The “Progressive” Playbook: Character assassination through willful misinterpretation

In a world where people can get news or information from any source they like, it has never been easier for “news” outlets to put their own spin on the facts.

Over the past couple of months, it seems like progressive journalists and activists have been making good on every possible opportunity to misquote someone, take a statement wildly out of context, or make wild extrapolations in order to draw conclusions about someone’s character or intent.

Jordan Peterson seems to be one of the prime targets for these types of attempts, given that he is an extremely public figure who has taken on progressive activists on a number of fronts. Aside from the controversies he involves himself in, Dr. Peterson seems to have an extremely clean personal record, and activists have been unable to discredit him in the public eye.

One of the latest example is from a Canadian website called PressProgress, which took a three-minute clip from Jordan Peterson’s recent dialogue with feminist scholar Camille Paglia and built an article around it claiming he wants to fight women that disagree with him:

Also, during the now-infamous interrogation of Lindsay Shepherd at Wilfred Laurier University, two of the professors repeatedly compared Dr. Peterson to Adolf Hitler, and mischaracterized Peterson’s attitudes towards transgendered people. One of the professors later retracted his statements as part of his apology.

Obviously, this is just one example of how activists will claim their ideological opponents are bigots – anyone who has had a discussion with a progressive activist will inevitably be called racist, transphobic, misogynistic, and/or Islamophobic. Many public figures that dare to disagree with progessives suffer the same accusations, but in a public way – Dr. Peterson is just an extreme (and extremely visible) example.

Why is this happening? How can people protect themselves from character assassination? Can anything else be done? All this (and more) below;

Saying controversial stuff can cost you your job, and activists know this

Are there real consequences for making the news? Of course. Just James Damore, the former Google engineer who became famous after his now-infamous “Google Memo” went viral within the company.

When it was inevitably leaked to the press, it was first presented without footnotes linking to relevant scientific research, and dismissed as an “anti-diversity screed“. The mainstream media reported, to various degrees, that James Damore was sexist, anti-woman, and “anti-diversity”.

Second-rate digital publications that rehash their content from mainstream sources even constructed entire articles refuting the claim that women are biologically worse at STEM subjects than men (a claim that Damore does not make).

After receiving profoundly negative coverage from countless journalists (none of whom seemed to understand the science behind his claims), Google was forced to respond, and dismissed Damore from the company.

Spin vs. Fact

After Damore was fired, several scientists with relevant expertise went through the memo and found it to be generally correct (see: Deborah Soh, Lee Jussim, David Schmitt, Geoffrey Miller, and this excellent summary by Heterodox Academy).

Wired magazine, to their credit, attempted to refute his memo on scientific grounds, but aside from a soundbyte from a sociologist and a gender scholar, the only thing they could really dispute with was the conclusions regarding women’s leadership ability.

There are a couple of dissenting opinions worth reading, however; this article by Cynthia Lee is one of them, and there’s an excellent (unrelated) article by Susan J. Fowler about some of the very real challenges women can face in tech.

Activists and lazy “journalists” are going to spin the facts in ways that benefit them

Anyway, it’s pretty obvious that most people who actually read Damore’s memo, and understood the spirit in which it was intended, was not offended (although perhaps irritated at some tone-deaf sections).

Regardless, the story printed in the media prevailed, and Damore lost his job. Most people who only saw the headlines or skimmed the stories probably think the memo was genuinely sexist. Damore, a scientist with no previous media presence, nor any media training whatsoever, simply couldn’t get ahead of the story fast enough.

Countless other people have lost their jobs because of social-justice related outrages. The point is that you could be next.

Anything you say can and will be used against you on Twitter

It’s no secret that Jordan Peterson has been a target for progressive activists ever since he released his first “Professor Against Political Correctness” video on YouTube in 2016.

During a two-hour conversation with Camille Paglia, Dr. Peterson went off on a bit of a tangent during a discussion of gender relations, and how men and women handle conflict differently. You can see it below;

On its own, this video can seem pretty wild. Just take this quote, for example, which makes it seem like Dr. Peterson is frustrated that he can’t use physical force against women that disagree with him.

“Here’s the problem: I know how to stand up to a man who’s unfairly trespassing against me, and the reason I know that is because the parameters for my resistance are quite well-defined … We talk, we argue, we push and then it becomes physical. Right? If we move beyond the boundaries of civil discourse, we know what the next step is, ok? That’s forbidden in discourse with women. And so I don’t think that men can control crazy women.”

But when taken in context of the broader discussion (which was with a female feminist), the comments make a lot more sense – they were discussing workplace relations between men and women. In particular, they were discussing particular styles of conflict that each sex prefers. What this should show people is that it is very easy for isolated comments to get taken out of context and twisted to make you seem malevolent or hateful.

Activists have made their motives quite clear

Instead of contacting Camilla Paglia for her take on the conversation, PressProgress immediately contacted Dr. Peterson’s employer – UofT and UofT’s psychology department. This is a clever angle on a common theme (calling for someone’s dismissal when they question progressive goals).

What can be done?

Honestly, this isn’t a matter of debating with progressive activists to convince them what you meant. What progressives have signaled is that they intend to wage a marketing and public relations war, which is won in the court of public opinion. How anti-PoMo activists can fight these tactics without resorting to similar forms of nastiness is currently unclear, although Lindsay Shepherd has shown us that progressive activists are not immune to repercussions when their misdeeds are made public.

Some potential best practices:

  • Be careful what you say, and make sure to clarify and contextualize your comments whenever dealing with a thorny issue.
  • Above all, be kind; don’t antagonize your opponents or treat them maliciously.
  • Don’t be afraid to go public and get in front of a story if you are being targeted. Call it out for what it is.
  • Avoid becoming a caricature of yourself; apologize and retract errors when necessary, but stand firm on the things you truly believe in.

Also read: The Counter-Pomo Activism Guide (under construction)

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