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Jordan Peterson and the condescension of Times columnists

20,000 people paying to watch a philosophy lecture is cause for celebration not scorn

Artillery Row

The Times is at it again with its strange fixation on Jordan Peterson. It has published over twenty-seven articles on the man, from an utterly shameful characterisation of the well-documented fact that people with autoimmune diseases are affected by food and thus often eat unusual diets as an “outlandish tale”, to the most recent case of its radio discussion on Peterson’s talk at the O2 last month.

What is so striking about its conversation was just how clear its disregard for the public was. The contributors were shocked that people were willing to engage with — let alone capable of engaging with — a philosopher. The conversation began with Matt Chorley saying: “I mean, a philosopher selling out the O2 … was it sold out?” This attitude reveals that the public are seen as dim and apathetic. Whilst this could be forgiven as an off-hand comment, it cannot be in light of what followed from the other panellists.

Take James Marriott for instance who, despite being a talented writer, stated that when he learnt of the event, he thought, “what on Earth is going on?”, “will it be sold out?” and can it “even work, a guy giving a talk?”. This grossly underestimates common people, especially in their mystified realisation that the public had an attention span which surpasses three whole hours.

Behind all of this lurks fear of the old media’s loss of status

Coupled with the classist ignorance of the common man’s intellectual acumen was active disdain. Marriott’s explanation that one of the other speakers is a popular Youtuber was soon accompanied by a deep sigh from Rachel Sylvester — adding to her colleagues’ lack of regard for the public’s interest in highbrow subjects, a snooty sense of superiority that they take a Youtuber seriously. How could they? Why, it’s unlikely that he even attended Oxbridge!

This was quite ironic from a journalist whose main contribution to the debate was to repeatedly interject with her brilliant and subtle observation that the panel was “all men”. Well, that is not entirely fair … she did also present the perceptive critique of Peterson’s philosophy as being “mumbo jumbo”.

What this again illustrates is an insufferable arrogance towards the public. How dare an audience composed nearly equally of men and women not see the clear “misogyny”?

The lack of self-reflection amongst the panel was also very telling. Marriott revealed that what he expected of the audience was not the normal crowd of people he found, but “isolated, slightly dangerous young men” — which is in keeping with the paper’s references to Peterson as an “alt-right darling”. Rather than take a moment to reflect upon how their assumptions were so catastrophically wrong, and that they had been smearing hundreds of thousands of people — maybe, just maybe there is something to learn from Peterson’s popularity that they have missed — they instead labelled the normalness of the crowd “disturbing”.

No pleasure was taken at the fact that the public surpassed their condescending expectations and that even the “glamorous girls with platinum blonde hair” are part of a re-emergent and vibrant public political culture. Did they consider that maybe if these speakers are attracting mainstream appeal, they are not as extreme as they might have thought? No, the speakers were still “strange alt-right celebrities” and the audience, in applauding the speakers at an event they paid for, was ludicrously said to resemble a scene out of North Korea.

Behind all of this lurks fear of the old media’s loss of status. Marriott lamented how “one hopes that columnists are still the centre of the world”. Tongue in cheek? Perhaps. Still, when The Times is producing commentary which is not just out of touch with the wider public but (looking at the comments on their articles on Peterson) consistently ridiculed by their own readership, it is no wonder that they aren’t.

The radio segment and to a lesser extent its source article are illustrative of everything that is wrong with the current media discourse. They look down on the audience, not just in tone but in the substance of what is being discussed.

What could have been a genuine critique of Peterson’s world-view was instead replaced by an unprepared Chorley asking questions like was it “just him [Peterson] speaking”, comparisons of Peterson to Kermit the Frog, long-since stale identity politics, and an irrelevant interlude about how Marriott is reading a book on the Roman Empire (which I suppose is intended to make him appear smart).

The public, rather than being too dumb for a talk on philosophy, are too smart to be satisfied with such cursory content. Perhaps this is why a freely available four-minute discussion online could barely muster a tenth of the views that Peterson’s three-hour paid lecture did.

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