The Repressive Undertone of Western Liberal Societies

Never before have so many people been able to enjoy the spoils of the good life. Over the past 150 years Western countries (the United States, Canada, Oceania and much of the EU) have seen a massive increase in wealth. This has been accompanied by a decrease in corruption, widespread access to healthcare and education and universal suffrage. Of course, there are many caveats to this rather optimistic story but the point is that things have gotten better. But are we also free? My answer will be a counter-intuitive no. My main point is that, whereas in earlier times repression was explicit, we nowadays experience repression which is of a more insidious, implicit nature. I will support this thesis by referring to three cases: political correctness, equality before the law and sex.

Political correctness

‘I will make Southpark great again!’ said Mr Garrison to a crowd of frustrated inhabitants. In a short period of time Mr. Garrison has become very popular because, so do people say, he dares to say what others don’t and dears to confront PC principle. PC Principle is the dean of the local high school where Mr. Garrison works. He is a muscular, intimidating guy who wears sunglasses all the time and, in a very authoritarian way, makes sure everyone adheres to the values of tolerance, multiculturalism and acceptance. A lot of Canadians have recently come to Southpark because things back home are messy. They also brought their own customs with them. Mr. Garrison and his followers are upset by this because they feel like it is threatening the social and cultural fabric of Southpark. But PC principle, so keen as he is of liberal values, seems to worship the newcomers and even goes as far as to fire anyone who doesn’t learn Canadian or is critical of Canadian customs.

At some point Mr. Garrison comes up with the brilliant idea of building a wall at the Canadian border so that no more Canadians can come into Southpark. He and his followers decide to go and build it, only to discover that a wall has already been built from the Canadian side. Then we see what had happened in Canada: a guy named Donald Trump, who had similar ideas to Mr. Garrison, had been voted into office and completely ruined the country.


PC principal, what an intimidating guy

I think this is an excellent, tongue-in-cheek analysis of current affairs in the U.S. What I found most interesting though was this PC principal character. To me, PC Principal signifies, albeit in a caricature way, political correctness. It thus came as no surprise that PC stands for political correctness. Now of course, in real life there is not an intimidating guy ordering us around to adhere to the values of tolerance, acceptance and multiculturalism. It is less of an individual wearing sunglasses and more of a dominant ideology, in our society a liberal ideology, that is imposing these values. When I use the word ideology I refer to a framework of ideas which make us see reality in a certain way. The concept of an ideology is an obscure concept as one cannot touch an ideology and it is difficult to empirically pinpoint an ideology. An ideology becomes more concrete when its core values/ ideas are being challenged, as is the case with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ( THE spokesperson for liberal ideology) in the U.S. It also becomes more clear when you yourself start questioning the core values that constitute a dominant ideology. When you’ve grown up in a liberal society it is hard to imagine a reality, for example, without multiculturalism or equality before the law or a market economy.

Of course, this is not to justify Donald Trumps or to say that these values are invalid. I think the doom scenario sketched in the Southpark episode is not far off from what would really happen were Trump to be elected into office and I also value tolerance, multiculturalism and acceptance. I do think, however, that political correctness not only stiffens the political debate but also creates a lot of frustration because it imposes values upon people that they are not allowed to question in public.

Equality before the law

Another core principle of liberalism, related to political correctness, is equality before the law. Equality before the law means that everyone, poor or rich, black or white, young or old, is subject to the same set of rules. This principle has become so widespread in Western countries that one can barely think of a society without it. It however obfuscates the social reality that takes place beyond the realm of equal rights.

In an article on implicit racism in the U.S., Dovidio et al  describe the different experiments they did to research the psychological processes that accompany implicit racism. First they define implicit racism by making a distinction between explicit and implicit racism. Explicit racism is blatant and intentional (Donald Trump who calls all Mexicans rapists) whilst implicit racism is subtle and unconscious (an increase in your heartbeat and a feeling of anxiety when you see a group of <insert minority> in the street at night).

The first experiment goes as follows: the (white) participants are in a designed situation (they are unaware it is designated) where someone (an actor) is in need of help. There are four variations of this situation: a black person needs help and there are no bystanders, a white person needs help and there are no bystanders, a black person needs help and there are bystanders and a white person needs help and there are bystanders. The results provided proof for the existence of implicit racism. When there were no bystanders the participants helped equivalently for Black and White victims (95% vs 83%). When there were bystanders, however, this changed dramatically to 38% for Black victims and 75% for White victims.

