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Bare

Couple of months ago I marked in my calendar for 15th of March: "Riisuttuna / Oulu". I only knew that it is going to be a dance piece, with my younger brother on stage. "Riisuttuna" means "naked" or "bare". The choreocraphy is by Satu Tuomisto. And that the city of Oulu is located in Northern Finland, so it will take some time and money to travel there and back. Anyway, I decided that I'm going to see that piece, so I reserved the date and saved some money for the trip.

At some point in February an evening paper made a headline about the dance piece - apparently many people were upset and angry. As, they were going to dance with no clothes on; all naked and bare. To me it seemed that some people were hysterical, as if they felt like "nudity = sex = sin", and therefore they wanted to condemn the whole performance, without ever trying to find out what is actually is about. And that is what people do so often - they misinterpret something based on their own emotions, then they refuse to check their interpretation, and they go angry. In Northern Finland traditional Christianity is far more stronger than in the major cities of the liberal south. Later on it turned out that they had planned one special show where all of the audience is going to be naked as well. And that was the 15th of March show. Oh well, let's go then.

Friday evening late, when I was preparing for my trip, I got SMS from my younger brother. He said that they had been contacted by that evening paper, as they wanted to iterview a handfull of people after watching the piece. I accepted. Saturday morning I took a train to Oulu. Once again I retired to the dining car to read "The Righteous Mind" by Jonathan Haidt. The book is extremely interesting, and raised so many questions, ideas and thoughts that it would take several blog entries to spell them out. Haidt cleverly describes how communities share moral values and insights, and how social pressure is used to reinforce the moral behavior of group members. This might sound like a self-evident idea, but I have always felt that is exactly this sturcture which could use some cultural evolution. Like, the Oulu case is a clear example; there are many people who feel that dancing is sinful, and to be naked in the public is even more sinful, and that combination of these two is a serious sin. So they go to condemn the piece of art, with no need to think further. Well, is it then better if we go to more liberal direction, where morals is only restricted to things which cause harm to others? Maybe so, but I'd still like to re-think the whole idea of morals. As, I understand we need some social moral rules, and punishments and rewards. But to me that is just a limited and special layer of what there is to ethics. We also need a layer where people show benevolence and good will just because they honestly feel like that. Or, to rephrase; the main question is not: "does a deed X violate a social norm?" but instead "how does deed X relate to the people involved?" Something along the lines of Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Buber. I mean, rules and norms are OK, but they are cold and nonpersonal; they are like the shiny accessories Jon bought for his car. So, what is fundamental is to listen to the others, to respect them as persons, to pay attention to their inner emotions and thoughts.

When I was thinking about that, I sat in the dining car, all by myself in a table with four seats. There were other people in the dining car, and everybody was equally sitting alone at their tables. A small family came in, and they chose an empty table. A lone man came in, and he went to yet another empty table. In Finland we have this strong habit of respecting the privacy of others - the social norm is "don't disturb others, don't talk with strangers, as everybody wants to be left alone". Now, with my reference to Levinas and Buber I'm not to say that we should abandon this norm and go sit next to strangers, looking deeply in their eyes and asking: "now tell me everything about your inner feelings, as I think that ethics is about caring and wanting to meet the other person as a person and not as an object." - No, that would just go to antoher extreme, creating a new rule like "always talk to strangers and ask about their inner feelings, no matter how you feel or how they feel about it." And that is exactly what I don't mean. But more like "Maybe there is not a ready-made strong norm here. If you feel like chatting and talking with someone, take a look around and see if someone else seems talkative. Ask politely, and if they prefer to be left alone, then respect that." Once again, plain ordinary simple things. But still, the magic is hidden in this. It is a whole different attitude compared to the condemning reaction and moral panic about people dancing naked. As, to me it seems that all of that panic is solely based on prejudices - instead of paying attention and trying to understand that spesific piece of art, people just go with their ready-made moral rules.

With these thoughts I arrived at Oulu. Before the show I met the evening paper reporter. It turned out that I was the only person they managed to contact. She took some photos, and we agreed to make a telephone interview after the show. She softly placed her hand on my shoulder and said "Thank you!". There were quite many people coming to see the piece, and I went with the crowd. There were people of all ages, and apparently also from all fields of society. Artists and cultural persons, workers, students, elders - judging by their habitus. But when we entered the theatre hall and took our clothes off, it felt like unwearing the social roles. And there we sat, about 160 people. The chairs were arranged on all four sides around the stage, so from my row I could see the three other sides - and they saw our row. It was effectively blurring the distinction between the stage and audience; it felt that we are all here together, not just watching something outside us, but taking part and getting immersed into the piece. And soon the show started. I feel that at the moment I'm not able to translate it to words, so I just say that it had about everything; it dealt with our prejudices, feelings of shame and sexuality, and went into dreamlike visions, found joy and rock, played with magic, and settled with warmth and acceptance. Sure, I was left with a feeling of being accepted; without any clothes on, without a need to prove myself, it was just enough to be there and to feel accepted. Compared to this feeling it was funny to think about people condemning the show just because they have prejudices. Maybe they want to condemn the feeling of being accepted, as true morality is always based on fear of being rejected?

After the show we had sauna with my brother and some of the theatre staff. And went to eat and drink in a bar, where the female dancers joined us. It was a nice good chat about the process of making the piece, and how they felt it. Also, this discussion alone would be worth of several blog entries, so I choose just one theme; to take off clothes is a strong symbol of dropping social roles, hierarchies and statuses. And maybe even dropping emotional defenses. But it is not all that simple, as there is also a question of if, how and to what extent does the naked body turn into yet another costume; a new role to be performed. (Or, at the worst; a mere object in the eyes of the audience. I guess advertisements are full of that kind of objectifying images of human body.) So, my brother and his fellow dancers felt that during that one hour piece they had a great opportunity to go through their own feelings. And as an member of audience I felt that there were different layers to this; at times it felt that the dancers were more at home in their naked bodies, and there were brief moments when they were slightly struggling with a feeling of their bodies becoming objects or costumes.

On Sunday I was travelling back home, slowly thinking about everything. Like, when my brother asked for my permission to give an interview for the evening paper, I thought of it as a small formal thing - the reporter is going to ask one or two superficial questions, and I give one or two equally superficial answers. As that is what they want, and the reporter plays his or her role as a reporter, and I play my role - if everbody goes by the script, things run smoothly and there is no fuss. But when I met the reporter I forgot everything about the script and social expectations, as I felt that she was genuinely interested in what she was doing. And by friendly touching my shoulder she broke the social roles of Nothern Finland, making me feel that when she said "Thank you!" she really did mean it. It was not just a mere phrase to be said because it is written in the script of formal procedure of making an interview. And I feel that this is what Levinas and Buber wrote about. It is this kind of small gestures which matter.

Finally, when I got back at home it was late evening and full moon. I went to greet my horses and we took a small ride along a forest trail. And this is the way I like it. Being able to live in the woods, occasionally visiting a city to meet people and to attend cultural events.

red wine and moral psychology
red wine and moral psychology
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