Review: Jordan Peterson in Dublin - not the type of talk the audience had envisaged


Saturday 14th July we checked out the Dublin appearance of Youtube snake oil salesman Jordan Peterson. Peterson over the last couple of years has developed a sizable following of angry young white men through Youtube videos consisting of incomprehensible lectures on ‘meaning’ and, more disconcertingly, anti-trans, anti-feminist, and anti-leftist rants.  We expected it to attract many of the small fascist groups and those in orbit around them, indeed there were even ‘Men’s Rights Activists’ leafleting outside it, presumably having identified it as a recruiting ground for their poisonous misogyny.

Peterson was speaking at a a public talk titled “Winning the War of Ideas” which took place in Dublin’s 3Arena. The event featured internet personas Jordan Peterson (an eccentric and generally unintelligible Canadian university professor, widely known for his campaigning against the rights of trans people and rants on “the postmodern conspiracy destroying academia”) and Sam Harris - an American, self-declared ‘new-atheist’ and proponent of islamophobia and US imperialism. It was moderated by the English journalist Douglas Murray, another islamophobe, vocal opponent of migration, and proponent of ‘European values’ and Brexit. (Readers unfamiliar with these speakers should be sure to read the accompanying article, which discusses their backgrounds in more depth).

While the event was, in the end, reasonably well attended, low ticket sales in the days before led organisers to reduce ticket prices from over €60 to €20.

On the morning of the event, Peterson was given a forty minute interview slot on Marian Finucane’s RTÉ Radio 1 show, on which he recited his usual titbit polemics about sea creatures justifying hierarchy in human society, and legal protections for trans people leading to Orwell’s 1984. While most of his ludicrous claims went unchallenged by Finucane, there was a highlight at the end of the interview where she read out messages sent in by the general public, most of which called Peterson out as deranged, an intellectual fraud, and general bigot.

The most revealing portion of the night was the first twenty minutes, when an open mic was given to audience members to say which speaker they were there to see, and what their main interests/concerns were. As I walked into the auditorium, a young American man was on the microphone. Noting that the event was titled the War of Ideas, his question was when this would translate into a real war, “like a civil war in the US”. There were howls of excitement from the crowd which was still filing in. Another young man wanted to hear a discussion on “the decay of Europe, and how feminism has caused that” - more cheers. A young woman who hoped the speakers would address feminism was met with booing; whether the woman was feminist or anti-feminist, or whether the crowd were booing her or simply the mention of the word feminism, was unclear.

Before the show began the atmosphere was one of tension and excitement. People who usually consume these political ideas in isolation through Youtube were clearly encouraged by the number of people in attendance. The references which most excited were those closest to pure fascist talking points - protection of national identity from whatever “threat” we feel like, anti-immigration, anti-queer politics, and general reactionary backlash against the gains of progressive politics. As the speakers walked onto the stage, before saying a word, they were greeted with a standing ovation.

When the talk began however, it became clear that it was not going to be the type of talk the audience had envisaged. For the first hour, Harris and Peterson engaged in an abstract, irrelevant and intellectually sterile discussion about the space between “facts and values”, which Harris stated was central to their “social project”. The enthusiasm of the audience visibly waned. Peterson’s best efforts, which were spent attempting to introduce some form of pseudo-religious “transcendentalism” or universal ethics to their collective worldview, were almost effortlessly put down by Harris, who in fairness kept to basic skepticism and rationality in this part of the discussion. In the toilets during the event I overheard a young white man complain that the speakers “won’t get on to talking about the important stuff”.

While the second portion of the show was supposed to be an audience Q&A, instead the discussion continued. Perhaps an overly cynical view was that Peterson intentionally veered it away from Q&A after hearing the blatantly far-right language of some audience members (he had in the radio interview earlier that day, as he has done on other occasions, claimed to have “nothing to do” with alt-right and other fascist politics). He asked people who wanted a Q&A to shout first, then those who wanted the discussion to continue to shout second. Predictably, the second won, in part because crowds will tend to shout louder the second time, and partly because Peterson is a powerful orator and communicator, and as a result people were so obviously in adoration of the speakers that it seemed a compliment to ask them to continue what was at that point a draining, boring discussion topic.

Eventually however, the speakers did get on to discussing more relevant political ideas. When discussing borders Harris revealed his materialist conception of humanity, and western-supremacist world-view claiming that, in the absence of international borders, people would migrate to the West until standards of living were basically equalised globally. A discussion of the role colonialism and modern imperialism played in preventing development in these “less advanced” countries was absent. Peterson’s contribution was that lots of things are borders - “your skin is a border, towns are borders, cities are borders”. He did at least acknowledge that “we pay a bloody price for borders, and I say those words very carefully [...] and it’s often in the price of other people’s blood”. His solution to this ethical problem was for each of us who are privileged by the border regime to “live as effectively as you can”. In essence - people are literally being murdered for you, so make sure you get a good job and enjoy your salad.

When Harris introduced the point of alt-right and fascist politics intersecting with their work, all three outrightly denied to have anything to do with fascism. Murray argued that people are overly sensitive given past atrocities, and are on the lookout for fascists - which has caused them to be unfairly targeted. Crucially, Murray followed by stating that - being accused of popularising fascistic ideas is bad, but after a while, you seem to get away with it. Peterson again denied any link to fascism stating that we know when the right goes too far - they start talking about ethnic cleansing. He claims the rest of the right’s response is to box fascists in (demonstrably untrue throughout the history of fascism). He followed with false equivalence, arguing that it’s not as easy to identify far-leftists, “and this is a real problem”.

Except for some moments with problematic and racist comments (mainly from Harris and Murray) and crack-pot religious references and biological determinism (mainly from Peterson) the politics of the talk was generally limited to a relatively standard centre-right type discussion, and no doubt from the perspective of far-right leaning people in attendance, wholly disappointing. The bulk of discussion was taken up with bizarre metaphysical and ethical musings which was boiled down to a dispute between Peterson and Harris over a critique of pure rationalism.

Still, the fact that right-wing speakers who are the darlings of many on the far-right are staging speaking tours around the world should draw our attention and concern.

For an idea of the intolerance of Peterson fan boys check out the comments on the first publication of this review on our Facebook page

See also What is the profile of the panelists