Thursday, October 23, 2014


How, then, does multiculturalism as fantasy function?

In such a fantasy, racism is ‘officially prohibited’. This is true. We are ‘supposed’ to be for racial equality, tolerance and diversity, and we are not ‘allowed’ to express hatred towards others, or to incite racist hatred. I would argue that this prohibition against racism is imaginary, and that it conceals everyday forms of racism, and involves a certain desire for racism. Take Big Brother and the Jade Goody story. You could argue that Big Brother’s exposure of racism functions as evidence that political correctness is hegemonic: you are not allowed to be racist towards others. But that would be a misreading. What was at stake was the desire to locate racism in the body of Jade Goody, who comes to stand for the ignorance of the white working classes, as a way of showing that ‘we’ (channel 4 and its well-meaning liberal viewers) are not racist like that. When anti-racism becomes an ego ideal you know you are in trouble.

The prohibition of racist speech should not then be taken literally: rather it is a way of imagining ‘us’ as beyond racism, as being good multicultural subjects who are not that. By saying racism is over there –‘look, there it is! in the located body of the racist’ – other forms of racism remain unnamed, what we could call civil racism. We might even say that the desire for racism is an articulation of a wider unnamed racism that accumulates force by not being named, or by operating under the sign of civility.

The best example one can imagine of this are the presidential elections in France a couple of years ago when Jean-Marie le Pen made it into the second round: reacting to this racist-chauvinist threat, the entire “democratic France” joined their ranks behind Jacques Chirac who was reelected with an overwhelming majority of 80%. No wonder everyone felt good after this display of French anti-racism, no wonder people “loved to hate” le Pen: by way of clearly locating racism in him and his party, the general “civil racism” is rendered invisible. In a homologous way, there was, in Slovenia, around a year ago, a big problem with a Roma (Gipsy) family which camped close to a small town. When a man was killed in the camp, the people in the town started to protest against the Roma, demanding that they be moved from the camp (which they occupied illegally) to another location, organizing vigilante groups, etc. As expected, all liberals condemned them as racists, locating racism into this isolated small village, while none of the liberals, living comfortably in the big cities, had any everyday contact with the Roma (except for meeting their representatives in front of the TV cameras when they supported them). When the TV interviewed the “racists” from the town, they were clearly seen to be a group of people frightened by the constant fighting and shooting in the Roma camp, by the constant theft of animals from their farms, and by other forms of small harassments from the Roma. It is all too easy to say (as the liberals did) that the Roma way of life is (also) a consequence of the centuries of their exclusion and mistreatment, that the people in the nearby town should also open themselves more to the Roma, etc. – nobody clearly answered the local “racists” what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them.

One of the most irritating liberal-tolerant strategies is to oppose Islam as a great religion of spiritual peace and compassion to its fundamentalist-terrorist abuse – whenever Bush or Netanyahu or Sharon announced a new phase in the War on Terror, they never forgot to include this mantra. (One is almost tempted to counter it by claiming that Islam is, as all religions, in itself a rather stupid inconsistent edifice, and that what makes it truly great are its possible political uses.) This is liberal-tolerant racism at its purest: this kind of “respect” for the other is the very form of appearance of its opposite, of patronizing disrespect. The very term “tolerance” is here indicative: one “tolerates” something one doesn’t approve of, but cannot abolish, either because one is not strong enough to do it or because one is benevolent enough to allow the Other to stick to its illusion – in this way, a secular liberal “tolerates” religion, a permissive parent “tolerates” his children’s excesses, etc.

Where I disagree with Ahmed is in her supposition that the underlying injunction of liberal tolerance is monocultural – “Be like us, become British!” I claim that, on the opposite, its injunction is cultural apartheid: others should not come too close to us, we should protect our “way of life.” The demand “Become like us!” is a superego demand, a demand which counts on the other’s inability to really become like us, so that we can then gleefully “deplore” their failure. (Recall how, in the apartheid South Africa, the official regime’s ideology was multiculturalist: apartheid is needed so that all the diverse black tribes will not get drowned into our civilization…) The truly unbearable fact for a multiculturalist liberal is an Other who effectively becomes like us, while retaining its specific features.

Furthermore, Ahmed passes between two forms of racism which should be distinguished. First, there is the “reflexive racism”: we use our non-racism to distinguish ourselves from the racist other and thus to castigate them in a racist way. More precisely, one should distinguish, in a kind of spectral analysis, three different modes of today’s racism. First, there is the old fashioned unabashed rejection of the (despotic, barbarian, orthodox, Muslim, corrupt, oriental…) Other on behalf of the authentic (Western, civilized, democratic, Christian…) values. Then there is the “reflexive” Politically Correct racism: the multiculturalist perception of Muslims or Balkans as the terrain of ethnic horrors and intolerance, of primitive irrational war passions, to be opposed to the post-Nation-State liberal-democratic process of solving conflicts through rational negotiations, compromises and mutual respect. Racism is here as it were elevated to the second power: it is attributed to the Other, while we occupy the convenient position of a neutral benevolent observer, righteously dismayed at the horrors going on down there. Finally, there is the reversed racism: it celebrates the exotic authenticity of the Balkan Other, as in the notion of Serbs who, in contrast to the inhibited, anemic Western Europeans, still exhibit a prodigious lust for life – this last form of racism plays a crucial role in the success of Emir Kusturica’s films in the West. – Second, racists themselves become a “threatened minority” whose free speech must be protected, i.e., they use the prohibition as evidence that racism is a minority position which has to be defended against the multicultural hegemony. Racism can then be articulated as a minority position, a refusal of orthodoxy. In this perverse logic, racism can then be embraced as a form of free speech. We have articulated a new discourse of freedom: as the freedom to be offensive, in which racism becomes an offence that restores our freedom: the story goes, we have worried too much about offending the other, we must get beyond this restriction, which sustains the fantasy that ‘that’ was the worry in the first place. Note here that the other, especially the Muslim subject who is represented as easily offended, becomes the one who causes injury, insofar as it is the Muslim other’s ‘offendability’ that is read as restricting our free speech. The offendable subject ‘gets in the way’ of our freedom. So rather than saying racism is prohibited by the liberal multicultural consensus, under the banner of respect for difference, I would argue that racism is what is protected under the banner of free speech through the appearance of being prohibited.
-Slavoj Zizek, "Multiculturalism: The Reality of an Illusion"

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