What we know as debate today is a Trumpian debacle of factual errors and logical fallacies that affronts common sense but makes an excellent drinking game.
After all, why should we treat an argument with an online troll like some ancient, sophisticated art form when our opponent's only goal is attention? The recent exchange between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek is the quintessential example of the vacuous, turgid prose that passes for public discourse these days. From presidential debates to masturbatory stand-offs between self-aggrandizing personalities, we only tune in to sate voyeuristic impulses, not intellectual ones.
How did we arrive at this moment, when arguing has become spectacle in the same way gladiatorial violence once was—a voyeuristic craving for war?
In the public, live-streamed event titled "Happiness: Capitalism vs. Marxism," Peterson, a professor of clinical psychology and "bevested men's rights worship-object" faced off with Žižek, the Slovenian Marxist who's the "Elvis of cultural theory." Both men are self-fashioned renegades from academic tradition (despite Peterson having applied and received a fellowship from Cambridge University—which was rescinded after students staged a mass protest). Both men have strangely carved out reputations in mainstream culture by marketing their PhDs as kitschy taglines, selling their worldviews as irreverent satire (Žižek) or self-help philosophies (Peterson). Peterson's 12 Rules for Life is a best-seller meant to save "the masculine spirit under assault" and a codification of the self-inflated speeches he posts on YouTube for his hundreds of thousands of followers. Žižek wrote and starred in The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, a feature documentary comprised of iconic movie scenes onto which he superimposes footage of himself analyzing their Marxist undertones.
In truth, each man is a caricature of a public intellectual—entertainers rather than leaders. They both excel in provoking strong reactions from their detractors. To many, Peterson is nothing more than an anti-PC muppet come to life (imagine if Kermit got really into race science), while Žižek reminds some of a "raccoon who lived in a dumpster behind a university's library who was transformed into a human by a witch" (and thanks to his film career, you can watch him drown in Titanic).
Accordingly, the sold-out debate was nothing more than a spectacle of the two men performing their bits as eccentric academics—a particular celebrity niche (or "archetype," as Peterson might say) created by today's Intellectual Dark Web. The event was heavily promoted online, with ticket prices soaring as high as $1,500 thanks to sycophantic fans and over-hyped advertising through the event's website, Peterson's own YouTube channel, and a deluge of critical think-pieces lamenting the state of academia, public debate, and media itself. That's not to mention the buzz on Reddit and Twitter, ranging from laudations to ridicule.
At one point in the debate, Peterson even turned to Žižek and said, "You're a character. It's a sign of originality. It's a sign of moral courage." It was one of the man's many masturbatory comments, which included ranking himself and Žižek among the greatest "rebel" minds in Western critical theory.
So what was the point? Initially, Peterson took to Twitter to call out Žižek for an excoriating article he wrote for The Independent, in which he panned Peterson's inflated reputation as pseudo-intellectual nonsense: "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." The final product was, at best, a pair of dull, oral book reports wherein they regurgitated their most tired points. At worst, it was the death of civil discourse—in that it repelled critical engagement through Peterson's condescending circumlocution and Žižek's frenetic jumps from point to point.
But what did we, as a society, do to deserve this?
To begin with, modern media killed the art of nuanced argumentation a long time ago. Sure, there was a time when debate was an art form—more than that, even, it was a public service. But the days of Aristotle's rhetoric, along with the belief in spirited, two-sided debate, was doomed by the advent of visual media, which quickly dominated our attention spans and dulled our appreciation of nuance. In the oft-cited example of the first televised presidential debates on September 26, 1960, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy faced off in front of 70 million viewers. The next evening, The New York Times reviewed, "For the most part, the exchanges were distinguished by a suavity, earnestness and courtesy that suggested that the two men were more concerned about 'image projection' to their huge television audience than about scoring debating points." Still, the young, good-looking, and telegenic Kennedy was overwhelmingly considered the winner; he took office the following January. In contrast, Nixon was pale, sweaty, and recovering from recent illness (in addition to being over a decade older than Kennedy), but in retrospect he's largely regarded as having more substantive and thoughtful answers. Too bad he was ugly; America had to wait an extra eight years for Watergate.
In a similar debacle, anyone viewing the Peterson/Žižek debate inevitably tuned out Peterson's reedy voice and Žižek's slobbery jokes to take notice of the psychologist's tailored suit and the critic's disheveled polo. While Žižek attempted to give short dissertations on his every insight into happiness, Marxism, and capitalism, Peterson extended the same three points into litanies of statistics and mispronounced attacks on "absurd" and "bloody" "foolish" ideas like class struggle, inequality, and climate change. There were no winners in this "dark human low point" in public discourse.
Another reason we treat the act of debate as spectacle and performance is our irony-saturated culture, whose premiums on satire and cynicism preclude genuine, productive, and collaborative discussion. Writer and critic Hilton Als notes, "The majority of us are not whole individuals, because there is no such thing as a whole society." Today's most prominent minds are ranting talking heads on Fox News and cynical cultural critics spinning irony into a new form of sincerity. Public sentiment is driven by outrage and bad faith arguments. Even Congressional committee meetings are akin to daytime television: Nancy Pelosi is like the Democrats' version of Supernanny, while Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a young, irate Judge Judy trying to arbitrate GOP idiocy. How could argument be a public good—a test of one's principles and thoughtful civil engagement—when you can just @ someone on Twitter?
But it's not all our fault. In a time when feeling alienated is such a universal experience, even language breaks down; now, we're making up words as we go, from "post-humanism" and "irony poisoning" to "subtweet." The very foundation of language primes us to play dirty. In 1980, American philosopher George Lakoff and linguist Mark Johnson upended the notion that linguists have nothing interesting to say when they published Metaphors We Live By. Its opening premise is that we, as a society, are predisposed to conflate disagreements with aggression: "Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war...We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack."
Currently, with our country at its most politically divided since the Civil War, Lakoff comes off as an observer of the obvious. He penned, "The ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing. Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way." Of course we can't; we've seen too many presidential debates and Trumpian Twitter feuds.
NEITHER Peterson or Zizek's intellectual forebearsModern Met
But a culture that thrives on making mockeries of itself is without substance—without a future. By going through the motions of exchanging ideas with these facsimiles of public debate, we stifle ourselves and the hope of social progress. The revered and bloated French Marxist, Guy Debord, wrote in The Society of the Spectacle that deeply divided societies suffer the loss of their common language and their ability to communicate. He argues that the "self-destruction of society's former common language is opposed by its artificial reconstruction within the commodity spectacle, the illusory representation of nonlife." In effect, imagine a world where there are more imitations of ideas than genuine ideas—sounds like being irony poisoned by Twitter.
Of course, that's not to say the jokes aren't good, with descriptions of the Peterson/Žižek debate capturing the "dueling smells [of] Žižek's bread crusts forgotten in his pockets battling with Peterson's 100% meat sweats." But the instant gratification, the blood thirst for a fight, and the spectacle of outrage isn't worth the devolution of society's thought processes. The recycled jokes, pop psychology, and telegenics at play in Toronto's Sony Centre created what Žižek would call the ultimate postmodern debate: it was an injection of pure antagonism into modern life. With no purpose other than disruption and discontent, it was a performance of online celebrity and turning thought into a commodity. It was painful, but perfectly representative of our time.
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