The controversy surrounding a recent video of the Dalai Lama greeting a seven-year-old boy was not merely a classic case of “lost in translation.” It also speaks to the deep, ineradicable abyss that can separate cultures, and invites reflection on the confusion surrounding intentions and desires that can occur within cultures.
by Slavoj Žižek
In a recent viral video, the Dalai Lama can be seen asking a seven-year-old boy, at a widely attended public ceremony, to give him a hug and then, “Suck my tongue.” The immediate reaction from many in the West was to condemn the Dalai Lama for behaving inappropriately, with many speculating that he is senile, a pedophile, or both. Others, more charitably, noted that sticking out one’s tongue is a traditional practice in Tibetan culture – a sign of benevolence (demonstrating that one’s tongue is not dark, which indicates evil). Still, asking someone to suck it has no place in the tradition.
In fact, the correct Tibetan phrase is “Che le sa,” which translates roughly to “Eat my tongue.” Grandparents often use it lovingly to tease a grandchild, as if to say: “I’ve given you everything, so the only thing left is for you to eat my tongue.” Needless to say, the meaning was lost in translation. (Although English is the Dalai Lama’s second language, he does not possess native-level mastery.)
To be sure, the fact that something is part of a tradition does not necessarily preclude it from scrutiny or criticism. Clitoridectomy is also a part of ancient Tibetan tradition, but we certainly would not defend it today. And even sticking out one’s tongue has undergone a strange evolution in the last half-century. As Wang Lixiong and Tsering Shakya write in The Struggle for Tibet:
“During the Cultural Revolution, if an old landowner met emancipated serfs on the road he would stand to the side, at a distance, putting a sleeve over his shoulder, bowing down and sticking out his tongue – a courtesy paid by those of lower status to their superiors – and would only dare to resume his journey after the former serfs had passed by. Now [after Deng Xiaoping’s reforms] things have changed back: the former serfs stand at the side of the road, bow and stick out their tongues, making way for their old lords. This has been a subtle process, completely voluntary, neither imposed by anyone nor explained.”
Here, sticking out one’s tongue signals self-humiliation, not loving care. Following Deng’s “reforms,” ex-serfs understood that they were again at the bottom of the social scale. Even more interesting is the fact that the same ritual survived such tremendous social transformations.
Returning to the Dalai Lama, it is probable – and certainly plausible – that Chinese authorities orchestrated or facilitated the wide dissemination of a clip that could besmirch the figure who most embodies Tibetan resistance to Chinese domination.
In any case, we have all now gotten a glimpse of the Dalai Lama as our “neighbor” in the Lacanian sense of the term: an Other who cannot be reduced to someone like us, whose otherness represents an impenetrable abyss. Western observers’ highly sexualized interpretation of his antics reflects an unbridgeable gap in cultural understanding.
But similar cases of impenetrable otherness are easy to find within Western culture. Years ago, when I read about how the Nazis tortured prisoners, I was quite traumatized to learn that they even resorted to industrial testicle-crushers to cause unbearable pain.
Yet lo and behold, I recently came across the same product in an online advertisement:
“Pick your poison for pleasure … STAINLESS STEEL BALL CRUSHER, STAINLESS BALL CLAMP TORTURE DEVICE, BRUTAL COCK VICE TORTURE TOY, HARDCORE STAINLESS BALL TORTURE … So if you lie in bed with your partner, melancholic and tired of life, the time is right. Your slave’s nuts are ripe for crushing! It is the moment you have been waiting for – to find the right tool to brutalize his balls!”
Now, suppose I walked by a room where two men were enjoying this device. Hearing one of them moan and cry in pain, I would probably misread what was happening. Should I knock on the door and politely ask, at the risk of being an idiot, “Is this really consensual?” After all, if I just kept walking, I would be ignoring the possibility that it really was an act of torture.
Or, imagine a scenario where a man is doing something similar to a woman – torturing her consensually. In this age of political correctness, many people would automatically presume coercion, or they would conclude that the woman had internalized male repression and begun to identify with the enemy.
It is impossible to render this situation without ambiguity, uncertainty, or confusion, because there really are some men and women who genuinely enjoy some degree of torture, especially if it is enacted as if it was nonconsensual. In these sadomasochistic rituals, the act of punishment signals the presence of some underlying desire that warrants it. For example, in a culture where rape is punished by flogging, a man might ask his neighbor to flog him brutally, not as some kind of atonement, but because he harbors a deep-seated desire to rape women.
In one sense, the passage from Nazi ball crushers to the erotic kind used in sadomasochist games can be seen as a sign of historical progress. But it runs parallel to the “progress” that leads some people to purge classic works of art of any content that might hurt or offend somebody.
We are left with a culture in which it is okay to engage in consensual discomfort at the level of bodily pleasures, but not in the realm of words and ideas. The irony, of course, is that efforts to prohibit or suppress certain words and ideas will merely make them more attractive and powerful as secret, profane desires. The fact that some superego has enjoined them furnishes them with a pleasure – and pleasure-seekers – that they otherwise would not have had.
Why does increasing permissiveness seem to entail increasing impotence and fragility. And why, under certain conditions, can pleasure be enjoyed only through pain? Contrary to what Freud’s critics have long claimed, psychoanalysis’s moment has only just arrived, because it is the only framework that can render visible the big inconsistent mess that we call “sexuality.”
Source: Project Syndicate
Slavoj Žižek, Professor of Philosophy at the European Graduate School, is International Director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities at the University of London and the author, most recently, of Heaven in Disorder (OR Books, 2021) and Surplus-Enjoyment: A Guide For The Non-Perplexed (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).