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‘Liberal Multiculturalism is the Hegemony – Its an Empirical Fact’ – A response to Slavoj Žižek

by Sara Ahmed
19 Feb 2008 • Comments (7) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

In his plenary talk at the Law and Critique Conference (2007)[1] Slavoj Žižek repeatedly asserted that liberal multiculturalism – and its ‘politically correct’ premise of respecting the other’s difference – is hegemonic. When asked questions about this position from the floor, he stated insistently that it was an ‘empirical fact’ that liberal multiculturalism was hegemonic, and challenged anyone to prove otherwise. I am writing this response as a way of taking up his challenge.

It is worth stating from the outside how difficult it is to begin with ‘empirical facts’ when trying to establish what would be the best description of a hegemony, that is, the dominant way of ordering things that reproduces things in a certain order. Hegemony is not really reducible to facts as it involves semblance, fantasy and illusion, being a question of how things appear and the gap between appearance and the real. To read hegemony we have to distrust how things appear. Indeed, what is striking about Žižek’s retort is how much his reading of ‘political correctness’ and ‘liberal multiculturalism’ involved a certain literalism, as if the prohibition of speech acts that are not based on respecting the other’s difference are ‘really’ what is prohibited, or as if the prohibition is simply real by virtue of being articulated within public culture. So the speech act, ‘we must support the other’s difference’ is read as hegemonic, is taken literally as a sign not only that it is compulsory to support the other’s difference, but we are not allowed to refuse this support. The speech act is read as doing what it says. In order to re-consider the effects of such injunctions and prohibitions, I have introduced a new class of what I call non-performatives: speech acts that do not do what they say, and that do not bring into effect what they name.[2] Could the speech work to create an illusion that we do support the other’s difference, which might work by not bringing such support into existence?

So lets re-consider liberal multiculturalism as a fantasy. In one of his famous examples, Žižek considers postmodernism as a fantasy that extends forms of violence. The postmodern organisation wants to be friendly, wants to have the appearance of collegiality, wants not to be seen as having authority over you. The postmodern leader wants to be your friend, a follower amongst followers, we might even say. Quite rightly, Žižek argues that such postmodern forms of authority extend the violence of authority precisely by concealing authority under the illusion of friendship and civility. Force is all the more forceful when it no longer appears as force. Feminist critics have long taught us this point – that it is in intimate spaces predicated on fantasies of equality, reciprocity and love that violence is more structuring, as it goes unnoticed and unnamed.

We can read multiculturalism as a fantasy in exactly the same terms. The multicultural organisation wants to be seen as diverse; as bringing everyone together; as respecting difference, as committed to equality. Such an organisation would use brochures of colourful faces; diversity would be a sign of the very qualities or attributes of the organisation. In other words, diversity becomes an ego ideal. The multicultural nation also takes diversity as an ego ideal, as if it has achieved diversity because of its qualities or attributes. We can see this at stake in the making of the multicultural nation: Britain is represented as being multicultural because of its national character: as being tolerant, open, loving, hospitable, and so on.[3]

I would argue that multiculturalism is a fantasy which conceals forms of racism, violence and inequality as if the organisation/nation can now say: how can you experience racism when we are committed to diversity? In my research project on diversity in organisations, when Black staff spoke about racism, organisations often responded by pointing to their race equality and diversity policies, as if these policies were the point. Black staff spoke of how they deal with whiteness everyday and how diversity and equality as organisational ideals get in the way of reporting these experiences. You are asked to be a tick in their box by smiling with gratitude, adding colour to the white face of the organisation. Diversity as an ego ideal conceals experiences of racism, which means that multiculturalism is a fantasy which supports the hegemony of whiteness.

