Posted by: Dan | August 15, 2007

On the Hypocrisy of "Radicals" (myself included)

In commenting on “happiness,” Slavoj Zizek has the following things to say:

In the strict Lacanian sense of the term, one should thus posit that “happiness” relies on the subject's inability or unreadiness fully to confront the consequences of its desire: the price of happiness is that the subject remains stuck in the inconsistency of desire. In our daily lives we (pretend to) desire things that we do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we “officially” desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we do not really want.

Now this is, indeed, an intriguing understanding of happiness and desire, and one that, I believe, fits well with the role that happiness and desire play in a consumer society that is driven to consume ever more.

However, things get even more intriguing when Zizek goes on to illustrate his point by talking about “radical” academics. This is what he says:

When, for example, “radical” academics demand full rights for immigrants and the opening of borders to them, are they aware that the direct implementation of this demand would, for obvious reasons, inundate the developed Western countries with millions of newcomers, thus provoking a violent racist working-class backlash that would then endanger the privileged position of these very academics? Of course they are, but they count on the fact that their demand will not be met—in this way, they can hypocritically retain their clear radical conscience while continuing to enjoy their privileged position…

“Let's be realistic: we, the academic Left, want to appear critical, while fully enjoying the privileges the system offers us. So let's bombard the system with impossible demands: we all know that such demands won't be met, so we can be sure that nothing will actually change, and we'll maintain our privileged status quo!” (all quotations are from The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, 43-44.)

Not only the “academic Left” needs to heed these words. All those who would consider themselves “counter-cultural,” and especially those within the “social justice” oriented streams of Christianity, need to pay attention to Zizek at this point. Take, for example, the popularity of the “MakePovertyHistory” campaign, or, for that matter, the smaller, and seemingly more challenging, “Make Affluence History” campaign. It seems to me that most of those who support these campaigns are simply raising “impossible demands” and thereby actually maintaining their “privileged positions” both in our national and our global contexts. Why do I think this? Because, by and large, those who support these campaigns are living lives that look no different than the lives of those around them. As far as I can tell, the only way that one can only honestly (i.e. without hypocrisy) participate in these campaigns is by doing what Jesus advised: “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor… and come, follow me” (Mt 19.21).

The more recent “Red” campaign is, perhaps, an even more obvious example, supported as it as by the likes of Bono and Oprah. Here we have two extremely affluent people, who have both been noted for their superfluous consumption at various times, acting as moral guides and telling us that the way to respond to the lack that defines the lives of others, is by consuming more ourselves! I find it baffling that so few people seem to find this ironic (and ironic in more ways than one!).

This is why, time and time again, the issue is not what campaigns we are supporting, what charities we are funding, or what declarations we are making. Ultimately, these issues are confronted, exposed, and perhaps resolved, in our daily lives. For example, regarding “radical” academics, I know three professors who have walked away from tenure, comfort and privilege within prestigious Academic circles. One to live and work amongst the marginalised in Vancouver's downtown eastside, another to live and work with migrant farm labourers and inmates in Washington state, and the third to live and work in an intentional community in the slums of Manila. All three have remained in some contact with the Academy but they remain on the margins there, and their situation there is one that has caused all of them a great deal of pain. These are the “radical” academics who have earned a voice into the issues raised by Zizek. That so few Christian academics are living in this way — that so few of those who teach us about things like suffering love, the way of the cross, and our mission as agents of God's new creation are living in ways like these — suggests to me that something has gone wrong within the realm of the Christian Academy.

Of course, all of this leads me back to examining my own life, and the hypocrisy that is present therein (as, I hope, it leads all of us back to examine ourselves). I would be lying to suggest that my daily living has attained to the level of expectation that I impose in my rhetoric. However, I find hope in the fact that my life is increasingly resembling those expectations. That is to say, I hope that I am pursuing a trajectory that leads me to a place of speaking and living honestly in relationship to these things. Am I there yet? No. Have I begun to travel there? Yes. What saddens me is that few Christians are intent on following that trajectory to the end. Instead, what we like to do is take a few steps down that road (perhaps a few more steps than those around us) and then we settle down and pat ourselves on the back and call one another “radicals.” Let's be honest: giving to charity is not radical, opening a drop-in in our churches is not radical, moving into poor neighbourhoods is not radical — all of these things are baby-steps on a journey that takes a lifetime to complete. (Indeed, I suspect that the only time we will be certain of our “radical-ness” will be when we find ourselves nailed to crosses — and at that point it won't matter anyway, and will likely be the furthest thing from our minds.)

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