Why Slavoj Zizek thinks political correctness is dumb

Zizek is on the left and dislikes political correctness. How does that work out?

What Zizek says PC culture makes us do.

Matt Carr/Getty Images
  • Slavoj Zizek is a well-known opponent of political correctness and has often critiqued the concept.
  • He doesn't suggest anybody should go around uttering slurs for the sake of it though.
  • His stance led him to agree with Jordan Peterson at their famed debate.

Slavoj Zizek is a well-known philosopher and cultural critic; loved as much for his eccentricities and provocative statements as his thought. He is well known for being a kind of communist. However, his left-wing stances are tempered by a passionate dislike for one thing that many young leftists hold dear – political correctness.

Why Zizek hates political correctness

In the above video clip, Zizek explains why he thinks political correctness is not merely a term for politeness nor a conspiracy against the American way of life but is a way of using language in ways that hides the problems of society without actually doing anything to solve them.

The first thing that he talks about is the "totalitarianism" that he equates with political correctness. It is worth saying that he denies any agreement with the American right, which tends to view political correctness as a plot to "destroy the American way of life" and that he doesn't mean people who are PC are out to restore Stalinism. What he means is that what we call "political correctness" can be used to amplify old authoritarian methods.

As he says in the video:

"Imagine you or me, I'm a small boy. It's Sunday afternoon. My father wants me to visit our grandmother. Let's say my father is a traditional authority. What would he be doing? He would probably tell me something like, "I don't care how you feel; it's your duty to visit your grandmother. Be polite to her and so on." Nothing bad about this I claim because I can still rebel and so on. It's a clear order.

But what would the so-called post-modern non-authoritarian father do? I know because I experienced it. He would have said something like this, "You know how much your grandmother loves you, but nonetheless I'm not forcing you to visit her. You should only visit her if you freely decide to do it." Now every child knows that beneath the appearance of free choice there is a much stronger pressure in this second message. Because basically your father is not only telling you, you must visit your grandmother, but you must love to visit it. You know he tells you how you must feel about it. It's a much stronger order."

By giving the order "go visit your grandmother" in kinder, gentler language the order not only takes on the air of a request but becomes a more comprehensive statement. Zizek, who has written at length on how difficult it can be to escape ideologies that seem natural or non-controversial, notes that this is the same authoritarianism as the days of old, but is harder to fight because of its presentation.

In another section of the clip, he remarks:

"Do you know that when civil war exploded in Yugoslavia, early '90s and already before in the '80s, ethnic tensions. The first victims were these jokes; they immediately disappeared. Because people felt well that, for example, let's say I visit another country. I hate this politically correct respect, oh, what is your food, what are your cultural forms. No, I tell them tell me a dirty joke about yourself and we will be friends and so on.

So you see this ambiguity — that's my problem with political correctness. No it's just a form of self-discipline, which doesn't really allow you to overcome racism. It's just oppressed controlled racism. And the same goes here."

For Zizek, political correctness doesn't address any of the problems, like racism, it hopes to solve, but instead regulates them. Given his historic dedication to the left-wing notions of actually solving those problems, you can easily understand why he wouldn't like something that claims to do everything but accomplishes nothing in that area.

In this way, politically correct language can actually be better at maintaining old systems of oppression than at fixing them, since now you're talking about them in cleaned up language rather than the direct, blunt language that makes the issue plain.

So, what would he have us do?

Before a few of you start telling racist, sexist, or otherwise humiliating jokes for the hell of it; he is not endorsing that at all.

He is merely saying that context is everything and that we should be less concerned about the specific language or jokes used and more concerned about how we use them. If a joke or word is used to humiliate people and keep them down, it and the person who uttered it should be condemned. If a joke is used to break the ice, address the elephants of race and gender in the room, and help to bring people together in a way that is not humiliating or patronizing he suggests it is permissible and even useful.

To quote him directly:

"Because it's easy to be a non-racist in this political correct way oh I respect your food, your national identities, no. When does it happen real contact with another? I claim it's very difficult to arrive at it without a small exchange of an obscenity. It works in a wonderful way. So I claim for me and ideal post racist situation is let's say I am an Indian and you are an African American. We are telling all the time dirty jokes to each other about each other about ourselves, but in such a way that we just laugh and the more we are telling them the more we are friends.

Why? Because in this way we really resolved the tension of racism. What I'm afraid, now coming back to your question, with political correctness is that it's a desperate reaction. They know they cannot solve the real problem so they escaped into controlling how we speak about it. And by real problem I don't to mean in a primitive way just economic redistribution and so on, but even the symbolic fact of actual social relationship and so on."

His stance reminds me of another great thinker's ideas of language and our attempts to clean it up without changing how we feel about what it refers to.

Is this just some one-off thing or does he tie this back to his philosophy?

His stance against political correctness ties back into his ideas about ideology, in particular how ideologies create systems in which they become self-reinforcing.

In a 2007 essay called Tolerance as an Ideology Category, Zizek addressed similar issues of tolerance being used as a tool to perpetuate repressive systems rather than as a tool to address them. He opens the essay with a bold claim:

"Why are today so many problems perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer is the liberal multiculturalist's basic ideological operation: the 'culturalization of politics' - political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into 'cultural' differences, different 'ways of life,' which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely 'tolerated.'"

This critique of "tolerance" is little different than his critique of political correctness,

Most criticism of political correctness comes from the right, where it is viewed as either "Cultural Marxism," censorship, or evidence that people are too sensitive. Zizek is a curious example of a left-wing critic of the practice. While his tendency to tell dirty jokes might be a bit off-putting and his enjoyment of riling people up intemperate; he does base his arguments not on wanting to "go back to the way things were" but instead on a sincere dedication to actually changing oppressive systems for the betterment of all and not just changing how we talk about them.

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We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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