A SNAKE IN THE GRASS

Lemsley calls out Decca Aitkenhead for her furtively venomous article on Jordan Peterson and places a spotlight on the rise of anti-male sentiment spreading through mainstream media.


Decca Aitkenhead’s article (featured in The Sunday Times Magazine, January 31st 2021) gets off to a very peculiar start. Not only does the writer introduce her story on the polarising clinical psychologist, Jordan Peterson, by declaring that she is confused by the interview at the story’s centre, but she also admits to being puzzled about what the story itself should actually be. It’s a very odd opening indeed.


Aitkenhead repeatedly highlights the idea that she is persistently plagued by bouts of being unable to follow the interview that she is supposedly conducting. In the very opening paragraph she declares that ‘I no longer have any idea what [this interview] is.’ When talking with Peterson’s daughter, Mikhaila, she finds things ‘increasingly exhausting to follow’ and at another point, her ‘head is spinning’. She also explains on another occasion that what she is being told ‘all becomes a blur’.


Of The Sunday Times managerial team, I must ask: is it wise to allow someone that seems to be so frequently dumbstruck by waves of bewilderment and confusion to interview a person as vulnerable as Peterson?


At the heart of this story is a man who, after unbelievable hardship, came close to suicide. Any journalist should approach such an interview with absolute calm, compassionate, level-headedness - and not if frequently blighted by waves of an inability to keep up.


Whether you love or loathe Peterson and his provocative views on gender and identity, he is still a human being. And one that has now, on several occasions come close to killing himself.


In the UK last year, suicide hit a two-decade high. Three quarters of recorded suicides are committed by men. Aitkenhead seems to have forgotten these basic and dreadful truths.


Perhaps there is another reason for Aitkenhead’s repeatedly reiterated assertions that she isn’t sure what’s going on: what if her alleged ‘confusion’ and ‘bewilderment’ are the constructs of a pre-emptive defence, designed to keep people from calling her out?


She’s obviously a smart individual. Maybe she repeatedly declares that she is finding it too hard to keep up so as to muddy the waters regarding the actual point of her article. Give it a read, it is pretty much point-less.


Until you start to consider the venom between the lines.


Perhaps Aitkenhead leans on this idea of being so terribly confused by everything as way of defending against anyone that might accuse her of writing a scathing, passive-aggressive diatribe to do nothing other than fuel the growing anti-male sentiment that is becoming more and more commonplace in the mainstream media.


This is exactly what I am accusing her of.


This article is astonishingly offensive. Not just to men. Aitkenhead has no qualms about making points based purely on the appearance and lifestyle choices of another woman, going so far as to question her ability to care for her father.


The article is lazily put together and makes zero reference to anything in the way of evidence to support her spiteful opinions. It is a lurid gossip-mongering piece of nonsense that should be considered a stain on the reputation of The Sunday Times and the journalistic craft in general.


Here’s why.


I’ll start by cataloguing what Jordan Peterson has, over the last few years, gone through.


I haven’t researched this independently, it comes directly from Aitkenhead’s article.


The phrase hoisted by one’s own petard comes to mind - stick with me, you’ll see.


Aitkenhead informs us of some of Peterson’s struggles including:


  • being on SSRI anti-depressant medication for 14 years

  • battling benzodiazepine addiction

  • becoming suicidal on several occasions

  • being hospitalised for his own safety

  • been diagnosed with schizophrenia

  • facing the dire cancer prognosis of his wife of 30 years, Tammy

  • having to be smuggled to a Russian clinic after being failed by Canadian health services

  • being intubated

  • being placed into an induced coma for 8 days

  • losing the ability to walk

  • losing the ability to type

  • being diagnosed with akathisia (a condition linked to benzodiazepine withdrawal)

  • suffering PTSD-like symptoms

  • having a petition against him signed by his colleagues to remove him from his tenured position at the University of Toronto

  • being verbally assaulted and hounded by weapon-wielding protesters

Keep these hardships in mind when considering how Aitkenhead approaches them.


In a former life, I was a Teacher of English: six years in schools in underprivileged areas of South and West Yorkshire. When someone was collared for bullying, the culprit might often rely on a defence of, ‘Yeah, but he said this… and she said that’ - which just does not fly. Now I don’t know if Peterson is a misunderstood, progressive thinker or a category-A wanker. Frankly, I don’t care.


What I do care about is calling out bullies.


Aitkenhead isn’t the kind of bully that will lay it all bare, make a loud, brash point, and call out any and all challengers. No, she’s the sneaky bully that sits at the back of the class, whispering in the ears of those around her, inciting malevolence. The type of bully, that when challenged, will rely on the defence of: ‘I didn’t realise that what I was saying was bullying - I was just so confused by everything. I didn’t even know what was going on.’


The worst kind of bully.


At the heart of her connivance against Peterson is a desire to a promote anti-male feeling amongst her readership. She is a misandrist.


Misandry, eh? It’s about time this term became a little more mainstream.


Aitkenhead is keen to point out gender straightaway. The front cover of the Sunday Times Magazine shows a picture of Peterson alongside the headline: ‘A Broken Man’. Not a ‘broken person’ - which might make the reader wonder about the nature of the breakage and perhaps immediately develop a sense of sympathy. No, we immediately attach the act of ‘breaking’ to the gender of ‘man’. Blunt.


The opening paragraph establishes Aitkenhead’s de facto defence position of being confused: “I don’t know if this is a story about drug dependency, or doctors, or Peterson family dynamics - or a parable about toxic masculinity.” Her choice of words gives her away. Drug dependency and doctor stories are ten-a-penny. And the article certainly isn’t about family dynamics, not when Aitkenhead steamrollers over an abundance of very heartbreaking details about the Peterson’s circumstances, hell bent on her pursuing her petty and spurious lines of questioning. Despite her apparent confusion, she is lucid and surgical enough to use the phrase ‘ - parable about toxic masculinity’. The weight of the phrase thanks to the word ‘parable’ and the use of the dash makes one thing stand out more than anything else: toxic masculinity.


This is about as close as Aitkenhead dares get to stating her beliefs.


She next lets loose with a dullard’s array of ambiguous attacks explaining that Peterson ‘defends traditional masculine dominance’. She declares that his critics see him as the ‘respectable face of reactionary misogyny’. What do these vague and damaging labels actually mean, Decca? What does ‘traditional masculine dominance’ look like, on a day-to-day basis?


We are offered no evidence or points of reference to corroborate such name-calling.


This article challenges a proven academic who underpins his theories and ideas with, as Aitkenhead herself puts it, a ‘scrupulous deference to scientific data’; why then is the article’s author happy bandying about such baseless and downright abysmal figurative expressions as ‘[Peterson is] a dangerous gateway drug to online alt-right radicalisation’?

Terrible metaphor aside (for reading “Mr. Tickle is the solvent abuse that leads many a man to the crystal meth of groping women” is of a similarly dog crap calibre), laying the blame for the warped and twisted choices made by wildly unsound minds, without evidence, is defamatory to say the least.


‘Read Peterson and you’ll become an alt-right radical’ is just the age-old ‘video-games make people violent’ dogma, rehashed, reheated, and slopped onto the readership’s lap like a cheap microwave meal. It’s lazy.


I’d expect such stuff in the sensationalist columns of the tabloids, but in The Sunday Times?


Really?


Aitkenhead is clearly attempts to place toxic masculinity at the heart of the Peterson story. A huge irony is that neither Peterson or his daughter once bring up the issue of gender. It is only the hapless columnist who brings gender to the table - and in a way you might find ironic.


Before hearing from the eponymous ‘broken man’, Aitkenhead speaks to Peterson’s daughter, Mikhaila, who has gone to extraordinary lengths to help her father through his myriad struggles. Here is an opportunity for a female journalist to champion the efforts of a young woman; Aitkenhead could have painted Mikhaila as a strong, decisive woman who will stop at nothing to help those for whom she most deeply cares.


Instead, however, Aitkenhead casts the daughter in a sinister light from the off: she and her husband ‘appear to have assumed full charge of Peterson’s affairs’. Of course, in typical Aitkenhead form she doesn’t make a clear point or put her cards on the table - she just leaves this subtle dig floating around between the lines like halitosis.


