Sunday, January 21, 2007

Big Brother

A fellow interculturalist has pointed out the interesting ambiguities and contradictions in the recent incident concerning racist insults in the UK reality TV series, Big Brother. Rather than focusing on judging whether it's a reprehensible example of racism, he sees it as a reflection of reality from which we can learn. I totally agree and believe we can use this kind of public incident to examine some of the key features of our current "civilization".

In a BBC News item, here is what some Indians seem to be saying about the incident:

"People in Mumbai, Shetty's home city, were asked by BBC Radio Five Live whether they thought she was a victim of racist bullying and some said they thought it nasty without being racist."

The question underlying this kind of observation is "what is the status of nasty and what is the status of racist?"

Of course, the real cultural problem for me is less the behaviour of the individuals than the status of "reality shows", which I’ll come back to in a minute. The "racist or nasty" distinction serves to highlight the fact that what we call racism is not only complex (extending from simple racist reflexes to fully elaborated racist theory, with latent or manifest racist attitude somewhere in the middle), but also needs to be understood on several different levels: the public, the private and the unconscious. A good case could be made (and has been made) for the assertion that we are all unconsciously racist. Some would even say it’s a natural function of our “selfish genes” (not being a fan of Dawkins, I wouldn’t go along with the exploitation of this flawed metaphor). But if this is so, it belongs to the realm of the unconscious and if we accept the related notions of ethical choice and free will (notions that are contested by some philosophers), then unconscious predispositions do not determine our attitudes and our behaviour.

In a classical Freudian framework, a permanent dynamic relationship exists between the id (where the unconscious resides or is “structured” according to Lacan), the ego and the superego. This too is a flawed metaphor, but it has the merit of identifying three visibly active and well contrasted layers of human behaviour: the impulse (id), the calculated move or choice (ego) and actions that are influenced and in some cases determined by social norms, including culture and law (the superego). The incidents in Big Brother seem to be largely at the unconscious level, meaning that they can be corrected at the conscious level (ego) and the societal level (superego). It's interesting society is making something of a hash of it, which tells us a lot about our current culture, especially as filtered through – but more significantly – regulated by the media. And this is what I find most dangerous, that our thinking and our “new” cultural reflexes are being programmed by the media.

As for Big Brother itself, the question may legitimately be asked, “but what are we to expect when a group of people are held in close quarters for so long?” The idea of being in close quarters but at the same time visible to the public, while interacting with people one has not chosen oneself, is profoundly ambiguous in that it mixes up all three of the standard personae associated with the three levels of the personality. It is in the intimate sphere that the id has some room to operate. The privacy of such situations allows our psyche occasionally to let off the steam of the unconscious, since it will then encounter factors of resistance that will send it back into its normal unconscious state, usually with no long term consequences other than refining one’s behavioural learning process. Resistance comes in the form of the personal and moral reactions of those who share that space, who are usually people we trust and/or with whom we share our social culture. That certainly isn’t the case in Big Brother.

The private sphere is also where the ego is developed and modelled through interactions with others: Freud called the process a series of identifications, which I take to be Freud’s most pregnant contribution to cultural theory. The modelling of the ego allows it to take moral precedence over the unconscious impulses and establishes the legitimacy of the external, social point of view as a regulator of egoistic behaviour. As “regulation” develops the superego is formed, representing the “rules of the game” by which one is first judged (by others) and ultimately ends up judging oneself (our conscience).

The media quite obviously represent the public point of view that is instrumental in informing the superego. But in the context of Big Brother this is perverse, because the medium (television) is mixed up with aspects that in individual psychology would belong to the realm of the ego (survival and self-assertion) and even the id (the affirmation of impulses, which is what the spectators are “expecting” to see).

What’s ultimately both comic and tragic about this incident and its aftermath is the way “serious social commentary” is reframing the content of this literally perverse context. The perversity is exacerbated by the fact that the participants are already celebrities of a sort (having never seen Big Brother or any of its avatars, I’m not very sure about how this is structured – are they real celebrities or wannabes? -- or how it may play out, but it seems to me to be an obvious source of confusion).

The interest in analysing incidents such as this one for cultural as well as psychological and sociological reflection is indeed great, as my colleague, Steve Crawford, suggested. I’m sure there are many other interesting takes on it, including an analysis of the “legal” side of this (already a part of the official debate).

And just to complicate things further, there appears to be a somewhat similar incident taking place in the US around a more classic TV fiction series, Grey’s Anatomy, where one of the actors (black) used an insulting term for a gay colleague on the set (in private, of course) and this was reported to the media, creating a major scandal.

The past twelve months or so have brought a rich harvest of public/private racism: Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and now these two latest incidents. There are a lot of issues here. It would be nice if the intercultural community could show some leadership on helping to analyse these things… in public!

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Reporting and building the new "new world order"

Several colleagues have recently come back to a theme that has preoccupied a lot of people since 9/11: the docility of the US media in the face of policies that were manifestly mistaken or based on lies and whose long-term consequences were predictable, had anyone had the courage to predict. (Neutralizing this basic intellectual capacity seems to have been a permanent feature of the current administration's strategy, who even today claims a monopoly on prediction, the latest example being the justification -- via the utopia of a unified, stable Iraq -- of the coming "surge").

