Notes on Freedom

Libertarian, humanist social theory, by Josie Appleton

Category: Free expression

Microaggressions – fostering the alienated self

enhanced-buzz-1002-1386285201-29-2The current trend of identifying ‘micro-aggressions’ is not about social categories of exploitation or dominance. Nor is it just about personal touchiness or sensitivity. Instead, it is a prism through which social life and the world is experienced, as something set against and hostile towards the self.

This was shown in a perceptive satire of microaggressions by University of Michigan student, Omar Mahmood, in character as ‘womyn of color’. The satire captures how the experience of aggression structures every aspect of a person’s relations and environment. Even the falling snow: ‘The blistering cold did not turn my eyes from all the white privilege falling around me.’ The ‘womyn’ slipped over on to some steps and was approached by ‘a white cis-gendered hetero upper-class man’; she detected the ‘patronising sneer’ behind his words, ‘Cold, isn’t it?’; and when the man offered her his hand she observed ‘a manifestation of the patriarchy patronizing me’. In the end, the womyn realised that it was not about her colour but her left handedness (an awareness triggered by the cis-man’s comment, ‘I was just trying to do the right thing!’):

The right thing… The right thing… I became so aware at that moment of the left hand that I had thrust out before falling, and suddenly my humanity was reduced to my handydnyss. The words rang in my eardrums, and my blood throbbed.

The satire captures the arbitrary nature of the categories being employed. Categories such as ‘WOC/cis-male-hetero’ are detached from social structure: they do not represent groups or their relations, any more than does left-handedness or snow. Some of these categories are taken from past relations of inequality, but they exist as utterly transformed (which is why they use different terms and are described in an often unrecognisable jargon).

Instead, micro-aggressions represent the polarisation of everyday relations. The offer of a hand, or a consoling comment, is experienced as an act of hostility. In micro-aggressions, to be black, or female, or gay lacks much positive significance; there is little celebration of black or gay pride, or feminist sisterhood. The role of the category (of women, colour, handydnyss) is to give form to the feeling that social relations undo us, are aggressive. That others are set counter to us.

A glance, a question, the direction of someone’s gaze is experienced as a devaluation or an aggression for the individual. One Latino student complains about the way another student ‘noticed my Frida Khalo lighter and was more concerned about her appearance than the actual painting on it’, which was representative of ‘white supremacy at work’ and the exclipse of Mexican art by Eurocentric art. Another student complains that cashiers are not sufficiently cheery with them, perceiving a greater cheeriness with white people before and after them in the queue.

Often, the reality of the situation shines through: you can see the ‘aggressive’ person is just being curious, or making conversation, or making a guess, or a mistake. They ask why you don’t speak Spanish or whether you can read a Japanese character. They call you Jaime Garcia rather than Jaime Rodriguez. A person is offering you their hand and the gesture is transformed into an aggressive act, only because everyday sociality is experienced as a form of hostility.

It is sometimes the case that genuine acts of racism and sexism get called microaggressions, but these are in the minority. The essence of the category (which is why it has a new name) is the individual experience of dissonance with the world. This is why many of the complaints are highly subjective: you can sense a person’s upset and anger, but you cannot understand what the problem was. Why is it a problem that someone said ‘you do not look like the type of person that is interested in watching sports’? Why is this an invalidation?

Groups of all kinds are experienced as toxic, hostile, uncomfortable and painful, even those of one’s own identity category. One gay black woman complained that:

The queer community on this campus can be so incredibly toxic & policing, especially for womxn of color. Identifying as queer is such a hard experience on this campus because of all the heavy internalizations of queerphobia, but not feeling able to sit fully and comfortably with my qwoc self in queer/qpoc spaces is the most painful.

It is notable that the category of micro-aggression is authored by the victim. In effect, they are authoring the narrative of their own non-subjectivity, and the cis-hetero-male aggressor is constructed as a part in this narrative. The cis-man is holding his hands up, saying hey, I was only trying to help, I didn’t mean anything by it.

This means that the category of microaggression doesn’t only express the individual experience of dissonance with the world; it also actively fosters it. Experiencing the world in this way means that someone becomes attached to their alienated condition. A person starts to cultivate dissonance, to almost to revel in their non-identity with the world. The self becomes attached to the experience of alienation; it creates itself as alienated.

This new basis of identity is the reverse of the classical individual, who was based on the extent to which a person distinguished themselves. The personalities of ancient heroes were defined in the extent to which they left established boundaries, and went out seeking voyages, quests, ordeals. By contrast, the micro-aggressed self is defined in terms of what has been inflicted upon it. Therefore, they stake themselves upon their unfreedom, upon their object-character to the wills of others.

