Peterson vs. Zizek: a dialogue we need more of in the future
The lead-up to the Zizek-Peterson debate was aglow with excitement and activity. Unfortunately, however, that excitement and activity existed solely in the confines of the individual echo chambers each thinker possessed reign over. There was very little, dare I say no, crossover in interaction or understanding amongst the followers of the two public intellectuals prior to the debate, which led to a distinct air of hard-headed partisanship that I had believed wouldn’t end well. I wondered how much heckling there would be, and who would get heckled more.
Going in to it, it would almost seem unfair. The topic, ostensibly contingent on economics as the foundation for debate, generally favoured the Slovenian Marxist Philosopher Dr. Slavoj Zizek, who has written over 45 books in English alone, more than half of which dealing specifically with the cultural and social impacts of capitalism. But I had placed my bets that former University of Toronto Professor and Psychologist Dr. Jordan Peterson’s weight would show strongly in the “happiness” element of the subject, his Jungian background—psychoanalytic and psychological approach unique in its post-Freudian, holistic optimism—would perhaps provide him some fair footing.
The bustling auditorium echoed with the jarring violin of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” concerti. When the two intellectuals emerged onto the stage, Dr. Peterson was adored in a smart, three-piece blue suit, while Dr. Zizek was characteristically underdressed, wearing a simple grey and blue striped pullover and black pants.
I would quickly be proven fundamentally incorrect in my initial assumptions, however, with Peterson opening’s statements strictly focusing on the economic argument against Marxism. In his youthful way, Peterson joked that he attempted to familiarize himself with Zizek’s work in preparation for the debate, but the other thinker’s work was so vast that he decided to focus on the one key inspiration for them all—The Communist Manifesto.
Immediately, Peterson took sniper-like aim, implying that he had read “student papers” that were more composed and logical in their arguments. “It is almost as if nature does not exist” in Marxist literature, he said, noting that the struggles of humanity are not limited to class or economic struggles, but are fundamental existential problems. Peterson’s introduction was where he was strongest, delivering choice, but extremely familiar, arguments that are always a hit with conservatives.
He noted how evil couldn’t so easily be divided into oppressor and oppressed, and how capitalism created more wealth and life-improvement than any other system. He even went there, citing the innumerable deaths in the Soviet Union. By no means were these particularly original or abstract. Peterson was attempting to dispense easily understood and devastating points, not a unique or intellectual critique.
Zizek shuffled into place after the applause for Peterson had worn off, quietly asking the host if he could sit in a high podium chair that was positioned next to his intermission seat. While Peterson had a shiny Microsoft tablet, Zizek employed only a few crumpled pages in his hand. With his characteristic sniffle, shirt tugging, and nose grabbing, he began. His first point was surprising, noting that both he and Peterson were ostracized academics who were equally ridiculed and dismissed by contemporary academia. He was extending an olive branch to Peterson, before launching into an introduction which would once again prove my initial assumptions wrong. Rather than focusing on economics, he chose to wax quixotically about happiness as a social condition.
His introduction was as incredibly vast as his prolific authorship. He bounced from subject to subject, though somehow making it seem all somewhat related. In one moment, he notes how good humans are at sabotaging their happiness, in another, how modernity imposes upon the individual the responsibility for their burdens. Zizek noted that under capitalism, people were not free to pursue their own talents and cultivate their uniqueness, commercial forces equalizing people too much, while commodifying their culture to the point where no element of the individual or his life was free from market forces. He went on to say that it was the “obsession with reproduction and expansion” which was the primary err of the capitalistic endeavor, creating strong enough antagonisms that Marxism still had relevance. Zizek’s introduction was so proliferating in all directions, sharply contrasting Peterson’s pointed, understandable rhetoric, that I was not surprised when it came time for Peterson to resume the stage, he seemed confused as to what to do.
It took a moment for the Torontonian Professor to compose himself, seeming to appreciate the extra minutes Zizek went over as more preparation time. Peterson was intently focused on his laptop as Zizek chided the crowd for their prolonged applause to his introductory overture. “Please! Don’t do this!” He suddenly shouted, “I really think that why we are here engaged in this debate is—don’t take it as a hit competition! It may be that…” the audience laughs, “but we are desperately trying to confront serious problems.” The audience applauds as Zizek launched into another extra few minutes of talking, apologizing after catching himself, and comically asking the moderators not to take any of his time away.
Peterson stood and adjusted his shoe, “I like to speak extemporaneously, but Dr. Zizek’s discussion was so complex that there’s no way I can juggle my responses simultaneously.” After a brief quip shared between him and Zizek, Peterson finally settles on “Much of what I heard I agreed with.” He exchanges another quip with Zizek, whose comments are mostly inaudible but to Dr. Peterson. While the mood of the debate started seriously, the two men are now acting like friends having a casual chat in their living room.
