There is a trend in reading intellectual debate as boxing matches, with all the speculation, pre-hype and post-match discussion by both camps of fans. This thought never left me after noticing how much the German Wikipedia page for the Positivism dispute looked like the analysis of such a fight. This analogy comes home to roost in the Zizek-Peterson-debate, which today (19.04.2019) will be live streamed via a 14,95$ pay-per-view (not to speak of the prohibitively expensive tickets) and has fans already trudge up their memories of the last big Rocky vs Creed fight, in this case Chomsky vs Foucault. Stories of the two combattants are being told to build a complete narrative. The old eastern block veteran, whose zenith might be over as exemplified by this fight even happening. Who, in a show of dominance, announced not training ahead of fight day. On the other side, the overly serious “dark professor”, whose methods might be illicit, getting fans ready to cry foul on the field. There have been reactions to, among others, the framing of the debate around “happiness” as a comparative term for socialism and capitalism, so we know the ring has been analysed and measured. There are comments as to where this might end up, maybe with a little too much clinching in the form of violently agreeing on the apparent plague of PC culture.


I can’t help feeling sympathetic to Peterson at times. From absurdly commonsensical advice like “pet a cat when you encounter one on the street” to the exact same quirk I have of supplementing every story I tell with half-true animal factoids. He seems to have just hit the spot with the movement of right-wing internet “skeptics”, who fresh off the atheism-scientism train of smug self-satisfaction with a lack of knowledge in religion and myth, opened a new industry of ersatz mysticism. We have Sam Harris writing about meditation and mindfulness between podcasts with certified bell curve racist Charles Murray. Joe Rogan’s weed bro rants about us “being naked monkeys living on a rock flying through space, man” are required listening and pull guests like Elon Musk, Neil deGrasse Tyson, James Hetfield and, right, Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson. Into this industry of tending to the self-created void of meaning steps Jordan Peterson, who sold the prolonged version of a motivational quora-shitpost to Penguin (the foreword of 12 Rules for Life acknowledges this) to great success and became a Patreon millionaire. By now he wants to build an alternative to Patreon following their banning of Carl “Sargon of Akkad” Benjamin for using the N-word with abandon. This is apparently a free-speech issue (we’ll come back to this), as is his opposition to Bill C-16, which adds gender and gender expression to legal protection from hate crimes, a bill Peterson fundamentally misunderstands. 1 2


Zizek has a good point. He always has a point, and it is always a good point. Nobody shows more than Zizek that having a good point might not be the most important thing, and with that public intellectuals, as his toothlessly good points get washed away in the inflation of points - repeated, replicated, self-imitating good points, with diminishing return of what a good point is or does. He looks either at movies or the news and then talks about Lacan and/or Marx. His analyses of Hegel are pretty good, but definitely not why he became relevant or this debate came to be.

It’s so PC it’s killing me

Peterson has (like most of his “intellectual dark web” and “own the libs” brethren) warned of the very dangerous effects of political correctness. Zizek has, after an unusually controversial and unpopular article about transgender identity, expressed frustration with the “days when I was able to publish comments in The Guardian and occasionally even in New York Times” being over. In that, they are both perfect representatives of what actually drives this debate. They want their writing to be widely and reputably distributed and are afraid of that not happening. And I think that is what this debate is actually about, adopting a problem of the system of mass media as a purely ideal debate over principle. Mass media is the instrument that has to periodically fear and take into consideration what can and can not be published, what is libel, discriminatory etc. It is a system that likes to expand its reach and perceives every regulation of that as deleterious. This is where the shape of what is correct, what is allowed, what is hate, what is protected speech, has actual relevance in action and profits. It is, as Dan Harmon says, an appliance. A toaster wants everything in your house to be toasted, TV wants for you to consume more TV. If you, as a private person, don’t insist on the hobby of doing the Hitler salute, you are usually fine. This is not a “cui bono” conspiracy theory, as the dispersion of topics and themes within mass media not being controllable or easily regulatable is exactly the problem at the center of this essay. This is an attempt to not provide a hidden-hand but an invisible-hand explanation. This is about who is under pressure to select topics and problems in the press, if not the press. Maybe the problem of not being an arsehole to the person sitting right next to you is not exactly the same as the problem of what to say and what agenda to set as a publication. Maybe, if we start from the idea of society being bigger than its composite parts, we can also come to think of society as more than simply a group, but bigger. This would mean that the rules of conduct between actual people in face-to-face interaction don’t neatly scale to the level of mass media. The Salons of old that shaped this discourse might just not have been correct about the similarities between their living room and the public sphere. This would also mean that “how to treat people nicely” and the symbolic exchange in media discourse are two distinct problems. That’s a proposition that sounds more common-sense than it is in actuality.

