Saturday, 19 September 2015

28. The ghosts of conflicts past

There is something in medicine called ghost or phantom pain. It's the pain that someone feels on a limb that has been amputated. Beyond the anatomical mechanisms, it is almost as if the brain needs to emphasize that "something big happened here" by feeling pain.

Collective trauma
There seems to be a different time-scale for dealing with trauma. The intensity of the emotions we feel, cannot be contained in an instant and jump to a realm where there is no time and leave a strong imprint in our unconscious. These memories get frozen in an eternal state of present, like in Picasso's Guernica. There is no time in the unconscious and there is not time in the collective unconscious. The feedback that the moving reality keeps providing us with, stops being fully computed or is simply ignored. There is a part of us that gets anchored to that unprocessed moment.

Guernica by Picasso, Rein exposition

In the collective unconscious we store the memories of collective experience and collective trauma. I moved countries several times and as a foreigner I sensed some of these "social ghost pains", but the most obvious ones are also visible to a tourist or by simply reading the news on a foreign newspaper. It is this feeling of "something big happened here" when we are in front of visible scars, like in front of the reminding parts of the Berlin Wall or Ground Zero or in front of a graffiti in Belfast. The same happens when we hear the word miners in Yorkshire or mines in Vietnam or disappeared in Argentina or Franco in Catalunya/the Basque country,... or a taxi driver's comments on the Palace of Parliament build by Ceaucescu in Bucharest, and there must a reason why Switzerland law still states that there must be a nuclear bunker/shelter place for everyone. Also when we read the news related to guns or racism in America, or we learn about Apartheid in South Africa, Holocaust, etc, etc, etc. These are all traumatic social experiences that had been shared by a large group of people that linger on, sometimes perpetuated through generations, with an incredible quality of quasi-eternal present. We are not short of social traumatic experiences. And even if we "think" they belong to the past, they don't. To the observer they look like a veil that is covering the mood and altering the perception of the present time with the forgotten-memory of this pain.

Pain needs to be expressed to be released and somehow its quality of "present pain" needs to be respected, even if it was not our own experience but something we have inherited. That's why art that captures these feelings is so important. Every piece of art, a picture, a sculpture, a song, brings an emotion to the present, increasing the awareness of its existence. So everyone that feels any of this emotion and expresses it, releases part from this stored collective stock.

I was struck by the documentary telling the story of African Americans "returning" the Ghana either to stay or as a pilgrimage (there are two 10-min parts, worth watching). Returning, of course, is figurative. They arrive to Ghana, re-enact the kidnappings of their ancestors by slave traders, they tell the story mixing past and present tense, they cry this ancient pain. However, even if for them this pain is very real and present, and there is a part of them that feels they returned home, they find themselves in Ghana being seen as foreigners, Americans and even "white". Their emotional reality does not coincide with what the observer sees. It is almost the perfect example of "No man ever steps twice in the same river". You are not the same you when you return, and the river is not the same river. However, this process of trying to reconcile past and present is important for all of us because it is the only way of liberating ourselves from this heavy emotional burden. It is only through this liberation, we can act and make new decisions that affect our actual reality.

Political and economical ghosts

In lighter subjects related to political and economic issues, we also inherit tools, structures, views of the world that sometimes do not properly fit in today's reality but continue unchallenged nonetheless. There is a part of us stuck on each of the collective traumas the world has lived through (the ones I mentioned are of course only a few examples). But when thinking of politics and economy, we need to look back at the part of us that got globally stuck sometime in 1950, still in shock after WWII, when the new global institutions were being founded (IMF, UN, World Bank, NATO, even ECC), when the world was divided into winners and losers (the winners conforming the security council, the highest hierarchy rank in the nations world order), east and west, communist v capitalist nations, the new ex colonies and the new ex empires, etc, etc. And yes, it is also in the baby boomers' early childhood period (when most of people's personal trauma comes from), the moment they were absorbing all the emotional charge of their parents, people that lived through WWII (and had been born to the people that lived through WWI...) which probably paid a big role in shaping them in the "Me generation", with its lights (civil rights movement and progress) and its shadows (narcissism, individualism, turn to a liberal-conservatism and generational accumulation of riches).

The world progress continued, but the view of the world got frozen.

In the TED talk: "The best stats you've ever seen", Hans Rosling speaks about preconceptions regarding our view of the world. In his work as a professor of International Health in Sweden, he discovered his students had a preconception of the world that divided it into "we and them: the Western World and the Third World".

However data shows that the views the university students had, were more aligned with the reality of 1950 and 1960's: the one that describes the world their grandparents lived in.

In this subsequent video, he goes further in showing what different household incomes look like, how much the world has changed, and most importantly how fast. So we don't live in the same world the baby boomers were born in. It is not the same river we are looking at. However, it is almost as if we stopped looking at the world and took their word for it.

In this RSA video, Dirk Philipsen dares to call GDP as "Granpa's definition of prosperity" (ja!) to point out that an obsession with GDP growth is neither suitable nor sustainable... it is simply outdated.

In this interview of New Yorker's journalist Dexter Filkins to Argentina's president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (subtitled in English), the topic of how much the world has changed is touched upon between minutes 31 to 40 approximately. The journalist starts this segment by asking if the financial/economical rules need to change, if rules are unfair. She replies that the current rules are not useful to anyone, developed or developing countries, sharing some US stats and illustrating it by pointing out that a TV series not so old as Friends now looks ludicrous as people of that age cannot afford such flats in New York. He then asked a very telling question on foreign policy: is Argentina moving away from the US and closer to China and Russia (and Venezuela and Iran)? (showing how the capitalism v communism ghost plays a role in judging what it used to be the third world, the non-aligned... in other words, which side are you?). She then responds that US is the second largest investor and holds a trade surplus v Argentina. That deals with Russia and China are only reflecting today's reality of a multi-polar world. Whatever the opinion of her performance as President might be, in this exchange she appears to have a clarity that others lack.

A veil that polarises everything into good and bad has many advantages. A world full of nuance and imperfect decisions is uncomfortable, but it is also more real. A world view that can be reduced to the format of a football match with two emperors disputing territories or trying to prove their system better might be easy, even entertaining, but keeps us in the illusion that we are mere spectators. We do not connect to our reality and thus we cannot affect it. But if studies show that we find truth in groups, and that the way that thought, science and emerging structures are networks and not trees, that means that each point, each individual, each nation is important. Our own personal perspective might not be "the truth" but it has a purpose and in expressing it, it can help the person next to us to drop his own confirmation bias and vice versa. And for that happening, we should not be all saying the same things, repeating the words of others, aligned. 

This veil not only polarises but also fragments. It decouples economy and politics, warfare and arms trade, freedom and the structures that provide opportunity, and probably most importantly past and present.

The ghosts from the past are the ones that don't allow us to see the present. Without confronting them we won't be able to act to change what we would like to change. 


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