We don’t need to be friends: a rejoinder to Dave Williams on Jordan Peterson

Jordan Peterson’s name seems to be everywhere at the moment. The first I saw was Matthew Hosier, at Think Theology, drawing an interesting comparison between Peterson and Mark Driscoll. He was observing that both men seemed to attract a largely male following and explored why their respective messages were appealing. Then, following a fascinating interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 news, the internet seemed to explode with Christians sharing it. Amongst them were Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson. Naturally, everyone’s ears properly pricked up when yours truly posted about it yesterday, dahling!

Anyhoo, my friend Dave has had a pop at us all, hasn’t he! He didn’t even do us the courtesy of suggesting ‘we take it outside’. You can read what he has to say about the Channel 4 interview here. Suffice to say, it’s definitely wrong because he doesn’t agree with me and I, as you’d expect, am properly the arbiter of these sorts of things. The Council of Oldham concluded that only those who accord with my benign and excellent views shall be accorded the Hand of Amicus, the highest order available under my glorious rule. The obvious way to resolve this, I’m sure you’ll agree, is to cut Dave off. He occasionally speaks sense but, like a broken clock that is right twice a day, his views are not consistent enough to retain fellowship. Cut him off; separate yourselves! After all, we have to be careful who are friends are, don’t we Dave?

Of course, I don’t really think that do I (and it is sad to have to break my ironic tirade to make that clear – I don’t dislike Dave at all, he’s much cleverer than me and he has lots of value to say!) What I was doing – obviously very cleverly and quite subtly – was assuming the values of Dave’s last blog post and applying them to this one. You see, Dave and I do disagree but I don’t feel the need to not be his friend as a result.

Here, in a nutshell, are the key points from Dave’s last post about that Jordan Peterson interview:

  1. Cathy Newman did a bit of a take down of Tim Farron as well as John Smyth and the Iwerne Camps, so Christians were desperate for her to be taken down a peg or two.
  2. Some Christians may, therefore, see Peterson as a bit of a hero for tackling the big bad politically correct witch.
  3. But Peterson didn’t have a problem with transgender pronouns and (so Dave perceives) he shares Newman’s subjective worldview.
  4. Therefore, Peterson is not really our friend. Just because he disagrees with someone we might disagree with doesn’t make him an asset to our cause.

I will let Dave tell me if this summary severely misrepresents his view. If that interview taught us anything, it is to be careful not to assume people’s arguments and put words in their mouths. Assuming this is a fair reflection of Dave’s post, I think the only point I accept as valid is the statement in 4b. Let me explain why.

First, I’m not convinced many people were particularly holding Cathy Newman accountable for the Farron or Iwerne interviews. In the case of the latter particularly, most people I am aware of were appalled by what came out in respect to John Smyth and were pleased it was brought to light and that the CofE were forced to do something about it. As for Farron, he himself noted it was just an interesting thread for them to keep pulling and knew it would stir up controversy. Whilst we can sympathise with the pressure he faced, and the fault of the question was that it would have been impossible to define terms adequately before it could be answered, the problem was ultimately Farron’s answer, not the question itself.

Second, I’m not sure anybody is lauding Peterson as any sort of hero. I don’t think anybody – certainly nobody I have read – is seeing him as an asset to the cause of Evangelicalism. What most people, I amongst them, found interesting and observed as a good thing was the way in which he handled questions clearly designed to paint him as a bigot or imbecile. The reason it struck a chord with Evangelicals is that we have noted the increasing tendency with which Evangelicalism at large is treated with contempt and our views – irrespective of what we actually think – are presumed to be bigoted based on a predetermined understanding of what we believe. Peterson, although in no way advocating Evangelical views on anything, provided a helpful example of how such questions can be dealt with firmly, calmly and reasonably rather than, as in the case of most interviews with Evangelicals, constantly on the backfoot ceding the ground from the beginning that the question is whether our views are, indeed, bigoted.

Third, I think Dave is guilty of doing to Peterson exactly what Newman did in the interview. Peterson admitted he would not refuse to use somebody’s preferred pronoun. This does not mean, however, that he accept trans ideology. Indeed, later on in the interview, he openly disregards it. Dave takes this to mean he has no issue with trans self-identification but only authoritarian pressure regarding it. I don’t think this is the argument he makes at all and I don’t see that it is an assumption we can draw from anything Peterson actually said. All we know is that he wouldn’t refuse to call someone ‘she’ who asked to be called ‘she’. There are, indeed, Christians who reject trans ideology and do not affirm it who would make a similar decision about the use of pronouns.

Further, Dave notes that Peterson didn’t challenge Newman directly about the objectivity of offence (potentially that’s because he holds my view that offence is subjective and that is why basing legislation on subjective measures is so problematic – we cannot know the line between right and wrong because it is in the eye, ear or sensitive disposition of the beholder). He does note, however, that Peterson says it is OK to offend in a bid to get to the truth. From this, Dave thinks Peterson affirms a subjective worldview. Again, I don’t see that we can assume that from what was said. For one, that Peterson chose not to employ a particular argument doesn’t mean he rejects it. That is an argument from silence and cannot be supported. Second, Peterson explicitly states that offence is acceptable in the pursuit of truth. That statement presumes there is a truth to be known and grasped. He nowhere affirms the idea that identity is whatever you subjectively perceive it to be. So I don’t think we can assume Peterson adopts those views.

All of this is to build to Dave’s real point – a foundation which is a bit flimsy in my view – that we need to be careful who our friends are. In other words, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. The problem here is that I don’t think anyone was ever arguing that Jordan Peterson is, therefore, the friend of the Evangelical. I don’t think anybody was suggesting we should look to him as an example of anything other than how to handle a hostile interview in which someone from a progressive liberal viewpoint is seeking to undermine you at every turn. It was this, and this alone, that struck a chord and led to much cheering and whooping.

I don’t think anybody was particularly out to get Cathy Newman as some sort of revenge for Tim Farron. I find that suggestion a bit far-fetched. Most Christians were simply affirmed in their presumptions about the sort of hearing Farron would get from all sections of the media. I equally think the suggestion that Evangelicals are now looking to Jordan Peterson as some sort of hero figure is a little overblown too. I don’t think anybody was listening to Peterson’s rejection of trans activist ideologues and presuming that, because he makes some valid points about their tactics and illiberal behaviour, he must support an Evangelical worldview.

Dave is right to caution us that the enemy of our enemy is not necessarily our friend. But it is surely possible to recognise the good points individuals make, and take good example when it arises, without assuming they support everything we think. Isn’t that the nature of being an observant person? At the end of the day, we don’t need to be friends in order to acknowledge good arguments and fair points. Of course, given we disagree, Dave can always cut me off and stop being my friend, after all you can’t be too careful with these things.