Engaging Jordan Peterson Protesters in DC
Not expecting a hero to do the work I should do
I waffled for weeks about attending Jordan Peterson’s appearance in Washington DC June 8. Despite the controversy his work generates, I see potential for it to bridge cultural divides. Peterson’s ability to stay cool under fire was one of the first things that attracted me to him. So I was concerned about reports by David Fuller and others that Peterson might be losing his cool under relentless pressure, and thus increasing polarization unnecessarily. But the evening assuaged my fears and left me more hopeful that good is coming of the Peterson phenomenon — both in the world and in myself.
Civil Discourse at the Box Office
I attended the event with two new friends I met at a Peterson Meetup in Northern Virginia. We brought flyers to advertise the Meetup. Outside the theater, three young men held up a banner saying. “Men against Jordan Peterson.” A young woman interviewed them while filming for Facebook.
Given the makeup of my posse for the evening, I fantasized a counter-banner, “Two women and a dark-skinned guy for Peterson.” But I knew that fantasy was ego based, vamping. I brought to mind a lesson from my other mentor, consciousness philosopher Ken Wilber. “Everybody has a piece of the truth. Even a madman gets some things right.” I used this dictum to great success in my two year adventure dialoguing with the pastor of a Black, Biblical literal church. But there the extreme cultural differences between us seemed to make it easier to come from curiosity. I took a breath and dove in.
“What are you most concerned about?” I asked the protesters.
They claimed that Peterson distracts from the civil rights debate by focusing on individual rights. He tells young men the frustration they feel is a function of other people infringing on their rights, one of them said.
I believe these claims are misperceptions. But I did my best to listen and acknowledge their concerns. For example, I replied at one point, “Yes, it’s true. Sudden fame like Peterson is experiencing does often distort a person’s message. I’ve been concerned about that myself.”
The young men were smart, sincere, and probably more nervous than I was. I would like to think that we set an example of civil discourse for the several people who engaged them after me. I was embarrassed by one guy who flipped off the protesters with a call of “Soy boys.”
Relaxed Humor, almost No Politics
Inside the theater, the 1,800 seats were almost filled. This was the second time in a month Peterson packed Warner Theater. Talk show host Dave Rubin warmed up the crowd with jokes about the recent flap over Peterson’s endorsement of “enforced monogamy,” a.k.a. marriage. “All of you who are single, we’ll be enforcing marriages among you after the show.”
Peterson entered looking relaxed and comfortable. He eschewed politics, saying the main story he has to tell is of the lives changed by his admonition to take responsibility — first for ourselves, then for our families, and then for the world around us. He summarized the first nine rules in his book, “Twelve Rules for Life, an Antidote to Chaos.”
Despite extreme distortions of his work in the press, Peterson made only one joke at his critics’ expense. He said something like, “I say, ‘Hierarchies exist.’ The journalist says, ‘That proves you support the patriarchy.’ I say, ‘No, that proves you’re an idiot.’”
The crowd roared. Peterson got another big laugh when he uttered a sharp “No” before hearing the full question read by Rubin, “Have you ever learned anything from your critics’ attacks on your work?” Rubin paused long enough to let the laughter die. Peterson then contradicted himself; he gave a long discourse on the value of listening to criticism. Joking like this reassured me that Peterson is handling the pressures of fame. In answer to another question, he said his relationship with his family has been strengthened. His wife accompanies him on his tour and remains his best support.
But Are We Winning?
What thrilled me most, though, was Peterson’s answer to this ambiguous question.
“Are we winning?”
“If by winning you mean opening a way for less polarization, then yes, I believe my work may be accomplishing that. One of the best ways to facilitate good in the world is to promote negotiation and listening. In a marriage for example, if you insist on always winning, that makes you a fool married to a loser. Who would want that?”
I came out of the evening feeling more fully aligned with Peterson’s work than when I arrived.
In “The Death of a Jordan Peterson Fanboy,” Andrew Sweeny warns of the fall that usually comes to those put on a pedestal as Peterson has been. He calls us to “distinguish between the personality and the soul — the spectacle and the essence” of someone whose work we admire. I ended the evening resolved to go a step further, to call myself to be the essence I admire. Regardless of how well Peterson continues to model bridge building, I take responsibility for building bridges myself.
I hope to chronicle my successes and failures.
Note: this is my first salvo in moving my blog here to Medium from TranscendInclude.com