Cathy Newman’s Channel 4 interview with Jordan Peterson is instructive for Christians in public debate

If you haven’t seen it yet, can I encourage you to watch Cathy Newman’s interview with Jordan Peterson on Channel 4 News. Go on. Honestly, watch the whole thing. That’s right, all 30 minutes of it. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of Prof Jordan Peterson, it’s immaterial. Just watch it, I promise you won’t regret it.

Douglas Murray has done a wonderful dissection of the interview here. He comments:

 I don’t think I have ever witnessed an interview that is more catastrophic for the interviewer. Whatever else anybody might think of him, Professor Peterson is a man of remarkable learning and experience, and does not appear to have arrived at any of his views by the now common means of ‘I reckon’. Yet Newman, who approaches the interview with the trademark sourness she employs for everyone she expects to disagree with, treats this is just another chance to burnish her own social justice credentials and expose her guest as a bigot. Big mistake.

Murray’s basic outline of the interview, which seems about right, is as follows:

By 11 minutes in [Newman] is saying ‘I think I take issue with (that)’, before demonstrating that she can’t. Soon she is reduced to dropping the bombshell observation that ‘all women are different’. By 16.45 there is a palpable win, as Peterson points out that Newman has exactly the disagreeable and aggressive qualities that allow certain types of people to succeed. By 19.30 she is having to throw out things to him that he hasn’t even said, such as ‘You’re saying women aren’t intelligent enough to run top companies’. A minute later and she is reduced to countering empirical evidence with anecdote. Peterson presents the data about men in general and Newman responds with the ‘I know plenty of men who aren’t (like that)’ card. Shortly after that (at 22.25) Newman is reduced to spluttering and then silence. She tries to pull herself together. But she can think of nothing to say. She tries to whip herself back up to a fever of indignation, but that doesn’t work either. And then finally she tries to finish off the interview in the same way the Today programme did by taking up a half-humorous evolutionary case-study Peterson has written about (lobsters) and used it to try to present him as some kind of madman or imbecile.

My favourite section comes at around 22:00. Facing facile comments about his alleged (and evidently fabricated) mistreatment of trans people, Newman ties herself up in philosophical knots attempting to maintain her support for free speech whilst, simultaneously, defending the ludicrous calls for us to legislate against offence. The climax was Peterson’s apparently aggressive response, which clearly took Newman aback, belied by Peterson’s wonderful follow up smile and nod to say, ‘I’ve made my point, it’s your turn to speak now’.

The smile and nod were necessary as Newman was left floundering, twisting back and forth between her two irreconcilable and mutually opposing stances, eventually seeking to save her own skin by saying literally nothing at all. The whole thing was a brilliant example of somebody offering measured, methodical facts against a series of virtue signalling stances that have clearly not been particularly thought through and adopted as little more than a rallying call behind which those wishing to tout their liberal credentials can assemble and, like the puny child that hides behind the school bully, shake their fist from relative safety and shout, ‘yeah!’

My point in sharing this is a very simple one. It doesn’t matter what you think of Prof Jordan Peterson nor how much you do or don’t like Cathy Newman. I’m not sharing it to endorse either of their views particularly. The point is that here we have a clear example of how much modern discourse tends to run.

If you watch the whole thing (you have watched the whole thing, haven’t you?) it can’t escape your notice the sheer number of times Newman starts a sentence with, ‘what you’re really saying…’ and Peterson is forced to respond with an incredulous, ‘that’s not what I’m saying at all!’ Or, worse, ‘you said that…’ followed up by an equally disbelieving, ‘no, I didn’t say that at all’. I don’t know whether it was that Newman genuinely misunderstood what was being said, attempting as she was to read between the lines of what was actually said, or whether she was simply trying to find whatever angle she could to induce a bit of controversy. The point, however, is that she kept hearing what she wanted to hear and found herself getting remarkably worked up at views Peterson denied holding and words which had not been said. This is borne out in the fact that Newman’s summaries of what Peterson had just said, not two-seconds ago, was wrong every single time.

The video is instructive for modern dialogue. Typically, positions are entrenched, assumed and then discussed according to predetermined views about what the opponent is presumed to be saying despite what they actually say they think. Christians would do well to take note. This is the new form of discussion and debate. We have to accept that on key social issues – particularly issues of sexuality and human flourishing – we will be dealt with according to what our interlocuters presume we think despite what we actually say we believe. We can expect this to be multiplied to any number of other issues.