Iraq war, chips and chocolate laxatives

January 30, 2004

Is western political correctness in danger of turning human rights into yet another instrument of power? It's time to stand up for what we believe, argues Slavoj Žižek.

Critiques of the notion of universal human rights usually revolve around the subject of whose interests they protect, such as the question of whether human rights are biased by class or culture. The role of culture has received much attention in recent times: the idea that while human rights pretend to be universal, they secretly privilege a western set of values so that their global imposition promotes western cultural imperialism. For instance, in India recently, Hindus protested against McDonald's after it became known that the company's chips were fried in beef fat before being frozen. After McDonald's agreed to fry chips sold in India in vegetable oil, Hindus were happy. Far from undermining globalisation, the conflict signalled the integration of Hindus into the diversified global order, even if close analysis shows that the protest was metaphorically about discontent over western cultural imperialism rather than chip fat.

The "respect" shown to Indians here is unremittingly patronising, like our attitude towards children: we do not take them seriously, but we "respect" their innocuous customs so as not to shatter their illusory world. But what about such practices as the burning of wives after their husband's death, another Hindu tradition? Should we tolerant western multiculturalists also respect that practice? Or should we just adopt the normal practice of resorting to a Eurocentrist distinction that is foreign to Hinduism: tolerating the Other with regard to customs that hurt no one, but ditching that tolerance the moment we touch some (for us) traumatic dimension. That is, we tolerate the Other in so far as the Other is not an "intolerant fundamentalist" - which simply means in so far as it is not the real Other.

True believers in a (universal) cause are indifferent to local customs and mores that simply do not matter. But the multiculturalist is more of a Rortyan "ironist", always keeping a distance, always displacing belief onto Others. The tolerant liberal concedes in principle the right to believe while rejecting every determinate belief as "fundamentalist".

This brings us to a more radical question: since the reference to any form of universal truth is disqualified as a form of cultural violence, is what ultimately matters only our respect for the Other's fantasy? The ultimate problem with the multiculturalist's approach is that it refers to unique particular experience as a political argument: "Only a gay black woman can experience and tell what it means to be a gay black woman", and so on. Such a recourse to the particular experience that cannot be universalised is always and by definition a conservative political gesture: ultimately, everyone can evoke their unique experience to justify their reprehensible acts. Is it not possible for a Nazi executioner to claim that his victims do not understand the inner vision that drove him?

We need to reinvent the politics of truth. We live in the "postmodern" era in which truth-claims as such are dismissed as an expression of hidden power mechanisms. What we get instead of universal truth is a multitude of perspectives, or "narratives".

Lenin believed that universal truth could be articulated only from a thoroughly partisan position - that truth is one-sided. This goes against the predominant belief in compromise and finding a middle path among conflicting interests. But if you do not specify the criteria of the different, alternative, narratives, you run the risk of endorsing ridiculous "narratives" such as those about the supremacy of some aboriginal holistic wisdom.

This brings us to the heart of the matter: what is the implicit understanding of being human that is contained in the notion of human rights? Human rights are ultimately the right to violate the Ten Commandments: the right to privacy, for example, is just the right to adultery done in secret. Of course, human rights do not directly condone the violation of the commandments, but they keep open a marginal "grey zone" where I can violate the commandments, and if the powers-that-be catch me with my pants down, I can cry: "Assault on my human rights!" It is impossible to draw a clear line of separation and prevent only the "misuse" of a right while not infringing on its proper use, one that does not violate the commandments.

And this is where we find the weak point in the much-praised new global morality, celebrated as the sign of a new era in which the international community will be able to enforce a minimal code preventing states from engaging in crimes against humanity, including within their borders.

There is a similar weak point in western societies. Recently in San Francisco, while listening to a blues CD, I unfortunately said: "Judging by the colour of her voice, the singer is black. Strange, then, that she has such a German-sounding name - Nina." I was immediately admonished for political incorrectness: one should not associate a person's ethnic identity with a physical feature or a name because this bolsters racial cliches and prejudices. How, then, should one identify ethnic belonging? In no way by means of any specific feature I was told, because every such identification is potentially oppressive in constraining a person to a particular identity.

