Is political correctness a solution — or a desperate cover-up?

No offense, says Slavoj Žižek, but maybe we need to incorporate some "gently racist" icebreakers into our conversations.

Slavoj Žižek: I know that there is a lot of sexual harassment, racism and so on in our lives and I don't doubt that the majority of people who promote political correctness mean it sincerely. I'm not saying that. I'm not saying in the way of right wing paranoia that they are evil people who want to destroy American way of life, I'm just saying this that the way they approach the problem is that instead of resolving it the predominant effect is just to keep it under check and allowing the true problem, racism, sexism, to survive in a more covered up version and so on and so on. For example, I always like this extreme example. Let's take racist jokes. Yes they function in a racist way, but for me the true overcoming of racism is not that you prohibit racist jokes, but that you establish a social, not even only social change, new society, but even such a change of atmosphere that you can tell exactly the same jokes without appearing a racist. When you are simply in a true relationship of equality, respect and so on, sometimes dirty jokes, even gently racist jokes done in a non-racist way, by this I mean that you including yourself and you make fun of yourself and so on, they're incredible. I think your American term is icebreakers.

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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.

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You know what should political correct people learn, British customs. Why? Because British and Japanese, different countries, but they are two of the countries which are mega masters in how to reproduce all the brutality of domination, despising the other but without being offensive with an utmost nice speech elegance and so on. You know that's the miracle of truly successful racism that you reproduce all the prejudices but with a very soft point apparently respecting the other and so on and so on. So again, what also bothers me with political correctness or distolerance of the other is that tolerance is a false notion today. I always like this example: I always tell my students when they claim if you are against tolerance what are you for brutal racism? No. I tell them okay there is one guy who did quite a lot against racism, Martin Luther King. Look at his speeches. He never even mentions the word tolerance. I checked it up you can download his speech. If you were to tell him that we white people need to be more tolerant towards the black people he would have laughed probably. So this is a very suspicious idea that this translation of domination of racism and so on into terms of tolerance. No, tolerance is a very ambiguous term. Quite often tolerance can even work as it's own opposite in want sense?

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Look, if you take a typical upper middle-class American, I would like to put him on her, I saw them, together with a real low class African-American or white guy, I can guarantee you they would be horrified with all the dirty jokes will get at this and so on. And for them they would have been very intolerant towards him. So for me there is always intolerance, something off. Let's keep it disturbs me. At the proper distance don't allow them to come to close to me. Tolerance often means intolerance for the actual other. They accept the other, in it is the purified other. Like, for example, for politically correct people Native Americans, whatever you call them, I don't want to call them that. You know my old joke, which is true. I met some Native American so-called university people who told me they hated they're Native Americans. Why? Because it has this uncanny settle nature culture, we are native and what are you then? Cultural Americans or what. They told me we much prefer to be called Indians; at least our name is a monument to white man's stupidity who thought they are in India when they are here. So I love this. They are so fanatically suspicious about this false patronizing appraisal of the white liberals.

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Like you know, we usually say we brutally exploit nature, mining and so on, but Native Americans do it differently. They talk to mountains; they have this more organic dialogic approach and so on and so on. They shaped this so much. One of them even so brutally told me I love this. This is true. He gave me, I forgot his name I'm very sorry, a short text he wrote where he demonstrates through statistics, I don't know if it's true, let's say he tries to demonstrate that Native Americans, so-called Indians, killed more buffaloes and burned more forests than all white people together. What was his point? His point was precisely don't idealize us. You are patronizing us by making this politically correct pure people who are holistic blah, blah, blah. No. Please we can also be evil; we can also be horrible and so on and so on. You see it's the same problem with refugees in Europe, intelligent Native Americans are terribly sensitive against the oppressive other side of this politically correct way of Native Americans have some ancient wisdom holistic approach and so on and so on. I mean that's why, and I'm sorry if I repeat an old story of mine, but that's why I sincerely admire Malcolm X. You know why? What does it mean X? It means, of course, we don't have family name. We black slaves were torn out deprived of our roots and like family links and so on when they were kidnapped from Africa and so on.

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But what's his genius? His way is not the way of that stupid Hollywood best seller Alex Haley who wrote Roots. Let's find our roots. No, his idea is what is this X? It means we have no roots; we are deprived of roots. What if this gives us a new freedom to establish a new more universal community than that of white people? It's an ingenious idea of seeing what appears and each terrible trauma being deprived of your roots you have no proper tradition, family tradition and so on is a new chance of freedom.

Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Žižek has a bone to pick with the PC movement. While he doesn’t buy into the right-wing paranoid view that the politically correct among us are "evil people who want to destroy the American way of life," he does think they’re doing some damage. Žižek questions whether censoring our expression really addresses racial tension – or does it merely give birth to a politer form of racism (or sexism, or religious and political differences)? Tolerance has started to work against its own agenda, becoming a patronizing insult to those who think differently to you, a way of brushing off and compartmentalizing differences rather than listening and connecting. Žižek recommends we add a tasteful dose of obscenity and humor to our interactions with each other in order to make them more genuine. Covering up racism with nicer words doesn’t eradicate it, but laughing at each other’s differences – in the right way – can unite a world of "others". Slavoj Žižek's most recent book is Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail


Slavoj Žižek's most recent book is Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail.

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
Politics & Current Affairs
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  • The study sample included 15,000 players.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

5 facts you should know about the world’s refugees

Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations led to a record high of 70.8 million people being displaced by the end of 2018.

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