While Toronto sports fans were glued to screens to see how their beloved Leafs and Raptors did in playoff games Friday evening, a contest of intellectual heavyweights captivated a packed crowd at the Sony Centre.
Bestselling author Jordan Peterson was debating “Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism” with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, in an event that was more than a year in the making.
In February 2018, Zizek penned a piece in the Independent, titled: “Why do people find Jordan Peterson so convincing?” in which he lambasted the University of Toronto professor, writing: “His crazy conspiracy theory about LGBT+ rights and #MeToo as the final offshoots of the Marxist project to destroy the West is, of course, ridiculous.”
In response, Peterson challenged Zizek on Twitter to a debate, saying: “If you wish to debate the validity of my ‘apparently’ scientific theories — or any of my other claims — then let me know, and we’ll arrange it …” Though Zizek is not on the social media platform, he accepted the challenge.
The tickets went on sale in March and quickly sold out, with resellers charging exorbitant fees — as much as $950 for a seat — and the debate was made available online at a cost of $14.95.
Peterson, a professor of psychology who is taking an unpaid leave from U of T, most recently authored 12 Rules for Life. He has become a cause célèbre for his many controversial opinions, and has been called a favourite of the alt-right. The format of the debate was not announced in advance, but Peterson was to argue for capitalism being the path to happiness.
Zizek, a celebrated author and philosopher, has written three books on Marxism and four on French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Like Peterson, has been a public intellectual whose many utterances have been parsed and discussed over the years.
Many Peterson events — particularly on campuses — have sparked anger and protests, but there were none at the start of Friday’s debate. Most of the people outside the venue were excited to see the two thinkers go head to head, and while some came with a favourite, many were keeping an open mind.
“I would say that I’m a fan of both, and I’d like to hear their different perspectives,” said Anna Martin, 26, a teacher. “I’m really interested in seeing how they disagree, and how they deal with each other’s disagreements, and what happens from there.”
“This is a pretty historic moment, here, so much change happening, and there’s just a lot to learn in this debate between Peterson and Zizek,” said Sam Mandalawi, 31. “There’s a big crisis of meaning, so far as happiness is concerned, and when we are trying to expand our minds and see different ways of thinking … I’m really interested in where happiness will come out more visible, in capitalism or Marxism.”
Despite Zizek being on the visiting team, he definitely had his fans, and many wondered how he would fare against his popular counterpart.
“As a Zizekian myself, I thought it was important for me to come out and support (him), as well as for entertainment,” said Firaz Khan, a 19-year-old U of T student. “I do fear that some people might not understand Zizek, because he’s not as articulate, and you have to have a base in philosopher thinkers — Heidegger, Hegel — to understand him, whereas Peterson is far more accessible.”
The debate opened 20 minutes behind schedule with an introduction by moderator Stephen Blackwood, who pointed out how unusual it is for “the country’s largest theatre (to be) packed for an intellectual debate.”
Blackwood said Peterson and Zizek are “not principally political thinkers” but they were interested in higher thinking on subjects such as “meaning, truth and freedom.”
Blackwood promised “real thinking about hard questions.”
Based on early reaction from the sold-out crowd, Peterson enjoyed a hometown advantage as the fan favourite.
He opened the night by saying a “stagehand” had just informed him that tickets for the night’s event were being sold by scalpers for a higher price than Friday’s Leafs-Bruins playoff game. “I don’t know what to make of that.”
Raju Mudhar is a Toronto-based reporter covering popular culture at the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @rajumudhar
Brendan Kennedy is a Toronto-based investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @BKennedyStar