As of 12 February over 6.8 million people have watched a “debate” about gender politics between clinical psychologist (and YouTuber) Jordan B Peterson, and Cathy Newman, a Channel 4 news presenter. Jordan is a clinical psychologist in Canada who 4 years ago started putting his lectures on YouTube, whereas Channel 4 News is a mainstream broadcaster, known for having more “lefty” beliefs. Together, Cathy and Jordan cover the gender pay gap, Jordan’s recently released book, and the politics of campus protestors.
Yet this was no debate, and it does not deserve the views or the acclaim that it has been getting. It is an embarrassment.
First; Oxford Dictionary Online says a debate is:
So this formal structured discussion, featuring arguments from only one side, Jordan’s, and questions only from the other side, wouldn’t count. Not only this, but in the description itself the segment is described as a “fiery interview”, despite Cathy confusingly calling it a “spat” and a “joust” on twitter.
So, not a debate!
Of course, this makes for an agonizingly laughable “debate”!
Clearly, the commentators are right. Cathy is an awful debate opponent… Because she isn’t one, and clearly hasn’t planned to be one.
So what is this?
Cathy may like gender politics, and certainly has feminist views, but she is a news presenter first. And so she has done her job making news by doing a controversial interview, not by standing up for feminism in a fierce and well balanced debate; it is simply a matter of goals.
As a journalist, she does a good job. She has done research on Jordan’s work, she asks questions and firmly sticks with them, she doesn’t raise her voice (and she stays good humoured throughout (especially at 23:00, in response to Jordan’s “Gotcha!”) and even afterwards on Twitter, stays resolutely upbeat!
I can’t know for certain why this has been framed as a debate on YouTube. Perhaps conflict generates more views, and a debate sounds more thrilling and punchy than the far more accurate “interview”, despite being completely misleading.
The upshot of this misleading framing is that Jordan comes across incredibly well in this. His confidence, his technical knowledge and professional background make him seem credible. The absence of an opponent makes his arguments literally incomparable.
For Jordan, this TV spot happened because he needed to promote his book. His goal is to generate interest. On TV, the exposure would have been good. Put on his native terrain, and then framed as a hopelessly unbalanced debate in his favour, the positive exposure becomes almost astronomical in scale.
The Pay Gap Problem
The gender pay gap is ceaselessly misrepresented by both sides. For the right wing, it is an illusion made up by the left wing to artificially pay women more despite them consciously choosing less valuable work. On the left wing, it’s often a very simple lack of equal pay for equal work due to discrimination. People set up stalls like this one to raise awareness of it, and get responses like this:
Jordan first chastises Cathy for using the 9% figure because it is “incorrect” because it is based on gender alone, and doesn’t account for why there’s a difference in pay.
Jordan is a smart man. He makes educated points and remains calm throughout, in the face of Cathy’s ruthless questioning. Yet here he uses technical terms like they are going out of style, and for who’s benefit?
Listening to him, you’d be forgiven for thinking “multivariate” and “univariate” and “analysis” are complicated and inaccessible concepts. Yet with little effort, it’s easy to translate what he was saying:
Gender, or education, or job type, can all change wages. Each of these is a “variable”, and you can compare (“analyse”) how they affect pay, either by asking how only one factor (e.g education) affects pay i.e “univariate analysis” or by several factors work together to affect pay, i.e “multivariate analysis”.
A wasted opportunity
So all Jordan was saying was that many factors affect the pay grade, and that in his opinion, gender is a very small part of what decides your personal wage. By making a repeated and deliberate choice to use the technical terms Jordan fails to clearly communicate his own viewpoint, instead of adjusting for his audience.
At this point Cathy, perhaps to preserve the pace of the interview, continues with questions about the meaning of the pay gap, instead of delving into merits of different statistical techniques. Who could blame her? It’s prime time TV, not a statistics lecture!
Even if you do account for those different job types and hours or Jordan’s favourite wage factor; “agreeableness”, you clearly show that women, as a group, have jobs that are lower paying, have fewer hours, and are less assertive. It is genuinely debatable if this is a problem. Yet it is swiftly moved on from to a discussion about women having children and “weak” partners, a topic -conveniently- covered in Jordan’s book.
