Thousands of people gathered in public spaces to think, dozens of stages full of people wanting to talk, listen and respond to the new and old philosophical questions, which are those we encounter in everyday life, at a time when —once again— we need to question everything. We are living in times of uncertainty, times of enormous change in many areas, such as technology and the economy, gender identity and family, and this leaves us with a feeling of insecurity, with no reference point, out in the cold. Societies voice their disappointment or are filled with rage and their people appear to be divided between those who are afraid and those who hope to overcome their fears, between those who get by and those who live precariously, between those who mistrust others and those who are willing to cooperate with the different.
Are we bemused individuals? This week, between Monday and Friday, more than 12,000 people responded to the proposal represented by Ciutat Oberta, la biennal de pensament [Open City, the Thinking Biennale] hosted by the Barcelona City Council, which ends on 4 December. The first piece of good news is that, yes, there are individuals who admit there is confusion and they aware that they are living in a time of change that calls on them to reinvent themselves. The second piece of good news is that there are also individuals who have decided to think and talk together and, therefore, to act and not withdraw from everything. To fight against indifference, something which requires effort but which is an indispensable precondition for achieving a democratic and just society.
When people take to the streets, they can do so like the fearsome alienated masses that caused such destruction in the twentieth century or as a collection of free, critical individuals who promote change. Recently, a German intellectual living in Barcelona after having lived in many parts of the world mentioned to me their fundamental mistrust of mass demonstrations, a mistrust that I share, even for the crowds at a football match. When the conversation naturally turned to the demonstrations which have taken place in German history, they told me that the great difference between a mob and a collection of individuals is the ability to ask questions. In the 1930s the Germans preferred not to ask themselves questions out of fear, convenience, cowardice, impotence or indifference.
In one of the philosophical meetings held this week, the sociologist Richard Sennett and the pianist Alfred Brendel met at the Palau de la Música. During the conversation a few pearls of wisdom emerged as to the abilities of those who listen to them.
"I’ve never believed in the existence of a sophisticated audience versus another that is not. Saying that a particular kind of music is accessible is a really condescending way of thinking about the audience" declared Sennett, with Alfred Brendel adding: "We shouldn’t aim for the lowest common denominator, which is currently the case. We ought to try to make an effort to understand what is going on".
Facing up to the challenge
Both conversations have their echo in our politics. Catalonia is going through an unsettled period at the same time as the whole world is going through crises that affect many other liberal democracies, eroding them and promoting powerful, magical or outright authoritarian ideas. Saving liberal democracy by transforming it from within is the alternative to the imposition of authoritarianisms, which benefit from the fear that grips the world, clinging to a strong leadership that provides easy answers to complex questions.
In Catalonia it is time to collectively rethink ourselves. Thinking and speaking calls for free, able individuals to be treated as free, able individuals. When political representatives deal in ambiguity, in euphemisms, when they lie and lose their way, public opinion loses its importance and withdraws from public life, but there are also those who react with disappointment and anger.
Returning to the dialogue between Sennett and Brendel may prove useful. The sociologist, who was a cellist until an injury forced him to stop playing, invites us to be musicians when he says: "According to Adorno, chamber music is a civilized way of cooperating, since it’s a type of indirect, non-explicit communication". Musicians have to listen to each other constantly to adjust their performance to the group, to go from disharmony to harmony. To act with autonomy, working together towards an objective, but from a standard of shared actions.
The injustice of prisons, the arguments rightly won by the pro-independence movement, wouldn’t justify a weakening or decline of democratic demands, nor the silencing of nuances and discrepancies. The stalemate in the Catalan parliament and the actions of inquisitorial purists are not a good omen. The situation calls on us to think and also to speak! Both among the politicians and with the general public, before they switch off.