The Traps of Political Correctness
People often ask themselves if a person can really imagine what it is to be another person; what a psychoanalyst would have added to this is that we also cannot imagine what is to be ourselves – or, more precisely, we (only) imagine that we are ourselves without really being it – and here is an example of this impossibility to be oneself.
In the Spring of 2015, UK media extensively reported on Grace Gelder, a middle-age photographer who, after practicing Indian meditation and upon hearing Bjork singing in one of her songs “I am married to myself,” decided to do precisely this: she organized the full ceremony of self-marrying, proclaimed her vows to herself, put on a wedding ring and kissed herself in a mirror… Far from being an idiosyncratic eccentricity, the idea of self-dating and self-marrying more and more circulates on the web. Technical details abound on how to proceed in self-dating: the prospective self-lover should leave all around his/her apartment loving messages; when one decides on a self-date, one should put one’s apartment in order, prepare a nice table with candles, put on one’s best dress, inform one’s friends that one has an important meeting with oneself… The goal of self-dating is to gain a deep knowledge of oneself, of what one really is and wants, so that, by way of taking a vow to my deeper Self, I can achieve self-acceptance and self-harmonization, and this will enable me to lead a deeply satisfied life… will it?
Before we explode into laughter at this idea and dismiss it as the extreme expression of the contemporary pathological narcissism, we should ascertain its moment of truth: the idea of self-dating and self-marrying presupposes that one is not directly one with oneself. I can marry myself only if I am not directly myself, so that my self-unity has to be registered by the big Other, performed in a symbolic ceremony, made “official.” Here, however, problems arise: how does this inscription into the symbolic order in the eyes of which I am then “married with myself” relate to my direct self-experience? What if the result of my probing into myself is that I discover that I don’t like what I find there at all? What if all I find is the filth of envy, sadistic fantasies and disgusting sexual obsessions? What if the much-celebrated “inner wealth” of my personality is inherently excremental – vulgari eloquentia, what if I am really full of shit? In short, what if I discover that I am my own neighbor in the strict biblical sense (the abyss of an impenetrable X totally foreign to my officiual Self), and what if I search contact with others precisely to escape myself? They say that in order to love others, you have to love yourself – truly? What if the opposite holds, at two levels: I love others to escape myself, and I can only love myself insofar as I am able to love others? Self-marrying presupposes that I’ve found peace with myself – but what if I cannot reconcile myself with myself? And what if I fully discover this only after I get married with myself? Should I enact a formal proceeding of self-divorce? Should this divorce be permitted for Catholics? This is why, apropos of the injunction to love your neighbor as yourself, Lacan acerbically noted “the impossibility of responding to this sort of challenge in the first person, no one ever supposed that to this ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’, an ‘I love my neighbour as myself’ could answer, because obviously the weakness of this formulation is clear to everyone.«[i]
Therein resides the problem with the well-known motto: Be yourself!… which Self? Insofar as the Self whom I marry in self-marrying is my ideal ego, »the best in me,« the idealized image of myself, relaxed self-identification and self-acceptance imperceptibly turn into radical self-alienation, and the fear that I am not true to my »true self« haunts me forever. And exactly the same question – which Self? – haunts the latest Politically-Correct obsession whose commercial expression is the so-called “Co” offered online by the Affirmative Consent Project for only $1.99: a small bag (available in faux-suede or canvass version) filled with a condom, a pen, some breath mints, and a simple contract stating that both participants freely consent to a shared sexual act. The suggestion is that a couple ready to have sex either takes a photo holding in their hands the contract, or that they both date and sign it. Although “Consent Conscious Kit” addresses a very real problem, it does it in a way which is not only silly but directly counter-productive – why?
The underlying idea is that a sex act, if it to be cleansed of any suspicion of coercion, has to be in advance declared as a free conscious decision of both participants – to put it in Lacanian terms, it has to be registered by the big Other, inscribed into the symbolic order. As such, “Consent Conscious Kit” is just an extreme expression of an attitude that grows all around the US – for example, the state of California passed a law requiring all colleges that accept state funding to adopt policies requiring all students to obtain affirmative consent — which it defines as “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity” that is “ongoing” and not given when too drunk — before engaging in sexual activity, or else risk punishment for sexual assault.
“Affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” – by whom? The first thing to do here is to mobilize the Freudian triad of Ego, Superego, and Id (in simplified version: my conscious self-awareness, the agency of moral responsibility enforcing norms on me, and my deepest half-disavowed passions). What if there is a conflict between the three? Under the pressure of the Superego, my Ego say NO, but my Id resists and clings to the denied desire? Or (a much more interesting case) the opposite: I say YES to the sexual invitation, surrendering to my Id passion, but in the midst of performing the act, my Superego triggers an unbearable guilt feeling? So, to bring things to the absurd, should the contract be signed by the Ego, Superego and Id of each party, so that it is valid only if all three say YES? Plus what if the male partner also uses his contractual right to step back and cancel the agreement at any moment in the sexual activity? Imagine that, after obtaining the woman’s consent, when the prospective lovers find themselves naked in bed, some tiny bodily detail (an unpleasant sound like a vulgar belching) dispels the erotic charm and makes the man withdraw? Is this not in itself an extreme humiliation for the woman?
The ideology that sustains this promotion of “sexual respect” deserves a closer look. The basic formula is: “Yes means yes!” – it has to be an explicit yes, not just the absence of a no. “No no” does not automatically amount to a “yes”: if a woman who is being seduced does not actively resist it, this still leaves the space open for different forms of coercion. Here, however, problems explode: what if a woman passionately desires it but is too embarrassed to openly declare it? What if, for both partners, ironically playing coercion is part of the erotic game? And a yes to what, precisely, to what types of sexual activity, is a declared yes? Should then the contract form be more detailed, so that the principal consent is specified: a yes to vaginal but not anal intercourse, a yes to fellatio but not swallowing the sperm, a yes to light spanking but not harsh blows, etc.etc. One can easily imagine a long bureaucratic negotiation which can kill all desire for the act, but it can also get libidinally invested on its own.
Not to mention the opposite possibility: an enforced yes. In one of the most painful and troubling scenes from David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, Willem Dafoe exerts a rude pressure on Laura Dern in a lonely motel room: he touches and squeezes her, invading the space of her intimacy and repeating in a threatening way “Say fuck me!”, i.e. extorting from her a word that would signal her consent to a sexual act. The ugly, unpleasant scene drags itself on, and when, finally, the exhausted Laura Dern utters a barely audible “Fuck me!”, Dafoe abruptly steps away, assumes a nice, friendly smile and cheerfully retorts: “No, thanks, I don’t have time today, I’ve got to go; but on another occasion I would do it gladly…” The uneasiness of this scene, of course, resides in the fact that the shock of Dafoe’s final rejection of Dern’s forcefully extorted offer gives the final pitch to him: his unexpected rejection is his ultimate triumph and while rape would of course be worse, in a way this outcome is more humiliating to her. He has attained what he really wanted: not the act itself, just her consent to it, her symbolic humiliation.
These problems are far from secondary, they concern the very core of erotic interplay from which one cannot withdraw into a neutral position of meta-language and declare one’s readiness (or unreadiness) to do it: every such act is part of the interplay and either de-eroticizes the situation or gets eroticized on its own. There is something in the very structure of erotic interplay which resists direct formal declaration of consent or intent. In the English working class drama Brassed Off, the hero accompanies home a young pretty woman who, at the entrance to her flat, tells him: “Would you like to come in for a coffee?” To his answer – “There is a problem – I don’t drink coffee.” – she retorts with a smile: “No problem – I don’t have any…” The immense direct erotic power of her reply resides in how, through a double negation, she pronounces an embarrassingly direct sexual invitation without ever mentioning sex: when she first invites the guy in for a coffee and then admits she has no coffee, she does not cancel her invitation, she just makes it clear that the first invitation for a coffee was a stand-in (or pretext), indifferent in itself, for the invitation to sex. So what should the guy do here to obey »sexual respect«? Should he tell the girl: »Wait a minute, let us make it clear: since you invited me to a cup of coffee in your flat without having any coffee, this means you want sex – yes?« One can imagine how such »(only a) yes means yes« approach would not only ruin the encounter but would also be perceived by the girl (in a fully justified way) as an extremely aggressive and humiliating act.
We can imagine here multiple levels, beginning with direct communication: “I would like you to come to my flat and fuck me.” “I would also love to fuck you, so let’s just go up and do it!” Then, the direct mention of the detour as a detour: “I would like you to come to my flat and fuck me, but I am embarrassed to ask for it directly. So I will be polite and ask if you want to come up with me for a coffee.” “I don’t drink coffee, but I would also love to fuck you, so let’s just go up and do it!” Then, the idiot’s answer: “Would you like to come up to my flat for a cup of coffee?” “Sorry, I don’t drink coffee.” “Idiot, it’s not about coffee, it’s about sex, coffee was just a pretext!” “Oh, I got it, so yes, let’s go up and do it!” Then a version with direct jumps between levels: “Would you like to come up to my flat for a cup of coffee?” “Yes, I would love to fuck you!” (Or: “Sorry, I am now too tired for sex.”) And the inverted version: “Would you like to come up to my flat and fuck me?” “Sorry, I am not in a mood for coffee right now.” (This retreat into politeness is, of course, again an act of extreme aggression and humiliation.) We can also imagine a version along the lines of “coffee without…”: “I’m tired tonight, so I would love to come up to your place just for a cup of coffee, no sex.” “I have my period now, so I cannot give you coffee without sex – but I have a good DVD to watch, so what about coffee without DVD?” Up to the ultimate self-reflexive version: “Would you like to come up to my place?” “I am not sure if I want sex or watching a movie, so what if we just go up and have a cup of coffee?”