Yet of course, this is not an individual at all, but the eclipse of individuality. The same act that estranges the individual from the social, also estranges a person from themselves, from their individual abilities and qualities. Someone becomes not Carol or Jane, a specific individual with a specific inner life, but a ‘qwoc self’, with the self as a composite of queer-woman-of-colour-etc etc. As the satire put it: ‘Suddenly my humanity was reduced to my handydnyss’. Such a person is, at base, uncomfortable – with others, with themselves.

Therefore, the new phenomenon of micro-aggressions reflects neither exclusion nor oppression; nor is it merely the over-sensitivity of people who must be told to buck up. Instead, it reflects a new social structure; a new alienation in social relations, which is reaching into the most everyday encounters and people’s experience of their own personalities.

The solution can only be in combating these structures, and posing against them the truth and innocence of the everyday encounter, the person who is just offering you a hand up or asking about you because they are curious. We must also affirm the individual who is comfortable with themselves, who is not a category but a person, and who is not glowering and counting offences but throwing themselves into the curiousities and delights of our varied social world.

After Paris: the ultimate value of the free life

There is a single response to the Paris attacks which alone is positive and worthy of defence: the affirmation of the value of the free life.

The day after the attacks, people instinctively started to gather in Paris and in towns and cities across France. When asked why, they said ‘to do something, to be with other people’ but most of all, ‘to show them that we’re not afraid’. These demonstrations formed in spite of the prohibition on demonstrations: police asked people to disperse but many refused to go. In Toulouse, thousands of people gathered in the main square in open violation of this order.

People responded to the attack on a city crowd by forming as a city crowd. They responded to the terrorists’ attack on the ‘abominations and perversions’ of modern life, on music, drinking and football, by affirming and seeking out these pursuits.

These ordinary aspects of the free modern life took on a kind of glow and heroism. Parisians posted pictures of themselves drinking outside in cafes and bars under the hashtag ‘JeSuisEnTerrasse’. They sought out the bars of attacked areas as a matter of principle, ignoring the government’s request to only go out ‘if absolutely necessary’. People posted their memories of the Bataclan (MonPlusBeauSouvenirDuBataclan), affirming the glory of music and lights and crowds, while a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist did a series celebrating the Paris of ‘music! kisses! life! champagne and joy!.

Before the England-France football match, the French manager said that after the attacks it might seem that football is an inconsequential thing, unimportant, but that actually it has become vital. The Radio France commentator said that football is the pursuit of a passion, the development of a skill, and the public enjoyment of this: ‘We will continue to go out – to live – to play football’.

This assertion of the value of these things in defiance of the terrorists was also a rediscovering of their value, in a culture that is so often cynical about ‘freedom, modernity, etcetera’. Forms of free culture and association are so often seen as shallow, consumerist, anti-social, polluting: every well-formed political ideology of our age appears to be set against those people drinking in bars or dancing to music. The extreme attacks of the terrorists, their absolute distain, develops out of a thread of culture within the West itself.

The public response shows that the elements of a free life have a universal value which people are willing to fight for. They will go out to bars, concerts and football matches, even if this means to put themselves at risk. They state the value of these things and defend them. Charlie Hebdo will continue to critique and satirise, mocking Islamic extremists (‘fuck them, we have champagne’) along with everyone else, though they are under daily threat.

Most incredibly, such affirmation was found even among some of those directly affected by the attacks, as with the Radio France journalist whose wife was killed in the Bataclan. He wrote a much-shared Facebook post addressed to the terrorists: ‘You would like me to be scared, for me to look at my fellow citizens with a suspicious eye, for me to sacrifice my liberty for my security. Perdu’, he wrote, saying of his 17-month old son ‘all his life this little boy will – in affront to you – be happy and free’. He told Radio France that his wife had had ‘enormous eyes’ and their son was born ‘with both eyes wide open’: the value was in pursuing ‘the difficult path of reflection, of reason’, of living with one’s eyes open, choosing and thinking for oneself.

There is a scene in The Narrow Road to the Deep North where an Australian camp prisoner faces up to ‘the grim strength, the righteous obedience to codes of honour that showed no doubt’ of the camp guard, and ‘could find in himself no equivalent life force that might challenge it’.

People are finding an equivalent life force in free life. However, this public response was notably different in tenor to that of the French government. The French state – as well as being preoccupied with those highly necessary tasks of investigating the attacks, pursuing fugitives, arresting suspects – has also struck another line: the assertion of executive power almost as a point of principle. The immediate response to events was a series of restrictions, which included not only bans on demonstrations, orders to not go out, but also declaring a state of emergency which gives prefects (local representatives of the executive) powers to declare curfews and to ban any event. All school trips have been cancelled as an order of the ministry of education.