In other experiments they monitored conversations taking place between Whites and Blacks. Some of the Whites were explicitly racist while others implicitly. After asking the black person to rate the conversation partner, a person with explicit biases did better than one with implicit biases. In other words, when a person was blatantly racist and this manifested itself verbally instead of implicitly, by means of unconscious cues such as nervous body language, the blatant racist made a better impression.

So what does this have to do with equality before the law and the repressive undertone of liberalism? Well, the researchers explain implicit racism by pointing out that most American Whites, when young, are exposed to negative imagery of Blacks through the media and therefore unconsciously form negative associations with Blacks. But when they grow up they are imposed with a liberal ideology and adopt egalitarian principles one of which is equality before the law. This, however, conflicts with the unconscious biases which were shaped earlier. Implicit racism is the result of this conflict.

This implicit racism has very real consequences. Examples are racial profiling, unequal positions on the labor market or social immobility. The tricky thing is that this implicit racism is of a more insidious nature than the explicit version. A victim of implicit racism cannot simply pinpoint what is wrong because, on paper, everyone is equal for the law. Whereas, in an Amerikkka before the civil rights movement, a black person could easily pinpoint what is wrong by sitting in the front of the bus or pointing out the sheer perverseness of unequal rights, a victim of implicit racism is clueless. What are you going to point at when, even though there is equality for the law, you are still suffering?

Rosa Parks: an introvert who changed the world.
Civil Rights activist Rosa Parks claiming a front-seat

Does this mean we should go back to explicit racism and scrap equality before the law? No. But it does show that liberal ideology imposes, on both the sufferer and the perpetrator, egalitarian principles which clash with a different social reality. Racism hasn’t disappeared, it has merely retreated backstage while equality before the law is in the limelight, shining as bright as ever while casting a shadow on the underlying social reality.

Repressive permissiveness

In a video  for Big Think, cultural critic and psychoanalytic Slavoj Zizek describes how his ultimate date would go and I think it is worthy quoting word for word:

A gorgeous woman invites him to her place. She is attracted to him and he is attracted to her and it is quite obvious that they are going to have sex. But here comes the caveat: he brings an artificial vagina and she brings a vibrator. They sit on the couch and let the machines take care of business somewhere in the corner (i.e. the machines have sex for them). With the burden of having to have sex off their shoulders they can now do whatever they feel like doing. They talk about movies, discuss their days,  maybe watch some Netflix. At some point sparks may fly over and they might have sex, but it would be because they genuinely felt like it, not because they felt like they had to.

The message that Zizek tries to bring across with this anecdote is very powerful: sex these days has become something that most of us feel like we SHOULD do. Our society has come to a point where, in Zizek’s words, one can speak of a ‘repressive permissiveness’. Repressive permissiveness means the implicit imposing of liberal attitudes towards sexuality. Celibacy, saying a (in Nietzsche’s words) ‘blessed no’ to a sexual opportunity or a lack of sex in general is nowadays either strangely frowned upon or something one should be ashamed of.

Paradoxically enough, this repressive permissiveness is damaging for our sex lives. Performance anxiety and its consequences are one example. Unfortunately the statistics on performance anxiety are scarce and shrouded in social taboos and shame. Only a few courageous ones talk about it in public. There is however, a definitive increase in sexual performance anxiety among both males and females in recent decades (see here here and here ).

I understand that the concept of repressive permissiveness might still be vague. Thus, in order to understand it better, a quick gloss over the history of societal attitudes towards sexuality is needed.

It is the 1960s in the U.S. and North-west Europe and a new generation of post-war baby-boomers comes off age. They are too young to remember the atrocities of the second world war and old enough to profit from the post-war economic boom. They want to be different from their conservative parents and thus wear colorful wide clothing, do a shitload of LSD and weed, let their hair grow long and, of most relevance to my story, adopt very liberal attitudes towards sexuality.

You might know them as hippies.

Woodstock 1969

Now the free love these hippies were practicing was mostly a reaction towards the more conservative attitudes of their parents. But as time progressed the long hair was cut short again, the colorful clothing traded for denim jeans and LSD declined in popularity – in other words – the hippie movement faded away. Yet the sexual permissiveness was there to stay.

The hippie counterculture, initially a reaction against the status quo, was appropriated by this very same status quo ( as happens with most countercultures ). Why would this hippie counterculture be appropriated by the status quo culture?

