One night with Jordan Peterson
"Everyone said 'You’re fucking nuts. You’re a crazy man.'" Backstage Travis Pangburn is telling anyone who will listen what 'they' said when he came up with this idea, an arena speaking tour. Not unreasonably. So left-of-field is his show, billed as the Woodstock of debate, that insurers struggled to underwrite it - "So what are these men doing on stage? There's no pyrotechnics?"
Travis is the CEO of Pangburn Philosophy, an eponymous organisation with the literal goal of changing the world - according to Travis. The group operates out of British Columbia, Canada. Recently founded, there is little information about it online but Pangburn tells me he has global ambitions. He is the promoter of tonight's "war of ideas," featuring Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris and Douglas Murray.
"We promote art and science in the community. Art and science will satisfy your required needs for inspirational pleasure with positive and unharmful experiences, yielding real world results. This will better serve yourself, our planet and the future of humanity."
Hosted in London's O2 arena, 8,000 people have paid from £44 to £200 to listen to the three converse for two hours. They shuttle four pint carriers to their seats. The three participants in tonight's conversation are notorious for their political stances and controversy tangibly hangs in the thick air. Harris is renowned for provocative atheistic barbs, usually aimed at Islam, Murray is a vocal opponent of mass immigration, a point well trod in his book The Strange Death of Europe, and Peterson for adopting intellectual positions perceived as sexist and transphobic.
Such was the demand for tickets on the door Travis wanted to open up the O2's second tier of seats last minute, a request which was denied by the venue. There are conspiratorial murmurs about marketing spend and the distinct lack of promotional posters around the old Millennium Dome. But then again, it is the war of ideas.
Pangburn had previously said that 60 per cent of tickets at an event in Dublin two days previous were sold to under 30s. Looking out on London's crowd that demographic can be reduced further into a white and male flavoured jus. Some of whom are being chaperoned by their mums.
And that's relevant, because Peterson's extolling of stern-faced fatherhood is best-selling. 12 Rules for Life hasn't left the lists since its release, the core message being the importance of accepting responsibility - Rule 1 is "stand up straight with your shoulders back."
He has a regular spot on the Joe Rogan Experience, stemming from vocal opposition to legislation he claims forces Canadians to refer to each other by preferred gender pronouns. His Youtube lectures, starting with a 2016 series titled "Professor Against Political Correctness," have been viewed millions of times. Such is the volume of searches for Dr Peterson's name on the video site that channels with a three-figure subscriber count can rack up seven-figure views if they feature him.
More traditional media appearances include a viral interview with Channel 4's Cathy Newman which catapulted Peterson into the mainstream. It saw the presenter languish. The top comments on the video are all jubilant Peterson fans: "Is she ignorant or pushing an agenda?," "So you're saying you want to slaughter all minorities with an ice pick?" to mimic a Newman idiosyncrasy, and "her hair looks like ramen."
The interview went live a week after pre-sale tickets for this evening were released. Travis admits it was more than a catalyst, the easiest and biggest piece of marketing he could've hoped for, driving purchases adequate to justify the talk's setting. It also spawned hundreds of as yet unanswered criticisms of Peterson.
During soundcheck Peterson's kermit voice bounces off the cavernous space, taking a countable second to return from the back wall. Harris makes a joke about the size of his facial features, enlarged further by the colossal screen behind the three leather chairs on which they sit. Murray is unperturbed, reticent and glib as he was throughout the rest of the evening.
A warren of corridors link the stage to the speakers' dressing rooms, adorned with posters of the greats that have walked them. The Rolling Stones, U2, Beyoncé.
Jordan Peterson now moves through with a rockstar's security detail. He arrives in the Chairman's Club, an exclusive room sponsored by Credit Suisse usually the reserve of Jay-Z and Elton John, flanked by a large man who stops by the door. The philosopher king wears a navy three-piece with a flamboyant tie. He asks where he should sit before abruptly opting for a coffee table that rises one foot from the ground. His knees come high towards his chest.
I ask Peterson why he thinks young men are drawn to him in such quantity. A quick question draws an extended answer.
"Well I think that I am a reasonably articulate speaker and I've had a lot of practice at it, so that's helpful," he said. "I don't speak with notes. I talk to specific people in the audience, I am having an actual discussion with the audience.
"Then I think that part of the reason that what I'm saying is attractive is partly because there's a strangely novel element to it, because I'm making a perhaps credible philosophical, and perhaps also biological, case for the necessity of something approximating a religious underpinning to our ethical striving.
"But I'm also talking to people, and I think this is the real kicker, I have an idea that, because of the intrinsic difficulty of life, it's necessary to find in life something that is truly engaging and meaningful. Otherwise life is so hard, it will make you bitter and cruel."
That's the abridged version from a five minute monologue. The eye contact throughout is intense, fixing me in situ like a pallet of falling bricks. A spotlight of consciousness, hand gestures conjuring the next sentence.
Half an hour later and the trio are waiting in the pitch black wings, save for the bleach of the stage manager's flashlight, but you could just make out the motion of Sam Harris rubbing a hand up and down Peterson's back. It looked like a mix of reassurance and a motivating changing room ritual.
Travis goes to announce their arrival on stage but his mic isn't live. He curses the venue again before the levels go up. Cue rapturous applause that repeats at the conclusion of every point well-made. It's sedate and civilised, the intellectual equivalent to the sort of reception Lynyrd Skynyrd's 'Free Bird' got, or your hometown's favourite club banger at closing time.
Even "Good evening, London" gets an extensive cheer. As do rinses on Stalinism and Maoism, as well as an exploration of religion and truth.
Harris: The landscape of mind that either takes great training, great luck, or pharmacological bombardment of the human brain to explore. There are ways to get there. There are ways to have the beatific vision. I’ve had many experiences that if I had them in a religious context would have counted for me as evidence of the truth of my religion. But because I’ve spent a lot of time seeing the downside of that form of credulity, I have never been attempted to interpret these experiences that way.
Peterson: Try a higher dose… you’d be surprised, my friend.
Harris: Maybe that’s our next podcast.
8,000 mostly pale, male faces are transfixed by Peterson and his shamanic hands, in this house the internet built. A woman strides in late, still wearing sunglasses, and cackles.
The zenith of the evening is a stark admission by the doctor. Asked by Murray what he hates, the answer is essentially himself - via an admission of his own hypothetical capacity for happiness whilst working as a guard at a Nazi prison camp. A protracted silence came before, seasoned by the tears visible in Jordan's eyes.
Most of the crowd have dispersed when a solitary figure approaches the empty stage and screams "What about the book signing?" His mum clearly distracted.
The book signing is taking place in the Amex lounge. Some 400 fans file one-by-one past a station where the three orators sit, signing books, exchanging pleasantries before being cajoled on. Peterson is polite, engaging and interested in everyone of them. I'm told he makes a habit of greeting fans before his appearances, speaking to them as they queue. His demeanour on stage is the same, only reaching mild irritation at Harris on occasion. There was little challenge between the three speakers, calling it a debate was generous.
"One of the gentleman’s management replied to my initial pitch saying 'You’re fucking nuts,' full stop," Travis relays. "Well he forwarded me that email today, called me and said 'I guess there is a spot for crazy people like you on this planet after all.'"
The next step for Pangburn Philosophy is a science divison. Travis says he "wants to change the world," that "there will be division after division after division" and "a compound in most countries around the world."
For this to happen, the morass of young men at London's O2 need direction. Jordan Peterson is giving it to them.