In such a fantasy, racism is ‘officially prohibited’. This is true. We are ‘supposed’ to be for racial equality, tolerance and diversity, and we are not ‘allowed’ to express hatred towards others, or to incite racist hatred. I would argue that this prohibition against racism is imaginary, and that it conceals everyday forms of racism, and involves a certain desire for racism. Take Big Brother and the Jade Goody story.[4] You could argue that Big Brother’s exposure of racism functions as evidence that political correctness is hegemonic: you are not allowed to be racist towards others. But that would be a gross misreading. What was at stake was the desire to locate racism in the body of Jade Goody, who comes to stand for the ignorance of the white working classes, as a way of showing that ‘we’ (Channel 4 and its well-meaning liberal viewers) are not racist like that. When anti-racism becomes an ego ideal you know you are in trouble.

The prohibition of racist speech should not then be taken literally: rather it is a way of imagining ‘us’ as beyond racism, as being good multicultural subjects who are not that. By saying racism is over there –‘ look, there it is! in the located body of the racist’ – other forms of racism remain unnamed. We might even say that the desire for racism is an articulation of a wider unnamed racism, that accumulates force by not being named, or by operating under the sign of civility. This imaginary prohibition is taken up as if it is real, which allows individuals to declare that being racist is prohibited (the probation happens, but that is not the point). Racism then becomes a minority position which has to be defended against the multicultural hegemony. The desire to be seen as anti-racist is taken up as an expression of a prohibition, which is what allows racism to be articulated as a minority position, a refusal of orthodoxy. In this perverse logic, racism can then be embraced as a form of free speech. We have articulated a new discourse of freedom: as the freedom to be offensive, in which racism becomes an offence that restores our freedom: the story goes, we have worried too much about offending the other, we must get beyond this restriction, which sustains the fantasy that ‘that’ was the worry in the first place. Note here that the other, especially the Muslim subject who is represented as easily offended, becomes the one who causes injury, insofar as it is the Muslim other’s ‘offendability’ that is read as restricting our free speech. The offendible subject ‘gets in the way’ of our freedom. So rather than saying racism is prohibited by the liberal multicultural consensus, under the banner of respect for difference, I would argue that racism is what is protected under the banner of free speech through the appearance of being prohibited.

In fact, I want to put my argument in stronger terms. I would argue that the hegemonic position is that liberal multiculturalism is the hegemony. This is why the current monoculture political agenda functions as a kind of retrospective defence against multiculturalism. The explicit argument of New Labour is that multiculturalism went ‘too far’: we gave the other ‘too much’ respect, we celebrated difference ‘too much’, such that multiculturalism is read as the cause of segregation, riots and even terrorism. So now migrants must be British; we must defence integration, as a defence against multiculturalism, which in turn is what threatens the well-being of the nation. We have a return to national pride as a defence of Britishness, as if this is a minority position. (One suspects that hegemonies are often presented as minority positions, as defences against what are perceived to be hegemonic, which is how they can be presented as matter of life and death.) Take the following quote from the Home Office report, Strength in Diversity: ‘In recent years we’ve focused far too much on the ‘multi’ and not enough on the common culture. We’ve emphasized what divides us over what unites us. We have allowed tolerance of diversity to harden into the effective isolation of communities, in which some people think special separate values ought to apply.’

Note also this involves a reading of the other as abusing our multicultural love: as if to say, we gave our love to you, and you abused our love by living apart from us, so now you must become British. We have a double fantasy here: both that migrants were respected or received with love (as a description of the history of race politics in the UK on suspect we are talking here about history as a national fantasy, or the nation as a historical fantasy) [5], and then that this love was abused. Migrants enter the national consciousness as ungrateful. Ironically then racism becomes attributed to the failure of migrants to receive our love. The monocultural hegemony involves the fantasy that multiculturalism is the hegemony. The best description of today’s hegemony is ‘liberal monoculturalism’ in which common values are read as under threat by the support for the other’s difference, as a form of support that supports the fantasy of the nation as being respectful at the same time as it allows the withdrawal of this so-called respect. The speech act that declares liberal multiculturalism as hegemonic is the hegemonic position.


