On the terror of traffic lights and docile bodies; or, a monologue on jaywalking

December 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

It is late and you are alone. You’re somewhere public, walking along the street and you approach a crossroad. As you approach the curb you notice that the lights are red, and, even though you know that there is no one around, even though you know that there is no danger, you still hesitate.

Let us first consider the public sphere, and, in particular, the role of the individual; both their responsibility and rights, within it. The public sphere is a meeting place; of people and ideas; it is, therefore, inherently a place of sharing. One cannot enter the public sphere and be alone, for there are always reminders of others; from people to structures. When entering and operating within this space we are required to acknowledge laws and customs and then willingly sacrifice some freedoms in order to participate. Choosing not to adhere – which is always an option – leads to social exclusion, or, in the most drastic, incarceration and perhaps death.

This necessary compromise means that the public sphere, and the expectations of it on individuals, should be constantly scrutinised. The danger of the public sphere is that it becomes mundane so quickly. It becomes ingrained, internalised and perpetuated. Its conventions become treated as normal. The everyday is a site of constant struggle. We cannot afford a stagnant set of rules for a fluid society because there will always be those for whom what is ‘normal’ does not work, and we must remember that what works for one person one day, may not work the next.

Not to mention the dangers of ever thinking that anything within the public sphere is ‘normal’ or inbuilt, or even desirable in the first place; most of the time it is functional and in place to facilitate citizens and their interactions. It is all examinable. It must be.

We, as individuals, must always remain aware of the public sphere as a construction and scrutinise it because of the currently modern condition; we live in a society characterised by bureaucracy, changeable politics, a lack of leadership, shifting signs and a banal apathy that permits and lazily promotes stupidity. We are, of course, all ‘stupid’, classifying others as such, and being so classified by the very people we judge; society is a hall of mirrors and a series of projections. Without vigilant criticism, we allow these symptoms to creep further into our being, and collectively we continue to carry them out.

Here, there must be a distinction made in regards to what we mean when we say ‘being critical’. The act of being critical must be constructive, creative and without malice or judgment. Being critical does not mean having unfounded arguments or vested interests; instead, criticism should look to build upon, reposition or recreate. It is forgiving, seeking to educate when an action is problematic, and reclaim when something is taken away. We should not dwell on criticism but learn from it, we should only doll out criticism to help, not hinder. There is a false assumption, which is encouraged within our hierarchical social structure, that to succeed someone else must fail, one person is good by virtue of being better than someone else; however, this is not the case, there is room enough for multiple successes and rather than being adversarial, we should focus on cooperation. We should grow together as a society through education and understanding; imperative, in this case when operating and renegotiating the public sphere.

So, then, what is the problem with being uncritical? Without interrogation the public sphere errs towards its ideological underpinnings – consumerism, capitalism, singular perfection and homogeneity. None of these are evil in and of themselves, and have been incredibly influential on civilisation’s development; nevertheless, untempered they lack humanity, consideration and multiplicity.It is not in their nature to account for difference; however, it is, and should be, within ours.

And so, with no King, Queen or Khaleesi empowered to regulate regulations, they are left to become bureaucratic nightmares, labyrinths of departments, offices, officers, officials and politicians all charged with upholding conventions. Even when changes are made, as a condition of democracy, these tend to appeal to the masses, which are in turn dictated by the ideological underpinnings that we seek to keep in check. A change aims to appease as many as possible, and so, hegemonically, these changes are inevitably self-serving to the system, even though they seem to come from the people. Therefore, it remains imperative for the individual to be critical.

This is not necessarily a treatise against democracy. To suggest that it is neglects our fundamental capacity for multiplicity. We are both part of the masses and individuals. And so, we should be able to make decisions that are both ‘good’ for ourselves and ‘good’ for others, as well as, ‘good’ for us all collectively. This remains a difficult task for many, and no one can completely ignore their self – indeed nor should they have to. However, our ability to rationalise decisions means that many options can be weighed and considered. And, when a decision made by an individual is not in accordance with the masses there should be no animosity towards that individual unless that action impedes someone else’s freedom. We forget too readily that others do not need to comply with a group decision. While the inbuilt power struggles of the modern condition push us towards the desire to dominate others and their actions, this should be resisted at all costs. There is room for the individual within democracy.