At a local level, mayors and prefectures have been imposing restrictions upon daily life. At my son’s school in South-West France there is now a large orange sign on the door, announcing that parents are no longer allowed to enter the school and children must be deposited at the external door. Many of these assertions of executive authority appear pointless, a gesture: a terrorist could push his way past the middle-aged classroom assistant, or indeed merely attack the class of 3-year olds lined up by the external door because their parents have not been allowed to take them to their classroom. In practice, the restrictions imposed ‘against the terrorists’ are being imposed against people trying to gather in the streets or parents trying to enter a school. They are blocking everyday associations and free ways of relating to one another.

Therefore, after Paris we should be for freedom and for the free life – staked against the terrorists, the anti-modern cynics, and pointless assertions of executive power.

The ‘trigger warning’ school of literary criticism

Why are ‘trigger warnings’ now stamped on everything from the Great Gatsby to Ovid?

The notion of being ‘triggered’ by a book or film is an extension of ideas of ‘offence’ or feeling ‘uncomfortable’. In all these cases, the individual’s encounter with a cultural product is experienced as somehow harming or impinging upon that person. The work or idea is experienced as hostile, corrosive of the self and their identity.

These new terms replace the idea of disagreement or critique, which formed the basis of people’s relationship to books or works of art in the classical public sphere. Each work was held at arm’s length, scrutinised and weighed, probed in all its elements. A disagreement was stated precisely: this work is incorrect or flawed for x or y reasons.

Now, a person’s disagreement with an argument or a book is experienced as an unravelling of the viewer. The dissonance between individual and work is experienced as an affliction: rather than probe the work, the individual is undone by it.

Over time, the nature of the harm supposedly inflicted by an artwork has become increasingly subjective, wordless, and automatic.

The idea of ‘offence’ came first. Offence still contains something of the idea of disagreement – the notion that a person’s specific opinion or belief has been contradicted – even if only in an emotive form. Then came ‘uncomfortable’, with students saying that a particular book or particular ideas made them feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is a more degraded form than offence, because it is inexpressive and purely subjective. When people say they feel uncomfortable they are expressing only the subjective feeling of being infringed or unsettled.

‘Triggering’ is the end point of this process. Here, the unravelling of the individual in an encounter is much more extreme. Being triggered is a form of total breakdown, like a panic attack or another point when the self is entirely undone. The ‘trigger’ is like a sudden attack, and the breakdown of the self is instant and automatic, like the firing of a gun or flicking a switch. ‘I suddenly and quite dramatically feel all-encompassing panic spread through my entire body’, said one woman, describing her experience of ‘being triggered’ (the passive verb form indicates the passive role that the individual is playing in relation to the object).

Trigger warnings began in relation to sexual assault victims on discussion sites, and have spread to every possible phobia (spiders, small holes), negative experience (violence, mental illness, self-harm), and then further to the content of opinions with which a person disagrees (sexism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia). In this process, trigger warnings moved from a specific context to the wider public sphere, to structure the way in which people engage with cultural products.

Sexual assaults and phobias have started to take on a general and metaphoric resonance, as being in some way emblematic of people’s encounters in the public sphere. Sexual assault becomes a metaphor for our encounter with books or films with which we disagree: we are being undone, violated in the most intimate manner.

The trigger warning moves beyond the subjective perspective of the person being triggered, and starts to become an actual system for organising cultural products and people’s relationship to them. Websites such as ‘thiscouldbetriggering’ or ‘whatsthetriggerwarning’ have begun the encyclopaedic project of organising the works of humanity according to their specific trauma-causing qualities.

Works are given tags, labels: the Great Gatsby gets ‘violence against women’ and ‘sexism’. A Streetcar Named Desire gets: domestic violence, suicide, homophobia, rape, statutory rape, and mental illness. The tendency over time is for these categories to escalate, and people are encouraged to write in suggesting new tags or new areas of cultural life to consider in this manner: Can you add a transphobia tag? Can you add ableism? Can you also do songs? The answer is always yes.

Therefore, with the trigger warning we see how the subjective feeling of offence, or discomfort, has been raised into a system in public life: it becomes a school of criticism, a way of systematically reading a work and categorising it. While the triggered person is undone, wordless, the author of the trigger warning is clinical and systematic. One US student had the perseverance to read the works of Ovid and count the number of sexual assaults: she clearly maintained her wherewithal throughout. People work their way through whole television series, or literary tomes, systematically allotting works their respective labels.

These trigger warning critics have the same indifferent clinical approach as a state board of film classification. Everybody recognises that the board of film classification tells you nothing about a film: the statement that a film ‘contains moderate nudity and extreme language’ is a category slapped by officials on the world of culture.

Trigger warnings, by contrast, are produced by the public itself, and become part of the way in which people engage with and categorise artworks. As a result, trigger warnings start to transform the meaning of a work; they are not seen as an external imposition, slapped on, but rather start to become a system that structures interpretation and evaluation.

A novel or film is tainted by its trigger warning in a way it was not by the Board of Film Classification. One novelist described how his reading of Lolita had been forever tainted by his literary professor’s statement that it ‘represented the systematic rape of a young girl’. A work he had looked to for inspiration was reduced to this single negative dimension. A work that ‘contains’ sexism or racism, as opposed to nudity or strong language, becomes subsumed by that negative judgement. In the novelists’ phrase, the trigger warning is a ‘pre-emptive defacement’. A novel or artwork becomes its label; it cannot be looked at in the same way again.

This ‘trigger warning’ school of literary criticism has the peculiar detachment of state censors, whose only concern in a love scene is the precise parts of the anatomy revealed. A book about slavery is found to ‘contain racism’, even if it ultimately is a condemnation of such oppression. The dimensions of the work are flattened out, so that an essentially humanist text can be turned into its opposite.

The trigger warning is a tag which dissuades people from encountering the art object. The warning is there so that you can leave the room, put down the book, turn off the television. Therefore, the individual need never undergo the experience of dissonance with an artwork; they need never encounter the things they find disturbing or the views with which they disagree. The trigger warning, as a system, becomes a guide through the world of culture, such that dissonance can be avoided.

The individual is defined by their tags, the specific elements in the world which undo them. Their exchange with the cultural world can be negotiated, such that clashing tags need never meet. People who are triggered often have friends who watch films for them, test them out, before they are declared safe to be viewed. They move through the world like a paranoid king who fears that every food item or gift contains poison and must be tested first.

The university professor Todd Gitlin criticised his students’ dislike of anything ‘uncomfortable’ and defended the importance of discomfort in teaching. It is the experience of dissonance which takes us out of ourselves, shocks us with another view, and so forms us; it is in the encounter with our contrary that we are developed. This is why negative experiences can often teach us more than positive ones. One psychiatrist argued that trigger warnings even go against treatment of genuine trauma and phobia: it is in repeatedly encountering the object of their fears that the person is reinforced, made self-sufficient, and eventually can face the world again.

The works of art and literature should be cleaned of these defacing warning signs – we must defend the free encounter between individual and artwork, and the developmental value of dissonance.

‘Gay cake’ wars and the eclipse of conscience

An Oregon baker has been ordered to pay $135,000 damages to a lesbian couple after refusing to bake a cake for their wedding. A Colorado bakery was ordered to fulfill gay wedding orders and to send its staff for sensitivity training. The ‘gay cake’ wars show the lamentable position into which the idea of conscience has fallen.

These cases are not about an actual conflict of interest: the couples could have found another baker who was happy to fulfill the order and attend the wedding with good heart. Instead, a battle of conscience is being sought where it could have been avoided, brushed over. One person is taking the case in order to force another to affirm their values or way of life.

Indeed, it appears that in some cases gay activists are searching out traditionalist bakers in order to ask them to bake wedding cakes. They had specifically chosen the bakery that they knew would not want to make the cake. In a similar spirit, Christians are seeking out liberal bakers to ask them to make cakes bearing slogans such as ‘God hates fags’, and going to court when they refuse. The cake becomes a means to make someone else voice your views; the case plays the role of the victory of one conscience over another.

These battles show how sorely we are missing the idea of conscience – one’s grounding in a private life or belief, and one’s respect for other people who are similarly grounded. When the idea of conscience emerged in the 17th century it was as an almost sacred faculty implanted by God. The one and only rule of ethics was: do not go against your conscience and do not violate the conscience of another. The primary value was sincerity, and your rights to free expression were derived from your duty to be sincere, to only say things you sincerely believed (1).

In the view of philosopher Pierre Bayle, it was not a sin to err, only to go against one’s conscience;  the ‘erring conscience’ had rights to respect and toleration as much as any other. The notion of conscience at heart implied a reciprocity, that ‘each could recognise in the other the sincerity of their convictions, even if the truth that he sustained differed from ours’ (2).

In these terms, belief was a largely private matter, something like one’s internal reckoning or inner relationship with God. When the formation of belief moved into the public sphere in the 18th century – with coffee shops, publications, salons – and people came together in discussion, these were independent consciences that were brought into dispute. The public culture brought together independent men and women, independent consciences, into reciprocal relation. The relation of argument or persuasion is one that respects this inner core: a person can be won only through reason, and of their own volition.

