Have you heard of Slavoj Žižek? He is a Slovenian philosopher-psychoanalyst rock star personality who writes on everything from Hitchcock films and pop-culture to Hegel and Marx. I think of him as a mad scientist, dwelling in the lab of his own psyche, erupting with bouts of insight.  In my mind he is the "French intellectual" hopped up on pop-culture methamphetamine with a penchant for shaking the societal cage. He is the kind of fellow who does interviews for a biographical film of himself in bed.

Talking about the notion of the Freudian super ego, or  totalitarianism among other things, Žižek often returns to one joke in particular. It appears in a handful of places, including many of his interviews. The following is from "Slavoj Žižek: the world's hippest philosopher."

"Waving his pasty arms and tugging at increasingly soggy, proletarian grey T-shirt, Žižek tells me a favourite parable about "the falsity of permissivity": "Say you are a little girl and I am a totalitarian father. It is Saturday afternoon. I say, 'I don't care what you want to do, you have to visit your grandmother.' You go but you secretly hate me and try to revolt and that is OK. That is good. But the monstrous permissive father will say: 'You know how much your grandmother loves you, but visit her only if you really want to.' Beneath the appearance of a choice is a much more severe order. Not only must you visit grandma but you must want to and like it. I had such a father, which is why I hate him."

There is a lot going on in this passage. What I find extremely interesting is how common place this passive strategy of negotiation has become, and also Žižek's point that there is a second, tacit, moral code within the apparently benign statement.  This indirect strategy of trying to get a youth (or anyone) to do a certain thing is usually critiqued as "guilting" someone into do something. "My mother guilted me into coming." By describing the positive outcome of an action, e.g., you will make your grandma happy, one is left with the conclusion that if they fail to act in that way the outcome will not come to fruition and grandma is going to die a miserable, lonely death. I think operating at this level is common and is an understood means of behavior management. It can be annoying and petty, but in general, it is a socially acceptable attempt.

There is a way to employ similar tactics without the heavy-handed guilt trip. It is a way of just stating the facts and presenting the consequences of the actions. Particularly when working with youth with behavioral challenges, every act or decision can be reviewed in terms of its consequences in the hopes that the troubled youth will think about their actions before following through with them. (If you steal, you may get caught and go to jail; if you get a job, you will get paid and can buy things you want.) Reflecting on "natural consequences" of life without the intention of making one feel a certain way about the consequences is often more effective. Applying the method across the board-looking at the interconnectedness of life--instead of a last ditch effort to get the youth to do what they want, lessens the feelings of manipulation by others (to feel guilty for what they want or like).

And it is precisely in the passivity and the hidden command to not only do something but want to do something, to like to do something, that is very disturbing. First, looking at Žižek's joke, the passive father presents the issue as if he doesn't care what the outcome is, that the decision the youth makes does not influence or interest him enough to persuade him more forcefully. Second, the "only if you want to" condition--is there a more manipulative phrase? (Perhaps, "If you really loved me you would..."?)--at one level is meant to make the youth feel like the decision is really up to them without outside pressure; at another level, as Žižek points out, it is an expectation about how one must feel and what one must want.

Is telling someone what they should want or how they should feel any different (better or worse) then dictating what they should do or how they should act? What are the alternatives? Žižek believes the totalitarian father is more honest. Demanding that the youth go to the grandmother's house is more transparent and less oppressive. What do you think? Can you think of other phrases or situations where there is a hidden obligation akin to "only if you want to?"

About the Author

Michael Bruce

Michael Bruce works with at-risk youth and is the editor of College Sex - Philosophy for Everyone: Philosophers With Benefits (Wiley-Blackwell).

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