The Mischaracterization Of Jordan Peterson Isn’t New Or Special

The Mischaracterization Of Jordan Peterson Isn’t New Or Special January 29, 2018
Image of Jordan Peterson and Cathy Newman vs YouTube screengrab

Jordan Peterson has been all over the news lately from a viral interview with Cathy Newman. In the interview, Newman consistently mischaracterizes Peterson and tries to make his positions sound more extreme than they really were. Peterson easily deflected all of the aggressive “gotcha” questions with calm explanations of his actual positions. This Atlantic article does a great job summarizing the problems in this interview. Let’s look at an example:

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 was definitely not arguing that women should just accept less pay. He wasn’t denying that sexism exists. He was stating how the gender wage gap we see is based on multiple factors and discrimination is only one piece of the puzzle. This is just one of several of Cathy’s attempts to make Peterson’s positions seem much worse than they were. You can watch the full interview here.


Cathy Newman’s attempt to get him flustered enough to slip up completely failed. And no, I’m not a Jordan Peterson fan. I can still recognize when someone is being unfairly characterized even if I don’t agree with them. As the author mentions in that Atlantic piece I linked above, this kind of this “sort of exaggeration or hyperbolic misrepresentation is epidemic—and addressing it for everyone’s sake is long overdue.” I totally agree with that. The media is well aware that exaggeration and extremism is going to get higher ratings. It certainly is not new or unique to Peterson! I’d like to echo that point using another example.

Ijeoma Oluo recently discussed an unfortunate experience she had with USA Today. Olou was contacted by a USA Today representative asking for the “opposing view” of due process regarding sexual assault. Olou was understandably confused and told the representative that she could write about the issues sexual assault survivors face when going through the legal system. The representative talked to the editor and called Olou back. Olou recalls the conversation below:

USA Today called me back about five minutes later.

“I ran your idea past them,” she said, “But what they really want is to write that they believe that it’s great that these women are coming forward but that they believe in due process, and they want you to write that you don’t. They want a piece that says that you don’t believe in due process and that if a few innocent men lose their jobs it’s worth it to protect women. Is that something you can do?”

I almost couldn’t get a reply out, I was stunned by how blatant their request was.

“No,” I said, “No, it’s not.”

We ended the call and I just sat frozen in my chair for a few minutes. Did this really just happen? Was I seriously just asked by the third largest paper in the nation to write their “feminazi” narrative to counter their “reasoned and compassionate” editorial? Was I just asked to be one of the excuses for why this whole “me too” moment needed to be shut down? Was I just asked to be their strawman?

USA Today clearly wanted to use Olou as the extremist “feminazi” that was against due process. They wanted to generate an extremist position instead of listening to any sort of nuance. Just like the Peterson interview, we can see how the media wanted to stir things up with hyperbolic exaggerations. Of course Olou’s story is a little different as she had the option to turn down the column. But you can imagine an interviewer attempting to paint Olou’s position as some crazy feminist who wants men in jail without trial.
Jon Stewart discussed these same issues over a decade ago when he went on Crossfire. Stewart discussed the problems with dishonesty in media as they aim to rile people up for ratings. Sadly, we haven’t made any progress since then and things are probably worse now.
Covering extreme and controversial positions are simply more exciting for news outlets. People are less interested in the nuances and gray areas. So we can blame the media, but we can also blame the consumers too. Unfortunately, I don’t see this gravitation to hyperbolic exaggeration changing anytime soon. Humans have a proclivity to identify with particular groups and in these cases, political identities go along with that group. The more we identify with our “tribe” the more we are motivated to avoid evidence that makes our tribe look bad. It’s cognitively easier to cast someone as an “extremist” or even just label them on the “other side” instead of parsing out nuance. Exaggerating people’s positions to generate conflict (and ratings) also generates greater polarization.
I wish I had a solution for this, but because our brains like finding patterns (putting people in boxes) and identifying with groups (tribalism), it’s going to be a challenge. There is some research on how to be more open to identity threatening information, but it will take a concerted effort to change things. We need to put more social pressure on avoiding this kind of toxic discourse. We need to celebrate when someone takes time to listen to another person instead of assuming their viewpoint. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.
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