The commodification of sex.

Liberalism is inextricably linked with a market economy. Market economies, driven by a quest for profit, are marked by a never-ending process of commodification of goods that are outside the sphere of the market. Nowadays it is, for example, hard to imagine public goods such as the atmosphere or the oceans as commodities sold on the market, yet in 50 years this may be a very real possibility . The same happened to sex by means of pornography or using sexuality as a means for selling clothing , deodorants  or cars.

Thus, what we see is a dialectic process between culture and economy that explains how countercultures become appropriated by the status quo culture. Before the hippie movement, the commodification of sexuality did not go as deep as it did the decades following the movement. Of course, the profession of trading sex for money is one of the oldest there is and one can probably find sexy ads from before the hippie movement. But with the advent of mass media, the hippie movement with its liberal attitudes towards sexuality, provided fertile grounds for a deeper commodification which led to a state of repressive permissiveness we can now find ourselves in.

Now this is not a moral critique of capitalism in general nor of pornography or ads in particular (I find the ads quite entertaining actually). The point I’m trying to make is that, in Western liberal societies, we have come to a point where permissiveness has become implicitly repressive and that this is inextricably linked with economic processes.

It also doesn’t mean that I advocate conservative attitudes towards sexuality and that I think we should all wait with having sex until after marriage. Quite the contrary; I am for open, permissive attitudes towards sexuality but without the repressive elements. It should not be a ritual one has to perform or something ‘one just does’, but something genuine, isolated from the pressures of the market and liberal ideology.

Maybe yes, but North Korea!

What kind of silly business is this? One might reply. We always have a choice. If I want to be politically incorrect no one will stop me from doing that. If I, as a minority, want to climb the social ladder I’m being given plenty of help, ever heard of affirmative action ? And, most silly of all, if I don’t want to have sex, then I don’t have sex, it’s as simple as that. If you don’t like it here than pack your bags and move to North Korea, there you’ll see what real repression is.

North Korea Anniversary
No, I would rather not live here

Of course, I’m fully well aware that things could be worse. In fact, I’m quite content with the life I’m having here in a Western liberal society and I appreciate that I have the means to explore my talents (which is a privileged position in itself). But to argue one cannot criticize a society because things could be worse is venom for open discussions. If recent events (the rise of far right-wing parties, the economic crisis and ever more threatening forms of terrorism) show us one thing it is that we do not live in the end of history . That is, Western liberal societies are far from perfect and there is still lots of progress to be gained.

More importantly, however, by asserting the North Korea argument, one overlooks a fundamental psychological process which explains the repressive undertone of Western liberal societies and lies at the root of the three aforementioned cases: the obfuscation of authority.

What does the obfuscation of authority mean? It means that power relations become more vague and confusing. Let me explain by means of a small example taken from Slavoj Zizek. A father and son are going to visit grandma on a Saturday afternoon. But the boy doesn’t want to. In the first scenario the father tells the boy that he should go because he is his father and should listen to him. In the second scenario the father tells the boy that his grandmother loves him and that they will have a nice Saturday afternoon together…. BUT the boy is completely free to decide whether he wants to go or not. In the first scenario the authority is clear: papa says so, thus you should go. If the boy doesn’t want to visit his grandma he has something clear to rebel against. In the second scenario the authority is obfuscated: his father is not explicitly authoritarian nor is his grandma, yet the boy will still feel impelled to go. Why? Because the words of his ‘non-authoritarian’ father imply that if he doesn’t go he doesn’t love his grandma or wants to have a good time with his dad. The boy has nothing to rebel against yet is imposed to do something against his own will.

So, you might wonder, if this society is not free then what kind of society is? Here we have arrived in the realm of utopian thinking, which lies outside the scope of this critical essay. I do however think that, in the old-fashioned Marxist sense, the source of real freedom is material freedom. This link between the material and the ideal/ cultural keeps surfacing in all three cases I just discussed: Trump supporters are mostly workers who are disenchanted with the current state of affairs , implicit biases persist because there is a high correlation between ethnicity and socio-economic position and repressive permissiveness is enmeshed in the commodification of sex.



Een reactie op “The Repressive Undertone of Western Liberal Societies

  1. This was a great read and I rather enjoyed the mind trip it gave me. I couldn’t agree more, especially on the sex part. The Big Think talks of Slavoj Zizek were always among my favorites.


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