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  • Rick Repetti

Jordan Peterson vs. Slavoj Žižek: Observations about the Debate and Its Critics

Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek recently engaged in a public debate about capitalism, socialism, and happiness. I thought it was excellent, for many reasons, but primarily because both of them are targets of what strike me as often unwarranted criticism because they both think independently of what their associated ideologues would consider politically correct in their respective corners of intellectual space, and because they both rose above their own group's negative portrayals of each other in order to engage in a public long-form debate about important issues, thereby illustrating the possibility for the rest of us. I am sympathetic to what most of them said, and find myself difficult to classify politically these days precisely because of that. Perhaps I'm political non-binary or political-fluid, to borrow phraseology from Gender Studies. This writing is the first of what I expect will be a few pieces on this debate. This installment will be restricted to a critique of some of the standard criticisms typically levelled against Peterson, some of which are already all over the Internet.

One illustrative example is a hit piece against both of them, from a socialist perspective, entitled "The Fool and the Madman," by Sam Miller and Harrison Fluss (in the April 20, 2019 issue of Jacobin). I will not review their assertions on their merits, per se, and my rationale for not doing so consists of an appeal to an aspect of the evidentialist principle articulated insightfully by Christopher Hitchens: if a claim is presented without evidence, one needs no reason to dismiss it. Many of the claims made by Miller and Harrison, among many others of their ilk, fall into this category. However, when the way such claims are made counts as fallacious, it is useful to point out how they count as fallacies. Nor will I focus on their article, although I will say a few things about it. Rather, it is simply one sample that readers may refer to if they suspect that there are no actual critics making these sorts of claims. Instead, I will focus on the fallacious claims being made by many if not most of the critics of this debate. But first a few remarks about Miller and Harrison.

I find much more fault in the many critical analyses of the debate than I found in the debate itself, including Miller and Harrison's analysis. The title of Miller and Harrison's piece alone betrays that it is a hit job: The Fool and the Madman." The body of the text proves that reading correct. Only it’s a hit job by two intellectual white belts, in my assessment, against two grand master martial artists—an unimpressive blend of rhetoric, hyperbole, and fallacies (straw man being a prominent example). But those who share the white belts’ ideological perspectives will likely find enough in terms of familiar echoes to enable them to dismiss the insights of these two giants and go back to the comfort of their previous beliefs. That these two typically opposed major characters could engage in the sort of fruitful exchange that the white belts address is something very hopeful in terms of depolarizing collaborative inquiry, but the white belts not only didn’t mention it or seem to notice it, but implicitly trashed it. Of course, their obvious pro-socialist bent (and some similar credentials) reveal a bias threatened by both colossal speakers, so defending their pet ideology seems more important to them than supporting the opportunity to heal the great divide. The irony of their relative smallness—like dogs barking at a passing caravan— most probably escapes them.

Defenders of Marx, post-Modernism, identity politics, and the far left in general’s dismissal of Peterson’s critique of the far left—on grounds that he is just an opportunist, alt-right type who is not fluent in the latest Continental philosophy and Grievance Studies type iterations of those ideologies, among similar objections—commit a blend of the following informal logical fallacies: attacking the illustration, trivial objection, appeal to authority, ad hominem, and straw man. It is these fallacies that I will focus on for the remainder of this article. Žižek himself commits a few of them.

Attacking the Illustration: Many—Miller and Harrison, and Žižek, included—object that Peterson's knowledge of Marxism is sophomoric, and that his reliance on one unrepresentative text evidences that. Peterson’s use of Marx's The Communist Manifestois simply a scholarly attempt to ground his critique in the most primary text of the ideology (to illustrate that the ideology has historical textual roots, which is a preemptive move against the sort of objection Žižek made in demanding Peterson give actual names and texts of post-Modern Marxists guilty of his critique). Thus, that there may be other, more recent, more sophisticated, or more representative iterations of the ideology to be found in other texts does not undermine Peterson's use of that text. That would be like objecting to the use of the Torahas the grounds to critique monotheism because there are differences to be found in the New Testament, the Q'uran, or the Book of Mormon. So what? The Communist Manifestoneed not be the perfect target for a critique of Marxism for the critique to be valid. Thus, to attack the use of The Communist Manifestoas an erroneous target for a critique of Marxism constitutes a form of attacking the illustration—finding flaws with the illustration when such flaws, even if accurately described as flaws, do not undermine the point such an illustration is being used not to establish, but merely to illustrate. This fallacy is analogous to a bull's attacking the red flag instead of the bull fighter.