Peterson criticized Zizek’s introduction by stating that he criticized capitalism without giving much supporting argument to Marxism itself. Surprisingly, Peterson gave Zizek a lot—spending the first few solid minutes of his speaking time agreeing with points Zizek raised on the commodification of cultural life, even going so far as to say that “there is something not right about reducing everything to competition, and capitalism certainly pushes in that direction.” He went on, noting that the “radical wealth production” that characterizes capitalism might produce “a fatal threat to the structure of our social system and our broader ecosystems,” but Peterson added a “who knows?” to the end this admission, remarking that he was not entirely convinced of that logic.
At one point, Peterson began rapidly listing off the points Zizek had made, scanning his computer screen for his notes, and searching for one to decide on targeting. “Inequalities generated by capitalism; proclivity towards a shallow materialism; the probability of corruption…” He stopped. “The thing is … those are catastrophes that are part of the struggle for human existence.” Again, Peterson remarked that capitalism is creating wealth for the poorest segments of the global population, and that increasing their life prospects may result in their caring about the condition of the world. “I heard a defense of egalitarianism,” Peterson said, “but I heard it defined as equality of opportunity not equality of outcome, which I see as a clearly defined Marxist aim.” Peterson concluded, noting that capitalism has its flaws but that it is “the worst option, except for all the others.”
Again, Zizek leapt to his high-chair, “First, a few remarks about happiness,” he said. This time, he was speaking directly to Peterson. It was almost as if the audience was not there at all. His eyes remained on Peterson, his body turned towards him, and he addressed him informally as though they were the only ones in the room. “Jordan, tell me if I am dreaming, I think I’m not.”
He sniffled, pointed at Peterson, and asked if he too remembered a study in which wealthy Scandinavian countries, with their robust democratic socialisms, were reported as less happy than poorer, less democratic states like Bangladesh. Zizek noted that his goal is to “problematize” happiness. His point seemed to be that democracy brings with it the burden of responsibility, which reduces happiness. This was meant to directly contrast with Peterson’s assertion that the more responsibility one has, the more meaning and happiness they can create for their lives. “Happiness should be treated as a necessary by-product,” Zizek said, “if you focus on it, you are lost.”
If Peterson had given Zizek some allowances in the last round, Zizek returned the favour. Referencing Peterson’s introductory takedown of The Communist Manifesto, Zizek says “On many points, I agree with you … Marx didn’t have, for example, an understanding of how social power exists.” With barely an elaboration, Zizek suddenly shifted gears “Let’s drop that, I have more interesting things to say…” to audience laughter. He then took issue with Peterson’s characterization of Marxism in egalitarian ideology, noting that Marx barely mentioned it, and in fact dismissed equality as a “bourgeois category.” This is where Zizek excels and Peterson falters, in the nitty-gritty details of Marx and Marxist thought. But where the latter presented a challenge to Zizek on this front, it is fair game.
The moderator, Stephen Blackwood of Ralston College, ended the segment of strict debate, introducing the audience queries by asking the two men to begin by proposing a question to each other. It is here that the two genuinely indulge in what I considered a robust debate, rather than the strictly automaton, rehearsed lines they had compiled prior to the event. Peterson starts, “You’re a strange Marxist to have a discussion with…” he said, eliciting some laughs from the audience, “It seems to me that your reputation is as a strong supporter of Marxist doctrines … [but] given the originality of your thought, how is it that you came to presume that the promotion of Marxism rather than, say, Zizekism, was appropriate?” Peterson states that he believes Zizek’s work demonstrates enough originality that there was “no reason” for him to be allied with a doctrine that was 170 years old.
Zizek noted that Marx’s work is significantly vaster and more complex than The Communist Manifesto, and that he appreciated Marx’s diversity of argument in his critical political economy. It is here that Zizek sees the ultimate redemption and relevance of Marxism, in Marx’s deeper reflections and arguments about the economic condition’s influence on the social structure. However, Zizek noted what someone more familiar with his work would have already been aware of—that he is more of a Hegelian than a Marxist.
Peterson responds that even if it were true that Marx was significantly more complex, a good deal of Marx’s current supporters focus specifically on the radical and revolutionary proclivities of his literature—what Peterson describes as the most dangerous of his thoughts, from The Communist Manifesto. Peterson describes Zizek’s endeavor to keep Marx relevant through his more complex work as “inviting the dragon into the house” while attempting to rescue the sheep.
Instead of responding, Zizek provided a counter-question he believed would lead to an answer. He says that Peterson designates the “enemy” he is fighting as “postmodern neo-Marxism.” He continues, “I know what you mean—all of this political correctness, excesses of whatever, spirit of envy, and so on…” He pauses for a moment, hiding a smile beneath his thumb, “Do you think they are really—Where did you get this data—I don’t know them. I would ask you, please give me some names… Where are the Marxists here?” Rolling applause from his supporters in the audience overtook his continued insistences, “Who are they? I don’t know any.”
