In this essay, I will be exploring basic concepts presented by Slavoj Žižek in his essay „Tolerance as ideological category“, which is part of the book „Violence: Six Sideways Reflections“ published initially in 2008. The goal of this writing is to question Žižek’s writing in the context of today, to check how much did change in 13 years since this essay was initially published, and what of his ideas are still relevant or have been proven wrong due to circumstances like world economic crisis, European migration crisis as well as COVID-19 pandemic, rise of #metoo and #BLM movements and the rise of the global digital community. By the end of this writing, I hope I’ll manage to shape a coherent opinion on how much does Žižek’s „call to share our intolerance“ is still a relevant and suitable approach for today’s society.
In the opening of his argumentation about culturisation of politics Žižek states that most of the issues, of seeing and labelling problems in today’s world is seen as problems of intolerance instead of the problems of inequality and injustice. Žižek further on explains that political differences that occur under political inequality/ economic exploitation are neutralized and seen as „cultural“differences, they are declared as lifestyles and with this labelling people under those labels are those who cannot overcome something, and they are the ones to be „tolerated“.
When Žižek talks about it, he is referring to the world of 2008. but it is easy to notice the mentioned pattern a bit more back in history, to around late 80’s early 90’s, and a bit more important at this point, it is something we can still see and notice in today’s society. For the sake of common living, among the others, there are often calls to tolerance, a peaceful and common living, often truly forced and showed to us in many different ways (via news media, the entertainment industry etc.). These are all invitations to notice and divide us from others and often to make us forget the common well-being and issues that we, as well as these others who should be tolerated, are actually facing together.
By quoting Samuel Huntington, Žižek presents that the iron curtain of ideology, which was a common pattern up to the ’90s was replaced by the velvet curtain of culture. And in the core of it is the „clash of civilizations “. What Žižek here is trying to communicate is that culture is simultaneously collective and individual and that the way we approach it we have different issues towards others as well as ourselves.
If we take a view from the perspective of one collective, we are approaching universally, with comparations and placement of classical primary/secondary values on our and others culture. We are looking upon it. However, from the position of the individual, we can look above this other culture, as well as our own culture. Still, it is quite tricky as, even when looking from the position of the individual, one is still inhabiting the particular world, and has a particularized, biased approach.
For Žižek, the way outside of this paradox, where neither pure universal nor pure individual is unbiased, would be to notice a split in universal and particular, public and private, of course from the viewpoint of the individual. He further states that in today’s liberalism, culture was privatized, it is moved from the collective/universal body to the expression of personal and private idiosyncrasies.
And here is the catch, a decade ago when Žižek was writing his essay this cultural ideology still hasn’t risen and been perceived as a part of the proud identity, that it has become today. At that point, the best world had and Žižek noticed is the world that operated by the logic of the only way to surpass and overcome intolerance, as well as the violence, is to remove the subject from the culture, as the subject must be non-cultural. Today we can see actually that the effort in the other direction, is making slow but sure progress. Instead of removing the subject from cultural identity, and making him a cog in a machine of equality, individualism with a non-toxic attitude has managed to make the first steps towards this road to non-violence/non-intolerance.
Still, even though today’s world has recognized the issue and changed the approach, it is quite important to look at Žižek’s approach and viewpoints, as today’s glory of cultural identity is just starting to rise and there are some lessons, patterns and potential traps to be noticed and appreciated in Žižek’s thoughts.
Liberalism and tolerance
The issue with liberalism, as Žižek states, and I agree with him, is that liberalism prefers a certain type of culture, the one that is western-based, „modern culture “. On a first look, this makes sense, as liberalism is also marked by the freedom of choice and yes it often becomes intolerant if individuals from other cultures don’t have freedom of choice, or if it looks that others don’t have freedom of choice.
This is the point where Žižek gives the examples of potential non-freedom of choices by naming: clitoral removal, underage marriage, infanticide, polygamy, incest. But, Žižek here also noticed that this western-based liberal society forces women to undergo plastic surgery, cosmetic implants and similar procedures to stay competitive in, as he calls it „sexuality market “.
Here is where I largely disagree. Žižek’s categorization in my opinion is a bit too sloppy and biased, as in the category of non-western liberal non-freedoms he counts things that can be tolerated and regrouped. Surely, any true non-freedom is something that needs to be questioned, examined and properly addressed but consensual polygamy or consensual sex of two minors isn’t something hidden from the western eyes or something that is not practised in the west. I’ll place myself here in a naive position of doubt that when this essay was published that minors were a bit more close-minded and that open relationships weren’t as common as today.
Still, the statement I can’t accept from Žižek’s statement is his viewpoint of liberal society forcing women to be/stay competitive in the „sexuality market “. What I feel Žižek is here missing out, or better yet what he is not defining properly at this point, but addresses further on in his writing, is once again the question of free choice.
Anyways, what is important at this point is that Žižek thinks that the liberal idea of free choice always ends in a dead-end. He states that the subject that if individual desires to advocate the narrow-minded culture in which he/she is born, the subject should first be provided with alternatives from which he/she can make a free choice.
But even this is not manageable in practice, and Žižek shows it in the Amish community as well as on example of Muslim women wearing the veil. The issue as Žižek shows is that being open to free choices sometimes makes a great deal of rejection/ intolerance in the first place. Many Amish, Jehova’s witness, Mormon and similar communities strongly punish this freedom of choice and meet it with intolerance. It isn’t a rare case that those who decide to reject their faith get ridiculed, threatened, their families and friends stop communication with them etc.