Trivial Objection: Peterson's critique is more foundational than this or that text or thinker and applies to a widespread ideology among the far left that transcends the particular moments/individuals in political/intellectual history that have shaped it, and which is broadly entrenched in academia, the media, the Democratic party, Hollywood, etc. Thus, pointing to this or that distinction between The Communist Manifestoand various later iterations of the ideology when such distinctions do not undermine the critique is a case of trivial objection—objecting to differences or discrepancies in the argument at issue that do not bear on the validity or soundness of that argument. This fallacy is analogous to someone objecting that an argument to the effect that European colonialism was one of the most impactful forms of racist exploitation of peoples of color in the modern era, on the grounds that the person making the objection used the Anglicized name of Cristoforo Colombo, but that was not his real name.

Appeal to Authority: The above objections implicitly attempt to paint Peterson as lacking historical knowledge and intellectual expertise in the subject matters that constitute the targets of his criticism, implicitly appealing to named and/or unnamed authorities who allegedly have different views about the subjects than Peterson does, as if their authority as exponents of these ideologies thereby invalidates his critique of those ideologies. This constitutes a subtle form of the fallacy of appeal to authority—some authorities disagree with you, and therefore you are wrong. This fallacy is analogous to objecting that a critique of the theory of white fragility is wrong simply because Robin D'Angelo, the author of that theory, disagrees with the critique.

Ad Hominem: Critics of Peterson's critiques of these ideologies tend to depict him as an intentionally devious Trojan Horse defender of the white male patriarchy, misogyny, toxic masculinity, the alt-right, white supremacy, and so on, committing a very straightforward ad hominem fallacy—the fallacy of redirecting attention away from the speaker's argument to the character of the speaker, attempting to impugn the speaker's character and thus to dismiss his argument. This fallacy is analogous to dismissing an otherwise sound argument for the legalization of medical marijuana on the grounds that the person making the argument happens to use medical marijuana.

Straw Man: Critics of Peterson's critiques of these ideologies tend to roll together the above fallacious objections to his critiques into a mischaracterized caricature of Peterson as an under-informed, factually inaccurate, intellectually sloppy, motivationally suspicious, alt-right advocate of all things evil, and to then attribute to him decontextualized versions of his arguments that give the appearance that he is advocating things like forced monogamy, unequal pay, and related distortions of ideas negatively associated with the alt-right, instead of directly assessing his libertarian arguments, say, about the sovereignty of the individual or the dangers of treating everyone on the basis of their group identities. This is a straw man fallacy—the fallacy of mischaracterizing the opponent's position and then attacking that mischaracterization as if one is attacking the opponent's actual position. This fallacy is analogous to beating up a poster of Mike Tyson and acting as if you beat up Mike Tyson.

Žižek is not to blame for all of the above fallacies committed by those viewers of the debate who likely side more with him than with Peterson, but he did commit the fallacies of attacking the illustration, trivial objection, and appeal to authority. To Peterson's dialectical credit, he did not commit any fallacies, nor did he fall for any during the debate. Regarding his allegedly faulty use of The Communist Manifesto as an illustration of a primary text embodying the principles he was critiquing, Peterson made it clear he was attacking foundational premises to be found there but which remain part of the ideology under critique, and that the ideology transcends the text—without explicitly identifying the fallacy of attacking the illustration, graciously. Regarding his allegedly faulty focus on The Communist Manifesto, which implicitly ignores distinctions to be found in later iterations of the ideology, Peterson made it clear that those distinctions are irrelevant to his criticisms of the ideology—without explicitly identifying the fallacy of trivial objection, graciously. Regarding the implicit appeal to the alleged authority of named and unnamed exponents of the ideology under critique, Peterson simply emphasized the validity of his own arguments, implicitly dismissing implications to the effect that he lacked the requisite authority to counter those alleged experts—without explicitly identifying the fallacy of appeal to authority, graciously.

Much more may be said about this debate, and will be said. Admittedly, here I am only critiquing the critics of Peterson, including Žižek. But I should say that I was also impressed by Žižek's gracious manner in the deployment of most of his criticisms of Peterson's views, and I was not surprised—as many seem to have been—to see that they agree on most of the things they discussed. What was much more impressive was the fact that they both seemed to be genuinely interested in engaging in real debate—not to win, but to figure out what to believe. That is the greatest take-away, for me, from this debate: it shows that strong, presumably opposed voices can collaborate in genuine inquiry about such matters. They both made concerted efforts to point out when they realized they were in agreement on various matters, and to very respectfully disagree about what few things they disagreed about, in what struck me as a spirit of authentic curiosity about each other's views and an equal respect for each other's intelligence and integrity. If only their relatively petty critics could rise to that level in their criticism of these intellectual giants.

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