Dissecting the Peterson VICE News Interview

A few weeks ago, VICE News' Jay Caspian Kang did a piece of Jordan B. Peterson, "Canada's Most Famous Intellectual," and a large part of their interview veered into the blossoming #MeToo movement and redefining the boundaries of social interaction between men and women. Jordan B. Peterson speaks to the anxieties of a lot of men, mostly white men, because he provides an outlet for the tension caused by other groups getting time on the megaphone. What pulls fans into his orbit instead of the Trump solar system is that he provides the sheen of intellectualism that gives his self-help maxims a sense of gravity. He brings prestige, myth and "rigor" to reactionary resentment whereas alt-right figures just bring anger.

The Differences in Editing

The VICE News interview is a good look into the mechanics of how he forms his world view, even though the YouTube uploader characterizes it as "incredibly dishonest." It's only incredibly dishonest if you think the original cut says something that it doesn't -- namely that Peterson believes that sexual harassment is earned. The edited version allows him the space to qualify his provocations with "I'm not saying that women shouldn't use sexual displays in the work place," and that he doesn't have a stance on whether men and women can work together. But, as we see in the longer version, he still believes serious working women that wear make-up are hypocrites. He still can't separate people who fight sexual harassment with the industry of sexual objectification and exploitation. That's the stuff that's dumb.

The things that change in the longer version are mostly questions of tone. After constant prodding and exploration to get Peterson to complete his thought and clarify his position, Kang finally gets him to say that he would prefer a free, make-up filled workplace over a Maoist uniformed workplace. That changes the tone of the interview from Peterson being aggressively anti-make-up to a provoking, "just asking questions" type of troll. But Kang had to spend over 10 minutes to tease that out of him. Is not some of the misrepresentation on Peterson for not being forthcoming about his views? The fact that Kang has to spend much of the interview just getting to the core of what Peterson is saying means condensing it, especially for a ~10 minute segment on TV, will lead to cutting some important parts of the path to his conclusion. Despite this, I think they do a decent job getting to the substance and cutting out the extraneous detours.

Peterson and the Need for Rules

In the interview, Peterson repeatedly brings up the fact that "we don't know the rules" about men and women interacting in the workplace. "We're new at this," he says, and posits it may take decades to figure out what's acceptable -- which is why #MeToo is a problem. To support this, he brings up NBC HR policy:

"Look at what happened with NBC. Now you're supposed to report your co-workers if you suspect them of romantic entanglements. ... This is a policy. ... It's a response to it, but it's a bad response. You said it's only about being grabbed, no, it's not only about that."

First of all, bringing up HR policy to stoke panic and outrage is weird, because HR policies are designed to protect the company, not workers. They're written in such a way so that in the event something blows up into a major scandal, there are ways they can throw their hands up and say "we had a policy, you should've followed it, this is not on us." As clumsy as the policy is, to throw panic at this NBC policy is to deliberately undermine the rising tide against sexual harassment in order to preserve the status quo. It also implies that we don't trust women to separate flirting from harassment, that as soon as we give them the power to say what they will and won't accept, it will largely be abused -- maybe because we as men have abused this power and system before.

Peterson objects to the changing sentiment because the ideas aren't "concrete enough" to form a real change and that no one "knows the rules." This is a mindset that appeals to STEM enthusiasts that hate the humanities because they don't understand how they got a C+ in English class. These are the people that bristle at the idea that there is no verifiably right or wrong answer, no equation to work out or back of the book to double check, in the arts so the whole thing must be a sham. To bristle at an unknown in human interaction is a weirdly immature reaction.

There will always be a unknowable boundaries when interacting with other humans. Could one person read an interaction as flirting that another person reads as harassment? Yes, that's within the realm of possibility. But that variability and subjectivity doesn't automatically disqualify the conversation. That just means it's challenging. Today we are being asked to revise our cultural consensus to challenge men in particular to think harder about our social interactions; to parse out the boundaries of people we have power over; to weigh our self-interest and needs against other people's desires. That takes some perceptive skill and mistakes will be made. Why does that mean it's not worth doing?

We do it already. In conversations with strangers, we test the waters before making risque jokes; we ask questions to get a sense of someone's boundaries before putting forward controversial takes. We don't freely deploy dead baby jokes -- we read people in case they are sensitive to it, maybe because of a very personal experience. We build up a level of rapport and comfort before entering that territory, though sometimes we misread the level of trust. In those instances, we apologize and revise our readings. Why is that too much to ask in the realm of sexual harassment? Or racism? or transphobia?

Peterson complaining that we don't have a brightly defined line in the spectrum of make up and negligees willfully ignores the fact that we live in a culture that has norms and expectations. We know what goes too far because we live in a culture that has defined norms through art, media, and culture for decades. Those norms and expectations don't have a scientific logic to them -- but that's okay. That's the whole point of culture, to come to a consensus because everyone's nature reacts in a similar way. Demanding that we get it down to a science ("Skirts can only be 1.25 inches above the knee before they are too sexually provocative") fetishizes the authority of the scientific method over all areas of society and is not how humanity works. Not everything is data; not everything can be optimized.

This hand-wringing over the impossibility of defining rules is just hand-wringing over the potential conflict of different opinions. If we get down the granules of sexual harassment, of examining cases right on the edge of appropriate and inappropriate, just because different co-workers, companies and cultures would have different judgment does not mean the status quo is not worth overthrowing. We've lived in this for long enough to know it's not working. We spend so much of our energy being devil's advocates, imagining the subjugation of hypothetical men, while ignoring the existing subjugation of women that has existed since time immemorial.

The new path will have mistakes and flaws. But the old path is built on just as many, if not more, injustices. We should see how these new norms fare before turning against the people that are trying to build them.