In an era where we are beginning to recognize that middle-aged white guys shouldn’t be the only voices we’re listening to — two middle-aged, white guys spoke at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver to 3,000 pairs of attentive ears.

The controversial speakers, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, were in town to debate each other on Saturday, June 23. It was the first time they had met on stage.

Peterson attacked Harris' book, stating that Harris talks about heaven and hell throughout the book's entirety, even though he doesn't identify them by name. Peterson's fans erupted with yelling, cheers, and applause.

Harris has been in the public spotlight for years, and is known for being an atheist, critic of religion, and part-time Ben Stiller look-a-like. Peterson’s fame came rather recently after his YouTube videos regarding free speech and Bill C-16 surfaced in 2016.

The lead up

I prepared myself for this event. I researched their platforms and ideologies and made sure to (try to) understand why people want to listen to them.

Most importantly, I prepared for the rhetoric. Both Harris and Peterson are charismatic and are master linguists. They know how to spin a sentence, turn moral convictions on their head, and convince listeners that they’re right. I did not want to get caught in their trap.

Bill C-16 was an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act to add gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. Essentially, purposefully misgendering a person is discrimination if done with malice. Peterson starkly opposed this bill in a series of YouTube videos published in 2016 where he stated that he was against the government forcing a person to use certain pronouns — not the actual pronouns themselves.

It wasn't difficult to understand or even agree with Peterson's stance. However, his true intentions came to light in subsequent interviews. During a debate at the University of Toronto, Peterson stated: “I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest, and that’s that.”

It was never about the government, it was always about being slightly inconvenienced when giving others respect.

Recently, Peterson shifted focus to men's rights issues. In an interview with the New York Times, he stated that men are violent when they don't have sexual partners, and that society must make sure those men are married. Essentially recommending that we have some real-life adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale.

At the venue

I arrived at the Orpheum to a line of people wrapped around the block. As I walked for well over a minute to the back of the line, I took note of the demographics. Mostly men. Mostly in their thirties and up. Some single and some large groups. A small portion were women. And the few women I noticed were almost all accompanied by a partner.

Waiting inside the foyer, I felt slightly uneasy. I didn’t know who my peers were in this crowd.

How many others thought that Peterson spews nonsense? How many others thought what he says is gold?

Standing in the foyer I came across Diego Romero. He’s 22 and from Vancouver. I noticed how passionately he was talking to his friend about philosophy. I decided to ask him about his expectations for the evening.

Diego Romero came to see Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson fight it out. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

What are you expecting to get out of tonight?

“A boxing match for first year university kids.”

What about people that find [Harris or Peterson] racist or sexist? [Their] words could be interpreted as such.

“Ya, they can be. And this is, I think, a problem with Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson, you have to give agency to the audience. And the moment you do that they’re actually very unreliable. So you have a very unreliable mass of people who are going to react very differently.”

You mentioned “giving the audience agency.” So you’re saying that it’s the audience that is finding the bad ideas and they aren’t actually there?

“Blatant racism in either one of these two guys? I don’t think that’s there, no.”

So what are you “for” then?

“[Peterson] doesn’t back down, and he thinks very clearly. I don’t think the importance is in the view, the importance is in the integrity of the argument that he has.”

Diego’s comments struck me. Was he implying that the moment we let people think for themselves is the moment that chaos ensues? Would he prefer it if Harris and Peterson just told us all what to believe and we all followed?

The doors opened, and we all flooded into our seats.

The stage at the Orpheum Theatre prepared for Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

On my left was an empty seat, and to my right was a young man named Mike, a software developer from Vancouver. He declined to give me his last name, fearing how his comments could be spun. My interaction with him put into context the kind of rationalizations and logic that Peterson followers have.

Mike told me about his problems with the current political climate. He doesn't like how the "progressive left" deems any argument opposing their own as immoral. Mike provided an analogy to help me understand.

