Dictatorship of Feelings

Around the world the seemingly progressive cause of defending the weak and the vulnerable now comes with its own array of disciplinary techniques used in various institutional settings. The latter include higher educational institutions and the sphere of cultural production. The techniques involve preventative measures that aim to purge public spaces of any potential to affect somebody’s feelings and sensibilities and offend someone’s dignity. These include the so-called “safe spaces” in which individuals are protected from things that might make them feel uncomfortable, and “no platform policies” through which those who may say things that can potentially be experienced as hurtful or unpleasant are denied expression. They also involve punitive measures implemented through various grievance procedures, where individuals apply to the institutional authorities to punish those who have hurt their dignity and feelings, and censorship practices that relate to cultural production. The paper documents the rise of the victim culture, and how it is used to reinforce the existing power structures.

The paper argues that the formal politics of the 20th century were grounded in and shaped by what Lyotard termed distinctly modern “meta narratives of progress.” Ideologies such as liberalism or Marxism exemplify such meta-narratives. The cultural politics of feelings and moral sentiments, on the other hand, occupies a very different territory. It has no vision of a better world simply respite from what are perceived as forms of cultural oppression experienced in the present one. That is, forms of victimization in which the self or one’s group experiences unwanted acts, intentional or unintentional, that might provoke someone somewhere to feel distressed, anxious, hurt or uncomfortable in some way. This is a politics that is concerned with creating a “safe space” and redress for those who might feel victimized, largely through an appeal to third parties to take action against them. The paper discusses whether the rise of the politics of offended feelings and moral sentiments carries the trademark features of a slave morality in the Nietzschean sense of the term, where lacking the will and aspiration to challenge the material structures it settles for a politics that isn’t directed at transformation, simply vilification. The paper concludes that it is a conservative politics whose standpoint intersects well with contemporary structures of power. Far from contributing to a transformative praxis, it effects closure on speech and expression.