1. This conference was entitled, ‘Walls’ and took place at Birkbeck College, 14-16 September 2007. See: [↑]

2. See Ahmed, Sara (2006). ‘The Non-Performativity of Anti-Racism’, Borderlands. vol 5, no 5. [↑]

3. See my chapter, ‘In the name of Love’, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2004, Edinburgh University Press for an elaboration of this argument. [↑]

4. For further discussion of the politics of Big Brother and racism, see the editorial by Ashwani Sharma and Sanjay Sharma, ‘Celebrity Big Brother Dialogues: The Global Pantomime of Race’. site/2007/05/07/editorial-celebrity-big-brother-dialogues-the-global-pantomime-of-race/ [↑]

5. In one speech by Trevor Phillips, for instance, ‘We need a High-way code for a Multi-ethnic Society’’ he evokes the colonial as a good sign of British character: ‘And we can look at our own history to show that the British people are not by nature bigots. We created something called the empire where we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands.’ Empire here become proof that British are ‘not bigots’, but are able to ‘mix and mingle’ with others. Indeed, empire itself becomes a sign of a British tendency towards happy diversity; towards mixing, loving and co-habiting with others. The violence of colonial occupation is re-imagined as a history of love (a story of mixing and mingling), whilst colonialism itself becomes a happy sign of a certain national disposition. Here, diversity, mixing and multiculturalism become happy insofar as they are ‘gifts’ given by the British towards others. Phillips gave this speech on October 3, 2005, to the Conservative party’s Muslim Forum. See:[↑]

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Sara Ahmed is Professor in Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths
All posts by: Sara Ahmed | Email | Website

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7 Responses »

  1. I’d add to Sara Ahmed’s critique that the problem she describes is a problem innate to the theory of hegemony, and that it highlights what we stand to lose by ‘giving up’ on multiculturalism as a form of progressive political practice.

    The game of hegemony involves a kind of popularization that involves passing off radical ideas as commonsensical. Of course, this is a territory that can also be contested by one’s political enemies. Alternative or contradictory interpretations can indeed overtake and overwhelm an ‘original’ meaning, yet not entirely destroy an association with that meaning. As a result, the particular meaning that is instantiated after such a contestation often looks like, but is not (to put it crudely) the thing we ‘originally’ had in mind.

    This is exactly what has occurred with the concept of multiculturalism, as described above. The meaning of multiculturalism has, in certain respects, effectively become ‘detached’ from a progressive politics, and has been articulated to some quite reactionary agendas: multiculturalism has indeed been hegemonized from the right. It has, in Ahmed’s terminology, been turned into a ‘liberal monoculturalism’. And yet there remains a lingering identity here, for this monoculturalism continues to operate under the guise of multiculturalism: it is a ‘non-performative speech act’ that names, resembles, but does not actually bring about a progressive politics. It is, in other words, quite possible for us to recognize and take seriously the discursive hegemony of ‘multiculturalism’ (a la Žižek), and yet maintain (following Ahmed) that there is often a profound disjuncture between what the concept ‘says’, and what it ‘does’.

    The real problem that faces is us what to do next. One possibility would be to give up on the concept of multiculturalism as soiled goods; the other would be to recognize that such a manoeuvre would be to prematurely give up on the concept in the midst of hegemonic struggle – it would be to transform a temporary setback into a permanent defeat.

    For the reason why the concept of multiculturalism is being used at all in the contemporary politics of race is because progressive political struggle has made it hegemonic. That the term has been co-opted to reactionary ends does not detract from, but actually reinforces this fact. To recognize that the hegemony has been hegemonized is surely proof that the concept remains in contestation, that its meaning is not fixed now for all time.

    Why is it important that we continue to contest the concept (or, put another way, why should we consider it a problem to concede multiculturalism to the right)? The central issue here is one resources. Although theoretically infinite, the critical resources available to us are effectively limited by their contextual and institutional elaboration. The institutionalization of a certain politics means there is a particular character to the rights claims of anti-racism: this is the hard fought for territory on which progressive struggles have been focused. To give up on the concept of multiculturalism as (weak/corrupted/co-opted), is effectively to hand over a key conceptual resource of progressive struggle to the right. The point is that there are only so many resources at our disposal, because such resources need to be developed and refined over time. Though there is always a progressive position to take ‘beyond’ or ‘behind’ a divested resource, it will invariably lack the hegemonic quality of the divested resource itself by virtue of its novelty and institutional immaturity (this is the problem of ultraleftism).

