Maxim Salvador Otten-kamp
On April 19th we witnessed what was apparently the debate of the century. Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson and “Marxist” philosopher Slavoj Zizek faced down over the course of three hours in Toronto in front of an audience of thousands, with millions watching online. Did it live up to the hype? Of course not. The important take away, however, is not so much what came out of the debate but the politicking that went on surrounding the event.
Let me start with Dr Jordan Peterson and his appeal to young men. There is a crisis (I use that term loosely) of masculinity in the Western world today in the sense that many young men feel they lack a stable identity in a world in flux. Afflicted by the agony of choice, many young boys wish for a return to the days where traditional roles for men were more simple and clearer to understand. Stereotypes offer something that choice cannot: direction for those who are not confident in the modern world. This should not be read as an endorsement of tradition. Old traditions must die to allow new ideas surrounding masculinity to flourish. We see the issues surrounding the existence of toxic masculinity and hyper masculinity everywhere in society. Shooters and terrorists, predominantly young men, act out their frustration with their situation at those who they believe want to see old traditions die. Unfortunately, with ideology, you don’t often get to pick and choose the ideas you like to go on. You take the whole package.
This is where Peterson steps on the scene, with his second and most widely known book 12 Rules For Life. Much of the book is simply devoted to banal self-help shtick – think ”stand up straight,” ”clean your room.” These ideas are obviously not problematic in themselves. Where Peterson becomes problematic is in his dogged insistence that human life is defined by primal competition and social hierarchy and so must be gamed. He makes use of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth (the idea that the stories we tell ourselves are the product of ancient wisdom) to transpose them onto nature, advancing the idea that human beings should accept hierarchies and social competition as natural. He is therefore sceptical of campaigns to advance the rights of minority groups that have historically been subjected to oppressive treatment in society. It is not simply the case that equality in and of itself is the problem – Peterson believes fights for minority rights are just another guise for social conflict within the broader hierarchical structure of society. He doesn’t ever consider the fact that human societies are malleable and that hierarchies of dominance can be transformed. He does not question their efficiency or their morality – he does not consider the importance of raising up new voices and perspectives.
I want to pause briefly here to introduce a personal anecdote relating to my mother. As I grew up, she imprinted on me the importance of standing up straight and standing up for myself. She grew up in a dysfunctional home and upon having myself and my sister she was mostly alone in raising us. This is not to disparage her but to create understanding. She told us many times that she had to take on both traditionally masculine and feminine roles in our lives as she saw fit. Crying was selfish, laziness unacceptable, stress reigned supreme. A few years ago, when Jordan Peterson came onto the scene my mother went through a series of unfortunate events. She suffered loss, pain and absolute despair before her life ultimately started coming back together. Who at this time spoke to my mother best? Who helped her make the best out of the absurdly awful situations she found herself in? Jordan Peterson. He was a voice of support and belief in the primacy of the self that was invaluable to her.
Now for the dishevelled rockstar philosopher Slavoj Zizek. His ideas are more complicated than Peterson’s (though this is sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility). He offers no real solutions to the great problems and challenges of our time. But he confronts them on a level that I feel is at least worthy of appreciation.
Zizek’s analysis of ideology’s function in society is particularly worthy of consideration. He views ideology as an ever-present aspect of our lives, constantly shaping us. His conception of ideology is broad enough to encompass religion and other concepts that dictate the way we act in society. For Zizek, even the ostensibly simple, impersonal act of walking down the street listening to music is shaped by ideology. Depending on your proclivity for pirating media content, the act of listening to music either conforms or challenges the overarching capitalist system. Ideology’s influence in society is far more pervasive, complex and nuanced than we often give it credit for.
The core criticism to be made of Zizek is that he lacks substance. His critics see in him not a serious cultural theorist but a post-modern performance artist of slippery predilections. This characterisation is informed by his fascination with and appreciation for the murderous Stalin, as well as his almost championing of political violence. This piece is not a polemic against Zizek. I mention this rather to attempt to better understand him. He is someone born out of the 20th century communist experiment and whilst he was a fierce critic of the Soviet backed regimes of the Iron Curtain, a sense of nostalgia for communism perhaps understandably resides in him. He is not alone in this – a recent poll out of Putin’s Russia found nostalgia for Stalin to be at an all time high. As post-Soviet states languish under the yoke of kleptocracy and corruption, many look back fondly on the days where the state provided an adequate social safety net and provided for all citizens. Democrats and liberals might be shocked by Zizek’s fondness for the former communist bloc, but it is less outrageous when considering the decline of post-Soviet states and Zizek’s writings on the deep psychological desire for the totality of power.
Finally, we come to an analysis of the debate itself, which focused on the question of economic systems and happiness. It was indeed enjoyable, but anyone expecting a Foucault – Chomsky style academic clash had very bizarre expectations of the venture. Firstly, there is the problem that Peterson was not familiar at all with Zizek’s Hegelianism. Indeed, his understanding of communism was itself fuzzy: he bizarrely relied solely on the Communist Manifesto as the basis for his understanding of socialism. This to me is deeply ironic, for the right so often charges Marxist academics with the crime of such intellectual laziness. Furthermore, Zizek added to the confusion by never once attempting to defend Marxism. He pulled Peterson into a trap by refusing to engage with him on the subject Peterson so dearly wanted to highlight: the USSR’S many depravities and atrocities. This might have been disappointing to Zizek’s more ardently communist fans, but intellectually it was a brilliant tactical move. Peterson is only on firm ground when he is speaking of Solzhenitsyn and Stalin’s gulags. Zizek was more comfortable challenging the very concept of happiness itself.
Ultimately, Zizek exposed and punished Peterson for his exceedingly vague grasp of political ideology. His ”post-modern neo-Marxists” were nowhere to be found and Zizek exposed his obsession with ”cultural Marxism” for the crude anti-semitic conspiracy theory it really is. Some of you may remember the famous Vidal – Buckley debates during the 1968 American election where Buckley was so thoroughly outclassed as to threaten Vidal with physical violence. Peterson did not ever stoop to this level and it was obvious he treated Zizek with basic respect. But as in the Vidal – Buckley debates, his conservatism was exposed as arrogant and intellectually unsustainable. He probably will not get another chance to redeem his image to many of the casual observers that tuned in. For three years, Peterson remained unsurmountable in interviews, discussions and debates. Finally facing a credible opponent, he was dismantled and shown to be out of his depth. It makes you wonder – how did journalists and academics allow the Peterson phenomenon to go on for as long as it did? Unfortunately, he has probably learnt his lesson. Don’t expect him to again show up on another debate stage with an intelligent, trained philosopher anytime soon.