Why Jordan Peterson Lost That Bout to Cathy Newman

It should have been a great victory.

There he was, holding his own against a ferocious assault by a committed feminist.

“So you’re saying,” she would attack.

“No, I’m not,” he would calmly respond. “I’m not saying that at all!”

Over and over and over again, to the delight of his fans and the horror of her followers. Would this male chauvinist pig never crack?!

She tried every move she had against him, and nothing could get through.

It was a woman’s worst nightmare, a man she could not ruffle.

You can hear it in her voice as the interview proceeds.

Her voice gets shriller and shriller, her questions more pointed, her mouth harder, her smile colder.

And then a moment comes. She has challenged him about his refusal to use the newly-invented pronouns now mandated for use in Canada by the passage of Bill C16.

She attacks: “Why should your right to freedom of speech trump a transperson’s right not to be offended?”

He parries: “Because in order to be able to think you have to risk being offensive.”

And then he ripostes: “I mean, look at the conversation we’re having right now. You know, like, you’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that? It’s been rather uncomfortable.”

At which, he smiles. It is not a particularly nice smile. It is a smile with teeth.

She laughs and responds: “Well, I’m very glad I put you on the spot.”

He counters: “Well, you get my point. You’re doing what you should do, which is digging a bit to see what the hell is going on. And that is what you should do. You’re exercising your freedom of speech to certainly risk offending me. And that’s fine. More power to you, as far as I’m concerned.”

She tries to answer: “So you haven’t sat there and...I’m just trying to work this out....” At which she falters.

“Ha! Gotcha!” he exults. And she smiles—and laughs. “You have got me. You have got me!”

It was a glorious moment, a real exchange. Attack, parry, riposte. Attack, counterattack—counterattack lands! Touch left.

Nothing could be more elegant, nothing more satisfying than such a pointed exchange, such a gripping conversation of the blades. This is the kind of interaction you train for, day after day for years, simply so as to be ready when the time comes.

She knew it, he knew it. It was a moment of pure skill. No wonder he came back with a Gotcha!

And then the next day he felt bad about beating her.

You can see it in his posture, hear it in his voice in the interview he did a day or so later when in the Netherlands.

He wished he could have another conversation with her, something gentler, less aggressive, more therapeutic.

Because he was worried about showing his teeth, even as he confessed to fantasizing about sending his internet trolls—if he had any—to burn down the television station.

But instead he felt defeated by his own pleasure in the bout. It was wrong, he seemed to be wanting to say. He should not have been so aggressive with a woman.

Now who is being the male chauvinist pig?

I wrote last week about this encounter as a lesson in what it means to turn the other cheek. Then I suggested that Peterson’s mistake was to think that he could win by asserting his status; it clearly upset him to think that he had somehow contributed to the harassment that Channel 4 was claiming Newman had suffered. He wanted to have a take-back, do it all differently so that her followers wouldn’t come after him—or his after her. But not reacting defensively out of a desire to preserve your status is only part of the battle.

If you engage in a bout, you have to want to win. Not because you want to dominate the other person, but because you want to honor him or her with your best game.

Human beings are not lobsters. Yes, we are hypersensitive to social status, just like lobsters. And, yes, when we are able to excel in a social interaction, we feel better. But human beings—like rats, but unlike lobsters—play. We engage in competition for the sake of the competition. Which—listen carefully here—is meant to be fun.

What does fun feel like? Peterson describes it in his own book, although he doesn’t call it fun. He calls it “meaning”:
Order is not enough. You can’t just be stable, and secure, and unchanging, because there are still vital and important new things to be learned. Nonetheless, chaos can be too much. You can’t long tolerate being swamped and overwhelmed beyond your capacity to cope while you are learning what you still need to know. Thus, you need to place one foot in what you have mastered and understood and the other in what your are currently exploring and mastering. Then you have positioned yourself where the terror of existence is under control and you are secure, but where you are also alert and engaged. That is where there is something new to master and some way that you can be improved. That is where meaning is to be found.
It is the essence of sport, to put yourself in such situations. You are bounded by certain rules of the game, but engaging with another human being (or group of human beings) whose actions you can anticipate, but never fully predict. You want them to surprise you, challenge you by making moves you don’t expect. How boring to be in a bout—or a conversation—in which nothing surprising happens, nothing unexpected or difficult to answer! You don’t want to win the bout 15-0 having dominated your opponent. You want to win 15-14, having had to use every response in your repertoire.

What you do not want is to have the other person let you win.

I have been watching Jordan Peterson in his lectures and interviews for almost a year, ever since he talked about Milo in one of his Q&As. I have read Maps of Meaning and done the Present Authoring program on Virtues and Faults. I have taken great comfort from his arguments about the need to grow some teeth and not let yourself be bullied. I rejoiced along with many of his followers when I first saw his interview with Cathy Newman. But I knew he had lost when I saw the first of his tweets, in effect apologizing for beating her in a fair bout. Not because the SJWs were doing their worst to reframe the debate as an exercise in bullying. But because he wanted not to have exulted over that hit.

Gotcha! How many times have I heard my opponent in a fencing bout scream in delight at having got me? More times than I can count. How many times have I heard myself give voice to that scream? Easily just as many. It is delicious, exhilarating, a pure serotonin rush (if we’re talking lobsters here). You only scream like that when you have put your whole self into the moment, knowing that if you make even the slightest mistake, she will take advantage of you and hit you. It is the cry of knowing that there, in that moment, everything came together just right—and you seized it. Gotcha!

Was it wrong for Peterson to exult in having bested Newman in that exchange? Only if you think that it is wrong for men to take on women in intellectual debate. It was her television studio (she made a big point of that when she had Milo on her show). She had invited him into the studio for a debate. It was not a therapy session, but a public exchange of ideas—a public exchange of ideas on her terms, which she invited. She knew what she was getting into—and she wanted to win.

How insulting to imply that she couldn’t take a hit!

Fencing is a masculine sport. There are far more men in any given fencing club than there are women. To be a fencer as a woman means fencing against men. Women are, on average, nowhere near as physically strong as men. For men to fence against women can be frustrating. They know that if they hit us too hard, it is wrong. But the last thing we women who fence want is to be coddled or patronized. We are there on the strip because we want to be challenged, to have the satisfaction of making exactly the right action so as to outwit our opponent, woman or man. What is more insulting than having a man refuse to fence us because he might hurt us? Having him take all the hits that he gets against us for granted because he is a man.

That is why Cathy Newman smiled when Jordan Peterson got her. Because she knew she had thrown everything that she had against him, her most skillful attack—and he parried it. She knew that he deserved to get that hit on her, and she took pleasure in the moment at acknowledging it. I know that look she gave. I make it when I have been in an intense exchange with an opponent—woman or man—and she or he manages to outwit me fair and square.

And then Peterson went and ruined it by trying to apologize. Which was far more offensive than trying to win.

Do I make you uncomfortable, Jordan? C’mon. Let’s do that video sometime!


Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Canada: Random House, 2018), 44.

See The Lady and the Logos for further reflections on Professor Peterson’s teachings and their relationship to Wisdom.

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