My first introduction to Jordan B. Peterson, a University of Toronto clinical psychologist, came by way of an interview that began trending on social media last week. Peterson was pressed by the British journalist Cathy Newman to explain several of his controversial views. But what struck me, far more than any position he took, was the method his interviewer employed. It was the most prominent, striking example I’ve seen yet of an unfortunate trend in modern communication.
First, a person says something. Then, another person restates what they purportedly said so as to make it seem as if their view is as offensive, hostile, or absurd.
Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and various Fox News hosts all feature and reward this rhetorical technique. And the Peterson interview has so many moments of this kind that each successive example calls attention to itself until the attentive viewer can’t help but wonder what drives the interviewer to keep inflating the nature of Peterson’s claims, instead of addressing what he actually said.
I remember, many years ago, reading an article about Queens of the Stone Age which mentioned an incident at a show. A heckler in front of the stage was shouting something derogatory at Queens singer Josh Homme, whereupon Homme, speaking into the microphone for comedic affect, pretended to decline the offer of various gay sex acts. The crowd laughed, of course. Homme followed up with, “You know, moron, no one can hear you but me, whereas I have a mic and a P.A. system.”
Most of us have had the experience of seeing a topic we happen to be especially knowledgeable about become the focus of a news article or program. And most of us would agree that we’re often appalled at the superficial, misleading impression an uninformed reader/viewer would get, and we wonder briefly how much else of the news is like that, on topics we don’t know much about, where we rely on the reporter to give us a fair summary. At that point, we generally turn our thoughts away hurriedly rather than continue to stare into that abyss. Still, up until social media mildly reduced the power and information disparities, many people knew what it was like to be in the position of a heckler shouting in vain to be heard, as those with the microphones, bylines and TV cameras enjoyed the freedom to misrepresent them to a vast audience. Far from being a “trend,” this game of malicious Telephone has long been the norm for the media, and contrary to Friedersdorf’s partisan naïveté, it isn’t only social media and Fox News who play it.
As a rule, I despise watching videos. I wasn’t going to watch the Newman/Peterson interview until I decided to write about it, at which point due diligence required me to know whereof I spoke. I had seen a few people whose opinions I generally trust mention what a fiasco it was, but I had to see for myself, so I watched the entire thing. Yes, it turns out that their descriptions were accurate (though I hope no one reading this is so duncelike as to accept my word for it either). I’m afraid there are no dignity-saving options for Newman here. She’s either breathtakingly dumb or shockingly dishonest, perhaps both. On second thought, there is the possibility suggested by, I believe, Nicholas Christakis: somehow, Newman made it through an Oxford education and a media career and arrived at the age of 43 having never been directly exposed to anyone whose ideas ranged beyond the shibboleths and bromides of her left-wing media class. Whatever the case, the only things that make this incident unusual are, one, Peterson’s remarkable ability to stay calm and coherent when faced with a hostile, incompetent interviewer, and, two, the fact that he has enough of a devoted following to keep the clerisy from having the final word. He did his part by keeping cool and being reasonable, and they did their part by making the interview go viral, where even media figures like Friedersdorf in a sad excuse for journalism like the Atlantic are forced to take notice and say, “Wow, that was really awful.”
But there is a way to reduce needless division over the countless disagreements that are inevitable in a pluralistic democracy: get better at accurately characterizing the views of folks with differing opinions, rather than egging them on to offer more extreme statements in interviews; or even worse, distorting their words so that existing divisions seem more intractable or impossible to tolerate than they are. That sort of exaggeration or hyperbolic misrepresentation is epidemic—and addressing it for everyone’s sake is long overdue.
Well, yeah, assuming people want to understand better and communicate more honestly. They don’t. There are various incentives that keep it that way, from the economics of viral clickbait and monetized outrage to the psychology of tribalism, boredom, and mischief-making. And on the personal character side, many if not most people are intellectually lazy. “Read the whole thing? Watch the whole video? Hell with that; what does the social media telephone say?” It takes a lot of time and effort to be informed. Most people would prefer to keep churning out ephemeral “content” to keep up with the attention-deficient news cycle. Yes, social media frequently makes people nastier and stupider. But, people being people, they don’t care, because, as W.H. Auden wrote:
We would rather be ruined than changed.
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.