Archive | politics

The Professor of Awkward

When a half hour interview from the Channel 4 news team gets 800k views in a couple of days, you know that something strange is happening. Another 45k people watched it the time it took for me to write this blog post. This sort of thing is normally the slow televised death of a political career. But not this time.

People are rubbernecking the interview of clinical psychologist and professor Jordan B Peterson by Cathy Newman, who is promoting his book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. On the Spectator website, Douglas Murray calls the interview ‘catastrophic’. That may be pitching it rather strongly, even though the interview comes to an actual stand-still at 23 minutes when Peterson risks a ‘gotcha’ at Newman’s expense. It’s fair comment, given she’s just spent 23 minutes try to ‘get’ him.

Good On You, Channel 4

It is to Channel 4’s credit that they showed Cathy Newman’s embarrassing speechlessness at that point rather than cutting back Peterson. And it is further to their credit that they put up this interview on Youtube in full. It seems that they’ve taken this one on the chin. If one impugned their motives, like Newman repeatedly does during the interview, you could say that they can’t take the interview down now, since it would look even worse. And given the video will probably get another million views in the next 24 hours, and be ripped and reposted, the toothpaste is well and truly out of the tube.


Maybe Channel 4 don’t think the interview is all that bad, and here is why I hesitate to use the term ‘catastrophic’ about the interview. Newman approached this interview and asked the same sort of questions that she would a politician. Every question is heavily slanted and loaded with preconceptions that relentlessly assume the worst of the interviewee’s motives and character.

This is rather brutally known as the ‘When did you stop beating your wife?’ approach. The interviewee is then stuck with the dilemma to defend their character or make a constructive point. If they refuse to allow the character slurs to pass by and defend themselves, they’ve normally used up too much time and breath to make the point – and the interview moves on to the next phase of the character assassination. The Left should classify such relentless questions micro-aggressions, but of course the rules are different if it’s a Channel 4 Journalist saying them.

The big difference here is that Newman is not interviewing a politician who doesn’t know what they think from one day to the next, who, for example, voted to Remain and now has to defend Brexit negotiations. This is not a camera-shy bumbling academic who is grateful for and embarrassed by the attention. She is interviewing a steely professor of Clinical Psychology who knows his stuff, and has had far worse thrown at him with far worse consequences for him than public embarrassment. Newman’s interviewing him cat-and-mouse style as if she knows what he must really think, but he’s playing a completely different game in which he turns out to be the cat.

So here’s the interview. I highly recommend watching all of it. It’s a slow-burn but well worth your time. And here are few thoughts on it below.


The Breakdown of the Breakdown

Let’s just break things down briefly as a few of Newman’s questions popped out at me when I was watching the interview. At the very beginning, Newman asks an open question.

“You’ve said that men need to grow the hell up. Tell me why.”

She lets him speak. Her tactic may be to give himself enough rope to hang himself, since he’s clearly written a book that she finds objectionable. He doesn’t seem shifty or repentant, but confident and well informed for a couple of minutes.

1m53: She sticks with the plan and asks another open question about the male crisis that Peterson is putting forward.

“What’s gone wrong then?”

2m32: Newman asks:

“Does it bother you that your audience is predominantly male? Isn’t that bit divisive?”

This question assumes that having a predominantly single-gendered audience for a Youtube Channel is regrettable in some way. This is an odd question given there are plenty of TV shows, books, industries and celebs that veer towards one gender or another, including many TV shows on Channel 4. They sell advertising partly on that basis.

But it is odd that Newman can’t take a book seriously unless it’s aim squarely at both genders. This seems a bizarrely proscriptive approach, but this becomes very much the motif of the interview.

2m45: When informed that YouTube is used more by men and Tumblr more by women, for which I’ve seen no evidence but I’m happy to take Peterson at his word (Pinterest I would have no problem believing is predominantly female), Newman says:

“So, that’s the way it is”

She says this as if internet platforms should all aim for a 50/50 gender split of usership. This fits in with what comes later. Newman is after equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. At this point, she seems unwilling to make that distinction. Perhaps she’s never been required to before. Let’s keep going.

3m08 Newman says:

“So you’re saying women have some sort of duty to help fix the crisis of masculinity.”

