The subject, the crowd and critical thinking

« Political affiliation, national belonging and first loyalties must never take precedence over the criteria of truth attached to misfortune and oppression. Nothing disfigures the public image of the intellectual more than the wavering, the cautious silence, the patriotic din and the theatrical denial » (Edward Said, Intellectuals and power, p.12)

« The argument that certain truths should not be told because it would ‘play into the hands’ of some sinister force is dishonest, in that people only use it when it suits them personally (…) Underlying this argument is usually the desire to propagandize for some partisan interest, and to muzzle critics by accusing them of being ‘objectively’ reactionary. (Simon Leys, Orwell or the horror of politics)(1)

What about the rallies that took place in Western countries following the Charlie-Hebdo massacre? Are they the sign of a resurgence of solidarity and fraternity or, very paradoxically, the expression of an individualism fundamentally anchored in society and in our lives? To opt, in a critical analysis, for the second solution, at first sight very contradictory — to think only of one’s own well-being while gathering for a seemingly free purpose — will certainly generate in some readers a strange feeling that the author of this article has taken certain substances which, under the effect of a kind of intellectually inhibiting euphoria, would prevent him from exercising his reason. Indeed, how can we not see in such a gathering (millions of people in the street!), the sign of a return of the collective? How can we not detect in the aggregation of individuals around the same apparent cause the obvious sign of the beginning of something else?

At the risk of displeasing, we do not see this as a sign of a break with the dominant order. If this were the case, if this mass were really the equivalent of a community moved by humanistic principles, we would be facing a historical revolutionary period, which we are waiting for. On the contrary, this mass movement has everything of the phenomena of « pooling » that preserve this deep characteristic of the system that generated them: individualism. How can we think that a single event would overturn decades of atrophied thinking? While we are persuaded of the benefits of competition, of the free and undistorted market, of elitism and « who wants can », of the prevalence of having over being, how could we suddenly recover the part of humanity that has escaped in the meanders of a society devoted to « always more »?(2)

Do the rallies have any other purpose than to gather? How can we believe, even if we would like to, that they are a reflection of individual autonomy(3) rather than a manifestation of our anchorage in an individualistic culture that makes it difficult to empathize and put ourselves in the place of the other? Basically, the choice of the gathering gives the answer to the question, because the act is in itself the symptom of a society accustomed to the spectacle, whether it be that of the or official commemorations — Lady Di or Michael Jackson — of a society more accustomed to « live » ceremonies than to the small and intimate circle from which cameras are absent. The search for this unanimous crowd thus symbolizes what the individual has become in our societies: a being who has never been so little autonomous. And the crowd is a response to this state. As Freud said in his essay Crowd psychology and ego analysis, » the fruitful affective links that we recognize in the crowd are fully sufficient to explain one of its characteristics, the lack of autonomy and initiative in the individual taken in isolation, the identity of his reaction and that of all the others, so to speak, his reduction to the rank of a crowd individual « .(4). The erasure of the conflict in a media-edited unity marks this  » identity of the reaction « : all, whoever they are, dominated, dominant, poor, rich, exploiters or exploited, Jews, Arabs, Whites, Blacks, …, all must be identical, « Charlie », their very presence and the strength of numbers silencing the deep conflicts that run through this society. And the conjunction of death and the emotional reactions that it provokes in general, with the inevitable identification with the victims — « it could have been me — in the sense that the death of another is always a little of our own to come -, with the media-political summons to unite, bring about this curious resemblance that we find in the hagiographic accounts of funerals, where all the departed beings are haloed by this aura of perfection; with the difference that in this case this hagiography goes beyond the only persons that the death has touched to spread in the field of the politically expressible opinions. This kind of event is therefore a godsend for the neo-liberal discourse and those who spread it, because just as the dithyrambic words offered to the deceased refuse any erasure in the narrative, so it excludes in principle any dissent.

