What The Media Missed At The Jordan Peterson–Slavoj Žižek Debate

By refusing to knock out Peterson, even when handed the chance, Žižek modelled what productive political discussion could look like

As soon as Jordan Peterson announced he would be debating Slavoj Žižek, the hype machine started revving. The media promised a “rumble in the realm of the mind,” a “brawl between iconoclastic philosophers,” and a “highbrow Mortal Kombat.” According to The Economist, our very political future was at stake because “the ideas which flourish now could define the next era of political ideology.” Others, like The Globe and Mail’s John Semley, doubted that higher questions would be resolved — the event was to examine “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism” — but still predicted a raucous WWE-style throwdown.

Either way, the matchup was irresistible. Right vs. left. Capitalism vs. Marxism. Anti-PC hero vs. an old guy with a foreign accent. According to the Toronto Star, it would be “the debate of the century.”

But following the April 19 event at Toronto’s Sony Centre, the media was confused and let down. The Star wrote: “There were no fireworks between the two debaters. In fact, they often agreed…” According to The Federalist, “this was a wide-ranging discussion around the ideas of capitalism and Marxism, instead of a head-to-head analysis of which is superior in promoting happiness.” The Guardian said, “The Peterson-Žižek encounter was the ultra-rare case of a debate in 2019 that was perhaps too civil.”

Everyone had turned up for a cage match, but neither Žižek nor Peterson nor capitalism nor communism had emerged a clear winner. Instead of a knock-down drag-out, the audience got a quite pleasant chat. The speakers agreed on more points and got along better than most anyone expected.

The media, the viewers, even Jordan Peterson had all bought into the fight-night hype. But not everyone did.

A few weeks ago, Žižek was asked about his upcoming meeting with Peterson on a Twitch stream interview. He said, “It’s pure madness. People think, ‘The duel of the century! Who will win? Who will lose?’ Well, it will be very sad if we will descend to that level.”

The Slovenian philosopher had something else in mind. We were warned.

Tickets for the event had sold out within hours, and Peterson bragged in his opening remarks that they were being scalped online for more than Leafs playoff seats. There was also a livestream available for $14.95 American.

Peterson is the University of Toronto psychologist who in 2016 swept to fame as a champion of anti-political-correctness on the winds of culture war. Žižek is one of the left’s best-known public intellectuals, and certainly its most entertaining. Still, the debate was being held on Peterson’s home turf, so Žižek was cast in the role of challenger.

The debate was put on by Live Nation, the same event-promotions company that ran Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life book tour. But while that tour packed auditoriums worldwide, it also left the deep well of progressive antipathy for Peterson untapped. Peterson owes much of his fame to embarrassing progressives on camera. By putting Peterson up against a worthy opponent, Live Nation offered something his detractors couldn’t resist: a chance to see him get dunked on in public. Peterson’s promotions company made up a poster of both men scowling, and announced the event. The title “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism” made it a two-fer: you’d get to see a culture-war hero stand or fall, and you’d get an old-fashioned left-right fight over political economy.

In keeping with his Marxist persona, Žižek announced he’d be donating his proceeds to charity.

Media responses to the debate could be divided into two broad categories. The first is the “mildly disappointed take.” These articles registered surprise at how well the two got on, and then summarized individual arguments, awarding points where they deemed appropriate. Such articles have been published across the political spectrum, in the Star, City Journal, and The Federalist, among others. Sometimes they were disappointed at the lack of bloodshed, but mostly they congratulated the two on having a productive and civil conversation.

The second category is the “angry left take,” which also remarks on how well the pair got on, but is enraged by it. Angry left takes reaffirmed their contempt for Peterson but focused their ire on Žižek. Jacobin published a column entitled “The Fool and the Madman,” which contained the phrase “Žižek surely isn’t as odious as Peterson. But…” The Guardian called both men “throwbacks” who can neither face “the reality or the future.” Current Affairs considered “Peterson a toxic charlatan and Žižek a humiliating embarrassment to the left.” They also ran a piece of if-it-were-me fantasy fiction entitled “How Žižek should have responded to Peterson.”

Žižek has long been on the outs with sections of the left, but this debate made it worse. Nearly all “angry left takes” admitted that Žižek won the debate, but complained that he didn’t win it the way they wanted him to. Many on the left desperately wanted two things from that Friday night: to see Peterson publicly humiliated and socialism publicly vindicated. By making nice with Peterson, Žižek denied them both.

The lineup outside the Sony Centre. Photo by Heidi Matthews.

