The Performance of Anti-Ideology: Peterson & Žižek in Toronto

I can imagine that many who watched the Peterson-Zizek debate last night were disappointed.

I wasn't one of them.

Neither academic made "a fool" out of the other, "destroyed the other with these five simple points," or made an emotional appeal to the audience in an attempt to publicly unveil the stupidity and ignorance of the other. It was not the aggressive, confrontational bout that I presume many had hoped to see.

Despite my issues with their opening statements--especially Peterson's ignorance of the historical reception of Marxism and his claim that "intellect" and capitalism could be enough to solve the ecological crisis--I have to concede that the two actually talked. They seemed to actually want to find common ground, and in fact they found a lot of it--the most disappointing of which for the audience (given the demographic and current Zeitgeist) was most certainly the emergence of a definition happiness as grace.

Performative Anti-Ideology

Let's just get this out of the way--I am certainly no Peterson fan. I think the tenets within his celebrity YouTube catalog which appeal to young men are directly harmful to women (let's all remember that Peterson said, "If you're talking to a man who wouldn't fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you're talking to someone to whom you have absolutely no respect." Just think about that statement for a second: male violence as underpinning the possibility of respectful discourse???).

Nevertheless, it is clear that both Peterson and Zizek are acutely aware of the appeals of ideology today and the danger of the self-righteousness that comes with the certainty of holding ideological positions (including language-policing other people). And I don't doubt that they are both also aware that their own separate audiences (especially online) have their own ideological leanings and preferences. Indeed, in his opening remarks of the evening, Zizek opposed the very terms in which the debate was construed ("Capitalism vs. Marxism). He clearly had no interest in providing an ideologue's apologia for Marxism.

In short, Zizek and Peterson appeared to make "meta-moves" on the ideological antagonism which defined the debate (and perhaps, to a large extent, the "camps" of the listeners in the room). The format of the debate was two 30 minute openings statements each (Zizek's was more like 40), a ten minute reply from both, followed by a seemingly honest exchange between them. In Peterson's opening statement, no meta-critique of ideology was present. It was, in my opinion, a facile reading of the Communist Manifesto that ignored the complexity of the reception of Marx in the 20th century, and the care with which many Marxists and Post-Marxists have redefined the terms and insidious manifestations of oppression under capitalism.

But here is the interesting part--Zizek didn't seem to care. His approach seemed to be "Okay, so what, Peterson doesn't get critical, 20th century Marxism--there are bigger fish to fry in this 2.5 hours."

(Peterson also made some alarming suggestions about capitalism being the optimal solution to global poverty and climate change, not to mention uttered glaring inaccuracies about Marx, the worst of which was that Marx had nothing to say about nature--but in the Zizekian spirit I am forcing myself to leave them aside now for the sake of what I truly want to say).

Zizek's first "anti-ideological move" was to let Peterson be wrong about Marx, in order to allow their conversation to go to more interesting places of convergence and divergence on points such as the complexity of happiness, the relation of individual will to politics and to ideology, and even the meaning of Christ and Christianity for the culture and mentalities of people in Western countries (personally, I couldn't believe they dared to address the latter--to say there is an enduring presence of Christian elements in the secular, largely atheist context is to willingly open oneself up to a whole host of colonial, Eurocentric critiques).

Zizek's second "anti-ideological move" was one many of us are familiar with: his blatant refusal to stand as a representative of The Left. He reminded the audience of his stance against political correctness and his polemic position on the inscription of LGBT issues in "identity politics"; He also made a very clear statement that he thinks "white Liberals" have supported a certain form of multiculturalism while disavowing their historical privilege only to create a situation in which they can enjoy that privilege even more. Zizek wanted us to know that "white Liberals" and those who identify with singularly oppressed group identities don't like him, and he does not profess to speak on their behalf.

Peterson, on the other hand, shocked his adversaries in the crowd who know him primarily as a megaphone for the hurt feelings of young men stripped of their privilege who think they "deserve better" than the hand they have been dealt in 2019. Instead of repeating his mantras and seeking the hooting and hollering of his supporters in the crowd, Peterson actually sensitively engaged with Zizek. The questions he asked Zizek actually gave Zizek the space to clarify his positions on happiness and Marxism, which admittedly were not clear from his somewhat "aphoristic" opening statement (for the record, Zizek is what I would call a "critical post-Marxist," looking to Marx' critique of political economy and analysis of commodification to understand the problems of capitalist states).