    This is not to say that it is impossible for a progressive anti-racist politics to reinvent its conceptual resources: this is of course an absolutely necessary process that enables the modification of a progressive politics in the context of historical change. What’s problematic – and what is of course troubling about the position that appears to be taken by Žižek here – is an inattentiveness to the pragmatics of conceptual reinvention, and the failure to recognize precisely how long the institutional elaboration of a politics takes. If we are to describe the politics of multiculturalism in terms of a theory of hegemony, then we should recognize the full implications of hegemonic practice: in this case, that even a first defeat remains very much a part of an ongoing struggle.

  2. A few thoughts:

    I don’t think there is such a significant difference between Sara Ahmed’s astute analysis of liberal multiculturalism and Slavoj Žižek’s critique. In rather simple terms, Žižek would argue that liberal multiculturalism and liberal monoculturalism are two mutually constitutive modalities of contemporary global racism. The more substantial difference, and maybe this is effectively implied in Žižek’s elevation of liberal multiculturalism as being hegemonic, as a critique of liberal-left positions, is what do we do politically – the issue that is rightly raised by Ben Pitcher. Here Žižek’s position is quite clear and consistent – he does not see multiculturalism as a site of hegemonic struggle. There is no progressive form of multiculturalism for him. In fact, by marking it as the master signifier of politics, we end up with contemporary modes of liberal racism, sexism…(i.e. others remain as others to be tolerated, but deprived of their radical Otherness…)

    Žižek’s argument is really about the broader ‘cultural turn’ in politics. If we want to hold on to a politics of multiculture then what form does it have to take now? What is the relation between culture and politics? Hasn’t the fantasy been that multiculturalism can articulate particular, at times contradictory and oppositional struggles, into a hegemony of progressive social politics? Does this become impossible when progressive projects such as feminism and anti-racism are themselves how racism and sexism operates? e.g. liberal white feminist critique of Muslim patriarchy becomes the justification for Islamophobia etc. Of course this has always been the challenge (and maybe the limitations) of hegemonic politics but aren’t we now in a situation that the very grounds in which the hegemonic struggle takes place is contained within the contours of liberal-capitalist ‘post-political’ democracy. A space, exemplified by liberal multiculturalism, where differences are allowed but as long as they don’t challenge this order. Culture, in whatever radical constructionist, anti-essentialist way we understand and mobilise it, comfortably operates within and is the predominant ideological form of liberal democracy.

    I think this is the challenge Žižek poses – how do we conceive of politics in this context. For him the only universal hegemony is global capitalism and without opposing that all other struggles will be easily incorporated into its logic. In that, even progressive multiculturalism in its form of radical (deconstructive) particularism, is how global power operates. (See Hardt and Negri for example).

    Žižek’s position is that instead of struggling over cultural differences in the form of trying to hegemonise the field by creating shared consensus, that to be truly progressively multicultural we need to struggle over what we oppose – a politics of negation. Instead of trying to find common shared elements, we should fight politically and unconditionally over say anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-capitalism etc. This does appear to end up as a standard left position. One of the questions to ask is how is culture conceptualised and situated in these struggles. The orthodox left tends to see culture as an ideological problem, as best as form of (nationalist) resistance. Žižek, through his Hegelian-dialectical Lacanism, offers a more complex understanding of culture, subjectivity and ideology that questions conventional representational, as well as immanent materialist, politics. He is advocating a dialectical politics of division and confrontation – we need to take sides and fight for our position. And crucially, the political antagonisms are not between cultures but within and across cultures. Maybe this is a universalism after the (multi)cultural turn?

  3. I don’t see a critique of Zizek here as his recent book “Violence” explains elaborately what Sara Ahmed is attempting here. In particular the effects of Liberal Multiculturalism Sara Ahmed refers to as is what he describes as “objective” violence.

  4. See Zizek’s response to Ahmed ‘Appendix: Multiculturalism, the Reality of an Illusion’

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