Now, this reciprocal relation has collapsed. There is at once a lack of respect for the conscience of the other, and a concomitant lack of grounding in oneself. This is why the refusal of a cake order is experienced as a violation or delegitimation of oneself. A man who had a pro-gay marriage cake refused in Northern Ireland said that this made him feel ‘unworthy, a lesser person’. The two Oregon women claimed 88 and 90 different forms of damage respectively, covering every aspect of their psychological and physical being, including: ‘acute loss of confidence’, ‘doubt,” ‘excessive sleep’, ‘felt mentally raped, dirty and shameful’, ‘high blood pressure’, ‘impaired digestion’, ‘loss of appetite’, ‘migraine headaches’, ‘pale and sick at home after work’, ‘resumption of smoking habit’, ‘shock’, ‘stunned’, ‘surprise’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘weight gain’ and ‘worry’.

If one is grounded in one’s own private values, then the encounter with alternative values does not lead to unraveling in this manner. There is no reason why the polite refusal of a cake order need make someone feel unworthy or shameful, or strike at the core of their being.

When a conscience lacks its own grounding, it is touchy and offended at every turn; it is also through overcoming opposing views that it seeks to ground itself. In forcing someone else to affirm your views or way of life – even, or especially, against their own beliefs – then your own values are apparently affirmed. By winning court cases against Christians, gay activists seek to establish the value of their way of life. The relation of mutual respect between independent consciences is transformed into a fight to the death, where one seemingly exists only through the violation of the other.

Yet in truth, the violation of the other turns – with all the justice of the dialectic – into the violation of the self. Ultimately, ‘gay cake’ cases strip these gay relations and weddings of their intrinsic meaning and value. By becoming the subject of a court case, these relations become a parody of themselves, just as a religion is emptied out when it is forced down the throats of heretics.

(By the same accounts, there is also a parody version of Christian marriage, defined against gay marriage: Christian marriage is not grounded in itself, but becomes not-gay-marriage, and defines itself by the question of the ‘compatibility of organs’ and the act of physical consummation. This may be the thing that separates it from gay marriage but it is an entirely brutalist account of the marital union which harks back to the primitive marriage ceremony, with the demonstration of blood on the sheets to the awaiting relatives. As Hegel wrote already in 1821 (3), modern marriage is primarily a ‘spiritual union’, and the physical or ‘natural character’ is downgraded.)

The demand that gay relations or families be universally celebrated is just as distorting of these relations as any criticism. The value of a family – gay or straight, single parent or step-parent, religious or secular or hippy – is that it is a private life-world, founded in the bonds among the members and their friends and extended family. The couple or family does not have to justify itself to society at large, nor does it require universal affirmation for its existence.

The principles of tolerance and formal respect in public life allow different people to pursue very different paths, yet to mutually respect one another. The urbanist Jane Jacobs argues that discretion is essential for public civility. She describes how people would leave their keys with a particular Deli owner for friends borrowing their flat: the deli owner owner combined a ‘feeling of good will with a feeling of no personal responsibility about our private affairs’. He did not judge who they had chosen to lend their flat to, and they did not ask for his approval. Mutual respect requires a certain formal distance, an understanding that people have their own lives to lead that are nobody else’s business.

Public coexistence requires a certain discretion and not forcing the issue. If a Jew cannot work a Friday night, or a Muslim cannot eat sausages, then they require neither condemnation nor enthusiastic affirmation, but merely an accommodation of their private position. It requires a certain tact and avoiding of conflict: this is how very different belief systems can coexist harmoniously.

Such formal respect is as vital to the freedom and equality of gays as it is to other groups. We should halt these absurd battles over the icing of confectionery – live our own lives, and allow others to live theirs.

(1) La Tolerance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Flammarion, Paris, 1999

(2) La Tolerance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Flammarion, Paris, 1999

(3) The Philosophy of Right, OUP, 2008

(4) The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, p78

Twitter storms: the terroristic destruction of the individual

The twitter storm is driven by a similar spirit to Isis’ destruction of ancient monuments. Both pretend to have a principled motivation, but this is just a guise: the actual content is only the drive to destroy, to bring something hallowed low.

The life of an individual such as Nobel laureate Tim Hunt took time and work to build, with an accretion over the years of discoveries, achievements, reputation. A person’s life is just as much a work as an ancient monument. A twitter storm or scandal drives towards the destruction a person, for them to be  – in Hunt’s words – ‘finished’, ‘toxic’. To lose their jobs, their honours, ideally their family and friends.

This has an element of sport, and is often discussed as such. Tim Hunt’s casting out from University College London was heralded as a ‘moment to saviour’. A previous storm targeting PR executive Justine Sacco was described as the best moment of 2013: people stayed up to see the conclusion, they skipped parties and dates. ‘I was piling on for sport’, said one of Slate’s writers, reflecting on his reasons for joining another ‘outrage-fueled pig pile’. This is the human drama of a person being ruined.