I see this as the performance of anti-ideology, for as Peterson listened to what Zizek was saying and responded thoughtfully, that feeling of borderline rage I so often have when Peterson talks about my evolutionary inferiority on YouTube (and, let's admit, feelings often drive our subscription to ideological positions) subsided. I don't know whether Peterson decided to adopt this strategy of engagement (which only kicked on after his polarized opening statement defending capitalism) prior to the debate, or spontaneously within it, but I presume he knew what he was doing: showing that he would not, in this forum and this moment, pander to the sort of "alt-right" ideology that Zizek's supporters fully expect him to. The question for those of us critical of Peterson is whether this was a self-promoting PR move. If it was, it appears to have been successful.

Happiness, Christianity and Psychoanalysis

Nobody in attendance was surprised that there was some overlap between Zizek and Peterson's remarks as they descended into the depths of psychoanalysis. But what was surprising is that they openly combined their psychoanalytic analyses of human beings with elements of Christianity to conclude that happiness is fleeting--and indeed, we are lucky if these fleeting moments of happiness pepper our existences. As Peterson agreed with Zizek, near the end of the debate, that happiness depends on something external like grace, I suddenly had the impression that someone different was speaking than the public figure who made a plea for capitalism to solve the problems of the poor at the outset of the evening.

Zizek repeatedly formulates his case for the contemporary relevance of Christianity by cushioning it in the professing of his atheist identity. This caveat seems to help his case. He distinguishes between a critique of institutionalized religion and its structures of authority on the one hand, and what he sees as unique about Christianity for the broken individual ("fallen individual") on the other. (Between the public cheers for Zizek's statement that he is a Hegelian and the intense discussion about The Fall of Man in front of over 3000 people near the end of the evening, something about the "uniqueness" of the moment of this debate in the history of my lifetime seemed to wash over me. But we always have a tendency to overestimate the moments of our time, so I digress).

Like a good "post-Marxist," Zizek opened his initial speech with a critique the history of the confluence of organized religion with authority, and how this produces groups of people in power who claim to act on behalf of God. Showing where his cards lie, he asserted "only religion can make good people do bad things." He transposes this problem of "playing God for the people" to a political context in cases such as China and the former Soviet Union. In this vein, Zizek implicitly agrees with Peterson's reservation about the "Proletariat" being trusted to "do good" once power falls into their hands. Nobody here is pleading for a return to Leninism or Stalinism--thankfully.

But Zizek undoubtedly sees something unique in Christendom that he is not afraid to talk about: namely, that the aforementioned flawed and broken ("fallen") individual is included in God through the crucifixion of Jesus as God from the beginning. And instead of progressively ascending back to unity with God through a variety of steps, in her finitude, this broken individual has the navigate this shitty world as broken (some Christians would say as a sinner). For the Christian, therefore, the hubris of perfection and acting in the name of God should theoretically be precluded from the beginning. Zizek therefore (on Good Friday no less!) labelled the crucifixion of the Christ who proclaims his own abandonment by God as the atheist moment in Christianity. This atheist moment, infused with a drop of Lacan, should humbly remind secular post-Christians of our flawed nature and our inability to ever be perfectly stable beings (and therefore, on my interpretation, not to be trusted with heavy concentrations of power over others). Again, happiness is fleeting.

Zizek--whether intentionally or not, managed to close his debate with Peterson by returning to this theme with which he began. No doubt ruffling some feathers, Zizek's reservations about the misuse of religious ideology now appeared with a new claim: it is not only Christianity that can be (mis-)deployed to a rationalization for immoral action. Zizek referred to SS Commander Heinrich Himmler's obsession with the Bhagavad-Gita, and how the attitudes in strands of Buddhism and Hinduism which emphasize self-removal from worldly actions (acting with distance) can serve not only to justify evil acts, but offers the space for ideology (here, in the form of acting in the name of higher ideals) to infiltrate one's life.