She is more forward about Mikhaila when she describes her as: “unrecognisable from the ordinary-looking brunette from photos just a few years ago, Mikhaila today is a glossy, pouting Barbie blonde.”


Here we have Aitkenhead, a woman in a position of responsibility - people read what she writes. From this privileged position of responsibility, she likens another woman to Barbie. Barbie - that symbol of ‘femininity’ that for decades promoted unattainable body-image for generations and generations of girls.


Okay or not okay?


This, were it from a man would be deemed a flagrant example of toxic masculinity.


So, is it time for a new label then? Do we need a shiny new overarching moniker for this kind of sexism then, this woman-on-woman sexism?


Or perhaps at the heart of the issue is the overuse of unhelpful labels. Such as ‘toxic masculinity’.


Whatever your view, Aitkenhead’s loathsome comments on Mikhaila’s appearance is a glaring example of double-standards. She wishes to decry the poison that is toxic masculinity, whilst at the very same time attacking another women based on how she looks.


Did the editor of The Sunday Times miss this? Or knowinlgy choose to print it?


Immediately after making the kinds of remarks that, had they come from a male journalist in this day and age, would have resulted in an immediate sacking, Aitkenhead compares the way Mikhaila talks to ‘the spiky conviction of a President Trump press spokeswoman’. Firstly, this isn’t the last time Aitkenhead references Trump, which is again more evidence of her journalistic laziness seen as your average four year old can use Trump as a symbol of something awful. But secondly, it is undoubtedly a continuation of the blatant attack on Mikhaila.


There is only one reason to use comparison to Trump in one’s writing: to vilify.


The assault on Mikhaila is lazy, overt, and blunt: the modus operandi of the toxic male - it just happens to come from a woman.


Aitkenhead gives us some idea of the abundance of medical issues Mikhaila has suffered throughout her life: juvenile arthritis, an autoimmune disorder, a hip and ankle replacement - to name but a few. Perhaps we could engender a little compassion here; it certainly contextualises Mikhaila’s fervent desire to desperately seek medical help for her father. But no, Aitkenhead shrugs off the ‘Barbie blonde’s’ unfortunate legacy of medical struggles with the phrase ‘the list goes on’. She may as well write ‘blah, blah, blah’ - precisely the kind of utterance I encountered many a time when dealing with vindictive adolescent bullies. The difference is Aitkenhead is not an adolescent bully - she is a writer for a renowned British broadsheet.


Next, Aitkenhead takes aim at Mikhaila’s choice of diet - you know, the kind of behaviour you might expect from a controlling man. She sarcastically reels off Mikhaila’s dietary choices and summarises it with this sneering little number: "Needless to say the medical profession does not endorse this diet.”


But a woman should be allowed to choose whatever diet she wishes, Decca, without being belittled by folk from the sidelines, no? Or did I miss the memo decreeing that commenting on a woman’s lifestyle choices is no longer sexist?


As with all of Aitkenhead’s conclusions, she foregoes actually giving us any evidence to support her assertions. We don’t hear word one from a medical professional in relation to Mikhaila’s diet. Here, Aitkenhead herself assumes the role of being the medical expert, which is a curious irony taking into account that she later goes to great lengths to point out that Mikhaila is not a medical expert.


Furthermore, whilst we are discussing medical expertise, the entire region of North America gets a good Aitkenhead tarnishing too. She belittles a huge chunk of an entire continent, blurting out that ‘surprising numbers [in North America] regard YouTube as a viable substitute for medical school.’


Without any data whatsoever to support such a statement, her suggestion can be deemed as nothing more than ignorant, as well as glaringly xenophobic.


After slagging off the way Mikhaila looks, speaks, the medical struggles she has endured, and the food she chooses to eat, Aitkenhead, in a very rare moment of boldness, dares to declare that Mikhaila ‘is not the person I would entrust with saving my life’. Not only does this suggest an unbelievable lack of compassion on Aitkenhead’s part, given the traumas Mikhaila is dealing with, but it is also wholly unnecessary and irrelevant to the story on the whole.


