Racism, Stalinism & Politeness

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


June 2, 2013

Racism, Stalinism & Politeness

Caution: 3,337 words ahead

The premise of this post has some immediate, flagrant problems, so it would probably be better to just start off with that. Here’s the premise: anti-racism is becoming like Stalinism.

The obvious (and wrong) interpretation would be that I’m saying that the efforts of anti-racist activists have become so oppressive to white people that we are in danger of being shipped to a Siberian gulag or murdered by jack-booted PC thugs1. This is not what I’m saying—hopefully that will become clear. For me in this post, the important connection to Stalinism is not that anti-racist struggle is oppressing people in the name of doing something good2.

Here’s what I mean by “anti-racism”: over the last few years, a pattern has emerged where a white person is accused of being racist (or saying something that sounds racist) or having race/gender/etc. privilege, and they strenuously deny it, and this has led to a new standard. If someone accuses of racism, sexism, privilege, you must admit to it, lest you be guilty of denying your privilege, which is taken as evidence in itself of bigotry.

So we will soon live in a strange universe where admitting to being racist is somehow a sign of being a good person, and we’re given life advice on how to not get defensive:

When someone points out that something we said or did was racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, classist or otherwise, we often feel attacked… instead of launching into an explanation for why and how you can’t possibly be prejudiced, ask “Can you tell me what you mean?” and listen listen listen.

Adam Kotsko recently wrote a blog post along these lines, recounting an episode where he was wrongly accused of racism:

Once I was on a crowded train. I observed that there was a family scattered across several seats near me, some closer to the door and some more distant, and it so happened that they were getting off at the same stop as me. Out of politeness, I waited for all of them to get off the train before proceeding to the door myself, so that they could keep their group together. When I got up, I wound up stepping in front of a young black man. He became offended and pushed past me, accusing me of racism because I had let the white family go ahead of me but felt entitled to cut in front of him. The white dude in me was crying out — I’m not a racist! I had a perfectly justifiable reason to do what I did! I didn’t even notice who was behind me when I got up! Yet there was something else there as well, something that had developed during my years of living in a diverse community in grad school, something that said: Let it go. If he sees me as an entitled white dude, that’s fair enough. I really do look like that. I get so many advantages from looking how I look that I should put up with it on those extremely rare occasions where it proves disadvantageous as well. I don’t want to put myself forward as a hero or an example. All I want to suggest is that being a white dude might be at least partially curable. The first step is admitting that you have a problem.

The true wonder of his logic is how closely it follows Žižek’s analysis of Stalin’s show trials in Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?. It is clear that this brand of anti-racist activism has adopted a kind of paranoiac attitude toward rooting out racism, where the very denial of racism becomes evidence; or as Žižek says of Stalinism in his book: the symptom, the ambiguous sign is universalized:

In this paranoiac universe, the notion of symptom (in the sense of an ambiguous sign indicating a hidden content) is universalized: in Stalinist discourse, a ‘symptom’ was not only the sign of some (ideological) affliction or deviation from the correct Party line, but also the sign of correct orientation; in this sense, it was possible to speak of ‘healthy symptoms’, as in this criticism of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony by the arch-Stalinist composer Isaac Dunayevsky: ‘The brilliant mastery of the Fifth Symphony… does not preclude the fact that it does not by any means display all the healthy symptoms for the development of Soviet Symphonic Music.’ Why, then, use the term ‘symptom’? Because, precisely, one can never be sure if a positive feature really is what it pretends to be: what if someone merely pretends to follow the Party line faithfully in order to conceal his true counter-revolutionary attitude?

What if someone merely pretends to follow the anti-racist Party line faithfully in order to conceal his true racist attitude? Žižek connects this to the oppressive demands of the supergo:

When we obey the Law, we do so as part of a desperate strategy to fight against our desire to transgress it, so the more rigorously we obey the Law, the more we bear witness to the fact that, deep within ourselves, we feel the pressure of the desire to indulge in sin. The superego feeling of guilt is therefore right: the more we obey the Law, the more we are guilty, because this obedience is in effect a defense against our sinful desire…

When you are accused of harboring secret racist sentiments, and you insist that you rigorously follow the law — “I’m not a racist, I even have black friends!” — doesn’t your very obedience to the law bear witness to your ultimate guilt?3 Here, claiming to have black friends is rejected as insufficient, because we can never be sure that this positive feature isn’t merely a pretense that conceals an inner racism. And today we are already beyond mere uncertainty. The act of trying to disprove your racism—by gesturing to your black friends or any other means—is widely understood as positive proof of racism, while at the same time, confessing one’s racism (especially in the guise of privilege) is hailed as noble4.

The logic of this type of confession closely resembles the show trial in one other important dimension. Adam says “If he sees me as an entitled white dude, that’s fair enough. I really do look like that.” The key point—and one that caused great controversy in the comments of the blog post—is that Adam refuses to defend his innocence even though there are two possible ways that he could do so: on objective grounds, that he didn’t see the young man he cut off so it could not have been motivated by race; or on subjective grounds, that he is personally highly sympathetic towards the struggles against prejudice and participates wherever he can.