Questions Left Unanswered 

There may be some implicit agreement here with Zizek's critique of intentionally distancing of oneself from one's actions and Peterson's psychological programme which aims towards self-transparency, authenticity in action, and improving one's moral character by actively combating of self-deception and lying. But near the conclusion of the debate, as Peterson presented this programme in response to some seemingly facetious comments from Zizek about one of Peterson's "Rules for Life," namely, to set ones own house in perfect order before criticizing the world, Zizek returned with another "meta-ideology" critique of Peterson. When Peterson--frankly at his most competent of the evening--used clinical psychology to propose that one systematically address one's own flaws before engaging in something like social activism, Zizek repeated that this is exactly the point where ideology can re-enter the equation.

Zizek's point here is that an individualism as strong as Peterson's is not immune to politics, neither in its conditions or its effect. Having a perfectly ordered house in which one can curl up in a blanket and watch Netflix already implies a set of social conditions (and, at this point in history, a concentration of global resources that is reproducing the conditions of economic disparity) which are subject to political critique. On a more nationally internal social level, as Zizek put it, access to education and healthcare are what allow me to focus on other things. Peterson conceded later in the debate that neo-liberal free markets need some 'help' via "social intervention" to create the conditions of something like 'the good life,' but he did not enter into a discussion of what level of social intervention he would deem permissible.

I think that if both thinkers were pushed on the necessity to deliver a positive political program while maintaining their commitment to respond to serious critiques, they would both end up far more "centrist" than either sides of the left-right spectrum would care to admit. Zizek, at least last night, was not pushing for revolution, and Peterson was conceding the holes in his neo-liberal politics (which seemed presented in a sort of ad-hoc manner to "stir up the discussion" anyway).

Zizek's problem with the perceived outcome of Peterson's focus on individual self-improvement, which is the "meta-ideological" point here, seems to be both what we are complicit in, and what we miss, when we engage in intense narcissism (I should note that Zizek never used the term narcissism). Nevertheless, we can hear Adorno looming in the background, with his claim that collective narcissism engendered support for Nazism and substituted for a missing sense of self-worth. This analysis could be extended to Trump and the intertwined perception under capitalism of achieving wealth, "having one's house in order," narcissism, and the perceived suitability to lead.

"In order to allow narcissistic identification, the leader has to appear himself as absolutely narcissistic, and it is from this insight that Freud derives the portrait of the 'primal father of the horde' which might as well be Hitler's."

While I'm not sure Zizek would compare Trump to Hitler in his narcissism (he did call Trump the ultimate "post-modern politician" in his appeal to groundless "traditional values" which do not in fact exist), his comments suggested a crack in the self-relation of hyper individualism which allows ideology to take over the direction of one's actions. Zizek clearly thinks we have not adequately mediated on this problem, for he reversed Marx' eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, stating that while philosophers have tried to change the world, it is now time to interpret it. This reversal serves to underline a difficulty presented by Zizek's position: the absence of a positive political program, which is justified by his proclaimed pessimism. He thinks we are doomed, and therefore despite indications of the type of global cooperation needed to respond to the ecological crisis, he does not give us much concrete to grasp onto.

But if Peterson's solution to the ecological crisis is an outdated faith in the development of "intellect" and technology as pushed by capitalism, Zizek should provide more in terms of a positive program of the international redistribution of resources to respond to climate change and the "impending apocalypse." Some of the content published in his 2008 article "Nature and Its Discontents" would not have gone astray here. In this piece, Zizek (while also incidentally suggesting that "Christ brings freedom") proposes instantiating the "four moments of what Badiou calls the 'eternal idea' of revolutionary-egalitarian Justice" ("strict egalitarian justice," "terror," "voluntarism" and "trust in the people") to respond to the ecological crisis. Entering these points into the debate with Peterson could have brought forth a clearer, positive, Zizekian answer to the problems of capitalism other than just "pessimism" and "doom."

