Monday 18 August 2014

Fear in #Ferguson, Hysteresis Hysteria and Education

The concept of limit has no better expression than what is happening in Ferguson at the moment. Something seems to have snapped - and the results are frightening. We watch aghast in seeing robotic police officers treating people in ways which only signal their own fear, and the response of protesters reeling at the inhumanity of the robotic response and fearful of where it might lead: who wouldn't be on the streets in standing against such oppression? Curiously, my wife and I encountered our own instance of police roboticism in Manchester at the weekend whilst chatting to a Gaza protester outside a store which was selling Israeli beauty products. During our chat (which ranged from the situation in the Middle East to issues of integrating Romanian immigrants), a burly policeman forcefully tried to move what he called "protesters" elsewhere. We explained we were just having a chat - to no avail: the same kind of stony face, robotic gestures - basically fearfulness. It naturally provoked an angry reaction. My guess is he had been told to move us; if he failed, he would be in trouble. His fear was for his own job: the response to these kind of structural constraints is a kind of anaesthesia and mindless determination to achieve those goals which you believe are essential to maintain your own well-being.  It's probably the same in Ferguson. Fear is structural. The question concerns the composition of the structure.

This is where I think limit really matters. Fear exists at a limit: each person's limit is connected to everyone elses's limit. The individual police officer is subject to the limits of fear of their superior, and on it goes. We fear moving beyond limits because beyond a limit, the world is irrecoverably different: humans have what engineers call 'hysteresis' - where one might stretch a spring to a certain point and it will always return to its original form; but stretch it beyond its limit, it will never return to its original form. The individual police officer could tell their superior to 'get stuffed' - but then their world is irrecoverably changed (although this might be an important moment for them). When things reach a crisis point, people become more ready to move beyond limits. Education's job is to move human beings beyond limits: it is to overcome fear of operating within one set of limits, and to embrace new worlds which result. The business of teaching is partly to induce a kind of mini-crisis which encourages movement.

I think what is happening in Ferguson is the result of educational failure. Education has become rather like Veblen's assessment of the peace treaty at Versaille: a way of continuing (class) hostilities without killing anyone. This creates prisoners, and last week, one prisoner (a police officer) killed another. In the Middle East it is of course much worse - although we find that less surprising because we all know (and shockingly accept) that Gaza is an open prison (it's now looking like Abu Ghraib)

Education is about giving, not taking: it is the principal means whereby society supports its citizens in looking after each other and helping them to grow and to know one another better. Only the limit of fear can stop that happening. Our society might fear that it cannot afford it. It ought to be more worried that it cannot afford not to do it. 

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