“That underlying threat of physicality is always there…”
Jordan Peterson went after The New York Times on Twitter Wednesday for running an op-ed that accused him of having “complained” that men cannot physically fight women.
Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and a public intellectual, called The Times “the former newspaper of record” and bemoaned that it “will publish outright falsehoods with no compunction whatsoever.”
The op-ed by philosophy professor Bryan W. Van Norden, published Monday, was titled “The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience.” Norden argued that the media and other institutions must be more discerning about which viewpoints they give platform to.
“The invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience,” Norden opined.
One such huckster, Norden suggested, is Peterson. As a case in point, he quoted the psychologist as having “complained that men can’t ‘control crazy women’ because men ‘have absolutely no respect’ for someone they cannot physically fight.”
Norden deemed this an “adolescent opinion” unworthy of a hearing.
So is Peterson correct that The Times Opinion Section published “outright falsehoods” about him?
Peterson indeed said the words Norden attributed to him in a videotaped discussion last year with Camille Paglia, an American academic who has been critical of feminism and other aspects of contemporary culture. (The video on Peterson’s YouTube page has been viewed nearly 1.4 million times.)
But Norden mischaracterized Peterson’s meaning.
Peterson did not actually lament that men cannot brawl with women, at least not in the sense of wishing society allowed it.
Rather, he argued that while men are able to compel each other to be “civilized” — bring each other back in line — through physical intimidation, they socially must not to do so to women.
“I don’t think that men can control crazy women. I really don’t believe that. I think that they have to throw their hands up…” he said.
At the same time, Peterson said, “sane women” seem too busy to “stand up against their crazy sisters and say, look, enough of that, enough man hating, enough pathology, enough bringing disgrace on us as a gender.”
As a result, he concluded, “I don’t see any regulating force for that terrible femininity, and it seems to me to be invading the culture and undermining the masculine power of the culture in way that’s I think fatal.”
(Paglia readily agreed, saying, “I too believe this is symptomatic of the decline of Western culture.”)
Norden was also unfair to suggest that Peterson believes men cannot respect women because they are unable to fight them. In fact, Peterson’s comments about respect through fighting were made in the context of his discussion of macho dynamics that he sees as specific to men.
“When men are talking to each other in any serious manner, that underlying threat of physicality is always there, especially if it’s a real conversation, and it keeps the thing civilized to some degree,” he said. “You know, if you’re talking to a man who wouldn’t fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you’re talking to someone to whom you have absolutely no respect.”
Tl;dr: It is of course possible to disagree with Peterson’s views about gender and the emasculation of Western culture. But Norden took issue with an argument that Peterson never made.
The Times did not immediately respond to Pluralist’s request for comment about Peterson’s tweet.
More broadly, Norden’s criticism of the “gatekeepers” of public discourse was in line with liberal complaints about The Times Opinion Section’s recent efforts to feature more conservative viewpoints. Comedian Michelle Wolf last week spoofed the editorial page on her Netflix show for publishing “bad opinions” to win internet traffic.
Earlier this year — amid newsroom unrest and leaks over his hiring of Bari Weiss and Bret Stephens, as well as his firing of brand-new hire Quinn Norton for Twitter dalliances with the alt-right — opinion editor James Benet felt compelled to send out an all-staff email in defense of a “free exchange of ideas.”
Meanwhile, on the right, President Donald Trump has relentlessly bashed the press as “fake news” and “the enemy of the people” for its alleged liberal bias. And conservatives personalities from Ari Fleischer, a former press secretary for President George W. Bush to YouTube stars Diamond and Silk have claimed they are being censored online.
Based on his tweet, Peterson would seem to agree with some of the bipartisan criticism of the media. In March, he threatened to slap a writer who gave his best-selling book a bad review. But Peterson has also championed freedom of speech.
Peterson came to national attention in 2016 for his refusal to refer to students by gender-neutral pronouns — something he said was mandated by a new Canadian law. He led a free speech rally at his University of Toronto and made numerous media appearances in defense of his stance.
In the years since, Peterson has become a leading member of the “Intellectual Dark Web,” a loose network of thinkers committed having a discussion outside the bounds of what they see as the oppressively politically correct mainstream. In a lecture last year at the University of Toronto, Peterson said people’s intellectual fallibility is actually the very reason that unrestrained speech is necessary.
“A lot of what’s necessary with regard to thinking is the freedom to make mistakes, because what, are you going to do it right the first time?” he said. “I don’t think so.”
It would be interesting to hear Peterson’s thoughts on how to deal with the media’s mistakes without compromising his commitment to a wide-open discourse.