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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.