destroy monuments

Image: Oto Vale


Politically correct white people who practice self-contempt do not contribute to the fight against racism.

Destroying monuments and denying the past is not the way to deal with racism and show respect for black people. Feeling guilty leads to condescending treatment of victims and achieves little.

It was widely reported in the media how, on 21 June 2020, the German authorities were shocked by a riot of “unprecedented scales” in the center of Stuttgart: between 400 and 500 revelers rioted all night, breaking windows, looting stores and attacking the police.

The police – who needed four and a half hours to quell the riots – dismissed any political motives for the “civil war scenes”, describing the perpetrators as people from the “festive or event scene”. There were, of course, no bars or clubs for them to go to, due to social distancing – so they were out on the streets.

Such civil disobedience has not been limited to Germany. On June 25, thousands flocked to beaches in England, ignoring social distancing. In Bournemouth, on the south coast, it was reported: “The area was taken over by cars and sunbathers, leading to traffic congestion. Waste pickers also experienced abuse and intimidation while trying to clear mountains of rubbish along the seafront, and there were a number of incidents involving alcohol abuse and fights.”

It is possible to associate these outbursts of violence with the immobility imposed by social distancing and quarantine, and it is reasonable to expect that we will see similar incidents around the world. It could be argued that the recent wave of anti-racist protests also follow a similar order: people are relieved to deal with something they believe can divert their attention away from the coronavirus.

We are, of course, dealing with different types of violence. At the beach, people simply wanted to enjoy their summer vacation, and reacted violently against those who wanted to warn them.

In Stuttgart, satisfaction was generated by looting and destruction – by violence itself. But what we saw there was, at best, a carnival of violence, an explosion of blind rage (even if, as expected, some leftists tried to interpret it as a protest against consumption and police control). Anti-racist protests (largely non-violent) simply ignored orders from authorities in pursuit of a noble cause.

Of course, these types of violence predominate in Western societies – we are ignoring here the most extreme violence that already happens and is sure to explode in countries like Yemen, Afghanistan and Somalia. “This summer will usher in some of the worst catastrophes the world has ever seen if the pandemic continues to spread rapidly through countries already convulsed by rising violence, deepening poverty and the specter of famine.”, reported The Guardian this week.

There is a key element shared by these three types of violence, despite their differences: none of them expresses a consistent sociopolitical program. Anti-racist protests may even appear to express, but they fail in that they are dominated by the politically correct passion to erase the traces of racism and sexism - a passion that approaches its opposite, the neo-conservative control of thought.

The law passed on June 16 by Romanian parliamentarians bans all educational institutions from “propagating theories and opinions on gender identity according to which gender is a separate concept from biological sex”. Even Vlad Alexandrescu, a center-right senator and university professor, noticed that, with this law, “România aligns itself with positions promoted by Hungary or Poland and becomes a regime that introduces the policing of ideas”.

The direct ban on gender theories is certainly part of the program of the new populist right, but now it has gained new momentum with the pandemic. A typical reaction of a New Right populist to the pandemic is to assume that its outbreak is, ultimately, the result of our global society, where multicultural mixtures predominate. The way to fight it, then, is to make our societies more nationalistic, rooted in a particular culture with firm and traditional values.

Let's leave aside the obvious counter-argument that fundamentalist countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are being wiped out, and let's focus on the procedure for “idea policing”, whose ultimate expression was the famous Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books), a collection of publications considered heretical or contrary to morality by the Sacred Congregation of the Index, so Catholics were forbidden to read them without permission.

This list was in operation (and was regularly updated) from the dawn of modernity until 1966, and all the thinkers who really mattered to European culture were, at some point, part of it. As my friend Mladen Dolar commented a few years ago, if you imagine European culture without all the books and authors that were at some point on the list, what's left is pure wasteland.

The reason I mention this is that I think the recent drive to cleanse our culture of all traces of racism and sexism flirts with the danger of falling into the same trap as the Catholic Church's index. What remains if we discard all the authors in whom we find traces of racism and anti-feminism? Almost literally all the great philosophers and writers disappear.

