Dubbed 'the debate of the century', it was far from the duel many were anticipating

Formerly dubbed ‘the debate of the century’, Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson have both been under attack by fans and critics alike. Now, many refuse to accept that the event, “Happiness: Capitalism vs Marxism”, was even a debate. It was more like an evening of discussion, but with endless bottles of water instead of bottles of wine. However, criticism of the debate concerns almost everything except what was said. There have been articles describing disappointment at how ‘ordinary’ the crowd was, bemoaning the length of the event and how they would have preferred to be elsewhere. Many of these articles are concerned with crass jokes about the audience or the speakers, but such distractions are a genuine mistake in academic journalism.

It’s not certain whether disappointment or anti-climactic interest is the best way to describe the predominant emotions regarding the Žižek-Peterson ‘debate’ (hereon, the discussion). Never could it be anticipated that it would be such a relatively friendly conversation between the two famously argumentative and provocative intellectuals. There weren’t many things that Peterson claimed to disagree with Žižek about, which makes a change to a lot of his conversations and debates you can watch all over YouTube.

It wasn’t until recently that students all over the world became aware of Peterson and his work in academia and social politics. Professor of psychology at Toronto University, he describes himself as a ‘traditionalist, commonly mistaken to be right-wing’, whereas he is striving to be identified as ‘a classic British liberal’ (paraphrased)… whatever that is. This self-identification sounds slightly ironic, given his comments about gender identity. However, we must grant him that, although he might occasionally call people by the wrong pronoun simply because he thinks they are just trying to be difficult, he doesn’t believe it to be punishable by law if people do misrepresent him. He is a notable figure in the fight for freedom of speech, a position he shares with Žižek. His traditional views include his doubts that a lesbian couple can bring up a child properly, without the presence of a male role model, and that the biggest problem in the West is the growing number of divorce cases—some of his arguments build upon statistics showing that abuse cases are higher in step-families than in nuclear families. His conclusion is arguably correct, but statistics are often there for us to use, not necessarily to learn.

We could instead argue that the problem isn’t divorce, it is marriage—but Peterson is, nonetheless, a Christian, and marriage is fundamental to his moral system. Ironically, he does not admit to believing in God, but to ‘fearing that He may exist’. In this sense, Peterson takes a very Christian-existential stance similar to that of Søren Kierkegaard. Life itself would be meaningless without the struggle between chaos and nature. His argumentation, however, seems much more prescription ‘alt-right’, and much less interesting than Christian-existentialism.

Žižek is a very different kettle of continental fish. Avoiding any arbitrary comments about his appearance that so many people seem to be attracted to (he recently turned 70, his appearance really shouldn’t be a valid point of criticism), it’s important to outline some of his philosophical position. Unfortunately, Peterson didn’t read a single one of Žižek’s many works, some of which are relatively short, and instead decided to read the Communist Manifesto (hereafter, CM), originally published in 1843, whose authors are both long-since deceased. This mishap is a real shame on the part of Peterson since Žižek has so much more to say on phenomenology, ideology, Jaques Lacan, Friedrich Hegel, Sigmund Freud, and a plethora of other, more unique subjects, such as the politics of European toilets.

Žižek very rarely refers to the CM—though he does defend the communist ideal—and he was dismissed from a job as an assistant researcher in Slovenia because his Master’s thesis was deemed ‘non-Marxist’ by authorities. He has two doctorates and is a professor in Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana, as well as an international director at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London.

Akin to Peterson, people are critical of his stance on the LGBT+ free speech controversy. In short, he believes that hate speech is nonetheless free speech, a position that, amongst liberal students veering towards identity politics, isn’t popular. He frequently makes comments that are insulting but never means any injury. He explained in one interview that he uses insults to calm the storm of cultural identity politics. This tactic works well in former-Yugoslavia because it gives citizens free rein to make fun of their own country’s stereotypes to form a ‘banterous’ alliance between different social groups. Unfortunately, amongst more sensitive defenders of political correctness, this approach is not shared and can be seen as unnecessary, unprofessional, and injurious.

Given that both participants are controversial intellectuals, the discussion was anticipated to be heated. Peterson appeared to find more in common with Žižek than he would have expected, and Žižek made more jokes, seemingly to calm Peterson’s nerves, than any of his fans would have anticipated.

The two men were very irritated at their introduction—a long and reverential speech by the moderator, Stephen Blackwood—referring to them as ‘towering figures’ and enticing the audience to long ovations, which, as Žižek pointed out, wasn’t what they were there for. It wasn’t meant to be a popularity contest, however much the audience might have wanted it to be.

The discussion commenced with a half-hour introduction from each speaker. Peterson began by criticising the CM in a form that is reminiscent of an A-level literature essay. A literature essay it was, rather than a criticism of communism, a promotion of capitalism, an argument against Žižek’s position, or even a critique of ‘happiness’. He didn’t appear to understand the basics of Marxism, perhaps because he has only read the Manifesto (only 60 pages long in the pocket Penguin Classics edition), or maybe because he thinks it is a ‘fundamental truth’ that almost all ideas are wrong and that Marx was mistaken in not explaining this.

Žižek came straight in with happiness, explaining that China—in many ways a symbol of totalitarian capitalist success—is an excellent example that success in capitalism is not synonymous with the happiness of the people. Žižek makes the point that the West does not have a fundamental responsibility to accept refugees (wait for it) but has a responsibility to help change the situation that creates refugees.

