Jordan Peterson’s interview with Cathy Newman on Channel 4 has understandably and deservedly been receiving a lot of attention over the last couple of days. A great many people have expressed their admiration for Peterson’s calm and clarity and, much less edifying, their derision for what they perceive as Newman’s unpreparedness and ideologically-induced dullness.
Many aspects of the interview and the discussion within it are striking. However, I wanted to draw attention to just one specific aspect that caught my attention.
The conversation begins with Peterson talking about the huge need for men to grow up. He expresses this conviction, not as a sort of accusatory finger-wagging, but as a heartfelt expression of concern for the well-being of men. Men need to grow up because the world needs such grown-ups to set it straight and because this is how we find meaning in our lives and in suffering.
Peterson’s message is a remarkable one to the ears of many young men today (and it should be remarkable that it is remarkable—Matthew Hosier is absolutely right that the Church should pay attention). Peterson’s message is that men need to grow up because the world needs powerful men, and because women need powerful men. Men’s power is something that they have to offer the world and also something in which they should find meaning and dignity. And men’s power is good for women too.
Just how counter-cultural this message is merits reflection, not least as an indication of part of what is wrong with our world. Within society today, men are increasingly taught that their power is toxic and problematic, that they need to step back to let women advance. The sort of male spaces in which men develop and play to their strengths are closed down and the sexes integrated. The suggestion that the male sex rather needs to step up and play to its strengths, and not just function as meek, compliant, and deferential allies to women, is one that instinctively appalls many. ‘Powerful man’ is seldom heard as anything but a pejorative expression.
Newman’s response to Peterson’s claims about the need for men to take control of their lives seems to assume a zero-sum game approach to the situation. The prospect of Peterson creating stronger men is perceived to be a threat to women. Male and female strength are in competition and opposition, so that the stronger men are, the weaker women will be.
Yet Peterson’s response challenges this perception, and challenges it from a very important angle. While Newman and others like her tend to perceive gender relations primarily in terms of the frame of competitive and largely zero-sum relations between individuals in a gender-neutralized economy, where male strength will almost unavoidably function as an obstacle and frustration to women and their advancement, Peterson asks the crucial question: ‘What sort of partner do you want?’ Here male strength is presented to women, not in terms of a society that, through the over-integration of the sexes in a gender-neutralized economy, presents them with increased competition and provokes their envy and frustration, but as something that enables them to be supported, challenged, and to grow.
Women, Peterson argues, deeply desire competent and powerful men as partners, because they can contend with and rely upon such men. Such power is not seen in tyrannical control—in the puerile husband who live action role-plays as a micro-managing patriarch—but in competence, confidence, strength, resolve, courage, honour, self-mastery, and other such manly virtues. Many women will settle for weak men, because weak men allow them to dominate them, but such relationships are almost always unhappy and frustrating for both parties in the long run.
Just how threatening the development of powerful men is to our society and how invested our society has become in stifling men and discouraging their strength is illuminating, and the responses to Peterson are often telling here—both the instinctive resistance of many women to the prospect of more powerful men and the immense hunger of young men for a maturity they feel they lack.
As is seen later on in the conversation, male strength seems to be one of the greatest obstacles to women receiving equal outcomes in gender-neutralized societies. The fact that men aren’t just going to stop exerting their strengths to allow women to advance beyond them is a large part of the explanation for the so-called ‘glass ceiling’. The problem should be clear: in a gender-neutralized society such as ours, where the realms of the sexes are increasingly collapsed into each other, men’s greater strength becomes a problem and an injustice that needs to be removed on the one hand, and women need to learn to become increasingly masculine in their behaviour on the other.
In such a society, both sexes are frustrated. Men’s strength is discouraged and pathologized and the system subtly stifles them in various ways, in order to let women achieve better outcomes relative to them. Women, for their part, are frustrated as they cannot receive the same outcomes in realms that almost unavoidably play to masculine strengths and traits and, in order to achieve comparable results, will tend to have to behave more like men.
Beyond this, as Mark Regnerus highlights in his recent book, Cheap Sex, women’s advancement in the economic realm has brought about, as its direct consequence, a serious weakening of their power in the relational and sexual arena. The fact that the contemporary ‘sexual marketplace’ so consistently plays to male preferences and behaviours and women have to learn to live with so much harm and dysfunction in their relationships, while possessing so little power to set the terms of male behaviour in this arena, is a result of the same forces that allowed them to advance economically.
