The recent stage performances from Jordan B. Peterson and Slavoj Žižek gave us the chance to put athletes, reality stars and Hollywood sequels aside for a moment.
Public debates have been pushed aside as personal entertainment consumption has taken over our free time in the past century. Sure, we had Kennedy v Nixon for a TV first. CNN gave us our first taste of a live YouTube political debate in 2007. But these men and women are running for public office which comes with obvious direct consequences to us, the debate viewers.
But are we so different from those listening at the Greek Agora hearing opinions on how best to live? How to work together with those of different opinions? What is a ‘good’ life? These questions seem just as important to individuals today as they did 2,500 years ago.
So we jump back to 2019 Toronto where locals were spending more to see two popular thought leaders philosophically check each other than they were to watch their beloved Leafs in an NHL playoff series.
Unlike the political binary we are used to, Peterson and Žižek are not necessarily on opposite sides. The naive topic of debating happiness allowed for both men to attack and defend many topics as they saw fit. The platform allowed them both to express some of their key beliefs to a much wider audience. But our media seemed to treat their meeting as something quite different. It was going to be the Debate of the Century some said. It was Capitalism vs Marxism for all the marbles. This cheapened the real value one could glean from their two and a half hours on stage.
Below, I’ve paraphrased some of the most outstanding lines from both of them. I don’t agree with everything below, but I believe the spirit of debate is to get people thinking and talking. These lines should have that effect.
SZ 39:00*- Dr. Peterson and I are both marginalized figures. It’s funny we’ve been chosen to represent these two sides of this debate.
JP 9:15- When reading, we must ask ourselves IS THIS TRUE? What are the counter arguments?
JP 10:30- A lot of ideas are wrong. You must assault them as best you can and see if they survive.
SZ 40:00- [on Marxism or Capitalism leading to the most happiness] China’s story makes this debate absurd. They proven the greatest growth with totalitarianism and capitalism. They strive for the greatest happiness the most of its citizens and a harmonious society.
SZ 41:10- Happiness should not be our goal. It’s a confused notion.
JP 16:30- Humans struggled to exist in a cruel, natural world for thousands of years. These struggles weren’t necessarily linked to economic structures. Back then and now it’s hard to clearly divide the class binary.
SZ 44:40- Bad people will always do bad things. And good people will always do good things. Religion tells us that it can get bad people to do good things. But it is unique in getting some very good people to do some very bad things.
SZ 46:05- Don’t fall in love with your suffering. It’s not proof of your authenticity.
SZ 49:25- We are telling ourselves stories to provide meaningful existence for our lives. These stories can be lies. The truth lies outside of us. It’s what we do that is important.
JP 28:10- Capitalism helps to limit wasted labor. The profit model helps masses not waste their labor on useless or valueless tasks.
SZ 59:00- Natural sexuality (leading to the goal of procreation) has been transfunctionalized. We now have a 24 hr porn industry, sexy clothing, and so on.
JP 31:40- Dostoyevsky’s take on human nature: We don’t want everything handed to us. Creative destruction is a human trait necessary so we can feel we are ‘living’ our lives. A chicken in every pot will not guarantee peace or happiness.
SZ 1:00:50- We often need a master figure to push us. Freedom + Responsibility require an effort. The highest function of an authentic master is to awaken us to our freedom. We are not just spontaneously free.
SZ 1:03:00- I’m pessimistic about the future. Three things that threaten the human commons: Global environment, bio genetics, and the outer problem vs. the inner self. [He gave a great example concerning refugees and how we currently are trying to fix the symptoms instead of the cause.]
So make of these what you will. As doctor Peterson says, attack these ideas to see if they can withstand your assault. And Žižek reminds us that what we believe to be our reality may be nothing more than false stories we tell ourselves to provide a meaningful existence for our lives.
These are not the only two thinkers who have opinions worth listening to. I’d love to see more debates rivaling our sporting events, Hollywood award shows, and political nonsense. Let’s roll out the red carpet for people offering us perspective without the promise of championships, trophies, or elected office.
— Mr. Curtin is a former host of Big Debates Shenzhen and frequent organizer of thinking groups across four continents.
*all time stamps are from this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=78BFFq_8XvM&t=4391s