Ethics versus Morality

We often hear today that wokeism and political correctness are gradually receding. Contrary to this opinion, I think that this phenomenon is gradually being “normalized,” widely accepted even by those who doubt it, and practiced by the majority of academic and state institutions. This is why– together with its opposite, the obscenity of new populism and religious fundamentalism – it deserves more than ever our criticism. In cancel culture at its worst, your public life can be destroyed for reasons that are not even clear in advance. This is what makes cancel culture so threatening: something very particular that you did (or are) can be unexpectedly elevated into the universal status of an unforgivable mistake, so that every particular case is never just a neutral case of universality but gives its own spin to a fuzzy universality.

At Hamline College in Minnesota, a professor of art history was fired for showing images of Muhammad to her students. She took all precautions, warning students in advance what she will do so, that they could leave the room to avoid being offended, plus the images shown were hundreds of years old and considered masterpieces of Islamic art (not all versions of Islam prohibit depicting Muhammad). One of the students who didn’t leave the room – Aram Wedatalla, president of the college’s Muslim Students Assn. – complained to administrators that she was “harmed” by seeing the image and that the teacher “failed to safeguard” her. The student newspaper The Oracle denounced showing the paintings as a direct attack on Islam; the college’s administration agreed and called for obligatory education in “Islamophobia”:

“It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident -where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes – respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.”

Three things are to be noted here. First, the images shown were painted by Muslims; they belong to sacred art; there is no trace of disrespect in them. Second, why did Aram Wedatalla who started the protest not leave the room after the warning? Obviously, she stayed there in order to be able to claim that she was hurt and offended, and cause an incident. This is also why other protesters who joined Wedatalla felt hurt and offended although they were not attending the class – it was enough for them to know what happened at the class. This, of course, opens up the space for the almost endless extension of what can offend and hurt me… Third, and most important, the terms used by those who protested – safety, respect, etc. versus hate, direct attack, phobia… – are the very terms political correctness and wokeism use to attack intolerance and racism.

No wonder, then, that Rightist obscene populists like to provoke PC activists and enjoy their status of the privileged object of what Lacan called hainamoration, an object others love to hate. I noticed the same stance when talking to my Serb acquaintances: many of them like to complain that everybody hates them, perceiving them as “ethnic cleansers” who committed the atrocious crime in Srebrenica, etc. But is this really the case? I think this feeling of being treated as a pariah is a defense move: the reality is that now, with all other troubles we are in, people around the globe are more and more indifferent towards Serbia; they don’t care about the Serbs, and what is beneath their complaint is rather a desperate desire to remain in focus, even as an object of hatred – better hatred than indifference. In other words, what Serbs really miss is that they are no longer the fascinating object of hainamoration.

Let’s take a case from the opposite side of the political spectrum. Towards the end of October 2022 Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge (UK) was hosting a talk by Helen Joyce known for her view that men and women are being “redefined” by trans activists, with laws and policies “reshaped to privilege self-identified gender identity over biological sex.” Joyce unambiguously supports trans rights, what she rejects is gender-identity ideology, i.e., the idea “that people should count as men or women according to how they feel and what they declare, instead of their biology,” into norm and law. Students at Gonville and Caius have launched protests, with the college’s LGBT representatives demanding that Joyce’s appearance be cancelled because they are “unanimously disgusted by the platforming of such views”. Tutors were even opening a “safe space” welfare tearoom for students during the talk, blaming “understandable hurt and anger for many students, staff and fellows at Caius” caused by the invitation. The college’s Master joined them, saying that while freedom of speech is “a fundamental principle, on some issues which affect our community we cannot stay neutral”. So, again, respect for (not the observant Muslim students but) the offended trans students should have superseded academic freedom… a clear point at which religious fundamentalism meets PC cancel culture.

What the politically correct cancel culture with its stiff moralism misses is the proper ethical stance. The latest example of such a stance in movies is The Menu (Marx Mylord, 2022) in which Ralph Fiennes gives an exquisite performance by playing Julian, a top cook and owner of an elite restaurant on a small private island. He invites a group of rich guests with a plan to kill them all; the only survivor is Margot, one of the guests who mocks Julian’s dishes and complains that she is still hungry. When Julian asks what she would like to eat, Margot requests a cheeseburger and fries, having previously seen a photo of a young, happy Julian working at a fast-food restaurant. Moved by her simple request, he prepares the meal to her specifications. Margot takes a bite and praises his food, then asks if she can get it “to go”. Julian packs the food for her and allows her to leave. Margot takes the Coast Guard boat docked nearby and escapes the island while Julian sets the restaurant ablaze, detonating the barrel and killing the guests, staff, and himself. While Julian is definitely immoral (he kills a series of people who are corrupt and repulsive but not murderers), he nonetheless gives body to a pure ethical stance. His suicidal final act is not just a personal quirk, but it targets an entire way of life exemplified by haute cuisine in which not only customers but also cooks and waiters who serve them participate. One can bet that all his guests were involved in charities and had deep sympathy for the plight of the poor… The proof of his ethics is that he lets Margot go: if he were just immoral, he would have killed them all.