On account of their former power in the ‘sexual marketplace’, women used to be able to exert an immense influence upon men, which they simply cannot now. Men used to have to become marriageable to have a chance at sexual relations (and, as is often pointed out, a man today can see more naked women in five minutes than his great grandfather could see in a lifetime). Yet the woman who has been sexually and economically liberated by the Pill and other features of modern society enjoys little such power to demand maturity, responsibility, and commitment of the men in her life. Such a woman may engage in casual sexual relationships with guys, while wishing for a man who will woo her, commit to her, and sacrifice for her, failing to see the huge counterproductivity of her behaviour. Even if she doesn’t engage in casual sexual relations, the fact that so many of her peers do, coupled with the extreme availability of porn, leaves her with little power.
As Regnerus stresses, the problem here is not that men can’t commit, but that they no longer feel a pronounced need to do so and, on account of the various cultural forces stunting their growth, they are not brought to a position where they could do so. Contemporary feminism is a cause doomed to frustration in key respects because the healthy strength and commitment that women so desire in their partners is something that they are invested in systemically stifling elsewhere and because their natural sexual power over men has been traded off for advantages in the realm of economic participation. There is a strong connection between the weakening of men and the progression of feminism, yet the result isn’t satisfying to either sex.
A society that needs its men to be weak will ultimately prove to be frustrating for both sexes. Here the interpersonal dynamics of the interview are illuminating. Newman seems to be expecting to deal with another man-child who is acting out against the matriarchal forces in society, some puerile provocateur like Milo Yiannopoulos, perhaps. Encountering a manly adult male instead, she seems to be wrong-footed. By the end, she appears to be charmed by Peterson, despite herself.
This is something I have observed in practice on many occasions, with many men and women. When non-feminist males calmly and respectfully, yet firmly and decisively, disagree with them and hold their ground, feminist women, despite themselves, actually respect them far more than most of their patently weak and spineless male allies. They may dislike such men, but by their actions they will often reveal that they take them so much more seriously than the milquetoasts with which they often surround themselves. Women instinctively respond to men who act like grown-ups and are prepared to contend with them as grown-ups too, rather than just deferring to them (and much obedient male feminism is—both parties know deep down—driven by obliging males’ sense of certain women’s weakness before expressions of male power). They instinctively know that such men are more likely to elicit their own strengths from them than fawning weaklings will.
And men typically thrive in relating to genuinely strong women too, rather than the sort of women whose ‘strength’ is a desperate push for control on account of their vulnerability or who are feebly compliant. In a healthy society, the strength of the sexes isn’t a zero-sum game. Quite the opposite! We are stronger when the other sex is stronger. Strong women challenge men to grow up, don’t pander to their childishness, and press men to assume the responsibilities that will lead to their maturity. Strong men push back against women and, through not indulging their immature weaknesses, sharpen them and deepen their character.
Both men and women love characters like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy because both are strong characters who are made stronger by contending with the other. Neither sex comes away the loser in such an encounter. A lesser man than Mr Darcy could have easily been dominated by Lizzie’s wit and her own growth would have been stunted, even though Mr Darcy’s strength sparked Lizzie’s intense dislike early on. A lesser woman than Lizzie could not have provoked the personal growth that we see in Mr Darcy over the course of Pride and Prejudice. Sadly, our society is increasingly one in which the strengths of each sex is placed at odds with, rather than at the service of, those of the other.
Returning in conclusion to Jordan Peterson, easily one of my favourite Peterson videos is this one, in which he talks about how he met his wife:
Peterson is a extremely emotional and emotive man, yet I have never seen him quite so animated with joy and delight as he is in this video. Hearing Peterson talk about his wife is truly beautiful, particularly because it is so heartening to see someone speaking up for men who really is not driven by resentment towards the key women in his life, but is so wonderfully transparent in his deep love, appreciation, and respect for them. I have mixed feelings about Peterson on various fronts, but I could not appreciate this more.
And here Peterson’s anecdote about his wife taking his last name is not only delightful but instructive. The conversation between Tammy and her friend that Peterson overheard, in which they declared their feminist convictions not to take the last names of their future husbands, displays a crucial dynamic. Tammy declared that, in order to follow through on her feminist desire, she would have to marry a ‘wimp’: the demonstration of her strength as a woman would require the weakness of her partner. In later resisting this, Peterson demonstrates that he is not such a wimp, but is someone who will lovingly contend with his wife, much as she will lovingly contend with him. And, in his refusal to be the ‘wimp’, Peterson makes possible far greater growth for his wife, as they can truly contend with each other as counterparts. Peterson’s wife has clearly captivated his heart, but without needing to emasculate him. They are both the more powerful for not being able to control the other and can both ‘belong’ to each other in more pronounced ways.