This is actually a couple of weeks old but that doesn’t matter because the subject here is timeless. Well, maybe not timeless in a geological sense, but it’s certainly something that has plenty of antecedents over the past several decades. At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf has a piece titled “Why Can’t People Hear What Jordan Peterson Is Saying?” It’s all based on one interview that Professor Jordan Peterson gave last month to a British journalist named Cathy Newman (video below).
The point of Friedersdorf’s piece is not to agree or disagree with each statement made by Peterson, but to look at the nature of the conversation they are having. And that nature is almost laughably absurd. Interviewer Cathy Newman comes to the interview with an ax to grind. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad. Interviewers should be prepared to challenge their subjects. The real problem here, demonstrated over and over, is that Newman isn’t really listening to what Peterson is saying. Instead, she takes each statement and leaps to a new conclusion about what Peterson really means. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Peterson spends the entire interview defending himself from one misleading claim after another. Friedersdorf offers several examples, starting with this “discussion” of the gender wage gap:
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 univariate analysis. You say women in aggregate are paid less than men. Okay. Well then we break its 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 multivariate analysis have been done. So let me give you an example––
Newman just keeps putting words in Peterson’s mouth, forcing him to walk back things he never said. And it keeps going like this for nearly 30 minutes. Another example:
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.
Toward the end of the interview, Newman asks Peterson to explain a discussion in his book about the social hierarchies found among lobsters:
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 history 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?
So you’re saying we should all be lobsters? It’s almost too ridiculous to bother responding and, indeed, near the end of the interview Peterson is both a bit frustrated and laughing at having to rebut charges like this.
But the point here is not what it’s like to be Jordan Peterson giving an interview, it’s that this same interview technique gets used on conservatives fairly often. Case in point, ex-Google engineer James Damore gave an interview to CNN Tech in which his views were repeatedly mischaracterized in much the same way. CNN Tech’s Laurie Segall brought up the alt-right twice, forcing Damore to denounce a group he had no connection to in the first place. The effort seemed less to understand than to throw him into a hole of insinuations from which he could not escape.
And of course, this form of attack interview becomes a kind of parody of itself on the faux news shows popularized by Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, etc. In those cases, the host literally spends hours trying to set up the target for one bit of video which can be manipulated into a caricature of their actual position. The goal isn’t to understand but to ridicule. They get away with it because those shows are “comedy,” not news. But looking at some of the questions in this interview (“You’re saying that we should organize our societies along the lines of the lobsters?”) it’s often a fairly thin line between comedy and news for conservatives.