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Reith 2004: The Climate of Fear: Power and Freedom

Updated Thursday 11th March 2004

In his second lecture, Wole examines whether the world is becoming a more dangerous place. The struggle for the future is a struggle between power and freedom.

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On the morning of 11th March 2004, as people travelling to work in Madrid dozed or dreamed or planned the day, three commuter trains were ripped apart by bombs. 11th March was also the day on which Wole Soyinka's second Reith Lecture, Power and Freedom, was recorded. The attack was horrifying proof, if any was needed, of the currency and imperative nature of his lecture series, Climate of Fear.

Soyinka argues that the unknown menace is more terrifying than the threat we can identify, suggesting that the shadowy forces setting themselves up as 'quasi-states' are producing today's climate of fear. These quasi-states are not marked by clear boundaries. Their members may be anywhere: as close as our own shadows; fluid, creeping and seeping. They attack when we are at our most unprepared: living our everyday lives.

In his paper on 'The "Uncanny"' Sigmund Freud addresses the circumstances in which "the familiar can become uncanny and frightening." Using Hoffman's tale 'The Sand-Man' for illustration, he claims that "the feeling of something uncanny is directly attached... to the idea of being robbed of one's eyes." In Hoffman's story a character describes the Sand-Man as "a wicked man who comes when children won't go to bed, and throws handfuls of sand in their eyes so that they jump out of their heads all bleeding." Freud argues that "study of dreams, phantasies and myths has taught us that anxiety about one's eyes, the fear of going blind, is often enough a substitute for the dread of being castrated." We can read castration literally as emasculation, or symbolically as suggesting any loss of power or self-regard. The connection suggested by Freud between loss-of-sight and powerlessness has resonance for Soyinka's comments on shadowy 'quasi-states'. Significantly, an ambulance driver working to rescue victims commented, "I was struck by one thing - the panic in their eyes": eyes that could see the carnage all around, but not the people who caused it. ETA? Al-Qaeda? Both in collaboration? In the immediate aftermath, there was no definitive answer. The lack of an identifiable and locatable source means that dialogue, the rigorous pursuit of which Soyinka believes to be the only solution to what he describes as 'a competitive lust in bestiality', is impossible.

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The powerlessness experienced in the face of the invisible is powerfully suggested by a passage in Soyinka's prose preface to his poem sequence Chimes of Silence (in A Shuttle in the Crypt). Held in solitary confinement, unable to see other human beings, he claims a certain power for himself by stealthily snatching illicit glimpses of the sights that are denied him:

'At first there is a peep-hole on the living. It sneaks into the yard of lunatics, lifers, violent and violated nerves, cripples, tuberculars, victims of power sadism safely hidden from questions. A little square hole cut in the door, enough for a gaoler's fist to pass through and manipulate the bolt from either side. Enough also for me to - casually, oh so casually - steal a quick look at the rare flash of a hand, a face, a gesture; more often a blur of khaki, the square planted rear of the guard on the other side.'

Fragmentary as this vision is, it gives an identity to the enemy; and what can be 'known' can be fought. And it is knowledge of the enemy, Soyinka argues, that is denied us by the quasi-state.

The recording of this second lecture took place at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London, before an audience that included many SOAS students and academics, some of whom come from parts of the world where struggles to maintain power have resulted in extremes of cruelty and the spread of fear. However, Soyinka was not only concerned with a desire for power motivated by political hatred and ambition. The will to dominate is not always attached to or driven by a cause. He spoke of the "silent thrill of power" that is experienced by the school bully or the child tormenting an insect, and received enthusiastic laughter from his audience in response to his references to the power-relishing personality of the tax collector!

Wole Soyinka Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

That same day the London Evening Standard contained an article about workers in the capital that was, distressingly, equally relevant to Soyinka's themes. Matheus Sanchez, a journalist, was writing about his undercover experiences as a 'runner' in the kitchens of a prestigious restaurant in Soho, revealing '"the unbelievable conditions of penury, bullying and even violence" which most of the kitchen porters and pot-washers endure there: "appalling pay, verbal and physical abuse and a nonchalant view of the law" characterise the employment of the mainly immigrant (and mainly illegal) workers.

Sanchez pretends to be Brazilian and is employed immediately, despite having no work permit or student visa. During his shift he is verbally abused, dares not request a break (even after working for eight hours), and sees a fellow worker ordered not to drink water until told he might do so. While diners laugh in the restaurant above, a senior chef slaps a young Pole "hard across the face" and then screams abuse at him. Another young Pole, "well-educated, polite and responsible" leaves the restaurant "close to tears at the end of his shift." In this case the perpetrators of violence are not invisible to the victims: but this climate of fear 'below stairs' is hidden from the upmarket diners who almost certainly give no thought at all to the shadowy figures involved in the delivery to their tables of expensive, award-winning food.

Sanchez's experiences are an important reminder that a climate of fear is not the sole preserve of totalitarian states. It may exist wherever there is a will to dominate, a lust for the thrill of power itself. It may be imposed upon those who are disempowered through poverty and/or displacement. Self-regard and agency are achieved by the oppressor through defining their Self in opposition to the disenfranchised Other. Soyinka's conclusion is that what the oppressor longs to see - indeed, what thrills him with a sense of his own power - is the expression of fear that he generates in his victim. Next, lecture 3 - Rhetoric that Binds and Blinds.


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