Why does the direct invitation to sex not work? Because the true problem is not that coffee is never fully coffee, but that sex is never fully sex, that there is no sexual relationship, which is why the sexual act needs a fantasmatic supplement. So it’s not just polite censorship which prevents a direct invitation: “Let’s go up and have sex!” – coffee or something like this has to be mentioned to provide the fantasmatic frame for sex. In other words, what is primordially repressed in the scene from Brassed Off is not sex (which, for this reason, has to be replaced in the explicit text by coffee) but what is missing in sex itself, the inherent impossibility/failure of sex – the replacement of sex by coffee is a secondary repression whose function is to obfuscate the primordial repression.
The »yes means yes« sexual rule is an exemplary case of the narcissistic notion of subjectivity that predominates today. A subject is experienced as something vulnerable, something that has to be protected by a complex set of rules, warned in advance about all possible intrusions that may disturb him/her. Upon its release, ET was prohibited in Sweden, Norway and Denmark: its non-sympathetic portrayal of adults was considered dangerous for the relation between children and their parents. (An ingenious detail confirms this accusation: for the first 10 minutes of the film, all adults are seen only below their belts, like the adults in cartoons who threaten Tom and Jerry…) From today’s perspective, we can see this prohibition as an early sign of the politically-correct obsession with protecting individuals from any experience that may hurt them in any way. Not only real life experiences, even fiction can be censored, as we can see in a recent request by the Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board to put “trigger warnings” on the canonic works of art. (A proof that sometimes fictions are to be taken more seriously than reality.) What triggered this request itself was a complaint by a student, a victim of sexual assault, who was “triggered” by the vivid depictions of rape in Ovid’s Metamorphoses she was instructed to read. Since the professor dismissed the student’s complaint, the MAAB also proposed “sensitivity training classes” for professors teaching them how to deal with attack survivors, persons of color or from a low-income background. Jerry Coyne is right to claim that “the pathway of such trigger warnings — not just for sexual assault but for violence, bigotry, and racism — will eventually lead to every work of literature being labeled as potentially offensive. There goes the Bible, there goes Dante, there goes Huck Finn (loaded with racism), there goes all the old literature written before we realized that minorities, women, and gays weren’t second-class people. And as for violence and hatred, well, they’re everywhere, for they’re just as much parts of literature as parts of life. Crime and Punishment? Trigger warning: brutal violence against an old woman. The Great Gatsby? Trigger warning: violence against women (remember when Tom Buchanan broke Mrs. Wilson’s nose?). The Inferno? Trigger warning: graphic violence, sodomy, and torture. Dubliners? Trigger warning: Pedophilia. /…/ In the end, anybody can claim offense or triggering about anything: liberals about conservative politics, pacifists against violence, women against sexism, minorities against bigotry, Jews against anti-Semitism, Muslims against any mention of Israel, creationists against evolution, religionists against atheism, and so on.”[ii]
And the list can go on indefinitely – recall the proposal to digitally delete smoking from Hollywood classics… And it is not only the low-income people who may feel hurt – what about the rich people who cocoon themselves to avoid getting “triggered” by close encounters with actual lower classes? Is not the isolation into cocooned Safe Spaces the strategy of the rich? But the case of religion is especially interesting. In Western Europe, Muslim representatives are leading a campaign to impose a legal prohibition on blasphemy and disrespect of religion(s) – OK, but should we not apply this prohibition also on religious texts themselves, prohibit or totally rewrite in PC style the complete Bible and Quran? (Not to mention that we should also prohibit disrespect of atheism.) And – the ultimate inescapable paradox – would quite a lot of people not feel hurt by such universalized trigger warnings, experiencing it as an oppressive regime of total control? What we should reject here is the basic MAAB premise: “Students need to feel safe in the classroom…” – no, they don’t need to feel safe, they need to learn how to openly confront all the humiliations and injustices and to fight against them. The entire MAAB vision of life is wrong: “It’s time for students to learn that Life is Triggering. Cocooning oneself in a Big Safe Space for four years gets it exactly backwards.”[iii] One should be taught to step out of the cocooned Big Safe Space, enter the dangerous unsafe life outside and intervene there. One should be taught that we do NOT live in a safe world – we live in a world with multiple threats of catastrophes, from environmental ones and new prospects of war to rising social violence.
