The Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic discusses the harm that political correctness is doing to society.
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek
Tavis: Slavoj Žižek is a renowned philosopher and cultural critic who has been dubbed the most dangerous philosopher in the west by both the New Republic and Europe’s largest magazine, Der Spiegel. Žižek has published more than 50 books translated into over 20 languages and is the subject of multiple documentaries exploring cultural, theology and political theory.
He currently serves as the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana. Correct? Say that right.
Tavis: Close enough? How would you say it.
Žižek: Ljubljana, but nobody pronounces it correctly…
Tavis: No. You do [laugh]. In his home country of Slovenia. I got that right.
Tavis: Professor Žižek, good to have you on the program.
Žižek: Thank you. I am grateful to you and honored.
Tavis: I’m honored to have you here, believe me. Honored that you’re here in the states and giving us a full show to talk to you. So I want to just pick your brain on a number of things, if I can. I think I want to start with what is obviously the leading news story in our country right now, this prevalence of gun violence.
And because your perspective is different living in a different part of the world, I wonder what there is for us, the U.S., to learn from the world about the psychosis, the psychology, of why we are so addicted to guns?
Žižek: I don’t know enough specifically about American culture to give you a good answer, but I would nonetheless tell you don’t blame yourself too much. Maybe, just maybe, that’s my modest optimist view, maybe this explosions of violence with guns and so on that you get from time to time are collateral damage of some attitude towards freedom and so on which is in itself not so bad.
You know what I mean? I think that every civilization, if you look at it closely, has its dark side, and this is what in most of my book I’m trying to elaborate.
In that sense, what appears to you as unnecessary, prohibited transgression and so on is really part of a culture, like that’s why my big experience, almost epiphany, was serving the military. I’m a very disciplined man. I like order, think, work. And the big shock for me was the chaos at least in the Yugoslav army, all the nasty rituals, unwritten rules that you have to obey and so on and so on.
So this may sound strange for someone like me who still considers himself some kind of a Marxist, no? But I always had a great admiration for United States. I think what is at the bottom of all this is a key part of–let me use this bombastic term–American ideology, a certain idea of personal freedom as the foundation of it.
As a more old-fashioned European, I think that you Americans sometimes tend to forget that, yes, personal freedoms are a wonderful thing. I do whatever I want, I walk wherever I want, I travel wherever I want. But in order for this to function, are we aware what extremely complicated level of laws, custom, manners has to be here in order to enable this.
I found two wonderful symptoms of where maybe you got it wrong. Maybe I’m crazy to mention them, but I think they tell something. When I enter an American hotel or any building, for you, first floor is what for us Europeans, is a ground floor. For us, you climb to the first floor already.
Maybe this is what’s wrong with you. You don’t see that in order to count one, two, you need the ground. Ground would be precisely the next [inaudible] of social manners and so on. Another point that amuses me, I think you are too atheist a nation. What do I mean by this? I noticed how in many hotels here, if they have more than 15 or 16 floors, you cheat–not you, but hotel managers, whatever. 13th floor doesn’t exist.
Tavis: We take out 13, right, right.
Žižek: 12 and then 13 is 14. But don’t you believe in God? Whom are you kidding? God knows that 14 is really 13. You see what I mean? What in Europe in an old-fashioned way, we call a common, ethical substance, the field of values, manners and so on, maybe you under-estimate a little bit the wake of this.
Maybe you accentuate in wrong way the radical, untouchable character of personal freedom. Now, again, individual freedom, I have nothing against it. What I’m saying is only that, brought to the end, this attitude of self-destructive because too much individual freedom destroys not socially, but destroys human freedom itself.
Tavis: I hear your point and I take that, and I’m glad you offered that expression…
Žižek: But. Go to but. When you say something like this, I see your but.
Tavis: There’s a but coming, yeah, a big but coming. If you’re right about the fact that the collateral damage of personal freedom might be these incidents of gun violence that happen too often, whether it’s collateral damage or personal freedom, I take that. Why does that happen just in this country? This isn’t the only country in the world where people have individual freedoms.
Žižek: That’s what I try to answer with the second part.
Tavis: Okay. Tell me that again.
Žižek: That your actions from personal freedom does not take enough into account society, society in the sense of the thick network of social rules, customs. Now I come to morally refined points. This will bring us strangely even to what I hear is the failure of political correctness. Not the explicit, spoken, explicitly formulated rules, but especially those implicit rules.
