The Atlantic recently featured a great article on modern debating and communication methods. The article discusses an interview/ debate (see here for original debate) between a University of Toronto psychology professor and clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson; and a British journalist, Cathy Newman. Throughout the interview Newman tried to cast Peterson as an anti-feminist, patriarchal conservative that is against equal pay for women and the promotion of LGBT rights. Given the way Peterson was portrayed, one may be forgiven for thinking so, especially in light of Newman’s nonstop accusation and the simplification of Peterson’s nuanced arguments.
Instead of denouncing Newman’s methods (something which the Atlantic piece has adeptly done), I want to use this piece to point out the main points of contention between Peterson and Newman, and illustrate how these differences mostly stem from differences between normative statements and positive statements. Despite the interview lasting nearly 30 minutes, this was not a conversation: it was one-side spilling objective facts about the world the other did not want to hear and the other side trying to make accusations that were false and irrelevant to topic at hand.
However, despite the rhetorical victory Peterson may have scored (it is certainly being played that way in the mainstream media), I am sadden by what I see as a pyrrhic victory. What could have been a learning moment for both sides turned to be bitter accusations with the two sides leaving no less convinced of the other’s view point. Peterson was successful in convincing a neutral audience that he was right, but I doubt he brought over anyone from the opposing camp (Newman’s).
I have structured this piece in two parts that can be read independently. Part 1 is my take on the interview between Peterson and Newman and the chief source of their disagreement. Part 2 is my analysis on why Peterson ‘s method of communication will ultimately fail to convince the opposing camp despite his arguments being logically sound and correct.
Part 1：My take on the interview
I want to break down the interview into three mains portions to demonstrate the divergence in their conversation.
- Does a male-female pay gap exists in the UK and why?
Early in the interview, Newman threw in the observation, on average, women in the UK are paid 9% less than men in hourly earnings. Newman uses this observation to make the assertion that sexism remains rampant in the UK labour force. Peterson quickly rejects this claim and tries to dig into why this 9% percent gap exists.
Peterson set out his views clearly on topic, first in a technical way, then in plain English. In technical terms, Peterson said, “multivariate analysis of the pay gap indicate that it doesn’t exist”. For those who need a quick refresher on what multivariate analysis means, it is implying there are multiple variables that can explain what has occurred (the pay gap) –one of which is gender. According to Peterson, variables such occupation type, age and personality (especially the trait agreeableness) explains the vast majority of the 9% difference between the male-female pay gap in the UK. In simple English, Peterson backtracked and conceded to Newman by stating, “There is prejudice, there is no doubt about that. But it accounts for a much smaller portion in the variance in the pay gap than the radical feminists claim”. He later concluded, “I didn’t deny it [the pay gap] existed, but I denied it existed because of gender”.
Up until this point, Newman has refused to engage with Peterson on what he is actually saying. She sticks with the simple claim that the 9% wage gap exists simply due to sexism and tries to twist the argument by making assertions such as “You are saying it doesn’t matter if women are not getting to the top” and “why should women put up with those reasons”. Neither questions engage with what Peterson is discussing, they only succeeded in making Newman look ignorant and gives the impression that she does not understand what a multivariate analysis is. A more nefarious reading may be that Newman perfectly understands Peterson’s arguments but invites Peterson to her studio to project her ideological agenda instead of having an appropriate and mature discussion on the topic.
- Is gender equality a myth?
The second topic of debate evolved around the question “Is gender equality a myth?”. Peterson asserts, “men and women are not the same and won’t be the same, but that does mean they should not be treated fairly” and that “equality of outcome is undesirable “. In Peterson’s view, men and women are simply different, and left to their own will, they will make choices that are not too vastly different from the current result in Western society. Peterson used the example of the female-to-male nurses ratio and the male-to-female engineers ratio in Scandinavia, the most socially advanced area in the world in regards to gender equality, to demonstrate that males and females inherently have different preferences and will naturally make choices that will lead to different outcomes. In Peterson’s view, this difference in outcome should be respected because it is the result of decisions made by rational people under a system which treats them fairly.
Newman rebut by, “so you’re saying anyone who believes in equality … should basically give up because it ain’t going to happen”. Once again Newman is not listening to Peterson but just asserts her ideological position on to him. In regard to young girls striving to be the top, Newman injects, “Striving for the top, but you’re going to put all those hurdles in their way, as have been in their way for centuries. And that’s fine, you’re saying. That’s fine. The patriarchal system is just fine.” It seems absurd that Newman would throw in a term like the “patriarchal system” because Peterson never once brought up this term nor does it have any reference to their discussion up until this point.
The difference between their worldviews becomes more evident with the next point.
- Adopting female traits at the top of business
During their debate, Newman and Peterson agreed that “agreeableness” is a feminine trait that has a negative correlation with success in the workplace. The debate revolved around why corporations do not adopt more “feminine” traits such as compassion and care towards its workers and the market. Throughout this debate Peterson maintained his stance that he is just “laying out the empirics” which shows there is no evidence feminine traits such as agreeableness and compassion predicts success in the workplace. Newman, during this part of the conversation, just entirely focuses “because it has never been tried”.