It is difficult to be overwhelmed by emotion, to walk with the masters of the world in mind and at the same time to express the historical responsibilities of the West. We mix the emotion we feel with our view of Western politics, we do not detach ourselves from the victims, with the corollary that we can only see them as a‑historical martyrs of freedom of expression, not as individuals whose tipping into the rank of victims exceeds their very person. From then on, those who break the tacitly imposed pact (by the media, by all those who accept it and propagate the right thought, but also by all those who say that something is wrong but who remain silent while waiting for someone to stand up and denounce the deception.… therefore, who most often give the impression to others that they adhere to the doxa) are as soon as possible relegated to the rank of amoral, social criticism and intellectual activity being assimilated, by a formidable approximation, to the absence of moral sense.

Emotion and reason are therefore not good friends. And the crowd, in this sense, exalts the first, extinguishing the second. Freud goes on to emphasize the surplus of affectivity that replaces the capacity to think and prevents one from waiting:  » but the crowd, when we consider it as a whole, shows much more; the signs of weakening of the intellectual performance and of disinhibition of the affectivity, the incapacity to moderate and to temporize, the tendency to exceed all limits in the expression of the feelings and to their total discharge in the action « . In this sense, the gathering is less the sign of a sudden « awakening » than the proof of a continuing sleepiness; less the symbol of a balance than the deep manifestation of a malaise. Some may say that it is not possible to procrastinate after such an act. I would answer two things: first, that this haste determined the political responses to come, the most important ones having been decided in the following hours and days (the vigipirate plan in particular), it was thus signing a blank check to the government; second, that it is strange that this temporization is not possible for some acts (Charlie-Hebdo) but for others (Gaza or Boko-Haram).


And television, which has made laughter and tears instruments of its power, invoked to facilitate the sale of products touted in advertisements, has marvelously « recuperated » (can we speak of « recuperation » and not rather of « creation » since it is these media that by definition mediate the event in the direction they choose) the collective emotion, to the detriment of attempts to understand, which are less good salesmen(5). And it is also this habit of being « alone together » — the TV reunites the separated, as Guy Debord rightly said — who initiated the will to get out of passivity and to be in the image; the separated crowd that used to watch the events passively (each individual in front of his screen) is now reunited(6)… to better find in the evening in front of her screen the reading of the reality in which she took part the time of an afternoon:  » With more than 5 million viewers watching the news magazine [Envoyé Spécial] this Thursday evening [January 8, the day after the attack], France 2 tops the ratings. This is the magazine’s best score since the beginning of its season (…) For comparison, the last issue of the magazine, which aired on December 18, 2014, had 3.6 million viewers and 14.4% of the public. The program came in second place behind the TF1 drama Léo Matteï, Brigade des mineurs with 3.9 million viewers. « , (…)  » This Thursday evening, Envoyé spécial brought together 5.1 million viewers, or 20.7% of the public according to Médiamétrie, allowing France 2 to top the ratings. The show, presented by Guilaine Chenu and Françoise Joly, thus surpasses the French TF1 series No Limit(Sic), with 4.2 million viewers and a 16.9% audience share, » read a number of sites that are fond of ratings and market share, which do not bother to know whether comparing the audience figures for a program about the deaths of Charlie-Hebdo and the series NoLimit (aptly named in this case… irony!) is not indecent. Besides the fact that the subjects of these series are strangely similar to reality (or that reality is strangely similar to these series…), it is distressing to note this ranking in terms of audience which is not encumbered by any moral consideration.

