The much-viewed and much-commented-on interview of Jordan Peterson by Cathy Newman (which can be seen here) is very interesting as an example of how inaccurate stories can get us in trouble.
Or at least, so it seems to me. As I watched it, I thought that Cathy Newman had a pre-conceived story about Peterson in her mind, and that sabotaged her. Having learned of his public resistance to being legally required to use peoples’ preferred pronouns, and also of some of his comments about young men, she had clearly decided that he was an unreconstructed misogynist.
But he is not. Whatever one makes of his thinking, it is more subtle and sophisticated than that; but Newman’s story prevented her from being able to hear and engage with what he was actually saying, as opposed to what she imagined he must think.
So we were treated to the spectacle of her repeatedly summarising what she thought he must really mean, as opposed to what he had actually said. The overall cumulative effect was actually very comic, and indeed much ridiculed after the event on Twitter with the hashtag #Sowhatyouarereallysaying.
But putting the amusement value to one side, it was a salutary lesson in the ways in which our pre-existing stories can sometimes get in the way of our being able (or prepared) to listen to those who see the world differently form us; particularly if our pre-existing story includes a negative judgement on that difference, as Newman’s so clearly did.
And then there was the second level of story. Shortly after the programme, the youtube segment went viral (some 3m views within 24 hours) which was interesting. Newman came in for a lot of criticism and ridicule. And shortly after that, her producer announced that they had had to call in security consultant due to the volume and ferocity of misogynistic threats. Any online abuse is lamentable, of course. But the curious thing here was that most commentators couldn’t find any: it looked remarkably as though Channel Four was trying to change the narrative from a disastrous interview to Newman as victim: and the ‘threat’ story was duly what made the headlines in the media – though none (that I saw) carried any evidence of any such threat.
So the counter-narrative developed that the threat story really was a fabrication, or at least an exaggeration: having failed to demonise Jordan for his wrongthink in the interview, he was to be damned by association with a pack of violent and mysoginistic trolls on social media.
Is that was going on? I don’t know.
Controlling the narrative is clearly seen as very important – but it is not an easy art, and can so easily backfire…