Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains why we shouldn’t pity or romanticize refugees

Advocating a new view of this scene.
Advocating a new view of this scene.
Image: Reuters/Yannis Behrakis
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The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek is worried about Europe’s attitude to refugees. He’s not talking about the far right populist parties—from Britain’s UKIP to France’s Front National—that have ridden a wave of xenophobia across the old continent. It’s the liberals he’s worried about.

In his latest book, Refugees, Terror and other Troubles with the Neighbors, which will be released in the US next month, the rock star philosopher looks at the current migrant and refugee crises in Europe, and identifies what he sees as its uncomfortable aspects: the contrasts between Western values and those of the thousands arriving in Europe from Africa and the Middle East; the threat of terrorism by migrants; and the inevitable tensions generated by the competition for jobs and resources.

“The neighbor is not a fellow man, one who is like us.”
“The neighbor is not a fellow man, one who is like us.”
Image: Photo via Wikimedia Commons

“The left tries to ignore the problem—for example they try to underreport problems with immigrants,” Žižek told Quartz. “My book is simply a great, desperate call for not keeping silent about this.”

Žižek, whose work touches upon everything from psychoanalysis to film studies, has long been an influential voice in contemporary cultural criticism. Dubbed the ”celebrity philosopher” by Foreign Policy magazine, he has staked out iconoclastic views on democracy and capitalism, political correctnesssexuality. His raucous, contrarian, outspoken personality has made him something of a cult figurebeloved by “Marxist bros.”

Following the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015, Žižek warned that that liberals need to let go of the taboos that prevent open discussion of the problems that come from admitting people of different cultures to Europe, and in particular the denial of any public safety danger caused by refugees.

The left’s silence, Žižek believes, originates in a mistaken belief. ”I never liked this humanitarian approach that if you really talk with them you discover we are all the same people,” he explains. “No, we are not—we have fundamental differences, and true solidarity is in spite of all these differences.”

Understanding, and accepting, that there cultural divides between Europeans and those who are seeking refuge in Europe, the philosopher says, is fundamental for true acceptance.

This is why he refers to refugees as ”neighbors.” “In Christianity,” he explains, “the neighbor is not a fellow man, one who is like us—the neighbor is precisely someone who you think is close to you, and then does something unexpected and then you tell yourself ‘my God I didn’t know this person at all.'”

“That’s why the Christian motto ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ is not as simple as it appears,” Žižek explains.

Another problem with the left, the philosopher writes in his book, is a dangerous tendency to mythologize refugees as especially noble because of their suffering: “I don’t like this romantic false idea that suffering purifies you, that it makes you a noble person. It does not!” On the contrary, he says, “it makes you do anything to survive.”

This doesn’t mean Europe should be less committed to taking care of desperate people seeking shelter, he says—but Europeans should be more realistic about the kind of effort it takes to do so. ”It’s easy to be humanitarian if your principle is that the others whom we are helping are good warm guys, friendly,” he says. “What if they are not? My point is that even in that case we should be helping them.”

“Refugees are the price humanity is paying for the global economy,” Žižek writes, and though he is convinced that the only true solution in the long term is “a radical economic change that abolishes the conditions that create refugees,” that doesn’t solve the immediate emergency. Europe’s only option now, he says, is to commit to ensuring a dignified survival to all refugees that reach its shores.

The left’s refusal to confront cultural differences between refugees and Europeans, the philosopher feels, actually promotes intolerance: ”The only one[s] talking about it openly are these anti-immigrant right-wingers, and we are leaving this field to them,” he explains.

Instead of “prohibiting any critique of Islam as a case of ‘Islamophobia’,” the European left should have the courage to openly discuss the differences between different sets of values, he says. “It is a simple fact that most of the refugees come from a culture that is incompatible with Western European notions of human rights,” writes Žižek. “The problem here is that the obviously tolerant solution (mutual respect of each other’s sensitivities) no less obviously doesn’t work.”

Žižek even goes so far as to say that Europe’s influx of refugees—and the rise of populist movements that seek to block or eject them—should force a reconsideration of the very concept of democracy. “Those who are pro-refugees say ‘we should be open, democratic,'” notes the philosopher, “but what do they exactly mean by democracy? The majority of people are clearly against immigrants.”

Still, he continues, “on behalf of a higher ethical standard we should accept refugees and take care of them even if the majority of the population is against migrants.” The key, he says, is an acknowledgment that this stance is not a democratic decision, but an imposition.