“If you and I were to face a particularly difficult math equation. We both wrestle with it for 30 minutes and we both come to a different answer. We’ve both made a good faith effort using all of the evidence available to us, but we arrive at different conclusions. Nobody in the field of mathematics would say ‘one of these mathematicians or one of these people is immoral because of the conclusion that they arrived at.’”

But you know why they don’t say that, right? Math equations have nothing to do with morals…

“I’m a software developer, when I tackle a problem, it’s completely devoid of moral situations. When I look at a political issue, I try to analyze it the same neutral way as I would any other problem. And it becomes apparent that one solution is better than another for one reason or another. And then my interim conclusion, which I can’t help but draw from the evidence that I’ve seen, is that this policy is better for reasons x, y, and z than that policy.

The issue I have is that someone will then come to me and say ‘well you’re immoral.’ And I say, ‘no, no, this is the conclusion that I’ve reached in good faith from the evidence that I’ve seen.’ I think that if we were able to get rid of that, we could move forward.”

In Mike’s false analogy, he compared an incorrect solution for a math equation to an opposing political or social opinion. But what he’s missing is that people’s lives and wellbeing aren’t at risk when you don’t solve for X.

Software development and math equations seldom touch on morals. It's easy to be neutral when you’re doing algebra.

Social issues, on the other hand, have the rights of people — often marginalized people — on the line. Taking a stance in opposition of improving the lives of others is immoral. At least, that's what I think.

The debate

The lights dimmed and the two rock stars of rhetoric entered the stage to thunderous applause. Moderating for Harris and Peterson was Bret Weinstein — a controversial figure in his own right. Weinstein acquired fame in 2017 when he opposed a social movement at Evergreen State College, where he was a professor.

Each year, Evergreen State College has had a "Day of Absence" in which people of colour are asked to leave campus to show just how important they are and how much they contribute. In 2017, the school decided to flip the script and have white people leave campus for the day. Weinstein was outraged by this decision, calling it “a show of force, and an act of oppression in and of itself.”

I was a little surprised to find that the debate was entirely religion-centric rather than on the topic of free speech. But maybe it shouldn’t have been that big a shock.

In 2017, Peterson said he was a Christian during an interview. Things have changed slightly in 2018 where he no longer identifies as one. Instead, when Harris stated that Peterson believes in God, Peterson replied that he doesn’t, but that he “acts as though He exists.”

Peterson opened by mentioning how he and Harris agree on 90 per cent of topics, and then went on for minutes to detail, in agreement with Harris, each of the points that they agree upon.

I cannot stress enough how long-winded and unnecessary this was. People came to see a debate: to see two men that love the sound of their own voices attack each other’s paradigms. How disappointed they must have been when, for about 75 minutes out of the two hours, both Harris and Peterson were speaking in sentences that went on far too long and made points that went nowhere.

A good portion of Harris’ statements were focused on the negatives of religion, mainly focusing on Islam and Christianity (he had harsher criticisms for Islam). Harris stated that we are currently encountering Muslims of the 14th century in today's society. Moderator Weinstein added that Islam is the "slowest to update."

Then, Harris and Peterson spent at least 20 minutes fixated on the final book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation.

I felt as though I was back in my Catholic high school listening to teachers talk us through scripture.

The audience was beginning to lose interest. Around me I noticed heavy heads propped up by hands, tired eyes, and yawning mouths. Over my right shoulder, I spotted the bobbing head of a man slipping in and out of sleep.

Peterson was by far the less concise of the two. He often took minutes to define a term before even beginning to answer a question. The discussion centred on major metaphysical and ethical questions about religion and life, and generally can’t be answered in three words. It certainly didn’t make for entertainment.

Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson were in the lobby after the debate to meet fans and sign books. Photo by Michael Ruffolo.

Peterson attacked Harris' book, The Moral Landscape, stating that Harris talks about heaven and hell throughout the book's entirety, even though Harris doesn't identify them by name. This point took about three minutes to make, and I had to listen to it about five times to finally understand. Peterson's fans, however, seemed to get it immediately, as they erupted with yelling, cheers, and applause.

