My friend and I arrive few hours early and the streets of Detroit feel oddly deserted, almost like a post-apocalyptic video game where everything is too clean and too empty.
There’s already a small line out in front of the Fillmore, mostly white guys with glasses and beards. Guys like me. People mingle, all dressed in ironed button ups and brown shoes.
“God, I hate that this is my breed,” I say to my friend. It’s true. Every one of us has a look on our face giving away the poor pitiful soul inside screaming to be taken seriously by anyone.
We get a beer at the Hard Rock and I ask our buxom olive-skinned waitress for her number. I think she’s sexy in a dirty sort of way, the good kind of way. Of course I don’t tell her this, just flirt a bit throughout the meal. The flirting goes well enough that I ask if she’s single when she brings the check. She is. Could I have her number? She hesitates before declining my advances, hoping out loud that it won’t affect her tip. It doesn’t.
We walk the several blocks back to the Fillmore to discover the line has swelled, filling the sidewalk and stretching down the adjacent street. The line is way more diverse than I’d imagined, not just white neckbeards who look like they’d give anything to have some power and influence.
Six months ago, I didn’t know who Jordan Peterson was. My friend, an ardent, Trump-supporting conservative, originally showed Peterson to me for his lectures opposing that one trans-speech law in Canada, but it was Peterson’s interview with that British woman last January that really got me interested. I devoured his videos, lectures, did his future self-authoring program (I admittedly didn’t get much out of the self-authoring program). I don’t agree with everything he says but I love his speech patterns and his apparent sincerity. He cries a little too much, but no one’s perfect.
My friend and I get Jack and Cokes at the bar and find our seats up in the balcony. The stage is set, bathed in blue lights, just a black stool and two bottles of Perrier water, the emptiest I’ve ever seen it.
It doesn’t take long and a voice announces Peterson’s imminent arrival along with a warning of a zero tolerance policy on disruption and heckling.
Peterson emerges from stage right, arms behind his back and a tight smile on his face.
He’s skinnier in person, still wearing that distinguished, Lincoln-esque beard he grew recently. His voice is high-pitched and sort of creaky but remarkably compelling — you don’t want him to stop talking once he gets going. It’s reedy, oscillating between forceful and hesitant. It gets compared to Kermit the Frog a lot but I’ve never noticed the resemblance.
Someone in the front row shouts something at him. He laughs and says thank you for being here and what a beautiful theater this is and on and on. Then it’s showtime.
He paces while he lectures, tells us this is the darkest talk he’s going to give on this 40-stop tour. He says he’s suffered from some trepidation trying to figure out exactly how to execute this talk due to the dark subject matter. He plunges in, and the entire sold out theater, all 2200 of us, sit and listen like children at storytime.
I keep waiting for him to stumble on his words, but he never does, everything always coming out in a perfect line, easy to understand yet complicated enough to make you feel smart for understanding it. He builds sentences like a brick-layer, slow and steady, one word at at a time. You keep thinking he’s going to stop but there’s too much weight and just enough momentum and it rolls along.
The theater is dead silent, the quietest I’ve ever heard it.
He bases this talk on a chapter from his latest book, 12 Rules for Life. It deals with Getting Your House in Order Before You Criticize the World. Over the next three hours, Peterson delves into anecdotes and theories in neuroscience, talks about people losing half their brain function and not noticing it. He does a whole section on the book of Genesis — Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. He mentions the recent incel killer in Toronto, mass shooters in the US, their much-discussed motivations, their alienation.
He pauses every now and then to gather his thoughts and construct his next sentence; face down, arms crossed and brow furrowed in anguished concentration. Some of the pauses are long — ten, twenty seconds — yet there is no noise. The silence persists throughout. Not even a cough.
The entire three hour lecture ends up having one sole message, which Peterson sums up in the final five minutes: there is a choice in life, in reality, and your choice must be to do good or what’s right. It’s simple and it fits with all the cliched stuff you’ve probably heard about him — stand up straight, sort yourself out, etc. But the depth and eloquence of his speaking ability and the stories he tells and the time he spends setting it all up gives the central message a greater weight than it would if he just came right out and said it.
The man knows his audience. He’s specifically targeting all these weak beta males who might be thinking of causing chaos for the sake of chaos because it’s better than existing as they are without power and influence. Choose to do good, better yourself. Order and chaos. Right and left hemisphere. Light and dark. Consciousness between, makes the choice as to what to lean toward. Be good to yourself, treat yourself as though you’re another person you’ve been tasked with caring for. Failure to do so leads to “some slice of hell.”
He peddles a harsh rationalism bolstered by a sturdy hope. There are several standing ovations, and more applause lines than I can count.
Upon the lecture’s conclusion, there is a brief break where Peterson walks off and a Hollywood-agent-type comes out and spews corporate thank-speak at us to kill time for about ten minutes before Peterson reappears for a quick Q & A.
“I don’t know why I chose to give my darkest talk in Detroit…” he muses as he takes a seat in a chair with his laptop and his Perriers. Everyone ha- ha’s.
He’s very folksy, sits with his legs crossed, talks with his hands, makes you think he’s addressing your sorry ass, specifically.
He reads the questions off his laptop. They’re about child rearing, if he prays, how to help family members who refuse to help themselves. A 17 year old girl writes a question, leading to a lengthy tangent in which Peterson comments on how his audience is not just angry white males. Like I said before, this is a very, very diverse audience. As diverse as any of the concerts that are held here. A teenage daughter and her mother sit in the row right in front of my friend and I, and the girl squeals happily at several of Peterson’s more fiery passages.
I can’t think of another intellectual figure (outside of maybe certain popular politicians) who could sell out a venue meant for rock stars and have the whole place silent as they give a three hour lecture. Guys and girls all around me are nodding like wildflowers at every point the man makes.
Peterson says this will be the last question, as he’s getting tired and doesn’t want to say anything stupid. The question’s about polygamy. He’s not for it.
After answering, he gets up, bows his head to us, and is gone again, off to the next lecture, his million-watt mind working away on the next thing.
My friend and I sing the professor’s praises all the way home before getting into a loud argument about politics.