Sunday, 9 November 2008

Celtic Imagination No 17: Stocks and Shares - a very public humiliation

You will find these stocks on the village green at Wormhill, in the Peak District of Derbyshire. To be confined in this way was to be publicly disgraced and humiliated, with one's misdemeanour becoming an open invitation for others to share in the actual act of punishment through mockery, scorn, or worse. It's what today we would call a 'cruel and unusual punishment'.

In his book 'Violence', Slavoj Zizek contends that in addition to subjective, physical acts of violence our societies have within them two hidden mechanisms of objective violence, which make such subjective violence possible. One operates through our language; what we say, read, write and think about each other, which Zizek calls symbolic violence. The other mechanism manifests through the functional inter-relationships of our economic and political systems, giving rise for example to unemployment, poverty and homelessness, something he terms systemic violence. To the actual physical act of putting a violent miscreant in the Stocks, we need to add the background context of symbolic and systemic violence which may have made it necessary to put them there in the first place.

Sections of the Media habitually perpetrate such violence, brutalising their chosen victims in stocks built of confining paragraphs and hurtful images, and all on public display. And through our reading, watching and commenting we are invited to share in the act of public humiliation. From Reality TV to the pages of the Tabloid Press, the mechanism is the same. Used this way language becomes a culturally confining punishment which demeans, degrades and diminishes individuals, groups, whole sections of society or other countries. Such violence works by changing the way we see and respond to each other. As Zizek argues, it is this sort of linguistic violence which makes actual, physical violence much more possible. We have only to think of how parts of the Media use phrases such as "The War on Terror" or "Asylum Seekers" to see the persuasiveness of his argument. Or to bring this much closer to home, just ponder your everyday conversations and proof them for symbolic violence; might not a moment's honest reflection reveal that the church coffee morning, for example, demonstrates how we all use language to inflict 'violence' on each other, not through punch-ups but through put-downs? Seen in this way the linguistic stocks are in constant use among us, which begs the question of what we are going to do about such hidden symbolic violence. If we were to see such malicious tittle-tattle as equivalent to putting someone in the stocks we might be much more circumspect about opening our mouths in the first place, and be more generous and gracious when we do. All our exclusive '-isms', such as Racism and Sexism, are birthed linguistically and given life through our speech and actions as we share in the societal goal of putting 'others' in the stocks of prejudice.

Such insidious mechanisms of symbolic violence lead inexorably to the systemic violence of global financial systems. If we think of recent experience in the USA, the divide between Wall St. and Main St. over the unfolding sub-prime fuelled financial crisis is a perfect case in point. The normal working of the system is predicated on such systemic violence as debt, poverty and disadvantage, with all their attendant social ills. The normal working of the global financial and trade systems routinely confines millions to lives of poverty unimaginable in the secure enclaves of the mansioned super-rich, who exert such disproportionate influence over our Politics, Media, Sport and just about every other dimension of our common life.  To envisage each dollar or pound of their annual bonus as being one more person locked up in the stocks of disadvantage might make the bankers pause for thought, but then again.....

If you think about it, the teaching of Jesus is rooted in countering these two hidden mechanisms of violence in our midst. In the way he lived his life Jesus demonstrated how the choices we make in the way we think, speak, act and organise our common life are all part of the redemption of society from symbolic and systemic violence. And because of it, because he threatened to subvert these powerful hidden mechanisms of violence, he was violently put to death, by those whose powerful vested interests were in the status quo. A status quo which Jesus shows us looks as normal and as natural as the image below.

Stocks and Shares are all around us.


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