There is a scene in Assassin’s Creed Black Flag in which the pirate Charles Vane is trying to enlist the aid of Edward Thatch (Blackbeard) in his crusade against Governor Woodes Rogers. Thatch declines preferring to retire from the life. Later, Edward Kenway shares his thoughts on the matter saying, “I'm not of the same mind, mate. But I won't begrudge you the state of yours”.
It seems a throwaway line, but it made an impact on me. In fact, I would put it among in my favourite lines from the series. So why is this statement so important? While researching my previous essay outlining the theory of the Zoroastrian origins of the Assassin, I stumbled upon a concept that I call the sanctity of consciousness and immediately remembered that line from Kenway.
The word sanctity means holy or “set apart”. In other words, it is something special and worthy of unique consideration. For example, a holy mountain is considered special by those who see it as significant among mountains. To say that consciousness is holy is to recognise that human consciousness is something unique and special to be treated with consideration.
This is not to say that every point of view is valid, or right, or not bat-shit crazy. A person may say things or behave in a manner that seem totally insane to us. However, to them, it is perfectly reasonable. Their consciousness is just as rational to them as yours is to you. Observing the sanctity of consciousness is to recognise that this is someone’s personal subjective universe, formed from a lifetime of thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and we have no access to that universe.
When Edward Kenway says to Blackbeard, “I'm not of the same mind, mate. But I won't begrudge you the state of yours”, Edward is recognising the sanctity of consciousness. He is saying that even though our subjective universes do not align, I respect your right to agency. To deny a person their agency is say to them, “You are an object to be exploited for my purposes.”
An object possesses three aspects: purpose, form, and function. What it lacks is agency. The purpose of a hammer is to hammer, and it has the form necessary to perform this function without any choice in the matter. It hammers only when a user exploits it for its purpose. When we objectify a person we wilfully choose to perceive them as a thing devoid of agency to be exploited for our purposes.
These two terms, objectification and exploitation, are used quite a bit in modern socio-political discourse. The word exploitation has some dark connotations, but the word itself simply means “to use”. I exploit objects everyday: chairs, table, and coffee cups. In this context, the words object and exploit work hand-in-hand. Objects exists to be exploited. When we objectify a person, we impose a purpose and function on them, thus denying their agency which we then replace with our own.
Given this revelation, it would be easy for the would-be Assassin to declare objectification to be a sin, but it is not as clear cut as that. Objectification is a normal and natural part of being human. The recognition of the sanctity of consciousness serves as more of a gentle reminder that every stranger on the street, every Facebook poster and commentator, and every famous person is a unique consciousness existing in their own subjective reality as the star of their film just as you exist and star in yours.
The Creed shows us the distinction between Objective Truth and the Subjective perception of that truth. From here it is a small step to what I call the meta-subjective. The meta-subjective recognizes that beyond the individual perception of Objective reality and the construction of an individual’s unique Subjective reality, there are literally billions of other Subjective realities. Here is another way to compare these concepts.
From the Objective perspective, your existence is a meaningless spec amid the billions of years and light years that constitute reality. From the Subjective view, you are the centre of everything. Nothing occurs in your existence where you are not involved directly as either actor or observer. You are the hero of the story that is your life, from birth to inevitable decay and death when your universe ends. The Meta-subjective recognises the consciousness in others. Your special and unique Subjective reality is just one of about 7 billion such realities existing simultaneously within the context of one objective reality. You are nothing but an extra, or at best a side character, in someone else's story.
Jean Paul Sartre illustrated the meta-subjective in what he called “The Look”. Imagine spying on two people when you suddenly notice someone is observing you. In a moment you have moved from being an observer judging another to the one being observed and judged. Notice that Objective reality has not changed, the Universe is indifferent, however your Subjective reality has changed. It was one way when you were the secret observer but became something else when you realised you were discovered. In becoming aware of another consciousness, you were reduced from a state where you were the centre of the universe to one where you are a subject in someone else’s universe.
There is one more step in this thought experiment. Suppose the people that you were spying on suddenly become aware of your presence. Now there are three separate subjective universes all focusing on you. How does that feel? Now, not only are you dethroned from your divine status as the centre of your universe, the affect is multiplied by three. Now multiply these “Others” by ten, a hundred, a thousand or a billion-fold. Then you realise the scope of your tiny universe in a sea of other subjective realities.
