Notes on Freedom

Category: Public sphere

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.

From rights to privileges – the refeudalisation of the public sphere

In feudal society there was no such thing as a ‘right’, in the sense of a domain of autonomy held in principle by everyone. Any domain of autonomy was unique to a particular group, the result of their particular status or negotiations. The merchants of a city or a baron might hold certain ‘liberties’ – to elect a mayor, for example, or to export a particular item, be exempt from a tax, or levy toll duties. Feudal society was an intricate patchwork of immunities and benefits, all of which had the status of privileges, an allowance conferred by the grace of an over-lord or the king.

There is something feudal about the status of rights in contemporary society. It has become very difficult for groups or individuals to make a general claim for their rights as citizens, as allied in principle with those of other citizens. Instead, there has been a return to claiming rights only as a form of privilege.

The distinction between positive and negative rights – the classic freedom-from or freedom-to distinction – has been eclipsed. In many cases rights are seen as privileges, and vice versa. People talk about their ‘right to a quiet life’ or ‘right to self-esteem’, but then say that freedom of speech is ‘not a right’ but a ‘privilege’ or ‘responsibility’. In fact, these different claims have the same status, as a benefit conferred by some higher authority.

One of the ways one can defend interests today is by demanding special exemption from a restriction, on the basis of the special qualities or needs of your particular group. Musicians may claim that they should be exempt from entertainment licensing, for example, because of the particular value of music in social life. Or homeless organisations may seek to exempt rough sleeping from public space regulation, on the grounds of this group’s particular vulnerabilities or needs. For campaigners the pressures pushing you to pose your demand in these terms are very strong indeed: this is the existing way in which demands can be put and positions defended.

There is again a sense that one sphere of autonomy is exclusive of and set against those of others. This is why it is common for groups, in defending their own ‘rights’, to call for restrictions upon the rights of other groups. Big Issue sellers in Oxford supported the council’s ban on begging; local buskers supported a busking license because it benefits them over outsiders. Street traders often support leafleting licenses, as do institutions which are already prevented from leafleting as a result of their alcohol licenses.

In feudal times, if you had a right to export cloth, this in principle excluded others from carrying out this activity: a liberty was a monopoly. Now councils horse-trade over the use of public space in a similar way, as if one use were exclusive of other uses.

We are seeing the official micromanagement of public spaces as a patchwork of distinct and rival privileges. Woking Borough Council, for example, has divided up the town centre into a series of ‘event zones’, each with special allowances and restrictions for activities such as busking, leafleting or charity collecting. (The only activity allowed in all areas is ‘council events’: this is the right of the over-lord). So charity collection can take place in seven different zones, but a permit is required, and only one organisation with a maximum of four representatives can collect at any one time. Leafleting can occur in two locations, but is limited to one ‘booking’ a month.

There is no conception within this schema of any rights of free action in public space. Your realm of action exists only as sanctioned by authority, as licensed in some way. There are now licences for busking, leafleting, playing music, charity collecting, even for dancing: one can act only when one has a permission slip, and generally paid a fee. Your activity is not a right but a privilege, and a privilege explicitly set against the unauthorised group who are excluded from performing this action. A local musician will wave their ‘licensed busker’ card at an out-of-town musician who has just set up, showing their permission slip and so claiming their superior rights to use the space. In certain local authorities buskers must actually audition for council officials before receiving their licence.

And yet, the nature of these new privileges are quite different to those in feudal times. Feudal privileges represented fixed status divisions and customary rights, a hierarchical stratification which structured social relations from top to bottom. A particular licence was a recognition of the dues owing as a result of a person’s status as baron or churchman, or of past agreements or custom. By contrast, the pseudo-feudal divisions in today’s public sphere have an artificial quality. They are entirely contingent, constituted only through the whim of officialdom or the chance of circumstance.

There is a great difference between the status of different activities in official regulations, and their status in social life. There is no recognised Woking custom that leafleting should only happen once a month, or in certain areas of the town: Woking Borough council’s ‘public realm usage policy’ is a pristine invention of the realm of officialdom. The licensed busker takes on a status that is quite alien to their status among a public audience or fellow buskers: their position depends not on the quality of their music but on whether they have been compliant and jumped through the hoops. Therefore, the new realms of privilege are not a reflection of social reality, but an official construction laid upon it.

In this context, it is a progressive task to pose claims in terms of general rights, held by all people as citizens. In truth, homeless people have a right to use a bench, or buskers to set up in a spot, not because they are special but because they are citizens as much as anyone else; they have the same rights to use the space as anyone else. It is only by defending such general rights that the interests of groups could coincide, that the autonomy of one is also the autonomy of the other.

There is an objective potential for the uniting of different parts of civil society. The distinctive quality of state regulation today is that it is turned without exception against every part of social life. Public space regulations are not exclusively targeted at homeless people, buskers, or any other particular group, but against activities of almost any kind. War veterans must queue up with Greenpeace protesters to gain their ‘charity collection licence’; lost cat posters and nightclub adverts are equally prosecuted for unlicensed flyposting. The contemporary state has no favourites among the different sections of social life.

This suggests that there is a state-consciousness, already in existence. We dearly need a civil society consciousness to rise up in counter and opposition to these measures.

Why are councils banning pigeon feeding? ‘Public spaces protection orders’ and the destruction of public space

Why are councils banning virtually every conceivable activity in public spaces: pigeon feeding, begging, busking, rough sleeping, smoking in parks? And why are these bans so often popular?