This is not an argument in favour of ‘people have the right to be bigots’. There is no room in the public sphere for this kind of attitude and it fundamentally ignores the rights of others. Statements like this, and the comments it condones, are easy to make from a position of privilege. A comment such as that demonstrates a lack of education and empathy. This criticism, a lack of education, is intended not as being derogatory towards those with no formal education (in fact, it seems as though the ‘educated’ are the ones making many such statements) but instead to create an opportunity to evaluate the statement, identify its fallacies, understand the harm it causes and to then return to how individuals can operate as citizens conscious of others, while remaining themselves empowered. With any luck these educated public opinions will influence the private sphere, but that is another debate.

Back to bureaucracy and the internalisation of presuppositions in the public sphere. As individuals, as bodies, we cannot help but internalise the world around us. We identify the self in its relation to others. Mother, brother, sister, lover all implies a relationship. Moreover, colour, sexuality, gender age and so on, are all understood through connection and becoming; they are not unchanging, unmoving, singularities but are always dynamic, fluid states of identification; they grow, develop, deepen, change, and they must be free to do so. These understandings of the self are drawn from the public and private, the social and the individual; importantly many of these can have an influence of the others. Thence, it becomes clear as to how the everyday is essential to our development and understanding of our selves. What then is troubling is the lack of leadership, direction and personal authority in and of the public sphere.

There is nothing wrong with being conservative. It relates to a rate of change, not a specific ideological viewpoint. It can be wise to be cautious and radical is not always the answer; moreover, it is sometimes radical to be conservative, and other times, the radical can take the shape of the smallest change. These qualifications are necessary given the current political climate, and it must be clear that this paper does not support one or other party, but remains critical of both and, instead, and more specifically, criticises the public’s lack of interest in the public sphere and the reclaiming of this space. There is not a problem with being conservative, but with remaining uncritical. In particular, remaining uncritical of the spectre of modernity – the belief that society is built, and succeeds, on hierarchy.

By removing the monarchy we removed a body, a site of power, a physical locality to which we, the public could bring our complaints. Of course, simultaneously we relieved ourselves of their tyranny, which many, understandably, celebrated. The shift from monarchy to republic did not see an excavation of power as a central fixation of individuals, but instead saw this proliferate and make it seemingly more accessible.

The very nature of the American Dream, for example, is that anywhere can make it if they try – this is, of course, a lie. It helps the system function for people to believe this idea, and therefore is widely perpetuated, insidiously, innocently or by the very nature of the products the system creates. The replacement system, while lacking in tyrannical leadership, is one that needs constant re-evaluation and upheaval, otherwise the bureaucracy becomes total, unintelligible and impenetrable. In effect, there is nowhere to take grievances to; there is nothing to take frustrations out on and no one to direct dissatisfaction with social operations. And so individuals become lost in endless administration and organisation.

Without a stable leader, and leadership replaced with titles – symbols of power – that control society, it is difficult for individuals to operate and instigate change. In many respects it is harder, or at least as hard, to undo people’s faith in signs as it is (was) monarchs. The ideas embedded in institutions become infallible. Their anonymity protects them from scrutiny. Their ubiquity is entrenched and they are perceived as being essential to the fabric of the public sphere. Law, leadership, justice, democracy and so on, seem like the building blocks society, the fundamentals, the structures by which else all takes its baring. While it may seem obvious that these are all constructs and by-products of a system, it is often difficult to remember that many people have unerring faith in these ideas, that we all lapse in our ability to understand these structures’ function in society and that we cannot possible all, individually, experience them and understand them – these shortcomings only make us human. As it is commonplace to defer the burden of decision making on to those higher up on an erroneous, but arguably helpful, chain of command, we must remind ourselves that all titles and positions are mythologised creations, whether it’s ‘the best we have’ or not. And given our knowledge of the positions and titles as constructions we are within our rights to question leadership and the direction they take us.

In conceding to higher powers, we forget the power of the individual, and their rights. We should always remain critical of which aspects of the public sphere we are internalising and the ways in which we are then projecting them upon others. The individual has myriad rights within the community and the legal system should enhance those rights, not strip or impede them. However, the nature of the public sphere is such that, when we remain uncritical, it becomes easier to succumb to dominant ideology than to resist it. Moreover, we actively inflict the dominant ideology onto one another as a symptom of the system’s fixation on having power over others, and the fallacious belief there is a central ‘correct’ way of being or doing. And so we renounce our rights as individuals, not only to one another, which is necessary, but also to a system that we feel as though we have no control over.