Watching the interview for the first time, this was the first comment from Newman that really jumped out at me. It’s not a huge logical leap she makes, but a subtle, disingenuous hop that Peterson’s theory of the crisis of masculinity needs to be solved by women (as if they didn’t have enough to do). Peterson has not said that at all. He has said that if women want men who aren’t overgrown children, they might like to take some action. In response to Newman, Peterson doesn’t jump on the word ‘duty’ but again, pushes things back to free choices. We are the product of the choices we make. I wonder if, fundamentally, this is what Newman can’t accept.

The interview moves on to some deeply awkward issues of male and female gender dominance, low expectations of relationships and general dysfunction.

4m17 Newman says:

“But what gives you the right to say that? Maybe that’s how women want their relationships, those women. You’re making these vast generalisations.”

Actually he’s not. He used the phrase ‘there’s a substantial minority who do that’ (4m07).

“I’m a clinical psychologist”

This is Peterson’s reply. Credentials stated. Newman replies (4m27):

“You’re saying you’ve done your research and you’re saying women are unhappy dominating men.”

Peterson replies:

“I didn’t say they were unhappy dominating men. I said it was a bad long term solution.”

These differences are very minor, but significant and Peterson is showing that he’s not going to have words put into his mouth. That’s very much going to be the pattern of the rest of the interview.

Five minutes in, they start talking about the toxic issue of the gender pay gap, and Peterson will not give an inch of ground. Peterson flatly refuses to over-simplify and Newman clings on to her assumption that there is only equality when everything, every single thing, is 50/50.

6m06 Peterson start to talk about uni-varied analyses. Uh oh. This is complicated whereas the 9% figure that Newman repeatedly returns to is much simpler and more TV-friendly. She knows this. But again, we return to Newman’s unwillingness (or inability) to see that Peterson is trying to describe the world as he sees it, evidentially. And that his descriptions and explanations are not necessarily approval. Newman must be assuming that he can’t possibly bring himself to describe the Gender Pay Gap in this way unless he must, in some way, be in favour of the gap, impossibly sexist or just callous. This is reflected thus:

6m18 Newman says:

“But you’re saying basically it doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top because that’s what’s skewing that gender pay gap, isn’t it? You’re saying ‘Well that’s just a fact of life. Women aren’t necessarily going to get to the top.'”

Peterson replies:

“No, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter, either. I’m saying there are multiple reasons for it that aren’t being taken into account.”

Newman goes on:

“Why should women be content not to get to the top?”

Peterson replies:

“I’m not saying saying they should put up with it. I’m saying that the claim that the wage gap is only due to sex is wrong. And it is wrong. There’s no doubt about that. The multi-varied analyses have been done. Let me give you an example-“

Newman doesn’t let him. And she talks about how unfair the 9% gap is, and his attempts to say that she should be interested in why the gap exists is irrelevant.

Earlier in the interview, Peterson acknowledged that the gap looked unfair but you have to dig deeper. Newman doesn’t seem interested in doing that, which is a pity because this is meant to be an interview. But it isn’t really an interview any more. It’s an interviewer with opinions telling an interviewee with data and analysis why he simply must wrong.

And then we hit a point at which demonstrates why Peterson has shot to fame in the last year, and we’ve seen hints of it already in this interview. And how he rose to prominence in the first place. He simply will not say the little thing someone wants him to say in order to avoid confrontation. It’s a tactic that normally works very well, especially with agreeable people. But Peterson is not agreeable. And nor, as he discovers, is Cathy Newman. That part of the interview (16m53) is rather delightful.

But this earlier salvo is revealing:

7m08 Newman is still clinging onto her killer 9% pay gap stat, regardless of Peterson’s interrupted presentations of multi-varied analysis, and says:

“But do you agree that it’s unfair if you’re a woman?”

She is hoping for at least a hint of compromise. Peterson’s already said it looks unfair. She’s got to come away from this is something.

But she’s out of luck. Peterson replies:

“Not necessarily.”

And so it goes on. He just will not say the thing that she wants him to say.

She shouldn’t be surprised at this. This is the man who made his name for his refusal to use legally required gender pronouns because he argues the state of Ontario has no right to insist that he do this. He has studied how this process played out in his book and lectures called Maps of Meaning. He is the Professor of Awkward. That’s his power.

That’s why this interview plays out as it does, and why Newman is continually set back on her heels. Her techniques, which are no different from those of many interviewers, normally work.

Not this time.

For more of this sort of thing, you might like to by Death by Civilisation by James Cary, a series of articles about politics, media, faith and culture. Available here.

You can also listen to James Cary talk about church, culture, media and everything in between with Barry Cooper on the Cooper and Cary Have Words Podcast.

