The Barbarism of Liberalism: The Morality of Self Doubt, Research Time, 27/12/2013

The ever-intense Walter Benjamin.
Part of what I love about Zizek’s ideas lies in a quote from Walter Benjamin he gives in Living in the End Times. “To be civilized means to know one is potentially a barbarian.”* This is the central idea behind so much of Zizek’s cultural criticism, his critique of liberal values and politics, the hypocrisy of liberal multiculturalism regarding its values for toleration and acceptance.

* This is also a central element of how I try to approach moral behaviour in my own life. I’ve noticed the people who take the most morally horrible actions are those who believe themselves incapable of being terrible to people. And the actions I most regret are those when I’ve believed myself incapable of saying or doing regrettable things. 

A central element of his critique is that the contemporary ideology of equal rights for all actually enables terrible physical harms, and dehumanizes its ethnic and cultural minority communities. Zizek follows in the wake of an earlier critique of liberal society, that of Louis Althusser. Althusser’s idea was that Western social structures (particularly the role of the police) determines individual identities, the calls and surveillance of authority figures defining people, oppressing their ability to define themselves. He called it interpellation.

Zizek’s idea is that, despite the oppressive nature of interpellation, it did serve a positive function in guiding people into a social role. Typical liberal values (my posts on Luc Ferry’s critique of environmentalism show him to be a model for these ideas) stand for individual determination against interpellation into society. Emphasis on the individual guards against social oppression, but also breaks social solidarity. Society consists entirely of individuals who are disconnected from each other. 

And when such a regime of liberal values tries to incorporate foreign cultures, Zizek sees a new kind of discrimination developing. A minority culture is today treated as an individual, able to determine its own social norms. But such a culture is not an individual. It’s a society consisting of individuals. Conforming to the rules and moral norms of a culture, says Zizek, can only be legitimized in a wider liberal society as an individual decision. 

Yet he considers this tolerance to end in a cultural apartheid. It isn’t enforced through brutal police structures, but moral values that go against liberal individualism aren’t allowed to have a true dialogue with the broader community. People just turn away from them, and leave them to themselves. Communities where anti-individualist values percolate and thrive are tolerated in the name of cultural tolerance. But they aren’t really welcomed or taken seriously because their anti-individualist values may threaten the majority. The result is a cultural segregation. The liberal majority doesn’t want their individualist values challenged, and the less tolerant minorities only grow in their extremity as no critique arrives from the majority culture. The society as a whole is stuck in a stalemate between tolerance and disdain.

Zizek’s critique applies, I think, to the current situation in Europe, where ostensibly liberal societies separate cultural minorities in ghettos. The majority then grows intolerant of the anti-individualist societies they’ve let grow in their midst and refused to engage in a serious conversation about philosophical moral value. This is how tolerance grows into open racism, as in the anti-immigrant political parties of contemporary Europe who justify their racism as a defence of liberal values, defending liberal culture from the attack of fundamentalism.

I’m not sure how applicable the idea is to all versions of liberalism. But it’s an important critique to consider. Ostensibly liberal, progressive people allow themselves to become racists in the name of anti-racism when they accept new cultures into their communities without allowing either side to critique each other’s values and learn from each other.

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