Today, we are offered many products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. The list goes on: the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties could be seen as warfare without warfare, the redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration and tolerant multiculturalism as an experience of the Other deprived of its Otherness.

Is this not the attitude of the hedonistic Last Man? Everything is permitted, you can enjoy everything so long as it is deprived of the substance that makes it dangerous. Today's hedonism combines pleasure with constraint - it is no longer the old notion of the "right measure" between pleasure and constraint, but a kind of pseudo-Hegelian immediate coincidence of opposites, with action and reaction coinciding. The ultimate example is arguably a chocolate laxative, available in the US, with the paradoxical injunction: "Do you have constipation? Eat more of this chocolate!". Eat, that is, the very thing that causes constipation. The structure of the "chocolate laxative", of a product containing the agent of its own containment, can be discerned throughout today's ideological landscape. Two topics determine today's liberal tolerant attitude towards Others: respect of and openness to Otherness and obsessive fear of harassment - in short, the Other is OK in so far as its presence is not intrusive, in so far as the Other is not really Other. So my duty to be tolerant towards the Other means, in effect, that I should not get too close to him/her, not intrude into his/her space - in short, that I should respect his/ her intolerance towards my overproximity. This is what is emerging more and more as the central "human right" in late capitalist society: the "right not to be", that is, to be kept at a safe distance from Others.

A similar structure is present in how we relate to capitalist profiteering: it is OK if it is counteracted with charitable activities - first you amass billions, then you return (part of) them to the needy. And does the same not hold even for democracy and human rights: human rights are OK if they are "rethought" to include torture and a permanent emergency state; democracy is OK if it is cleansed of its populist "excesses" and limited to those "mature" enough to practise it?

The ultimate case of the chocolate laxative conundrum is our attitude to the Iraq war. The idea is that the war is OK in so far as it serves to foster peace and democracy, or to create conditions for distributing humanitarian help. What one should resist is the temptation of false claims such as: "A terrible dictator was overthrown, and why should that be a bad thing?" The war was not about overthrowing a terrible dictator: it was about the future of the international community, the new rules that will regulate it, what the new world order will be.

The true dangers we face are long-term ones. We are in the midst of a "soft revolution" in which the unwritten rules determining the most elementary international logic are changing. For example, the Guantanamo detainees have no legal rules regulating their detention. They are in a legal void, reduced to being barely human. And is not the recent brutal intervention of the Russian police in the Moscow theatre, killing more of their own people than Chechen "terrorists", a clear indication that we are all potentially barely human: it is not that some of us are full citizens while others are excluded - an emergency state can exclude every one of us. This parallel is more tell-tale than it may appear: last August, it was reported that the Russian government planned to revive one of the most ominous features of Stalinism, the local committees keeping an eye on people and reporting any "unusual" activities or persons. Do some recent initiatives, the US Neighbourhood Watch Programme, say, not point in the same direction? Are not those who pose as global defenders of democracy the ones who are undermining it?

The exemplary economic strategy of today's capitalism is outsourcing - giving over the "dirty" process of material production to another company via a subcontract. Was such outsourcing not explicitly advocated by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek immediately after 9/11? After stating that "we can't legalise torture; it's contrary to American values", Alter nonetheless concludes: "We'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty." This is increasingly how first-world democracies function today: by "outsourcing" their dirty underside to other countries.

The danger of this "soft revolution" is that even though we know that catastrophe is possible, probable even, we do not believe it will happen.

But is it not happening now in front of our eyes? A decade ago, the debate on torture or the participation of the neo-fascist parties in a West European democratic government was dismissed as an ethical catastrophe that was impossible, that "really cannot happen". Once it happened, we got accustomed to it. This is the true threat today.

Slavoj Žižek is senior researcher at the Institute for Social Studies in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Oxford Amnesty Lectures
This is an edited version of the lecture Slavoj Žižek gave this week to the THES-sponsored Oxford Amnesty Lectures series on displacement, migration and asylum. Next week: Bhikhu Parekh on universal human rights.


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