Watching the mainstream press try to interview University of Toronto Professor Jordan Peterson, one thing becomes exceedingly clear: they literally can’t even.
While the above expression makes my inner grammar Nazi cry, it is possibly the best description of the predictable sequence of befuddled expressions, desperate strawmen, and whiffed shots fired at Peterson from a growing list of increasingly cautious media personalities.
Cathy Newman’s interrogation of the professor has garnered over five million views, and if one were to judge its contents solely on the consequent collection of memes, pundit reactions, and response/splice videos, one would conclude that Dr. Peterson spent 30 minutes deriding and verbally dominating his interviewer, banging his fists on the table and shouting like right-wing cherry bomb Alex Jones – but that’s not Dr. Peterson’s style.
Instead, the quiet Canadian spent a half-hour discussing free speech, the gender pay gap, and Pepe the frog in such a calm and reasonable manner that even his use of the occasional swear word sounded as though someone swapped “golly gee” out of his script at the last moment.
The interview became a sort of fulcrum for the broader media narrative surrounding Peterson: articles before the interview tried to cast him as a nerdier Milo Yiannopoulos; those since have been notably cautious about casting him as anything.
People familiar with the New Testament might recall a passage from the book of Matthew that details a series of exchanges between Jesus and the Pharisees that concludes with this memorable phrase: “And no man was able to answer him a word, neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.”
Peterson, fond of incorporating biblical themes into his teaching, has almost backed the media into such a corner. In fact, the most recent interviews and articles regard him with a strange blend of cautious hostility and grudging respect.
Their retreat from Peterson stands in stark contrast to their continued onslaught against President Donald Trump, whose inflammatory, braggadocious style has also befuddled – and enraged – the media ranks.
Of course, there’s no love lost between the media and the political right. A brutal Republican primary process established the popular tradition of attacking the media rather than the issue, which would have been difficult enough had the debates not featured Trump and fellow GOP finalist, college debate champ Ted Cruz.
But if mainstream journalists are confounded by Trump’s ability to sidestep policy questions and respond with memeworthy insults, Peterson offers them exactly the opposite problem: he doesn’t present a target at all, but a mirror.
There are several important – and characteristically understated – ways he accomplishes this, and in a nation where fisticuffs and tear gas set the tone of the last year, the political world would do well to learn from his example.
1. He’s intelligent AND humble.
Interviewers are used to handling intelligent people, which is why they go to great lengths to develop “gotcha” questions that force a great mind to remember – and defend – obscure details about things that happened a long time ago. In a more recent interview with CBC’s Wendy Mesley, Dr. Peterson was asked to explain a photo taken of him with a couple students behind a flag of alt-right icon Pepe the frog. The clear intent was to throw Peterson off his game and make him prove that he wasn’t a racist – currently the trendiest version of “do you still beat your wife?”
A quick review of American politics 2015-present will show that many prominent right-leaning voices have stumbled at such an accusation. The urge to dissociate, obfuscate, and otherwise deflect is so strong that few can even bear the suggestion of the r-word without embarking on a tail-chasing episode of denials.
Peterson’s response showcased a mature brand of humility that’s almost impossible to attack. He laughed it off in a way that made the audience uncomfortably aware of just how ridiculously serious the interviewer was taking the whole thing. He explained that the picture was one of thousands with students, many of whom brought props, and the whole thing took only seconds.
More profoundly gripping, though, was his later return to the issue when discussing his own future. Asked why he was afraid that things would go terribly wrong with his newfound activism and iconic stature, he responded that he was afraid of saying something inappropriate. “Why would you say something inappropriate?” Wendy queried.
“Because people make mistakes.”
That simple phrase, and the discussion that followed, not only insulated Peterson against the attacks thrown his way but tapped into the natural empathy of his audience. Everyone makes mistakes. We know this. But somehow our culture has embraced the idea that people on camera should never screw up.
