Another summary of the Peterson/Žižek debate

This one is from the Guardian.

Peterson’s opening remarks were disappointing even for his fans in the audience. They were a vague and not particularly informed (by his own admission) reading of The Communist Manifesto. His comments on one of the greatest feats of human rhetoric were full of expressions like “You have to give the devil his due” and “This is a weird one” and “Almost all ideas are wrong”.

I’ve been a professor, so I know what it’s like to wake up with a class scheduled and no lecture prepared. It felt like that. He wandered between the Paleolithic period and small business management, appearing to know as little about the former as the latter. Watching him, I was amazed that anyone had ever taken him seriously enough to hate him.

Hang on there, bucko. I’m a professor, I’ve never experienced that. I always have an outline, at least, and a set of points I want students to understand, not that I can claim I’m always fully prepared to give an elegant, well-crafted lecture. I have a bit of anxiety about just showing up and babbling extemporaneously. I have no illusion that I’m good at it.

Peterson clearly has no such concerns.

He said things like “Marx thought the proletariat was good and the bourgeoisie was evil”. At one point, he made a claim that human hierarchies are not determined by power because that would be too unstable a system, and a few in the crowd tittered. That snapped him back into his skill set: self-defense. “The people who laugh might do it that way,” he replied. By the end of his half-hour he had not mentioned the word happiness once.

Žižek didn’t really address the matter at hand, either, preferring to relish his enmities. “Most of the attacks on me are from left-liberals,” he began, hoping that “they would be turning in their graves even if they were still alive”. His remarks were just as rambling as Peterson’s, veering from Trump and Sanders to Dostoevsky to the refugee crisis to the aesthetics of Nazism. If Peterson was an ill-prepared prof, Žižek was a columnist stitching together a bunch of 1,000-worders. He too finished his remarks with a critique of political correctness, which he described as the world of impotence that masks pure defeat.

I am not particularly fond of this assertion, though.

And they both agreed, could not have agreed more, that it was all the fault of the “academic left”. They seemed to believe that the “academic left”, whoever that might be, was some all-powerful cultural force rather than the impotent shrinking collection of irrelevances it is. If the academic left is all-powerful, they get to indulge in their victimization.

And that was the great irony of the debate: what it comes down to is that they believe they are the victims of a culture of victimization. They play the victim as much as their enemies. It’s all anyone can do at this point.

I am too powerful and influential and relevant! I am! <flails wildly, falls to knees> I am important!

Validate me! Please!


  1. F.O. says

    I wish “the academic left” was half as powerful as it’s made to be, they’ve been yelling about climate disruption for years and no one in power seems to give a fuck.

  2. hemidactylus says

    Zizek’s use of Dostoevsky was fascinating to me. He first quotes or paraphrases Steven Weinberg along the lines: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.”

    He then takes the nihilistic notion from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that lacking God all is permitted. That seems vaguely pointed to Peterson’s take on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in 12 Rules for Life: “…perhaps the greatest novel ever written, in which the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to take his atheism with true seriousness, commits what he has rationalized as a benevolent murder, and pays the price).” Therefore in Peterson’s estimation then we cannot really be atheists. I could be struggling to find meaning in Zizek reading tediously from his notes. He’s much more lively at 2X playback speed. He then cites Glucksmann’s “Dostoevsky in Manhattan” and seems to parallel something he penned in 2006:

    “…the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the “godless” Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.”

    Zizek sells the point then that ideology in general can make decent people commit atrocity. This seems to be an interesting use of Weinberg and Dostoevsky and a pearl in the mud. But it came after his whining about being marginalized perhaps related to aftermath of his LGBT+ critique.

  3. cartomancer says

    They have a point though, surely? I mean, doesn’t everyone here get their million dollar cheque from Noam Chomsky every month? Aren’t the UN and the EU hanging on every word Paul Krugman writes? Don’t Polly Toynbee and Owen Jones basically get to write government policy in this country, and Chris Hedges and Cornell West in yours?

  4. nomdeplume says

    Disappointing to me (as a long-time Guardian reader and fan) was the heading “Debate of the Century”. You’d think that would be tongue in cheek, but my reading was that they were treating a discussion between these two fools as if it was important, extremely important, and deep and meaningful. I know the article hints at criticism, but even this, as PZ notes, is tempered with levity (eg Peterson’s failure to have read Marx). Just as with Trump, the media seems unable to resist the temptation to normalise fools. And Peterson marches on, look, even the Guardian takes him seriously.