Harris seemed to share my sentiments on Peterson's verbosity, however.

Harris commented on the overlap among their supporters, stating: “I just heard from your audience, there. But what’s amazing to me is that I have to do some work to figure out what point they think you made.”

I noticed that Peterson would structure his arguments in a misleading way. He would take a point that has an accepted definition, and then redefine it so that you can no longer disagree with it, and then tell you that therefore you agree with it.

It’s extremely deceptive, and it can trap people to agree to definitions and claims they normally wouldn’t. And with the knowledge that Peterson has considered running for political office in Ontario, it only makes his verbal weapons that more dangerous.

As the debate neared a close, I couldn’t help but wonder: what exactly was gained? Peterson seemed to be on the pro-religion side, with Harris starkly opposed. But there was so much agreement between these two that it was tough to discern what points where made.

I felt that this whole evening was like the Red Queen’s race from Lewis Carroll's, Through the Looking Glass. There was a lot of talking.

A lot.

But we didn’t actually get anywhere.

In the foyer after the event

The reactions from the crowd were mixed. Shamim Hortamani, a student at UBC who was raised in Iran, felt that they took a long time to get to the heart of the debate.

Shamim Hortamani came to hear Jordan Peterson speak. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

“I felt like at the beginning its going to be going around in circles the whole time and not a very good conclusion coming out of it. And I felt it was like that for at least 75 percent of the debate.”

A supporter of Jordan Peterson, she believes that his comments surrounding Bill C-16 have a deeper message that is getting lost.

Other audience members immediately turned to the Facebook event group to vent their frustrations.

A spectator who wasn't the happiest with the discourse.

Not everyone thought that this was a waste of time. One group of philosophy lovers told me that they would have paid three times the ticket price to experience this again.

Philosophy lovers Robert Carnevale, Corrine McConnell, and Clayton Brent. Photo by Michael Ruffolo

I mentioned to the group how Peterson took a lot of time to answer any question. Corrine McConnell said that “it’s because that’s how deep [Peterson] is as a thinker. You just can’t touch that lower half of the iceberg unless you’re on his level intellectually.”

Her friend Robert Carnevale added that “I think that Harris does a very good job of examining the tip of the iceberg, the part that’s visible above the water. Peterson kind of exists in the bottom of the iceberg that’s below the water. It’s murky, you can’t really tell the dimensions of it.”

I mentioned how Peterson and Harris both have views that have been branded racist, sexist, and homophobic.

Carnevale stated that, “whether or not you agree with Peterson’s or Sam’s arguments outside of those domains, it’s important to separate the philosophy from the other issues as well. We look at other philosophers for their work and not for what they say outside of it.”

He continued, “I fear the trend on the left, which I consider myself a member of, of limiting free speech in the name of empathy. It could have been any group… it’s a shame that it had to be a marginalized group. But we have to draw the line in government compelled speech.”

The group Carnevale is referring to is the group of people who have personal pronouns that don’t match up with what society tells them they should be, and was at the crux of Peterson’s arguments regarding Bill C-16 and free speech.

Ultimately, the most interesting part of the night for me was the people who attended the debate. Many seemed in concert when it came to forgiving past (and potential future) transgressions of the speakers in light of their philosophies.

But is it fair to separate the bad from the good? Recent history has shown that when we separate personal actions from a person’s policies, we end up with people in office that should have been left on television.

A man dressed up as President Donald Trump stands outside the Orpheum Theatre.

