Putting the Cult in Culture

[Written by Reiss McInally and Andrew Trower]

[Image Credit: Flickr.com//Gage Skidmore]

Jordan Peterson @ Edinburgh Playhouse | 28th Oct ‘18

It’s not just the price of the ticket or the cost of getting to Edinburgh. I like to think that my time is worth something, too. Peterson obviously disagrees.

We have a strict zero-tolerance policy for any heckling or disruption. [Whoops and cheers.]

With that, the free speech champion shuffles on stage with his shoulders hunched. He’s met by a standing ovation. Not everyone stands – not even half stand – but those that do thunder their applause stageward, unblinking. It’s a testament to all he’s done for them. Peterson has critics everywhere: in newspapers, on TV, and even in the street outside this theatre. But in here, he’s a hero.

He became famous online when a group of enraged students confronted him about transgender rights. Peterson had openly objected to the enforcement of government-approved gender pronouns in Canada. This was in the name of free speech only, and he affirmed that, if asked by a student, he would refer to them in their preferred way. Right or wrong, he came off well.

Having already uploaded his lectures online, when things turned political, he went viral. Then came the C4 interview, when he so easily out-debated his antagonist; again, he came off well. Since then, his audience has only continued to grow. Now his book 12 Rules for Life has sold well over 2 million copies, with sales on the up as new translations hit foreign markets.

Here’s the thing: he satisfies his audience’s hunger for self-knowledge, for meaning; he shares their concerns about the foundational myths of our culture, and specifically their preservation. That’s why he’s able to go a world tour promoting his book. That’s why he’s here now: centre stage at the Playhouse.

Peterson begins his lecture sounding oddly muted and withdrawn; his voice seems lower than I remember from the videos. Only after some oily foreplay (‘you have a beautiful city’ – that kind of thing), does it rise in pitch to meet expectations. In full flight, he speaks in imploring squawks, like a seagull struggling to get a point across. (Let me tell you right off: this man is for the birds.)

An old favourite, he starts with Christine Blasely Ford, citing her as an example of an unreliable memory – as he equivocally phrases it, ‘you don’t remember every single thing that ever happened to you!’ What follows is an odd feeling: an invisible nervous energy, the high-pressure front before a cloudburst of yells or applause. But the applause never comes, just the sound of exhalation as he swiftly moves on.

Today, he announces, I’m going to talk about Truth.

What follows is an hour of him roaming the stage free-associating. Unlike most academics, who narrow in, Peterson concerns himself with the broad sweep, taking questions of vertigo-inducing size and proceeding to equivocate, prevaricate, masticate… He flits from one supposition to another like a butterfly going between flowers. (Incidentally, Peterson has a ready store of metaphors from nature, and uses them to staple his loose thoughts together. At different points, it sounds more like a lecture in pseudo-zoology.) As he munches through topics with insect speed, you hardly notice that no clear answers are forthcoming.

What is it that defines heroism? Well, we can’t fully articulate that.

Perhaps ‘answers’ are a little much to ask for. But there’s no intelligent musings, either. There’s just him, sweating it on stage, frantically wriggling his fingers and trying to conjure up something interesting to say. Him, looking like a character from Greek mythology – one condemned never to find the last piece of a jigsaw. Peterson is like sleep deprivation came to life and took on human form.

In his pained, defiant expression, fans love to see their hurt reflected and overcome. But he looks mad, and he sounds it too. From talking about how jumping spiders spin their webs, to how ice hockey is ‘a lot like hunting’, to what makes the perfect tennis serve… I’m struggling to figure out how any of this relates to Truth.

About half an hour in, it becomes obvious that he’s lost them: his surprisingly diverse audience: teenage incels in suits, middle-age women trying better to understand their sons, indie-looking couples in vintage-shop corduroy… He’s using too many big words to say very little and we’re all a bit bored – or at least I am, and everyone else looks it.

What is beauty? Well, who knows!

They must be bored: I’ve never seen such a restless crowd. There’s only about 80% of the audience in their seats at any one time. People in end-seats now sit with their belongings on their laps, exhausted from having to reach down to the floor. Middle-aged men keep getting up, puffing out their chests and forcing a swagger up the aisles before reappearing, five minutes later, bent over and searching worriedly for their seats.

Peterson makes the odd joke, but they’re mostly lifted directly from his book. The delivery is forced as he tries to breathe new life into them. There is the odd moment when he tries to improvise, when he tries to ride a wave of hilarity:

These people that go into offices that shoot their peers and their boss, it’s not like they haven’t been thinking about that for like ten years … You think ‘is it everyone, or is it me? Well, if I hate everyone, it’s probably me.’ … Maybe you were an unpopular kid because you’re just a miserable piece of the earth [titters], you don’t carry your own weight, and every chance you get you irritate people [laughter] … God, it’s just an absolutely miserable thing to do, but what’s the alternative? Y’know, work with people that you hate and have an absolutely dreadful time every day, and let your unconscious fantasies become darker and darker and more bitter and then take you out? That’s the alternative. You think, ‘well, I’m not going to shoot up an office!’ Well, y’know, congratulations to you! [Laughter] But that’s your cowardice, not your morality. [Roars of laughter]

He’s saying it in a funny way, but he’s not making a joke. People continue to laugh as I try to wrap my head around what he just said. Interval.

Stragglers from the protest freeze outside – they’re protesting things Peterson hasn’t done or said. Inside, the house lights go up again and the time has come for the Q&A. There’s no audience interaction. Instead, he consults a laptop to answer questions submitted ahead of time.

His lapel microphone continues to pick up a slight static – something obviously no one thought to fix during the break. The noise was deafening when he talked about Blasely Ford, but now it’s comical: in the long pauses between question and answer, there can be heard the faint sound of crickets.

The first question came from a man with autism: he struggled with the concept of love and wanted to know how much love is necessary to a fulfilled life. Peterson suggested that the truest love is between a parent and their child. But then he warned that a child inspires jealousy in the parents; that a child is someone they can ‘target their malevolence at’; that parents can be ‘the agents of their child’s destruction’. This in answer to a man whose disability forces him to see everything literally – hence his question.

My brother is autistic. I can imagine his face upon hearing this, turning to my mum and worriedly asking her if she is the agent of his destruction. If he had any sense of his own ignorance, Peterson would have left that question. But this is a major problem with Peterson in general: his language swoops from one extreme to another, betraying any nuance in his thought, turning everything black and white.

There is, possibly, a necessary relationship between finality and existence.

After running out of things to say nothing about, he leaves the stage for the final time. There’s another standing ovation – this time, nearly everyone stands. They might not have been listening, but they feel the excitement anyway. It’s pure masturbation.

Peterson stuck to the abstract, he stayed obscure, as if to avoid being found out. But he needn’t have done. His audience obviously doesn’t care about interrogating what he says. They just want a champion to speak for them, and to think for them. They’ve settled on Peterson – perhaps because he has a talent for making the most self-evident fact seem a herculean feat of his ‘incredible mind’.

I’ll give him this: for near 10 minutes around the end of his lecture, he said some interesting things about truth. He’s actually better than his detractors think – at least he’s more liberal than they seem to understand – but he’s worse than his supporters realise. His reputation has become exaggerated in their defence of him. And anyone that walks out of this room thinking he’s a genius went into it a moron.

[Image Description: a photograph of academic Jordan Peterson at a speaking event. He sits with his hands together in front of him, against a dark blue background. He wears a dark suit with a black tie]


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