Friday, 22 September 2017

50. Collective freedom and the gaze we hold (part 1)

Freedom is a collective phenomenon 

We hear speak about freedom on a daily basis. Freedom of choice, freedom of speech, freedom to love, freedom of thought, freedom of movement, etc. Individual freedom is an authorisation we receive or give ourselves to do something, even it is goes against the wishes of the group. It defines the area where we, as individuals, are sovereign.  Individual freedom cannot exist without the development of authority: inside this territory individuals have authorisation to be authors of their words and their acts. In this sense, we need to remember that this freedom is not built by the individual alone but with the community that agrees to set this self-restraining border. However, this collective aspect of the establishment of freedom is often disregarded. It is explained as an individual enterprise. And because of this, freedom is in danger because some groups are losing their willingness to self-restrain and are starting to restrain others and they do so in the name of freedom.

Beyond this situation we are going through in many countries (Spain, Latin America, USA, etc), I'd like to highlight that there is an even higher order of freedom. It is the freedom that comes when the group somehow actively confabulates for its members (everyone) to be free. It takes different forms. Sometimes this is reduced to solidarity but it is more than that. Listening to a friend or colleague with a completely different opinion is not solidarity. A family that supports a kid that decides to follow an unconventional career path is not acting either upon solidarity.

First of all, this freedom does not break the bond if what the person is doing does not please the rest. It does not barely tolerate either, it supports. In acts of solidarity, in freedom of speech, or in actively supporting a member of the family or a friend, what's being built is the highest order of freedom.
When the individuals of a community are transcending their own individuality to support someone, the act of freedom is double: its freeing itself of its own ego and its freeing the other of their own limitations. It is not about becoming saviours of anyone. It is not heroic. It is the art of seeing, of using our gaze and be responsive.

In this building of collective freedom we all play a role. We are all builders, creators. We have a gaze that looks and acknowledges the authority of the other person, recognise their needs or desires and respond to them when it is appropriate. 

This gaze is very important. It is the base of our deepest spiritual needs and beliefs but it is also how we exert power. 

The parents gaze

Being looked at is an essential part of our survival. How we managed to catch the attentions of our parents, how responsive they were to our needs or how they reacted to our mischief or exploration of limits is fundamental to our sense of empowerment or even to how we communicate our need of attention. But this gaze is not always the same. It develops into establishing areas of privacy. Where this gaze is blind or simply turns a blind eye. Our room in our teenage years, our conversations with friends, our exploration of sexuality, other personal explorations. Of course, privacy is a modern concept that emerged with architectural technology: the chimney that allowed the construction of private rooms. Privacy is important to explore our internal spaces, unanswered questions, concerns, look for the words and narratives that are missing or do not fit. Privacy is a limit to the disciplinary power of the external gaze, to its authority. 
In the evolution of the gaze, there are also positive gazes that define us. Those who "saw" something in us. Who acknowledged, recognised our potential, our uniqueness, our authority that we may or may not even be aware of it ourselves.  A teacher, a friend, our parents, an uncle, a completely random person. This is the gaze that talent shows, for example, demonstrate but it is also at play in Social Media.

From the village gaze to the city gaze

Life in a village is constantly watched by a neighbours' gaze and comes alive through the information that s/he generates. This gaze could be paying attention to our needs and activate a collective action of support. It could also watch the compliance of the community norms and show disapproval in many ways. In the village or town is where this gaze is performed by all but at the same time it is external to everyone. It plays a parental role, and authority role but with no parents. This gaze is only possible within a community and therefore is a collective phenomenon. Some argue that this is what shapes our understanding of -or how we imagine- God. This phenomenon that is external to everyone can be represented by a symbol, an eye, a God, an idol to whom we attribute these two functions of the gaze of the community: "see" our needs and come to the rescue, and to "punish" the law breakers.

Villagers built this externality as an all-seeing deity.
Individual freedom is a claim of space against the power of this eye and the threat of being expelled from the clan.

I would argue that is not coincidence that the faith in this sort of God changes with modernity and with urbanisation. On the one hand famines and sickness were considered the ultimate divine punishment, the definitive expulsion or the action of "nature's tyrannical arrogance". At the end of the XIX century, Paris was renovated to its current layout, the modern city, and the German bacteriologist Robert Koch postulated that bacteria caused disease which meant that death stopped to be seen as an act of God -who had been questioned for his failings in responding to prayer to prevent famines and led to a long series of religious reforms-. Soon after in 1882 Nietzsche declared (this) God dead.  

In cities we are more invisible than in towns. Cities will struggle with the idea of an all seeing God. Urban citizens will need a new eye, different to the eye looking over villagers. Cities demand a different type of God.