  5. says


    You know, if only people wouldn’t snipe at Trump so much, if only all his critics would just ignore him, we wouldn’t be in the pickle we are today. So I totally, totally agree with you that when someone comes along whose announced purposes include ending feminism, enforcing monogamy, ensuring discrimination against trans persons remains legal, and shuttering many (most?) humanities departments in english-dominant universities across the globe, the truly important thing is that you just don’t criticize that person too much.

  6. Ichthyic says

    PZ sniping is directly related to how much media exposure the target has been getting.

    that’s my experience. I see nothing wrong with that approach.

    Ken Ham makes the news regarding something about his inane Walmart/Ark, and PZ writes an article about him.

    this seems… not surprising?

    god forbid one should critique relevant events in the media. This isn’t a classroom, after all, where he’s bound to the syllabus.

  7. hemidactylus says

    @8- Crip Dyke
    I would value your perspective on Zizek. As much as I find him fascinating as a studier of ideology and IMO a pwner of Peterson in the last part of that whatever you call it with his well crafted mindfuck vis a vis Jesus’ crucifixion, I also find him an asshole when it comes to his views on LGBT+ identity, but I am not versed enough to put that in perspective. That is the dark side of Zizek and he seems to be making hay in a way that may sway (frickin’ rhymes) the Peterson crowd. Is he totally beyond pale? That’s the aspect I haven’t yet seen addressed well in media. Would be cool to see a Contrapoints on this debate but she might shoot me for even thinking such a thing, though Natalie is well qualified to dissect the ideology behind these bozos.

  8. wanderingname says

    I watched the first minute or so of each of the openers, enough to realise that they were rambling and not really going anywhere. The follow ups were a little better, but I still skipped through them liberally.

    Once it got to the freeflowing dialogue it was actually interesting however as it was a masterclass in how to get through to your opponent. I know nothing of Zizek, but setting aside his background and focus on sociological influences, he seemed to be a similar sort of character to Peterson, and he used this to his full advantage to show to Peterson that he wasn’t a threat to Peterson or his fans, and pushed back on misconceptions about marxism and highlighted the importance of sociological influences. Peterson for his part actually stepped up his game for a bit and showed that within his domain as a clinical psychologist in a clinical setting he’s not a complete hack. Peterson actually started to expand upon his idea’s and elucidate some of the detail of his approach in a way that clarified his position without the usual generalisations.

    Not that I think much better of either of them, but the debate definitely went in a positive direction.

  9. says

    Zizek reminds me of Seinfeld and his ilk. Old men who used to get a pass for being sorta culturally liberal, mad that anyone holds them to any standard of behavior or morality, expecting kudos for lip service. Here he gets on stage for a debate and all he ends up doing is showing how much even the center left is better off without his ilk, how much he has in common with the alt reich’s addled preacher man. Go home, scrub.

  10. chrislawson says

    Interesting, isn’t it, that a quasi-fascist like Peterson and a self-described Marxist like Zizek would both identify “the academic left” as the greatest threat to intellectual freedom. If I were to hazard a guess, the common factor that gets both of them upset is an insistence on academic rigour and a rejection of anti-humanist rhetoric.

  11. doubtthat says

    With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion.

    I remember Hitchens used to say that in debates, and the first few times I heard it, I found it really compelling. But if you consider it for even a moment, there are literally endless things humans believe in – that don’t involve supernatural entities – that can make them do horrible things believing them to be just and righteous:
    -Alt medicine – antivaxx stuff
    -Criminal Justice – so many, many police and prosecutors plant evidence, coerce false confessions, and otherwise generate horrible outcomes BELIEVING that they’re just helping put away a horrible person.
    The list goes on an on. It’s a catchy line, but really wrong. We are all susceptible to this behavior, regardless of our ideology and religious belief.

  12. rietpluim says

    I know Peterson. He’s the guy who thinks that men are more like lobsters than like women and calls that science. But who is Žižek?

  13. Rob Grigjanis says

    doubtthat @15:

    It’s a catchy line, but really wrong

    Yup. I’ve long thought that it was the stupidest thing I’ve heard from Weinberg. I’d have loved to see Abdus Salam‘s response, but he died a few years before Weinberg wrote this.