“If you can’t face Hiroshima in the theater, you’ll eventually end up in Hiroshima itself.” This statement (by Edward Bond) provides the best argument against those who oppose graphic descriptions of sexual violence and other atrocities, dismissing them as participating in the same violence these descriptions pretend to critically analyze and reject. For example, in a (very) critical review of my intervention at the Benjamin conference in Ramallah, the writer claims that I enumerate “a detailed list of ritualized sexual violences taking place outside of the Islamic world, thus showing his willingness to accompany ‘honour killings’ with matching atrocities. He was each time rhetorically apologetic about his descriptions (‘it is really hard to talk about this but I must tell you’) and each time came back with more obscene, bloody and graphic details. This suffices to grasp the pointlessness (and ambivalence) of his intervention: displaying concerns about sexual violence by subjecting the watchful audience to the violence of crude images of heinous sexual practices.”[iv]
This is the prototype of Politically Correct line of argumentation that I not only reject but consider extremely dangerous. In order to really grasp sexual violence one has to be shocked, traumatized even, by it – if we constrain ourselves to aseptic technical descriptions we do exactly the same as those who refer to torture as “enhanced interrogation technique” or to rape as “enhanced seduction technique.” It is only the taste of the thing itself that effectively vaccinates us against it. And we can already see the consequences of such a stance: when, at the beginning of September 2016, Facebook censored the iconic »napalm girl« photo of a terrified 9 years old naked Vietnamese girl running away from napalm bombs, it hypocritically justified it as a defense against displaying child nudity which can even count as child pornography, ignoring the obvious political dimension – as if anyone could really be sexually aroused by this photo of a terrified girl. What this image could »trigger« is clearly not sexual arousal but the awareness of the horror of war against civilian population. (The big public outcry quickly forced Facebook to reinstall the picture.)
Along these lines, Nikki Johnson-Huston described eloquently how “white Liberals have hijacked the conversation about diversity, political correctness and what topics we should be outraged about”:
“My problem with Liberalism is that it’s more concerned with policing people’s language and thoughts without requiring them to do anything to fix the problem. White liberal college students speak of ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger words’, ‘micro aggressions’ and ‘white privilege’ while not having to do anything or, more importantly, give up anything. They can’t even have a conversation with someone who sees the world differently without resorting to calling someone a racist, homophobic, misogynistic, bigot and trying to have them banned from campus, or ruin them and their reputation. They say they feel black peoples’ pain because they took a trip to Africa to help the disadvantaged, but are unwilling to go to a black neighbourhood in the City in which they live. These same college students will espouse the joys of diversity, but will in the same breath assume you are only on campus because of affirmative action or that all black people grew up in poverty.”[v]
Therein resides the political problem with Political Correctness: to paraphrase Robespierre, it admits the injustices of the actual life, but it wants to cure them with a »revolution without revolution«: it wants social change with no actual change. So it’s not just the question of balancing the two extremes, of finding the right measure between Political Correctness which aims at prohibiting every form of speech that may hurt others, and the freedom of speech which should not be constrained – the PC attempt to regulate speech is false in itself since it obfuscates the problem instead of trying to resolve it.
A further consequence of the PC speech is the spreading prohibition of irony: when one makes a remark considered non-PC, it is less and less possible to save oneself by claiming it was meant ironically. Here, opposites coincide again: in the beginning of September 2016, media reported that “North Korea has forbidden people from making sarcastic comments about Kim Jong-un or his totalitarian regime in their everyday conversations. Even indirect criticism of the authoritarian government has been banned /…/ Residents were warned against criticizing the state in a series of mass meetings held by functionaries across the country. /…/ Officials told people that sarcastic expressions such as ‘This is all America’s fault’ would constitute unacceptable criticism of the regime.«[i] Such a strategy ultimately cannot but fail, for a simple reason: in such circumstances, the official jargon itself more and more functions as its own ironic commentary.
To be continued
[i] Jacques Lacan, Formations of the Unconscious (Seminar V), June 25 1958, quoted from http://www.valas.fr/IMG/pdf/THE-SEMINAR-OF-JACQUES-LACAN-V_formations_de_l_in.pdf.
[ii] Quoted from https://newrepublic.com/article/121790/life-triggering-best-literature-should-be-too.
[iii] Quoted from op.cit.
[iv] Quoted from https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/conference-report/benjamin-in-ramallah.