Never having been a big fan of Toronto psychology prof Jordan Peterson, his interview with British journalist Cathy Newman held little interest. But Conor Friedersdorf’s Atlantic article about the interview was an exceptional dissection. No, it wasn’t really about Peterson’s views at all, even though the subtext was that he’s hardly the misogynistic ogre he’s portrayed to be by the highly woke. If anything, he’s a old-school liberal, but that’s neither here nor there.
What Conor’s article showed was the bizarre efforts of a lame advocate to take what Peterson said and try, with all her might to twist it into the most baseless, absurd and offensive expression possible. In the process, she revealed the worst of advocacy journalism.
But what struck me, far more than any position he took, was the method his interviewer employed. It was the most prominent, striking example I’ve seen yet of an unfortunate trend in modern communication.
First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd.
This has become a ubiquitous problem, in media, on social media, everywhere (which is why it’s ubiquitous). You say “it’s snowing,” and someone else responds, “so you’re saying it’s the worst blizzard ever?” Obviously not, but that puts you in the position of either responding by saying the obvious, “no, that’s not what I said,” and creating the appearance of defensiveness plus contributing to your statement being hijacked and taken down some dark, orthogonal path you never intended nor desired to go or ignoring it.
Oh, so now you’re denying it’s snowing? Why won’t you just admit you were wrong, or is that because you’re too fragile?
The alternative is to ignore the mischaracterization, which would be totally satisfactory in a world where people weren’t blithering or useful (or both) idiots who seized upon the mischaracterizations rather than the statement and spread the false word. That is obviously false doesn’t make it obvious anymore.
If you leave it alone, relying on the intelligence of others to recognize that the attack of the intellectually deficient was nonsensical, your hopes may well be dashed. They not only don’t get it, but neither want to get it nor want it to come out any other way. If they want to read evil into a statement, then nothing will prevent them from doing so. And you will promptly be told that you confessed your sins by your failure to refute the idiot.
The third option is to call bullshit and disengage. This is as iffy a proposition as relying upon the intelligence of others, as it can just as easily give rise to the appearance that they “caught” you as you refuse to be subjected to attack of the killer tomatoes.
This exchange, one of many from Conor’s article, all of which are worth reading, provides a good example of the problem:
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.
What distinguished this exchange was Newman’s “I’m listening very carefully,” which is the equivalent of the person who doesn’t have the slightest grasp what you’re saying insisting that they do get it. Dunning-Kruger? Sure. Disingenuous? Obviously. Cringe worthy? Only if you don’t want to hate Peterson and believe that whatever he’s saying is wrong and evil, no matter how hard you have to suspend your capacity to think.
And as Conor says, it’s happening all the time, and you like it when advocacy journalists are attacking that guy you want so much to hate.