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Comments

I think the people who are most positive to these guys are trying to find a way to `dispassionately' and `intellectually' follow a personal path that doesn't bear too much personal responsibility. This is obvious from the responses to just treating others with respect. Why is it so much trouble to change pronoun use? Is it because it causes discomfort about one's own sexual identity? Why can't Peterson's fans get a date? Do they just not want to make the effort? Why do women have to `fix things' by denying themselves economic and personal freedom in the name of tradition, which has not served us well? Is it because men feel they cannot compete unless they dominate?
As far as the female fans go, I just don't get it. Perhaps the idea of LIFE RULES that free one from personal responsibility and decision-making is attractive in times of flux (which is always). Having grown up at a time when there were RULES, especially for females, I can report it was a time of starvation for us.

12 Rules For Life, An Antidote To Chaos
“Then he took his poison, like a man”
Jordan Peterson; 2018

I picked this book up because of the controversy in academia over free speech. Jordon Peterson is being proclaimed the intellectual leader of the side that says it’s OK to have a certain point of view and express it openly. Sounds good. The other side are the Politically Correct who shout down some of these speakers. So what is this intellectual leader saying?

Rule number one ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’ is deceptive because it really means ‘accept the terrible responsibility of life’, terrible because it’s probably not going your way and probably can’t because that’s Nature. Jordan Peterson says there’s a top and a bottom, a hierarchy in Nature and the evidence is everywhere. The lobster story he relates at the beginning of rule one introduces the idea of ‘position in society’ which is embedded in our brain’s ‘primordial calculator’. And if you are number one you probably know it. On to rule number two then.

‘Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping’. Sounds good, like ‘do unto others’. But he really wants to talk about the ‘primal constituents’ of order, chaos and consciousness. Peterson is a psychologist by training and brings forward concepts from that field and from mythology and world religions with a comfortable ease that reassures the reader. Then, a sentence like this, speaking of the brain, “This, to me, indicates the fundamental, beyond-the-metaphorical reality of this symbolically feminine/masculine divide, since the brain is adapted, by definition, to reality itself (that is, reality conceptualized in this quasi-Darwinian manner).” Peterson spins the tale into talking about shame and being naked, the Original Sin (capitalized in the book), and Truth. A favourite capitalized word in his vocabulary is Being. Being, he tells us in a footnote, is not reducible and definitely requires it’s own term.

Choose good friends, not bad ones. Look up, not down. Look forward, not backward, although from time to time you can look to where you were to realize your improvements. This is sermonizing with erudite asides to keep the reader engaged and entertained. But is it philosophy? Take this sentence, for example, “You simply don’t understand how every neural circuit through which you peer at the world has been shaped (and painfully) by the ethical aims of millions of years of human ancestors and all of the life that has lived for the billions of years before that.” Wow! See the structure. There is a grand plan so get on board. It’s the ethical aims of something that got us here.

This book is what I would call an exegesis, particularly with its recurring emphasis on biblical scripture. Peterson is always telling the reader what words mean, what images mean and what ideas mean. The underlying message is of ‘suffering’ as the human condition that animates human growth. This is not an idea exclusive to Christianity. But it is a religious idea meant to guide behaviour. Peterson invokes Carl Jung frequently and in one passage recounts that he “hypothesized that the European mind found itself motivated to develop the cognitive technologies of science”. He bends his story of how the Enlightenment and the development of a free mind left a path through Nietzsche (God is Dead) to “totalizing utopian ideas” (Communism and Fascism). His arguments are not really developed as much as asserted, for example, when he connects Descartes’ cogito ergo sum to Horus, Marduk and Logos in order to juxtapose the ‘rational intellect’ with meaningful action. He sprinkles these references to other mythos and thinkers throughout the book as a style of writing meant to overwhelm and humble the reader with his knowledge.

