right hand / left hand

14 Feb

“He repairs with his right hand what he ruins with his left.”

Slavoj Zizek discusses our pithy, artificial solutions, those mere band-aids we slap on our gaping societal wounds. I agree with him on a number of points. The quote above, for instance, follows the issue private property. How we try to use it to alleviate poverty, when private property—in practice, if not in theory—is part of the problem.

We see this all the time. I see it all the time. I’ve written about it often. I’ve even written about me writing about it. But Zizek touches on a few very different points, each which deserve to be addressed.

1) TOMS Shoes. It’s not the model. It’s an anomaly and should be treated as such. Zizek derides the company for acting as if charity should be part of the consumerist action. What I want to know is why blame the company for making it work? TOMS is successful. They have a recipe that gets thousands of kids shoes and still brings in a profit. And if you talk to Blake Mycoskie, you see he loves what he does. Where is the harm? However, do we need 1-for-1 T-shirts, sunglasses, and messenger bags? No. And so I agree that we’re silly to act as if buying, buying, buying as long as it’s accompanied by giving, giving, giving is as good as living contentedly and with deeper notions of stewardship, love, and flourishing.

2) “Charity degrades and demoralizes. The worst slave owners were the ones who were kind to their slaves.” I see where he’s coming from. As a philosopher, it’s his job to take things out of context and think about ideals. But what slave owner, feeling in his gut that to torture another man is wrong, should be condemned for having mercy? Is it not worse for him to forsake his human, perhaps superhuman desire for grace (which then robs both slave and owner)?

3) Which leads to this notion that in order to dismantle the institution of slavery, slave owners ought to have seen the future and acted collectively. Throughout human history, foresight on a societal level is nonexistent. We are always trying to predict the future, but rarely do we do so. Unintended consequences are perhaps our reigning contribution to the world. Zizek is a fool to act as if, in their place, he would do things different and bring about a nicely packaged outcome.

4) As far as “reconstructing society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible,” I don’t think I need to say a lot. It will always be with us. No “arrangement” can forcibly corral the evil we’re capable of, and surely not forever. Gandhi led India to independence, only so it could race toward its social and environmental death in the 21st century. Not that we should restrain hope for an end to suffering. But suffering takes many forms, and many outside the realm of traditional poverty. It is in our response to this—which should not equal what Zizek calls “charity,” that large-scale, perpetual aggravator, but rather love, in all its mysterious, wise, reciprocal binds—that we can live with incurable disease.

5) I mention love because this is what Zizek does not account for. He is interested only in economic health. Which is not health. (Or rather economic health is very different than economic prosperity. (And here I should mention that it is also very different than economic destitution.)) Economic prosperity is as artificial as a “coffee ethic.” Love has power not accounted for in the data. I am not talking about the love most would think of here. I am talking about a love that encompasses grief and wrath and sacrifice. It is not always simple or pleasant or even understood. It is not an agent of some euphoric utopia.

Despite these small quibbles, Zizek’s intentions are good, and he urges what I might also urge if I was addressing a large crowd. Addresses are for idealistic pronouncements. They are for widening the realm of possibility. For exploring the adjacent possible. For me though, not an addresser of large crowds, I have little choice but to enact a smaller, more personal restructuring, one of lifestyle more than society.

There is much more to say, but I’m interested now in listening. Thoughts?

11 Responses to “right hand / left hand”

  1. Chad February 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

    I like what you say, but I think you kind of sidestep some of Zizek’s arguments (granted it is somewhat confusing to figure out what he is discussing in his video). The reason 1 for 1 is bad is because it combines capitalism and charity. Now people believe they have done their good deed by buying things and are changing the world doing so. However, the problem with that is the 1 for 1 policy is not addressing the issue of why these children in Africa do not have shoes in the first place. At the end of the video Zizek says should we not do charity, by all means NO – meaning we should still buy TOM’s and help kids have shoes, but we as a society need to ask harder questions.

    This is where his example of the slave owners comes up. What you said is accurate, but his point was not concerned about the perspective of the slave or slave owner, it was concerned about the issue of slavery. When slave owners were kind, it confused people and tricked them into thinking slavery would be okay. However, when they were regularly vindictive and hateful, it allowed slaves and the world to see how this was innately evil and needed to be changed in some form or fashion.

