“What a terrible indictment of the times we live in.” Those are the words of Ben de Pear, the editor of Channel 4 News, relating to the stream of misogynist abuse levelled at presenter Cathy Newman after her interview with clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson.
Channel 4 News is hiring security experts to carry out an analysis of the incident and is considering police involvement. Peterson, the Canadian professor who compared gender-neutral pronouns to the likes of Chairman Mao’s Communist China, emerged from the interview, at least to his loyal YouTube following, victorious. Twitter erupted with commentary about his genius, his calm, his quick wit. Peterson’s followers were also quick to attack Newman in a way she has described as “vicious”.
When white men feel they are losing power, any level of nastiness is possible, and much power has been ceded recently. Amid the steamrolling effect of the MeToo campaign, of the sudden dominance of gender equality in the news and amid the fall of many Great Men, here comes the whirling centre of the storm, when we have to fight harder than ever to be heard. We are in backlash season.
So, for January 2018, Cathy Newman will be our fall woman. She has taken the baton from the likes of Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC reporter who hired a bodyguard, the historian Mary Beard, who questions the whitewashing of history, Labour MP Diane Abbott, who has the sheer audacity of being a black woman in public office, and Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who dared to reinforce our democracy.
For those angry at the recent resurgence of feminism, they have had to wait for their moment. It’s not easy to defend a serial rapist, or even a one-off rapist, although some people do – let’s not forget that 63 million people recently voted for an alleged offender as President. It’s not easy to defend a sexual harasser, either, although even more people do that. But it is very easy to attack Cathy Newman, the female journalist whose male editor thought it would be a good idea to interview Jordan Peterson.
When questioned by Newman if he believed that gender equality was a myth, Peterson said only if she meant “in terms of outcomes”. There is a reason women, who tend to be “compassionate and caring”, end up as nurses and physicians, he said, while men end up as engineers. If we men and women were to sort ourselves out equally, there would be a dangerous imbalance, he believed. Newman also asked why he had the right to air his controversial views. He replied, “I’m a clinical psychologist”, with the cool calm of a cartoon villain.
Are the media and its employees innocent in this gender equality debate? Certainly not. There has been much wrong with the way the media covered the MeToo campaign: tabloids pointing to the sleazy rather than the systemic; the routine pitting of feminists against anti-feminists, as if required to “balance out the interview”; gifting airtime to the likes of Peterson or, as Channel 4 News also did, to Milo Yiannopoulos. It will get clicks, after all.
The backlash against the MeToo movement has grown since day one, but it has also been precise in its timing. As soon as the conversation evolved this month from the binary “Yes means yes and no means no”, the calls of “witchhunts” and “McCarthyism” were becoming deafening. This month has been a lucrative time for columnists, who are picking the low-hanging fruit of controversy. And even Whoopi Goldberg’s comment – “What happened to ‘Stop, I’m going to knock you in the nuts’?” is illustrative of a widening chasm, a withering patience.
As Newman no doubt was conscious of during her interview, many people involved in MeToo have not had it easy. They may have been survivors of assault, and were forced to watch as their credibility was debated in what right-wingers describe as the “court of public opinion”. There was the woman who wrote the Shitty Media Men list, and was threatened to be outed. Heroes have fallen on their own swords, like women’s rights lawyer Lisa Bloom. Men and women – yes, so many women, too – have written simplistic, damaging and tone-deaf op-eds, like Bari Weiss in The New York Times and Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic. The interview with Peterson was well-timed, in a sense.
There is no doubt that Peterson was intelligent, determined and quick. No doubt, indeed, that the Channel 4 News interview was entertaining. But his words, on closer inspection, were vacuous and confusing, and he left gaps. He failed to mention social conditioning, whereby boys are encouraged at school to study STEM subjects and play with action men, and to not show emotion. He failed to mention that any profession dominated by women – except at the very senior levels – goes hand-in-hand with being underpaid and undervalued – ie nursing and teaching. He overexploited one aspect of the pay gap (there are five main ones, as noted by professor Tom Schuller’s Paula Principle theory) that some women prioritise work/life balance over difficult careers, and that is why they are paid less. His answer as to why items marketed for women cost more than for men? “Men don’t put up with it”. He also failed to mention how centuries of patriarchy have brainwashed us, making us accept the status quo as logical and necessary, and one that benefits us all. He believes it, too.
“Got ya,” Peterson said when Newman fell silent for a few seconds. Peterson laughed. The joke was on her, in a way. No matter what she would have asked, a woman daring to question his expertise was bound to have ramifications. Especially in 2018.
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