Jordan Peterson is a very hard man for journalists to quote.
Some journalists have learned, the hard way, that he is also a very easy man to misquote.
Readers and “Crossroads” listeners (click here to hear this week’s podcast): Perhaps you are among the millions of YouTube consumers who witnessed his famous “Gotcha” moment on Channel 4, during a somewhat tense interview by British journalist Cathy Newman.
This was the viral clip that launched the University of Toronto psychologist even higher into the cyberspace elites. Read the following, from the Washington Times, but know that this is news media territory — on the issue of pro-trans speech codes. This was not an example of what this man is saying in the online lectures that have created a massive digital community:
“Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a trans person’s right not to be offended?” the reporter asked at the 22-minute mark of a 30-minute interview.
“Because in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive. I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now,” the psychologist answered. … “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable. … You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. But you’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me, and that’s fine. More power to you, as far as I’m concerned.”
Ms. Newman paused, sighed and struggled to find a response until her guest interjected, “Ha. Gotcha.”
“You have got me. You have got me. I’m trying to work that through my head. It took awhile. It took awhile. It took awhile,” she said with a repetitive concession.
I will admit that there is a guilty-pleasure factor, when watching reporters try to grill this man.
However, that’s not the point of this week’s podcast or my two recent “On Religion” columns on this topic for the Universal syndicate — “Jordan Peterson: The Devil's in the details of all those YouTube debates.” Click here to read Part II.
It’s obvious why Peterson gets so much analog news ink — his digital ink numbers are simply astonishing. We are talking about an academic force, with 100 or so formal papers, who has 922,000 Twitter followers and 1.5 million subscribers on his YouTube channel. I’ve seen figures for some Peterson “click” stats approaching 35 million. Meanwhile, his latest book, "12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos" has sold 2 million copies.
The heart of the Peterson phenomenon is his work on YouTube, where he speaks — without notes — to massive crowds in sold-out auditoriums. His tone is intelligent, but also sincere and warm, even parental. This professor has been known to shed tears while talking about some of the painful dilemmas facing young adults in our age.
The content, naturally, includes lots of science related to his work as a “depth psychologist.” But he also veers into art, history and, yes, lots and lots of material about religion. There’s an entire series of lectures about the Bible. Check out this encounter with Eastern Orthodox theology, in an event featured in my second column about Peterson.
Another crucial series of four events featured Peterson and atheist apologist Sam Harris. The twist is that Peterson is not a Christian or a religious believer, in any conventional sense. Instead, he is someone who is convinced, by science, that human beings have been structured, “wired” if you will, for religious belief. Click here to watch the second dialogue between these two.
Is any of this “news,” the way most journalists define news?
I don’t know. I do know, however, that it is almost impossible to draw short, pithy quotations from these events. The content is dense and deserves context.
I did my best. I think that the following quotations, from my first column, are the longest direct quotes I have used in my career in journalism.
At the end of one of their Toronto encounters, which reached YouTube late this summer, Peterson said he agreed with Harris on many issues in life. Then the psychologist offered the following remarks, a perfect example of the dense statements that his followers and critics love to dissect.
"The Devil's in the details, of course," said Peterson. "I don't believe that you can derive a value structure from your experience of the observable facts. There are too many facts, you need a structure to interpret them and there isn't very much of YOU. … Part of the way that's addressed, neurologically, is that you have an inbuilt structure. It's deep. It's partly biological. It's partly an emerging consequence of your socialization. And you view the world of fact through that structure and it's a structure of value. Now that structure of value may be derived from the world of fact over the evolutionary timeframe, but it's not derived from the world of fact over the timeframe that you inhabit. And it can't be."
Thus, he added, people may agree that there are logical differences between "the hellish life and the heavenly life, say, the life that everyone would agree is absolutely not worth living and the life that we can imagine as good. And I do believe that we should be moving from one to another. The question is, exactly, how is it that we make the decisions that will guide us along that way. I don't believe that we can make them without that a priori structure. In fact, I think that the evidence is absolutely overwhelming that we can't, and I mean, also, the scientific evidence.
"I would like to go further into the Devil that is in those details. So that's my situation at the moment."
See what I mean? Can you picture Associated Press-style reports about that kind of content?