The Problem with the Lobster
Jordan talks at length about his views on gendered politics, yet unprompted, whilst he’s deep in his lobster story, he reveals:
“…there’s this idea that hierarchal structures are a sociological construct of the Western patriarchy and that is so untrue that it’s almost unbelievable.”
Now, Jordan has the right to be as informed and as knowledgeable as he likes.
But this statement shows he has formed a viewpoint without even acknowledging the core points of the field of gender research! Whilst in the middle of using cherry-picked research to support his views, he reveals that he lacks basic understanding of the field he’s discussing; and what’s more, it’s by his own choice!
If he doesn’t care enough to explore the field of gender studies in his own time in depth and find better arguments, then a genuine opponent would have made no difference to him. Evolutionary psychology, which he uses to say that humans are wired to detect status in the same way that lobsters are, is a known controversial area of psychology. It claims that our distant evolutionary relatives’ brains are relevant to our own, despite all the ways they are significantly different and evolved for entirely different lifestyles, bodies, and environments. It is telling that Jordan thinks that this is strong and convincing evidence, despite how weakly humans are related to lobsters. Even during his story, he uses responsiveness to serotonin as a sign that lobsters are comparable to humans, despite serotonin appearing across the animal kingdom as a positive reinforcer.
However, in this specific situation it was especially easy to “win” the “argument. The interview style transformed Jordan’s lack of engagement and hostility to new ideas into a shining example of “keeping frame” and appears to a neutral observer as confident and knowledgeable, as an authority. However for Jordan, who limits what he knows on purpose, it’s clearly not about being right; it’s about winning.
How it could have been different
A person who knew about the theoretical background of gender would be able to explain the pay gap in debate in a much clearer way, without needing Jordan to make himself understood, in a way that would have investigated the social construct of gender roles and how pressure and society shape our economic choices and roles.
A person with experience would not be baffled by his confusing and scientific analogy about lobsters, serotonin, evolution and a “status node” and would be able to communicate the difference between draconian identity laws and the importance of entrenching human rights in legislation, the difference between social equality and “technical” equality in law, etc.
They might even avoid using gendered arguments that pit genders against each other to avoid presenting a binary situation and encourage solutions based on individual rights instead!
They could sensitively avoid invoking trans people’s rights as a rhetorical tool for an argument about government control if they were cis-gender* themselves, because it’s not their fight. (*cis-gender = not trans!)
A more radical individual might even criticise the emphasis on money, wages, and capitalist status that are the focus throughout this segment, given the inequality throughout the world and irrelevance of wealth compared to social support, child-care availability and work-life balance problems.
Even if Jordan continued to ignore the entire field of gender studies, a counter-balancing view would highlight alternative ways of thinking to the audience and introduce more aspects of nuance. It might have balanced the playing field, and presented a genuine debate, with an overall less clear-cut “winner”.
Ultimately Jordan is a self-promoter more than a free-thinker. If he wasn’t, he would’ve ensured he had an opponent to bounce off to expand the conversation. He now claims to regret that the video has gained so much attention despite not going into deeper discussion, but that is an easy claim to make in hindsight, from his now viral position as the debate’s winner.
If both Channel 4 and Jordan Peterson hadn’t been afraid to genuinely have this conversation, we might have had a better and more constructive experience. Ironically, this could even put Jordan in a better light; he starts this segment talking about his philosophy of self-improvement and self-competency for improving the world. Removing the smokescreen of gender inequality “controversy” would make his arguments clearer, less hostile, and more in the spirit of the positivity he claims to stand for.
Jordan says people really want reciprocal relationships; that this is what we thrive in. Jordan is right. This mess of a non-debate could have been so much more reciprocal and effective. We urgently need reciprocal discussion about the ideas that have propelled this video to fame, but this video isn’t it.
Did you find this debate embarrassing and difficult to watch like I did, or do you think it encouraged more discussion of gender politics? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear what you think!