Jordan Peterson walks on to the town hall stage, shoulders hunched, hands clenched, a thin man on a hot night in an elegantly patterned three-piece suit. He glances out at the hooting, cheering crowd, and nods his appreciation. He's a hero to millions, villain to millions more, and he's 35 minutes late.

Nobody minds. He crosses from one side to the other, head down, each foot placed carefully. He's picking his way, prepping the mind, putting himself in the zone, a tennis star bouncing that first ball, a yacht beating down on the start line, a singer about to unleash a storm. A speaker who is going to tear the house down.

Which for the next 75 minutes is exactly what he does.

He talks. He looks down while he's talking, the lighting heavy on his brows, his stare reaching just the first three or four rows. His hands flow in big circular movements and he studies them as he talks. He doesn't do this in interviews, where he sits almost completely still, hands and arms down. He's different in interviews in other ways, too: aggressive, sometimes angry, precise and definitive.

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On stage, the words flow and flow but he stops, from time to time, says to himself, "What would you call it?" and takes his time to find the right word.

But the biggest difference between stage and screen is the content. In interviews, he talks about the politics. Gender relations, feminism, the "toxic brew" of "diversity, inclusivity and equity". What he calls "postmodern neomarxism", which is a "plot" involving academics in the humanities, far-left activists, transgender rights crusaders and others, that is so "extraordinarily dangerous" it will, if we let it, destroy Western civilisation.

I know, it sounds extreme. But he confirmed it when I interviewed him the morning after the town hall talk: this really is what he believes. He's an A-grade catastrophist. (Watch the full-length interview here.)

On stage, though, what he talks about is his book, 12 Rules for Life. Number 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Number 8: Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie. Number 12: Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.

In the town hall presentation, except when he takes a question at the end, not a single sentence is devoted to any of the political ideas that have made him so controversial.

He says his audiences want to hear him talk about how to live a better life, not all that other stuff. But it's not clear how he knows that. Haven't we come to hear about both? People interviewed before the show by a Herald journalist, in the queue to get in, were far more likely to mention "political correctness gone mad" than turning their lives around.

And those 12 Rules are not just self-help, either. He said to me: "I am trying to put the Judaeo-Christian story, in an intelligible way, back underneath the substrate of Western culture. There's no doubt about that. That's my fundamental aim."

So is he then, a missionary? Or even something more? I asked him, does he deliberately place himself in the middle of that story?

"No more than necessary."

RULE 1, he says on stage: Stand up straight, and he talks, the voice rolling on, urgent and strong, although he never entirely manages not to sound like Kermit the Frog.

Canadian psychologist and liberla commentator Jordan Peterson interviewed by SImon Wilson in the NZME offices in central Auckland 19 February 2019 still from NZME video
Canadian psychologist and liberla commentator Jordan Peterson interviewed by SImon Wilson in the NZME offices in central Auckland 19 February 2019 still from NZME video

He's half an hour in by the time he gets to Rule 4 and suddenly he stops. Looks at the floor for quite some time and then gives a quick laugh.

"I know the rule," he says, "and I know I've forgotten it. And I know that thinking about how I've forgotten it will stop me remembering it." He wags his finger, telling himself off. It's a warm moment and he gets a warm laugh. He remembers the rule, which is: Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.

Rule 5: Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. He launches into an attack on "adultism", which, he warns, "you'll hear about, believe me, along with all the other isms". That gets another laugh.

Adultism is the belief that it's wrong to say adults know better. "Heaven forbid," he says, "if you think the parents' job is to exercise authority so they don't die." Drawing out the last word for comic effect.

But hang on. Are there really people so anti-authority they think it's okay to let their children die? He does this more than once: mocks his opponents in the culture wars for holding ludicrous ideas they don't actually hold.

The core of Rule 5 is the insight that it is better to become an adult than remain a child, and therefore parents must model the behaviour that allows their children to understand this, so they'll want to grow up. It's a deep insight and he explains it well.

He also says, "Two parent families are way, way, way better than single parent families." All the evidence, he insists, is clear, and there are many reasons for it. He spells out one of them: "Two people are less stupid than one." Another good laugh. He's in fine form.

But is the evidence clear? What if having two parents together brings violence and misery to the family? Is it better for children to live with both father and mother if one of them is in abject despair, or if one might kill the other, or kill the children? Why doesn't he bother with the qualification?

As for stupidity, two people can be far more stupid than one. It happens all the time, when, say, one parent persuades the other to engage in substance abuse they wouldn't do on their own.