Even in a simpler case where a woman decides to wear the veil in a society where it is optional (ex. Turkey, Bosnia, western countries with Muslim minorities), those choices are never truly free. If one is surrounded by and spends time with people of similar viewpoints, freedom of choice can bring nothing new to them, as they might just follow the pattern of behavior in their close circle. This same thing could be said about western women that chose to undergo plastic surgery, it is not obligatory, it might be common in society, and one might choose to do it, on a free will, as being a part of a certain circle of people/culture.
It is interesting that Žižek takes these „provocative “/“taboo“ cultural pictures that he can use for negative example but doesn’t try to find/show the middle ground. Nudism would be a great neutral example here, it is something that is someone’s free choice, it is not harming anyone and yes often people who are part of the nudist community are there because of their surroundings aka. being close/ not judged by other nudists.
This is the place where I would like to raise a question. Is biased freedom of choice bad as Žižek thinks? Or do we need/can come to this point where we can be without any influences of our culture or surroundings to make a free choice? I want to believe in the common sense of humanity, and that people who live in cultures under sexual oppression, or gender oppression don’t see and feel these things as normal, common and as their free choice.
For example, I believe that Leila Slimani in her latest book „Sex and other lies“manages to capture the essence of this issue. By listening to the stories of women around the sexually conservative middle east, where it is common to stay silent about sexuality, Leila showcases that oppression doesn’t stop people from choosing to have intercourses, so in the end, the cultures of silence and oppression don’t stop people to have a common sense and understand that sexuality isn’t something to be ashamed of.
Similar parallels could probably be drawn with Žižek’s example of a veiled woman as well as the example of the woman undergoing plastic surgery. I believe that even the opposite applies, humanity is commonly able to see clitoral removal and infanticide as wrong. Anyways after this short diversion, I would like to return to Žižek’s words.
The important thing he notices here is that liberalism demands us, in the west, to respect others not despite but because of our own beliefs. As if, we, the primary should take care and tolerate this secondary other, as long as the secondary other sees and understands and emancipates itself according to our values. If the issue here isn’t obvious, to simplify it, we (western liberals) are okay with others as long as they don’t bring their culture, no matter is good/bad, valuable/ not.
Where and how we seek the universality of tolerance?
As previously mentioned, respecting others despite the difference is the key issue of this essay. Sure, we could just happily say we will change that and respect someone because of who they are but it is not as simple as it seems. Once again, we need to go back to Žižek’s horrible examples (I will just name them instead of focusing on selection and questioning I previously did) of clitoral removal, underage marriage, infanticide, polygamy, incest. How can we „respect“other culture if we are aware that on some level it might support some of the values that can’t and shouldn’t be perceived as free choice and often are not a free choice? Žižek gives the explanation to this question and pushes a general idea of what we should be striving for, how this true values of „respect because of“ could look like.
So, the transition from „tolerance because of “to „tolerance despite “, in Žižek’s mind, starts with questioning the abstract universality that proposes „facts of social life“. Žižek states that the key moment of any theoretical struggle is the emergence/rise of universality from a particular life/world. He notices that truly universal dimension breaks out of the particular context and becomes „for itself “which can and is directly understood as universal.
Here Žižek gives us the example of how the image of Nietzsche was changed throughout the 20th century. At the beginning of the century, the image of Nietzsche was tainted, he was conservative heroic and proto-fascist, but over time he got reclaimed, he became someone else, something else in Deleuze’s readings and of course even this French Nietzsche that was given by Deleuze isn’t the same one at the one from the end of century read by cultural studies.
This same principle can be applied to foreign, other cultures. The reason for this, Žižek states, is that capitalism based on liberal ideology is truly universal. On the most simple, common and everyday level, this could be described as cultural acceptance for the sake of profit. It could go as simple as introducing fashion dedicated to certain cultures, or art/media dedicated to it. It could also be seen as a political act, where the union of countries (and cultures) brings capital prosperity.
These positive affirmation examples, for the sake of diversity still deep down inside have serious issues. In my simple example, with the fashion world, the issue is fast fashion and the pollution it makes (regardless of cultural appreciation), in art and media it is an oversaturation of information, drop in quality and relevance of „content “as well as formalist approaches for the sake of following the successful capitalist trend. Still, on the political, or better yet economic stage it is seen the best.
As the world started to collapse, a year ago due to the pandemic, EU solidarity showed that it was existent for the sake of the capital prosperity and deep under the surface not much has changed, as solidarity has disappeared and everyone was trying to treat and focus on their own wellbeing. At the first sight, it doesn’t seem like a big issue, in its essence there is nothing wrong with that, but the rise of intolerance to others is where this becomes an obvious issue. Once again as the world came to the point of collapse with lack of jobs, lack of safety and security in health the rise of intolerance towards „others “, those who don’t fully assimilate in certain standards and cultures has risen. And these cultural differences, Žižek sees and talks about in his essay from more than a decade ago.
As he says that in this kind of struggles, forces are not united by cultures and their identities, but by those who are repressed, those who are exploited and who suffer, “parts without parts “of every culture that finds itself in a common struggle. While general cultures and norms might have strain away from their principles, their freedom of choice and tolerance decayed, the new common wellbeing, common struggle movements have arisen. Black Lives Matter was one of them, as well as Chris Smalls and his essential worker’s union that had shaken the core of how Amazon and other multi-billion corporation’s function. There is also a certain rise in interest for cosmopolitan/ pansocietal political movements, with Diem25 (by Yanis Varufakis and Srećko Horvat) leading the way in Europe, and further on with Progressive International (by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Cornel West) following in the rest of the world.