It is a caustic judgement concluding what is nothing short of a comprehensive character assassination, of a woman, by a woman.

At one point when detailing the gruelling and terrifying plight of Peterson, the clinical psychologist ends up in a Russian hospital where he is put into a medical coma by the doctors. They use propofol which Aitkenhead helpfully identifies as being ‘the drug that killed Michael Jackson’. This insight may be of relevance in a tabloid gossip column. Here, such a vacuous bit of information can only be used for one of two reasons: 1) to continue the crusade against Mikhaila by questioning her decision making skills, or 2) after relapsing into another inexplicable fog of confusion, Aitkenhead momentarily thought that she was writing a tabloid gossip column.


There is a tale of human suffering at the heart of the Peterson story that Aitkenhead repeatedly misses or simply chooses to ignore. She explains, upon seeing Peterson, that she is ‘struck by an overwhelming sense of his vulnerability.’ Why? Literally, just the day before, Mikhaila had explained the unimaginable hardships that Peterson and his family were facing. After enduring these trials, why on Earth would Peterson not seem vulnerable? Perhaps if Aitkenhead had spent less time obsessing over Mikhaila’s physical appearance and dietary choices, and more time empathising with what she was actually being told, then she wouldn’t have been so shocked by Peterson’s vulnerability.


Sending someone this incapable of tact and decency to interview a suicidally vulnerable person seems negligently blasé on behalf of The Sunday Times.


When Peterson explains that, whilst his colleagues were petitioning for his dismissal from the University of Toronto, protesters had also been banging on his windows ‘like scenes from a zombie movie’. The mob were ‘screaming in his face for two or three blocks’ and one woman was arrested for ‘carrying a garrotte’. A garrotte! Aitkenhead’s searing journalistic prowess comes the fore when she responds with: ‘Was it frightening?’


Was it fucking frightening?


I asked Anne Frank if hiding from the nazis was a bit scary.


I asked the David Attenborough if the oceans are Earth’s tears.


I asked the Dalai Lama what his favourite flavour of crisps are.


Was it frightening? Ridiculous.


Here’s my question for you, Decca: to what degree are you embarrassed by the fact that this bilge is in print in one of the nation’s most highly-respected newspapers?


And this is not the only time when Aitkenhead utterly misses the point, favouring instead to force her simpleton’s ideas into a conversation and kill any chance to actually consider the deeper issues in play.


Peterson, clearly in the grips of a terrible ordeal, wasn’t sleeping - something that almost everybody would agree can be a torturous ordeal. He claims that he wasn’t able to sleep for 25 days. Aitkenhead’s response is: ‘the longest period of sleeplessness recorded is 11 days’. This kind of insight might be useful in a pub quiz; here, it is pointless, irrelevant, and serves only as misplaced one-upmanship against a man that is trying to explain that he was, and still is, severely struggling.


When ‘curious’ about whether Peterson was troubled by the state of his own mental health, the man discusses the impact of the autoimmune condition, akathisia, with which he was diagnosed. This leads to Aitkenhead being ‘confused all over again’. Mikhaila tries to suggest that fibromyalgia was in play and suddenly Aitkenhead is able to break the shackles of her most recent bout of Dory-like bewilderment. She points out that fibromyalgia ‘isn’t an autoimmune condition, is it?’ Presumably following this up by sticking out her tongue, thumbing her nose, and trumpeting: ‘Nergh-nerghh!’


Nit-picking over such details testifies to a staggering lack of human warmth on the interviewer’s part: why has The Sunday Times allowed such a reckless reporter loose on a struggling family and a man that is a suicide risk?


Peterson explains that since October 2016, he has been in a state of derealisation which he believes is linked to the PTSD he suffers, stemming from the overwhelming pressures he was up against. He explains that he is still fighting this battle to this day; he is yet to overcome what is, to any sane person, a very serious and dangerous predicament. Why Aitkenhead thinks it is appropriate to grill him on the status of his mental health, having been made privy to such information, is beyond me. It is as tactless and ill-advised as asking someone with two broken legs to knock out a few heavy barbell squats.