Jordan Peterson: author, public speaker, psychologist, professor. Very smart guy, no question, and he speaks with absolute confidence. He's enormously well read and brilliant at weaving what he knows into the stories he tells: each chapter in the book is a magpie's nest of treasures from religious texts, myths, history and the social sciences.

A storyteller adept at suspense and revelation, at mixing simple truisms with helpful and insightful advice and a remarkable number of quite obviously contestable ideas.

He's a father figure who knows the secret of the priests. You offer the incontrovertibly true, and with it a glimpse of greater, deeper truths that can only be understood with help. And you offer, baring your own bruised and beating heart, to provide that help.

HE PROWLS across the front of the stage, back and forth, interrogating his own mind, finding urgent and, not infrequently, upsetting ideas. Ideas that upset him, that hurt him.

In our interview the next day, it seemed to me he was angry, and I asked him why. He said, "Let me tell you what my life is like", and talked about the people who stop him, "at least five times an hour", always polite, always grateful, to tell him how much better their lives are now, because of him. "Imagine what you would feel if this was your life", all those stories of overcoming addiction and the urge to suicide and putting families back together.

He said, "It's not something that makes you angry. it's something that makes you hurt. It's hurtful to see how much need there is for that in society ... Young men, in particular, have been discouraged to the point where that's such a common occurrence ... when they need so little encouragement to move forward."

Sometimes, on stage, he's got nothing. The jokes are gone. Silence descends and we wait. Suddenly he changes tack, and the words are back, ideas, wrenched from that thin, tightly wrapped body, wave upon wave, a flood of words, spilling off the stage and into the hall.

Supporters of Peterson outside the Auckland Town Hall ahead of his lecture. Photo / Will Trafford
Supporters of Peterson outside the Auckland Town Hall ahead of his lecture. Photo / Will Trafford

"Don't ask what's wrong with the cosmic structure of being until you know you've done all you can to get yourself together." He means stop looking for other people to blame for your own unhappiness, and it's both a good lesson and not a good lesson because it's important to take agency in your own life but it's also important not to blame yourself for everything.

Rule 7: Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient), and he conjures the example of a 6-year-old girl dying of cancer, your own daughter, he suggests, and she wants to know why. You can't fob her off, you can't give her platitudes, you have to become a strong enough person to give her a good answer.

He says this and then he stops, on the side of the stage, facing away. He's crying.

He breathes, looks down into the first few rows again, and says: "The fact that we are constrained in time and space is integral to there being meaning in our lives." He really wants us to understand this. We find our meaning in the here and now, not in the cosmos.

If you are broken, you can begin to fix yourself.

WHO WAS in the crowd? Everybody is the short answer. I thought maybe a 70:30 ratio of men to women, and mostly couples, of all ages, although mainly around 25-50.

It's fashionable in some quarters to sneer at Jordan Peterson fans. They get written off as neckbeards and "incels", which is short for "involuntary celibates" and has been adopted defiantly by a few ghastly people who wish us all harm. Alek Minassian, the man who drove a van into a crowd in Toronto, killing 10, called himself an incel.

The theory attached to "incels" is that it's women's fault these men are so angry because women refuse to have sex with them. Peterson got himself into trouble in late 2016 by tweeting: "Could 'casual' sex necessitate state tyranny? The missing responsibility has to be enforced somehow..."

In the long, outraged dispute that followed, Peterson insisted he did not really believe women had a "responsibility" to sleep with whichever men wanted them to. But he does think too many young men are becoming alienated from society, especially from women. In another tweet around the same time, he wrote: "If you usurp men they will rebel and fail and you will have to jail or enslave them."

The solution, for Peterson, is monogamy. Not "enforced monogamy", although he has used that phrase, but monogamy vigorously "promoted as a norm".

Peterson has also made it clear he does not blame women for "incel" violence. He told the American podcaster Joe Rogan in July last year, "If you're a young man, and all the women are rejecting you, then who's got the problem? It's not all the women. That's a very bad road to go down."

At heart, Peterson believes two things about this. Many people see them as contradictory, but he does not. The first is that relations between men and women are being destroyed, and it's the fault of radical feminism.

The second is that a great many young men need to learn how to grow up. It's the overarching theme of his book.

Alongside both beliefs, he also understands the value of something else: stirring up controversy. Rule 10: Be precise in your speech. For a public figure who believes that, he provokes an astonishing number of arguments about what he means. Jordan Peterson is constantly being "misunderstood".

