On the Frontline of the Culture Wars in Berlin
Talking to the Hand
The very real-world effects of the Jordan Peterson phenomenon are palpable around the globe, most perceptibly online. In my case, on the dating website OkCupid. I know that my sample size was biased, as my filters were set to men 35–45 within ten kilometers of my home in Berlin, and then personally filtered further to those I found attractive enough to swipe right on. These were often Germans, Italians, Dutch, Brits, and other handsome bearded men of unknown nationality … but I gathered enough data-points to bring you this full report from the trenches.
I was drawn to OkCupid because of its two special features. Unlike Tinder or Bumble, which often presents only a photo to swipe left or right on, OkCupid calculates your matches by asking questions that you might choose to answer about any topic under the sun, you must also enter what answers you would accept from your matches and how important the question is.
The other feature is the profile prompt-questions to help you characterize who you are and how you wish to present yourself. One of the prompts that I answered asked me to simply “name the single most important thing in politics today” under two sections, social conservatism and liberalism. Being a veteran standardized tester, poly-sci major, and rule-breaker, I named not one but three issues in each category in order to give a more nuanced idea of what issues I believed to be most important, and under conservative I entered:
“Identity politics, open borders, and Jordan Peterson’s ripples in society (I swear, 90% of the men I’ve met or know seem into him, less so women; I haven’t spent much time listening to him myself).”
On the liberal side, I wrote:
“Wealth-inequality, women’s rights, and the threat of digital colonialism. I know that’s three. I don’t like forms that limit our expression.”
Besides the usual onslaught of generic, boring, and poorly written messages that are the norm in online dating, I received very many thoughtful messages asking me what I thought about Peterson, and could we maybe get coffee to discuss? But I also received more than one message that read something like:
“Thanks for the like, but I have a zero-tolerance policy on people who have any sympathy for Jordan Peterson, so good luck to you.”
One man reacted to my Peterson reference by saying that he wasn’t sure how it would work between us — despite his attraction — because he totally disliked the views of Jordan Peterson and other alt-right intellectuals. I wrote back suggesting that if he had read more closely, he would have seen that I had taken no position, even having gone out of my way to specifiy that I had not spent much time with Peterson’s ideas but observed that everyone else seemed to have a position, which is why I referred to him. During further chatting, this fellow acknowledged that he too had not read any of Peterson’s work but had read about him, and the fact that Peterson was taken as a mascot by the alt-right was enough for him to dismiss him.
So while Berlin’s left-wingers swiped left on me because they had been triggered by the very mention of Peterson, the pro-Petersonians sent me positive and friendly messages, among which was one that opened “You’re not one of those Peterson-bashers, are you?”
I understand that Peterson’s ideas (and he surely has many) are important, or they would not be so widely discussed, but I have not discovered all of them yet and don’t plan to watch his many hundreds of YouTube videos, which have already garnered over 100 million views. A well-meaning family member sent me a copy of his book 12 Rules for Life, proclaiming Peterson to be a prophet sent to help save Western Civilization. And although the book still sits on my shelf (I did leaf through it), I have watched a few of his videos and read many articles for and against. I find some of his ideas helpful and thought-provoking, others less so, and his demeanor equally interesting and bombastic. So much for my general views on Peterson and the extent of their basis.
What I find more interesting is the phenomenon of Us vs. Them that accompanies this issue, and whether a person’s ideas can be separated from who likes those ideas (Peterson being linked to the alt-right, despite his consistent disavowals). It is fascinating that the very mention of the man’s name conjures up an entire social and political “team,” to which one is pressed to declare allegiance or opposition. But lest these online interactions with lefties make it seem that only “anti-Petersonians” are intolerant and uninterested in discussion, I offer the following anecdote.
I first met a tall, dark, and handsome thirty-something Canadian composer IRL — yes, first meetings in real life are still possible! — and it was a real meet-cute story, set at lunch in a packed Chinese restaurant, worthy of the best Rom-Com; we chatted on Facebook over several weeks, trying to find a time to meet again. I had gotten my hopes up about him, because during our initial in-person conversation he had said that he was interested in the way I thought — the highest compliment.
This composer, we’ll call him Pro-Peterson Pete, after having engaged in some overtly flirtatious and sexually charged chats with me, then sending increasingly lackluster “Hey how are you, what are you up to?” texts, and always being too tired to show up when I suggested an actual meeting place, eventually — two months after our Chinese lunch — and after a final cancelation picked a chat fight with me because of my use of a brown thumbs-up emoji. Yes, it was a brown emoji that triggered him, revealing his, as it were, true colors:
Pete: Bettina, I’m not sure tonight is the night… I’m a bit tired.. sorry..
Me: 👍🏾 get your beauty rest:)
Pete:Did you paint your hand black?
Me:I paint the town red 😉
Pete: I’m asking about the hand
Me:I know. I’m just teasing you
Pete:You didn’t answer my question, though
Me:you don’t speak multi-kulti emoji?
(The next day)
Pete: What is multi-kulti emoji?
Me:👋🏿 👋🏾 👋🏽 👋🏼 👋🏻 👋👋
multi-kulti is the German slang for multi-cultural
Pete: I think that’s kind of a weird idea
Me: how do you mean?
Pete: To send me a thumb up with a black hand
Me: I have my defaults set at black
Pete: You’d probably feel uncomfortable sending a white hand because, in your view, there’s something wrong with being white, right?
sounds like a conversation best had in person
why dont we meet in person again? — we can talk about Jordan Peterson and all of it — all this chatting is clearly not going in any good direction
tell me what’s on your mind
Pete: Sure, we could do that. No hard feelings or anything. It’s just hard to believe that the black hand wasn’t politically motivated.
Me:we barely know each other
we met by chance and talked for an hour
Pete: I’m right, aren’t I?
Me: my use of multi-culti emojis shouldn‘t be read into without further actual communication
Pete: So, I’m wrong, or it’s complicated?
(At this point I tried calling him)
Me: A contact missed your call.
Pete: Maybe not just now..
Me: i don’t know what you mean by politically motivated emoji-sending
because we actually don’t know each other, our senses if humor, political, religious, sexual or cultural leanings-the possibility for miscommunication on this platform is high as we’re seeing. I’d be happy to meet up in person to have a real talk.
Pete: Sure, sounds like a sensible idea..
Though, I’m not sure you’re being totally straight-forward about the hand.. it looks like identity politics to me, which I do not endorse..
Me: That much you’ve made clear 🙂
now if you’re interested in a human interaction my offer stands
Pete: Okay, some time soon
I never heard from him again. He had accused me of being on “Team Identity Politics” and hating my own whiteness because of my use of an emoji! Good riddance, said my friends when I told them the story. Although I was disappointed, it seemed ironic that Peterson — whom in the meantime I have spent a bit more time discovering — if he is to be known for anything, should be recognized as a champion of free speech and remaining open to debate when being attacked for one’s dissenting-from-the-dissenters’ views (see his virally notorious interview with Cathy Newman).
The truth is that I occasionally use emojis in other shades other than the default setting of yellow, both to communicate with my non-default-color friends, as well as with my default-color friends, but also jokingly to provoke a good pal whom I knew holds an anti-PC worldview, which is why these figures default when I open my emoji-list on my iPhone. Maybe Android has other options? But for me, the emojis were still both tongue-in-cheek, as in “Do what you can to fight the Establishment!” and also no big deal. Now I know otherwise. 👊🏿
In my ideal world, people can discuss anything with one another and — also ideally— in person, face-to-face. I know that this is a lofty vision, one based upon a mutual assumption of goodwill, equal access to information and education, and many other scarce factors. In online interactions between new acquaintances aiming for intimacy, this necessary presumption of goodwill seems however sorely to be lacking.
Rather, the goal now is to be the first to accurately and efficiently categorize the “candidate” into one of the opposing teams and then move on to the next prospect, always seeking the company only of one’s own teammates. This is another manifestation of the echo-chamber of the new-media universe as it shapes our political and personal associations, including our romantic engagements.
There is a time and a place for intellectual debate; it is possible to examine and get to know ideas with which we disagree without fear of polluting our minds, sullying our souls, or making us complicit. This used to be the presumption in academia and in public fora, but thanks to the internet, everyone is at once source, consumer, and reporter, and our AI-driven digital-news consumption can push us further and further into opposing sides, urge us to choose a team, and extinguish robust and healthy debate — including the kind that makes partnerships interesting. But in the context of dating, it is exhausting to be alwaysin debate, as that may not be the dynamic we want for a romantic partnership (I know I don’t!).
Don’t get me wrong, I also am a full participant in this opposing-team dating game. I have my list of trigger words, statements of belief or non-belief, and political affiliations, all of which I have discovered upon subsequent meeting and conversation often don’t accurately convey the true identity of the person claiming to espouse them on OkCupid.
Enter Jordan Peterson.
Given how many likes I did receive on OkCupid and other apps (online dating famously granting women more options than it offers men) I can only imagine how many men viewed my profile and swiped left for my being either putatively pro- or con-Peterson. I have thus been virtually rejected for being many things that I am not and never claimed to be.
But I wonder whether that’s any different from my swiping left on men who post elevator selfies, refer to their desired matches as “girls,” and/or are “seeking a partner in crime.” With too many options, we have to rely on some sorting mechanism, however arbitrary or inaccurate. The little hurdles and so-called shit-tests of the dating game begin before the contestants even know that the starting gun has been fired. Everyone is interpreting, reading between lines, and projecting internal biases.
In retrospect, I guess I did add Peterson’s name to my profile in the interest of quality-control — even if I was unaware of just what reactions it would provoke. I knew that how my profile would be read or misread by prospective matches would be the first step in its readers’ sorting process. But thanks to Jordan Peterson, that process may well have been streamlined, some left-swipes having spared me that trouble of eventually having to swipe left myself, either online or later in person.
In the end, it is exhausting to text, talk, or read about Peterson all day. When approaching dating, I would actually rather send huggy-kissy emojis 🤗 😘. Which come only in yellow.
At least for now.
*Grateful for editing assistance from Michael Ronall