What is striking is that the person is not generally being ruined for what they believed, or for a deliberate action, but for a joke, aside or an innuendo: it is the informal moment that is the focus for the storm. It is notable that ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ twitter storms tend to target individuals who are not actually racist or sexist.

There would be no sport in targeting the actual racists or the actual outcasts. Part of the frisson is the fact that this person is unsuspecting: that their life is turned upside down suddenly, without warning, and they do not really know why. There is sporting tension in the dissonance between how they might see themselves, and how they are now being seen by others. Hence the hashtag #hasjustinelandedyet, which trended across the world after Sacco made a joke about AIDS then boarded a 13-hour flight to South Africa. The crowd had this insight over her, that she was ruined and did not yet know it, and the moment of her realisation was savoured as a climax, a clash of drums.

The victim of such events cannot sit back like a ruined hero at the end of a Greek tragedy and say ‘the fault was mine’. This person is not bearing the consequences of their beliefs, standing and falling on ideas that are actually in conflict with society as a whole.

The individual targeted in a twitter storm was condemned not by their actions, but by the image of themselves that had been created in the storm. Their actual life, their actual opinions or beliefs are of no interest or consequence. The storm can turn black into white and white into black, and indeed this is part of the power at play.

There was a case of a woman complaining about bongos who was the subject of tweets accusing her of being a white yuppie moaning about black people. She said that she was black and the bongo player was white. The response was  ‘I don’t know whether you are white or not’;‘forever publicly shamed on Twitter LOL … #whitetears.’ For the purposes of twitter she had been made white, because that is what she needed to be.

Individuals here are only a vehicle for the negative mobilisation. They are human material against which others are defining themselves: it is not about them, but about the needs and perspective of the storm. This is why any attempt at self-justification will make matters worse. ‘Just don’t engage’, one former victim of a storm advised another: be ‘an inert bundle of molecules’. Anything you say will be a sign of life, and therefore an incitement: you aren’t dead yet?

The subject matter of a twitter storm doesn’t make sense before the storm has begun, when there is puzzlement, or after, when there is regret. There is a regular cycle of stages. It is only in the moment of somebody being destroyed that the matter takes on its particular frame. Before and after, a lame joke is just a lame joke. Only in the eye of the storm does it take on this question of grand principle and provide the focus for such unleashing of negative energies.

The dynamic of the storm is a moment of collective mobilisation, an expression of collective subjectivity, at a time when more grounded forms of political mobilisation have gone. The collective cannot any longer be constituted positively, substantively, towards any particular positive end. Instead, it is constituted only at the point of the annihilation of an individual. This is how people stake a point of principle and are part of making something happen.

The collective exists only in the moment when a person is being ruined, just as the terrorists’ Islamic principle exists only at the moment when the columns are crashing down.

University College London’s behaviour in the Tim Hunt scandal was indicative: the university cut him loose with a decisive swipe. He was toxic and the institution didn’t hesitate to remove itself from any implication or contamination. Strikingly, when Sacco’s media company sacked her, the company nonetheless said something in her defence: ‘We hope, however, that time and action, and the forgiving human spirit, will not result in the wholesale condemnation of an individual who we have otherwise known to be a decent person at core.’ The company made the distinction between the person they knew, and the person created as the projection of public outrage. What institutions universities have become, what hollow machines, to show less solidarity towards their Nobel laureate than a media company does towards one of its own.

The same patterns have long been seen in newspaper scandals, where it is also the case that the further the fall, the better the sport. Hence the delight at government ministers brought down for misdemeanors such as speeding points and rows with police officers. ‘The man who fell to earth’, read the headlines after cabinet minister Chris Huhne was convicted of passing on speeding points to his wife. The drive of a scandal is to bring the mighty low, the mask crashing to the floor.

When acts of destruction provide the confirmation of the self and collective, this leads to a new barbarism. It was this barbarian-narcissist culture that, watching a man landing a probe on a comet, focused on the fact that he had scantily dressed women on his shirt. The scientist was humbled by the reaction, reduced to tears. A man is landing a probe on a comet and he is made to cry because of the shirt he is wearing.

When the individual is reduced to human material for others, things of substantial and lasting value are cast away as if they were nothing. Immunology is sacrificed on a joke, meteorology on a shirt. We may look on with horror at Isis’ exploding columns, but really this isn’t a world away.

The censorious student and the corrosion of character

The growth of censorship in universities (highlighted this week by spiked) indicates that something fundamental has changed in human character in the past decade or two.

For the new generation of young adults, opinions are not things they hold privately as a matter of conscience, nor are they developed through argument and debate. Instead, opinions appear to be integrally bound up with their identity and sense of self. They experience the encounter of opposing views almost as a threat to their existence, as an unravelling of the self: as ‘unsafe’, ‘dangerous’, or causing ‘severe distress’.