You know, what’s so beautiful for me, for social manners–I’m very concerned about this. I like manners–is that manners do not simply prescribe what you should do, say or not do, say. But you are allowed to say, but it’s not polite to do it. Or the other way around, what you are prohibited to do, but you are expected nonetheless to do it.
For example, the first part of [inaudible], let’s say you invite me to lunch. I suppose–I hope it’s true. Maybe not, you have more money than me. Don’t you have also in this country certain implicit rule, when the bill arrives, you will…
Tavis: Like if I invited you, I should pay.
Žižek: Yeah, but don’t you have this manner that, for a little bit, I’m expected to at least, “No, no, I should pay?”
Tavis: We all know. “Please, let me.” Yeah, yeah.
Žižek: But it’s part of the game and they claim this is not simply hypocrisy. In a sense, it’s hypocritical. We both know you will pay and I would love you for doing something horrible, for telling me at the beginning, “Okay, if you want, you pay.”
Then I will have to go through all the game. “Oh, my God, sorry. I forget my manners.” But what I’m saying is that, you see, this is for me and simply for the line of argumentation, what doesn’t work with so-called political correctness. It tries to render explicit rules too much.
Like let’s regulate everything. If you do this, it’s already sexism, if you do that. But it doesn’t function like that. Rules in real life always function in this conditional way. To know a society, it’s not only to know the rules, but to know how to violate the rules. And there, men are centered.
Here, again, I have problems with political correctness. For example, consider now I will provoke you to the end. Considering political correctness and racism, of course, my God, I found racism something not only incorrect, but simply stupid, obscene. Racists are weak people who don’t trust themselves basically.
But nonetheless, would you admit or not, coming from a relatively different culture, sincerely–it’s not just a rhetorical trick–interested in your opinion, isn’t something which from a strict standpoint of political correctness cannot but appear racism or racial slur insult also an absolute, for me at least, in most of occasions, condition of establishing a real opening, a real warm contact, with another human being?
By this, I mean the following. Whenever I visit a country, first we play these official rules. Oh, your interesting car, your food, all that [bleep], you know. But then, you know, I tell a dirty joke, they tell a dirty joke, we are in.
I remember a fond memory of my country which disappeared in civil war, ex country Yugoslavia. Before racial tensions exploded, when I was young, 60s, 70s, racism, but I call it paradoxically progressive racism, was [inaudible]. Each nation was identified with a certain racial cliché. We Slovenes were misers, Montenegro people were lazy and so on.
And when I talked with my friends, it wasn’t telling racist jokes so much against the other. It was we were competing in the friendly way who will tell a nastier joke about one’s self, about myself. And we didn’t experience these racial clichés as insulting, but there’s something in a wonderful, comical spirit to be assumed, and I can guarantee you it works wonderfully.
Negative proof, the moment in early 80s in ex Yugoslavia, real racism which ended up in the terrible civil war of the 90s, real racism started to explode, the jokes disappeared. Absolutely, because their place was precisely to establish real warm, human contact.
And that’s my fear of political correctness behind all this respect of the other and so on. Is it beneath it a certain terrifying coldness? What I experience as the real message of this political correctness, it’s used especially when they are connected with this fear of harassment, and I experienced this with my, okay, slightly open nature.
You know, I look a woman into the eye one second too long, oh, visual rape. I tell a dirty joke, oh, verbal rape and so on and so on. Then I know what their harassment is really a form of maybe not hatred, but fear of the proclivity of the other.
The fear of harassment basically means don’t come to clear to me. I cannot tolerate that your proclivity. It’s like many of my white liberals. They love Blacks. Oh, we did them horrible damage. We should give them billions of dollars. But here I have a but. But they’re about to say, they know this. They really have no Black friends, except some maybe academic and so on.
And what disturbs them is, you know, the classical scene. Many times it happens in Spike Lee movies, Black people, something bothers you. Too noisy, their music, vulgar joke, food doesn’t smell well and so on and so on. That’s for me the color of political correctness.
Tavis: You’ve said so many things I didn’t want to interrupt you. You said so many things I want to go back to…
Žižek: You should. Otherwise, you are finished.
Tavis: As quickly as I can, number one, I agree with you about so many, not all, but so many of these…
Žižek: But. Go to but.
Tavis: I agree with you about your point relative to so many of these white liberals. I make the point all the time that there’s a distinct difference between charity and justice.
Tavis: Many of them miss that…
Žižek: Even theoretically.
Tavis: They can be kind to Black people, but justice is a different thing.
Žižek: In Europe, that’s the problem [inaudible] now. We are moralizing it. We are changing this into problem of charity. Should it be like how good we are…
Tavis: But not justice, though.