Another film which presents the same distinction is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch) in which Forest Whitaker plays the mysterious “Ghost Dog”, a hitman working for the Mafia, who follows the ancient code of the samurai as outlined in the book of Yamamoto Tsunetomo‘s recorded sayings, Hagakure, even when this brings him to his death. Yet another such film is The Banshees of Inisherin  (2022, directed and written by Martin McDonagh). Set on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, the film follows lifelong friends Padraic (Colin Farrell) and Colm (Brendan Gleeson), who find themselves at an impasse when Colm unexpectedly puts an end to their friendship. A stunned Padraic refuses to take no for an answer and endeavors to repair the relationship. But Padraic’s repeated efforts only strengthen his former friend’s resolve. Colm delivers a desperate ultimatum: every time Padraic bothers him or tries to talk with him, Colm will cut off one of his own left fingers with a pair of sheep shears… and he does it repeatedly. This fidelity to a decision is ethical, if this term has any sense.

However, fidelity to a principled decision is not enough for an act to qualify as truly ethical. In Scotland, the Sturgeon government pushed wokeism and LGBT+ (almost) to the end: in December 2022, it hailed a “historic day for equality” after MSPs approved plans to make it easier and less intrusive for individuals to legally change their gender, extending the new system of self-identification to 16- and 17-year-olds. Basically, you declare what you feel you are and you are registered as what you want to be. This was undoubtedly a principled stance, but an (expected) problem emerged when Isla Bryson was remanded to women’s prison in Stirling after being convicted of rapes when she was a man called Adam Graham. The rapist decided that he was no longer a man only after appearing in court on a rape charge – so we have a person who identifies itself as a woman using its penis to rape two women. It is quite logical: if maleness and femaleness have nothing to do with one’s body, and everything to do with one’s self-definition, then one must put a penis-having rapist in prison with captive women. After protests, Bryson was put into a male prison – again, it is formally problematic since we have now a woman in male prison… Sturgeon resigned because she alienated part of the population which is not anti-LGBT, but just doesn’t agree with such measures. The point here is that there is no easy solution, because sexual identity is in itself not a simple form of identity but a complex notion full of inconsistencies and unconscious features: it is something that in no way could be established by a direct reference to how we feel. Sticking to a problematic “principle” doesn’t help a lot in such cases since the principle itself is wrong.

The recent controversy about the use of so-called puberty blockers concerns another aspect of this same complexity: puberty blockers suppress hormones and, in this way, pause a child’s development of sex-based characteristics such as breasts. They are given to youngsters between 9 and 16 years who appear not to be able to choose their sexual identity, and the reasoning that sustains this measure is pretty straight: there is a danger that youngsters who cannot determine their sexual identity will make an enforced choice under the pressure of their environment and thus repress their true inclination (to be a trans, mostly). So, since in full puberty we usually already have adopted a definite sexual identity, one should give these youngsters puberty blockers to postpone their entry into puberty and thus give them more time to reflect on their sexuality and to be compelled to decide about it a couple of years later when they will be mature enough to make the right choice…

It was disclosed, however, that life-changing drugs were given to autistic and troubled youngsters who may have been misdiagnosed as uncertain about their sexuality. Life-altering treatments were being given to children before they were old enough to know whether they want to medically transition, or, as one of the critics said: “A child experiencing gender distress needs time and support – not to be set on a medical pathway they may later regret.” The paradox is clear: puberty blockers were given to allow youngsters to reach maturity and freely decide about their sexual identity, but puberty blockers may cause numerous other physical and psychic pathologies, and nobody asked the youngsters if they are ready to receive drugs with such consequences – or, as Hilary Cass wrote:

“We do not fully understand the role of adolescent sex hormones in driving the development of both sexuality and gender identity through the early teen years, so by extension we cannot be sure about the impact of stopping these hormone surges on psychosexual and gender maturation. We therefore have no way of knowing whether, rather than buying time to make a decision, puberty blockers may disrupt that decision-making process. Brain maturation may be temporarily or permanently disrupted by puberty blockers, which could have significant impact on the ability to make complex risk-laden decisions, as well as possible longer-term neuropsychological consequences.”