This week a comedy act was cancelled after the threat of a picket from some women who disagreed with her views on ‘sex work, religion and trans issues’. The comedian wasn’t going to talk about prostitution, yet it seems that the female students objected to the presence on campus of a person with a different view to their own. For a campus to be ‘their’ campus, for that person to feel as if they belong in an institution, they attempt to keep off those who present a counter-point to these views.

The invitation of external speakers becomes a process fraught with risk: the National Union of Students has produced a guide on ‘managing the risks associated with external speakers’, with a lengthy and legalistic filtering process before a bearer of opinion can express themselves in the public space of the campus. The ‘safe spaces’ in universities are muted, restrained, free of conflict and the encounter with opposition: student unions ban items exuding a charge of controversy, including ‘racist’ sombreros or the ‘sexist’ Sun newspaper, as well as critical ‘hand gestures’ or sarcastic applause.

This means nothing less than the unravelling of the modern individual: the individual who forms opinions in the process of debate. In the late 1600s and 1700s people began to view the conflict of opinion as productive, and argued that it was in the contest between ‘for and against’ that truth could be discovered and one’s own view developed. In 1684, Basnage de Beauval argued for religious toleration on the basis that truth resulted from the ‘confrontation of dogmas’; the ‘opposition between two parties’ serves to ‘pressure and excite’ one another to virtue (1). He saw conflict as like a ‘sting’ which keeps one awake and shakes away ignorance, and argued that disputes between learned men were ‘advantageous and useful for the public’.

By contrast, in the Medieval period the moment of conflict of opinion was seen as singularly destructive, of both the individual soul and civic life. It was thought that heretical opinions undid the social bond: the moment of conflict undid the order of things, the unified trinity of faith, law and state. Social relations could only be constituted through a single faith and worldview: to relate meant to be of the same mind. The heretic dissolves the social bond, argued St Thomas Aquinas (2). Those who tolerated difference, it was argued, were those who did not really care about truth or the inner life (the pragmatism of the Roman Empire), or those who for reasons of weakness were temporally unable to constitute a proper social order.

So now, again, the self unravels when faced with the opposition of another, and the battle against ‘heretics’ is a fight to maintain one’s own integrity.

Yet this new censorious self appears to be a fragile sort of thing, lacking deep foundations in inner conviction or conscience. The opinions students and others are defending do not seem to have much private or authentic character, which is perhaps why they are so prickly. It is the instability of identity which means that people are unsettled by alternatives.

Opinions are bonded with the self, but this is not the inner core of the self, and more a shirtsleeve or a lapel. A YouTube video shows a speaker at the University of Galway trying to make the case against a boycott of Israel, drowned out by a student dressed in the colours of a Palestinian flag shouting ‘Fucking Zionist fucking pricks […] Get the fuck off our campus now.’  The student’s position seemed to be something like the shirt he wore: thin and constituted only in the view of others, which is why he might seek out the public occasion at which to stage this aggressive performance.

Therefore, the new generation also lack that other dimension of modern character: the inner dimension of conscience. The reflecting, private conscience, elaborated by John Locke and others in the 1600s, experiences opinion and truth as inner and personal, a conviction. This feeling of conscience developed in private spaces – private worship, private discussion, inner reflection. The public sphere of people debating and opposing one another presumed the inner world of conscience; conscience provided the space where a person’s opinions were grounded and the point to which they returned. The inner conviction is the counterpoint to the more transitive, provisional character of views developed in public debate, whereby an opinion held today can be changed tomorrow in the face of new evidence.

In today’s students, we see how these two dimensions of modern character have collapsed into something much more one-dimensional. Opinions are bound up with something like the outer shell of the self, which is neither developed through public engagement, nor is it privately developed or held.

The new dialectic is not between the public and private sides of the self: it is between the virulent hostility of someone screaming ‘get the fuck off our campus now’, and the ‘safe space’ of inexpression where individuals exist side by side in their separate shells.

That is, instead of private reflection and public debate, there is rage, and silence. Which should make us fear for the public sphere of the future.

(1) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p71

(2) La Tolérance, Julie Saada-Gendron, Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, p21

Modern censorship and the return of taboo

In the Enlightenment the usual approach to something with which you did not agree was to republish quotes from the text along with your own devastating critique. Indeed, some works are remembered more by the critique than the original (1).

Now, there is a return to something more like the pre-modern approach to texts and images: disapproved of images should not be shown, texts should not be read. The effects of words and images are thought to unravel automatically, through the dynamics of attraction or repulsion, without the mediation of critical reflection or individual intent.

