The Others In My Life
Many people have a sense of being watched - that is the concern of this short essay. It is, however, possible to minimise the intrusive part of being watched by paying more attention to the importance of privacy as a basic part of our being in the world. Increased recognition of privacy allows us to relegate unwanted others to oblivion in our psyches – but we need to embrace the value of silence. This may be harder than it sounds – the noise of society, and others, can be deafening.
I don’t think a sense of being watched is surprising given the circumstances of being human that we all experience. Historically routine causes we can point to include the ongoing socialisation we all experience (that makes ‘others’ a normal component in cognition) and the universal presence of religion (that posits a transcendent ‘other’ capable of communicating with us). Our dreams and fears often involve the agency of others; all of which is normal and routine. Then there are cognitive disorders to consider, such as schizophrenia and other disorders that are treated by psychologists, psychotherapists and related specialists. Further, modern technology has added to any ‘natural’ sense of being watched because of centralised surveillance by all contemporary states, and through the collection and harvesting of data by private organisations – all marketing wants to know about us.
All these processes effectively construct ‘others’ in our experiences as human beings. Small wonder we can feel watched - we often are being watched. What we might wonder is the extent to which such ‘coercive control’ has become normalised in our lives. In other words, to what extent is the process of having others in our personal space desirable? Can we minimise the intrusive effects of having others in our lives? How much social control is in our best interests? Being able to ignore some of the noise of communication that besets us all requires inner resolve – and an appreciation of limits to being social. It is not true that there are no limits to being social. Individually we are far more than an endless internal dialogue between ourselves and the various significant others that we give privileged access to – such as twitter feed, facebook ‘friends’, paypal, dating apps, and the like. We certainly depend upon families, neighbours, friends, and various entities of ‘the state’ (such as the taxation office), but innately we all know that there is something more to our individual selves. Ironically, this more is, I believe, less.
From the outset it is worth remembering that we do choose to have others in our lives as a normal, routine and healthy relationship with the world. We love others, we want others, we desire others, and some level of surveillance by any state is inevitable. Some of the others in this mix may be ‘coercive’ (known and unknown by us) - it is that aspect of our awareness that this short essay seeks to address. My hypothesis is that when coercive others recede into oblivion, our mental health will improve; our sense of security in the world will increase. Once patterns of control are established it may well be that the police, refuges, welfare officers and psychologists may need to become involved – but there is much that can be done to disallow noisy others from invading our space.
It follows, as consequence of practising ‘mental hygiene’, that we may have more time to worry about ‘real’ existential threats, such as climate change and ecological decline, or we may choose to not worry much at all - finding peace in ‘non-attachment’, ‘zen’, or some other existential strategy that allows us to find peace in a complex and conflicted world. Key to all this happiness is the remembering that we are the centre of our own worlds, that we are protected by an innate privacy that is paramount, surprising as that may seem.
I assume that in some countries, such as China, personal privacy may be an ideologically unsound idea. It may be assumed that being in society entails responsibilities to a whole (that is more than the sum of individuals comprising any collective). But conversely, it also follows that any state has responsibilities to the individuals that comprise it – with all attendant human rights that may or may not be contested (the rights of women, gay rights, indigenous rights, the rights of minorities, and so on); even animal rights and ecological rights are a necessary consideration. Privacy need not be an exclusionary condition; that is a radical contention in this essay. When privacy is recognised to be existential, rather than a choice (bourgeois, fascist, or some other ‘nasty’ condition), then whole worlds can emerge from darkness. Contrary to much established social theory, being social is not the end of being in the world. Our class position and exploitation by states, corporations and others in pursuit of material benefits do not exhaust what it means to be in society, and in nature. Nor do we need to support our identities with religion, god, gods, and the promise of better things to come. So what’s left?
Our need for ‘privacy’ has become a cause celebre in Australia, as it has in all countries exposed to the internet (that is, everywhere). As I have argued previously in a posted blog (‘The Demise of Private Self’), this media dominated discovery of ‘privacy’ is more about the theft (and loss) of personal data than being about existential privacy – not that hacking, theft, slack management, or corruption, are excusable in any jurisdiction. All cyberworlds and data bases are fundamentally technological constructs; they should not be confused with the silence at the core of being in the world. In a post-Hubble telescopic world the most profound liberation to be had comes from the realisation that we are individually a speck of consciousness in a very large universe. Any others in that space just do not matter much, even if they may kill us. Or, as Meher Baba once said, ‘be happy, don’t worry’. The post Hubble revelation means, however, that not worrying can follow from our insignificance, not from our importance - to God, or even to life itself (as Brian Cox seems to insist). Emptiness, and nothingness, can be very liberating - and a source of living life to the full (‘we’re a long time dead’, as they say).
In contrast with a commodified and technologically constructed privacy, there is the innate privacy that comes from the inability of others to know exactly what we think and feel individually. It is, of course, the goal of cognitive sciences to reduce thoughts and feelings to observable and measurable brain states, just as it is the goal of surveillance to know and predict all human behaviour, and just as it is the goal of artificial intelligence to simulate organic human being ‘artificially’. The technological horse may have bolted, but the dark (or is it light?) space at the centre of all being (and at the end of time and life) is always accessible in conscious experience – religion, consumerism, economic growth, technological control, personal guilt, and other processes of othering merely need to be bracketed. Not removed, but bracketed, away from the centre of our being in the world. Whatever it takes.