One should make even a step further in this criticism and problematize the very basic claim that arriving at sexual identity is a matter of mature free choice. There is nothing “abnormal” in sexual confusions; what we call “sexual maturation” is a long complex and mostly unconscious process full of violent tensions and reversals, not a process of discovering what one really is in the depth of one’s psyche. [1]

Awaken to Continue to Sleep

The problem with wokenness is that it is involved in many similar unexpected alliances. In our official ideological space, wokenness and religious fundamentalism appear as incompatible opposites. But are they really? Almost a decade ago, a Kurdish ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie was invited by London’s Goldsmiths College to give a talk on the topic “Apostasy, blasphemy and free expression in the age of ISIS.” Her talk was repeatedly disrupted by Muslim students, and the interruptions were severe and extremely rude. Namazie focused on Islamic oppression of women. It’s thus ironic that her talk at Goldsmiths was opposed by the college Feminist Society, which aligned itself with ISOC, Goldsmiths Islamic Society… A commentator in Evolution Is True was right to remark:

“This unholy alliance between feminists and Islamists is symptomatic of the cancer eating away at the Left, whose sympathy for the supposed underdog (especially those who aren’t white) all too often outweighs their support of feminist and Enlightenment values. It’s beyond me how any feminist society can support a Muslim group unless that group is outspokenly devoted to the equality of women and the dismantling of sharia law.”

This unexpected solidarity is ultimately grounded in the similarity of the form of the two discourses: wokenness de facto works as a secularized religious dogma, with all contradictions this implies. John McWhorter (a black critic of wokenness) enumerated some of them: “You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people/You can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do, you’re a racist,” and “Show interest in multiculturalism/Do not culturally appropriate. What is not your culture is not for you, and you may not try it or do it.”[2] You find this an exaggeration? Just read Vincent Lloyd’s report on his encounter with wokeness at its worst, an essay which should be obligatory reading for everyone who doubts this ideology’s repressive potential and which is worth quoting in extenso.

Lloyd’s credentials are impeccable: a black professor and director of the Center for Political Theology at Villanova University, he directs his university’s black-studies program, leads anti-racism and transformative-justice workshops, and publishes books on anti-black racism and prison abolition (like his classic Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination). In the Summer of 2022, Lloyd was asked by the Telluride Association to lead a 6 weeks seminar on “Race and the Limits of Law in America” attended by 12 carefully selected 17-year-olds. Four weeks later, the number of attendants was reduced by two (the previous week, students had voted two classmates out of the house), and he was next on the list to be suspended. In his last class, “each student read from a prepared statement about how the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence in its content and form, how the black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless micro-aggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn’t feel safe because I didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills.”

Lloyd traces the origin of the trend which culminated in this event to “that moment in the 1970s when leftist organizations imploded, the need to match and raise the militancy of one’s comrades leading to a toxic culture filled with dogmatism and disillusion.” His critics relied on a series of dogmas, among them: There is no hierarchy of oppressions, except for anti-black oppression, which is in a class of its own. Trust black women. Prison is never the answer. All non-black people, and many black people, are guilty of anti-blackness.

But more crucial than content was the conflict of forms between seminar and workshop. Lloyd tried to practice seminar, an exchange of opinions: one intervention builds on another, as one student notices what another student overlooked, and as the professor guides the discussion toward the most important questions. Seminars usually focus on a classic or public texts, and the participants try patiently to uncover their meaning. However, as Lloyd remarks, “if the seminar is slow food, the anti-racist workshop put on by college-age students is a sugar rush. All the hashtags are there, condensed, packaged, and delivered from a place of authority. The worst sort of anti-racist workshop simply offers a new language for participants to echo – to retweet out loud.” The dogma is clearly established, and the exchange focuses on how and where somebody knowingly or unknowingly violated it. As Alenka Zupančič noted, the universe of PC workshops is the universe of Brecht’s Jasager: everybody says yes again and again, and the main argument against those who are not accepted as sincere partisans is “harm”:

“This language, and the framework it expresses, come out of the prison-abolition movement. Instead of matching crimes with punishments, abolitionists encourage us to think about harms and how they can be made right, often through inviting a broader community to discern the impact of harms, the reasons they came about, and paths forward. In the language of the anti-racism workshop, a harm becomes anything that makes you feel not quite right.”

Here is Lloyd’s example of how reference to “harm” works:

“During our discussion of incarceration, an Asian-American student cited federal inmate demographics: About 60 percent of those incarcerated are white. The black students said they were harmed. They had learned, in one of their workshops, that objective facts are a tool of white supremacy. Outside of the seminar, I was told, the black students had to devote a great deal of time to making right the harm that was inflicted on them by hearing prison statistics that were not about blacks. A few days later, the Asian-American student was expelled from the program.”

