Often one will find that the most intriguing arguments and ideas emerge from the most seemingly random tangents. Some readers of Slavoj Žižek wonder whether his entire body of work is one large random tangent synthesizing bits of culture for the sake of appearing intelligent. Other readers of his work think that his use of examples from popular culture are a much needed antidote to the unintelligible slews of philosophical abstract thought that normally emerge from the philosophical enterprise. But to write in the spirit of one of his works, what is intended to be presented here may appear to some to be In Defence of Lost Causes (Verso: 2009). Žižek, in his 2010 lecture at Wilson College of Princeton University, titled “Why Only an Atheist Can be a True Christian” (i), shockingly to some, answered an audience member’s question with a long tangent, in which he suggested that the way to fight racism was with, what he termed, ‘progressive racism’.

            At this point one can see that obviously he likes to phrase ideas a certain way so as to shock and upset, with the hopes that one will listen. What Žižek points out, particularly from a Balkan perspective, is that jokes that use ethnic and racial stereotypes, whether assumed or explicated, can function as a form of social solidarity and that because they function this way they are not racist. Though it is of course recognized that racist jokes can supply social solidarity between those who share the common racial/ethnic assumptions about the other (the in-group) but would in no way supply social solidarity between those who are the targets of the jokes (the out-group) and the ones making them. But, to use one of Žižek’s almost compulsive phrase, ‘I claim that…’ there is more to the notion of ‘racist’ jokes as a form of social solidarity than merely that they can be used to enforce racist ideas within an ingroup, but rather that they can also point to the absurdity of racism itself, where it is not a particular racial/ethnic group that is the target, but rather racism itself.

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            A prime example is Russell Peters, the canadian comedian who has arguably based his entire career off making so called ‘racist’ jokes. Now, the problem with Peters is not so much that he continued with the routine in extended form, thus perpetuating racism in the eyes of some, but precisely because it wasn’t funny any more. Apart from that side note though, if one watches Russell Peters, one can notice how he uses ethnicity and race to actually bring different people groups together. One can watch as he blends many different ethnicities together by their stereotypes so as to promoted greater unity in a sea of laughter at shared amusement.

            Compare this with two other proposed solutions to the problem of racism, namely 1-denial in silence and 2-fear of emergence. As for the first, consider Morgan Freeman’s 2005 interview with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes, where he suggests that the way to stop racism is ‘to stop talking about it’ (ii). If only the problems of our world could be solved so easily as to just keep silent about them and they’ll go away. We cannot pretend the past did not exist as much as we would like to, as we await the great day when remembrance of former things will be no more (Isaiah 65:17), for alas we live in the time before that day. The second can be seen in the way Chevy Chase was ousted as being ‘racist’ because he used the ‘n-word’ on the set of Community (2009-present), with almost no attention to the original context of what he said and why. Chase was protesting the racist nature of his character and showing his concern about the direction that the writers were taking! (iii) One can see though how even the very mention of the word can cause dread, fear, and to ostracizing someone, ironically giving racism all the more power through great fear of it.

            The first approach then is too idealistic and takes the risk of us not being prepared to see racism when it does appear, while the second unwittingly gives racism a power through our fear and dread that it does not necessarily deserve. In danger then of throwing one other complicated philosopher into our discussion, Friedrich Nietzsche’s work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, at one point lays out that the real way to move beyond a dark past, is not by pretending that it doesn’t exist nor by treating it through dread and fear, but by defusing it through laughter.

“I no longer feel as you do: this cloud which I see beneath me, this blackness and gravity at which I laugh- this is your thundercloud. You look up when you feel the need for elevation. And I look down because I am elevated. Who among you can laugh and be elevated at the same time? Whoever climbs the highest mountains laughs at all tragic plays and tragic seriousness…(On Reading and Writing, Part one)”

            The suggestion here is that when once is ‘elevated’, whatever that may mean, one can perceive the thundercloud that others fear as something that can be laughed at, for one is above it. The serious tragedies, which they were in no doubt were when one was under them, become objects of amusement for now you can see them for what they were. Žižek’s argument that ‘racist’ jokes can function as a tool for social solidarity must not be construed as an attempt to redeem racism or to validate stereotypes (obviously these need to be fought), but rather as an acknowledgement that laughing at our failures as humanity is a true sign that we have moved beyond them. You may of course object to the crude nature of many of these jokes, but the fact that their use of racist stereotypes functions as a way to laugh at racism rather than because of racism, is a redeeming quality indeed.

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(i) Žižek, Slavoj. “Why Only an Atheist can be a True Christian” Oct. 12th, 2010. Accessed at:

http://www.egs.edu/faculty/slavoj-zizek/videos/why-only-an-atheist-can-be-a-true-christian/ >

(ii) Wallace, Mike. “Freeman on Black History Month”. 60 Minutes. June 14th, 2006. Accessed at:

http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=1131418n >

Transcript can be accessed at:

http://www.snopes.com/politics/quotes/blackhistory.asp >

(iii) Thorton, Cedric. “Is Chevy Chase Really Racist?” Black Enterprise. June 21, 2013. Accessed at:

http://www.blackenterprise.com/lifestyle/is-chevy-chase-really-racist/ >

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