The public spectacle on April 19 at the Sony Centre in Toronto was a result of a months’ long feud between two popular philosophers. This was the first time that Slovenian critical theorist Slavoj Zizek and University of Toronto psychology professor met in the same room, the occasion being a live public debate on the topic of happiness, capitalism versus communism. Many called it the debate of the century, comparing it to a previous public debate between the cultural theorists Michel Foucault and Noam Chomsky in 1971.
Zizek—who has written over 40 books, starred in several documentaries, and has two doctoral degrees—is far more accomplished that Peterson who has barely authored 4 and only gained fame in recent years due to an incident where he refused to use gender neutral pronouns. Both are known for their controversial statements, Zizek with his vulgar comments and Peterson with his claims that post-modern “cultural Marxists” are conspiring to stifle his freedom of speech and individuality. Zizek considers himself a communist despite the reactionary positions he has taken such as support for the NATO bombings of Yugoslavia . Peterson calls himself a centrist despite constantly attacking the left and having a following among alt-right and conservative circles.
It was over a year before their first physical encounter that the two started exchanging quips about each other online. Zizek had criticized Jordan Peterson’s comparison of humans to lobsters to justify social hierarchies as well as his misunderstanding of Marx. Peterson promptly responded to defend his position, eventually inviting Zizek to debate him in person.
The highlight of the live debate was when Zizek finally asked Peterson the question that many have been wondering for a long time, “who are these post-modern egalitarian Marxists?” When asked to provide proof that post-modernists are Marxists and to name at least one, Peterson appeared stumped.
In some ways the debate did not go as expected, but in many ways it did. Happiness, the topic that the debate was suppose to be centred around, was not discussed much nor was it the best topic for two pessimists who see no value in happiness. Peterson started with his usual superficial critique of Marxism while Zizek told many of the same jokes and anecdotes he has used in his previous talks. Many times Zizek made valid points that Peterson was not sure how to follow up with. At a certain point Peterson had to admit that he could not entirely defend capitalism, while Zizek also said he was unable to defend the legacy of communism.
Despite their differences, Zizek and Peterson agreed on many things, such as their rejection of political correctness and identity politics. The two were also very respectful towards each other and exchanged many compliments. To see the so called “Marxist” Slavoj Zizek become friendly with anti-communist professor Jordan Peterson made many on the left uncomfortable. Peterson questioned Zizek as to whether he was really a Marxist, making Zizek admit that he was more of a Hegelian, rejecting the optimism of Marx and believing in re-reading Marx through the lens of Hegel.
This showed that the ideas held by Slavoj Zizek and Jordan Peterson are not set in stone, or maybe not what most people thought they were. Though the debate has officially ended, people continue to have conversations regarding it.