Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek isn’t one to shy away from provocative observations. In a video published on the portal Big Think, he takes on something that is commonly employed as a sensible cultural practice: Political correctness. The academic calls it a form of “cold respect.” He argues that giving space to an occasional exchange of “friendly obscenities” allows for more closeness and gives way to honest exchanges.
Žižek reports several episodes in which his lack of politically correct boundaries has served him well, from dealing with the ethnic tensions in former Yugoslavia to becoming friendly with two black Americans after jokingly making a racist remark: “You blacks, like the yellow guys, you all look the same” he reports saying to them, adding, “they embraced me and they told me, you can call me nigga.”)
“I’m well aware that we should not just walk around and humiliate each other,” says the philosopher. And yet he finds that “there is something so fake about political correctness”—something that, according to him, prevents a true overcoming of prejudice and racism. Žižek explains:
That’s my problem with political correctness. It’s just a form of self discipline which doesn’t really allow you too overcome racism. It’s just oppressed, controlled racism.
Žižek’s words might be blunt, but his point is valid.
Political correctness stems from the understanding that racism and inequality exist, and that in lieu of fixing those problems, prettier language will do the trick—as if by using inoffensive words and avoiding crass jokes we are to paint over the filth of reality. Politically correct expressions, to Žižek, become patronizing because they actually highlight inequalities. As the philosopher notes, “one needs to be very precise not to fight racism in a way which ultimately reproduces, if not racism itself, at least the conditions of racism.”
The subtext of every carefully chosen, politically correct, expression is that there are still people in a position so privileged that they need to refer to “others” in a way that is not offensive—that doesn’t, for instance, make reference to their origin, or skin color. The implication is that there is nothing possibly offensive in the speaker’s skin tone or their origin. Jokes and blunt words can’t scratch their confidence—no, it’s only the rest of the population who needs the protection of politically correct language.
Beyond the offensive jokes, avoiding politically correct language is also about calling things by their name. Just like a family friend’s three-year-old nephew who, back from his first day of kindergarten, excitedly told his parents: “I have a new friend! He’s all brown!”
And it is not just race, of course, that Žižek talks about. Gender, disability–anything that diverges from norms presented in society or media–are all coated with neutral words and behaviors, by the very people who claim to be accepting of it. This special language, despite its intentions, serves to reinforce certain conditions as special, fragile, and weak.
Can we dare to see differences for what they are—nothing else than differences? And can we ever safely name them, perhaps even with the occasional offensive joke?
Perhaps adopting a little of Žižek’s attitude would indeed result in what he refers to as a ”wonderful sense of shared obscene solidarity.” It might generate misunderstanding, but if a more light-hearted approach is adopted in a genuine way, that would reflect a profound belief that the other isn’t weaker, doesn’t need anyone’s protection, and is at our level—hence can openly be made fun of, just as we do of ourselves.