‘OK, we’ve been speaking for an hour and fifteen now, so you have a choice. Either we go to questions from the audience, or we carry on for another 45 minutes. It’s up to you.’ Jordan Peterson squints out into the gaping darkness of the O2 arena. ‘Everyone who’d like to go to Q&A, cheer now.’ Half-hearted cheer. ‘And everyone who’d like us to keep going, cheer now.’ Uproarious cheer. ‘OK, we’ll keep going.’ He feigns surprise at this outcome, sinks back into his black leather regency armchair and turns again to his interlocutors, Sam Harris and Douglas Murray.
I’d cheered for the first option, not least because I was interested to know how on earth it was going to work. The O2 was less than a third full, but even so, that’s an audience of six thousand people. This is a venue so vast that tickets come with a warning to vertigo sufferers. An announcement before the event had referred to a smartphone app that would allow us to upload questions, which could then be up-rated and down-rated by the rest of the audience. It sounded enticingly like chaos. At the very least it promised to inject some element of surprise into proceedings. But Peterson was ready to ‘keep going’.
Keeping going, in this instance, didn’t quite deliver what Peterson, Harris and Murray are best known for. All three men owe their reputations to their professed willingness to criticise ‘political correctness’ in one guise or another, and a refusal to tiptoe around sensitive subjects. Harris, whose background is in neuroscience, became part of the ‘new atheist’ movement in the mid-2000s, courting controversy with a series of attacks on Islam, Catholicism and Judaism. Murray is equally provocative on the topic of Islam, most recently in his book The Strange Death of Europe, which whips up every fear imaginable regarding the threat posed by immigration from the Middle East and North Africa. A Darwinian thread runs through the work of both, which issues in the idea that we must be brave enough to face up to the existence of biologically innate inequalities.
Peterson’s name was barely known this time last year, yet it was his involvement in the O2 event that made its scale possible. His recent book, Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, blends a defence of patriarchal tradition with self-help and psychoanalytic mysticism, drawing on Carl Jung and religious fables to produce such peculiar tips as ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street,’ alongside more menacing advice on how to physically discipline your child. His public profile is so high thanks to a series of online videos in which he attacks the arguments of trans rights activists and feminists. His eagerness to call out ‘postmodernists’, a catch-all for anyone who questions the superiority of dominant Western political and scientific institutions, is perfectly geared towards those in the younger generation who feel alienated from identity politics.
If Peterson, Murray and Harris have one thing in common, it is a brand (always carefully tended) of intellectual and political fearlessness. The logo for the O2 event, titled ‘Winning the War of Ideas’, consisted of a grenade made out of a human brain, surrounded by black and yellow hazard stripes suggesting mortal danger. But on the night the risks were few and far between. At one point Murray, trying to inject some edginess into the proceedings, asked why they were ‘having to hide in a sports stadium to address serious issues’. Harris dutifully tossed out a couple of mildly derogatory remarks about Islam, but you sensed that his heart wasn’t really in it. Peterson was avuncular to a fault.
The supposed premise of the occasion was that Peterson and Harris have some philosophical beef to sort out; Murray, as moderator, would help them along. The organisers, a new outfit called Pangburn Philosophy (named after its Canadian founder and ‘new atheism’ enthusiast, Travis Pangburn), marketed the event as a ‘heavyweight bout’. But the evening was only a ‘debate’ in the same way that Have I Got News for You is a ‘quiz’ or keepie-uppie is ‘football’. The main objective, so it appeared, was to provide an occasion for Harris and Peterson to perform long soliloquies, in which they ranged across as many forms of scientific evidence, pop psychology and moral philosophy as possible. The more ambitious ones, such as a long Peterson riff on ‘the father’ – taking in his own father, God the father, ‘the father’ as psychoanalytic archetype and some fatherly ‘vision’ he’d recently had – were followed by warm applause. What any of it meant, or who was ‘winning’ this battle, was anyone’s guess. It was less heavyweight boxing, more WWE wrestling.