Moreover, beyond the diversity of opinions that cross the crowd, what implicit messages can this movement give (for who will mediatize the event afterwards, who will choose to give such and such a title to the cover of the next day’s newspaper? Who will choose to focus on one testimony over another? Who will choose the survey questions?(7)) ? The good father who invites his children to the Sunday gathering, sure of himself and of his country’s values, tacitly sets up at the same time the Western way of life as a panacea. The crowd gives an image, recuperated by the media industry, whether we like it or not, which shows reality and institutes the group that is considered to carry the supreme values of freedom and equality, in comparison with an opposite Other:  » the only evidence of « reality » that is important with respect to group characteristics is evidence of« social reality. The characteristics of one’s own group (its status, its wealth or poverty, its skin color, its ability to achieve its goals) acquire meaning only in connection with the perceived differences with other groups and with their evaluative differences (…) The definition of a group (national, racial, or any other) has meaning only in relation to other groups « (8)(Tajfel 1972, 295). Unanimity thus obscures the conflicts that run through our societies, which, as we have said, suits the political and media power brokers. The father walking in the crowd says to his children, without saying anything: we have been attacked, our values have been sullied and risk being lost if we are not careful. However, by doing so, he sweeps away in one fell swoop the history of Western countries and the domination (with all its miseries) that allowed the Western way of life to be achieved, he does not explain where  » hatred of the West « , by brandishing the shield, it blinds and this is only an effect of the arrogance and the Western denial:  » the memory of the West is dominant, impervious to doubt. That of the peoples of the South, a wounded memory. And the West is unaware of the depth and gravity of these wounds « (9); but it also erases the current reality of profoundly and doubly unequal Western countries: within themselves and between them and non-Western countries. In fact, it eludes the operating structures that have allowed and allow the perpetuation of deep and shameless inequality, in which the mass media have a massive responsibility. The synthetic formula « freedom of expression has been attacked » is a convenient screen for both the power in place and the individual. It institutes demobilizing illusions.

It is ironic that the Boko-Haram massacre, which killed more than two thousand people in Nigeria under the control of the oil multinationals, was so little covered by the Western mass media, bastions of « freedom of expression. It is because the country is, in one way or another, the one that allows our cars to run and our planes to fly, a productive agriculture to survive, goods to circulate. Nigeria is one of the guarantors of our Western way of life, « non-negotiable »… It is therefore easier for the mass media to throw themselves into the hunt for the alleged sponsors of the Charlie-Hebdo attack and to justify the police and military deployment than to explain to us the history of the plundering of Nigeria, whose historical involvement in the unfolding disaster cannot be denied. Because to do the autopsy of all this, is to come back to « us », and thus, inevitably to join facts that everything seemed to separate, to see that the hatred drank from the same sources. There is perhaps less difference between the Kouachi brothers and the bloodthirsty Boko-Haram than one might think.

It was also in Paris, on January 12, 1970, at the Crillon Hotel, Place de la Concorde, that the  » After a war from which they benefited and which caused more than two million deaths, the lords of Elf and those of the competing Dutch and Anglo-Saxon companies signed the agreement on the sharing of the Nigerian oil and gas spoils. Coincidence?  » Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa and the eighth largest in the world. is now the helpless prey of Shell, BP, Total, Exxon, Texaco and other predators. And 70% of its population survives in abysmal poverty. It is on this reality, of course, that the hatred of the West thrives « (10). Is it not, more or less, on the same type of realities, certainly fundamentally different but where inequalities and despair are masters, that the hatred of Amedy Coulibaly and the Kouachi brothers has germinated? Banished from a decent society, while being equally attracted by the sirens of  » everything, right away « (11), the chance of encounters(12) determining for a moment the point of inflexion of their course; they tipped over.

The question that probably disturbs the most, and which will most certainly cause us to be labelled by some with the now commonplace term « terrorist(13)If, by chance of birth, I could not have « been Charlie » but one of the individuals who died that day (the janitor, Charb, Cabu…), could I not also have been one of the Kouachi brothers, if I had had the same existence? To admit that birth determines to a great extent the existence, it is not to say that one cannot overcome one’s condition, but it is to state that our capacities of overcoming become extremely limited beyond a certain threshold of exclusion. To understand the sources of inequality, is it not necessary to understand the one who suffers it the most? Not to excuse him for what he did, which would mean that we overdetermine the importance of birth and exclude any « course » inflection and the possibility of acting on oneself, but to understand him? This is what George Orwell did when, as a war correspondent at the end of the Second World War, he came across an SS executioner accused of abominable crimes: « … Apart from the ragged, malnourished, unshaven appearance that generally characterizes all newly captured individuals, this one was an off-putting specimen, but he did not look brutal, nor in any way frightening: neurotic at most, and even intellectual, at some lower level. His pale eyes, with a shifty look, were distorted by thick glasses (…) Thus the Nazi executioner of our imagination, the monstrous character against whom we had fought all these last years, was now reduced to this pathetic wreck whose most obvious need was not to receive his punishment, but some psychological treatment « (14).