Still, showing remarkable fortitude, Peterson goes on. He explains that his world fell apart when wis wife was diagnosed with a form of cancer ‘so rare there’s virtually no literature on it, and the one-year fatality rate is 100 per cent’. The abysmal misery and struggle this would cause for a human being is hard to comprehend. Peterson, battling on several other fronts at the time of this terrible news, like so many of us, turned to substances to ease the burden. He began taking benzodiazepines. Not from some shady back-alley dealer, I hasten to add, but after being prescribed the pills by a family GP. In response to this, Aitkenhead’s profound wisdom comes through as she pithily points out, ‘those drugs are notoriously addictive’, like a pseudo-intellectual version of South Park’s Mr. Mackey.

The wisdom nobody needs: Mackey / Aitkenhead

As if pointing out Peterson’s inability to deal with her self-perceived level of genius, after one question she points out that Peterson ‘looks slightly blank’. She continues her interrogation, and then, as if claiming a victory, points out that Peterson has to ‘blankly repeat’ one answer - as if he’s struggling to respond to her Paxman-esque brilliance. I would suggest to Aitkenhead that, when drowning in a deluge of senseless, irrelevant banality, from a barking, compassionless buffoon, one will inevitably end up looking slightly blank. ‘Incredulity’ might be an apt replacement for what she perceives as ‘blankness’. Furthermore, if Peterson is having to repeat himself (on several occasions he offers lucid, rational, and logical responses that Aitkenhead seems incapable of accepting), then such repetition testifies more to the interviewer’s inability to listen than the interviewee struggling to find an response.


After ignoring a tome’s worth of reasons why Peterson has struggled the way he has and flatly refusing to engage in a thoughtful manner with the nuanced and complex issues at the heart of this ‘broken man’, Aitkenhead finally comes close to daring to make a point: “The more he talks, though, the more I wonder whether toxic masculinity might have been a culprit, too.”


Note however, that in truly cowardly, passive-aggressive Aitkenhead form, she covers her tracks with the use of wishy-washy, vague language: ‘I wonder’ - instead of owning her opinion and saying, ‘I believe’; and that toxic masculinity ‘might have’ played a part:


No, no! Wait a minute. I said, ‘might have’ I didn’t actually say that toxic masculinity ‘did’ play a part. Read my words - carefully. See?

That’s right. I really don’t actually say anything at all. Being open and frank isn’t my style. No. Here, I just pretend to sit on the fence whilst quietly sniping at a man in desperate need of help whilst slagging of his daughter based on the way she looks. Also, also - don’t forget - I get terribly confused and bewildered and am not sure what I’m saying…


To support her insinuation that toxic masculinity is the real villain of the piece, it goes without saying that we get nothing in terms of evidence or data to support her theory. Besides, who needs evidence when you can just lazily lean on good old Wotsit-faced über-tosser, Donald J Trump again.


According to Aitkenhead there are ‘parallels’ between Peterson and Donald Trump. Like the way there are parallels between a desk lamp and a slow loris.


Like Trump, Aitkenhead blabs, Peterson is just ‘another unhappy man closed off from his own emotions.’ I imagine her softly tutting, rolling her eyes and shaking her head as she patronisingly mutters, ‘Just another typical man!’


The level of idiocy Aitkenhead displays in drawing parallels between Trump and Peterson is beyond comprehension. Just a few lines earlier, in her own article, she writes this:


I [Peterson] can’t go out without people coming up to me. And they’re usually quite emotional, and I’m…” His voice trembles, then cracks. “You don’t have conversations like that, that often, outside of the clinical sphere. So part of what’s overwhelming to me is how it’s direct evidence of how little encouragement so many people get.” His face crumples into tears. “They’re starving…” He breaks down. “Sorry,” he sobs, “I haven’t done an interview for a long time."


In what way does this remind Aitkenhead of Donald Trump?


Is it Trump’s ability to cry openly during interviews, apologise, and then be able to find the composure to go on? Or perhaps it’s the way that Trump so frequently becomes visibly and profoundly upset when considering the weight of hardship facing his fellow human beings?


I am, of course, being sarcastic.


And passive-aggressive.


It’s okay though - I’m just reaching out to Decca in the language she best understands.