    I think his main purpose is trying to alert people that we are becoming less charitable and more capitalistic with our purchases, but capitalism and charity are tied together now so we feel good about ourselves. He is saying we should question this mentality because all we are doing is creating a new patch to place on the bleeding wound of societies so we can pat ourselves on the back and rest better at night. Rebuttals or additions?

  2. readzebra February 14, 2011 at 4:36 pm #

    I’m not sidestepping anything at all. His “point” is a given. Most people I know are “asking harder questions.” I try to everyday. I thought I addressed this with first and second paragraphs. It is an absolute given that capitalism is no answer to the ills of the world, that it perpetuates them, and that conscious capitalism is merely, like you said, a “patch.”

    The 1-for-1 thing gets a lot of people. So let me explain: here’s why I buy TOMS. I think I look cool in them. Looking cool helps me feel confident which helps me have energy. I also like their convenience and how they feel without socks in the summer. The fact that a kid gets a pair of shoes is cool, but not so I can feel good. That was a motivating factor in the beginning, I admit. This was also when I was camping outside to raise awareness for Invisible Children. It was college. Now the charitable aspect (which is extremely well executed (read their annual report) is merely an interesting facet of the company. Optimally, the best shoe is the one made extremely, almost ludicrously well by a person around me with materials that are not only sourced well (as in non-destructively) but are high in quality. I don’t “feel good” doing wearing TOMS like I used to. I “feel good” on walks, when working toward excellence, when loving my wife, when making sacrifices for family and friends. Kid in Africa? Nothing can make me feel good when it comes to him. He is not here. I have no connection with him. I live in Chicago. I will labor over issues of “right living” here. That doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend I don’t know how our wealth has hurt people in other countries, so I will attempt to live below my means and advocate for ways of self-sufficiency and undoing our sense of entitlement.

    Zizek wants no capitalism, which I suppose I could say I also want. But he readily admits socialism failed. Without a model, a country as apathetic and comfortable as the US will NOT be the one to try out new forms. We should pay attention to other countries. Fringe countries. Maybe they will innovate new ways to structure society. But I need shoes. Or if it isn’t a need, I want shoes. I’m ok buying shoes. I’m ok buying TOMS. But I don’t think it makes me better than someone who doesn’t.

  3. Chad February 14, 2011 at 5:06 pm #

    Okay. I see you get it. I think you are not in the majority of people, thus why Zizek made the video to sound the alarm and say people capitalism marrying charity is bad and we must do something different. Charity in itself is flawed, but it is better than nothing, but we are creating a monster that allows people making more than ample amount of money to buy starbucks coffee and feel like that is par of their giving back to the world. I think his point with that is really big because it creates a new class system for the entire world.

    I wish a new system would come from a fringe country, but thinking, brainstorming, and educations are luxuries and I imagine that many fringe countries consist of people trying to feed their families or create better opportunities for their children, thus I would guess that a new system will not come from there.

    Finally, you do look pretty cool in TOMS.

    • readzebra February 14, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

      I suppose Zizek’s talk may be the wake-up call for some who equate buying Starbucks with “doing something good” in the world. If so, I applaud him. The cynic in me says the person who equates the two is not watching his video or at least is being scared off by some of the things he says and not letting it sink in.

      With regards to other countries, you’re right that third-world countries are faced enormous problems. But this leads to action. Look at Egypt. How many Americans know our government is very nearly inept. How many know it’s corrupt and unable to make good on its promises? But does the country riot en masse? No. We go about our business.

      And higher education? Does higher education bring about societal change? I fear not. I think, if anything, it is causing a mass intellectualization that promotes “critical thinking” over action.

  4. Allison February 14, 2011 at 5:37 pm #

    Sigh – I get so confused and frustrated with this whole issue. Chad, I agree, charity is flawed. Tim, I agree, no one who is feeling good about themselves purchasing TOMS or certain Starbucks products is going to be watching this video, or changing their lifestyle based on what he is saying. Yes, maybe a few people here and there, but not en masse enough to truly change our system. So, where does that leave us?

