The colour of the truth

February 4, 2005

Slavoj Zizek urges academics, who too easily use false terms like 'freedom', to reach for the red ink

The Amish practise the tradition of rumspringa . At 18, their children, who have since birth been subjected to strict family discipline, are set free.

They are allowed, solicited even, to go out and experience the ways of the "English" - pop music, TV, drinking, drugs and sex.

A couple of years later, they have to decide whether to return to the Amish community or to live as ordinary Americans.

Far from allowing the youngsters a truly free choice, the decision is brutally biased.

After growing up fantasising about the illicit pleasures of the prohibited "English" world, the adolescent Amish are suddenly thrown into it. And this exposure inexorably backlashes, generating unbearable anxiety - no wonder 90 per cent of the youngsters "freely decide" to go back.

This is how our academic freedom works. If one wants to be fully accepted by those in power, there is nothing better than a "radical" past during which one lived out one's wild dreams.

The Parisian May of 1968 was such a rumspringa, which, in the long term, helped stabilise the system.

A century ago, G.K. Chesterton perspicuously detected the same trap:

"Managed in a modern style the emancipation of the slave's mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free and he will not free himself."

This is emphatically true for our "postmodern" age, with its boundless freedom to deconstruct, doubt and "distance" oneself and hence worry about whether we really want to be free.

In order to fight for freedom, we have to be aware of the true contours of our (un)freedom.

Today, the battle seems to be between liberal-democratic tolerance and fundamentalism.

The conflict between the tolerant West and fundamentalist Islam, for example, can be condensed into the opposition between the woman's right to free sexuality, including the freedom to display oneself and provoke men, and desperate male attempts to eradicate or, at least, keep this threat under control.

But is this opposition as clear as it seems?

Politically correct liberal tolerance also deals with an excess to be controlled if not eradicated: the threat of harassment. In some "radical" US circles, a rethink of the rights of necrophiliacs has been proposed.

The idea was formulated that just as people sign permission for their organs to be used for medical purposes after death, they should also be allowed to permit their bodies to be handed over to necrophiliacs to play with.

The ridiculousness of this proposal reveals its inner truth, that it is a perfect exemplification of PC sex. A corpse is the ideal sexual partner of a "tolerant" subject trying to avoid harassment: by definition, it cannot be harassed.

The intellectual should focus on this secret solidarity of opposite attitudes - if fundamentalists regulate feminine self-presentation to prevent sexual provocation, the PC liberals impose a no-less severe regulation of behaviour to contain the threat of harassment.

They share the same approach to reduce its object (woman, sexual partner) to a living corpse.

Intellectuals should strive to question ideological "evidence".

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, an engineer gets a job in Siberia. Aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he establishes a code with his friends: "If a letter is written in blue ink, it is true; in red ink, false."

His first letter, written in blue ink, began: "Everything is wonderful: stores full, food abundant, apartments large and heated, movie theatres show films from the West - the only thing unavailable is red ink."

This is how a critical mind works, both in the face of totalitarian and liberal censorship.

The lack of red ink means that the terms we use to designate our struggles, such as "war on terror", "democracy and freedom" and "human rights" are false terms that mystify our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to understand it.

This, then, is what intellectuals should do today: invent writing in red ink.

Slavoj Žižek has been appointed international director of Birkbeck, University of London's new Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

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