Politicians, journalists, expert consultants, and issue advocates must never say something embarrassing, offensive, or factually incorrect, lest they be shamed forever. But as Peterson pointed out, when one’s professional life consists of lectures, interviews, vlogging, and Twitter, it’s impossible not to make a mistake, and he knows that time is coming for him too, if it hasn’t already happened.
After all, the wisest man ever to live penned the verse “ In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin.”
Too many smart people on the right choose to craft immaculate images of themselves, continually raising expectations until the inevitable slip, from which they often don’t recover. Peterson presents an alternative: acknowledge – no, embrace – your humanity, and don’t build that glass house to start with.
2. He asks them questions – and not just rhetorical ones.
In the above referenced battle between Jesus and the Pharisees, the eventual shutout came when Jesus turned the tables (pun intended) on his interrogators and threw a question they were unprepared for. This, of course, was the tactic Peterson brought to bear on Newman during the now-famous “gotcha” exchange.
Interviewers are used to being in a position of power over the guest. They spend hours preparing questions, looking for chinks in the armor that can be exploited for exclusive web hits. I don’t mean to imply malicious intent – it’s just that media types know what sells, and that’s what they’re digging for. There’s precious little market for two people having a nice cup of tea and waiting for all of this to blow over.
Interviewers become engaged, even invested, in analyzing the answers as they’re coming in, looking for inconsistencies or problematic wording – and this is why they’re so often unprepared for a question in response. As it turns out, many of the people interviewing Dr. Peterson aren’t listening to what he’s actually saying, and as a result are totally unprepared to defend their own suppositions when the spotlight is shifted. And since it alerts the interviewer to the fact that it’s a discussion and not an interrogation, it presents them with a wonderful opportunity to shift gears and join the guest in actually fleshing out the issue at hand.
Every interview has two sides, and if we want to move away from outrage culture and back to reasoned dialogue, then we need to get past the soundbytes and start asking questions to prompt dialogue again, both on and off stage.
3. He ties both the outrageous and the mundane to the eternal.
The “archetypal stories” to which Peterson attributes his popularity capture the imagination of a world bored with the controversy of the current, and provide a connection between our drifting generation and the whole of history.
Think I’m overstating? Take a stroll down the average Peterson playlist on YouTube. He’s the kind of guy who can weave the story of Hector and Achilles into a discussion about the ethics of online dating without anyone batting an eye.
This ability is, of course, the trademark of a cohesive worldview, something postmodern westerners – and especially millennials – generally lack.
His big-picture application tends to stump people used to debating minutia, and that includes most in the media. If you ask him whether the gender pay gap is fair, you’re likely to get a response about whether or not it’s good – and he’ll carefully and patiently explain the difference to you.
It’s the type of response that can perpetually frustrate a hostile media, because in raising the bigger questions, Peterson often exposes the shallow nature of such discussions, and the petty, often insincere nature of the questions being flung at him.
Elevating the conversation reminds the audience of something we often forget – that behind the newsfeed trifles that occupy our fancy lie really big, really important questions about meaning, truth, good, evil, wisdom, honor, and faith. And so doing, it establishes a deeper connection with the audience than the interviewer is capable of duplicating.
In short, no matter what question Peterson is asked, he chooses to talk about things that matter.
Yet if his popularity is a rebuke to the mainstream media, it’s no less a challenge to conservative media to up its game.
While there remains a sizeable niche of people who prefer to watch the Tomi Lahrens of the world point at the camera and make angry faces, there’s a large – and growing – subset of intellectually-hungry millennials looking for something more substantial.
This explains not only the rise of Peterson, but also of thoughtful conservative stars like Ben Shapiro, Steve Deace, and Dinesh D’Souza. These folks show that moderation does not equal centrism, and that thoughtful answers can disarm liberal rhetoric more effectively than MAGA chants.
And that’s something the media – and the rest of the American Left – just can’t handle.