I doubt if many of the trolls currently savaging Channel 4’s Cathy Newman will have actually watched her interview with Canadian academic and cultural critic Jordan Peterson - it was too long and too technical. Those who can only tweet are unlikely to understand the term ‘multivariate analysis’, a statistical technique, which as Peterson rightly pointed out, is essential to our understanding of the gender pay gap.
It’s more likely that the abusers will have been fired up by sight of the clip that was aired; this showed Peterson saying to Newman that she’d given him a hard time. In the context of what had gone before, including a discussion between the two of the trait of ‘agreeableness’ and of how majoring on agreeableness wasn’t going to secure a pay rise, Peterson was just continuing the conversation. Taken out of context in the interview as a whole, and in the context of an abbreviated clip, Peterson appeared like a man righteously indignant at not having been given a fair hearing.
In terms of its treatment of the gender pay gap, the interview could have been better. Neither Newman nor Peterson understood the distinction between fairness and equality. We all understand fairness, or think we do, but very few of us understand equality. I’m not sure I do, even after thirty years in the game. And, sometimes, in order to achieve equality, it’s necessary to be unfair - that’s because much inequality derives from past unfairness. For those who perceive themselves as being on the receiving end of the unfairness aimed at redressing past inequalities, the world is out to get them - hence the continuing unpopularity of positive discrimination.
Neither participant was particularly well-briefed, but to my mind, Peterson showed a better understanding of the gender pay gap. He was selective with the facts, and I don’t agree with his conclusions, but I meet with that every day of the week. Peterson could have accepted that discrimination can have a part to play in the gender pay gap. Newman could have accepted that factors other than discrimination are at play. But this kind of interview is not about moving the debate on by finding the middle ground, it’s about seeking out and heightening divisions. And unfortunately, in doing just that, it’s put Newman at risk.
The reaction to the Newman - Peterson interview is a gauge of how far women have yet to go. The problem it has highlighted is not the gender pay gap, but that a woman cannot interview a man about issues relevant to women without putting her personal safety at risk.