Saturday, November 13, 2010

Zizek, Tolerance & the 'Decaffeinated Other'

In a television interview on Friday Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek addressed the question of tolerance. I found his answer insightful:

"I think tolerance is one of those notions that I call 'notions of disorientation' -- of course it points toward a true problem; of course, the way we use this term in the West, it also mystifies things. For example, I made the simple test: When Martin Luther King, half a century ago, was fighting against racism -- for the rights of the blacks -- he practically never used the term 'tolerance.' We use it today. Why? Because we live in what I call a post-political society: The main problems we have are perceived as cultural problems and so on, and so everything becomes a matter of tolerance.

[But] if you look closely at it, tolerance is a very suspicious notion. It means, yes, 'let's tolerate each other,' but it also means, 'don't harass me,' which means 'remain at a proper distance from me.' If you scratch the surface you will also discover that the 'other' that more liberal multi-culturalists are ready to tolerate are (what I ironically refer to as) the 'decaffeinated other.'

You know, we have products deprived of their poisonous substance; decaf coffee, beer without alcohol, fat-free chocolate and so on -- and it seems to me that people also want 'decaffeinated other'; this mythic, holistic 'good other' and so on and so on. So tolerance is for me a very confused, disorienting term. I don't like it so much. I don't want tolerance, I want military spirit; struggle -- but for a good cause.... The only way to light is courageously confronting darkness."

To my mind it is the nature of that confrontation that is a key question, but I certainly agree that a bland and confused notion of 'tolerance' is not strong enough to sustain a society that can deal equitably and compassionately with today's problems.

(Interview by Riz Khan on Aljazeera, 12 Nov 2010, quoting from 8:35)


Kampen said...


Colin Toffelmire said...

Ya, say what you like about radical materialists and atheists, but I do respect the fact that they also see the idea of a perpetual state of truce, where nobody is allowed to offend anybody else, as a nightmare and not a dream.

A lot of people (Christians especially) deride and dismiss Marxist thinkers, but one of the most brilliant components of Zizek's critique here is that the machine of capitalism requires this flacid "otherness" because without it we would be forced to, as he notes, realize that our differences are frequently deep, political, and meaningful. Things worth fighting over, in other words.

Jon Coutts said...

Yes yes. Zizek fascinates me. I think his Marxism enables him to expose our non-Marxist presuppositions, of which there are many. Even if I don't want to go with him the whole way, I am inclined to listen carefully. He is more than a Marxist though. In my cursory knowledge of him I feel like he has a hodge podge of great points to make and questions to make, and I'm not sure one could necessarily say that Marxism is at the center of that. Maybe it is. Regardless, he says some incredible stuff.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Hmmm, I certainly would not claim to be an expert on Zizek. I mostly know him through other critics. But, as far as I can see Marxism is the hard kernel at the centre of all of his thought. Certainly some of his major influences (e.g. Adorno) are Marxists, though of a particular variety. It's not that everything Zizek says is about Marxism, but I think it's probably fair to say that you need to know he's a Marxist in the same way that you need to know that Jon Coutts is a Christian, in order to properly access his thought.

Jon Coutts said...

yeah you may be right. I didn't really realize he was a Marxist the first book I read of his, so maybe that is why I don't always think of him that way. maybe if I went back and read it again I'd see it on every page.