Since this article was written on 18th Jan, some people have kindly corrected my error with univaried/univariate – but I left it incorrect as I don’t want to rewrite history. And also someone has edited the interview and gathered up every single time Cathy Newman tells Jordan Peterson what he’s saying. Worth a look.


We Need to Talk About Harvey. And Mike.

The revelations about Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, are shocking and appalling. All the details and allegations are easily accessible so there is no need to repeat them here. But how did this happen? A powerful man abused his position, authority and sheer physical size to do things he has publicly admitted he should not have done.

Many women seeking the help or approval of a powerful man in a private closed meeting are made to feel nervous. My Facebook feed is littered with horrible #MeToo stories of women in such situations with creepy men who did, said or implied vile and inappropriate things.

(Official White House Photo by Benjamin Applebaum)

How could these situations be prevented? There is one way of sensibly avoiding many them. So can we talk about Mike Pence?

Now, many reading this might already have made up their mind on Mike Pence, because he’s an evangelical Christian, or a Republican, or because he is a consort to Donald Trump. Click here for the latest character assassination by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. It’s a long article but you can probably tell what she thinks about him from the title: The Danger of President Pence Trump’s critics yearn for his exit. But Mike Pence, the corporate right’s inside man, poses his own risks.

Pick your reason to hate him. And the mainstream media were utterly delighted to find a new one back in March. It was revealed that he will not dine alone with a woman other than his wife. This was from a dredged up interview with Mrs Pence from fifteen years ago. (Note: What was Harvey Weinstein doing 15 years ago? Oh yes.) And, according to the New Yorker:

… if he attends an event where alcohol is served and “people are being loose,” he prefers that his wife be present and standing close to him. The recent Washington Post piece that resurfaced these details quotes Ken Blackwell, one of President Trump’s transition-team advisers, on Mr. and Mrs. Pence: “You can’t get a dime between them.”

Pence clearly adores his wife and doesn’t want anything to compromise that. In the view of the New Yorker, and the Atlantic, that makes him a sexist pig. Jessica Valenti agreed in the Guardian where she wrote:

Pence is a misogynist. We know it from his voting record, we know it from the things that he’s said about women’s rights and now we know it because of his odd personal rule not to dine with women alone.

Twitter and social commentators all joined in, gleefully pouring scorn on this right-wing jerk who is living in another century. And it’s not just Pence who adopts this code of conduct, rules that were conceived by the popular (in some circles) evangelist, Billy Graham. Olga Khazan, in the Atlantic, explains that this is more widespread:

An anonymous survey of female Capitol Hill staffers conducted by National Journal in 2015 found that “several female aides reported that they have been barred from staffing their male bosses at evening events, driving alone with their congressman or senator, or even sitting down one-on-one in his office for fear that others would get the wrong impression.” One told the reporter Sarah Mimms that in 12 years working for her previous boss, he “never took a closed door meeting with me. … This made sensitive and strategic discussions extremely difficult.”

So, how do we feel about all this now? The first person to publicly point this out post-Weinstein was a Trump/MAGA staffer, Sebastian Gorka who Tweeted: “THINK: If Weinstein had obeyed @VP Pence’s rules for meeting with the opposite sex, none of those poor women would ever have been abused.”

Gorka is, of course, tarnished by his association with Trump (who am I not, for a moment, defending) and so Vox immediately went out of its way to shriek at this entirely reasonable observation about Democrat donor, activist and friend of Hillary and Obama, Harvey Weinstein. If you want a lesson in defensiveness and weapons-grade impugning of motives, I’d have a look at it (you’ll love the bit about Caesar’s wife, which is obviously a parallel here) along with those articles from the Guardian, the Atlantic and the New Yorker.

VP Pence with Linda McMahon. Make of that what you will. (Official White House Photo by Myles D. Cullen)

In all of those publications, Pence’s motives for his rule are always portrayed as entirely self-serving, to avoid suspicion and “that upstanding, honorable men avoid creating situations that might be misinterpreted by supposedly hysterical, unstable women”, according to Tara Isabella Burton in Vox. Are you sure about that, Tara? Is that how you’d describe genuine victims of Weinstein, as opposed to imaginary victims of Pence? I guess not.