About a week ago I read an article by René Lefort in the Nouvel Observateur concerning the situation in Somalia. Having seen the news items in the U.S. press about the pursuit of "key members" of al-Qaida in Somalia -- articles in which no recent historical background was offered -- I was pleased to discover a journalist who could fill me in on a bit of context. What a difference when compared to the accounts in the U.S. press, where the Ethiopians were the good guys and the Somalians (because they had allowed themselves to rebuild their society from the ground up under the tutelage of Islamic Courts) were the bad guys. Now it may well be that since 9/11 the idea of Islamic Courts conjures up in Washington the idea of Taliban and/or al-Qaida (= evil), but the facts put forward by Lefort indicated that this wasn't the case at all. Lefort made some effort to explain the political and social logic behind a movement that had been increasingly successful in restructuring an anarchic society that had been effectively left in the hands of warlords, to the detriment of everyone else, including the clans (the basis of Somalian social organisation) and the nominal government, with no power or authority or historical basis. To keep the story short, Lefort recounts that the U.S. encouraged Christian Ethiopia to invade Islamic Somalia promising and supplying US military support, accompanied by specific actions against the culprits who provided the ultimate pretext for the invasion: 3 presumed members of al-Qaida (and this presumption dates back to 2000, when Clinton was president)!

Now if Ethiopia's invading Somalia reminds me of anything, I'd have to say it's Saddam's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 (for which there's good reason to believe that the US initially gave a tacit blessing) and which provoked a strong international alliance intent on establishing a "new world order". But let's not talk about double standards, since the the "war on terror" does away with all nuance, providing a much simpler key to the new "new world order" of the future.

There's obviously much more to the Somalia story, so I thought I'd look at what the US press had to say now that things were seriously hotting up. Lo and behold, in the best, most thorough and "analytical" articles, there are only the vaguest hints about the actual historical context. Hints that do more to hide the historical facts than to reveal them. The rest is about who is against whom, and what religion or state they represent. Nothing about the political evolution of the country over the past 15 years, its social structure, its specific traditions, the status of Ethiopia, the intricacies of US strategy, etc. In short, it's treated somewhat like a sports story, an account of who's winning or which team is rising in the standings.

The Washington Post offers the most "thorough" article I've been able to find in the mainstream US media (the NY Times remaining far more superficial and the LA Times -- usually fairly analytical -- only giving the equivalent of a "box score" in sports). For those interested, here's the WP link.

The Guardian doesn't do much more, though they align some interesting facts about recent events in the Ethiopian-US dialogue. Still, they seem not to want to know about any context not furnished by the Pentagon. The Independent doesn't do much more, but the Times finds another ruse for avoiding the issues: developing the travelogue approach, highlighting local colour and the semi-modern folksy reality of the locals (including their links to British popular culture!). The conclusion is consistent with what we know about the situation, but the article gives no indication of why it is so in terms of context.

So where can we find some more thorough analysis that corroborates many of details of context in the Lefort article? Try the Toronto Star.

This article by Thomas Walkom offers a range of detail that Lefort didn't mention and generally conveys the same message, laying out the longer-term political implications as well and drawing parallels that help illuminate our understanding of US foreign policy and where it's taking us.

Two things emerge from this:
  1. the US mainstream press is still beholden to the administration and the Pentagon and seems unwilling even to suggest that there are other angles of interpretation of what amounts to unprovoked acts of military invasion (as I say, to be compared to Saddam invading Kuwait),
  2. US foreign policy has taken on a knee-jerk regularity of encouraging and allowing destruction and murder -- but even worse, the dismantling of local social infrastructure -- whenever there's a vague reason to suspect the "harboring" of enemies, even if the number of those enemies can be counted on one hand.
This last point seems to me to sum up the difference between the pre-9/11 political world and the post-9/11 one. What used to be seen as a problem for criminal justice (the model used in Britain to combat IRA terrorism) has been transformed into a pretext for regime change, nation-building and "regional remodeling". Read some of the quotes from US authorities about how they consider themselves responsible for defining what kind of government Somalia should have and who deserves to be a part of it. As the Toronto Star points out, the parallels with Iraq and Afghanistan seem obvious.

The final lesson in all this: read the Canadian press whenever you have doubts about the thoroughness of what the press in any of the "coalition of the willing" countries offers you.

And the final lesson for us interculturalists: don't take seriously any news article that doesn't lead you towards an understanding of the society itself, however superficial (you can always learn more). Politics abhors sociology because it fears social reality. The pattern of cultural blindness behind political and military action is, as the Toronto Star hints, one that is being repeated in many different places, but because mere political/military solutions no longer have the lasting power they once had, we're plunging ever more deeply into cultural conflict. It isn't a clash of civilizations, but an organized power struggle.. and it's getting more and more frightening.