The WebCam: the new divine eye

Even though cities made it difficult for this idea of an all seeing God to survive, it resurrected with the WebCam. Most of us live in cities, somehow alienated from the old village eye, but we are still in need of this positive gaze who acknowledges our existence and recognises our potential. So we publish stuff in social media, waiting for likes, or go to talent shows expecting to be "discovered". The camera emerged as a technology to show us the world outside and bring it closer, but it was turned around by this unsatisfied need of being looked at.

Television became a social mirror where we could watch not only talent shows, "reality" TV as Big Brother but also people actually watching TV, like in Googlebox. The camera turned to the viewer literally. In a way, this might offer an insight on why the public did not react very strongly to Edward Snowden revelations: being watched is not a big concern, at a certain level is reassuring.

The tension

The tension clearly comes with the balance of power. The power of the gaze lies on the one holding the gaze. The one that looks. This is one of the simplest (and probably the least sophisticated) explanations on why power is invisible. Power is held by the one who sees and is not seen ie is not subjected to public regulation. This appears as a metaphor in Lord of the Rings, where the ring of power makes you invisible but also shows you what others cannot see; it is embodied by HAL 9000, the computer in Kubric's Space Odyssey and its invisible algorithms and somehow are also illustrated by this picture of Mark Zuckerberg taping over the webcam and microphone.

As subjects being observed, a question emerges.
Do I become passive and submissive? Do I adjust my behaviour? How do I look back? Do I accept their gaze? How do I face a power gaze? (like Alex's from the Clockwork Orange)? Do I expect society to adjust their judgement?

The Big Eye (the Big Other) makes us "moral"?

The idea of an eye watching making us more "moral" is illustrated in this poster (the eye as the intermediary between the animal and the man) and is explained and demonstrated by Derren Brown with experiments (min 12 onward) making references to the work of Dr. Jesse Bering.

Questioning the gaze - questioning morality

It is easy to feel identified with the role of the individual being looked at by the gaze of the village and advocate for individual freedom or even rescuing its moralising disciplinary function. However... what happens when we realise this eye is heavily skewed? What happens when we discovered that we are looking at the world through lenses that are neither impartial nor just?

The question of collective freedom comes alive when we are able to question our own gaze and how our gaze plays a role in the collective gaze. When we turn our attention away from how judged we feel to how we are judging, from how alone we feel we feel in our battles to how are we supporting others. But also when we start to recognise the gaze of the community to which we belong through the images we are being fed and accept as "normal". Even if the experiment mentioned above suggests that the idea of an all-seeing-eye makes us more "moral", feminists, social justice movements, amongst others argue that this eye does not see everyone in the same way, therefore morality is measured very subjectively and justice is applied differently eg with a focus in disciplining minorities, women and youngsters.

Even though, many people speak about this gaze from a psychological (the Big Other), philosophical and even an atheist point of view, Christianity itself represents a stance on this gaze, in a way disproving it. "The murder of an innocent" becomes proof that the Father is not there or at least that he won't act. He won't come to the rescue when we are victims, and he won't come to stop us when we are being violent. The eye is not external. What happens depends entirely on the gaze of the community.
This murder becomes a sacrifice, something sacred to remember but proclaims that it will be the last. The last time we kill someone assuming that it will clean us. It was not. Clearly.

Throughout history, power was imposed with violence more frequently than not. But every once in a while, cases emerge that, like Christianity, have enough impact to dictate a pause and eventually a change. What sort of change? The change that recognises that power needs to be managed, needs to be self-aware and self-restrain. This change that happens when a crowd recognises it has the power to act like a god, making life and death decisions, but that it is neither just nor it cannot be. So every once in a while come new Christs, innocents that die or are murdered because the collective gaze decided so, but later it recognises the victim's innocence and therefore its own violence. These moments are always pivotal to delimit power.

One of the cases that is thought to have changed the mood of the French society and had a big influence in the emergence of human rights was the case of Jean Calas. Jean Calas was sentenced to be questioned under torture and to the capital punishment for the death of his son. He claimed in the beginning that his son had been killed by a stranger but then he said his son had committed suicide. He later explained he had lied about the intruder because the bodies of people who committed suicide were denied burial, stripped naked and dragged through the streets. Jean Calas was subjected to pulling of limbs, followed with something similar to waterboarding, then was taken to the public square, tied to a X cross and his bones were broken. He claimed his innocence all the way through. After learning about the case, Voltaire took it and through legal action and multiple publications in different languages to stir public opinion, managed to reopen the case.  A retrial found Jean Calas innocent. This change affected deeply public opinion's view of capital punishment. It somehow changed its gaze. Witnessing the public torture and painful death of a guilty man is different to witnessing one of an innocent one. An act of "justice" -even if brutal- becomes a public murder. Onlookers and bystanders lost their innocence. Their gaze accepted brutality. Human rights became that territory of authority where power had to show self-restraint.

(to be continued)


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