-year period.

Newman: And you celebrate that?

Peterson: Of course! Of course!

Note that she seemed disgusted with the idea that women would have to be assertive to get what they want in the workplace. Yeah, I couldn’t figure that one out either. Men have to be assertive to get what THEY want, so why shouldn’t women? Another passage on gender equality proceeded thusly:

Newman: Is gender equality a myth?

Peterson: I don’t know what you mean by the question. Men and women aren’t the same. And they won’t be the same. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be treated fairly.

Newman: Is gender equality desirable?

Peterson: If it means equality of outcome then it is almost certainly undesirable. That’s already been demonstrated in Scandinavia. Men and women won’t sort themselves into the same categories if you leave them to do it of their own accord. It’s 20 to 1 female nurses to male … something like that. And approximately the same male engineers to female engineers. That’s a consequence of the free choice of men and women in the societies that have gone farther than any other societies to make gender equality the purpose of the law. Those are ineradicable differences––you can eradicate them with tremendous social pressure, and tyranny, but if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcomes.

Newman: So you’re saying that anyone who believes in equality, whether you call them feminists or whatever you want to call them, should basically give up because it ain’t going to happen.

Peterson: Only if they’re aiming at equality of outcome.

Newman: So you’re saying give people equality of opportunity, that’s fine.

Peterson: It’s not only fine, it’s eminently desirable for everyone, for individuals as well as societies.

Newman: But still women aren’t going to make it. That’s what you’re really saying.

By this time Brad and I were both shaking our heads in wonderment and Keirnan was even saying “But that’s not what he was really saying!”

In this next passage Peterson shows more explicit frustration than at any other time in the program with being interviewed by someone who refuses to relay his actual beliefs:

Newman: So you don’t believe in equal pay.

Peterson: No, I’m not saying that at all.

Newman: Because a lot of people listening to you will say, are we going back to the dark ages?

Peterson: That’s because you’re not listening, you’re just projecting.

Newman: I’m listening very carefully, and I’m hearing you basically saying that women need to just accept that they’re never going to make it on equal terms—equal outcomes is how you defined it.

Peterson: No, I didn’t say that.

Newman: If I was a young woman watching that, I would go, well, I might as well go play with my Cindy dolls and give up trying to go school, because I’m not going to get the top job I want, because there’s someone sitting there saying, it’s not possible, it’s going to make you miserable.

Peterson: I said that equal outcomes aren’t desirable. That’s what I said. It’s a bad social goal. I didn’t say that women shouldn’t be striving for the top, or anything like that. Because I don’t believe that for a second.

Newman: Striving for the top, but you’re going to put all those hurdles in their way, as have been in their way for centuries. And that’s fine, you’re saying. That’s fine. The patriarchal system is just fine.

Peterson:  No! I really think that’s silly! I do, I think that’s silly.

Peterson never said “the patriarchal system is just fine” or that he planned to put lots of hurdles in the way of women. He never said women shouldn’t strive for the top or they might as well drop out of school, because achieving their goals or happiness is simply not going to be possible. Newman put all those words in his mouth by projecting her own bias’ upon him.

The conversation moved on to other topics, but the pattern continued. Peterson made a statement and the the interviewer interjected with “So you’re saying …” and filled in the rest with something that is less defensible, less carefully qualified, more extreme, or just totally unrelated to his point. I think my favorite example came when they began to talk about lobsters. Yeah, lobsters! Here’s the excerpt:

 

Peterson: There’s this idea that hierarchical structures are a sociological construct of the Western patriarchy. And that is so untrue that it’s almost unbelievable. I use the lobster as an example: We diverged from lobsters evolutionarily about 350 million years ago. And lobsters exist in hierarchies. They have a nervous system attuned to the hierarchy. And that nervous system runs on serotonin just like ours. The nervous system of the lobster and the human being is so similar that anti-depressants work on lobsters. And it’s part of my attempt to demonstrate that the idea of hierarchy has absolutely nothing to do with sociocultural construction, which it doesn’t.

Newman: Let me get this straight. You’re saying that we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters?

To this, Keirnan cracked “Yes, he proposed that we all live on the sea floor … except for those who want to live in the seafood tanks at restaurants.” We all got a good laugh out of that, but the kid has a point. It’s laughable. Absolutely ludicrous. Peterson, to his credit, tried to keep plodding along.

Peterson: I’m saying it is inevitable that there will be continuities in the way that animals and human beings organize their structures. It’s absolutely inevitable, and there is one-third of a billion years of evolutionary history behind that … It’s a long time. You have a mechanism in your brain that runs on serotonin that’s similar to the lobster mechanism that tracks your status—and the higher your status, the better your emotions are regulated. So as your serotonin levels increase you feel more positive emotion and less negative emotion.

Newman: So you’re saying like the lobsters, we’re hard-wired as men and women to do certain things, to sort of run along tram lines, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

She was actually tracking until she added the extreme “and there’s nothing we can do about it”? Peterson is a clinical psychologist who coaches people to change how they relate to institutions and to one another within the constraints of human biology. Of course he believes that there is something that can be done about it.

He brought up the lobsters only in an attempt to argue that “one thing we can’t do is say that hierarchical organization is a consequence of the capitalist patriarchy.”At this point, we’re near the end of the interview. And given all that preceded it, Newman’s response killed me. She took another accusatory tack with her guest:

Newman: Aren’t you just whipping people up into a state of anger?

Peterson: Not at all.

Newman: Divisions between men and women. You’re stirring things up.

Actually, one of the most important things this interview illustrates—one reason it is worth watching (find it on You-Tube) —is how Newman repeatedly posed as if she were holding a controversialist accountable, when in fact, for the duration of the interview, it was she who was “stirring things up” and “whipping people into a state of anger.”

At every turn, she took her subject’s words and made them seem more extreme, more hostile to women, or more shocking in their implications than Peterson’s remarks themselves support. Almost all of the most inflammatory views that were aired in the interview were ascribed by Newman to Peterson, who then disputed that she had accurately characterized his words.

There are moments when Newman seems earnestly confused, and perhaps was. But if it was merely confusion, why did she consistently misinterpret him in the more scandalous, less politically correct, more umbrage-stoking direction?

I hadn’t followed Peterson enough to know what I thought of him when I watched the interview, but I have since gone out and listened to several of his lectures and interviews and I find a lot of good meat in his arguments, though I don’t wholly agree with him because I think Jungians take their archetypes far too seriously.  I’m just pointing out that Newman’s interview techniques were unhelpful and unfair because they were untruthful. Those who credulously accept the interviewer’s characterizations will emerge with the impression that a prominent academic holds troubling views that, in fact, he does not actually believe or advocate. Distorted impressions of what figures like Peterson mean by the words that they speak can only exacerbate overall polarization between their followers and others, which will actually make it harder for their critics to push back against any wrong ideas.Lots of culture-war fights are unavoidable because they are rooted in earnest, deeply-felt disagreements over the best values or societal goods. The best we can do is have those fights with some civility rules to prevent duels at dawn. Disagreements are inevitable in a pluralistic democracy, but reducing needless division requires that we accurate characterize the views of folks with differing opinions, rather than distort their works so that existing divides become more intractable. That sort of exaggeration or hyperbolic misrepresentation is epidemic in the Western world today and we are long overdue for addressing it … for everyone’s sake.
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