Power is skewed towards those that operate within institutions – the larger the more influential – because their actions are, by virtue of their creation within the system, perceived as ‘better’ or somehow desirable. Within a system that rewards making money, an organisation that makes money is seen as successful. We can see a move towards not simply a bottom line, but a triple bottom line (financial, and also environmental and social) as a step in the right direction. The direction marks a move from singularity to multiplicity: a company’s goal is no longer only to make money. It is a significant step; however, the responsibility lies very firmly with the individual to continue to be critical of organisations and their interests. Our desire to participate in a global environment – bigger is better, more markets means more money, and so on – makes it easier to forget about local communities, and it is, more often than not, the community that can support and understand individuals’ needs within a larger public sphere, rather than larger organisations whose interests are often self-centred.

We are conditioned to think big. The system encourages and rewards it. What’s more, remaining uncritical seems the easiest way to participate in the public sphere and to be critical is often met with outcry: the change is dismissed is impractical, criticism is seen as negativity and is ignored, and a resounding faith in the current system as being without alternative often used as a definitive argument. The latter is an incredibly dangerous attitude as it demonstrates the way in which the body has internalised the system and the way in which it then perpetuates it.

There are impracticalities with change, to be sure. There is so much going on in the public sphere that to constantly be changing everything boarders on the absurd and the farcical. However, if things are to remain the same, we should also be educated in our understanding that, although something has not changed, it has no inherent meaning, only that which we give to it. We should constantly be aware of the power we have over the public sphere, not the other way around. We compromise willingly when we enter into this space and should always remember and be reminded that it is the individuals that make up society and every one of us has rights. When we interact with the everyday, we should simultaneously understand our position, as empowered individuals, and then choose to act in a way that accommodates both ourselves and others. The scope of civilisation limits constant change, though we should never for a moment forget that nothing has an inherent meaning, and nothing necessarily has control over us; we will only submit willingly and consciously.

This brings us back to traffic lights and our hypothetical, but commonplace, scenario. The power invested in these lights is such that, even though there is no one around and there no one is in danger, if you were to cross, there is still hesitation because it is, technically, against the law, not specifically to jaywalk, but to ‘cross a road within 20 metres of a pedestrian crossing at a place other than the pedestrian crossing’ and to ‘only cross when the pedestrian lights are green’ – which is what we understand jaywalking to be. Your basic freedom of being able to move when and where you like, to walk, is inhibited, not by the reality of threat, but because of a red light that has been imbued with the authority and power to literally stop you walking forward; you can, of course, walk in a different direction, but the fact remains that the direction you wish to walk in is prohibited. Your movement is limited by the possibility not the actuality of threat. The downfall of the current system is the lack of understanding that the red light is not actually making you stop, which is exacerbated by the fact that the law could still take action against you even though you have done nothing but walk in public.

It is somewhat frightening to think that we have internalised authority to such an extent that when we approach the lights, without thinking, our impulse is to stop. It is this lack of critical engagement with the public sphere and specifics within it that is terrifying. What is more horrifying is that the enactors of authority do not permit leniency, which is grounded in logic and rationality – if you cross the road without a green light there will be no ramifications to anyone – and instead are willing to enforce power over you by law. There is no critical evaluation of the situation; instead, there is an unflinching blanket rule applied to all circumstances. There is no autonomy afford to the individual and instead of being able to take responsibility for their actions they are instead stripped of their freedoms, for, what is argued, the greater good and safety. After a time we do not even remember that we had an opportunity for alternatives and we comply without thought.

This is not a plea for haphazard and arbitrary law breaking. Instead, it is a reminder to be critical, in the constructive, creative sense of the word. The red light only has power or control over the individual to the extent that they afford it. The public sphere is a place for sharing; both liberties and responsibilities. When you take action there are consequences and the individual should be able to make decisions and then deal with the ramifications. Society must afford us the ability to educate ourselves and we must be free to weigh up the potential outcomes of our choices. We should retain autonomy in our involvement in the public sphere and choose to act in a way that serves both ourselves and those around us, free from the tyranny of a system that does not respect or understand difference, and free to be critical of that system, which does not always serve our interests. It is time to reclaim the public sphere and understand our potential as individuals.

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