Let's take Descartes, who, at one point, was on the Catholic index, but is also seen today by many as the philosopher who gave rise to Western hegemony, which is eminently racist and sexist.

We cannot forget that the experience underlying the Cartesian position of universal doubt is precisely a 'multicultural' experience of how one's own tradition is no more than what appears to us as the 'eccentric' traditions of others. As he wrote in his 'Discourse on Method', he recognized, in the course of his travels, that traditions and customs which are "contrary to ours are not on that account barbaric or savage, and that many, as much as we do, use reason"[I].

This is why, for a Cartesian philosopher, ethnic roots and national identities are simply not categories of truth. This is also why Descartes immediately became popular with women: according to one of his first readers, the cogito – the subject of pure thought – has no sex.

Current claims that sexual identities are socially constructed and not biologically determined are only possible against the backdrop of the Cartesian tradition; there is no modern feminism and anti-racism without the thought of Descartes.

So, despite his occasional racist and sexist lapses, Descartes deserves to be celebrated, and we should apply the same criteria to all the greats of our philosophical past: from Plato and Epicurus to Kant and Hegel, Marx and Kierkegaard... anti-racism emerged from this long emancipatory tradition, and it would be sheer madness to abandon this noble tradition in the hands of populists and obscene conservatives.

And the same goes for several disputed political figures. Yes, Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and opposed the Haitian revolution – but he laid the political-ideological foundations of later black liberation. And yes, by invading the Americas, Western Europe caused perhaps the greatest genocide in world history. But European thought laid the political-ideological foundations so that we today can see the full dimension of this horror.

And it's not just Europe: yes, while the young Gandhi was fighting in South Africa for equal rights for Indians, he was ignorant of the plight of blacks. But, in any case, he successfully led the largest anti-colonial movement.

So, while we must be ruthlessly critical of our past (and especially the past that continues into our present), we must not succumb to self-loathing – respect for others based on self-loathing is always, and by definition, false.

The paradox is that in our societies, white people who participate in anti-racist protests are mostly upper-middle-class people who hypocritically enjoy their guilt. These protesters should perhaps take a lesson from Frantz Fanon, who certainly cannot be accused of not being radical enough:

“Every time a man makes the dignity of the spirit triumph, every time a man says no to any attempt to oppress his fellow man, I feel solidarity with his act. In no way should I draw from the past of peoples of color my original vocation. (…) My black skin is not the repository of specific values. (…) I, a man of color, have no right to seek to know how my race is superior or inferior to another race. I, a man of color, do not have the right to claim the crystallization, in white people, of guilt in relation to the past of my race. I, a man of color, have no right to pursue the means that would allow me to trample on the former master's pride. I have neither the right nor the duty to demand reparation for my domesticated ancestors. There is no black mission. There is no white bale. (…) Am I going to demand that the white man of today take responsibility for the slave traders of the XNUMXth century? Am I going to try by all means to give birth to Guilt in souls? I am not a slave to the Slavery that dehumanized my parents.”[ii]

The reverse of (the white man's) blame is not tolerance for his persistent politically correct racism, famously demonstrated in the notorious Amy Cooper video which was filmed in New York's Central Park.

In a conversation with the academic Russell Sbriglia, he pointed out that “the strangest, most shocking part of the video is that she specifically says – both to the black man before she calls the police and to the officer once she is on the phone with him – that an 'Afro- American' is threatening his life. It's almost as if, having mastered the appropriate politically correct jargon ('African-American', not 'Black'), what she was doing couldn't possibly be racist."

Rather than perversely basking in our guilt (and thus patronizing real victims) we need active solidarity: guilt and victimization immobilize us. Only all of us, together, treating ourselves and each other as responsible adults, can end racism and sexism.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan


Translator's notes

[I] DESCARTES, Rene. The Method Discourse. Trans. Joao Cruz Costa. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier, 2011.

[ii] FANON, Frantz. Black Skin White Masks. Trans. Renato da Silveira. EDUFBA, Salvador, 2008, p. 187-190.

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