Slavoj Žižek: Political Correctness Is a More Dangerous Form of Totalitarianism

Is political correctness just a spineless form of self-discipline that doesn’t really allow you to overcome racism?

Slavoj Zizek: Of course I have nothing against the fact that your boss treats you in a nice way and so on. The problem is if this not only covers up the actual relationship of power, but makes it even more impenetrable. You know, if you have a boss who is up there, the old-fashioned boss shouting at you, exerting full brutal authority. In a way it’s much easier to rebel than to have a friendly boss who embraces you or how was the last night with your girlfriend, blah, blah, all that buddy stuff. Well then it almost appears impolite to protest. But I will give you an example, an old story that I often use to make it clear what do I mean by this. 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. And I think that this is for me almost a paradigm of modern permissive authority. This is why the formula of 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 and I may appear to be forcing you to do it, but I’m really just making you do what without fully knowing what you want and so on. So in this sense yes, I am horrified by this. Also another aspect this new culture of experts where an injunction is presented just as a neutral statement.

For example, one example that I like and let’s not have a misunderstanding here. I don’t smoke and I’m for punishing tobacco companies and so on and so on. But I’m deeply suspicious about our phobia about smoking. I don’t buy it that this can be really justified just based on scientific knowledge how cigarettes hurt us and so on and so on. Because my first problem is that most of the people who oppose smoking then usually are for legalization of grass and so on and so on. But my basic problem is this one. Look, now they found a more or less solution — e-cigarettes, electronic cigarettes. And I discovered that now big American airline companies decided to prohibit them. And it’s interesting to read the reason why. The reason is not so much that it’s not yet sure are they safe or not. Basically they are. The idea is that if you smoke during the flight e-cigarette you publicly display your addiction and that is not a good pedagogical example for others and so on and so on.

I mean I find this a clear example of how a certain ethics, which is not just neutral ethics of health, but basically I think it’s ethics of don’t fall into it; don’t have a too passionate engagement. Remain at the proper distance; control yourself and so on. And now I will shock you to end. I think even racism can be ambiguous here. You know once I made an interview where I was asked how do we find reactionary racism. You know what was my answer. With progressive racism. Then, ah, ah, what do you mean? Of course I didn’t mean racism. What I meant is the following things. Of course racist jokes and so on can be extremely oppressive, humiliating, and so on.

But the solution I think is to create an atmosphere or to practice these jokes in such a way that they really function as that little bit of obscene contact which establishes true proximity between us. And I’m talking from my own past political experience. Ex-Yugoslavia. I remember when I was young when I met from other — when I met with other people from ex-Yugoslavia republics — Serbs, Croat, Bosnians and so on. We were all the time telling dirty jokes about each other.  But not so much against the other. We were in a wonderful way competing who will be able to tell a nastier joke about ourselves. These were obscene racist jokes, but their effect was a wonderful sense of shared, obscene solidarity.

And I have another proof here. 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. It works. 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. I will tell you a wonderful story, a simple one. It happened to me a year ago around the corner here in the bookstore. I was signing a book of mine. Two black guys came, African-Americans, I don’t like the term. My black friends also not, because for obvious reasons it can be even more racist.

But the point is and they asked me to sign a book and seeing them there I couldn’t resist the worst racist remark. When I was returning the books to them I told them you know, I don’t know which one is for whom, you know, you blacks like yellow guys, you look all the same. They embraced me and they told me you can call me nigga. You know when they tell you this it means we are really close. They instantly got this. Another stupid problem I had. At some talk there was a mute and deaf guy and he asked if a translator can be there. And I couldn’t resist it. In the middle of the talk in front of 200-300 people, I said what are you doing there guys. My idea was that if you watch the gestures of the translator it looked to me as if some obscene messages or what. The guy laughed so much we became friends. And some old stupid lady reported me for making fun of crippled people. It was so didn’t she see that’s how I became friends with the guy. But I’m — wait a minute. Now I’m not an idiot. I’m well aware this doesn’t mean we should just walk around and humiliate each other. It’s a great art how to do it. I’m just saying that’s my hypothesis. Without such a tiny exchange of friendly obscenities you don’t have a real contact with another.

It remains this cold respect and so on, you know. We need this. We need this to establish a real contact. This is what is lacking for me in political correctness. And then you end up in madness like it’s not a joke. I checked with my Australian friend. You know what happened in Perth, the west coast Australian city. It’s not a joke I repeated. The opera house there prohibited staging of Carmen. Opera Carmen, you know why? Because the first act takes place in front of a tobacco factory. I’m not kidding. I’m not kidding. I’m just saying that there is something so fake about political correctness. It’s — I know it’s better than open racism, of course. But I wonder if it works because, you know, I never, for example, bought all these permanent replacement, you know. Niggers are Negros. Negros are black. Okay, black are African-Americans. Maybe — it’s up to them to decide. The only thing I know is that when I was in Missoula, Montana, I got engaged in a very friendly conversation with some Native Americans. They hate the term and they gave me a wonderful reason. They told me Native American and you are a cultural American so what, we are part of nature. They told me we much preferred to be called Indians.

At least our name is a monument to white men’s stupidity who thought they are in India when they come here. And they had such a wonderful insight into how all this New Age bullshit, you know, we white people technologically exploit nature while natives relate to nature in a dialogic way like before they dig into earth, they ask the mountain for permission if they are mining blah, blah. They don’t mean that — research shows that Native Americans, Indians, killed much more buffalos and burned much more forests than white people. You know why this was the correct point. Like the message was the most racist thing is to patronizingly elevate us in that, you know, primitive, organic, living together with Mother Nature. No, their fundamental right is to be evil also. If we can be evil, why shouldn’t they be evil and so on. So again even with racism, one has to be very precise not to fight racism in a way which ultimately reproduces, if not directly racism itself, at least the conditions for racism.



Slavoj Žižek doesn't buy into political correctness. In fact, it frightens him. The famed philosopher and social critic describes political correctness as a tacit form of totalitarianism, an act of coercion built upon the premise that "I know better than you what you really want." This isn't to say that people should be allowed to go around treating others poorly, but Žižek argues that employing coercion and scare tactics to instill a state of forced behavior completely missed the point. To Žižek, the kinds of obscenity targeted by political correctness are much more effective at breeding a sense of shared solidarity than most alternatives.

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The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

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There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

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The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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