One ingredient in the astounding fame of Jordan Peterson is his capacity to show just how lazy, obtuse, unprepared, smug, knee-jerk, and prejudiced are many journalists at leading publications.
In a tendentious New York Times profile, for example, Peterson is held up for ridicule when he cites “enforced monogamy” as a rational way of fixing wayward, sometimes violent men in our society. If men had wives, they’d behave better, Peterson implied, and they wouldn’t “fail” so much. The reporter, a twenty-something from the Bay Area, has a telling response to Peterson’s position: “I laugh, because it is absurd.”
Her condescension is unearned. With no background in social psychology or cultural anthropology, she doesn’t get the framework in which Peterson speaks. But that doesn’t blunt her confidence in setting Peterson’s remarks into the category of the ridiculous. And the category of the sexist, too, as the subtitle of the profile makes clear: “He says there’s a crisis in masculinity. Why won’t women—all these wives and witches—just behave?”
By “enforced monogamy,” though, all Peterson means is a society that prizes stable one-to-one relationships, not a society that forces women into domestic servitude. It’s a term drawn from sociology (hardly a right-wing, patriarchal zone). But the reporter, Nellie Bowles, casts it as pernicious nonetheless. She didn’t bother to do any homework in the fields in which Peterson works.
Another blatant case of ineptitude is an interview a Vox reporter did with a feminist philosopher, the subject being Peterson’s recent book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. The reporter, Sean Illing, displays his integrity with one of his first questions.
Peterson has been called a “sexist” and a “misogynist.” To be honest, I’m not sure this is a fair characterization of his work, but I haven’t read his book and I haven’t listened to all his lectures. I’m curious what you think.
What is one to say about a journalist who not only doesn’t bone up on the central subject of an interview, but also doesn’t realize that admitting this destroys his credibility? (Peterson has a rebuttal to the Vox interview here, where he points out the astonishing professional irresponsibility of the professor.)
A few weeks ago, Peterson sat down with the Economist for a long interview largely on the issue of male-female relations. At one point (around minute 43), Peterson notes that everyone in society is “controlled” in one way or another. The conversation shifts into the ways in which women sometimes get out of control, acting in a “bullying, detestable manner” (Peterson’s words) toward other women. It’s hard to “cope” with that, he observes, because it can be “unbelievably vicious,” and it usually takes the form of “reputation destruction, innuendo, and gossip.”
It isn’t hard to imagine the interviewer, a liberal female, growing irritated at a man talking about women behaving badly. When Peterson concludes that women engage in those kinds of tactics much, much more than men do and states, “That’s what the data indicate,” she has to interrupt.
“Where is that data on innuendo and gossip?” she asks, in a tone blending mockery and annoyance.
Clearly, she thinks that no such data exist. Peterson pauses for a moment, as if he has just understood that she has no awareness of the context of his remarks. The area of adolescence studies has probed these tactics thoroughly, he tells her, and “it’s a well documented field.” Researchers have studied aggressive behavior and found clear differences in male and female expression. Women prefer verbal forms of it, men physical forms.
“There’s a whole literature on that,” he continues.
But the interviewer still has a hard time accepting it: “Just to be clear, you think that is predominantly a female modus operandi.”
Peterson rightly picks up on her choice of words. “It’s not that I think it. It’s that the clinical literature indicates that. … I’m not making this up!”
She still acts as if the whole outlook is new to her, and rather offensive, too. Once again, we have a journalist who didn’t read anything of the background material when she prepared for this interview.
These three cases typify what we might call the Peterson Effect. Peterson brings social science findings to bear on thorny matters of men and women. Those findings run against the progressive goal of eliminating male-female differences. The journalists are unaware of the science, but they are steeped in the ideology. It’s an obdurate mix of ignorance and certainty.
Peterson fans like his interviews because they have experienced that smugness before. To watch someone stand up to it, to hear him cite clinical data and hold firmly against a party line they know is dishonest and coercive—that goes a long way to explaining the Peterson phenomenon.
Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.