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TEDxWarsaw - Anna Giza - 3/5/10

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Oh, indeed, I can hardly see you, but anyway, at least a few rows. It's quite OK. I am very lucky because I can speak after fantastic people who put the ground under my speech, and the very important messages have already been sent to the audience, like the one about the brotherhood, and the one about staying naive, and not allowing our brain to kill our heart, and all others. But what was very special about the things that we were listening to, is that institutions were not mentioned. We were talking about brotherhood and collaboration, but all the time talking outside institutions. So institutions, if they were mentioned, they were mentioned as the sources of problem. Education that is killing, in a sense, our living experience, or, cultural institutions killing our living experience of culture. So now it's the right moment to put forward the question about the nature of contemporary democracy. Does democracy help us to collaborate, or to cooperate, or supports us in our deeds, or to the contrary? And obviously, this question is very complicated, and I assume that there are at least two tons of volumes that were written about contemporary democracy and how it develops, and about the various kinds of contemporary democracy, like the liberal domocracy, or participatory democracy. I would like then to start our thinking about democracy, from putting the quiestion onto a totally different ground. Because I believe that, in a sense, in our living experience, in our discussions that we have as people, we do not often talk about democracy. Because we were told, and we repeat all the time that maybe democracy is not ideal, but that this is the best thing that has been invented. The question is: shouldn't we try? So, that's why I start with reminding you, the very wise and very old -- from 19th century, the fairy tale, very famous, by Hans Christian Andersen, The Emperor's New Clothes. And just to remind you, in points that would help us to understand what's going on with our democracy nowadays, I will highlight a few things. So the whole story is about the Emperor, who was very, very vain. He didn't care much about his people, or even about his soldiers, he only cared about looking great, so that everybody would look and say how amazingly beautiful was his dress.. And one day, two swindlers came to his city, who pretended to be weavers, and they said that they created, or invented, the very magic, fabulous fabric, that apart from being an untmostly beautiful thing, had a very special virtue, namely: people who were not fitting their post or simply stupid, or simply incompetent, were not able to see it. So the Emperor was indeed intrigued, because apart from the prospect of having the most beautiful dress in the world, made from magic fabric, he thought that it would allow him to distinguish between stupid and not stupid people, based on whether they can see on cannot see his clothes. So immediately, ha gave to these two guys a lot of money, and a lot of golden threads and a lot of silk, and a lot of other things. And they laborously started to work, and I should not even [have to] mention that the loom was totally empty, and in fact, they were cheating all the time. But you know, the trap was that each minister who was sent by the emperor to see how the work proceeds, had no courage to be beckoned to say: "Listen, Emperor, there is no dress and no fabric, and that there are only empty looms," because then he would show to the Emperor, and maybe also to others, that he was stupid, not competent, or not even fitting his post. So the whole thing was continously going ahead, and one day, the Emperor decided to see the dress on his own, on his own eyes, and he entered the room, he looked at the loom, there was nothing there and then he was really threatened, and he said to himself: "Do I not fit my post? Am I not fit to be emperor? I would never admit that." And then they went-- He put his dress on himself, and they went on the beautiful canopy, to show to all people in the city, in the empire, the new beautiful dress, and everybody was so threatened to admit in public that they did not see anything, that the emperor was walking naked, but everybody was saying: "Oh, what a wonderful dress." So until the small boy, who was very naive, and who had no problem with being perceived as stupid or naive, exclaimed: "Listen, the Emperor is naked!" So basically, this is a very wise fairy tale, because it shows that it is very easy to put people into such a situation, that they deny that the testimony of their own eyes. And the paradox of the situation when everybody sees something, and believes something, and know something, but because they are made feeling incompetent and stupid, they stay silent, and they never find out that others also see the very same thing. So based on this fairy tale, let me ask the question: is democracy naked? And are we all in the position of the people who were constantly told, there was nothing better and nothing better could be invented, so we stay silent and we do not discuss something that is designed for us, because brotherhood and people are at least-- or brotherhood is at least one-third of democracy, apart from liberty and equality, obviously. So is democracy naked? And do we have indeed in many democracies of the contemporary world the phenomenon that is called in social psychology, "collective ignorance?" And this is exactly what Andersen showed in his beautiful fairy tale. Because collective ignorance is this specific situation when everybody knows something, but everybody believes that they are alone, and that everybody else sees something different, and because they do not communicate and they do not have courage to admit it in public, the official, so to say, version is