Downtime

There Is No One to Cheer for in the Potential Battle Between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek

Left-wing trolling, or right-wing trolling?

Slavoj Žižek and Jordan Peterson head-to-head, wearing boxing gloves. Their faces are emerging from smartphone screens, with Twitter birds flitting between them.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Aaron Harris/Getty Images, Gage Skidmore, and Hermes Rivera on Unsplash.

Ladies, gentlemen, friends beyond the binary: It. Is. On. Please gird all applicable body parts for the Ivory Tower Tussle ’Twixt the Twin Towering Titans of contemporary intellect: Hegelian-Marxist critical theorist Slavoj Žižek and psychology professor/be-vested men’s rights worship-object Jordan Peterson.

According to a report in RT (formerly Russia Today) about a “philosopher fight”—a misnomer, since that presupposes the presence of at least one philosopher—apparently Žižek threw down on both Peterson and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker in a recent talk at Cambridge, calling them out as members of what is surely a long and storied enemies list and getting in a few dunks on Peterson’s preference for the term “cultural Marxism”—which, of course, is a neo-Nazi-friendly coinage meaning “Jews.”

Not one to let polite English tittering ring out unanswered, Peterson linked to the RT report and offered the following rejoinder: “Any time, any place, Mr. Zizek.”

Jordan Peterson's tweet: "Any time, any place, Mr. Zizek."

The Twitterverse seems to think that Peterson has challenged Žižek to something as pedestrian as a debate, a battle of word wills, a cuck’s blathering contest, to see whose incessant use of alienating jargon first makes the audience beg in unison for a gas leak. But look closer, friends. Not only has Peterson used the classic “any” spatiotemporal designation best suited for fisticuffs—one cannot, after all, hold a boring-ass debate in “any” place but a well-lit auditorium with decent acoustics and maybe also a sound system, because my PowerPoint has embedded video in it, does yours too?—but he has also deliberately referred to the multicredentialed Slovene as “Mr.”, which everyone with an earned doctorate knows is the intellectual’s equivalent of a glove-slap.

Jordan Peterson doesn’t want to debate. Jordan Peterson eats literally nothing but beef. He wants to throw. The eff. Down. Which, of course, brings us to the Backpfeifengesicht Paradox. Backpfeifengesicht, pronounced BOCK-pfie-fen-guh-ZIKT, is one of those there-must-be-a-German-word-for-it German words: Literally translating to “jowl-whistling face,” it refers to a person whose visage begs to be punched so hard it whistles.* And therein lies the rub: Is the satisfaction of watching one Backpfeifengesicht get it in the punim outweighed by the fact that another Backpfeifengesicht is the one doing the backpfeife-ing?

For whom does one cheer in this melee of the self-satisfied Ph.D.s of the far ends of the political spectrum? The guy who vociferously defended the indefensible New York University professor Avital Ronell, or the guy who threatened to sue a feminist philosopher for hurting his feelings? The guy who ironically endorsed Trump because he thought a Trump presidency would be hilarious, or the guy who thinks Trump’s smart? The guy who calls his own students “boring idiots,” or the guy who gleefully refuses to call his students by their own pronouns? The guy who chooses to use his considerable intellect entirely in the service of left-wing trolling, or the guy who chooses to use his considerable intellect entirely in the service of right-wing trolling?

With which questionable cheering section does one seat oneself—the rabid incels who declare all their naysayers unbangable hags, or the sebum-saturated grad students who call anyone who doesn’t quote The Phenomenology of Spirit on their Tinder profile a fascist? I won’t choose, I won’t, you can’t make me.

Because a Peterson/Žižek throwdown would demonstrate precisely one Rule for Life, and it is this: If two individuals crawl out far enough onto a limb of sociopolitical identity, either the left or the right one, those limbs will bend and bend until they meet, in the exact precise location of the continuum—the “time and place,” as it were—where no reasonable human should ever want to be. And yet, my fellow face-whistlers, here we are.

Correction, Dec. 21, 2018: This story originally mistranslated the German term Backpfeifengesicht. In fact, the German word Backe refers not to the jaw but to the lower half of the cheek, or the jowl, which whistles when a punchable person is punched in the face.