I watched an interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman recently and was rather surprised by what I saw. I was bewildered by Cathy Newman’s approach to her subject, she obviously found his views distasteful and was trying very hard to trip him up and reveal his dark and unpleasant, presumably misogynistic, side. She failed to do this and he remained placid, un-rattled, and replied fully and reasonably. Now I have seen her interview many people over the years and she is usually an excellent interviewer; able to debate with the best and able to handle herself in an argument She is, without doubt, one of the best news journalists we have on British television. I was therefore surprised to see her have such difficulty with this subject, to the extent that at one point she was literally struck dumb and at a loss for words.
At this point I had not heard of her subject Jordan B. Peterson, a Professor of Psychology at Toronto University, nor did I know of his views. But, spurred by this interview, I read a little about him. It became clear that he has become very popular on account of his most recent book and also for his lectures on psychology which are available on YouTube. He is a clinical psychologist and academic who has made a bit of speciality of examining the role of religion in culture and personal psychology. But it became clear that this was not the reason for his widespread, and increasing, fame (or notoriety), this was because of his position on the issue of “compelled speech” (in regard to pronoun usage with transgendered people) and because he has recently published a book which has become a surprising best seller “12 Rules for Life : An antidote to chaos”.
The book, a self-help psychology text, has been very successful with young men and his position on free speech has caused him to be seen as a darling by the “alt-right“. The latter problem is a common difficulty experienced by those of us who try and safeguard free-speech. Those on the far-right often like to profess a support for free-speech as they think it protects them when they spew their bile, particularly their misogynistic or racist ideas. They do not realise that those who support free-speech do so specifically to be able to debate with such hateful ideologies and, through debate, destroy them. The best way to get rid of hateful erroneous ideas is to debate with those who hold them and make them, and their fellow-travellers, feel embarrassed and ashamed town such thoughts.
The fact that his book was popular with young men was interesting as this is a demographic not often drawn to reading. This in itself did not cause me concern, despite Cathy Newman’s obvious distaste for the book, but it did suggest to me that I should read his book. A quick trip to the kindle store and three days later I was finished. It was a gripping read and one of the best books I have read in a long time.
To be fair this is a “pop psychology” book. It is written in easy chapters, each describing a basic rule. For example “Chapter 6 : Set you house in perfect order before you criticize the world“, and so on. He writes well and is an erudite thinker with a wide knowledge base. He starts each chapter with a story to outline his thinking on the subject or rule. He then considers the cultural history and scientific knowledge about the issue before completing the chapter with practical advice on how to apply this knowledge to your own life.
Much of his thinking is based on current knowledge of scientific psychology but it is mixed with practical experience of working in clinical psychology, especially in working in the field of deep insight orientated psychology. He refers back to Jung, Neitzsche and Adler as well as to recent neuropsychologists. But perhaps more interesting is his use of knowledge of religious history. He looks at how the major religions have addressed psychological issues such as suffering, death, guilt and happiness and points out, whether you believe in a deity or not, that religion was mankind’s way of making sense of our life experience and many of the lessons learnt millennia ago are just as applicable today.
In essence, I discovered a very readable and wise book. I am glad it has been successful as it will prove much more valuable that many of the faddish self-help bibles which have come and gone. The chapter on parenting is a valuable counterpoint to many of the prevailing mistakes we are making today. I found no evidence of misogyny or racism at all. Certainly there were some areas where he suggests that our evolutionary history has meant that some biological factors continue to influence our gender behaviours and he does not agree that this is entirely a social construct. Indeed, this might be his heresy. Today, we are meant to believe that all aspect of gender are socially constructed and that, barring organs of reproduction, there are no differences between men and women. This is clearly not true and the scientific literature attests to this. Unfortunately this is becoming a rather inconvenient truth and one that is not allowed to be said. I think this was the dynamic underpinning Cathy Newman’s interviewing style.
This is a problem. Womens’ rights have improved over the recent years but there is still a long way to go. If we are to obtain equality and fairness we will have to continue to fight for it. However, if there are uncomfortable facts, if there are biological factors influencing our behaviours, then we need to know about them and discuss them. It will not help our progress to pretend they do not exist and to cry “heresy” when people raise them. Biology is not necessarily our destiny but it has a bigger influence when it is ignored or denied; as a man I may be more prone to aggressive behaviours than a woman (on group averages) but knowing this only means I need to be more mindful. It is not an excuse and has no exculpatory power. For example, if I want to be a good man I need to know how to control and curb my aggressive instincts, to pretend that these impulses are not there helps no one.
I think therefore, on this occasion, Cathy Newman was wrong. Rather then trying to explore or debate his ideas she tried to shut him down. Others, with a similar agenda, have tried to minimise his works by smearing it, and him, as alt-right or similar. This means that his genuine insights are not considered but more importantly those young men who find meaning in his writings will be pushed and corralled into the area occupied by those who are indeed of the alt-right. This is a danger, as Peterson is aware, we need to help men to maturity and insight in our society, we need to make them more self aware, strong and confident because “if you think tough men are dangerous, wait until you see what weak men are capable of”