Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock you’ll no doubt have either seen the video of Cathy Newman’s disastrous interview with Canadian psychologist and intellectual, Jordan Peterson, or have heard about it.
The video has gone viral and justly so. It has launched a thousand memes. For some it feels like a turning point in the Left’s domination of the culture wars. Cathy’s preconceived, carefully packaged progressivism got a shellacking for two reasons.
First she was ill-prepared to interview someone of Peterson’s razor intellect without having done her homework.
But secondly and more damningly, she – and presumably her superiors at Channel 4 -assumed she didn’t have to do her homework!
The progressive mainstream media simply assumes that any position to the right of its own, or any conservative matter, or any faith matter than comes from within traditional Christianity is so self-evidently wrong, that no vigorous case has to be mounted against it. It will simply fall over like a house of cards.
For Newman, Peterson’s words would be mere chaff, chimeras to be blown away by simple refutations that are obvious to one and all. Well all who live in well-heeled suburbs in the well-to-do cities of the Western world anyway.
How wrong she was. And how poorly constructed her argument. She’d brought the intellectual equivalent of a water pistol to a gun fight. My sixteen year old daughter was gaped-mouthed watching it. Angry almost at how poorly a powerful woman – in a media role that my daughter would love to one day fill – acquitted herself.
And when she found herself in trouble, what did Newman do? She resorted that that age old approach when you’ve got no solid argument against an opponent’s position – the non-sequitur. In her instance, the classic reductionist:
So you’re saying…
Every time Peterson advocated an approach to gender pay gaps, psychology of men and women, the sociology of the work place that suggested complex and long-standing reasons behind his conclusions on the subject, Newman came out with those words followed by a straw man version of what he was, you know, actually saying. And every time she did, what did he do?
Well that’s what we’re here to discuss. What did Peterson do that was so effective when an increasingly desperate interviewer continually and deliberately misrepresented his position, and shifted the goal posts of his argument in order to try and point score?
And more importantly, what can we as Christians learn from Peterson (who isn’t a Christian), when we, in our time are facing increasing hostility in the public (and private) square, often from the same intellectual places Cathy Newman’s arguments come from?
The non-sequitur argument is increasingly employed by those who see the Christian position as wrong simply because it is the Christian position, a position that consequently requires no intellectual repartee, but a rather dismissive reductionist slap-down. So how can we prepare ourselves for it? Here are four ways to behave:
What was astonishing was how calm Peterson was in the barrage of misrepresentation and absolutising of his position by a hostile interlocutor. The “So your saying..” technique backfired on Newman because he refused to rise to the “quick bait”. He simply paused, regathered his argument and repeated what he had actually said and invited her to consider the nuances.
Often we get flustered when someone, who is under no such compulsion as we are to exercise the gentleness of the Holy Spirit, punches hard verbally against the gospel or a gospel ethical imperative that we hold. There’s a lot of “So you’re saying” followed by outrageous statements being put into our mouths; the classic non-sequitur.
Keep calm. Pick your way through the minefield that has been laid out before you that is designed to blow you up. Then figure out whether the person saying this is merely misrepresenting your argument or creating it into a grotesque that has little bearing on what you said. Don’t launch quickly. Don’t bluster to fill in the space. Reassess and reconfigure what it is you said. But stay calm!
2. Stay Gracious
Peterson was the model of graciousness. He never said a rude word. He praised Newman even as she was being aggressive. He extolled the virtues of her own intellect even as she was trying to denigrate his. He never reduced himself to any of the ugly facets of our modern social media culture. And when those who purported to back him did so later, he put a stop to them.
But despite his admirable ability to exercise grace under fire, Peterson is not our ultimate model of graciousness in the face of a barrage of false claims. Jesus is. And unlike Peterson there is nothing at all that could be pinned on Jesus. Yet that did not stop his opponents. How did Jesus respond? 1 Peter 2:23 tells us:
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
In the face of those who may scorn our faith or dismiss it to our faces we have no need to revile. Peterson entrusted himself to long-observed sociological truths and proven psychological studies in the face of Newman’s attacks. And he prevailed. We entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly whether we prevail in this age or not in our apologetic approach with people. God will prevail. He judges justly.
3. Stay on Message
It was astonishing how self-disciplined Peterson was in the whole debate. That’s partly because he is a seasoned veteran in taking on opponents who hate him and want to see him crash and burn (Newman didn’t hate him by the way, but many do).
Peterson stayed on message the whole time. Newman attempted to take Peterson off in different directions to trap him, but he kept bringing it back to the observable facts around his claims and rejecting the embellishments she lured him with. He wasn’t biting.
So too we must stay on message when we are discussing the gospel with those who are pushing back hard, whether that push back concerns the claims of Jesus, the ethical claims of the gospel, or even the fruit of the gospel that is under threat in the Western culture; things such as freedom of speech and freedom of association etc.
For example when I have been pushed on the issues of diversity in the culture and how the Christian position should no longer have a voice in the public square because of how unhealthy it is to modern notions of diversity, the argument quickly moves from a matter of freedom of speech to the “yuk” factor of traditional Christianity in these new progressive times.
That’s the point where we need to stay on message and not allow the argument to be based around the likeability of my personal beliefs around my faith, rather than the necessity of public behaviour towards free speech.
Of course the primary message to stay on message about is The Message! When you’re sharing the gospel of Jesus with someone and they don’t like it, or they are too uncomfortable hearing it, don’t allow their red herrings to distract you from the main message, which is the gospel about Jesus and the claim he has on their lives. Keep coming back to that, because most likely it’s that they have the most issue with due to its confronting claims on their life.
4. Stay Realistic
It’s astonishing how many misleading articles I read in the days following the debate from those whose a priori position is to despise Jordan Peterson and everything he represents. Many simply parroted Newman’s “so you’re saying” conclusions.
In one rather unfortunate article in the UK’s The Independent, Peterson was virtually painted as a caricature super villain (the word “villain” was used). It bore so little resemblance to what actually transpired as to be laughable. It felt a little like watching a toddler who puts their fingers in ears and squeezes their eyes closed and goes “I’m not listening, I’m not listening!”
But Peterson has been realistic about this in the aftermath. He is not expecting his opponents to give an inch or conclude that he may be right. He knows that he cannot win everyone over and doesn’t appear to lose too much sleep over those who continue to misrepresent what he says.
That’s a great lesson for Christians, and much more so when we consider the spiritual battle that the gospel of Christ brings us in to. The truth is it’s worse than a toddler with fingers in ears and eyes squeezed shut, trying to drown us out. Here’s what Paul says in 2Corinthians 4 concerning what we face when we speak the gospel:
And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
No reasoned argument can do what only God can do – open the blinded minds of those who reject Him. No matter what we say, let’s be realistic; the soundness of our argument is not going to convince those who neither wish to be convinced, nor have the power within them to be so convinced. It’s good to have a sound argument, but the only outcome we control is our faithfulness in presenting it.
Yet that means we have something more than Jordan Peterson. To be realistic that our message will be rejected is all well and good. But we can be optimistic too! Paul goes on to say this:
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
Cathy Newman’s aggression and attempts to dismiss Jordan Peterson were nothing compared to the unregenerate Saul of Tarsus’s attempts to wipe out this fledgling Jesus movement. But the light shone down from heaven, knocked him from his horse, reached his heart and changed him. And us.
So be realistic. Don’t angst when people get angry, or dismissive, or reduce your gospel presentation to a non-sequitur argument. Somewhere, sometime God will say to the spiritual equivalents of the Cathy Newmans of this world: GOTCHA!