Peterson responded, citing the statistics of Social Sciences in the United States who consider themselves Marxist, stating that he believes the neo-Marxist / Marxist differentiation was simply a matter of replacing the concept of class oppression with any other number of identity-based oppressions. Peterson went on to note that he believes that in the 1960s, post-modern neo-Marxist intellectuals, he namedrops Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who realized that Marxism was declining in popularity due to the failures of the Soviet Union, and “re-cast” class struggle as identity conflict. Zizek immediately took issue, noting that Foucault was an avid critic of Marxism, and was not for radical change. He continued that the types Peterson spoke of enjoyed their own “self-marginalization.”
The host then proposed a question: “What is happiness and how is it obtained?” Zizek gave the floor to Peterson, who recollected the earlier argument of happiness, agreeing with Zizek’s proposition that happiness is a side-effect, and that one cannot will themselves to be happy. He went on to state that meaning is found in responsibility, which he defines as an action one completes because they believe it to be right, and that expands their capacity to do more right actions in the future.
Zizek’s take was expectantly different. “Happiness is not some blissful unity with higher value,” Zizek says, “it is struggle, the fall, and so on.” But he switches gears almost as quickly as he began, asking Peterson why he placed so much emphasis on personal change. He references 12 Rules for Life, “One of the slogans in your book… First set your house in order.” He smiles, putting his hands together, “But I have an extremely common sense, naïve question here. What if, while trying to set our house in order, you discover that your house is in disorder because precisely the way society is structured?” He accurately notes that Peterson himself is socially active precisely because he recognizes there is a fundamental issue in society which needs rectification, so it is not enough for him to tell his patients to “set their house in order.” He then says, “I hope we can both agree, [we would not] tell someone in North Korea—set your house in order.”
The host presents a final question, one from the internet viewers, asking each intellectual to state what they hoped people would take away from the debate. Both Peterson and Zizek’s answers were flawless—Peterson began, “I hope they leave this debt believing in the power of communication between people with different views.” Zizek, likewise, provides a succinct and excellent response, “There is today a big conflict between all that—postmodern stuff you oppose and the alt-right and so on … I hope sincerely that we made some people think and reject that simple opposition.” With that, the event ended to much-deserved, roaring applause.
The debate certainly was not what I, or many others, expected, with far less antagonism and hostility between the two men than many had perhaps hoped for in the name of spectacle.
The audience provided no outbursts, no heckling, and I can only hope the attitude of kinship between the speakers was translated unto them.
Zizek seemed to genuinely admire Peterson, and the feeling was eventually visibly returned. Initially, Peterson seemed primed for an intense, fact-based debate, his steely-eyed stare melting away with every awkward joke and unexpected agreement from Zizek, the latter being characteristically laid back. Both intellectuals made excellent points at various times in the debate.
Peterson was strongest when he was articulating the “re-cast” of critical theory as a rebranding of original Marxism. Zizek, on the other hand, delivered a knock-out articulation of Marxism’s stances on egalitarianism and social conditioning that Peterson was not equipped to handle, having only read the Manifesto. For me, however, that was a shocking admission on Peterson’s part.
After all, his critique of Marxism is well-known off of the debate stage, and to have such a low-familiarity with what he was known to routinely attack seemed off-putting. But this speaks immediately to the different intellectual stylings of the men. When Zizek was asking Peterson “where are the Marxists?” it was obvious to me that he did not see simple self-identification as meaningful in determining the true alliances of the individual. Peterson, in noting the sizable portion of social scientists who consider themselves “Marxist,” made it clear that he did see that self-identification as enough. Again, the two men were playing a completely different game. Zizek, however, did not elaborate upon or press his question in a way that would have better outlined his issue with Peterson’s position.
Criticisms for both speakers can also be readily discussed. As noted above, Zizek often left questions unanswered or un-elaborated upon, while Peterson’s arguments, again, seemed generally limited in reference. However, as Peterson noted during the debate, it was organized in short-order, and did not leave much time for preparation. This may have also been complicated by the fact that the debate’s topic was exceptionally broad: Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism. It should have been apparent to the organizers that the two men, completely unique in their intellectual stylings and focus, would have interpreted the question entirely differently. This led to a first round of arguments which had very little to do with each other, and the remainder of the debate period was spent adjusting course.
Once it did get adjusted, however, it was a beautiful sight. I feel as though this happened during the shorter period when the two were asking each other questions and responding in kind. Zizek and Peterson were at their most brilliant when they were sitting on their chairs, looking directly at each other, and slinging points back and forth in shorter time. In effect, when they were simply conversing with each other, the long speeches, podiums, and spotlights a memory. I hope we can see more of that in the future.