Slavoj Žižek Calls Political Correctness a Form of “Modern Totalitarianism”

Opinions on what we generally mean by the phrase “political correctness” vary widely. Does it refer to the ways we try to maintain basic politeness and common decency in what we like to think of as a pluralistic, egalitarian society? Or is it a form of Orwellian, state-sponsored mind control that squashes dissent and banishes unpopular ideas from public discourse? On the one hand, stories of unacceptably abusive behavior in workplaces, classrooms, and government buildings abound, seeming to require placing reasonable limits on speech. On the other hand, extreme examples of rampant “trigger warnings” and other such qualifiers—on college literature syllabi, for example—can seem hypersensitive, patronizing, and silly at best.



In the Big Think video above, Marxist theorist, cultural critic, and professional provocateur Slavoj Žižek approaches the term as a kind of enforced niceness that obscures oppressive power relationships. He begins with an example, of a so-called “postmodern, non-authoritarian father,” who uses a subtle form of emotional coercion, playing on feelings of guilt, to enforce love and respect for a grandparent. This model, says Žižek, is “paradigmatic” of “modern totalitarianism”:

This is why the formula of modern totalitarianism is not “I don’t care what you think, just do it.” This is traditional authoritarianism. The totalitarian formula is, “I know better than you what you really want.”

“In this sense,” says Žižek, “I am horrified by this new culture of experts.” In his typically animated style, he leaps from case to case—the banning of public e-cigarette smoking, for example—to show how concerns about public health or racism give way to meaningless, culturally stultifying moralizing. His point that political correctness can be a humorless “self-discipline” is persuasive. Whether his examples of “progressive racism”—or the social release valve of obscene or racist jokes—translate to an American context is debatable. (Trigger warning: Žižek drops a couple n-words).

Does the uncouth Žižek get a pass because he disavows personal prejudice, even as he makes light of it? Is there really a “great art” to the racist joke that can bring people closer together? Do we need a “tiny exchange of friendly obscenities” to establish “real contact” with other people? I for one wouldn’t want to live in a society without obscene humor and honest, open conversation. But whether all forms of political correctness— whatever it is—are “modern totalitarianism,” I leave to you to decide. It does seem to me that if we can’t have political debates without fear and shame then we really have lost some measure of freedom; but if we’re unable to debate with good will and sensitivity, then we’ve lost some important measure of our humanity.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • E says:

    I agree that political correctness can create a kind of distance and discomfort with people of other groups. It demands a kind of artificial behavior that constantly reminds one that the person being spoken to is “other” and needs to be treated specially, while those of our own group don’t. Hence we can only really be comfortable or genuine with those of our own group.

    But I’m not so sure about the exchanging of insults either. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told to “get back in the kitchen” or “go make me a sandwich” as a genuine, well-intentioned joke. It’s never made me feel closer to anyone or any less patronized or singled-out than when people are overly polite.

    Perhaps the use of such insults requires a certain distance (in time, culture, or something else) from the source of the insult. Or maybe it’s a “guy culture” thing and I just don’t get it––none of Zizek’s examples involved women and it was indeed a woman who clearly didn’t find his sign language joke funny.

    He claims that there is a certain art to the insult, and maybe that’s true. But maybe it’s also something that only certain persons with a certain standing in relation to others can get away with, and Zizek happens to have that certain standing without realizing it’s not universal.

  • Hanoch says:

    “It does seem to me that if we can’t have political debates without fear and shame then we really have lost some measure of freedom; but if we’re unable to debate with good will and sensitivity, then we’ve lost some important measure of our humanity.”

    True on both counts. To paraphrase Madison, liberty without virtue is a chimerical idea.

  • Erick Crandall says:

    Political Correctness in my opinion, does not hinder free speech or people expressing their opinion. Racial Jokes can bring people closer if the joke was meant to poke fun at someone, not to take the stereotype literally, to be an example to live by a hole race.
    Unfortunately, in the United States, where we are multiethnic, with multicultural, and muli other things and are not in a place yet were we can seriously debate any racial issue, because we still don’t see ourselves as one nation regardless of race. Political Correctness will be needed until we can see us as whole group. Any JOKES now that are racist or feminist will, for now alienate groups, and infringe on their freedom of speech by ostracizing them.

  • d says:

    Does anyone take this guy seriously still? he just spews paternal philosophies based on his experiences as a person of academic and normative privelege. The entire episode was basically ‘I make racist jokes sometimes and my black friends say they don’t mind either so I am correct’

  • softclocks says:

    has anyone ever taken you seriously, ever?

  • E says:

    Agree with you here.

  • Doug in VA says:

    Dear d, how typical of your kind.

  • z says:

    haha, you are the kind of authoritarian he is talking about. Your hatred and ignorance are what is bad for society.

  • z says:

    Erick, it depends on the person. Perhaps you are alienated from others but that doesn’t mean everyone else is. And it is an art that is based on finding a real connection and then relieving any social stress that may be there(due to societal pressure). It is hard to explain to you how you have been brainwashed. Some people may be unable to actually connect with others who are superficially different from themselves without therapy but the rest of the country is not going to be held hostage to their mental illness.

  • Rob says:

    I think his ex-Yugoslav experience is rather different than mine in the U.S. It seems to me in his cultural mix, a lot of people knew other people’s racist jokes about themselves. I grew up across the street from a family with a Polish dad who knew a ton of Polak jokes.

    In America, there are plenty of racist jokes about black people, but as a white person, I suppose I don’t know too many jokes about white people. I think about Chris Rock and Richard Pryor imitating white people, and that stands out to me as good parody of whiteness.

    But more of the time, whiteness just seems to be regarded as the normal thing and blacks are made fun of for not being that normal white thing. I suppose white folks could stand to learn a few more jokes about themselves and then the world will make more sense.

  • James Gustav Nicholson says:

    Political correctness is a choice that anyone can make if they want, but the moment they try to force it on someone else, they are committing an act of authoritarianism. Liberals and conservatives both use forms of political correctness, and they are both bullshit. This is why we must seek out other ways to True Freedom.

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