Two things should surprise us here. First, this new cult combines objectivized dogmas with full trust into how one feels (although only the oppressed blacks have the right to refer to their feeling as the measure of the racist’s guilt). A critical confrontation of arguments plays no role, which implies that “open debate” is a racist white supremacist notion. “Objective facts are a tool of white supremacy” – yes, so that, as Trumpists used to say, we need to generate alternative facts… To be clear, there is a moment of truth in this: those who are brutally oppressed have neither the time nor the ability to afford deep reflections and well-elaborated debate which would bring out the falsity of liberal-humanist ideology. But in this case (as in most other cases), those who appropriate the role of the leaders of the revolt are precisely NOT the brutal victims of the racist oppression but a relative privileged minority of a minority allowed to participate in a top-quality workshop of an elite university.

Second, the mystery resides in the functioning of the big Other, or the Telluride administrative authority, in this case. The view gradually imposed on all by the awoken black elite was the view of a minority (first, even the minority among the black participants). But how and why did these few not only succeed to terrorize the majority but also to compel the Telluride authority to take their side and refrain from defending Lloyd? Why didn’t they at least assume a more nuanced position? Why does wokenness, though a minority view, succeed in neutralizing the large liberal and Leftist space, installing in it the fear of openly opposing them?

Psychoanalysis has a clear answer to this paradox: the notion of superego. The superego is a cruel and insatiable agency, which bombards me with impossible demands and which mocks my failed attempts to meet them, the agency in the eyes of which I am all the more guilty, the more I try try suppress my “sinful” strivings and meet its demands. The old cynical Stalinist motto about the accused at the show trials who professed their innocence (“the more they are innocent, the more they deserve to be shot”) is the superego at its purest. And did McWhorter in the quoted passage not reproduce the exact structure of the superego paradox? “You must strive eternally to understand the experiences of black people / You can never understand what it is to be black, and if you think you do, you’re a racist.” In short, you must, but you cannot, because you shouldn’t – the greatest sin is to do what you should strive for… This convoluted structure of an injunction, which is fulfilled when we fail to meet it, accounts for the paradox of the superego noted by Freud: the more we obey the superego commandment the more we feel guilty. This paradox holds also when we follow Lacan and read the superego as an injunction to enjoy: enjoyment is an impossible-real, we cannot ever fully attain it, and this failure makes us feel guilty.

A series of situations that characterize today’s society exemplify perfectly this type of superego pressure, like the endless politically correct self-examination. Was my look at the flight attendant too intrusive and sexually offensive? Did I use any words with a possible sexist undertone while addressing her? Etc.etc. The pleasure, thrill even, provided by such self-probing is evident… And does the same not hold even for the pathological fear of some Western liberal Leftists to be guilty of islamophobia? Any critique of Islam is denounced as an expression of Western islamophobia, Salman Rushdie is denounced for unnecessarily provoking Muslims and thus (partially, at least) responsible for the fatwa condemning him to death, etc.etc. The result of such a stance is what one can expect in such cases: the more Western liberal Leftists probe into their guilt, the more they are accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being hypocrites who try to conceal their hatred of Islam. This constellation again perfectly reproduces the paradox of the superego: the more you obey what the Other demands of you, the guiltier you are. It is as if the more you tolerate Islam, the stronger its pressure on you will be…[3]

This superego structure, then, explains how and why, in the Telluride case, the majority and the institutional big Other were both terrorized by the wokeish minority. All of them were exposed to a superego pressure, which is far from an authentic call to justice. The black woke elite is fully aware they will not achieve their declared goal of diminishing, at least, black oppression, and they even don’t want that. What they really want is what they are achieving: a position of moral authority, from which they terrorize all others without effectively changing the social relations of domination. The situation of those terrorized by the wokeish elite is more complex, but still clear: they submit to wokeish demands because most of them really ARE guilty of participating in social domination, and submitting to wokeish demands offers them an easy way out – you gladly assume your guilt insofar as this enables you to go on living the way you do. It’s the old Protestant logic of “do whatever you want, just feel guilty for it.”

The lesson of these examples is thus a clear one: “wokenness” effectively stands for its exact opposite. In his Interpretation of Dreams, Freud reports a dream dreamt by a father who falls asleep while keeping guard of his son’s coffin. In this dream, his dead son appears to him, pronouncing the terrible appeal: “Father, can’t you see that I am burning?” When the father awakens, he discovers that the cloth on the son’s coffin caught fire, since one of the burning candles fell down. So why did the father awaken? Was it because the smell of the smoke got too strong, so that it was no longer possible to prolong the sleep by way of including it into the improvised dream?

