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!

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