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A Case of the Deadlock of Political Correctness | Slavoj Žižek

On a US campus, an incident took place recently: a group of young Latino workers were restoring the façade of a house on a plateau that overlooked a nearby swimming pool where a group of young women were sunbathing in bikinis, and the workers started to throw at them flirtatious comments (what in Latin America they call piropo). Predictably, the girls felt harassed and complained, and the solution imposed by the authorities was no less predictable: they separated the house from the pool area by a plastic wall, and they also constructed a special plastic tunnel through which the workers had to approach their workplace without a view of the pool area – a perfect example of the ‘politically correct’ way of dealing with sexism which just fixates the lines separating groups of people.

From the girls’ standpoint, what happened was a clear-cut case of male-chauvinist harassment, “objectivizing” women as sexual prey, while from the workers’ standpoint, their exclusion was a no less clear-cut case of maintaining a class distinction, of protecting the white middle class from the contact with ordinary workers. Is it then feminist struggle versus class struggle, with the long-term solution to somehow cut unite the two and convincing both sides that their respective struggles are moments of the same universal struggle for emancipation? It’s not as simple as that since it is the class struggle itself which over-determines the tension between the two struggles: the workers’ piropo was obviously so disturbing to the girls because it came from lower class boys unworthy of their attention, and the boys were aware of this dimension when they were reprimanded. Feminism can also play a class game, implying that lower classes are vulgar, male-chauvinist, not ‘politically correct’, so that the fear of being “harassed” reveals itself to be the fear of lower class vulgarity; this, however, in no way means that we should say to the girls in our case – “Endure the harassment on account of the solidarity with the working class (and remember they are Latino foreigners who have their way of life)!” – at this level of the direct confrontation of the two views, the conflict cannot be resolved, and this irresolvable deadlock IS the reality of class struggle.

The over-determining role of class struggle does not amount to the standard “essentialist”-Marxist claim that sexuality gets violent due to class struggle but remains in itself non-violent – class struggle co-opts the immanent violence and deadlocks that pertain to sexuality as such. In the same way, other particular struggles obey their own immanent antagonist logic: different ethnic-religious “ways of life” are immanently out-of-sync due to the different mode of regulating collective jouissance, human industry affects our environment in potentially dangerous ways independently of specific modes of production, etc. – class struggle does not introduce antagonism into them but over-determines their immanent antagonisms. More precisely, class antagonism is doubly inscribed, it encounters itself in its oppositional determination, among the struggles whose totality it over-determines. Back to our example, class struggle is represented by the resistance towards Mexican workers by the bathing girls (in contrast to their feminist claims), plus it over-determines the very articulation of these particular struggles. The actuality of the class struggle is the tension between the two emancipatory struggles – but, again, not in the sense that the workers stand for the proletariat and the girls for the bourgeoisie. If one were to decide to which side one should give priority in the conflict, there are strong arguments that the bathing girls effectively were harassed and should be somehow protected. The overall dynamics of class struggle is the over-determining factor of the conflict and, consequently, that which makes the conflict irresolvable in its own terms (even if we give the priority to the harassed girls, there is a shadow of injustice in this choice).

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