  5. Allison February 14, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    This is exactly what I worry about. No matter what new system we put in place to replace charity, human beings will turn it into something sad:


  6. Chad February 14, 2011 at 9:33 pm #

    I agree that the people who need to see this video are not the ones watching it. I think it was made for people like us who watch these things or better yet stumble upon them. He is saying we need to be aware of the monster that will come when charity and capital becoming synonymous. A book for one of the classes I audited was called Dead Aid(this is on the to read list so dont quote me on its premise), which I believes basically states that our (western world) aid to Africa is the problem. For a real solution to occur, it needs to be indigenous. The locals need to be empowered through their actions. This is exactly what happened to Egypt and their organizing efforts.

    However, I hope I am wrong, but I feel like situations of change as depicted in Egypt are the exception to the rule. I think the protests in China that are quelled or silenced or jailed are the norm. Similar to the protests in Iran or Thailand.

    Change is necessary and another America is required, but how can we as people of privilege place that responsibility on the Third world? Many times these people are trying to eat enough calories to not be considered starving, let alone contemplate an empowering alternative to charity.

    • Kati February 15, 2011 at 11:34 pm #

      Wow, I am definitely behind in the conversation! But I would like to maybe add on to your last comment, Chad. “For a real solution to occur, it needs to be indigenous. The locals need to be empowered through their actions.” I completely agree. As I am re-reading Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” I am being reminded that as an oppressor, I cannot liberate the oppressed, they must liberate themselves; liberation is not a gift, nor is it a self achievement, but it is instead a mutual process. I know I’m preaching to the converted as it were… maybe I’m just needing to reiterate this as a reminder to myself.

      To make a tie to a similar issue of privilege, I have (since the end of our mission year) been delving deeper into/struggling through the issues of white privilege, racism, and its effects on my community and others. I have finally reached the understanding that I (1) cannot ever truly identify with other ethnicities who are oppressed by people who look like me… try as I might I can’t ever fully understand the experience of being in an oppressed racial/ethnic group and (2) I cannot and should not be the one who jumps in and ‘saves’ the oppressed. That has left me feeling powerless, useless, and only reminds me that I am perpetuating/benefiting from a racist system that I don’t want to part of, but from which I can never be separated. So, where now? what do I do? I realize I’m speaking in generalities, but I feel as though my ‘job’ or responsibility is to educate my white peers and bring resources to the table that those I am advocating for cannot. But tied to that is allowing the oppressed to liberate themselves. Give what we can, in the smartest way that we can (acknowledging both that both intention and impact need to be accounted for), and pushing for action in ourselves and among others. If nothing else, those are a solid, simple starting point..?

      I am an eternal optimist and many times lack the realistic point to view to ground my ideas, but if I don’t cling to the hope that I, as a lone individual can do something, I very well just might give up all together.

  7. readzebra February 15, 2011 at 11:52 pm #

    Thanks Kati. I think one avenue we might (might!) take is searching out indigenous efforts and getting behind them. Maybe a certain community actually has a leader; we can champion him, see if there are any ways we can help. Maybe there aren’t, and maybe to “get involved” would hurt more than help, but maybe lending person-to-person support can help?

    Something else: this idea (Walter Brueggemann’s) that the liberation of an oppressed community has to begin with grief. It may be that we have lost our tendency to do that. We skip to anger, which leads quickly to that feeling of helplessness. But if we learn to grieve when injustices occur, perhaps that will help us understand courses of action? At least in the Black community, injustice sparks this need for action. Not sure the implications, but I’ve been struck by this need for grief, for accessing that part of our humanity before skipping to anger.

  8. Chad February 16, 2011 at 3:53 am #

    I like the idea of grief. It is a needed emotion in society, especially oppressed society. I think the grief makes us acknowledge the good thing we had and that it is now lost. This makes our anger that much stronger and durable able to bring about change.

    Also sometimes we have skills and talents that instead of finding and supporting an issue it is coming alongside and inspiring locals to do more, to exceed what they thought was possible. I saw this in Elias Chaccour’s book “Blood Brothers.” His superior priest encouraged him to do a protest march and Elias was like YEA, and then his superior said and you will LEAD it. Then Elias was scared, but he did and now I would say he is one of the major advocates for peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis and also between Jews, Muslims, and Christians.


  1. PACKAGED 11.2 « read::zebra - March 23, 2011

    […] 2/14 right hand / left hand :: Slavoj Zizek’s call for upheaval […]

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