Žižek: No. It should be a matter of justice. That’s why to provoke some journalist who asked me do you feel charity, empathy? Would you like to receive some refugees in your apartment? I say, no, I hate them, but it’s not a matter of me liking them. It’s justice. I have to do it. I’m ready to lower my standards 50%. It’s crucial for justice.
Tavis: The other thing I want to go back to is I hear your point about political correctness and I have a problem with it myself. Yet, I think there’s a distinct difference between political correctness and the visual or verbal rape that you talked about that says something about the humanity and the dignity of the person uttering those statements.
What does it say about your humanity, your dignity, when you process a conversation in a certain way and those jokes, those crude remarks come out of you? It says something about your humanity and your dignity, does it not?
Žižek: I get your point, but I would just say–and, believe me, I have many English friends and I’ve learned this game from them. I don’t think you can map the opposition between dignity and vulgar imposition directly onto the couple of politeness and this slightly vulgar outspokenness.
Believe me, English people—maybe not all of them, I have many good friends there–are masters of being polite and being all the more humiliating, aggressive in the very forum of politeness. For me, my point is not now we should all use sleazy words or whatever. No, there are persons with whom–the only thing that works is politeness and so on.
But what makes me crazy, my point of sensitivity, is the following. Okay, I’m addressing you as a Black person. Don’t you feel a little bit patronized, but maybe even more for Blacks, these codes for so-called for Native Americans? I say so-called because of my love for them.
You know, all this [bleep], we western white people have imperialist attitude towards nature. We just exploit nature and so on. But Native Americans, they have an organic link with nature. Before they mine a mountain, they ask the spirit of the mountain for permission and so on and so on.
All my Native American friends, they hated this. They see in this, false respect, a terrible patronizing attitude. One of them told me a wonderful thing. You should like this. He told me, “I hate even this term of Native Americans because it’s [inaudible] with nature, culture. Like we are Native Americans. You are what culture Americans?”
Then he told me a wonderful thing. He told me, “I prefer to be called Indian because, at least in this case, my name is a monument to white man’s stupidity who didn’t know where they arrived.” [laugh]. I wonder now, I provoke you as a Black guy. My hero–sincerely, I’m not bluffing–is Malcolm X. You know why?
Tavis: Tell me why.
Žižek: Because of this Malcolm X, he had an ingenious insight which was at the top of contemporary philosophy. Namely, he wasn’t playing the Hollywood game, “Roots”. You remember that stupid TV series. The greatest honor for you Blacks’ desire is to find some tribe in Africa. Oh, I’m from there. No. Of course, Malcolm X meant by the brutality of white men, being enslaved, we were deprived of our roots and so on.
But he wrote about it. But this X paradoxically opens up a new freedom for us, all that white people want to be, not primitive tribal, but universal, creating their own space. We, Black people, have a unique chance not to become, not to return to our particular [inaudible], to be more universal, emancipated than white people themselves. You see, this is the important thing for me.
Tavis: What say you, then, about the political correctness of this country feeling like it is our duty to export democracy around the world? Is there a political correctness in that?
Žižek: Of course. As an old Marxist, I’ve written dozens of texts criticizing this. But I think this is just one part of the story. That is, per se the fear of how, under the pretense of exporting some universal values, we are really imposing our way of life, our specific values. I buy this argument. But wouldn’t you agree that often the opposite holds.
A false respect for others’ specific way of life where, under the pretext of we shouldn’t impose our way of life, you tolerate, even condone, the most brutal oppression. An example, Saudi Arabia, which is for me real empire of evil point [inaudible]. Why? Are you aware of what is happening now with these refugees?
Saudi Arabia is directly responsible for the war in Syria. It is supporting one side, some Islamic parties and so on. You know how many refugees Saudi Arabia accepted? None, none. So what I’m saying is that I think we must show understanding for their specific way of life? No.
I believe in solidarity of battle. Arabs have their own battles. They have their own [inaudible]. They have movements, for example, against anarchies and so on and so on. I don’t believe in universality of our human rights. I believe in universality of [inaudible]. You have your fight, we have our fight. Let’s turn it into a same fight.
Tavis: I have to stop this conversation right now because I’m out of time. This isn’t fair, but I’m going to do it anyway because this is the best I can do. Tomorrow night on this program, I cannot continue this conversation because of commitments already scheduled.
But on Monday night, we’re going to continue part two of this conversation because I wanted to talk about four or five things tonight. We only got to one, political correctness, so we’ll continue on Monday night.
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