The final point which I would have liked to see developed further in the debate is the question of whether the oppressed have a privileged access to "the good," "truth" or "righteousness." Peterson throws around "the truth" in a careless way which blatantly exposes that he is not the philosopher Zizek is, but he is nevertheless right to point to the question of whether there is an enjoyment of righteousness of those who self-identity as an oppressed group. This is the opinion that many are secretly harbouring about the "left" on university campuses, and one with which Zizek would likely agree. However, if Zizek had responded to Peterson's issue of the 'righteous self-victimization of the oppressed' with a sensitive analysis--the form of which is ubiquitous in the work of the Frankfurt school--of the insidious networks of oppression and subjugation within capitalism, Peterson's portrayal of the uselessness of Marxist analyses would have appeared weak. Critical post-Marxist thought no longer operates with the simple binary of class oppression, or even the simple dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed. The roles of oppressor and oppressed are constantly reversing as individual subjectivity dissolves into a capitalist matrix in which we all exploit each other and plunder the earth. The identification and critique of this phenomenon in Western culture is the real force of Marxist analyses today.


The discussion between Zizek and Peterson was so engaging that, despite the advertised promise that audience members (both in house and online) would have the opportunity to ask questions, there was only time at the end of the debate for a single one. The lone question was what each figure would hope viewers took from this debate.

Peterson's answer, echoed by Zizek, was that he hopes this event was a testament to the fact that people of different viewpoints can actually sit down and have a productive discussion with one another--which I do think, unlike Stephen Marche, actually happened at the debate. Both Peterson and Zizek are clearly fed up with the label of "fascist" being slapped on any positions in disagreement with prevailing ideologies of certain political and social groups. This emerged as a shared frustration, but in tandem with a shared hope in conducting political and academic discussions otherwise.

Zizek's answer to the aforementioned question was a message specifically addressed to "The Left," which was in fact in accordance with Peterson's position. He proclaimed, "If you are a leftist, don't be afraid to be politically incorrect--don't be afraid to think."

Clearly, Peterson and Zizek share more than I was ready to admit going into this debate.


  1. I like this analysis but I don't think you're giving evolutionary psychology and Peterson's views a fair shake. Two examples: (1) he doesn't believe you are inferior. He may believe that differences emerge as a consequence of evolution, but he attempts to reconcile that with the Christian idea that all are equal before God. Whether or not he succeeds is certainly fair to criticize. (2) Truth is more often than not a technical term used by Peterson that is philosophically informed by the pragmatists and his overall Darwinian world view. Admittedly, it's tricky to know when he's using it that way due to its ordinary use.

    Just a personal comment now: I don't think you need to keep pointing out that you disagree with Peterson on issues not relevant to the analysis and that you are not a fan of his. It's playing the same signalling game neither of these thinkers enjoy playing, and I'm willing to say after your post that you don't seem like a willing participant either. Anyway take it or leave it that's just my opinion.

    Thanks for clarifying a few bits on Zizek. I'm long overdue to read through his works.

  2. Great overall summary. Much appreciated.

    Given how astute your the rest of your comments were, and your status as a psychology PhD, it stood out as quite a surprise to me where at the start you had a problem with:

    "Peterson said, "If you're talking to a man who wouldn't fight with you under any circumstances whatsoever, then you're talking to someone to whom you have absolutely no respect." Just think about that statement for a second: male violence as underpins the possibility of respectful discourse???)."

    If you don't understand how that works, please don't try to provide clinical support to men, because you don't understand their lives at all.

    It's there all the way from childhood. Boys and their "rough and tumble play", a phrase so common in developmental psychology that you can't have missed it. They're using that to figure out where the boundaries are, so that when if comes to potential actual conflict, they don't just overstep the boundary into a threat just by accident.

    Of course, we want equality with men/women in the political sphere, but Peterson is just speaking out loud the truth that you don't normally hear in polite conversation. When we say we want equality, we really don't mean that we want men to treat women the same as other men. You seriously wouldn't like that.

    Women police the extreme outliers amongst their social groups with techniques like character destruction, group exclusion and reputation destruction. Men mostly don't do that in a public setting. They would rapidly lose the respect of other men like that.

    Peterson's broader point in the video with Camille Paglia that you linked, is that when men face the minority of actually crazy women in the public sphere, they have no effective recourse, and there's no great historical precedent for this in politics because women so recently entered that sphere. He suggested that fair minded reasonable women need to police their own, with an implicit "or else this isn't going to work". You may note that Camille didn't object, because she knows it's true, and she frequently takes on that role.


Post a Comment