Do we live in a world where everyone seeks their most petty interest without worrying about others? Do we remain insensitive to other people’s pain? Do we feel comfortable in our isolation from those who are not like us?
These are questions suggested by the album The Wall by British progressive rock band Pink Floyd. It is one of the landmarks of contemporary culture. 40 years after its publication, its theme seems to be foreboding where we were going. And where we are from today.
Music, the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévich tells us, has the power to evoke what would be impossible to communicate in words. It makes us see the invisible through sounds. It helps us to perceive more clearly. To feel fully. Sometimes he hits us to wake us up. It’s a way of knowing deeper than any speech.
That’s The Wall. There are no explicit references to love. It’s not a record to fall in love with in the usual banal sense. But it does force us to repair in the barriers that separate us: the walls that we build.
Those walls erect fences that as soon as they protect us from an imagined enemy as they imprison us in our fortress. The bonds of solidarity, the emotional bonds: in short, the love in the sense given to him by the psychiatrist Erich Fromm become impossible.
Walls for intolerance
Beyond ideals and utopias, the so-called «realities» policy incites intolerance. There will be physical walls. Also mental walls, perhaps more harmful and pernicious. As we feel more vulnerable, we add another brick to our wall of misunderstanding, as we heard in «The Thin Ice.»
They are the consequences of hatred to what is not like oneself, to the different when we lack solid anchors to hold on to. We live in precarious. It is what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called liquid society.
This is the right atmosphere for the germ of fascisms like those criticized in The Wall. And for what Pier Paolo Pasolini called the new fascism: consumerism as an ideal of life.
This is what economic historian Karl Polanyi warned as the origin of European fascism. In uncertain and senseless times, in despair, where the drive for profit crushes social bonds of reciprocity, totalitarian ideologies triumph because they comfort: they give security to the price of losing freedom. They seduce their easy slogans and recipes. They charm the homeless and benefit the elites.
Why not expel the different? The song that opens the album, «In the flesh?», denounces the ethnocentric anger that designates and stigmatizes our scapegoats.
Insensitive and comfortable
As long as we have our consumerist satisfactions, or their promises of happiness, we will lock ourselves in our own hedonistic paradises. We become insensitive and self-centered: we enjoy a crippling comfort, always following the flock.
The album continually asks if there’s anyone out there. Can we feel the others? Do we hear them? The Wall is a distress call to destroy the walls that separate us: «Together, we hold on. Divided, let’s perish.»
It might seem that a song titled «Mother» would talk about maternal love. But instead, it represents a metaphor for the overprotection and infantilism of our society. «Mother, should I build a wall? Should I trust the government?»
It’s that overprotective love that will put all the fears inside, and never let you fly: «It’ll keep the baby comfortable and warm» and help you build the wall. And he’ll keep an eye on you and monitor you for your «good.»
Isn’t this the dream paradise of consumerism? The Eden that people fight for and compete with each other for? It is a life without risks, without own will, under the protective cloak that money can provide us. Why not want to live in one of those gated communities that represent the ideal of a well-to-do life?
It is a kind of social prophylaxis: living within a purified community of every polluting element. A homogeneous and uniform society. And what threatens us is the foreigner (without purchasing power, of course), the wall builders tell us. Us against them. Safe and in a state of imminent paranoia that makes us hate and fear those we drive across the wall.
One of the album’s most memorable songs, «Comfortably Numb,» tells us about the possibility of escaping the contradictions of life through total anesthesia. When our dreams have crumbled, we evade reality without facing it. We immerse ourselves in narcotic, chemical or mental illusions, in the spectacles of the culture industries.
Off the wall
Walls are multiplied today in the form of prejudices, stereotypes and discriminations. It’s the age of incommunicado people talk about but nobody listens.
The Wall was much more than an autobiographical album about the unease of the lead composer, Roger Waters, at the moral distance that separated him from the spectators from his concerts. Or the reflection of the irreconcilable discrepancies that led to the separation of the band a few years later. Or a record in memory of his father, who died in World War II.
It is the mirror in which a washed society can be recognized. After all, if you think about it, we may be just another brick in the wall.
But raising your voice against mind control, conformism, and widespread indifference is the first step in tearing down our walls, material and mental. The second step is to put those ideals into practice so that they are not empty words. We need to go out to the other side: to meet others, whoever they are. Listen to them and be heard. It’s an uncertain and complex path, but it’s what makes us human.
Antonio Fernández Vicente, Professor of Communication Theory, University of Castilla-La Mancha
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.