AFTER a long absence, I came back to Question Time this Thursday – though not for the usual reasons.

I know the drab, echoing, deserted appearance of the Beckenham venue was due to Covid measures. But still: it couldn’t have been a more appropriate framing for the desultory applause, the line-mongering hacks (even if I agree with the line from the SNP’s Stephen Flynn), the practiced irateness of the audience. It’s worse than it ever was.

Except this time, quite surreally, just about the world’s most famous – stroke notorious – intellectual was on the panel. The Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson sat (all too dramatically) on the far right. The enemy of political wokeness, the darling of a generation of angry and frustrated young men, Peterson has had his own mental troubles to bear in recent years. But he both looked spry and sounded sharp on the evening.

Why was this mighty culture warrior even available to the agora of the English suburbs? Going by his tweets – including a hilarious one where he grimly endures a punt on the Cam – Peterson seems to be presenting some seminars in Oxbridge this month. I’ve actually read the paper which he says is “a good intro to what I am going to talk about at Cambridge and Oxford in the next two weeks”. It is as wild a conjunction of core biology, mythological speculation and personal character tips as any of his more famous works – and I confess to being fascinated by the intellectual mix.

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The tricky part is connecting Peterson’s interesting scholarly claims – about how human animals balance order, chaos and surprise, as they careen through their lives – with his two-fisted behaviour when it comes to public media.

His Question Time appearance turfed up a Peterson classic. In response to the Yorkshire cricket scandal, he responded with air quotation marks, saying that “racism” (later specified as “structural racism”) “was a global and vague term … an example of low-resolution thinking”. Instead of moving to abstraction too quickly, “we should hold specific people to account for their specific actions”.

As the panellists immediately asked (and might well you): what are you talking about, Jordan?

The paper he’s presenting to the Oxbridgeans, Three Forms Of Meaning And The Management Of Complexity, can give you immediate answers. Peterson has a dramatic vision of human nature, buttressed by an armoury of hard neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.

But the core of it is that humans are constantly asserting a sense of order and regularity in their lives, as they are faced with the chaos – a terrifying chaos, if given a chance – of experience (whether of objects or others). Peterson always claims that what triggered his intellectual life was an explanation for the cruelties and excesses of Nazism or Stalinism. Psychologically, he’s asking himself, what allows humans to submit other humans to their versions of a New Order? (Until recently, Peterson decorated his home with totalitarian art, just to remind himself of his motivation.)

Peterson’s answer is that, as social animals, we crave orderliness so much – for good survival and evolutionary reasons – that we can often go to war, or demonise and crucify others not in our group, in order to achieve it.

So resisting “structural racism” as “low-resolution thinking” is Peterson speaking from his deep alarm at humans’ order-craving tendencies, which can often go disastrously and collectively wrong.

Charitably, one might interpret Peterson’s opposition to “woke” culture – where he famously resisted his Canadian university’s command to use a gender-neutral term – as stemming from this anti-totalitarian impulse. Being ordered what to do by institutions rings all of his alarm bells. (Even though, as these gender activists point out, there is so much human variety and difference that the old sexual binaries miss out.)

Yet this is a decidedly odd mind. In Peterson’s Three Forms Of Meaning paper, he speaks of two forms of meaning (the first, our need for order; the second, our anxiety about chaos). The third form of meaning plays between order and chaos. As he writes, “not slavish allegiance to a system of beliefs, nor to a specific position in a given dominance hierarchy, nor to incautious and wanton exposure to chaos … But when chaos threatens, confront it, as quickly as possible, eyes open, voluntarily.”

He continues: “Activate the neural circuitry underlying active exploration, which inhibits confusion, fear and the generation of damaging stress responses, not the circuitry of freezing and escape.

“Cut the unknown into pieces; take it apart with hands, thumbs and mind, and formulate, or reformulate the world.”

With writing like this, you can see how Peterson feeds into the heroic self-imagining of insecure men everywhere. Indeed, later on in the paper, he even gets explicit about “always-threatened nascent heroes” who live under the “loving tutelage of the ever-virgin mother, guided by the wisdom of his forefathers”. (He cites Gandhi, Solzhenitsyn and Havel as examples of such “individualism ... the highest value in the West”.) This is a feverish blend of elements.

SO, back to Beckenham – where an increasingly baffled panel is listening to Peterson express psychological sympathy for MPs with second jobs, especially in respect of their “personalities having achieved mastery in certain areas of complexity”. It’s the fault of politics, its tendency to polarise and reduce positions, which explains why we can’t figure out how to bring these experienced ones (“and I know some very successful people,” he boasts) to public service.

Jordan clearly loves the entrepreneurial classes (whether financial or social) as examples of confident pursuers of the “third form of meaning” – those who invent new forms of trade, or community, that can soften our craving for absolute order, driven by a fear of absolute chaos.

From the paper, he talks about “the best player not being he or she that wins a given game, or even a sequence of games. The best player is he who plays such that the game continues, and expands, so that he and others have the greatest chance to play and excel”.

However, at least from my own minor store of knowledge about play and games, it’s not the case that play can simply be reduced to gamesmanship – an especially competitive form of what humans do better than any animal. In play, we also just toy with materials; we occupy wild social roles, for the sake of it.

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Play also happens when a level of basic material security is secured for human animals. When children in refugee camps start to freely play again, that’s an indicator that the community is stabilising, providing a ground to stand on.

I find Peterson’s drama between order and chaos in the human condition to be too, well, dramatic. We could easily build societies and economies – and we may have to, faced with climate crisis and artificial intelligence – that support flourishing on the basis of a new common ground, new agreements on how to use our resources.

Do we need to be sword-flashing mythological heroes, defying elemental forces, to make this happen? Or can we just be enlightened, eco-minded social democrats, who rest on Tony Judt’s definition that “we make the welfare state and public education predictable, so that people gain the freedom to live unpredictable lives”.

Not much to learn from Jordan Peterson then, in a draughty hall on the outskirts of London, playing the pundit role. But as a scholar, he’s fascinatingly and usefully wrong.