So despite the objective and subjective facts, Adam is concerned with how it looks. Regardless of the truth, “I really do look like that.” Regarding the trial of the prominent Soviet official Nikolai Bukharin, a prominent Soviet official and personal friend of Stalin who was falsely accused of being in the pay of Western governments and secretly plotting against the Soviet regime, Žižek makes the following observation:

The Central Committee was concerned neither with the objective truth-value nor with the subjective sincerity of Bukharin’s proclamations of innocence; it was interested only in what kind of ‘signal’ his reluctance to confess was sending to the Party and the public: a ‘signal’ that, ultimately, the entire ‘Trotskyist-Zinovievist trial’ was a ritualistic farce. By refusing to confess, Bukharin and Rykov<blockquote>give their signals to their like-minded friends, namely: Work in greater secrecy. If you are caught, don’t confess. That’s their policy. Not only have they cast doubt on the investigation in pursuing their defense. In defending themselves, they have also necessarily cast doubt on the Trotskyist-Zinovievist trial.</blockquote>

The Central Committee knew that Bukharin never had any like-minded friends, but the problem was that those who really were plotting against the regime didn’t know it. Even though he really was innocent, by proclaiming it, he undermined the legitimacy of the effort to get rid of the saboteurs. In a final perverse twist, surely this means he wasn’t so innocent after all?

In a similar way, Adam is correct to say that objecting to being accused of being racist effectively would be racist, because his self-defense would sanction the denials of those who really are racist. Although this may seem to be an example of political correctness run amok, it’s more interesting to consider the opposite hypothesis, as an attack on political correctness. Calling someone PC often carries the connotation that they are pretending—for example, using gender-neutral pronouns is believed to be a way of pretending that men and women are equal. You’re just following the party line, but nonetheless, we suspect that you are secretly a male chauvinist. This is exactly the same as a Stalinist show trial, where your obedience to the party line is taken as a way of working against the party. Stalinist logic is surprisingly much closer to anti-political correctness, because it doesn’t take the accused’s statements at face value, suspecting a counter-revolutionary attitude lurking beneath.

So far I’ve tried to make the case that being obligated to confess one’s secret racism bears a strong similarity to Stalinist show trials. The next step is to show why this is a bad thing, and not to be celebrated as Adam Kotsko and many others do. But I’ve already said that the problem is not some kind of slippery slope to the gulag. That would imply that the struggle against racism has become too powerful, when in fact, the universalization of racist suspicion is more likely to normalize racism, since even the most devoted anti-racist activists claim to be guilty of it.

The problem with the show-trial logic of confessing to false charges of racism is that it signals total impotence. In order to explain why racism continues to be a problem today despite the relative lack of open forms of racial prejudice, we’re told that racism can take hidden forms — it might be unconscious, it might be structural, it might be implicit, extremely ambiguous, easily denied and so on. But these observations are not followed with a procedure for finally uncovering these hidden forms of racism. All we know is that today’s prejudice does not appear as such, so the main clue that something might be racist is that it doesn’t seem racist.

Žižek remarks “as in psychoanalysis, the Stalinist confession of guilt conceals the true guilt.” We should ask what is covered up by confessing to false charges of racism. The immediate reaction to these confessions is how excessive it is to demand them, effectively reacting in shock that the struggle against racism has become so brutal and ruthless, you are even willing to sacrifice your reputation by admitting it. What courage! The implication is that a great blow against bigotry has been struck, and although it is a tough measure, sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelette. OK maybe, but then where is the omelette? I claim that these are empty gestures, a parody of radical extremism that covers up an essential impotence.

Adam (and others) hold that the most important thing we can do to fight racial prejudice is to admit that in obscure depths of our soul, we are racists. The suggestion here is that by allowing the man to accuse him of racism and not protesting, he has given him some kind of satisfaction, as if a black man’s greatest dream is to be able to confront a white man about race.

But isn’t it more likely that this man simply wanted to be treated with politeness? Most likely he didn’t wake up that morning hoping that a white man would act rudely to him so that he could stage a confrontation with him, and then everyone on the train would have their racial consciousness raised. He probably had much more mundane concerns—and why not? Adam’s misinterpretation speaks to a more general narcissism among left activists, who are not so much fighting to end prejudice, but are primarily fighting for their right to fight against prejudice, as if their greatest dream is a society where everyone is an engaged social activist just like them.

If you watch video clips of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, and even of the recent Occupy Wall Street protests, you will notice a similar tendency. The riot police move in to push the protestors out, who respond by shouting slogans about how they are there fighting for their freedom to protest, but say nothing about what injustices they are fighting. It’s understandable why the majority of uninformed people who are caught in the traffic jam simply trying to get to work conclude that this is extreme narcissism. To a certain extent, they are right.

