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Lao Tzu

Baring Witness

April 5th, 2009

As I write about the use of the body as a vehicle for protest in my next book, I find myself increasingly amazed at the oddity of the male psyche. This quote from the chapter I’ve just written will give you a sense of what I mean, and then the film clip will present an interesting approach to trying to understand why some find war acceptable but nakedness or even semi-nakedness indecent:

Even in New Zealand there are some men who believe that simply the sight of a breast can be damaging. In 2005 a complaint was brought against the New Zealand Broadcasting Authority for a 6pm news item that revealed for six seconds a topless woman protesting against a march in support of ‘family values’ in Auckland. A Mr Watts claimed that the item had breached standards of good taste and decency and was inappropriate and disturbing for children. In rebuttal the TV channel responsible for the news item wrote: ‘It was as if you were telling us that you expect us to show the most awful terrorist atrocities (the attack on the twin towers, blood in the streets of Baghdad), the most awful crimes (school shootings, murder and rape) and introduce children to repellent concepts such as racism and intolerance – but ask us to shy away from the reality of a harmless topless protester taking part in a peaceful demonstration.’ The Broadcasting Authority did not uphold the complaint.

7 Responses to “Baring Witness”

  1. Wonderful film – the photos of the naked women stretched out in peace signs etc. I found really moving.

    I can’t speak for men but as a women I don’t find the ‘warrior prince’ role that the film talks about attractive at all. I might be assuming too much here, and I might only be talking about myself, but I think women long for both reverence and desire, strength and tenderness from men. These qualities don’t seem to be at odds to me.

    During my teens I was involved in quite a violent and abusive relationship. I was very young and the man older than myself. What I learnt was that there is an extraordinary wound in some men, a terrible fear of the vulnerability that any kind of emotional surrender can bring. It reminds them perhaps of death and their own transience and powerlessness in the face of life; we can all convince ourselves that we are in control but love and desire can blow that illusory sense of control completely apart. To feel vulnerable and open with another human being in true intimacy and trust is an amazing thing, but to be vulnerable also means you are open to hurt too – it can be a scary place. I came to believe that the man I was involved with would hurt and humiliate me because it made him feel safe and invulnerable, a brief moment of feeling in control. He was a very afraid and damaged man. Not all men will go to such extremes but I think that that fear and need for control is perhaps something that many men share. Again, I apologise if this is assuming too much.

    Seeing those women naked and vulnerable in response to acts of war, articulates so beautifully the healing power of intimacy, that in being willing to share our vulnerability, in being truly naked with each other we release the fear, we don’t need the defences anymore; we truly see each other, no acts of bravado needed.

    War is a terrible distortion of a man’s protective instincts, a twisting of his passion. I believe that the strength and passion of a man – his vulnerability and tenderness too – can be used to create relationship and connection, not division and pain, and I would like to think that women can in some way help men to find that healing in themselves. It serves none of us for either men or women to be perpetuating roles that damage us and deny our true potential.

    I share your puzzlement and frustration Philip, that responses to the naked human body often seem so unhealthy.

  2. PS. Really like your new photo on the front page of your website! Is that the ‘Seven Sisters’?

  3. Beautiful video. Thank you for posting it, Philip. I’d say more but frankly cannot think of anything to add that you, the video, and Maria in her comments have not already said.

  4. Thanks Pom! Yes Maria it’s the Seven Sisters viewed from the beach at Birling Gap – a wonderful wild spot that you have to climb down a wooden staircase to get to.
    As regards the video your comments are really illuminating, and I think their point (in the video) is that we need to offer men a different model than the ‘warrior-prince’. It’s as if the cultural stereotypes are hopelessly out of date – as if we’re still in the Middle Ages where strong men with very large swords are needed to fight off the other strong men who might hurt the women,etc! Now the strength needs to be internalised so that men have inner emotional strength and integrity.
    And I think authentic inner strength can only come hand in hand with its partner – the willingness to be aware of one’s vulnerability, to ‘own’ (as the psychobabble says) that too.
    What makes the images of naked women protesting for peace moving is the very paradoxical nature of the pictures: in revealing their vulnerability they become strong. I think that’s the appeal of the Spencer Tunick photos too (he does those mass nude shoots). His images remind us of nature in its beauty, a oneness with the environment, the freedom of nakedness, but they also remind us of great shoals of fish dead on the shore, or – worse – of victims of some awful atrocity since they often depict hundreds of people just lying motionless in swathes. It’s the power of ambivalence, of paradox.

  5. Well, if the appearance of a breast is enough to point to the potential of tearing down the whole lie that the Matrix is, – seen from the point of view of the Matrix, – the sight certainly isn´t harmless! Now just think the vast power that we all have to invoke “the naked truth”!…

  6. Absolutely! I think it is also about men having a greater understanding of the feminine, or maybe its more about widening the perception of what the feminine is – both in the women that they encounter and in wider society and themselves. It really bothers me that the majority of the women that I know have at some point in their lives suffered from male violence or abuse, be it sexual, physical or psychological. I think the wider statistics are depressingly grim in this regard. Women share their experiences, they talk about them and this helps enormously with working through them and finding a sense of emotional strength through shared experience. I don’t think that men do this enough with each other – most men that I have asked say that they tend to only share the emotional stuff with another women -it’s almost as if men’s emotional selves are taboo or unacceptable – it’s little wonder that men can fall victim to a limiting stereotype and the pressure must be immense to conform to those narrow expectations. It really saddens me and the impact is felt in both women and men’s (and children’s) lives. It’s a cycle that needs breaking. We really do need new ways to be with ourselves and with each other.

  7. good to bump into you at the Wild Heart Gathering.

    Simply being naked has proved to be a powerful and simple way to deliver a message. In the UK Bare Witness were half the front page of the Guardian and page 3 of the Financial Times amongs many others with this photo in 2003:

    Likewise this simple photo against GM Crops resulted in press coverage around the world

    While this one in Parliament Square (in the days before SOCPA) inserted GM into the media debate about why there was resistance to Bush’s visit:

    By including the words of the message in the photo it is much harder for the media to miss the purpose of the event.

    This one I was involved in setting up was with PETA who have regularly used nakedness or partial nudity in their protests:

    As bears are still used to make these soldiers caps there will be another one coming up on 7th June 2009. Contact me if you want to participate:

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