Lacan proposes a much more interesting reading:

“If the function of the dream is to prolong sleep, if the dream, after all, may come so near to the reality that causes it, can we not say that it might correspond to this reality without emerging from sleep? After all, there is such a thing as somnambulistic activity. The question that arises, and which indeed all Freud’s previous indications allow us here to produce, is – What is it that wakes the sleeper? Is it not, in the dream, another reality? – the reality that Freud describes thus – Dass das Kind an seinem Bette steht, that the child is near his bed, ihn am Arme fasst, takes him by the arm and whispers to him reproachfully, und ihm vorwurfsvoll zuraunt: Vater, siehst du denn nicht, Father, can’t you see, dass ich verbrenne, that I am burning? Is there not more reality in this message than in the noise by which the father also identifies the strange reality of what is happening in the room next door? Is not the missed reality that caused the death of the child expressed in these words?”[4]

So, it was not the intrusion of the signal from external reality that awakened the unfortunate father, but the unbearably traumatic character of what he encountered in the dream. Insofar as “dreaming” means fantasizing in order to avoid confronting the Real, the father literally awakened so that he could go on dreaming. The scenario was the following one: when his sleep was disturbed by smoke, the father quickly constructed a dream, which incorporated the disturbing element (smoke and fire) in order to prolong his sleep; however, what he confronted in the dream was a trauma (of his responsibility for the son’s death) much stronger than reality, so he awakened into reality in order to avoid the Real… And it is exactly the same with much of the ongoing “woke” movement: they awaken us (into the racist and sexist horrors) precisely to enable us to go on sleeping, i.e., ignoring the true roots and depth and racial and sexual traumas.

To avoid yet another fatal mistake: this in no way means that the topic of sexism and racism is somehow secondary, and that we should move the focus onto “real” economy, as some Leftist critics of wokenness seem to imply. One has to be very precise here. Adrian Johnston[5] formulated the key insight in this respect: his basic premise runs against the standard Freudo-Marxist idea that the explanation of the subjective features of individuals living in today’s capitalism (why do millions act and vote against their obvious interests? why can they be mobilized for nationalist, religious and military struggles which pose a threat to their very lives?) in the terms of the determination by economic base is insufficient. To explain such phenomena, Marxist economic analysis has to be supplemented by psychoanalytic research into collective libidinal investments. While Johnston agrees that Marxism needs psychoanalysis, he convincingly argues that these unconscious libidinal mechanisms are at work already in the very heart of the “economic base”: we just have to read Marx closely to see that the individuals caught in capitalist reproduction do not really follow their egotist interests. Rather, they act as the instruments of capital’s drive to ever-expanding reproduction, ready to renounce many life pleasures: “Maybe Marx ought to be credited not only with inventing the psychoanalytic concept of the symptom avant la lettre, as Lacan proposes, but also with inventing the analytic idea of the drive prior to Freud.”

Johnston, of course, does not ignore the complexity of the interaction between the reproduction of capital and the subjective life of capital’s agents who are also “psychical subjects of enjoyment having to do with socio-symbolic secondary gains exuded from the pure accumulation of capital.” Just think about the esteem gained by the charities of today’s ultra-wealthy neo-feudal masters. So, when Friedrich Engels wrote that in socialism “the satisfaction of all reasonable needs will be assured to everyone in an ever-increasing measure,”[6] one should raise the inevitable question: what, precisely, are these “reasonable needs”? Isn’t the big lesson of psychoanalysis that, in our social universe, needs are never directly expresses, they are always mediated by psychic mechanisms which makes them perverted “irrational” desires? I am ready to risk my life for something that I don’t need: the prohibition to directly get what I desire can itself provide surplus-pleasure, since what I desire is mediated by what others desire. And then there is the mechanism of envy, which makes it more important to hurt the other than to satisfy myself… How can one explain not only things like racism and sexism but also the functioning of capitalism itself without such perverted reversals?



[1] To avoid unnecessary polemics and focus on the essentials, I shortened the part about puberty blocking with regard to the previous version of this text. After learning a lot about puberty blocking, my position remains the same.

[2] See John McWhorter, Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, New York: Portfolio 2021.

[3] I resume here the argumentation from Chapter III of my Surplus-Enjoyment, London: Bloomsbury Press 2022.

[4] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1979, p. 57-58.

[5] See Adrian Johnston’s monumental Infinite Greed (manuscript).

[6] Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 24, Moscow: Progress Publishers 1989. p. 183.