Liberal Freedom and Its Flip Side

The renewed struggle against discrimination is really two struggles: one about rights, the other about opinion.

In an open letter to the media, 83 employees at the sporting goods manufacturer Adidas denounced the discriminatory treatment of black people in the company’s own ranks and called for concrete steps to do something about it. 

Similar things are happening elsewhere, where company staffers are rebelling against discrimination in the workplace. Their trump card is the management’s concern for its good-for-sales image as anti-racist. 

On the other side, you have the employees of the French publishing house Hachette, who are refusing to work on the next book by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, whom they reproach for allegedly anti-transgender remarks.   

Both are examples of the intensification of the struggle against discrimination. Nonetheless, they are quite different. You could say there are actually two struggles, two faces to this controversy. 

The corporate employees of the American branch of Adidas are taking action over the equal rights in the work place. That is the face of this struggle against injustice. In this camp are also the demonstrators who are taking a stand against rampant racism in the police force. And here we should also count the echo of the cry that is resonating in Europe, over a new awareness of its own suppressed colonial history. 

And at the same time there is the other face of this struggle, which is exemplified by the publishing employees of Hachette. Where it is not about rights but about opinion. Here, the objections overflow. Here, the struggle takes on dogmatic, even fanatic qualities.  

Advocacy against racism is thus divided. You could say, it is deeply ambivalent. And these two faces are making their cases at the same time. In fact, they are, to some extent, overlapping. And it is often difficult to tell where the boundaries are.  And yet.

There is a difference between the struggle against manifest discrimination and violence and that against what is alleged. One is tempted to say, there is one struggle that is rational and one that is irrational. This is the difference between necessary resistance and excess.  

At the moment both variations see themselves as toppling authorities from their pedestals, metaphorically and literally. 

The difference is not whether one goes against the great authority figures or against the use of words – like the “N” word. In words, images and films one also finds the residual sediment of hierarchies and denigration.These serve to perpetuate the little every day discharges of discrimination.     

Excess lies elsewhere: It begins where a justifiable objection encroaches on a “Zone of Suspicion” (according to Jen Jensens in the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit), a place where opinions are punished. “Punish” is the decisive word here. 

True excess begins where what replaces the old authorities is not simply freedom, equal rights and inclusion, but instead a new authority. One that punishes offenses. 

This new authority is not personalized. It has no spokesman, no address. It can however be described. It is the implementation of a new societal Super Ego. Cultures too, according to Freud, have this kind of a Super Ego. This is the driver that delivers exactly what the excesses of political correctness practice: surveillance, monitoring, judgment, a guilty conscience, taboos, discipline for deviating from the ideal, strictness, punishment. Relentless. With a tendency to go too far.

It was a nice piece of work – socially, culturally, politically – to take down the old Super Ego with its norms and regulations. Even more astounding is the building up of new disciplinary authority. In excess we see the signs of unrestrained desire, a longing for a new implacability. Here the liberal freedoms pass the tipping point into their flipside: a new collective Super Ego. 

This article appeared first in the Viennese news weekly Falter. Translated from the German by Dardis McNamee. 

Isolde Charim
Philosopher and author Isolde Charim is a regular correspondent for Falter and the Wiener Zeitung. She teaches philosophy at the University of Vienna, and since 2007, has been a resident scholar and curator at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue.

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