The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson is an interesting fellow. He’s one of the public provocateurs, like Charles Murray or our local Katherine Kersten, who have acquired a reputation for sagacity among some and inhumanity (or worse) among others, generally but not exclusively along a left-right axis.
It’s probably a mistake to lump them. They bring different things to the table. I don’t know what’s in their hearts, but I try to assume that people have good intentions even if their styles or conclusions challenge me. So I think it’s at least worth listening to what they say. On that point, I don’t know these days if I’m in the minority or the silent majority.
In this article, I’m going to discuss several issues related to expression in the opinion pages of the Star Tribune — about the parsing of facts, about who gets a forum and about gender balance. But first I’m going to talk about Peterson.
He’s the guy who’s been called the most influential public intellectual currently operating in the Western world. He has just published a book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” a fascinating combination of morality, mythology, biology and plain good sense that all aims at a basic message: Be decent to yourself and others. It’s particularly cogent for young men today, and, indeed, Peterson has developed a significant following among that cohort.
On the other hand, Peterson is the guy at the center of a controversy involving the Ontario Human Rights Commission because of his resistance toward calling people by nongendered pronouns if they prefer.
I’m not all in on Peterson. If you watch him on video, he seems the sort of person who can start even-tempered and get himself very wound up without assistance from external stimuli. But I do feel an affinity for his way of wheeling among topics, finding connections everywhere and somehow tying it all together at the end.
In one interview about the abrupt public attention he is receiving after years of relative obscurity, Peterson says that his greatest fear is that he will say something that unintentionally undermines his efforts. I can relate. While I don’t mean to compare myself to any prominent intellectual — mon Dieu, I don’t — I’ve lately been feeling a similar weight of scrutiny for public expression, even though most of my labors are behind the scenes, conveying the words of others.
The extra attention I’ve been getting in my inbox is a result of having published a few pieces of my own writing in recent weeks, and of having revealed myself in one of them (although it was never a secret; see tinyurl.com/opinion-staff-bios) as being the person behind the curtain who chooses the letters to the editor that appear on the opinion pages each day. These are distinct from the comments that readers append to articles online, which are just shy of a free-for-all and are moderated by our online team, not by the Star Tribune Editorial Board.
“Now I know who is responsible,” wrote one correspondent about the letters, adding archly, “or is it un-responsible?”
Irresponsible, if you need a word. But allow me to discuss the specifics and defend against the charge.
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This correspondent’s main concern was that published letter writers are making points that are “blatant misrepresentations of fact.” To refute two specific examples (on guns and dinosaurs), he cited Wikipedia, the community-edited online encyclopedia that’s infamous for its internal battles over what is fact. He thought I should at least add corrective editor’s notes if I insist on publishing misguided authors.
Indeed, I’ve done so at times. Doing that walks a fine line between being informational and contrary. It also assumes that my own knowledge as an editor is impeccable and retrievable on command, despite the wide range of topics, and that the time available for research before the next deadline is inexhaustible.
When I started editing letters eight years ago, I had in fact intended to be a stickler for both detail and logic, not to mention the art of beautiful expression. But I soon realized that if I held to those standards too tightly for this particular task, I’d be shutting out the authentic voices of a community of readers.
I also discovered that our participants, maybe like Wikipedia’s, would reliably respond to what was published, correcting misconceptions and providing additional context or perspectives, all of which allowed topics to follow an arc of discussion over several days. I realized that what I was doing was facilitating a conversation. That seemed even more valuable than always trying to curate that one consummate letter, full stop (assuming we’d even received such a thing), although it required a faith that readers wouldn’t take in just one day’s paper and consider their education complete.
The approach I’ve adopted doesn’t sit well with everyone at all times, not even among my colleagues (and here I should mention that despite divisions of labor, what we do is a team effort), but I remain convinced that it’s the most functional strategy I could deploy. I trust that astute readers will understand that those submitting letters to the editor are neither experts nor professional writers — though some are — and that they’ll find value in detecting both strengths and weaknesses in arguments, in addition to getting a sense of the prevailing sentiment among those who voice their opinions to the Star Tribune.
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Another point of contention related to my work has to do with a commentary I selected earlier this week by the outspoken former state Rep. Tony Cornish (full-length commentaries being one of my other semiregular duties). Cornish, who resigned late last year following sexual harassment allegations, wrote in opposition to gun control. I’ve taken heat for publishing his work before; it’s always like thrusting a rod of metal in the air during a thunderstorm.
The argument against that decision was that because of the nature of Cornish’s activities and the importance of the #MeToo movement, it was shameful for our newspaper to give him a forum.
One: Since the shootings in February at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, we’ve had an extensive and constructive debate on our pages about the dangers of guns in our society. It’s clear that a majority supports changes to our laws in the hope of making such tragedies less common. At the same time, in Minnesota, the Republican-led Legislature has resisted making such changes. Though Cornish is no longer in office, he laid out the basis of that resistance among his former colleagues. That’s information worth knowing.
Two: Former President Bill Clinton’s reputation is also suffering in light of the #MeToo movement. But if he were to offer a commentary with information worth knowing, we’d run it.
Not the same, you say? At the core, why not?
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The final instance I’ll mention of notable complaint is the one that bothered me the most, because it was the one that most challenged my perception of who I aim to be and of how well I’m succeeding at my work.
“Today was the day that broke this camel’s back,” the correspondent began: “another day without a single letter submitted by a woman in ‘Readers Write.’
“You could say this is an exception,” she continued, “but no — I’ve been tracking. …
“Every once in a while,” she added later, “I notice several days in a row where women are strongly represented in the letters, and to be honest — I have to wonder if that’s when you’re on vacation.”
It’s not true that I’ve had much vacation time. And it’s not the case that this reader is the only one keeping score for one reason or another. But it is the case that I’m a man (though I don’t think of myself as standard-issue). Could my selections, on the whole, reflect implicit bias — an incurable disease?
Well, there are a few other factors to consider.
For starters, men write more letters than women. I’d guess the ratio is about 60-40 on average, although it’s worse when the news is slow and more balanced when there’s a lot going on. I’ve always made the effort to improve on the ratio with published selections when I can, since, as the correspondent points out, women are more than half of the adult population.
Complicating matters further is the larger diversity I try to achieve in the letters: ideological, regional, racial (to the extent it can be detected from context), topical. And there’s the obligation to allow space for people to respond when they feel they’ve been misrepresented in our coverage. And there’s the randomness of the news. And the jigsaw-puzzle nature of fitting items of different lengths into a fixed space. And the goal of making the whole thing as readable as it can be. Take all these into account, and it becomes harder to select letters to meet a literal quota. But there’s obviously subjectivity involved. Ask 10 different people to select letters on a given day, and you’d end up with 10 different combinations.
The correspondent allowed that perhaps men do submit letters at a higher rate than women do, but then, she said, we should make a public plea for women to write more frequently. Consider that plea relayed.
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Well, these examples show some of the downsides that go along with the privilege of having a job with a degree of visibility, however slight. Up one moment, down the next. If you want a friend, as they say, get a dog.
I do have a dog. He’s a terrific companion. But perhaps one day I’ll come home and find him chewing over that Ayn Rand book I once bought, a tale of steely, individualistic romance that never compelled me to read past word twenty-seven hundred of five-hundred-and-sixty thousand. And with the book destroyed, I’ll have lost all hope of ever learning just “who is John Galt?” But I’ll also never be dragooned into giving his disputatious philosophy an inch of airing on our pages.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.