When the French journalist Caroline Fourest showed Charlie Hebdo’s Mohammed cover in a Sky News interview, the editors reacted as if they had received an electric shock. They terminated the interview and cut away without so much as a goodbye, apologising to viewers for any offence caused. In a similar way, the Al-Qaeda manual and other terrorist publications cannot be viewed. It is an offence to possess or download any terrorist document (for which two Nottingham University students were arrested: one downloaded the document, the other printed it out as a favour). This makes it difficult for students to complete the terrorism module of international relations courses: how can they critique publications they are not allowed to see?

The question of whether you approve or disapprove of images becomes one of whether they are displayed or hidden away. A disapproved of image is not shown with an accompanying critique: it is invested with a negative charge and cannot be shown. Instead of a conflict over interpretation or meaning – what does this text or image mean?; is it right or wrong? – there is a conflict over the display or seclusion of the item in question. This means a return to an immediate relation to words and images.

It is not just that texts now are held to have a given meaning – as they did for example in the Medieval period, where the meaning of texts was prescribed by a strict religious and political hierarchy.

Now, it is not so much that texts have a given meaning, but something more like a given charge – a positive or negative power – which has certain similarities with the traditional tribal taboo. With the tribal taboo, if a word leaves your mouth or your eyes fall upon a forbidden image, the offence is committed. Taboo objects unleash a contagion in the mind and in the world, like a force of nature. There is no mediation of a person’s critical faculties; no account given for their intent. Offences against taboo are often committed by accident: somebody happens to glance at the king, or says something he should not, and the contagion strikes.

Now too, offences can be committed by accident, and the saying of certain words contaminates the speaker. Hence the lists of words which should only be referred to euphemistically as ‘y-word’, ‘n-word’ or ‘f-word’. For the word to pass one’s lips is itself an offence, regardless of how one is using it. Young black men are told that they cannot say ‘yo nigger’ to their friends, while Jews and gays cannot call themselves ‘yid’ or ‘faggot’. Jeremy Clarkson got into contortions apologising for having appeared to say the ‘n-word’ in unused takes of Top Gear, without being able to say the word (for to say that he did not say it would be saying it). ‘In one of the mumbled versions if you listen very carefully with the sound turned right up it did appear that I’d actually used the word I was trying to obscure’.

In this context, words are not being used by one person to communicate meaning to another: nor are the words grounded in a given set of equal or unequal social relations. Instead, words become yes-words or no-words, approved or disapproved, to be repeated or never to pass one’s lips. It is because words are invested with such an inherent charge that offences can be committed by accident. Your lips are stained, regardless of the meaning intended – indeed, regardless of any meaning which would be clear to anyone else looking on.

What the new and old taboos have in common is an immediate and inarticulate relation to given objects. Of course, in other respects they are completely different. Taboo in tribal societies is a belief in an actual physical charge possessed by objects (‘mana’), which makes that object at once sacred and dangerous. ‘Persons or things which are regarded as taboo may be compared to objects charged with electricity; they are the seat of a tremendous power which is transmissible by contact’ (2). The power of taboo objects is the magical role they play in managing relations between members of the group – a king is taboo – as well as the group’s relationship with nature.

Today, by contrast, images and texts are not attributed with a single consistent meaning – everybody has their own list of taboo words – and this is clearly not a question of any magical role. The new taboos do not reflect a new social order, but rather an absence, a lack: the vanishing of the rational-critical individual as a recognised unit of public life. Individuals are imagined to be without governing critical faculties or independent purpose; therefore, words and images flow through them like automatic forces. The power attributed to images or objects is only a reflection of the supposed incapacity of viewers or listeners.

What has been lost is the mediating role of individual scrutiny which developed in the eighteenth century. With the development of the modern public sphere, texts and images were definitively stripped of any sacred or forbidden character. With the emergence of pamphlets, salons and coffee shops, works of writing or art became profane objects for examination and discussion. A book was no longer immediately good or evil: it was held at arm’s length, critically examined. Art lost its sacramental character and became an object for the examination and assessment of the public (3).

New taboos can only accentuate the problem of the waning of the public sphere. The hiding of images and texts serves to degrade the quality of public debate, and to restrict the use of critical faculties. Every banned word further estranges our relationship with language; every hidden image weakens the use of judgement. Ultimately, we need the end of taboos and the return of critique.

 

(1) Nobody would remember Sir Robert Filmer’s views on the innate rights of kings were it not for John Locke’s critique in his Treatises on Government.

(2) Wundt, quoted in Freud, Totem and Taboo, Routledge 2007, p22

(3) The sacred charge of art objects in the Middle Ages was the result of those objects’ role in forms of religious worship and displays of social status: they were the bearer of status relations. Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, MIT, 1999, p36

 

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