On Žižek on Charlie: Chicken soup for the liberal democratic soul

Slavoj Žižek has penned a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack in the New Statesman. It purports to be a view, from the “radical Left,” of the psychology of fundamentalist violence and the failure of liberal democracy to confront this meaningfully. Denuded of its eloquent language and erudite references, however, Žižek provides us with nothing more than a few trite clichés that fit well within the liberal democratic paradigm.

Žižek opens his argument with an “unambiguous” condemnation of the attack, “without any hidden caveats.” He does, however, assert that we need “the courage to think” in response to the attack. There have been other responses to the attack that one might consider thoughtful; Žižek, presumably, considers them otherwise. One wonders how he comes to this conclusion. Perhaps because they do not come to the same conclusion as he does.

So what is his conclusion? Žižek summons Horkheimer’s critique of Fascism into the modern era: “those who do not want to talk critically about liberal democracy should also keep quiet about religious fundamentalism.” As “hidden caveats” go, this is a doozy. We must, apparently, condemn the Charlie Hebdo attack without any caveats, but can only do so if we are also willing to criticize liberal democracy.

Žižek wants us to believe that liberal democracy on its own is insufficient bulwark against religious fundamentalism; it needs “the brotherly help of the radical Left.”

The heart of Žižek’s argument is that the fear that liberal democrats have of religious fundamentalism is misplaced because the frequent contrast between the soft contentment of democracy and the “passionate intensity” of the religious fundamentalist is likewise misplaced.

Žižek wants to convince us of two related claims. First, “authentic” fundamentalism does not preach violence or hate; it has benevolent indifference towards non-believers. Secondly, and consequently, the Hebdo attackers must have lacked true faith. Žižek of course expresses his arguments much more elegantly than this, but stripped of cultural references to Nietzsche, Yeats, Horkheimer and Tibetan Buddhism, this is what remains. It is fatuous, and it is wrong.

There is much serious psychological research on the psychology of violent extremism, and while existential concerns certainly play a role in the account they give, there is far more to it than this. Indeed, Žižek’s claims here look more like a trite liberal democratic platitude than any thoughtful radical alternative. Real faith is peaceful and tolerant; people who preach violence lack real faith.

This would be nice, but there is little evidence to support it. Of course there are certainly “fundamentalist” religious movements that preach “indifference” towards non-believers, but this is really insufficient to claim that all violent fundamentalists hence lack faith. Short of offering a radical leftist critique, this is steeped in a contemporary liberal Christian ethic that wants to convince us that all faiths are, in essence, united by peace, tolerance and harmony.

There is no need here to rehash the extensive exhortations to violence against non-believers in the scriptures and theologies of many of the world religions. Žižek points us to Tibetan Buddhism as an example of the kind of tolerant fundamentalism he considers “authentic” and he does well to attach the Tibetan qualifier: in Myanmar, some Buddhist monks have been central to a coordinated campaign of religious violence against the Muslim Rohingya. Žižek might arrogate to himself the ability to pronounce of the respective “authenticity” of these two varieties of Buddhism, but his grounds for doing so seem little more than a desire to sneer at those we fear. “The problem with fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior.” All bullies are really cowards; all religious extremists lack real faith.

Žižek solution to the problem of violent extremism points to the necessity of engaging with a “renewed Left.” Yet his own analysis is little more than the “smug self-satisfaction of a permissive liberal” that he derides. If all the radical Left has to offer is cheap platitudes dressed up in cultural references and erudite language—Chicken Soup for the Liberal Democratic Soul—then I think liberal democracy can do quite well without it.

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