The downside of Pence’s rule is obvious. It appears to exclude women from private access to the Vice President in certain situations. It could perpetuate an old boys’ network. You would hope that Pence would go out of his way to grant greater one-on-one access to women on other occasions. I have no reason to suspect he doesn’t do this. He must realise that his ‘rule’ has a cost, and it must be deeply inconvenient to live by – and frustrating for female colleagues at time. But he is clearly willing to pay that cost in terms of being pilloried in the press for days.

As usual, we need to have a grown-up debate. This time it’s about the differences between men and women, which is clearly made difficult by the agenda of those who insist that gender is fictional, a construct or self-determined. And it’s about the trade-offs that have to be made over certain policies and practices. Such a discussion is sadly not possible in the deafening echo-chambers of vociferously stated public opinions.

Meanwhile, my Facebook feed continues to fill up with #MeToo stories of women (and men) who were victims of powerful people abusing their position for their own carnal gratification. It’s all very sad.


For more of this sort of thing, pick up a copy of my book, Death by Civilisation, available on Amazon, and as an e-book, here.


The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt

A Belated Book Review

Despite being a music lover, I don’t listen to music radio. Maybe that’s why I don’t listen to music radio. The inane chat, the adverts and the incessant travel news just get in the way. I find new music in two main ways: Spotify and Shazam. The latter of these two usually involves standing in Starbucks or a retail shop holding my phone up to one of the speakers because I’ve heard a tune I really like. Once I find out the name of the track, I find it on YouTube. At this point, I normally discover the song is a year or two old and has already been listened to 750 million times. And the name of the artist is incredibly well known. And I realise that I am the probably last person in the West Civilisation to hear this song. Essentially, I’m eternally playing cultural catch up. (Also, hot tip: I hear Breaking Bad is really good.)

I mention this because I feel like I’m still playing catch-up with books like The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. I got a whiff of this American book a couple of years ago soon after it was published in 2012, but didn’t realise that it was a big hit, or at least a big hit among people who read non-fiction. I should have read it before. We all should. It would have helped all of us when it comes to talking about politics, a subject on which we could all use some help.

The book is about how we form our political views and end up sharply disagreeing with each other. Using his own research and drawing on the research of others, Haidt puts forward a very convincing thesis that dispassionate moral reasoning is not the way in which we formulate our moral or political views. He argues that we react to moral situations with gut feelings, and then, when pressed, use moral reasoning to justify that decision. Not only does this ring true in my experience, he presents compelling evidence to, erm, rationalise his gut feeling on this.

So far, quite interesting. But it gets better. How can we explain our instincts on moral or ethical questions? What makes us rush to the judgments we like to think are based on facts or sound philosophy? In examining this question, Haidt has stumbled on something that explains one of the most tiresome political frustrations of our age, which is: The Left thinks the Right is evil. But the Right does not think the Left is evil. The Right tends to think the Left is stupid.

Haidt has some helpful insights into the way in which people form their political opinions. Those on the Left tend to base their views on perfectly decent criteria, mostly a desire for equality and empathy for those who are suffering. Those on the Right, however, consider these criteria, but balance them with other ones, like the realm of the sacred and the good of the existing community (rather than some speculative utopia).

For example, Haidt points out that conservatives tend to see things that the Left sees as self-evidently positive, like the welfare state and feminism, as threats to personal responsibility and the importance of the family. Despite being a leftist himself, Haidt can see how the Right takes the broader view and how the Left mistakes that for moral deficiency or lack of empathy.

Based on those last two or three paragraphs, you might already be shouting at your screen or scrolling down to the comments section, which is understandable. You’re reacting emotionally, which is what we all do. But the book is carefully nuanced and well argued. If anything he takes a little too long over it. It’s probably 60-80 pages too long, and I confess I skimmed most of the material on the role of evolutionary biology. But The Righteous Mind is worth every penny for the first hundred pages and the last thirty.

To his credit, Haidt is refreshingly open about his own politics, those of academia and the students participating in many experiments. These disproportionately bright and liberal student are highly unrepresentative of the population as a whole and skew the test results accordingly. Haidt also talks about having confronted his own leftist biases and move towards the centre.

Pic by Marc Falardeau via Flickr

But there is an unacknowledged irony that for all of his fair-mindedness and self-awareness, Haidt just cannot bring himself to say anything positive about Republicans. When he talks about the Right, he always specifies that he is positive about certain aspects of conservatism, and is at pains to point out that he is not praising or endorsing anything to do with the GOP. Presumably, he has already enraged his fellow Left-leaning academics enough with the very idea of searching for balance and considering other points of view. The overall effect of this to me, at least, demonstrates that even those with the greatest insights into political opinions succumb to the prejudice of party politics.