Wisely and to his credit, Kotsko appends a disclaimer to his post that he’s not holding himself up as a hero. But I’m not sure we should accept it. After all, he really did allow himself to be tagged as a racist. There’s even something minimally Christ-like about this gesture—the innocent lamb goes to the slaughter, he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, etc.

In a limited sense, I have no problem with calling his sacrifice admirable and praiseworthy. But here’s the limit: his black companion never asked for his heroism, he only wanted ordinary politeness. By offering heroism, Adam imposes an enormous ethical debt on his companion that he will never be able to repay.

The problem of the ‘white savior’ is usually framed as one where focusing on white heroism distracts attention from the equal (or perhaps greater) heroism of minorities. This relies on one of the usual pseudo-profound stupidities of sociology, the concern over agency. Is the focus on white agency in fighting racism not crowding out, diminishing the value of minorities’ agency, and therefore not in itself racist? But in a racist society, white people really do have more agency, so… what? Should white people simply do nothing at all? This is usually followed by the definitive signal that someone is trying to save a meaningless pseudo-insight, the Get Out of Jail Free card of social analysis that has run into a deadlock: “No, of course not, but we just need to be aware…”

The real problem is that by elevating the moral significance of white involvement in anti-racist struggles to the point of heroism as a kind of reward or incentive, you create the conditions where, if the struggle succeeds, minorities are forced into a degrading position of owing debt that can never be discharged. Whites obviously should be involved in anti-racist struggles, but the standard rules of polite disclaimers should apply: “It was nothing—you would have done the same for me if you were in my position.”5

It seems to me that Adam’s accuser did not want any grand white heroism, but a quite ordinary, minimal gesture of politeness, a gesture which is at first glance, nothing more than a surface formality that does not require any sincere journeys into our inner psychological depths. This demand is the exact opposite of the Stalinist one which is suspicious of surfaces—it instead only cares about the surfaces, fully aware that what’s dismissed as mere superficial convention can nonetheless have a strange efficacy.

I recently read a personal story about a woman living in a traditional suburb in the 1960s who went through a divorce in a time when it was still considered scandalous. Soon after, she went door-to-door to collect donations from her neighbors, but she broke down in tears when she discovered that they, conservative housewives, refused to answer when she rang at their door. This is when she truly understood that she was shunned by the community. There were no dramatic signals of outright prejudice against her, just the formal act of not answering the door, an almost empty act of “forgetting” to be polite—this was the crushing blow. Perhaps this is why the man who Adam cut in front of felt it as racist.

As we all know, aside from an obscene joke now and then, the foremost philosophical proponent of politeness and civility is Slavoj Žižek, who says of those who believe that open racism is better than the hypocritical public denouncements while privately endorsing it: “This notion fatally underestimates the ideologico-political significance of keeping up appearances: an appearance is never ‘merely an appearance’, it profoundly affects the actual sociosymbolic position of those concerned.” No wonder that conservatives constantly attack political correctness as fake, hypocritical, and obsessed with euphemisms and appearances. They know that insofar as we all act as if formerly ignored minorities are owed respect, this social responsibility suddenly weighs on everyone.

It’s unfortunate that American culture has become so informal over the last 50 years, and even more unfortunate that confused progressives celebrate this as a liberation from oppressive old-fashioned values. They too underestimate the significance of keeping up the appearance that all of us are owned dignity and respect.

  1. This line of thinking is, of course, extremely disingenuous. The civil rights of minorities have been grossly violated for centuries, on a massive scale, but even the barest hint of threatening "our" civil rights leads white people to pen stirring paeans to the principles of freedom and the fight against tyranny. These are rightly shouted down as outrageous insults to those very principles, since no one genuinely concerned about civil rights is primarily concerned with the most superficial violations.
  2. A second objection could be raised as follows: even if I'm not saying that fighting against racism leads to the gulag, so many people think that's the essence of Stalinism. By making the analogy at all, even along different lines, I'm opening the door to its misuse by conservatives. I agree that this is a problem. My solution: let's not tell them. If they find out, see footnote 1.
  3. This is my spontaneous experience when I'm driving and notice a police car behind me. Everyone nearby suddenly becomes a conscientious follower of the posted speed limit, but my thought is always "What if this makes me look like a criminal?" If you were doing something illegal, then you would adhere strictly to the traffic laws—doesn't my obedience to the law bear witness to my guilt?
  4. There's a certain parallel to the Buddhist logic of skillful means I recently wrote about. The Buddha commits pre-emptive murder for the "greater good," but his willingness to endure the karmic consequences of his horrible act magically transforms it into a profound act of humility and ultimately creates good karma for him.
  5. Maybe a purely formal reciprocal gesture is appropriate. Basically, Lincoln frees the slaves, and in return, the freed slaves invite him over for dinner one night and everyone agrees to call it even.