The curious case of misrepresenting Jordan Peterson

A Science Enthusiast

The reason I started my page and this blog was to encourage others to use facts to support their beliefs and to always seek truth through a slightly different medium than the average Facebook page. Sure, we can post lots of science articles to promote truth, but there are oodles of places to find that on social media, and that’s rather vanilla.

Part of confronting bad ideologies means people will disagree with you. And that’s great! When someone disagrees with you, it forces you to re-examine your own beliefs, but also understand where the other side is coming from. It’s a chance to refine your position, articulate it to someone who disagrees with you, and possibly change your views.

The problem is that all too often, people don’t do this. They are either too lazy to listen and understand what someone is saying or they are maliciously distorting the words of someone they disagree with. I’ve jokingly called it “The Sam Harris Effect.”

Many things that Sam Harris has said have been deliberately misrepresented by those who don’t like him, particularly when he speaks about Islam. An excellent example of this happened last summer, when Harris had Maajid Nawaz on his podcast. Maajid, if you’re unfamiliar with him, is a British Muslim, and an activist who co-founded Quilliam, a counter-extremist organization. A twitter user excerpted a clip from Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, and posted it. Take a listen:

Sounds pretty horrific, right? The tweet was shared by author Reza Aslan, to bring attention to Harris clearly advocating for genocide of Muslims. Because that’s what he said, right?

… Except that’s not what happened. The sound bite was carefully selected in a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the statement he was making.

But that doesn’t stop the outrage crew from trying to wreck him – they have a sound bite, with no context, that they feel they can attack him for. What’s worse is that they don’t care to stop and think about what the context could have been, or why he would have made the statement. Instead it’s far easier to assume the worst about him, particularly if you don’t like him, and run with your own engineered version of the truth.

A more recent example of this is the disastrous interview Jordan Peterson had with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News last week:

Throughout the interview, Newman tried to recapitulate Peterson’s statements and beliefs, and nearly every time was wrong… To the point that many YouTubers have compiled every time Newman (incorrectly) told Peterson what he was thinking.

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the recent article in The Atlantic about the interview. I shared the article on aSE, adding my own thoughts in the caption:

In my post, I didn’t give my opinion on Jordan Peterson. I didn’t defend anything he said. I didn’t make any mention of the interviewer’s gender affecting the response, either. Yet many of the comments claimed that I was defending Peterson, which I wasn’t. I was defending truth and honest, good-faith conversation.

I’ve seen many posts made about the interview, and Jordan Peterson in general. Many focused on mocking him over the “lobsters” comparison (which, I’ll admit is a little funny-sounding on its surface), while others have focused on things he hasn’t actually said.

Criticizing bad skepticism is not an endorsement of the opposing side’s views. If the mere utterance of someone’s name causes you to feel attacked or to go on the offensive, it’s likely that you’re not moving forward with the most logical argument. You’ve likely allowed your emotions to drive your argument, which means it’s unlikely you’re going to be taken seriously. You’re less likely to be taken seriously because you’re more prone to distort information to better suit your argument and to engage in hyperbole. After all, it’s easy to “go with your gut” about something, but isn’t that the same philosophy anti-vaxxers employ?

This is the same thing I see playing out with people like Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris. I’ve intentionally not shared my opinion on Peterson, because I’m more interested in how people react to him and discuss him. People deliberately misrepresent what he says, and form opinions without bothering to even hear what he is saying. He says *a lot* of silly things, but when you misrepresent him (either deliberately or out of laziness), you do a terrible disservice to facts and truth, and you “prove” to his adherents that he’s right. You reaffirm Peterson’s credibility to them, and help him gain new followers.

You become part of the problem.

When you engage in hyperbole in situations like this, you benefit no one, and actually damage your cause, because when someone comes along who is legitimately transphobic, you’ve forfeited your credibility to make that determination. The same applies for calling people Nazis, Nazi sympathizers, and so on.

If you truly believe that your “side” of a discussion is right and has truth supporting it, then there’s no need for hyperbole. There’s no need to be vague. There’s no need to misrepresent facts. Lower your voice and strengthen your argument.

What’s important to me is that facts and reason are valued, and are able to be discussed without vitriol or assumptions made about those who are discussing them. Facts are more important than feelings. It’s important that we don’t fall under the seduction of hyperbole as, by definition, hyperbole introduces fantasy into the discussion. It’s important that we value truth more than feelings. This doesn’t give us license to be rude, but if a fact like “evolution is real” or “the universe is 13.8 billion years old” offends you because of your belief system, well, there’s not much I can do about that.

But what’s more important is recognizing that not every opinion can be expressed concisely, and many views require nuance in their explanations. There are a myriad of factors affecting nearly every issue, and it’s important to consider these factors when expressing opinions or engaging in discussion, however uncomfortable that may make us.

As I said before, there’s no need to misrepresent facts.

Lower your voice and strengthen your argument.

This post was excerpted and lightly edited from my original article to better suit a wider audience. The original post can be found at: Why I decided to close ‘The Science Enthusiasts’ group.