Progress in Dialogue Again – Helen Lewis and Jordan Peterson

Helen Lewis conducted a long interview with Jordan Peterson for GQ Magazine and a 100 minute version is up on YouTube.

The set-up is journalist “versus” controversial public person – “interrogates” them in a “dissection of masculinity” – was exploited by GQ, whatever Lewis’ own feminist agenda. Explicitly adversarial. (Lots of people commenting on the relative sound and lighting between the protagonists.) Peterson himself saw it as an attempted “take-down”. A grilling, holding the influential to account, etc.

In that sense very similar to the infamous Cathy Newman interview which I’ve written about before, but that was live, within the constraints of a 10 minute or so mainstream-media news segment. In that interview Newman got to the “you got me” aha! moment only a minute or two from the end – and as I’ve said on numerous times since, that conversation really should be taken up again and continued in long form. Newman (like Lewis) has a feminist agenda but as we see in both cases these are highly intelligent and well researched people that bring a lot more to any debate than simply being the journalist primed to ask the awkward questions. (We have plenty of idiot men like John Humphrys for that.)

The real point here is that it may start adversarial by design of the standard journalistic set-up, but the dialogue is far more intelligent than that. Peterson wants you to challenge him and hold his feet to the fire, provided the dialogue is mutual. Peterson is indeed an emotional and quick to anger in his own defense kinda person, but he knows it and is excruciatingly careful in controlling and following-up, elaborating and explaining beyond first reactions.

What we see is that the conversation does evolve into a two-way dialogue. Lewis brings a lot to it, her own intuitive and objective positions. Each challenges the other and common ground emerges.

In Peterson’s case, obviously he defends himself, but the point of doing such interviews is to expose his thinking to the challenge and to challenge others in doing so.  He is nothing if not thoughtful in considering his responses. In fact his whole agenda revolves around understanding the psychology of emotion and intellect in what knowledge and belief lies behind our actions, his own included. It’s his day job.

And it’s Lewis behaviour too, to put up the examples from her own beliefs and experience to the challenge. She’s not always right – like Peterson, she’s also an imperfect human – multiculural society vs multiculturalism, the Pepe flag story, citing PZ Myers as a credible critic(!), the need for ideology, the Dankula blasphemy case. (In the latter, nothing wrong with her position – I just think Baddiel took it to a better conclusion.) But these are deep topics individually and really only get passing air-time in what is already a long conversation. Hierarchies too … don’t get me started. More dialogue is always needed.

My point is, it was an intelligent dialogue with proper knowledge-enhancing intent – both good-natured enough to smile genuinely at each other’s responses, and recognise narrowing of differences and misunderstandings topic by topic.

It’s an excellent interview where absolutely nothing depends on demonising Peterson as some alt-right misogynist bigot. Nothing could be further from the truth. The real danger, as Lewis often alludes, is in the possibility of Peterson’s short-attention-span fandom misunderstanding him, which is of course why he is excruciatingly careful in the more provocative implications of anything he says. His sense of responsibility is clear for all to see. The comment trail below the video also attests to this danger, and Peterson several times mentions struggling with how to manage social-media interaction. First responses are defenses of their “hero”, but in my experience those that actually achieve intelligent dialogue do get to more balanced positions. Job done.

Excellent. Worth the long watch.

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[Post Notes:

Interesting responses and follow-up. Now as I said, JBP is not perfect or conventional in expression of his ideas, and he’s not short on “weird” – both written and spoken – so if your aim is to pick holes, there are plenty of targets to throw rocks at.

GQ posted some short clips as teasers and others dug up older quotes and one-liners. There is a strong agenda to ridicule JBP from those supporting the feminist agenda, but the ridicule rarely addresses any of the actual argument in dialogue. Which is why I say the dialogue itself is so important. Intelligent feminism is a lot more than its stereotype.

His “all beef” diet draws a lot of “snark” – but you need to know the history and background for that exercise.

Many laughed at his old tweet (from a year of two ago) asking the direct question “Why so many of his audience are young men? I wonder why that is?”. That tweet was around the same time as the very emotional Radio5 clip that opens this recent discussion.

I did say above that “hierarchies” per se deserves unpicking along several axes – it’s a really big topic that constantly bumps up against the particular “patriarchy” debate. Many have ridiculed JBP’s use of the lobsters and planets examples. The long quote on the arrangement of celestial bodies being panned as looking like a Sokal post-modernist parody. Leaving out the complexities of why – how come? – JBP is simply highlighting that “equality” (of objective outcomes) is a human social-intellectual ideal that is not a default position in physics or biology and more primitive social arrangements. Things in general are arranged according to any number of attributes in any number of unequal arrangements. (As I say I wouldn’t necessarily call any and all of these “hierarchies”, but the error is misinterpreting presumptions about why, whilst denying any valid reasons why at all. ie it’s complicated – but it’s real – hence the need for proper dialogue beyond men = toxic-masculinity.)

The BBC Radio 5 Live JBP piece, hosted by Nihal Arthanayake is worth a listen. Respect, respect, respect, responsibility, ownership, discipline and rules-as-opportunities. It’s all there. Tim Samuels on “Man’s Hour”. Individual experience and identity vs class attributes and definition – good fences – again.

Ridicule is a right, but it comes with a responsibility to follow-up in dialogue. All life is problem-solving, male or female.]


Also published on Medium.

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