At 5pm on 24 November Jordan Peterson entered the debating chamber at the Cambridge Union to enthusiastic applause and whoops of admiration. Such a welcome was perhaps surprising given the psychologist’s recent history with Cambridge University. Two years ago, it rescinded an offer of a visiting fellowship after Peterson was pictured alongside a man wearing a T-shirt that read “I’m a proud Islamophobe”. The students’ union welcomed the decision.
The university’s position has since changed. Peterson’s Cambridge Union appearance was the final event in a successful trip of academic seminars and lectures. Arif Ahmed, a philosophy lecturer who was involved in the visit, told me that university proctors attended Peterson’s lecture on 23 November to show support for freedom of speech. Their attendance was more symbolic than practical – the only disturbance being from one woman reportedly shouting “feminism” as she approached the stage dressed as a lobster, a reference to Peterson’s bestselling book 12 Rules for Life.
The student body also seemed to welcome this scourge of woke culture and uncompromising exponent of free speech. As far as I could see, there were no protests against Peterson’s appearance at the Union. The reception was extended to his family, too. Mikhaila – his adult daughter and a prominent podcaster – was asked for a selfie, while another young man reached across to shake her hand. As Peterson reached the podium, a pair of musicians dressed in velvet stood up to give a slightly surreal performance of Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While” with guitar accompaniment, which was organised by Peterson himself. With the music concluded, Peterson thanked the room for coming and acknowledged the warm welcome. “Pretty good for a ‘magical super-Nazi’,” he joked, to resounding laughter.
Questions were opened to the audience and people shouted to catch his attention. Their interest in Peterson’s opinions approached reverence. When the microphone eventually came to them, some students began by thanking Peterson for the positive impact he’d had on their lives. One man sitting in the chamber’s gallery asked: “What’s your most important advice to someone who’s going to be a parent soon?” Earlier, a woman had asked for his strategy on goal-setting, while another wondered what Peterson wanted to be remembered for. Peterson delivered his answers in his characteristic style: so meticulously precise that it risks becoming convoluted. (At one point, he used the word “habit” before correcting himself with “habitual inclination”.) As the event progressed, he warmed up. His gesticulations became more pronounced. He’d swivel in his chair to address those behind him. By the final question, Peterson’s voice was cracking with emotion as he spoke about the joy of having children.
At the end of the talk, I hurried upstairs and slipped into a room with Peterson before his bodyguards closed the doors on the crowd amassing outside. Dressed in a suit, waistcoat and closely-knotted tie, Peterson said he couldn’t see how his trip “could possibly go better”. He said the last time he was in Cambridge in 2018 the atmosphere was also friendly. “I don’t think it was as friendly as it was today,” he said. “But it was a very small number of people who disinvited me [last time].”
Peterson came to prominence in 2016 after challenging a Canadian law that proposed to protect “gender identity or expression” from discrimination. He argued it threatened free speech. Discussions about freedom of speech on campus often conflate North American campus politics with those in Britain; Peterson thinks “the same malaise, in some sense, affects the West everywhere”. “There are local differences, but… the issues have become globalised in some sense. And I do think that a fair bit of this has to do with the postmodern conundrum.”
The postmodern conundrum?
“The postmodern conundrum is a problem of perception,” he replied. “We don’t know how we reduce the infinite number of things we could perceive to those things that we do perceive.”
“I don’t like where we’re located here,” interrupted a bodyguard stood by the door. “It’s getting more congested in that hallway.” We moved to another room where students lined up grasping copies of Peterson’s book Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Contrary to reports that his followers are mostly young men, there was an equal mix of men and women, each effusive in their admiration and respect. “Is it always like this?” I asked his wife, Tammy. “Yes, he’s a very compassionate person,” she said. Later, I asked Peterson whether I could join the post-event dinner. He said he had no objections. Keir Bradwell – the affable president of the Union – obliged. I sat in the Cambridge Union’s old dining room beside Tammy and opposite Mikhaila. Jordan was at the head of the table.
In some ways, it felt like any family dinner. They discussed future work plans and Jordan told Tammy about that morning’s seminar. The Petersons eat only meat – in part because of the diet’s supposedly miraculous effect on Mikhaila’s autoimmune disorders. Jordan had two steaks – nothing else – covered in salt. Mikhaila and Tammy had lamb. I don’t usually eat meat, but I thought it was a bit late to start specifying dietary requirements. Peterson asked his friend whether he’d like to say grace and a short Latin version was uttered.
Peterson said to me that religion is a feeling or experience rather than a statement about the existence of God. Religion manifests in the deep sense of awe and the infinite one might experience when reading literature or gazing upon a sunset, he said. He thought that technically there was no difference between great literature and religious experience.
If religion is about deep biological experience, couldn’t you say that sex is religious, too? It should be, but it depends on how well it’s done, he said. As we chatted, Peterson appeared so absorbed in the conversation that he didn’t seem to notice as the table emptied.
The next day, Peterson was in Oxford to speak at the Union. When he entered the chamber, the applause was met with a boo, joined by another, then another. In response, the defiant crowd – many had queued for two hours to see him – stood up and applauded with greater intensity. With his hands clasped in front of him, Peterson stood on the podium with his eyes cast downwards. For the next 30 minutes, he expounded on “the imitation of the divine ideal”, elucidating some of the themes we’d discussed the previous night. “Men and women are not exactly the same,” Peterson responded to one question on whether his more trenchant views distracted from his academic work. “On average, and you may have noticed this, women are slightly shorter than men. Well, is that controversial? Is that a social construct?” This was met with laughter. “It’s not funny. It’s not funny,” he protested. “That’s sexual dimorphism.” One woman told me afterwards that she was frustrated that no one had asked Peterson why he was a “racist and sexist”. He has many detractors, yet as I left that evening’s drinks reception, Peterson was perched on a table, surrounded by students. They did not want to ask him about politics but something more profound: how to live their lives.
This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back