Peterson’s ten-minute response followed. He began by saying that he agrees with a lot of what Žižek says, but there also seems to be an element of worry on his brow. Is he worried that Žižek defends communism, without agreeing with everything Marx wrote in the CM? If Peterson knew Žižek’s arguments against ideology, Peterson would hopefully have figured out before the debate that communists don’t always agree with other communists. He appears entirely out of sorts to realise that he, of all people, agrees on so many issues that his radical left-wing opponent is pushing.

Without saying he disagrees, which would be an unnecessary move, Žižek points out one of Peterson’s favourite arguments: lobsters have a common ancestor with human beings, and they also have a natural predisposition for hierarchy. Žižek doesn’t give the lobsters much thought, but he explains that hierarchy cannot necessarily presuppose authority (perhaps, instead, legitimate authority, but that is contestable).

Perhaps even more shocking for Peterson and his fans, Žižek goes on to criticise Marx for being unable to recognise the nature of social power. Marx falsely claimed that inequality is a bourgeois creation. Žižek, a self-proclaimed pessimist, believes that inequality will always be present in human society and that the exploits of socialism are not to eradicate them—such really would be a total ideal—but to reduce and avoid inequalities as far as is possible.

In confusion, frustration or perhaps oblivion, Peterson reiterates a common pro-capitalist argument. The poor are better off these days than they have been in the past, but it simply isn’t valid to argue that capitalism works because people are materially better off now than they were in 1900. Human progress means that things will change and fluctuate. We have grown steadily more intelligent, and technology has allowed us to develop all sorts of different amenities. However, just because the working classes can own smartphones does not entail a success story of capitalism. Many new and terrifying problems are resulting from capitalist principles, such as the impending rise of sea levels indirectly caused by careless mass-waste. However, Peterson is openly sceptical of the evidence for climate change, claiming that it is so steeped in ideology he cannot take it seriously.

Peterson’s enemies, so he says, are these so-called ‘post-modernist neo-Marxists’… to which Žižek responded ‘I know what you mean, but give me some names! Who are these people?’. It’s still not particularly evident who these people are, or what this quadruple-barrelled term means. Peterson insists on using this term, thus appropriating the very identity political strategy he works so hard to refute. One thing Žižek managed to point out is the categorical unlikelihood that post-modernists can be Marxists at all.

Regardless, Peterson continually stated that he agrees with what most of Žižek is saying, though it’s not clear that he understands what’s happening because his responses seem to have very little to do with Žižek’s questions. However, they both have a moment in which their understandings and their positions are entwined. Žižek points out that he genuinely agrees that certain activists who claim to seek social justice are nonetheless totally self-interested and lacking in any real desire for social change. Therefore they are neither traditional—nor neo—Marxists. Here he seems to be pointing out the various strands of activism occurring all over the world, especially in universities. The two men also agree that there is no binary reality of ‘oppressor’ and ‘oppressed’. In his other writings, even Marx had the honesty to admit that these binary oppositions are merely symbolic.

Finally, happiness comes into discussion, thanks to the otherwise unhelpful moderator. Once again, there’s a total lack of any real debating. Both men agree that happiness is a ‘by-product’ of life. It occurs under random and specific conditions, and that if you have a ‘good’ life, that does not entail that you are necessarily ‘happy’.

Unfortunately, on Žižek’s part, there is too little argument from him. He never really defends communism, and he has an openly pessimistic view on humanity. It’s not clear why he thinks that communism will make us happier in the long run, because even though this is his ultimate position, he never truly expresses it. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Peterson seems so aghast.

The promised ‘questions from the audience’ seems never to happen, when finally, we are given one single question from a viewer online. The question: What do you hope people will take away from this debate?

Peterson rather nauseatingly answers that he hopes people can realise that two people of different philosophical positions and traditions can have an engaging, respectful debate. Well, what had taken place that evening wasn’t a debate, so it’s not apparent how people will be able to leave with that in their minds. Peterson claimed to agree so much with Žižek that he didn’t present himself as really in opposition—not to mention he didn’t seem to understand what Marxism is since he’s only read the almost 200-year-old Manifesto.

Žižek’s response hit me like a rock. ‘If you are a leftist, don’t feel obliged to be politically correct. Don’t be afraid to think.’ In a world of university students and activists that appear to be so sensitive, it’s worrying that you can’t have a decent philosophical discussion without the fear that someone might dub you a fascist, a bigot, a homophobe, transphobe, misandrist, or criticise you for being straight, white, male, cis-gender, middle-class… Intelligent conversation, free of assumptions and labels, and a philosophical tradition are lacking. Instead, we have an ‘us and them’ mentality in both politics and society. You can’t please everyone, and you shouldn’t be trying to.

Overall, the discussion wasn’t unenjoyable. It made for some excellent critical thinking, but it was far from the debate so many were anticipating. Peterson disappointed most; a usually articulate, argumentative, intelligent professor suddenly seemed out of his depth. He almost seemed to squirm under pressure, and it’s not certain how much he truly understands the left—not as a single concept, but as a conglomeration of conflicting parties and views, and as a genuine attempt at a Hegelian process of change, should socialism be adequately implemented. However, considering the conflicts between everyone in academia and beyond, Peterson was right in saying we need opposition. We thrive intellectually with those who oppose us, and it isn’t sensible to barricade ourselves from them, to fight and shout rather than listen and learn. The best lesson that we can take from the event is that, even if you don’t know something, or don’t agree with someone, you should always listen to them—you might learn something.