At base, it seems to be because civil society is seen as a war of all against all. Any person’s activity is seen immediately as a restriction upon or violation of another. This is expressed in sayings such as: ‘Your right to smoke violates my right to a smoke-free environment.’ One person’s freedom to play music means that another’s life is ‘made a misery’ . One person feeding the birds means that another gets ‘covered in mess’.

The conceptual model of civil society is that of individuals facing each other as implacable and opposed interests. Any one activity – any freedom of one person – is resolved purely and simply into the negative effect on another. The activity, indeed, becomes defined only in terms of this negative effect: busking becomes ‘noise pollution’, leafleting and pigeon feeding become ‘littering’, ball games become an ‘obstruction’ or ‘nuisance’, begging for money is ‘intimidation’.

It is for this reason that activities previously seen as a benign, even positive part of the urban environment are today classed as ‘anti-social behaviour’ and acquire an aspect of criminality. It becomes inconceivable that anyone would defend the ‘right’ to drink or feed pigeons in public spaces. ‘Are you saying that it is a human right to engage in unsocial behaviours?’ asks one man. ‘Do you really think people should get drunk, publicly beg, do wheelies in carparks, intimidate the public in parks?’ asks another.

These activities are criminalised because they are viewed – and to some extent, experienced – only as a violation of other people. The definition of crime, previously restricted to a significant violation of person or property, becomes generalised to almost any public action which could ‘affect’ others.

Indeed, for some individuals their mere presence in public space is seen as harmful: hence council bans on ‘loitering’ or police crackdowns on young people ‘congregating’. One BBC Radio London presenter suggested that street drinkers should be stopped from ‘lounging’ on a park bench. Councils are banning smoking in parks because it ‘exposes others including children to smoking behaviours’. Your crime is merely that you have exposed others to the sight of yourself or your activity (which is objectified into something foreign and described as a behaviour).

This model of civic life is quite different to that which motivated Victorian bylaws, with their nit-picky bans on playing music in the park or playing cards on the street. In these cases, the ban had a class basis, elite versus masses, and the question of freedom in the newly formed public spaces was almost entirely a working-class cause. It was they who pushed back the legal boundary for protests into Hyde Park, filled the streets with pamphleteers and players and pavement artists. The ban was motivated by an elite fear of the public acting in concert, of the unpredictable, restive energies of the crowd.

Today, by contrast, freedom in public spaces is seen as an effete, ivory tower position, which nobody with any real experience of urban life could possibly support. The model of an unregulated public space is some kind of hell: wheelies in carparks, vomiting, urinating, firing BB guns, shooting up, ‘winged rats’, vermin, bird and dog faeces. It is a cacophony of barbarity. It is supposed that the public lacks any self-constituting power. There is nothing in the free association of individuals which could bring any kind of order or civility, any kind of mutual benefit or pleasure. As a result, it is supposedly only through the state that the public space is established as a compact.

Implacably opposed individuals face one another and cannot resolve their conflict for themselves; as soon as one moves the other is harmed, and vice versa. So the official mediator is called in, to place restrictions on activities – to say, as with Oxford City council, that the city centre shall not be a place for anybody to do anything. Or else, if people must do things, they must do them in discrete ‘zones’, where different activities can be carried out without meeting or coming into conflict. In a park there is a playground area for children (no dogs, no smoking), a dog walking area (no children), a ballgames area (no dogs), a field (no ballgames, no drinking, no dogs). One park even allocated a specific bench for street drinkers to sit on. The public space is sliced up, feudalised into its separate interests.

Yet this appearance of things is misleading. It may appear that the conflict within civil society necessitates state regulation, but in fact the opposite is more the case: that state regulation generates a conflict within civil society. It is the regulation and orchestration of public spaces, the ever-presence of the third party mediator, which polarises individuals as implacable opposed interests. It is the existence of an anti-social behaviour hotline which means that neighbours no longer go around to ask someone to turn the music down: they communicate not directly but through official mechanisms, which polarises a minor disagreement into an all-out conflict.

In fact, the pleasantness of public spaces depends in large part on their freedom from regulation. In the 1960s the American urbanist Jane Jacobs described the intricate web of urban interactions: the way in which people going about their business as private individuals look out for each other and enhance each others lives (1). Drinkers at the soda stand keep an eye on kids playing; the deli owner keeps people’s keys and packages. Jacobs notes how a ‘slum’ neighbourhood – with its soda stands, sweet shops and bars, sidewalks full of kids playing ball and adults loitering and chatting  – was a model of lively civility. By contrast, in the new housing ‘project’ opposite, with its manufactured public meeting rooms and cultural centres, kids were busy squirting fire hydrants through people’s windows.

It was the manufactured, state-constructed neighbourhoods that were the sites of barbarity, not the spontaneous, mixed-use sidewalks, where strangers stepped in swiftly to resolve children’s arguments.

The same would be the case today – except that public spaces have become so regulated, civic relations so mediated by bureaucratic organs that there is rarely any chance for relations to form or be negotiated on independent terms. These points occur not so much as an everyday habit, but more as a moment, something rare breaking through. We all witness these occasionally and find them immortalised on YouTube: with videos of a Liverpudlian drunk starting a crowd imitating his one-foot dance, or a boy stealing a busker’s mike to sing a solo. Here, buskers, street drinkers, children and adults are shown not in hostile opposition, but as enhancing one another. Such unexpected influences and inspirations are as much a part of public spaces as are disputes or disagreements.

The truth is that the ‘public spaces protection order’ doesn’t protect public space, it destroys it. The PSPO is founded on a model of civil society as a war of all against all, and in being enacted starts to bring about this very hell.

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

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