Daily Archives: August 18, 2010

RSA Animate II: Slavoj Žižek’s “First as Tragedy, Then as Farce”

As in our previous posts we had publicised a marvellous booklet funded by the “philanthropist” George Soros and then questioned the whole idea of charity in ta subsequent post, it would only be appropriate to introduce the latest in our personalised RSA animate series, this fabulous talk by the remarkable Lacanian Marxist, Slavoj Žižek:

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This is bibles full of libel, this is sin an eternal hymn

Wow!! As if Alex Case had not done enough with hosting the fantastic article and discussion on recruitment of Sri Lankan teachers to teach English in South Korea, now he has single-handedly opened up another can of worms in the very same discussion by linking to issues of Christian missionaries and ELT (first raised by Lindsay Clanfield’s blog, Six Things). Of course we would prefer not to be a simple off-shoot of everything Alex and his contributors do and say over at TEFLtastic , but such is the fertile nature of those discussions (sincere congratulations go to Alex and his contributors for this being so), we feel obliged to comment.

Firstly, in his contribution Jason Renshaw seems to be suggesting that a new piece of workplace legislation be added to existing Racial and Sexual Harassment, namely Spiritual Harassment. He details the case of a teacher who used their classes as a platform to preach religion and even pestered one student (the similarities with sexual harassment are incredible) with promises to buy him a bicycle if he “went to church with her”.

Secondly, Teflista links to an article (which is depressing reading indeed) showing Mormon missionaries busy at work in South Korea, using free English classes to “convert the natives” to the “true religion”.

Now the first thing we want to point out is that whilst, as Marxists, we generally despise religion (we are against investing immaterial or material objects with a power they clearly do not have), we also defend the rights of people to hold and practise religious beliefs, and, this being crucially important, we also, like many religions, believe in an ethical “redemption” of human values in a world which is somewhat devoid of such qualities. Whilst most people know a small part of Marx’s famous quotation on religion, “opium of the people” the vast majority of people do not know or have neglected the full context. Here is the quotation in full (emphasis in bold):

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man—state, society. This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

We say all this, because, though we recoil in horror at the way religious organisations “trap their victims”, the homeless, the dying, the sick, the poor, with their charity, we should not forget that these are people in need (needs which others neglect)and that these religious people feel obliged, by their beliefs, to help them.  Would those of us, whose eyes pop out at the stories of Christian missionaries working in South Korea, also call for all religious hospices to be closed or for the Salvation Army to be driven off the streets? Moreover, in what ways are secular charities better than religious inspired charities, as Richard Sennett points out:

The philosopher Hannah Arendt once proclaimed that “compassion breeds inequality”. Middle-class women in 19th-century Britain and America who visited the poor undoubtedly felt sympathy for those condemned to the slums, but their visits often aroused resentment. “Helping those who cannot help themselves” continues to carry an undertow of condescension: the needy have nothing to give back. Thus the anthropologist Mary Douglas observes about traditional Christian charity: “Compassion wounds.”

In what ways do secular charitable values merely mimic the worst excesses of Christian missionary zeal? We need merely pause for thought about the role of the Peace Corps, or the truly loathsome Global Vision organisation to see such similarities, both positive and negative, emerge. So as Marxists, we try not to judge the missionaries too quickly, because before helping others we must first create the other to help and whilst we tolerate the system that creates the unequal other, our actions in “helping the other” will always remain ethically questionable. Moreover, whilst TEFL teachers continue to perpetuate educational inequalities in South Korea, how can we be so morally superior to Mormons who give free lessons to the poor? Maybe, we should not be so quick to misjudge “the good intentions” of others until we have critically examined our own conscience (of course, if you agree with this statement then you yourselves are “slaves” to the Christian edict, “let he have no sin cast the first stone”)

Furthermore, whilst we share Jason’s hatred of the classroom preacher, how easy is it to dissociate religious belief from teaching? Consider for example how the great secular teaching tradition continues to impose the Christian calendar on its students as if this were in someway neutral, as if the very notion of a secular education wasn’t indeed premised in the Enlightenment, itself a product of Judean-Christian thought, and that our values as teachers (as evidenced above) are not shaped by our own spiritual values. Similarly, as Marxists we have to recognise that Marx himself came from a great line of radical Rabbis (it is not something we take shame in but great pride in, putting human values back on their feet).

We must remain critical of religions and in particular how they encode and justify unequal power relations; especially with regards to the role of women in society. Yet, we should not just construct religion as the other to secular education, as if there is a neutral position empty of human values. As Marxists we gamble, on the critical rationalism of humankind, the ability to critically reflect on our conditions of being and thinking, in order to construct better ways of relating to each other. This means that we are as opposed to the preaching of Marxism in the classroom as we are opposed to the preaching of Christianity, as neither encourage rational critical thought. But we are not opposed to the implicit teaching of Marxism (critical pedagogy/ learning as self-directed transformation of self) rather we are opposed to the implicit teaching of neo-liberalism (English as gateway to success, English as a neutral world language, English as superior liberal/secular values).

Some soul searching questions, indeed.

Footnotes:

For those of a more militant atheist persuasion, we would also like to recommend this wonderful and pertinent militant atheist ELT blog, A small flaking white huse in lost Spain, and to remind you of this 1970’s classic by a man called Johnny Rotten.

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