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What Jordan Peterson’s Conversation with Destiny Can Teach Us


Paradoxically, as the amount of online content available for consumption increases, conversations with as interesting a dynamic range as the one between Peterson and Destiny seem fewer and farther between.”

The other night, my husband and I settled in on the couch—full snacks and blankets mode—to experience a monumental media event. No, it was not the Oscars or the Golden Globes. It was not a football game or a State of the Union address. It was something much, I would say, better? It was the great Jordan Peterson vs. Destiny debate. Recorded in February and released on YouTube this past Thursday, this showdown had been long-anticipated by Internet standards—a few weeks—by myself and whoever else resides in the thin middle section of the Venn diagram where Peterson’s and Destiny’s audiences overlap.

It was as entertaining as I hoped it would be, and I know why. It was because I remember the term “foil” from seventh grade English class. Destiny and Peterson put on a fine show because they are perfect literary foils of one another, shedding light on the other’s distinguishing characteristics through sheer force of contrast.

In one corner, we had the notorious Peterson, who favored socialist policies in his youth and now decries big government at the conservative media outlet The Daily Wire. In the other, we had the equally infamous Destiny—Steven Bonnell for long—who once championed George-Bush-era conservative policies and now uses the X handle “TheOmniLiberal.” 

Peterson has the superpower to shoehorn the story of Cain and Abel into virtually any conversation; Destiny can be found proclaiming the virtues of atheism. Peterson’s career is studded with establishment credentials, yet now he is intensely skeptical of “establishment” anything. Destiny rose to notoriety through new media, tripping into political commentary through video game streaming, yet he is a frequent defender of the institutions Peterson decries. Peterson has said he dislikes conflict. Destiny positively enjoys it. 

Even the clothing the men wore to the event communicated difference: Peterson donned a bespoke suit jacket on the border of garish and great; Destiny, in all black athleisure, looked like he just rolled out of bed.

These juxtapositions were more than a sideshow: They critically informed every element of the approximately two-hour-long conversation that followed, which covered climate change, the Coronavirus (COVID-19), and the nature of power. All the while, they referenced psychology, philosophy, science, and religion. Ignited by the adversarial relationship of the participants, the conversation took on a narrative arc, beginning with a few fragile sparks, building into a full-blown shouting match, then settling into a satisfying resolution. 

Peterson’s and Destiny’s willingness to confront the other whenever a difference of opinion arose (and they arose frequently) exposed tendencies in each of them that are not as obvious in their less contentious videos. I noticed, for example, that Peterson often directs his attention to big-picture concerns. This leads him to find narratively interesting connections between seemingly unrelated things and imply nefarious intent where it may not exist. In reference to people who believe “there are too many people on the planet,” Peterson asks, “What makes you think that the thing that possessed you to utter those words isn’t aiming at exactly what you just declared?” Later in the discussion about climate change policy, he brings up genocide, asking, “Why should I assume that something horrible isn’t lurking like that right now?”

Destiny, on the other hand, is reluctant to venture beyond the hard facts on the ground, defaulting to dismissing ideas that smack of conspiracy. This helps him keep his feet firmly planted in observable reality and perhaps prevents him from asking fruitful questions of ideas that enjoy institutional consensus. “Every single organization in the world is motivated to call [the mRNA vaccine] out if it was a bad thing,” he said. “I think for something that was given to billions and billions of people, if this was having a measurable effect on people, it would be impossible to cover it up or ignore it.”

As heated as the debate became, a mutual generosity of spirit persisted throughout. Each participant agreed to move on when the conversation threatened to veer off a cliff, and let us not forget that each agreed to participate in the conversation in the first place. That is no small thing today.

Paradoxically, as the amount of online content available for consumption increases, conversations with as interesting a dynamic range as the one between Peterson and Destiny seem fewer and farther between. Too often, even knowledgeable commentators spend most of their time playing “yes, and” with their own ideological doppelgangers or soliciting the most psychotic figures from the other side to Destroy With Facts and Logic. Some do it because they like the sound of their own voice; others do it because finding willing interlocutors is no easy feat. Peterson himself noted the difficulty of finding left-leaning people willing to speak with him in public.

Maybe, as Destiny suggested, that is thanks to the way online incentives exacerbate tribalist tendencies, pushing us to seek refuge in niche ideological groups. Indeed, when our words and actions are visible to hundreds, if not thousands, of people and subject to cancellation campaigns that can result in real-world consequences, protecting oneself from scrutiny is a valid concern. No one wants to become the subject of the Internet’s Two Minutes Hate, as Peterson was on X and Reddit after this debate. 

But that does not mean that we should not have these conversations—or that the willingness to do so goes completely unappreciated.

The comments on the full-length version of the video, which within a few days has racked up more than a-million-and-a-half views, are almost universally positive. “The debate on vaccines and climate change was actually fun to listen to,” a typical comment reads. “I like when debate opponents actually acknowledge what the other one is saying and address it instead of running down their own dialogue tree.” Another says: “Never in my life did I think I would see this pairing, I admire the diversity of guests on this podcast.”

In contravention of received Internet wisdom, I would like to trust these comments and believe they suggest a broader hunger for challenging conversations, if not so listeners can onboard the ideas of the participants, so they can experience a wider-than-usual range of perspectives and emotions—of highs, lows, and in-between spaces. Mixing politics with entertainment is an inherently fraught thing, but when they do mix there’s substance to be found in style, and that itself can warrant our attention.

In visual art, negative space draws our eye to particular forms, shapes, and colors. In music, moments of silence heighten our attunement to sound. In conversation, differences in temperament and perspective both shed light and cast shadow, helping us see another’s characteristics in greater relief. Here, in contrast to the flat topography of our private intellectual worlds, there are peaks to climb and valleys to venture into.

It is fitting, then, that Peterson’s and Destiny’s conversation ultimately turned to the topic of conversation itself. “We’re here voluntarily. We’re trying to hash things out, and in good faith,” said Peterson. “But neither of us compelled the other to come here and neither of us are compelled to continue, and so that makes it a fair game, and a fair game is something that everyone can be invited to. And I suppose that’s something that’s neither Right nor Left.” 

Destiny added, “Rather than encouraging other people to disengage, the engagement has to happen.” 

“It cannot be: ‘I’m losing faith in the system so all of us are going to do our own thing.’ It has to be: ‘No, we’re going to be here in these conversations whether you like it or not because in a democracy sometimes the guy you don’t like wins; sometimes the policy that you don’t like is enforced; sometimes a guy you don’t like is somebody you have to share an office or a classroom with, and we need to be okay with that.'”

A conversation can function as a sedative or a call to adventure. A good conversation does the latter, acquainting us with the actual perspectives of those with whom we must coexist, forcing us to make contact with reality. A great conversation reflects us, revealing the qualities we hate in others that we are reluctant to acknowledge in ourselves.

Talia Barnes is a visual artist and writer in Pennsylvania. 

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