Peterson’s disclosure (above) suggests a deep empathy and desire to help his fellow human, and he has the strength, after breaking down, to go on with the interview. And yet Aitkenhead is numb enough to suggest that he isn’t able to be open with his emotions.


It’s simply deplorable.


It staggers me that Peterson and Mikhaila entertained this guttersnipe of a journalist for as long as they did, but - they did: they persevered with a grim dignity for which I can only commend them. When Peterson explains that the withdrawal symptoms of the benzodiazepines caused akathisia he expresses a desire to want to beat it. He believes it should be within him to beat it. But, because he hasn’t yet beaten it, he explains that he feels humiliated. There is a remarkable strength and bravery in opening up about something as difficult as this, and to speak about it so candidly. This could be championed as a fine example for other men to not fear talking openly about the way they feel. Instead, we are treated to yet another sociopathic Aitkenhead belter: does this generate ‘a self-punishing voice in his head, accusing him of being weak’, she asks.


Were my own father in a similar condition to Peterson and some heartless harpy asked this kind of question, which, let’s face it is only a few steps away from asking when you will try to kill yourself again? Then the last thing she would hear of the Zoom interview would be me slamming the lid of my laptop down.


Still, Peterson responds with absolute dignity. He answers her question: ‘Yes.’ He explains to her that in his mind there is a voice telling him he’s weak. A self-punishing voice that undermines his own self-esteem.


This is the kind of voice that plagues the minds of millions upon millions of men in the UK, every day, right now. I myself know this voice all too well.


When this voice becomes too loud, there is, for many men, only one way out.


It is during these times when being likened to Donald Trump isn’t helpful. It is during these times that having one’s daughter’s physical appearance likened to a ‘blonde Barbie’ isn’t helpful. When someone is struggling with unbelievable hardships and in a moment of weakness turn to alcohol or drugs to self-medicate away the pain, it really isn’t helpful to nonchalantly blab that, ‘Drugs are bad, m‘kaaaaay?’


When a suicidal person says I haven’t slept for 25 days, and your response is Impossible! the record for going out sleep is 11 days, then perhaps it’s time to ask yourself some serious questions about what compels you to be so ruthlessly heartless.


Peterson’s second book is coming out on March 2nd. Aitkenhead needles Peterson on this, challenging him to explain why, if his life was so traumatic, he didn’t delay the book launch.


Peterson explains that because his life was in such dire turmoil, working on the book kept him going: “If I would have lost the book, I wouldn’t have had anything left.”


For people that are suffering with mental health problems, having a goal to which they can work, is of vital importance. That Peterson found such a goal and was able to pursue it, despite the staggering adversity he faced, is nothing short of remarkable. Aitkenhead though, in one final sneering, ignorant, vitriolic swipe sees it differently:


“[Peterson] has ended up framing his story in terms of his willpower and courage.”


Let me ask you, Decca: what would you rather he did? Frame his story in failure and despair?

You couldn’t of course write this because it would be tantamount to pressuring a vulnerable person into committing suicide.

Perhaps this is what you really want, Decca? Because your misandry has blinded you to the compassion that we must now show one another, more than ever before. Because your hatred of men has clouded your ability to look at a story and ask deeper, more meaningful questions that could actually help your fellow human, be they male or female.

And should you ever decide to respond to my having called you out, which you won’t, because, frankly, it would be contrary to your cowardly, ambiguous style, I know exactly what you’d say, or at least, passively-aggressively insinuate:

  • I have missed the point (like a typical man)

  • My eloquence and working-class Yorkshire roots and tattoos remind you of Donald Trump

  • My mother’s hair makes her look like a harlot

As long as journalists like Decca Aitkenhead are allowed to so ignorantly and tactlessly pursue an agenda that exists only to vilify men (and to slag off a few women along the way, of course) then progress towards social equality for everyone, regardless of gender, will be massively hindered.

And for the Editor at The Sunday Times that allowed this come to pass, shame on you.


Image credits:

Front cover; Jordan & Mikhaila - The Sunday Times, Shalan & Paul

Decca - The Sunday Times

Mr. Mackey - pinterest


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