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On Hurtful Words

May 28, 2016

It’s been a crazy fucking week.

Left Forum happened last weekend. I helped organize four panels and was asked to give a little wrap-up at the very start of the closing plenary on Sunday. About half an hour before the plenary, I got a text from the conference coordinator asking if I could emcee the whole shebang. Amy Goodman was scheduled to be the moderator and interlocutor when the second speaker, Slavoj Zizek, gave his talk, but she’d apparently told the organizers last minute that instead, she was going to give a speech and then leave. So I thought I’d be a good sport and help out, even though I’d never really read any Zizek.

I had looked at some material sent by an anti-Zizek activist to the Left Forum board. It contained a couple of obviously taken out of context quotes that he’d either written or said, and I did know that folks were already angry about what they thought he’d said about refugees. When I investigated, I disagreed with the critics. Looking at his stuff on refugees, my sense was that Zizek was making the exact opposite point than what he was being criticized for. I honestly did not think his work was anti-refugee, and I still don’t.

Zizek says that refugees need open borders and an end to the imperialist wars that drive them from their homes; they need our solidarity, and we need theirs,  but they don’t need us to think that everything about them is perfect. In fact, seeing them as outside “normal” humanity, with its, you know, both bad and good people, is an obstacle to real material solidarity, to actually struggling side by side to forge a less horrifying world.

Other quotes in the materials sent to the Left Forum board included Zizek recounting a time he’d tried to connect with a black male acquaintance by telling a dirty joke about a black sexual stereotype, and, according to Zizek, it worked — his new friend started cracking up laughing and said, “now you are my n*” or something. I did not read the telling of this story as anti-black racism. I still do not. It seemed like an idea you might disagree with — that solidarity flows not from treating people with kid gloves but from mutual transgressive bawdy-ass laughter and the subverting of moralisms about what it’s ok to say and what it’s not ok to say — but not one that necessarily has to be stopped. So I wasn’t sure what to say when a questioner asked me to account for why Zizek had been invited to Left Forum given the fact that he’d used the N word publicly in the past. I thought it was part of his performance. He was using it to make a case, and a case against not only bourgeois liberal white piety but also against racial oppression. It seemed like the opposite of an epithet in that context.

And now a whole online discussion has emerged to challenge this idea, and to excoriate my response to Zizek’s critics. My own work is not well-known, but to my chagrin, now I am known to some strangers as Zizek’s defender rather than as author of the upcoming Shanty Irish: Roots of American Syndicalism or a member of the Situations collective. Or as moderator of a panel in which I criticized Bernie Sanders for not coming out for reparations for blacks, or another panel dedicated largely to discussing Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers. Now there are people who know me as a defender of the right of white men to use the N word publicly. Oh, and folks are making fun of my surfing book a little bit.

Two wealthy white women are leading the charge against me on twitter. To me, this actually reinforces Zizek’s notion that all this kid glove correctness is just bourgeois discomfort with what they see as the slobby incivility of the working class. These women challenged Zizek and me at the end of the Q and A, and there is without question a prurient Puritan sick kind of relish with which they read and then tweet all these “shocking” things that he says. It’s classic repression rage fascination stuff. And it’s funny, they keep calling me a suburban Valley Girl on twitter. But I’m actually from Philly, where, when we are being harassed by insane people, we say things like YOUSE ARE FUCKING CRAZY.

But the wealthy white saviors are not the end of the story. Because when I tried to move past my own defensiveness after a full week of relentless assault on me on twitter, I had to rethink a couple of things. Even if I did think that the witch-hunter language police types were nutty and were misinterpreting Zizek, policing his language without engaging or opposing his actual ideas, there is another issue.

Elijah Anderson gave a speech recently in which he addressed all the pc language safe-space stuff on campuses and came out on the side of the students. In his words, what black students are protesting when they talk about Halloween costumes and building names and all the rest, are “acts of acute disrespect reminiscent of America’s racial past. Among themselves black people call such incidents “nigger moments,” and generally interpret them as deeply racist attempts to put them back in their place.”

The idea that I might have caused a moment like this for anyone is profoundly mortifying to me. I did not mean any disrespect. So this apology goes out to anyone who might have been offended in any way by words I said. I still think that what Zizek was saying on Sunday night was true, and I think the rich white savior types are impeding the progress of interracial side by side struggles for justice for black and brown folks, and for freedom and a better world for all of us. Bourgeois piety is an obstacle to real solidarity. And I do think that there is a difference between using a racial slur as an epithet — which is a tool of race oppression — and uttering it in order to mount a challenge to a new, politically correct form of the racist ideology without which capitalism and imperialism couldn’t survive.

The thing is, in regular life, if I make someone feel shitty, whether I meant to or not, I tell them I’m sorry. I do know that words can hurt. God knows the cesspool that is twitter has taught me that this week. So if you are a person of color and what I said or did offended you, please accept my apology. Somehow, though, I suspect you’re not nearly as concerned about all this as the Grey Gardens squad would have us believe.

***For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, here are two clips. The first is Zizek’s speech, and a lot of the question and answer session. The second clip finishes the session and has the part where the N word controversy comes up.

 

 

And last, here is one article that references the twitter insanity: http://chronicle.su/2016/05/27/controversy-as-slavoj-zizek-talks-at-left-forum/

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