valid. So is democracy naked, and do we have the situation of collective ignorance under democracy? I believe [that], to large extent, this is the case, and let me tell you why I believe so. So, basically I think that the biggest threat to democracy is the growing gap between our real experience and abstraction or generalization, and let me explain to you what I have in mind. Namely, in our real experience, for example: we know our job, our factory, our neighbours, our policemen, and our doctors, we do not know, for example, health service or health care system, because health care system is only an abstraction from the... big number of doctors, nurses, hospitals that are spread over the country, so we cannot know abstraction from our experience, but only a bit of it, so one doctor and maybe one nurse, or maybe three doctors. In our real experience we live in a certain community, but we don't live in society, because society is of course an invention of sociology from 19th century, and society is of course the abstract name for these numerous communities and societies that live on their territories and just live their lives. And the same concernes democracy, because basically nobody has ever seen democracy. Democracy does not exist in the same sense the table exists, or this thing I have in my hand exists. Democracy is also an abstract concept and an abstract notion. From our real experience we can tell for example whether we really feel we have voice, whether we can influence our local authority to do this, or to do that. So only now, what I would like to stress is that the danger is, that we have a lot of people -- nowadays, in Poland, it's close to a 39 million people -- who have their real experience, who know something, feel something, sence something, and understand a lot of things, and on the other hand, we have abstractions that put this experience on the very high level. So the question is-- Because those notions, those abstractions are very vivid, and if we listen to media discourse, we will hear a lot of those abstractions becoming real in the public discourse. So the question is, if we only have small, dispersed, real experiences, and we live in the world that is told, or is given, certain names and certain interpretations, for example, we live in a small community, in a local administrative unit, and state is again the abstraction from this, who fills in the gap? Because there is a gap and it will maybe, as I will try to show you in a second, that we end up in collective ignorance, if the abstraction is far from real experience. So who fills in the gap? How can we know in a 39-million society of Poland how is our state? Or how is our democracy? Or whether our healthcare system is OK or not. There are a lot of symbolic industries, obviously, and the most important ones are obviously mass media. Because mass media in these dispersed, huge populations, like we live in nowadays, are the only source of having knowledge about us as the, not only collection of individuals, but a kind of a society, let us say. So these are mass media who show mirror to us, and who say: "Hey, Polish society is 'this', or 'that,'" or "Polish society not really developeding pretty well," or, "Our democracy is weak." And you see, the point is that, obviously, this is something that we cannot check with our own experience, because we can always believe that, "my doctor is fantastic, but health care system is totally wrong and corrupted, I am just lucky." But if 39 million people believe they are lucky because their doctor is fine, but the health care system is totally corrupted, there is something wrong about that. So, mass media. And we all know very well that mass media are a huge industry, a very competitive industry, and they have to fight for public and for audience, because obviously it helps them to charge more for advertisements. And the philosophy of mass media is very simple, and we all know that, because mass media do not really hide it from us. They believe, and they repeat it constantly, that we, people, are very stupid, and we are vear fierce, so to say, because what we want in mass media is: blood, quarrel, conflict, war. And a lot of journalists, really, in public, declare that if they would communicate something that is reasonable, good-hearted, naive, they would be fired immediately, and the audience would leave this very specific mass media, or the TV station or something. So media, because of that, because they are competitive, because they believe in a certain image of society, they give us the mirror that is very, very much untrue, to be very delicate about it. You know, my mother who has problems with her legs and she cannot leave her home very often so she listens a lot to the radio and watches TV. She's more and more depressed, and she says sometimes: "Ania, I am very lucky that I cannot move out, because the world nowadays is totally not acceptable." Then we have social sciences. Social sciences that, of course, are also another industry. This is, scientific industry. And one of the key concerns of the scientific industry is to keep and build the distance between normal public, collective wisdom, and themselves. And this concernes social sciences in the very first place, and I remember, and this is still the case, that during the very first course, one of the first discussions that is always called, is the difference between scientific knowledge and common knowledge, yes? So this is key. So social sciences, they try to [stay] neutral and to build a kind of their own system that is not really very comprehensive from people, from outside, and often when I try to explain to somebody who is just an intelligent person, but not a social scientist, I have difficulties and it always ends up that when I finally manage to explain what I have in mind, the person says: "Yes. So what?" Yes? Okay. Then, we have experts, and of course