Friday, January 9, 2009

A gaze on staring

I read the newspaper yesterday, oh boy, about an unlucky man who died from his injuries after being assaulted following a "staring" incident. Very appalled.

"Kwa si mi?!" is a common Chinese dialect - Hokkien - phrase, often said with mild anger, irritation and masculine gusto. It is occasionally accompanied by a sudden head tilt, resulting in the speaker's chin pointing slightly upwards, his/her eyes piercing back at the intended target and his/her mouth slightly gaping in a manner almost communicating that the recipient owes him/her a living.

"Kwa" means "look". "Si mi" means "what".

Staring is a social action. But how is it a cause of insecurity and behavioural changes? Why, in some contexts, is it considered undesirable, and to some extents, requires violent corrective measures such as the aggressive assertion of cultural masculinity?

In pseudo-psychology, trouble-makers are commonly understood to be insecure with their identities and pasts, and they need attention. It becomes paradoxical that they reject the attention they get from "staring" and trade it with violence, perhaps to get the attention they prefer.

What are the thoughts running through the mind of the person being stared at? "Do I look weird?" "Do I look like I do not fit in?" "Do I look undesirable, in terms of fashion, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, social class, social association, etc.?"

Okay, I am bad with (pseudo-)psychology. But one thing is certain, people are generally uncomfortable with being stared at, unless they enjoy voyeurism and various types of exhibitionism.

Why are such social meanings attached onto where one's eyes travel and fixate? Why is it socially undesirable that I stare at a stranger's (covered) breasts and she knows about it? Why does that set in motion a set of actions, including the labeling of "pervert", disgust and so on?

Perpetrators of violence arising from staring incidents are mostly male (I acknowledge female gangsters too), and displaying cultural male traits, bordering on or even representing hyper-masculinity. The desire to be a more-than-male man, the hyper-masculine man or the alpha-male, already sets the person apart from the rest of the tribe.

This becomes an anomaly, warranting a cultural response. One cultural response is a social sanctioning in the form of a culturally agreed upon action that is staring.

In the cultural action of staring, the starer is able to otherise the stared-at, i.e. create an "other" out of the stared-at. The stared-at's desire to be the subject in his/her cultural environment has been derailed by his/her objectification by the staring incident, preventing his/her ascension up the informal social hierarchy, a system that is contingent on the specific spatial context at that point in time.

This is very much similar to public executions or sanctioned acts of punishment/humiliation, all of which prevent the concerned person(s) from attaining their desired level of subjectification - being a subject.

Once impeded an denied access, and encountering some (identity) dissonance, the person becomes frustrated (something along the lines of status frustration). It is not a case of upward status mobility in this instance, but rather the want to be established as a subject being hampered by objectification.

Women have a long history of objectification. They are outside the boundaries of cultural masculinity and are kept so. For a man (we might also have to consider a woman who identifies with cultural masculinity) to be objectified in such a social situation, it might be signify his emasculation.

The (stereo)typical perpetrator of violence arising from staring incidents would also engage in cultural masculine activities such as staring at women. This is known as "beo zha bor", I believe.

To attain a position of (masculine) power, he beings staring at women, along with social cues such as whistling and engaging in a monologue with the woman who will eventually leave that social space. This resultant objectification of the woman is believed by the male to be empowering.

I am attracted to the idea of status frustration (although it may not necessarily be solely socio-economic). The typical perpetrator of violence arising from staring incidents seeks other forms of empowerment because of his/her existing situation of political, social and economic disempowerment. Deviance theory will tell us that this type of person will seek avenues of expression and empowerment following the systematic and institutional rejection. The inability to identify with and the inconsistencies of dominant values and rituals result in such an adoption of "newer"/"different" values. (Well, the dominant system would not condone violence as a corrective action for staring incidents). So, staring becomes a threat to the sustenance of these values, as it is culturally understood to be a tool of objectification.

The overall problem, in my opinion, is our subscription to the meanings and "values" attached to the social action of staring, such that we allow staring to affect or regulate our behaviour - we have become our own police.

There is also some historical baggage, when kings/queens and emperors and people in fearsome positions of authority are not looked at. To be looked/stared at (in that context) warrants a loss of authority (although in the context of the internet, you would gain more authority).

Another concern would be the distraction from the horrible act of violence. I totally condemn the act. But we need to understand the conditions that cause such violence, the conditions that cause the perpetrators to behave like this, to internalise such values (which include violent retaliation to being stared at). Could socio-economic status and degree of political disempowerment contribute to how they cultivate their masculine identity? (Or, would middle class "better"-educated folks, or those who are happy to identify with the values of the middle class and "better"-educated, have an equal chance of engaging in violent retaliation in staring incidents?) We should be thinking about these things too.

We should not be too quick to pathologise violence, for it merely masks the social problems that underlie them.

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