Jordan Peterson: Patron of free speech or alt-right recruit?

Gender equality, Chairman Mao and lobsters are three subjects rarely mentioned in the same sentence. But University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson, along with Cathy Newman, in their latest spat on Channel 4, managed just that.

In promotion for Peterson’s new book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, he and Newman bitterly debated such topics as gender equality and transgender rights. But the 5 million views Peterson and Newman have amassed do not come from this, but from issues the interview has shone light on surrounding free speech, the alt-right and journalistic accountability.

Early in the interview, Peterson, despite not denying the existence of the gender pay gap, contested that there are “multiple reasons”, not just “prejudice” and “gender”, for the disparity in pay between men and women. Newman, unconvinced, vehemently condemned any income inequality as “unfair”.

Later, Peterson’s refusal to follow “speech dictates” imposed by the Canadian government concerning transgender pronouns is discussed. Newman, who could be seen to sympathise with these speech regulations, asked why Peterson’s right to freedom of speech trumps a trans person’s right to “not be offended”, a question which has prompted outrage among right-wing activists.

In response, Peterson states that in order to “think” and communicate, one must risk being offensive. As an example, he cites the interview in question, and explains his worry of the realm of speech being taken over by “radical leftists” with ideologies akin to authoritarians like Mao.

Newman has been accused of ‘straw-manning’ Peterson, not least because of her repeated mantra of “so you’re saying”, and is accused of misrepresenting Peterson’s views. For example, Peterson is accused by Newman of “saying it basically doesn’t matter if women aren’t getting to the top”, to which he replies:

“No, I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. I’m saying there are multiple reasons for it”.

Newman: “But why should women put up with those reasons?”

Peterson: “I’m not saying that they should put up with it”.

Newman later accuses Peterson as being a member of the “alt-right” who is simply “stirring things up”, a claim which seems poorly supported. However, Peterson expresses scepticism towards causes like feminism and social equality, giving him the image more of a traditional conservative than an alt-right activist, the latter of which is generally characterised by anti-Semitism and white supremacy.

Indeed, what has surprised viewers is the contrast between Newman’s extreme presentation of Peterson’s views and his seemingly measured and reasonable persona. Unlike other right-wing personalities, namely Katie Hopkins or Milo Yiannopoulos, Peterson’s calm and realistic responses appears to bring critics onto his side rather than alienate them.

Peterson admits that the gender pay gap does exist, and even cites “strategies” he has used with women to help improve their salaries. If modern conservatives and free speech advocates wish to broaden their support, they would greatly benefit from adopting Peterson’s strategy rather than simply provoking their opponents.

According to Channel 4, such has been the uproar against Newman’s journalism that extra security has been called in after substantial ‘misogynistic abuse and threats’. Some have branded this backlash as ‘white men’ angry about the ‘#Metoo movement’, a link that seems rather tenuous given that sexual misconduct in Hollywood was not even mentioned in the interview.

Peterson has condemned any threats against Newman, and stressed his disagreements with her are ‘just words’.

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