An event that caused plenty of controversy in some quarters went down in front of quite a full house of eight and half thousand in the 3Arena on Saturday 14th of July. Here, a few of the Intellectual Dark Web’s (IDW) leading actors interlocked for the first time in Dublin. Jordan Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He became infamous in 2016 for announcing his objection to the Canadian government’s Bill C-16 and said he would not use the preferred gender pronouns of students and faculty. This, along with his disdain for what he describes as the radical left, make him a divisive figure to say the least. Sam Harris is an American philosopher, neuroscientist, and author of the Waking Up podcast. He is a strong critic of religion and posits that science can provide the answers to improving human well-being and society. Douglas Murray is a British author, journalist and political commentator. He is a particularly strong critic of recent European migration policy and advocated the case for Britain to vote “leave” during the Brexit referendum.
The evening largely figured Jordan Peterson painting colourful if somewhat meandering arguments in favour of religion as the necessary basis for the moral development of society. Meandering is both a regular criticism and virtue of Peterson. If he was a body of water he would be an oxbow lake. Peterson’s position in favour of religion was in contrast to Harris’ fact-based rational view of how to progress humanity towards his definition of society’s twin ethical goals - the minimisation of suffering and the maximization of human well-being. These were goals that all the panel could agreed on. A fuller account of what they discussed is covered in the accompanying article Peterson Vs Harris, and the Facts of (Moral) Life, which contains the philosophical detail of Harris’ and Peterson’s points of difference. It has been kept separate for the benefit of readers who’d rather not dig into the philosophical depths of the debaters’ minds. But you are encouraged to read it.
"If Peterson was a body of water he would be an oxbow lake."
The evening contained a large mix of topics. In addition to the morality debate, time was devoted to steelmanning an argument, immigration, Brexit, blasphemy legislation and why some of the panelists get accused of being nazis. Your opinion of the event will largely depend on what you want to take from it. You can take the pure philosophy, with many examples detailed in the accompanying article linked above. You can take it to be an event of interest to people on the right of the political spectrum. You can even take it as an event for political extremists. However, it certainly has as much content for someone on the left of the landscape, or in the centre. It is, in part, the misassumption of the motives of an attendee of the event that lead to the authoring of this article. More than anything, conversations like this one at the 3Arena showcase the ability of people with strongly divergent views to civilly debate in good faith. It is a training ground for developing the art of critical thinking. It is highly likely that you won’t entirely agree with one of the panel on everything - so you can be more of a fan of a panelist’s position in an argument than being a fan of the panelist making the argument. That said, it is undoubted that the panelists each have a fan following. That’s human nature. But often coverage of these events has focused on this point - on a narrative of cult-like adoration being the story. This is to miss the point - the debating of different viewpoints and taboo topics against the backdrop of a world where politics and people are becoming increasing polarised. A world that sleepwalked in Brexit, Trump and populism. Societies where virtually the entire population, mostly likely including you, consumes their news through a filter bubble - forever swiping on a smartphone in an enclosed sphere where you only hear the voices of people you like and are like you. Welcome to identity politics.
"Your opinion of the event will largely depend on what you want to take from it."
One of the greatest problems in Irish politics has historically been identity politics - with both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael maintaining a true cult-like hold over their support on the basis of identity rather than ideas. The same is true for Healy-Rae voters and other “esoteric” political actors around the country. And so these actors get demonised by the other side - they go back to their tribe to say how “everyone is against us”, double down on their core base, and get re-elected. And so the wheel turns. You can argue that identity politics was a positive force in the recent 8th amendment referendum. However you can also argue that, without Micháel Martin stepping outside of the traditional Fianna Fáil identity, the dynamics of the referendum conversation would have been different - if not the winning margin itself. It’s conjecture but it’s not an unreasonable statement. It may be the left that has the most to lose from identity politics. In the immediate aftermath of the same referendum, the ink had barely dried on the tweets of relief at the result when this twitter thread erupted regarding gender identity. A messy fight on how the referendum was won, dividing would-be allies.
Identity is important. Group identity is important. But play too much politics with it and the sound of backfire is all but assured. Many of the IDW conversations look to push back on this. Instead of seeking to amplify the differences of opinion, they revolve around looking to find common ground between two differing points of view, around reaching across the aisle, around civil disagreement. It is hard to see how this is not important as we stand on the cusp of an increasingly tribal world ready to detonate. It has been mentioned that a significant part of the audience for this kind of event is made up of depressed marginalised men. Though one cannot rule out that depressed marginalised men were at the event, there was certainly a level of gender balance (and emotional balance) on show. Take what you want from this event, but it would be impolite to assume that this is what everyone else is taking too. It is in ears of the beholder. Maybe this is something we will have to civilly disagree on.