DURHAM — Canadian professor, author, and psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson on Thursday offered a non-political and largely academic lecture on the psychology of beauty, dreams, and purpose. The reaction from city officials and activists to the address at the Durham Performing Arts Center was night-and-day from the one leading up to his appearance four years earlier.
It wasn’t even clear that his September 2018 event would happen, after a campaign to pressure DPAC’s management company to deny him a platform. The announcement, in late June 2018, that Peterson, a media celebrity and influential conservative thinker, would be coming later that year led to an eruption of outrage, which continued to build.
First came the social-media mobs targeting DPAC’s accounts and calling for him to be de-platformed, then came the think pieces from the city’s left-wing newspaper, Indy Week. One was from a copyeditor at the paper on June 28, titled, “Dear DPAC, We Really Need to Talk About Jordan Peterson.”
The piece listed all the reasons she believed Peterson was a racist, a rape apologist, a transphobe, a homophobe, and a way out for “young white men who feel alienated by the jargon of social-justice discourse and crave an empowering theory of the world in which they are not the designated oppressors.” After each of Peterson’s alleged crimes, the author asserted, “We won’t stand for it.”
Then the furor grew further, as then-Mayor Steve Schewel — who, incidentally, is the former publisher of Indy Week — and the City Council signed a unanimous statement hinting that the management company that runs DPAC for the city should probably cancel the show.
“Though the DPAC is owned by the City of Durham, the theater’s management companies, Nederlander & PFM, are entirely responsible for the choice of shows and performers who appear at the venue,” the statement said. “We would like to be clear that we respect Mr. Peterson’s right to hold his opinions and to freely state his opinions without government interference. However, we wish to emphasize that a person’s right to free speech does not include the right to a platform or an audience.”
In Peterson’s response to the council’s statement, he clarified that he wasn’t “invited” by DPAC, but had rented the theater like anyone else.
He concluded his comments on the letter by saying, “Everything that is reprehensible about the radical and ideologically-possessed left — all the moral self-righteousness, the platitudes, the clichés, the mindless celebration of diversity for the sake of the demonstration of tolerance, the naivete, and the appalling malevolence of casual denunciation — is on painful display in this missive. Exposure to such a piece of writing left me with a strong desire for a hot shower accompanied by plenty of soap and a scrub brush.”
DPAC didn’t cancel Peterson’s 2018 appearance; however, and now in 2022, they were happy to allow him to appear again, on March 3 as a part of his “Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life” tour. The tour has taken Peterson around the world to discuss his book of the same name, which came out almost exactly a year ago, on March 2, 2021. It is a sequel to his 2018 book, “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” which sold over 4 million copies.
The reaction from Durham’s left-leaning leadership and local activists was much more muted than in 2018. No statements from the City Council or mayor were immediately evident. After seven separate articles on Peterson’s appearance in 2018, Indy Week had zero this time. No protesters were seen by Carolina Journal before or after the event. There weren’t even many social media posts on the appearance.
Inside the venue, a diverse group of mostly well-dressed young adults, but also some seniors and families, gathered. CJ spoke with a couple of those gathered about why they were there on a Thursday night.
“I’ve read his book and listened to a couple of his videos, and I like what he has to say,” Joel, an Air Force service member from Hawaii, told CJ before the event. “The words that he chooses are very meaningful. I like when he talks about how misery is inescapable but you can find purpose inside of it and take responsibility.”
Joel had not been aware of the controversy surrounding Peterson’s 2018 appearance because he had only just moved to Durham, but he said he wasn’t surprised.
“Big cities tend to be liberal, left-leaning and react pretty strongly to someone like Peterson, who is a bit more right-leaning,” Joel said. “I mean, that’s a typical response, but I don’t think it’s grounded in anything. I don’t think he’s homophobic or racist.”
The event opened up with Peterson’s wife, Tami, discussing “Rule 8” from her husband’s new book: “Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.” Ms. Peterson discussed how surrounding themselves with beauty helped her family when her daughter was diagnosed with severe rheumatoid arthritis and later when she herself suffered with cancer that doctors told her was terminal.
When Peterson was introduced moments later, he was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd. He began with a poem by Walt Whitman and then went into an academic and somewhat abstract discussion on how one can look at meaning, behavior, and purpose through different psychological frameworks. He spent most of the time on how beauty gives a window into an ideal that can give people hope and help them redirect their lives. Peterson also spent a lot of time on how dreams fulfill the same function as people sleep.
After his talk, he took a few questions from the audience through a digital submission system, with his wife choosing the questions as they both sat on black, leather armchairs on stage. The questions covered topics such as how to fix your marriage if you’ve committed adultery, how to find work-life balance in a remote-working age and how to remain positive when pursuing difficult goals. Once the Q&A was over, the audience once again gave Peterson a standing ovation.