The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt is published in the UK by Penguin. And can be purchased here.


The Pointlessness of the Party Conference

or: Why we should all listen to Radio 3 in September

Sometimes, I like to have breakfast to the sound of BBC Radio 3. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that I like classical music. And I don’t like jingles. Much of Radio 3 is beyond me, but the Radio 3 breakfast show is about my level. It’s not for the die-hard purists as it plays single movements and shorter pieces, making at least some concession to the time of day. (No one’s got the best part of an hour to listen to Mahler’s Fifth while eating cornflakes. That many cornflakes is very unhealthy.)

The second reason is that I have young children, and being a middle class parent, I am keen that they appreciate The Arts whilst they have no choice in the matter.

The third reason is that the Radio 3 Breakfast show is mostly music, and very little talking. In particular, there is very little news. Radio 3 would always rather talk about a composer who died in 1723, than a politician who’s desperately trying to get us to eat healthily or vote for them.

On Radio 3, one can avoid the tedious, playground taunting that passes for interviews on Radio 4. One can avoid the incessant reading out of knee-jerk texts and emails from the uninformed listeners on Five Live. And being yelled at on Radio 2, most of the above coming with lengthy travel news reports, even though SatNavs have made this radio obsession almost entirely obsolete.
On Radio 3, you get no travel update, a nod to the news, and then it’s back to a string quartet or sonata. It’s lovely.

Why You Need Radio 3 in September

Radio 3 really comes into its own in September, when party conferences are in full swing. The Media Machine loves to give these events their full attention, grinding out hours of coverage and analysis, not least because they slot nicely into the diary and are easy to cover in depth. As always, the journalists relentlessly focus on politicians and their careers rather than policies that may or may not actually be moral, legitimate, reasonable or good for the country.

Fun times at Party Conference

The media miss the fact that these conferences are completely self-defeating. A party conference can only have two real purposes. The first is a feel-good knees-up with back-slapping speeches where politicians queue up to offer their praise to each other. The party faithful get to feel like they’re part of things and everyone goes home happy, inspired but basically unchallenged. A bit like a Sunday church service when it’s not quite doing its job. (It’s fine to be inspired, but we all know there’s more to it than that.)

The second more useful purpose of a party conference is an introspective search for the party’s soul, what it is and what it stands for. Difficult questions should be asked. Deep philosophical issues should be raised, and then examined, discussed and debated well into the night with a single malt (with someone sober taking notes in case the single malt wins the argument on the night).

The problem, as we have said, is that party conferences are open to the media, and frequently broadcast to the nation – or at least the parts of the nation whose TVs are stuck on BBC2 and can’t seem to get their Freeview/Sky box to change channel. Because the politicians feel under the glare of the nation’s gaze, they act on their mistaken view that the nation likes to see parties united and speaking with one, lengthily-applauded voice..

In the past, for example, Tories always thought people wouldn’t vote for them if they appear divided on the issue of Europe. In fact, those who don’t vote Tory do so for a variety of gut-felt, prejudicial or intellectual reasons, good and bad. Division over Europe is not really one of them. Divisions within religions usually look bad, especially when they end in obscene and hateful language or bloodshed. But everyone expects politicians to at least resort to the former, so why the big deal over presenting a united front on every single policy?

The result is a entirely self-defeating party conference in which every speech given is designed to have the following qualities; vague acceptability to the people in the room; a blandness that it appears is part of mainstream policy and therefore makes the party look united; a lack of verbal gaffes to avoid the attention of the journalists who will report verbal slips with pathetic childish glee; careful use of hand-gestures that cannot be misused to make them look like extremists; and an appeal to the people who aren’t there, aren’t watching on TV and were never going to vote for them anyway.

In short, it’s like trying to conduct a Presbyterian church service, in a synagogue, live on Al Jazeera. It is, at best, a waste of time.

How to accidentally ruin a perfectly decent society

Death by Civilisation

Party conferences should be private affairs, with doors closed and the press excluded. Politicians, SPADs and wonks should lock themselves in a big room and work out what they’re about and why – while the rest of us listen to Mahler’s Fifth eating cornflakes, which can’t be any harder work than watching The Daily Politics during conference season.

A version of this article, and many others like it, can be found in my book, Death by Civilisation, available on Amazon, and as an e-book, here.