Jordan Peterson vs. Slavoj Žižek
Video Podcast Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugp6RooQjjM&t=
I’ve always liked Slavoj Žižek. Last year I read 3 massive tomes of his work, for their richness of sources and entertaining stories. Getting lost in the forest of Žižek is like being in a dense jungle: eventually you get to a clearing and discover a flash insight, even if most of the time you feel lost in the somewhat impenetrable tangle of Lacanian theory. I kept reading for those flashes of insight and provocation and yet never really got what Žižek stood for — his essence remained obscure to me. Žižek is a master storyteller, a great comedian, a feast of words, perhaps a black magician, but ….
This year I also discovered Jordan B Peterson’s work, and have often meditated on the differences between the two men. Not just their political differences — Peterson calls himself a classical liberal and Žižek a communist — but their essential differences as personality types as well. Peterson’s work on ‘The Big Five Personality Traits’ has helped me some in this respect: Žižek and Peterson are obviously high in ‘trait openness’ and IQ —or creativity and abstraction — but Peterson is far more conscientious and Žižek far more neurotic. The differences can be seen in body language: Peterson’s suits and gentlemanly demeanour vs Žižek’s designer t-shirts and wild hair; Žižek’s apparent indifference to personal hygiene and constant twitching, vs Peterson’s poised, charismatic presence.
Of course, while grooming and style might seem like an irrelevant subject, it is analogous to how they both write and talk. Žižek comes up with a huge book every couple of years, whereas Peterson spent many years writing and re-writing his first book Map’s of Meaning. Peterson has said that he wrote and rewrote every sentence of that book over 50 times. Žižek, on the other hand, seems to write at the speed he thinks and speaks, in a voluminous cloud. In interviews, Žižek tends to swarm his opponent in this cloud; whereas Peterson, while he also talks a lot, appears to listen to what the other is saying.
Recently Žižek wrote an uncharacteristically short “hit piece” on Peterson in The Independent that surprised the hell out of me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, he obviously hadn’t done any research: he had fallen for every kind of caricature which the media has propped up against Peterson. Peterson is described as an alt-right figure who represents the “liberal silent majority”, a quack psychologist with no real scientific credentials with “the appearance of cold scientific argumentation” and “totally blind to the inner antagonisms and inconsistencies of the liberal project itself”. Basically, Žižek was parroting the usual Marxist clichés about “the inner contradictions of capitalism” while straw-manning Peterson, without having even looked into Peterson’s scientific credentials or his serious study of Nietzsche, Jung, totalitarianism, evolutionary biology, and the psychology of the bible. How disappointing. And yet at the same time, how revealing.
Why would Žižek write such a poorly researched propaganda piece? Why wouldn’t he make a serious attack on Peterson’s actual ideas? The cynic might say: he did it because Peterson is the sujet du jour—or for the money. Even if Peterson were a monster of the alt-right, it would be wrong to say that he is not a sophisticated, dedicated monster with a compelling thesis. Žižek could have asked: “Why doesn’t Peterson come out against Ayn Rand individualism?” “Isn’t Peterson a bit of a ‘social Darwinist?”, while making a compelling argument against his actual ideas. Instead, Žižek accused Peterson of being an anti-immigrant, transphobic, and a conspiracy theorist: all of which, after having read Maps of Meaning and listened to hundreds of classroom lectures of Dr. Peterson, I don’t find a scrap of evidence for.
As I wrote in my first Medium article on Peterson: ‘“Hilariously, Peterson has never actually voiced even a classic Republican view: he has not spoken against gay marriage, legal abortion, or gun control — he is neither anti-immigration nor pro death penalty as far as I can tell after listening to hundreds of hours of his lectures (incidentally, Žižek is pro-capital punishment). He’s never said a single thing that can be considered as ‘transphobic’. He has, however, had the guts to dialogue with people on the right, in accordance with his own peacemaking principles. He has been pronounced guilty by association.”
For awhile I’ve been wanting Peterson to have real conversations with people on the left: I‘m gratified to see that he has talked to Russel Brand recently. I’m a leftist by temperament, which corresponds to my score on‘The Big Five Personality Test. I’m also high in openness and neuroticism. Perhaps this is one reason why I resonated with Žižek in the first place — along with my love of provocateurs and comedians. Peterson has spoken with many comedians and I hope he will talk to Žižek in the future. And I can agree with Žižek that ‘The Left doesn’t have its house in order’—especially since the left (and Žižek in this case) can’t make serious, well-reasoned arguments against his enemies (he obviously could if he hadn’t been so lazy)—or even know who they are. Žižek, like Cathy Newman, addresses, not Peterson, but a caricature.
Recently, in an interview, I heard Žižek criticize the Marxist preference for action over philosophy: ‘I am a good Hegelian. If you have a good theory, forget about the reality.” Again, this is a provocation. It is funny. It is very post-modern. Post-modernism is a critique of reified truth and depicts authenticity as the biggest fakery—fiction is the only reality. Reality is for the over-earnest — that is what Žižek is saying. This couldn’t be more opposed to Peterson’s emphasis on Logos, or truth speech. What matters to Žižek is theory and fictions, not Logos. Peterson, on the other hand, believes that speaking the truth is the road to salvation.
Of course, Žižek is a provocateur, and a good one. Here is another: “Because the horror of Communism, Stalinism, is not that bad people do bad things — they always do. It’s that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great.” Ok, but then why does Žižek still consider himself a communist and wax poetically about the “dictatorship of the proletariat”? What about the “internal contradictions” of communism? Peterson often criticises those who say: “that wasn’t real communism” because every actual communist country has had gulags and concentration camps. So what is real communism? Would Žižek say: it doesn’t exist—but theory is more important than the facts anyway?
Finally, if you don’t want to read the big books of Žižek as I have (although admittedly they are a lot of fun) someone has boiled down his thought to its essence on a Twitter feed attributed to him. (note: I have since learned that the Twitter account is fake as Žižek has pointed out, perhaps after reading this article; however, these still seem to me to still be accurate representations of his ideas.) For instance: “I hope I don’t disappoint you but there is no master”. I’m afraid you have. “The shocking realisation is that the throne is empty.” Yup, empty. “The self is the fetishised illusion of a substantial core of subjectivity where, in reality, there is nothing.” Et Cetera.
Žižek is a great intellectual comedian, I’ll give him that. But the winner is Peterson. Peterson is actually leading a real “revolution of the proletariat”.
Video Version: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ugp6RooQjjM
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A series of articles that compare Jordan Peterson to different thinkers and public figures: