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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Slavoj Žižek: What Full­fils You Cre­ative­ly Isn’t What Makes You Hap­py

Slavoj Žižek on the Feel-Good Ide­ol­o­gy of Star­bucks

Slavoj Žižek’s Pervert’s Guide to Ide­ol­o­gy Decodes The Dark Knight and They Live

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

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  • 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?

  • 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.

  • fajar ahmad setiawan says:

    That’s why his true advice for us is all about being vul­ner­a­ble. Are you will­ing to make your­self vul­ner­a­ble before oth­ers? And that’s what makes rela­tion­ship more hon­est and clos­er rather than being arti­fi­cial­ly polite because you are just being patron­ized by it.

    Although his argu­ments seemed quite con­tra­dic­to­ry in each parts, but I do under­stand what he tried to say. Just chill. As Don Rick­les, the most adorably hate­ful insult com­ic in the world, said,“people tends to feel­ing hurt because the insult has a lit­tle bit of truth in it. In fact, if they don’t like it, they are just a hyp­ocrite.”

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