Peterson is incorrect, however, in his assertions throughout this book. Here’s another example, while discussing telling the truth, and blaming ‘the spirit of reason’ (and quoting Milton). “it is the greatest temptation of the rational faculty to glorify its own capacity and it’s own productions and to claim that in the face of its theories nothing transcendent or outside it’s domain need exist. This means that all important facts have been discovered. This means that nothing important remains unknown.” The problem here is that the scientific method doesn’t work like that. The theory of relativity led to quantum theory and will lead to another theory as reason and the rational faculties pore over new evidence. But for Peterson the assertion gets to his point that he wants to make that there is a higher reason that needs to be obeyed and to disobey is totalitarianism. He goes right into a discussion of horrible Communism under Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot that left millions dead. But he makes things up. “Reason”, he says, “is something alive.” “It’s best understood as a personality, not a faculty.” He does this so he can equate reason to Milton’s “Lucifer” and then say it is the “spirit of totalitarianism”. This is slippery stuff. It’s not surprising that he goes on to ‘fire and brimstone’ warnings to look out for people “who are immediately angered if you direct your gaze toward them”.

I started reading the book looking for an answer to why the author has become the intellectual spearhead of a certain point of view. The controversy over personal pronouns (he her I you) and gender neutral language leads to a denunciation of “post-modern/Marxist” thinking, and that is perhaps what appeals to his followers.

Peterson concludes his 12 rules with a metaphorical magic pen drafting questions and answers and relating them to his rules. It’s all fine if you a) don’t think about it, and b) are a believer.

Huh. Sounds like some pretty high-grade BS. Sounds like he basically tells people a good deal of what they want to hear (but that deep down they know is wrong, factually and ethically) with complicated enough flim-flam that they can pretend to themselves they believe it.

I found reading Peterson's book really annoying for the very reasons you mention - slippery in the truth-telling department and a kind of basic argument for why we should all just understand that there is a grand design and we need to accept our place. it felt very Victorian to me.
I have a theory that what he's doing is carrying out an enormous psychological experiment. The fact that he was, apparently, unwilling to have his research peer-reviewed and overseen, because it interfered with his intellectual and academic freedom, brought this idea to mind. If that is the case - and he is interested in demagogues - it's a worry since so many people seem to actually take him seriously, possibly for self-justification. The kicker for him could be that he is himself swallowed whole in the process.

Enjoyed reading this article, it can be so confusing listening to bumper-sticker slogans, headlines and lots of yelling while this article has put into thoughtful words the many confusing thoughts surrounding these two people. Must say I am happy I didn't spend the money to see them live. Thank you.

To Michael Suffolk of Canada’s National Observer,
Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson are not easy targets. As someone widely read though I tend to see them in position against intellects such as Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennett, E. O. Wilson, et al. and their importance is diminished in light of the brilliance of these other public intellectuals. At the next level of positioning where one might compare these two on a historic scale they are just pundits, no more.
I see the reason for assessing Peterson in view of the phenomenon that sparked his arrival in the intellectual diet of so many. He opposed a law governing hate speech that would have augmented the agency of gender fluid people to delineate the way they are addressed and moreover framed his antagonism as having to do with governance, when of course there were sentimental motivations in his thinking. Dispassionately, I say, the more I see of Peterson the less I like him but as soon as any sense of empathy enters my frame of mind in regards to him I end up still liking him a lot.
Here’s why: the ego life of the people he has treated as a psychologist, taught as a professor, and talked to as a public intellectual is spoiled. I’m talking the western ego life but especially about men like me, men in their early thirties. On one hand, all their lives the entertainment media has served a smorgasbord of similar faces and similar names that they could enjoy but would always tempt them with transference, and in a way raise the heat on the ego life to a boil. On the other hand they are people who face the challenges of life roughly the same way as everyone else and, to paraphrase Jon Stewart: we are living in perilous times. Because Peterson offers rules and science that point in the direction of well being and fulfilment and all in all because he opposes the chaos in the group of people most poised to enact chaos on the world I like Peterson.
Subscribed, Branden Rennie.

If Peterson is saying that men are violent when they don't have partners and society has an obligation to supply them with same, then he is essentially an incel supporter.

Wow! A very long-winded article that leaves the reader as much in the dark about what these two speakers had to say and what they believe in having read it as I was before reading it. Talk about someone who likes the sound of their own voice but who appears to have no capacity to actually report or analyze that which they have heard!

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