But the question remains abominable in a capitalist society, and the attempt to explain it is ignominious. For what do liberal theories tell us? That man makes himself, is master of his choices and free to do what he wants; that the most disadvantaged can « succeed », that social mobility is always possible. That even if the rights are imperfect, « there is always the possibility of… » But what they don’t tell us is how many remain on the sidelines: how many frustrated for a few « elected » (frustrated too, but that we won’t discuss here), how much misery, delinquency, that other living conditions would have avoided; how many humiliations to get so little…

As soon as we say to ourselves that the Other could have been me(15), whatever this other is, we open the way to understanding the world and what makes us. What « being Charlie » deprives us of.

Notes et références
  1. L’essai a été réédité en 2006 aux éditions Plon et publié une première fois en 1984, p.101.
  2. Il serait trop long de décrire tout ce que cette société met en oeuvre pour nous réduire au seul rang de consommateurs.
  3. Autonomie qui, doit-on le préciser, n’a rien à voir avec l’indépendance tant valorisée par nos sociétés capitalistes.
  4. Freud, « Essais de psychanalyse », p.182, c’est moi qui souligne.
  5. N’oublions toutefois pas que même si le nombre de manifestants à Paris est important, les absents, ceux qui ont décidé de ne pas y aller, l’est d’autant plus.
  6. « Ni rire, ni pleurer, mais comprendre », disait Spinoza.
  7. Voir Le Soir, De tijd, etc.
  8. Henri Tajfel, « La catégorisation sociale », dans Moscovici, S. (sous la direction de), Introduction à la psychologie sociale, Vol. 1, Paris, Librairie Larousse, 1972. 
  9. Jean Ziegler, « La haine de l’Occident », Éditions Albin Michel, 2008, p.14.
  10. Jean Ziegler, ibid.,p.17.
  11. Voir à ce sujet l’ouvrage de Morgan Sportès, dans lequel il décrit l’enlèvement et la séquestration d’un jeune français par ceux que les médias dénommèrent facilement « le gang des barbares ». La souffrance et le désœuvrement de jeunes de banlieue d’origine immigrée, manipulés aussi par un psychopathe, offrent des éléments aidant à l’analyse de l’affaire « Charlie ». Morgan Sportès, Tout tout de suite, Éditions Fayard, 2011.
  12. Notamment de prédicateurs musulmans extrémistes sévissant dans les banlieues où le terreau pour faire germer leurs idées est des plus fertiles.
  13. Lors de la diffusion de l’article sur internet « Nous ne sommes pas tous Charlie » (pages 10–11), un journaliste a traité l’auteur, notamment, de « terroriste des consciences ». Voir la brève page 22.
  14. Georges Orwell, « Revenge is sour », cité dans Leys, pp. 64–65.
  15. Tzvetan Todorov introduit ainsi son ouvrage La conquête de l’Amérique, la question de l’Autre : « Je veux parler de la découverte que le Je fait de l’autre. Le sujet est immense. A peine l’a‑t-on formulé dans sa généralité qu’on le voit se subdiviser selon des catégories et dans des directions multiples, infinies. On peut découvrir les autres en soi, se rendre compte de ce qu’on n’est pas une substance homogène, et radicalement étrangère à tout ce qui n’est pas soi : je est un autre. Mais les autres sont des je aussi : des sujets comme moi, que seul mon point de vue, pour lequel tous sont là-bas et je suis seul ici, sépare et distingue vraiment de moi. Je peux concevoir ces autres comme une abstraction, comme une instance de la configuration psychique de tout individu, comme l’Autre, l’autre ou autrui par rapport au moi ; ou bien comme un groupe social concret auquel nous n’appartenons pas ». Tzvetan Todorov, « La conquête de l’Amérique, La question de l’autre », Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 1982, p.11.
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