On April 19, 2019, prominent Canadian psychologist and self-help author Jordan Peterson and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek met to debate Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism at Toronto’s Sony Centre. Fans of both Žižek and Peterson eagerly awaited this match between intellectual titans, each side hoping to see its contender deliver the intellectual blow that would knock the other’s ideas out of the realm of influence. A friend had mentioned the debate to me, so I found myself tuning in for the match with everyone else when it came up as a recommendation on YouTube.
Many of those who were separated along these ideological lines found themselves disappointed when neither opponent delivered that blow and the event became more of a discussion than a debate. Even so, don’t be fooled by some people’s disappointment, the agreeable nature of the debate is exactly the reason you should watch it for yourself. In a context when ideology can be weaponized against us—when we are either “bigots” or “social justice warriors”—should we not try to transcend the tribalism of our time to achieve a civil discourse? To better understand this in the context of the debate, let us look into the intellectual opponents, the drama that has enfolded them and a few highlights of the debate itself.
In the interest of being transparent about my biases, I have some concerns about Jordan Peterson and his personal politics, but now that I’ve disclosed them, let me put these concerns aside. I do not want to inoculate you against Peterson or de-platform him to silence his ideas. He rose to fame through his objections to Bill C-16, which proposed adding trans people and trans expressions to the listed prohibited grounds for discrimination. Peterson claimed that passing this bill would lead to a form of compelled speech, as it would force people to use trans people’s preferred pronouns even if average people objected to doing so on the basis of their personal beliefs. Peterson’s vocal concern echoed by some of his supporters prompted René J. Basque, president of the Canadian Bar Association, to write:
This is a misunderstanding of human rights and hate crime legislation… Nothing in the section compels the use or avoidance of particular words in public as long as they are not used in their most “extreme manifestations” with the intention of promoting the “level of abhorrence, delegitimization and rejection” that produces feelings of hatred against identifiable groups.
Although some may critique Peterson, there are many who love him, showering praise upon his bestselling 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. This self-help book offers common sense wisdom like Rule 6, “Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world,” Rule 9, “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t,” and my favourite, Rule 12, “Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.” Putting his personal politics aside, I find it hard to disagree with advice like that. However, I encourage everyone to engage with Peterson for themselves before making up their minds to take his advice and pet a cat.
Žižek has courted his own share of controversy as a prominent critic of identity politics and political correctness. For instance, he has discussed the controversy surrounding the desegregation of bathrooms to accommodate the rights of people within the LGBTQ community. He claims that, in the interest of being politically correct, people “have become out of touch with the worries and anxieties of so-called ordinary people.” His stance has garnered him his own share of criticism from fellow academics as well as the trans community.
Žižek is a prolific writer, authoring many articles and books in several languages. It is difficult to summarize Žižek’s ideas, as he often has a roundabout way of speaking, but if I were to give you the gist of it, he sees identity politics as inherently ideological and therefore a distorted view of society and a shallow moral pursuit. He suggests that we try to transcend our ideology to prevent it from altering our perceptions of the world so that we can see things as they actually are and seek more authentic moral pursuits instead. There is so much more to be said about Žižek as well as Peterson, but I am only trying to pique your interest enough that you will look into them for yourself.
Although it would take too long to summarize the entire debate, I will offer some of my personal highlights. The topic was “capitalism vs. Marxism in the context of happiness” and Peterson started it out with a ten-point assault on The Communist Manifesto. In my opinion, Peterson’s introduction was somewhat weak, in that it revealed flaws in his interpretation of Marx, such as when he said, “You don’t rise to a position of authority that is reliable in a human society primarily by exploiting other people.” This does not seem to acknowledge that in Marxist theory the extraction of profit from workers by owners is always an act of exploitation. As Peterson is also known for being a vocal critic of the “postmodern neo-Marxist” agenda being pushed by everyone from university professors to everyday people who identify as feminists, I imagine that some audience members must have expected him to demonstrate a better understanding of Marx.
At this point Žižek had the opportunity to deliver the assault that people had been waiting for—but he didn’t. Instead, Žižek pointed out how absurd it was to describe the event as the debate of the century, with himself as the defender of the left and Peterson the defender of the right. Žižek stated that the academic community had marginalized both of them for their lack of political correctness. He claimed that if people asked the academic left if he should stand in their name, “They would turn in their graves even if they are still alive.” His response was actually very amicable, as he discussed topics in his typical roundabout manner, describing the need for free education and healthcare as well as issues of climate change and “white liberal multiculturalism.” Žižek even made a joke about Peterson’s Rule 6, asking “What good would it do people in North Korea to set their house in perfect order?” He didn’t disagree with Peterson, instead suggesting that maybe we should do more than just set our house in order: we should also consider how we have constructed the house.
And Žižek did ask Peterson the question all his critics were waiting to hear answered. He wanted to know about Peterson’s term “postmodern neo-Marxism,” asking “Where is the Marxism in it?” and “Can you name me one neo-Marxist?” The term itself has been criticized as a contradiction, as postmodern theory is known to be skeptical of grand narratives like Marxism. I won’t tell you how Peterson responded. To find the answer to those questions, you’ll have to watch the debate for yourself.
I found the debate very charming, with Žižek and Peterson mostly agreeing with each other. It made me think, what if rather than trying to destroy our opponents we tried to charm them with our ideas and told a couple of jokes instead? It is difficult to be open to ideas if we are always on the defensive or if we are forced to conform to the ideology that we have become aligned with. Ideology informs and divides us along the lines of left and right, conservative and liberal, or religious and secular. As an alternative to attacking our opponents in argument—or worse, trying to de-platform them to prevent their dangerous ideas from spreading—more of us should take a lesson from the Peterson and Žižek debate and try to find some common ground instead. I thought the debate was brilliant, but don’t take my word for it, I encourage you to watch it and decide for yourself.