The Sony Centre was at capacity, and the crowd was buzzing. Audience members seemed to be sizing each other up, picking out ideological friends and enemies (“Is this what a Peterson fan looks like?” “Are they communists?”). It skewed young and male, but was not exclusively that.

Peterson took the lectern first, to great applause. This is when things started to get weird.

Peterson’s opening move was to reveal a debate preparation plan so utterly inadequate that it dispelled any possibility of a serious intellectual confrontation.

He said he tried to “familiarize myself with Žižek’s work,” but that he had given up because the Slovenian had just written too many books. Instead, he prepped by re-reading The Communist Manifesto, which he saw as “the original cause of all the trouble.” This may seem like a reasonable strategy to anyone who has learned about politics only from Peterson. But to anyone with a casual knowledge of Marx or Žižek or debate prep, this was jaw-dropping. In order to prepare for the “debate of the century,” Peterson had ignored his opponent’s work, 170 years of scholarship on Marx, and even the vast majority of Marx’s own work in order to focus entirely on a 30-page pamphlet written over a few weeks. And he didn’t even land that. The remainder of Peterson’s speech sounded something like a freshman term paper on “why communism is bad.” His fundamental ignorance was pretty apparent to all.

By the logic of the philosopher-brawl, the stage was set for slaughter. Peterson, whose academic training is in psychology, had just revealed an extreme weakness in political theory. Žižek is a theory beast. Worse still, of Žižek’s 80+ books on relevant topics, his most recent is called The Relevance of the Communist Manifesto. He knows his stuff. It looked like the Canadian, who had made his fortune “owning the libs,” was about to get his comeuppance. Žižek’s supporters were applauding and whistling as their champion approached the lectern.

They smelled blood.

But Žižek wouldn’t give them any.

Instead of coming out swinging, the Marxist began by mocking the whole “duel of the century” idea. Peterson is an anti-PC hero. And Žižek was supposed to be his enemy? Didn’t everyone know that the forces of political correctness had been attacking him since before Peterson discovered YouTube? That he too has been marginalized by these people? Where both of these thinkers stand vis-à-vis “political correctness” wasn’t obvious and bears a little examination.

Neither explicitly defined what they meant by the term “political correctness.” Both seemed to agree that it has something to do with identity and equality, and that it isn’t good. Often, it just seemed to mean a category of politics that they don’t like. Žižek associated it with terms like “hyper-moralization” and “regulatory zeal.” Peterson seemed to link it with any politics organized around identity.

While both are critical of political correctness (whatever they mean by it), there is a fundamental difference between their critiques that is easy to overlook. Peterson thinks the problem with political correctness is that it undermines the natural hierarchies of competence that order our world. Žižek thinks the problem is that political correctness can distract us from the economic and social hierarchies that most require undermining. Peterson attacks it from the right, Žižek from the left.

But another important difference is that while “PC elements” have somewhat succeeded in marginalizing Žižek, they’ve made Peterson a star. All the same, Žižek was refusing to fight with Peterson on this issue. “If the leading figures in this field were to be asked if I’m fit to stand for them, they would turn in their graves, even if they are still alive!” he said.

Having dismissed political correctness as a point of conflict, Žižek’s second move was to shut down the “happiness/communism/capitalism” battlefield. Peterson had based his attack against Marxism on the Cold War framework that places capitalism, political freedom, and prosperity together on one side of the Iron Curtain, and Marxism, authoritarianism, and economic stagnation on the other. Žižek argued that China’s economic miracle has exploded this by showing that authoritarianism is a better match for capitalism than democracy is. This was not to praise China, but to illustrate Žižek’s fear that the long marriage between democracy and capitalism is coming apart. He argued that today, capitalism is bringing on three major problems: authoritarian government; ecological catastrophe; and dangerous innovations in biotechnology. Further, said Žižek, China has mostly given up on the idea of communism as a legitimating ideology and instead justifies its actions in terms of happiness, not Marxist thought.

Thus, while offering a critique of capitalism, Žižek dismantled the capitalist-communist dichotomy on which Peterson had based his opening remarks. Instead of attacking Peterson, Žižek was establishing common ground. No fight over political correctness and no defence of classic communism. Was there going to be a debate at all?

When Žižek had concluded his lively but non-confrontational opening speech, his supporters cheered wildly. Suspecting they might trying to celebrate a victory over Peterson, Žižek chided them: “Please! Don’t do this.… Don’t take it as a cheap competition. It may be that, but we are…desperately trying to confront serious problems.” The representative of Marxism made it clear that he had absolutely no interest in a “duel” and was there to have a discussion instead.