In a sense Zizek and Peterson play the same Media Hustle of out-there propositions and shock, getting invited to pretty much every outlet to explain those exact propositions, coming up with a new take, repeat, and so on. The way they handle the post-hot-take fallout puts them in stark contrast to each other, though. Where Zizek’s modus operandi is “and I really mean that”, after takes like “as a leftist, I think Trump should win” or “Lenin was sometimes good I guess”, Jordan Peterson will stretch plausible deniability to its very limits, his m.o. being the petulant “I didn’t say that” - most notably in his Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman (who he would later more or less indirectly call a psychopath - but he didn’t say that. That whole clip is a masterclass in not understanding how media works, and how things might change when the lights go on). The fact that Zizek is not afraid of having crazy positions, while Peterson cultivates an army of fans who will school you on having to have the context of tens of hours of online lectures for every one sentences and what Jordan truly means when he is “just saying” shows the very different approaches to mass media. Zizek revels in being an agent provocateur and acting subversively on every outlet and TV show, in like 80 books with repeating arguments - he has been playing that game so much that even his subversion can be reduced to a formula of 1. take a sentiment critical of society 2. flip it on its head to get a partially paradoxical, partially gotcha kind of critique on the more naive culture critics (like his reversal of the visual metaphor in They Live, or his insistence of the need for a third pill in the matrix). This lines up with Zizek showing no interest in “winning” the debate, but using the platform to communicate a position that he finds unpopular for both sides. A Signal is a signal, regardless of context and intent. Zizek signals subversion. For Peterson, however, free speech is about voice, about audible utterance and the responsibility of its originator. Disregarding context, misrepresenting an idea is then the ultimate crook move, and misrepresentation for Peterson means “saying I said something that I did not literally say verbatim”. Which leaves the field to his wild implications and “I’m just saying, isn’t this interesting?”, because when it comes to randomly conjuring up a fact and not another, questions of context don’t seem that important anymore. The difference might be summed up as using hype vs. believing your own hype

To bring a bit of order into this mess, let’s introduce different levels of fear for Free Speech. As the Warnings ripple through our society, so does the mobilisation against forces allegedly attempting to curtail free speech. The fact that both Zizek and Peterson fit on this hierarchical graph betrays my idea that this is not strictly about left-wing or right-wing politics, but a fight over territory in the publishing world. Though I admit this is not not about politics, as stage 3 not only plays into the hands of conservative politics, but is part of a coordinated funding effort by right wing groups and think tanks. The American Right has really weaponised the Free Speech Hustle.

  1. light discomfort, wariness. Fear of “some groups” wanting to limit those rights that are important to a free and functioning society. Probably has heard about “something” going on on college campuses
  2. Seeing your chances of getting published minimised (“I used to be able to publish in the guardian etc.”), seeing that as a function of “PC Culture”, of a trend to calls for censorship etc. Occupied by Zizek, but also e.g. Stephen Fry
  3. Playing the game to silence criticism (lets not forget Peterson’s lawsuits against free speech. You believe that cultural marxism exists and pretend to have read Marx. The final stage of playing the free speech game purely for territorial gain in the public sphere. Closely related to owning the libs.

So desperately I sing to thee of love

Free Speech came to relevance as the problem of a new emerging Bourgeoisie circulating information about themselves to themselves through the press. That is how the question of a Free Press could become a… pressing matter. It was the usurpation, in a sense, of a medium created by the (monarchic) state to efficiently disperse information, read: state propaganda. This propaganda, in itself, shouldn’t be considered an imposition in a time where the alternatives were the interests of the state and clergy and the harmless esoterics of the universities. And the emerging Bourgeoisie started by practicing the muscle of critical reason where it didn’t have to prove its pragmatic use at the very same time. Meaning: It started with the practice of literary discussion, of developing and distinguishing taste. And only this well-practiced and well-read strata could be the one to start using something as self-referential as the bourgeois press, and use it for actual political interest in state affairs. The idea of an independent press could only exist in an estate that did not have a history, that learned how to call claims to civility from nobility while having none of these merits by birth.

One of the important points of this emerging public sphere, following Habermas, is that participation was tied to ownership, symbolising self-ownership with it. The tying of voice to ownership is, to him, not only the restriction of other voices, but the included voices are given weight by their direct tie to the material reproduction of society. The sphere of the ideal, the contest of ideas is only possible if compensated for in the material. In that metaphor of weight, today’s voices in the public sphere are lightweight ideas and hover over society, whereas the people with material weight and outsize power just outright buy those voices.

If you complain on TV, if you have the means (and additional financial backing) to found an alternative to a platform you don’t like, I fail to see the threat to free speech. If protesting students disrupt the talk you get paid to give, I fail to see the threat to free speech. If you are on the side that has organisations fund groups to make memes, I don’t see the threat to your free speech.

I think a functional rethinking of what the free speech debate is, is in order. Of whose fights we are actually fighting here, whose burdens we carry in our daily lives by thinking of something as a transcendent principle. And of whether there is political action and political learning to be done that is about relations not reducible to mass media’s one-to-many distribution of information. Just like sociology professors are, in closed rooms, very ready to talk functionally about the pros and cons of democracy and authoritarian state bureaucracies (latter can address societal ills very quickly and without the delays of democratic process, while the former is more receptive and attune to what those societal ills are in the broad populous and where they spring up, being in that sense, better at social control) we can talk about free speech and its uses in a non-committed way, thinking of it as something other than a holy first principle of every vocal utterance.

And we won’t get that from these two muppets.