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.

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5 Responses to The Professor of Awkward

  1. Ros January 18, 2018 at 6:16 pm #

    At times it sounds like she is being deliberately obtuse. Weird.

  2. Matt Rad January 18, 2018 at 9:45 pm #

    Nice breakdown – this interview has been the most entertaining thing I have seen so far this year.

  3. Kasper January 19, 2018 at 4:59 am #

    Excellent piece. I enjoyed the blow-by-blow account! Only issue I have with the piece is that it ended too soon. Well done!

  4. Pedant January 20, 2018 at 3:25 pm #

    univariate analysis, multivariate analysis

  5. Nigel Feilden January 22, 2018 at 11:57 am #

    A mild quibble: the word is not “univaried”, but “univariate” – as compared to “multivariate”. The meaning in this context is that Newman is assuming that the “gender pay gap” is exclusively or mainly correlated to biological sex ie male or female. Peterson says that there are many measures (variable – – I think he says 18) which are statistically significantly correlated to said gap, and that biological sex is only one of them and not the biggest one either. I suspect that she is also assuming correlation = causation …

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