Keeping going, in this instance, didn’t quite deliver what Peterson, Harris and Murray are best known for. All three men owe their reputations to their professed willingness to criticise ‘political correctness’ in one guise or another, and a refusal to tiptoe around sensitive subjects. Harris, whose background is in neuroscience, became part of the ‘new atheist’ movement in the mid-2000s, courting controversy with a series of attacks on Islam, Catholicism and Judaism. Murray is equally provocative on the topic of Islam, most recently in his book The Strange Death of Europe, which whips up every fear imaginable regarding the threat posed by immigration from the Middle East and North Africa. A Darwinian thread runs through the work of both, which issues in the idea that we must be brave enough to face up to the existence of biologically innate inequalities.
Peterson’s name was barely known this time last year, yet it was his involvement in the O2 event that made its scale possible. His recent book, Twelve Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, blends a defence of patriarchal tradition with self-help and psychoanalytic mysticism, drawing on Carl Jung and religious fables to produce such peculiar tips as ‘Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street,’ alongside more menacing advice on how to physically discipline your child. His public profile is so high thanks to a series of online videos in which he attacks the arguments of trans rights activists and feminists. His eagerness to call out ‘postmodernists’, a catch-all for anyone who questions the superiority of dominant Western political and scientific institutions, is perfectly geared towards those in the younger generation who feel alienated from identity politics.
If Peterson, Murray and Harris have one thing in common, it is a brand (always carefully tended) of intellectual and political fearlessness. The logo for the O2 event, titled ‘Winning the War of Ideas’, consisted of a grenade made out of a human brain, surrounded by black and yellow hazard stripes suggesting mortal danger. But on the night the risks were few and far between. At one point Murray, trying to inject some edginess into the proceedings, asked why they were ‘having to hide in a sports stadium to address serious issues’. Harris dutifully tossed out a couple of mildly derogatory remarks about Islam, but you sensed that his heart wasn’t really in it. Peterson was avuncular to a fault.