At this point it should be clear, this is not a conversation: Peterson is describing the world as it is and Newman is describing the world as how it should be. Neither of them are wrong but I find Newman’s insistence on beating home the point that the world is not entirely fair to be irritating to his guest. Peterson is not in a person in a position of power and his opinion on the matter is largely irrelevant to the current situation because he is just describing the situation as it is.
Hopefully through these three examples, I have demonstrated that Peterson largely spoke on positive terms and described the world in a cold-objective manner while Newman largely responded to and asked questions that were normative, subjective and less measurable in nature.
But despite factually agreeing with Peterson on all the facts he laid out and largely with the conclusions he arrived at, if his goal was truly to convince the other side of the merit of his arguments, then his communication – how he delivered his message – could have been gentler and it would have achieved a better result.
Part 2： Perception Vs Reality of Discrimination
The topic of discussion revolved around women’s perceived status in Western society. I emphasized on the term perceived because it is often the perception that is more injurious to one’s ego and sense of self-worth than the actual harm inflicted.
Peterson started off the interview conceding, “there is prejudice, there is no doubt about that”. However, there is a problem of perception by stating this, Peterson is an intelligent white male: the stereotypical image of power and success in Western society. Peterson could never have felt the discrimination due sex, race or any other minority traits that could have been grounds for discrimination. This is not to say that Peterson cannot state the facts that he did – of course he can. But this is to say he should have recognized historically women were at a disadvantage position in the workplace and, despite the huge improvements made in the past 50 years, a residual of that form of discrimination continues to exist – as described by one of eighteen variables in his multivariate analysis.
Newman, a female who likely suspect she was discriminated throughout her professional life because of her sex, would not have taken well to his arguments even if had she full-heartedly agreed with his logical arguments. When discussing with people who feel victimized by the situation, rationality and cold-empirical facts are not sufficient and a degree of empathy is required to produce consensus and finally a result. Despite being factually correct in everything he said, empathy was sorely lacking in Peterson’s communication. Ultimately, his communication with Newman was a failure because the flow of empiric and facts was blocked by a wall of emotions involving injustice and feeling being victimized and mistreated.
The truth is likely as Peterson said, after controlling for all other variables, gender explains a small part of the wage gap between males and females. The point that I think outrages females is: despite having small explanatory power – the gender variable still explains something at all! (i.e. t-stat is high and variable cannot be rejected despite having a very low coefficient) To take the example of UK female-male wage gap, the real difference explained by gender may have been less 1%. However, in the eyes of the victim, the perception of being victimized and mistreated based on this variable blows up its significant to explain the entire 9%, negating all other relevant factors – this is exactly the feeling and explanation Newman was selling. This feeling of being discriminated because of one trait becomes the unitary explanation for success/ failure in life. This perception is then hi-jacked by radicals who make ridiculous statements making responsible analysis of the situation politicized, partisan and difficult. Prioritizing ideological positions over actual empirical results do not serve the interests of anyone – including the women who continues to receive the short-end of the stick under the current system.
In today’s society, the feeling of discrimination and victimization is largely an internal process. Gone are the days of legalized discrimination where such acts are codified by law or accepted in public conduct. What has replaced this externally imposed form of discrimination is an internal sense of insecurity regarding one’s identity. Anytime something unfortunate occurs in life, we wonder, is it because I am different that I obtained this negative result?
Two identical situations could occur to two people: one who is confident and one who feels victimized, and the psychological result and feeling instilled could be completely different. The person who is comfortable with his identify, and the way the system treats him, may recognize the adverse event as unique and puts the blame on individuals rather than the system. For example, if I live and work in my own cultural group and my boss passes me over for promotion, I may think my boss is not recognizing my talent and that he is the one with the issue. However, if I am a visible minority living and working outside my cultural group, every small action may be interpreted through a victim’s angle. For the same event, being passed over for promotion, I may interpret the situation as my boss is racist when in fact I could just been underperforming. The problem is no longer he is the one with issues but becomes there is something wrong with me!
This feeling of victimization accentuates all issues and enlarges the difficulties of living in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. Because we can largely – but not fully – dismiss various types of discrimination, there remains a lingering doubt among all minorities on whether I didn’t get what I want because of this one variable.
The world is tough and life is unfair, but hopefully through more honest and caring communication, we can work towards a world where minority traits (sex, race, sexual orientation etc) can be comfortably rejected as reason for why someone is treated in a certain way . The goal is to get to the point where when minorities fail, they blame it on something they did and not on who they are.
To conclude, external discrimination is not entirely resolved but considerable progress has been made in the past 30 years. However, the internal feeling of discrimination: the feeling that one is being treated differently based on minority traits; continues to linger silently in hearts of those who feel different. Ultimately, modern Western society – whether in the workplace, politics, media – has not delivered a sense of belonging to those who see and perceive themselves as different. It is this perception – and not the reality – that will continue to increase social strife and impede true societal progress which would be beneficial to everyone.