But in advance of this verbal sparring at the Sony Centre — tickets sold out almost as quickly as Justin Bieber at Madison Square Garden — a thriving subplot is the alleged bad blood between these two renegade academics with big brains and big followings.
You know how in the old days a cowboy would challenge a murky antagonist to a draw at high noon? That’s kind of how this started. Only the setting wasn’t a dusty saloon. Peterson issued his challenge to Zizek via tweet last year, after taking exception to an essay the Slovenian philosopher wrote for the Independent that painted the Canadian professor as a ridiculous alarmist prone to half-truths: “ … not only is he often relying on unverified theories, but the big problem is the paranoiac construct which he uses to interpret what he sees as facts.”
Paranoiac construct? Them be fightin’ words in the New West.
The official rubric is, “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism.” Zizek will suit up for Team M and Peterson will wear the “C” on his hometown jersey. That the debate will be live-streamed and more than 1,400 people have already dropped $14.95 for pay-per-view access suggests capitalism has won even before the opening arguments.
If Bernie Sanders is a millionaire, what’s left to debate?
But while this tweedy tilt does not lend itself to any catchy Thrilla in Manila sloganeering — Cerebral Fracas in the 6ix! — the bad blood may be overstated.
Don’t take my word for it.
“I find it strange that our debate is proclaimed ‘the debate of the century,’” Zizek told me this week. “Whom, then, do I represent in this debate? The liberal left? In the last years, they are attacking me almost as much as him.”
Here’s something else that’s fascinating. I’m told Peterson, the capitalist in this mouth melee, has been studying. But Zizek, the Marxist in this tonsil tussle, is approaching this nerd combat like it’s a Cosmo quiz about Game of Thrones.
As he confesses: “I am not really preparing. I am just imagining how to briefly present my position. My problem is not to ‘beat’ him, but to make palpable to the public my position, which differs from his, but also from the politically correct one.”
I know. That sounds like the opposite of trash talk.
So if you’re attending or streaming on Good Friday, calibrate your expectations accordingly. Maybe this will be a “brawl between iconoclastic philosophers,” as the Economist recently predicted. Or maybe it will end with two scholars hugging it out and vowing to join forces like Marvel superheroes as they battle a global cabal of PC outrage mobs and character assassins.
I have no idea. But if Peterson is preparing and Zizek is not, I feel compelled to level the playing field. So at this point, please welcome Mikhaila Peterson, Jordan’s 27-year-old daughter. My thesis is as follows: the best way to win a debate against someone is to get inside tips from his or her loved ones.
And as it turns out, Mikhaila has triumphed in a number of debates against her father, including one time when she dropped out of Concordia and enrolled in a cosmetics program at George Brown.
“My mom was all for ‘Do what you want to do,’” says Mikhaila, who now serves as chief executive of Luminate Psychological Enterprises, a group of companies that handles the worldwide Jordan B. Peterson enterprise, including books, lectures, tours, podcasts, media and development of an online university.
“But my dad wanted me to do something more academic. Learning makeup is the least academic thing you can do. So that took a lot of convincing.”
Think about that for a minute, Zizek. Peterson, now one of the most famous professors in the world, lost an argument to his daughter about education. That’s like Tim Cook losing an argument about the iPhone. Granted, Mikhaila lasted one semester at makeup school before realizing he was right and it wasn’t for her.
But she won the original debate by devising an airtight case.
“In order to win that argument, I had to come up with a number of really honest reasons about why I thought this was good for me and good for people around me,” she explains. “You need to make an argument where there aren’t any lies or half-truths. The reasons also can’t include resentment. He will see that, too.”
As a child, Mikhaila was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis. She started giving herself Etanercept injections at the age of 8. In high school, she had surgery to replace a hip and ankle. She also suffered from chronic fatigue and depression.
“I would put on makeup and it was kind of like a mask,” she says. “As long as I looked good on the outside, even if I didn’t feel good on the inside, I could portray that. So my argument was, ‘Ok, I want to go into makeup because I want to help people who are miserable on the inside feel good about themselves on the outside.’
“It was a solid argument.”
More recently, it was Mikhaila who convinced her father to adopt her “all-meat” diet, which apparently has also done wonders for his health. So for the last year, father and daughter are basically living inside a steak house commercial. She consumes about 1.5 pounds of red meat per day, while Jordan puts back 3.5 pounds. Sometimes, just to mix things up, they’ll break out the ribs, liver or chuck roast.
Are you reading this, Zizek? Peterson has lost debates over vegetables and eyeliner. You hit him with a few uppercuts on Hegelianism or dialectical materialism and it’s game over. As Mikhaila observes of her father’s biggest weakness as a debater: “Sometimes he can be too agreeable. I’ve found if I argue with him about something long enough, and I push and push and push, sometimes he will let me have it.”
Not that she’s giving Zizek much of a chance to do any rhetorical pushing.
“Dad has been studying Marxism since he was, I don’t know, 16 or 18. I don’t know how long Zizek has been studying Marxism. But, hopefully, he’s been studying capitalism for just as long.”
Finally, some decent trash talk.
As for her father’s oratory strengths, Mikhaila cites a “verbal fluency that is off the charts” and “an incredible ability to argue one part of something and then connect it 20 minutes later to another part of an argument.”
Still, she concedes Zizek is a “worthy opponent.”
The philosopher has written more than 50 books and was almost elected president of his native Slovenia. Meanwhile, Peterson, who is now on an unpaid leave of absence from the University of Toronto, continues to ride a global tsunami of fame as his 2018 self-help book, 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos, has sold more than 3 million copies and led to endless new opportunities.
“Zizek is a prominent, pro-Marxist figure,” says Mikhaila. “And Dad obviously believes that’s the worst ideology out there. So this will be interesting.”
Indeed. But I remain confused by the framework. Both men have been openly dismissive of “happiness” in the past. That’s when Mikhaila says something that may startle organizers and attendees on Friday: “I’m not entirely sure if the debate has much to do with happiness.”
Makes sense. While these two have sharp ideological differences and seem unlikely to ever go on a Mediterranean cruise together, they will be sharing a spotlight at a time when weighty issues are increasingly migrating from academia to popular culture via long-form podcasting, YouTube and a mass deep dive into the classics.
Peterson and Zizek are supplying a demand for ideas.
And this must make them happy.
Vinay Menon is the Star’s pop culture columnist based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @vinaymenon