There seemed to be no agenda whatsoever, yet somehow they kept gravitating towards the same three topics: the human brain, God, genocide. Did the Nazis share something with Islamic fundamentalism? We need to consult the neuroscience on that one. Does atheism make the human brain more or less violent? Let’s look at Stalin. Had six thousand people paid between £60 and £210 for a seminar on the neuro-theology of mass murder? It seemed that they had. At one point I zoned out of something Harris was saying about the Bible, only to zone back in two minutes later to find him performing some intellectual stunt on the topic of dead children.
Little of this can be classed as ‘philosophy’, but it isn’t really politics or science either. Instead it’s a kind of grappling with the excesses of what human beings have done or believed in the past, in the hope that it clarifies something about the present. Anecdotes about neurons, warfare, Cain and Abel or primates are tossed out as self-evidently indicative of something. But of what exactly? One theme that preoccupies Peterson, Murray and Harris in different ways is violence, and – though this is never quite spelled out – the need to ensure that we (or rather ‘we’ rational Western males) use it sufficiently in defence of our cultures, ethnicities, women and children.
Occasionally Peterson would drop in one of his more famous riffs, like Bob Dylan teasing fans at a gig with a few bars of identifiable music. ‘What is it that makes men attractive to women?’ he asked at one point, apropos of nothing, leaving the question to hang for several seconds as the low rumble of the O2’s air conditioning heightened the suspense. At a rough estimate, there were at least five thousand people in the room who would be pretty eager to know. Was it going to involve bloodshed? Was he finally going to give us his ‘women are the cause of all chaos in the world’ schtick? No. Instead he wanted to talk us through the politics of primate communities, in which the males have a system of ‘up-rating’ and ‘down-rating’ each other. Oh well.
The ratio of men to women in the audience was no surprise, given Peterson’s defence of traditional gender roles and hierarchies. Missing from the crowd (and no doubt missing from most crowds that are so expensive to join) was much sign of the lost teenage boys whom Peterson is said to inspire, and – according to his defenders – lure away from the dangerous seductions of the ‘alt-right’. In contrast to his bestselling book, in person he offered little in the way of advice to the men who’d gathered to hear him – most were well past the age of needing to be told to stand up straight or to tidy their bedrooms.
If Peterson has a particular skill, beyond his undoubted eloquence, it’s the ability to move so seamlessly back and forth between scientific research and metaphysics, the primordial and the modern, that the audience scarcely notices the joins. It can be a mesmerising act, and is evidently a commercial success. Reflecting on the god-shaped hole in secular culture, he turned to the audience: ‘I suspect that many of you are here because you’d like to have the void addressed.’ To me this was a revelation. I thought we were here to watch a brain grenade being hurled at snowflakes and postmodernists. But I’m sure he was right. The market for metaphysical meaning is always going to be bigger than the one for intellectual aggro.
And a market logic this undoubtedly was. Probably sensing that this metropolitan crowd wouldn’t appreciate it, Murray left his personal bête noire, immigration, entirely alone (he obviously saves his best ‘free speech’ for the readers of the Spectator). The metaphysical ‘void’ does better at the box office than racial eugenics. But while the three men on stage were impeccably respectful of the feelings of their customers, the event’s organisers showed no such concern. A twenty-minute wait to get through the O2’s security on arrival, followed by a half-hour wait for a £5.50 bottle of Budweiser, could mean only one thing: minimal outlay on staff for maximum profit. Was all this just a scam, a quickfire means of monetising Peterson’s sudden celebrity? Quite how much does Peterson cost, that another two or three grand couldn’t be found to spend on bar staff? Without switching on the audience question-aggregating app, I didn’t have the chance to ask. Pangburn Philosophy wouldn’t be the first outfit to mine mass existential ennui for money, and they won’t be the last. Towards the end of that final 45 minutes, people began to traipse out. Peterson was still going as I exited the auditorium: ‘There’s an ancient idea that when you reach the void, and get to the bottom of the void, you reach a beast and that beast is your father …’ The DVD will be out soon.