When you think you are winning …

So, here’s the thing.  A few people saw this interview Jordan Peterson interview and began highlighting it as a great example of how to do battle with hostile, sceptical people who misunderstand you, sometimes wilfully.

I watched the interview and my reaction was.

1.       This doesn’t look like a great victory. I think in terms of the neutral observer it looks like a 0-0 draw.  I think he managed to defend himself okay. He didn’t lose his temper and he didn’t fold and concede -the two things we all fear we will do in such situations. However, did he really cut through and argue a case convincingly? Now, that might not be his aim in such a situation but I’m not sure it wouldn’t  be our aim.

2.       I suspect that a lot of people who watched the interview will come from a world view that Cathy Newman represents. What will they have seen?  I am not sure they will have seen it the same way. They won’t have just listened to arguments. They will have observed body language, tone etc.  Now this is awkward because it is a little subjective but I suspect that where some people heard a rational and calm man talk about evidence based facts, others will have seen a man who comes across as awkward and diffident and tells us that certain things are facts and that he is a clinical psychologist, they will quite probably have interpreted that as arrogance (note I’m not saying that it is – I’m saying that people interpret tone and body language and actually that can be quite wrong. I don’t happen to think this is an example of arrogance here) and if they pushed harder, they would have felt that the “facts” were significantly shaped by his perspective and presuppositions. They will not have been convinced that he was presenting factual evidence. Now, this isn’t something he can do much about because he isn’t a politician, he isn’t geared up for interviews. However, it is a reminder that there is more going on in communication than the specific propositional content of what we say.

3.       I add a third factor into this – how do we engage with people and ideas? Now, I think that most people highlighting the interview are brilliant at making careful distinctions. I’m not sure we should assume that everyone – especially everyone on twitter does.  Don’t under-estimate the ability of people to read your highlighting of a point of view as a support/defence of them.  This will include people who are your “friends.” Who now see someone else as their friend because they are a friend of a friend – but you never intended that.

4.       Then linked to point 3, the egalitarian hears an interview that talks about distinctions between men and women and they see people who also make distinctions between men and women and their roles jumping in and being positive about the guy making the points and negative about the person opposing him.  What does the egalitarian see? They see “friends” or “allies.” So, when we say “oh no, this isn’t a friend, they just happen to have views that sound a bit like ours but really we were just impressed by how they handled themselves in a disagreement.”  Now, when I see one of my fellow conservative evangelical complementarians say “Hey guess what, here’s this feminist and I fundamentally disagree with her but I was really impressed by how she handled herself when that right-wing zealot was being really offensive and misrepresenting her position.” Well, then I might sit up and take notice.

The thing about both points 3-4 is that like it or not, it isn’t just secular liberals who are mixed up in virtue signalling. We may think we are not sending those signals out but we are … all the time -and that is primarily what the un-nuanced world of twitter does.  Those 140 or 280 character tweets have conveyed a lot more than we may think.

5.       There’s a point in the interview when Cathy Newman stops and says “ah you’ve got me…” actually as I’ve said before, I don’t think she is as “got” as she thinks she is. However, I want to suggest that at that point, she is human and fallible and for a lot of people that will have been the winner.

Now, remember, I am writing this as a conservative evangelical, as a complementarian.  I am not saying that Newman is in the right.  However, remember this. Most of us will not be asked any time to sit an interview with a Channel 4 presenter. However, we will be (and already have been) asked questions, often in the same tone, often by people who have picked up what they thought was our argument and throw it back at us in a way that feels like they have completely distorted and misrepresented our position. 

Here’s the thing. The people doing that are not our opponents. They are not the enemy and we are not in a debate. They are people with genuine questions, genuine experiences and genuine opinions. We may think they are wrong, we may be frustrated at the fallacies in their logic, we may find ourselves getting tired of having to say “that’s not what I said.”  However, I repeat, these people are not the enemy and if we think that we have “won” by simply defending our position then I think we may have missed the point.

And this is my point. I want to learn how to handle those situations when they come up and if we

1.       just take apart Newman’s failings without really understanding how they happen (apart from the obvious Romans 1 spiritual factor of darkened minds -and don’t under-estimate this)

2.       See Peterson as succeeding here

Then I don’t think we will learn the lessons we need to learn – and that’s why I think the interview is a false friend.

Now as it happens, I do think there’s a better way and I’ll write a bit more about that shortly.