experts, in their best interest is to be wiser than everybody else, so they are another industry, so to say, another kind of industry to keep us humble and to say: "Listen guy, maybe you are a quite intelligent person, but what can you know? You do not know statistics, you do not know economy. Have you made any econometric models? No? So stop discussing with me this labour market issue, because you are not competent enough." And of course only specific experts are widely shown in media, because they need to be also, how they say it in Poland at least, they need to have special media competence, so it has to be an expert that presents properly in media. And of course we have the opinion-makers, so a huge survey industry that is also not about getting wisdom out of us, but about producing news, and they ask stupid questions like, for example: "Which hand do you scratch your nose usually with?" And then they suit sensation and news: "Listen, 60 percent of Poles scratch their noses with their left hands. What can it mean?" Psychologist are talking, sociologists are talking, and so on. And obviously we have marketers. Marketers whose main job is to persuade us to the non-existent fabric. Yes? To persuade us that we have some problems. For example, when I was young, nobody was aware of cellulite. I was a very lucky girl. (laughter, applause) And my generation, we have saved a lot of money, because there was no cellulite to fight against. So basically, what I want to say is, that those symbolic industries that produce images of the collective nature, and show them to us, so build our self-consciousness as a society, are not really working in our best interest. And not because they are bad people, but because they are in a certain type of industry and competitive challenge and all other things. So the question is, can we revive democracy? Because democracy basically is about us deciding and influencing. And we are living in the situation where we feel so humble and incompetent that we stop talking even. So the challenge is very simple, also not that easy to-- Yea? This is really the last one. So the first thing is that we need to find the way to put together our real experience and to speak out our own voice, instead of listening to what is told to us. So we need devices, we need spaces, and we need courage, and we need this naivety to say: "Listen, I see him naked. How about you?" So this is one challenge. Another challenge is, to force symbolic industries to talk in such a way that they take responsibility for it, and they stay true to our real experiences, so the kind of social control. And I think that key to all those things is social responsibility of social sciences. Because natural sciences-- they've recognized their responsibility for quite a time, at least since "Hiroshima," and now it's developing into medicine and biology and all other sciences. I believe that still social sciences were not able to admit their responsibility for what's happening to us. So it seems very natural that they should serve us and they should help us to understand ourselves better instead of understanding us even worse. And this would be my biggest dream. That social sciences start to talk in such a way that they communicate with people, but also that they encourage people to participate in the production of social knowledge. Thank you. (applause) (Ralph Talmont:) We're not going to let you run away just yet. The question of individual responsibility comes up, which is really fundamental to anything that you've spoken about being successful. And individual responsibility is something that is not very easily communicated at school. And it is not something that we've necessarily grown up with. Do you see social sciences actually working in some way, as, you know, the beacons of individual responsibily, which would be, you know, the basis of anything like what you've been talking about? (Anna Giza:) I believe that this is one of the key obligations of social sciences, so to say. I believe that they should help us to understand the situation we live in. So, to understand among other things, our responsibility. Because indeed, the responsibility and the competence was taken out from us by social sciences. By the way, we were told we are not able to manage our marriage, you see, you need an advisor. We are not able to manage our children. We need psychologists or sociologists or someting. So basically, this is very important that social sciences give responsibility back to people. But in order to do that, they need to really help people to understand the situation they live in. So, I'm not talking about a revolution, I'm not even talking about sociology, you know, taking people to parliament, or something. I think about social sciences being more humble and more responsible for the social consequences of what they are doing, and I wonder whether sociologists ask themselves enough the question, what is the effect of widely-- of wide publication of their scientific findings, that, for example, Poles do not trust one-nother. This is one of the things that entered into our collective consciousness. And it's killing us, because if we-- first of all I believe this is not true, and secondly, if really we are persuaded that, then we've stopped trusting one-another. And I think, this is something that needs to be considered. (RT:) And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (AG:) Yes. Absolutely. (RT:) Thank you very much. (AG:) Thank you. (applause)

Video Details

Duration: 22 minutes and 50 seconds
Country: Poland
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDxWarsaw
Director: TEDxWarsaw
Views: 281
Posted by: tedxwarsaw on Mar 15, 2010

Anna Giza is a sociologist, philosopher and social commentator. Vice Dean for Reasearch of the Faculty of Sociology and Philosophy at The University of Warsaw.

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