Monday, March 8, 2010

Zizek on Liberal Self-Flagellation

How is it that one only gets to read clear, engaging, powerful philosophical writings coming from a Marxist and a communist? I am neither but I cannot help but admire Slavoj Zizek, a leading contemporary philosopher, who is both. I'm reading his most recent book "First as Tragedy, Then as Farce" as my beach reading, and here is a fantastic quote addressing those so-called liberals who indulge in endless self-gratifying acts of "examining their privilege":

"We white Leftist men and women [should] leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt . . . [Western] politically correct self-flagellation is an inverted form of clinging to one's superiority. . . The positive form of the White Man's Burden (his responsibility for civilizing the colonized barbarians) is thus merely replaced by its negative form (the burden of the white man's guilt: if we can no longer be the benevolent masters of the Third World, we can at least be the privileged source of evil, patronizingly depriving others of responsibility for their fate (when a Third World country engages in terrible crimes, it is never fully its own responsibility, but always an after effect of colonization)."

I wish everybody with liberal pretensions had these words put up on their walls. This way, every time they feel like masturbating to the sound of their favorite word "privilege", they might remember that the very use of this word makes them sound like the condescending pricks they are.

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Crys T said...

I'm sorry, but I have to disagree. I get that people who do *nothing other* than examine their privilege are engaging in behaviour that is at best useless and at worst narcissistic and limiting.

However, the idea the concept of privilege should be set aside is flat-out wrong. And those of us who in some way fall outside of society's hegemonic social groups know how important privilege is in blinding the privileged to the advantages they have and the damage they cause.

Their way of seeing the world is emphatically NOT the way the world is. For example, take English speakers: they travel around the world in their little English-speaking bubbles, never realising, much less caring, how their behaviour angers, and even damages, other people in other cultures. They have no idea what it is like to speak another language, or what it is like to have a smaller, possibly endangered language, as their mother tongue. They see language as unproblematically utilitarian, and see no reason why market forces shouldn't dictate which languages live and which are killed off by pressure from larger languages. And, with their superior political and economic powers, they create environments where smaller languages can't compete. And smaller languages are dying off at a catastrophic rate. Which is seen by English-speakers as unimportant, or even desirable.

And of course, there are the well-used examples of men and white people. They are so used to seeing their own opinions, images, and ways of being reflected back to them that they think these things represent human universals, rather than the minority (albeit influential minority) experiences they really are. Please tell me I don't need to point out how destructive this has been and continues to be.

Whenever I hear people who are scornful of the concept of privilege, I can't help but feel that the problem is that they resent being asked to acknowledge their own privilege.

""We white Leftist men and women [should] leave behind the politically correct process of endless self-torturing guilt . . . [Western] politically correct self-flagellation is an inverted form of clinging to one's superiority. . ."

I call bullshit on this: it is usually NOT the white leftists who are vocal about the need to examine privilege. It is mostly those who are themselves in minority, or minoritised, groups. The white leftists are usually the ones throwing themselves on the floor, kicking and screaming and throwing tantrums, when the word "privilege" comes up. In my experience, there is nothing that divides the progressive community more than those white leftists who are scornful of the concept of privilege. I've lost count of the people I've seen them drive away from feminism and other progressive movements over the past ten years. If anything, we need MORE examination of privilege.

Zizek's trying to repackage the white progressives' refusal to confront their own ignorance as actually having respect for the minoritised is hypocrtical, to say the least.

Clarissa said...

As somebody who comes from a Third World country with an endangered language, I can assure you that American tourists who speak only English are not nearly as annoying to me as those Leftists who flatter themselves by inventing some non-existent privilege they have over me. The only thing these pseudo-liberals do with their privilege talk is flatter their self-esteem at my expense. I don't need their pity and I do not believe that having more things (which is all their so-called privilege is) actually means anything. I'm tired of these people condescension, and obviously Zizek - who comes from a Third World country as well - is too.

It would be great if American and European leftists could stop using us for their self-esteem-boosting privilege-examining practices. We don't need this, people. Please go entertain yourselves in some other way.

Anonymous said...

Clarissa, I mostly agree with you and Zizek on this.

Most if not all the talk about "privilege" on the Left is a sub rosa way of asserting superiority. Seen that often enough.

It can be done honestly, but almost never is.

When I lived in China, the Chinese people that I lived with and near were amazed that I would choose to live in a regular (small, kinda dirty) Chinese apartment rather than with all the other Westerners.

Not that I think that makes me special, but I wanted to see China, dammit, not some managed, Westernized bubble-world representation of it made by corporations to protect my sensibilities.

And I wanted to make real friends. Which I did.


Clarissa said...

Mike: I know exactly what you mean. Many of my students go on a Study Abroad visits to Spain and Argentina and when they come back their Spanish is actually worse than before the trip. They are always very disappointed about that but when I start questioning them, it turns out that they only hung out with other American students, spoke only English, and ate at McDonald's. And as a result forgot all the Spanish they knew. I wish more people travelled the way you did.

V said...

Clarissa, I mostly agree with you. However, I must remind you that we, including Zizek, are not from the "third world" country, but from the "second word" one. Which means we have at least one very real privilege which has nothing to do with the material objects: we have superior education. In my (and I suspect Zizek's as well) case - also superior higher education paid for by the taxpayers money.
And let's be honest with ourselves, as long as there is a lot of racial prejudice, being white is also a privilege. Yes, we did not ask for it, we cannot change it, and we owe nothing to anybody because of it, but it is still a privilege. In the sense that it increased our chances to reach our current standing. Even if just by 1%.

Clarissa said...

If you say your country is not Third World, I see no reason to qustion it. Mine is, though. Not only was the higher education in Ukraine non-existent, the secondary education was no education at all. I emerged from high school - with a gold medal no less - in a state of grievous ignorance about pretty much everything. I honestly thought our Soviet and post-Soviet education was the best until I started a BA in Canada. The very first day of class helped me realized that I was nothing but a conceited ignoramus compared to other students.

As for the racial issue, Zizek quotes Franz Fanon who says emphatically that he doesn't need the white man's guilt in any form. I think Fanon should be trusted on this issue more than the white liberals because he definitely knows more about being black than they do. If Fanon tells me he doesn't need my pity, I'm inclined to listen to his advice.