A woman and a man had a conversation. Other people watched and listened. The woman asked the man some questions. The man answered them. Some people liked his answers. Some people didn’t. Some people liked the woman’s questions. Some people didn’t. So some of them called her a bitch and a whore and talked about her dying and said they knew where she lived. And some other stuff too that wasn’t quite as nice as that.
Then the people the woman worked for got a bit worried, so they asked some other people to make sure the woman was safe, because, well, do I really have to explain why people take threats of violence against women seriously? Apparently I do, because you didn’t have to look very far on social media to find Cathy Newman accused of ‘playing the victim’.
This is often what happens when a woman on television asks a man questions that some people don’t like. This is especially true when the woman is in a very visible position and accorded a degree of authority and status. Female journalists, especially broadcasters, are increasingly subjected to this sort of treatment.
The story I told above could, in broad terms, have been about lots of female broadcasters: Laura Kuenssberg, Emma Barnett, Julia Hartley-Brewer and many, many others have had to put up with horrible and abusive comments simply for doing their jobs and doing them well.
In this latest telling of the tale, it’s Cathy Newman who is being threatened with social media’s equivalent of a fat lip (or worse) for refusing to shut up and know her place. And it’s her employers, Channel Four, who are worried for her safety, just as the BBC worries for Laura Kuenssberg’s.
Apparently this is because of Newman’s interview with an academic who says daring things about stuff. I have no idea who Jordan Peterson is or thinks or says and I don’t really care. He may be the most original and important Western thinker since Socrates. He may be just another hack academic enjoying the adoration and publishing revenues that gush forth from engaging in the American culture wars that some people are sadly all too keen to bring to Britain.
Chances are, he falls somewhere on the spectrum between those two points. I repeat, I don’t know and I don’t care. Because whatever and whoever he is is irrelevant to the simple fact that the abuse Cathy Newman has faced since she asked him questions is wholly and utterly and pathetically wrong and has no place in civilised conversation. It ought to revolt us all. But it doesn’t seem to disgust everyone: for rather too many people, the reaction to such abuse seems to depend on whether you agree with Peterson or not.
Douglas Murray, for instance, is not persuaded by the threats against her. I mention him not to pick an in-house Spectator fight but because he is possibly the most eloquent admirer of Jordan Peterson. And that’s the point. Douglas has nothing but praise for the man Newman questioned, though he’s not the only one. As he says:
“Some recipients of serious death threats are even said to have ‘brought it upon themselves’. The difference in reaction – sympathy or coldness – appears to have become entirely contingent on the political views of the person being threatened.”
This is quite correct. Among those who abused and threatened Newman, there is abundant praise and even adulation of Peterson. And that is what gives the game away. The question of whether the threat against Cathy Newman is being exaggerated seems to be tied up with whether or not one sympathises with the man she interviewed.
Laura Kuenssberg was last year given a security detail by the BBC after threatening comments made online by people critical over her coverage of Jeremy Corbyn. A lot of the people who agree with Peterson and question Channel Four’s account of the threat to Cathy Newman were quite happy to take the BBC’s account at face value, presumably because the narrative of Corbynites’ thuggish behaviour didn’t challenge their political views.
This sort of inconsistency isn’t good enough. Some things should be off-limits in polite debate, and questioning the honesty of someone subjected to horrible abuse is one of them.
It doesn’t matter whether you liked Cathy Newman’s questions or Jordan Peterson’s answers. Basic decency isn’t something that you can opt out of when it’s inconvenient to your chosen school of thought or political position. If, like Douglas, you really do believe in civilised debate, you apply the same rules to everyone. You accept that some concepts are universal. And a debate that includes vile abuse ceases to become civilised.
Is Jordan Peterson a genius, or a crank? We can, and should, have a vigorous discussion about that. But was the torrent of online abuse meted out to Cathy Newman deplorable and unjustified? Yes, it was. And on that we should all be able to agree.