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Slavoj Zizek Speaks at Amnesty Lectures

Suzie | 29.01.2004 23:28 | Culture | Globalisation | Repression | Oxford

Slavoj Zizek, a leading philosopher and theorist, came to speak at the Oxford Amnesty lecctures on the theme of Asylum, Migration and Displacement.

Slavoj Zizek’s provocative address presented the case against the universalisation of human rights, recalling Susan Okin’s contribution to the lecture series in past years, though from a greatly differing perspective. Zizek noted how rights were once something with which only select individuals were endowed (the bourgeois, White male), and have since been extended to « all » Whilst this move towards liberal tolerance has been seen as a progressive gesture, Zizek was not convinced. He argued how the universalisation of human rights has facilitated recent military interventions that defy international law, on the basis that they are protecting human rights. Thus what Western liberals consider to be a conscience-salving progressive gesture, becomes, paradoxically, an instrument of oppression.

Zizek argued that this has been achieved by replacing what was once a gender/class/race bias in the distribution of rights with a cultural one. Whilst the notion of universal human rights suggests that every individual has inalienable access to them, in fact the claim to impartiality conceals a Western capitalist bias. When the progressive Western liberal believes her/himself to be defending the other by endowing her/him with certain inalienable rights, the other who is thereby defended is never in fact the true other, but a Western construction of the other : the « de-caffenated other » as Zizek puts it. The other to whom one is supposedly displaying tolerance is only ever the other who is precisely most like those who distribute the rights, an other minus the otherness. That other is not the fundamentalist, intolerant other, or, in other words, not the other who is capable of asserting and appropriating her/his own rights, but only the helpless victim who is devoid of all agency to the extent that s/he waits passively for the heroic westerner to come and endow her with rights, and then defend them on her/his behalf.

Although Zizek’s lecture raised as many questions as it answered (as was surely his intention), it certainly presented a challenge to the kind of lazy, p.c. liberalism one finds in the main-stream media. It is not enough, Zizek says, to make human rights universal and feel the job is done. Though he was clear to point out that he is not against the idea of human rights per se, he sees it as a site of struggle. Rather than considering all the ethical problems of international problems resolved by the universalisation of human rights, Zizek suggests that this only heralds the start of a whole new set of problems and an altogether more insidious form of oppression. We must not sacrifice complexity in order to quiet our liberal, humanitarian conscience. We shall have to do better than that.