Initially, this move confused Peterson — he said so in his subsequent remarks — and for awhile he attempted to keep up the pretence of an adversarial debate. But a couple of minutes into his rebuttal, Peterson found himself agreeing with many of his opponent’s critiques of capitalism, and soon the pair was chatting about politics, psychology, and Jesus’s moment of atheism on the cross. They even traded compliments.

This is not to say that they never disagreed. Peterson defended his message of personal responsibility, and Žižek compared Peterson’s theory of “cultural Marxism” to Nazi anti-Semitism. But they did so in a collegial rather than confrontational way:

Despite the collegiality, the exchange was unequal. Peterson’s expertise is in clinical psychology, not in politics, philosophy, or economics. Žižek’s expertise was directly related to the topics of discussion. This made the evening feel like an office hours session between a professor and an earnest but misguided student. Žižek probed and corrected and suggested supplementary reading. But he encouraged Peterson by highlighting points of agreement, cracking jokes (literally begging Peterson to do the same), and trying to find ways to criticize without humiliating.

Even when Žižek pressed Peterson to show him the Marxist element in so-called “postmodern neo-Marxism,” he explicitly assured everyone that he was questioning in good faith rather than trying to embarrass.

It worked. By the end of the night, the atmosphere was downright friendly. Žižek had succeeded in calling off the “duel of the century.”

But why? Why would Žižek travel across the Atlantic ocean to the hometown of a man he had called his “enemy” in order not to debate him? Here, the fight-night drama blinded many commentators to the bigger stakes that Žižek was playing for.

To conclude the evening, the moderator asked both speakers “What is one thing you hope people will leave this debate with and why?”

Žižek revealed his aims:

“There is today, so it appears, this big conflict between all that postmodern stuff that you [Peterson] oppose and this alt-right and so on. I hope sincerely that we make at least some people to think and to reject this simple opposition. There are quite reasonable positions… the only alternative to alt-right is not political correctness. And now I’m speaking not for you but for me: please, if you are a leftist, don’t feel obliged to be politically correct. Think. Don’t be afraid to think.”

Žižek’s real target was never Peterson. He believes that political discourse today has been hijacked by an all-consuming yelling match between polarized positions. Woke vs. reactionary, political correctness vs. alt-right. Žižek thinks that the hostility between these camps hides a wide variety of reasonable political positions. He wants people to understand that these two camps do not exhaust our political possibilities.

Whereas Žižek hopes to quell the culture wars, Peterson is a creature of them. YouTube is packed with viral videos with titles like “Jordan Peterson DESTROYS feminist” and “Jordan Peterson TRIGGERS journalist.” But while epic ownage is fun for the choir, it’s not a good way to win converts.

It would have been very easy for Žižek to “destroy” Peterson. But that would have simply fuelled the ideological antagonism and paranoia of contemporary discourse. That’s Peterson’s game. Instead, Žižek “destroyed” the Petersonian fantasy that everyone on the left is either a politically correct scold or Stalinist tyrant (or both). And he did so by steadfastly refusing to be drawn into the “cheap competition” and instead modelling what productive political discussion could look like. He cancelled the battle to end the war.

On the night, the atmosphere was tense. Žižek supporters interrupted Peterson with a great cheer at the mention of “bloody, violent revolution.” Peterson supporters aggressively applauded his points about victim narratives. But as the two seemed to connect, the hostility drained away. The conclusion of the two-and-a-half-hour discussion was met with an enthusiastic standing ovation, and when the audience finally filed out, they filled the lobby with excited chatter.

Twitter, of course, lit up with memes, mostly playing on Žižek’s total domination or Peterson’s lack of preparation. But there were also signs of deeper discussion. Popular posts on the r/jordanpeterson subreddit included:

If the encounter didn’t produce a winner, it did produce a discussion among a population known for its partisanship.

Even Peterson appeared ready to squash the beef. In answer to the moderator’s question about what the audience should take away, he paused thoughtfully and said, “I hope they leave the debate with a belief in the power of communication between people with different views.”

Even if the press couldn’t see it, Žižek’s gambit was a success.

Clifton Mark has a PhD in political theory from the University of Cambridge. He now writes on that subject, as well as on culture, psychology, and relationships.

Correction (May 1, 2019, at 2:17 p.m. EDT): Due to an editing error, the photo of the lineup outside the Sony Centre was initially credited to the author of the piece, rather than to Heidi Matthews.

Clarification (May 1, 2019, at 11:17 p.m. EDT): While Live Nation was involved with making the event happen, the company did not initiate it, and so the word “organized” has been replaced with “put on” in one sentence.

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