Even so, the social media disputes about Peterson this week have been unfortunate and sometimes unhinged. On both sides. A few things that should be self-evident have quickly been forgotten.

Earlier: The Canadian professor who became an internet sensation with a cult-like following has given his first performance in Auckland.

Such as: people who follow Jordan Peterson are not, by definition, "incels". Young men who do not have sex, for whatever reason, are not dangerous misogynist lunatics who live in fetid basements and want to kill people. Young men are not weird for being interested in a public figure who offers advice on living a better life.

And young women who believe their gender should not disqualify them from fair treatment and physical safety are not tyrannical harpies scheming to destroy civilisation.

ON STAGE, Peterson winds himself into the heart of the lesson. He calls it a prayer.

He says this: "You can sit on your bed and ask, 'Well, what am I doing wrong?' But you've got to want the answer and you're not going to like it. It's a pretty good prayer, actually. You ask, 'What am I doing wrong', in detail. You won't like it. You won't want to go with your imagination, but you should. And then you ask, 'What should I do?' Then you have the answer. And you will refuse to accept it, and it's much worse for you then."

He talks about chaos – the book is subtitled "An antidote to chaos" – which he calls a kind of "catastrophic hell".

"Tell the truth," he beseeches us, so urgent now. "Tell the truth because you don't want to be wretched on your deathbed. There are people you love and they are going to die and happiness won't save you and it's tough, it's miserable, it's hard."

What do you cling to? "I know I've got the adventure of my own life." It is, he says, enough to be grateful for. He's all choked up, crying again, hands raised above his head in supplication, body twisted. It's so tough, it's so miserable, it's so hard.

On he goes, talking still harder and faster, pacing more, the hands busy again, he's in the grip of a terrible thing we can't see and we're drowning in the words and he's drowning, too. Gasp. Gasp. Help! Help!

Rule 10 is: Be precise in your speech, and he's standing there, hands like claws now, like he wants to reach into his body and pull the terrible thing out. "It's deep", he's saying, "it's so deep", and now he's talking about how God created the Word and he's pleading with us.

"If you're bringing something into the world that isn't right, the wrong words, then don't! Don't do it! Don't speak with expedience, there is an alternative: just to say what you think."

Just say what you think. It is, I think he means, a way to liberate your soul. His voice cracks, and cracks again, he's whacked now, the tears are back, and he's still piling the pressure on himself. He's on to Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding, and he manages a joke but when the audience laughs he just barks back dismissively, haha, and surges on.

"Life is full of suffering ... and you have to get through it. When the gates of hell open up in front of you, you must control yourself more, rather than less. Hold on to your gratitude, to truth, to love, with luck you'll get through it and even if you don't it's not as terrible as it might have been. And that is something."

He stops. He's weeping. It's over. "Thank you," he says and stands there. The applause is thunderous, most of the crowd are on their feet.

HE SLUMPS into the leather armchair placed exactly centre stage, opens a laptop and responds to a couple of emailed questions. His answers are long, and interesting, but also rambly. He's coming down. He's spent. The evening unravels a little, although nobody seems to mind.

He gives this talk, or one like it, every other night. It must be exhausting. I asked him the next day how he does it. He admitted it was a little tiring.

I said it felt revivalist, like a religious meeting for an audience that misses the sureties of religious faith. With a preacher taking upon himself the torments of us all. I asked if that was deliberate.

"I wouldn't say deliberate," he said. "I think it's an automatic consequence of what I say."

Is there a difference? He draws the religious performance from the religious depths of what he says.

Clinical psychologist, biblical scholar, inflammatory ideologue, crusader with a book of rules, preacher who takes upon himself the torments of us all. I would say everything Jordan Peterson does is deliberate.

The things he says

•On men and women: "Most men do not meet female human standards." 12 Rules for Life.
•On contemporary society: "Diversity, inclusivity, equity, all of those things together make up a very toxic brew." NBC Nightly News, April 28, 2018.
•"If you usurp men they will rebel and fail and you will have to jail or enslave them." Tweeted, December 18, 2016.
•On feminists: "They have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination." Tweeted, January 23, 2018.
•On identity politics: "Dividing people into their tribal groups can do nothing but bear evil fruit in the long run." Oxford Union, June 2018.
•On men blaming women for not having sex with them: "If you're a young man, and all the women are rejecting you, then who's got the problem? It's not all the women. That's a very bad road to go down." Podcast, July 2, 2018.
•On whether Western governments repress free speech as severely as they do in Myanmar: "We're damn close." British GQ video interview, December 2018.