This realisation can easily lead to a form of Existential anxiety not covered by the common Existential angst or crisis. You think you are special until someone in the shop makes you realise that to them you are just some random, annoying customer in their universe. To the number cruncher you are a statistic. To the stranger you are some random, they/them, a thing – an object. As with any object they encounter, you will be either positive, negative, or neutral according to their judgements.
A solitary person existing within his own consciousness enjoys absolute freedom. Once another consciousness is introduced the dynamic changes. In the Garden of Eden story, eating the forbidden fruit granted Adam and Eve consciousness and with that came self-consciousness. They became aware of their nakedness through the awareness and judgement of the Other.
A person in this state of hyper-awareness of the Others becomes self-conscious to a degree where they cannot function. The psyche copes with this through the natural process of objectifying others. We perceive people and groups of people as things and not as unique Subjective universes competing with our own.
Objectification and Exploitation
Imagine that you are walking alone upon a paved road cutting through a vast park. It is early morning and the sun it just making itself known but not yet fully manifested casting a blue hue over the scene. Along the road empty benches punctuate the edges where the manicured grass touched the road. Although your senses absorb the environment, your mind is other places. Your focus shifts in seconds through time and space in the universe of your consciousness. You think of an event from childhood; then a scene from the film you saw last night, then the face of someone you once loved, and over it all there is the incessant chattering gibbons in your head. In literature this is call stream of consciousness, the eternal flow of the contents of your psycho-emotional make-up. This is your world. It is your unique universe. It is this thing that you call you, and you are the master of this realm.
Suddenly, your thoughts are disturbed. Ahead of you along the road on a bench sits an old man staring into the distance at some unknown thing. At first you are startled by the unexpected presence of another, then you wonder what he sees. Is he looking at something physical or at an idea in his universe over which he is the master. A universe to which you have no access and can never know. It is at this point that he notices you. You are no longer the silent and unseen observer but the object of another’s gaze -- another’s judgement.
The old man on the bench is a thing to us. He is “an old man”. However, in his universe he is Bob Jones with a lifetime of experiences, loves, hopes, fears, and dreams. Where we see an old man, from his perspective he is the same person looking through his eyes now who did so forty years ago. There is a part of him that cannot understand why the beautiful young women who once adored him now see him as invisible. Inside he is twenty but outside he is sixty. He looks at the person walking towards him along the road and wonders what this person thinks of him. Would it disturb him to know that to us he is just, “an old man”?
We choose to perceive him as an object no different from the bench on which he sits. Should the man suddenly stand-up, we can deny his agency still and choose to perceive this as part of the function of the object. This can be extended to include a scenario where the man speaks directly to us. He speaks to us because that is what these objects do sometimes and not because he is an equal other consciousness.
This is referred to as solipsism, the belief that ours is the only consciousness and other people are like zombies responding to stimuli thus creating the illusion of consciousness where none exists. Of course, if pressed, the solipsistic person would admit that other people have a consciousness too, but in practice they live their lives as if they do not. Solipsism is closely linked to narcissism meaning a person believes that everything is about them. I once heard a story illustrating this where a woman became frantic because a bird was aggressive pecking at her window. She feared that for some reason it was after her. In truth, the bird had found a seed and was using the window to crack it open. The world exists without her.
I have just presented three approaches to dealing with what Sartre called “The Other”. One in which we acknowledge another’s consciousness through projection, one where we objectify another, and one where we deny their consciousness altogether. The natural state is to objectify; however, it is important to occasionally take a step back and remind yourself that others have their own unique consciousness too.
This is handy in situations where someone says something cruel or stupid. It is very easy to write them off by identifying this behaviour as being the nature of the object in question, however when we enter our universe and think of the time we said something cruel or stupid and we reexperience the shame or embarrassment of that incident, then we can better make allowances for those behaviours in others. Perhaps this person is thinking, “God, I can’t believe I just said that. This person probably thinks that I’m an idiot.” Through this process we can start to develop things like compassion, respect, forgiveness, and consideration. All these are part of recognising the sanctity of consciousness.
The negative is when we completely deny the consciousness of the Other. We see this in narrative fiction where someone is abducted, and another character seeks to humanise the victim to the victimizer. This is done in the hope that if the criminal will acknowledge the consciousness in the victim, then he may let the victim go free and unharmed. We see this everyday on a smaller and less dramatic scale. How often does a cruel comment get posted on Facebook or Twitter with no regard for the consciousness that will be hurt by this cruelty? This is played for laughs on a TV show where celebrities are asked to read aloud mean tweets about them. In a sense it humanises the celebrity as a real person with real feelings.
Despite objectification being a normal part of our perception and our experience of reality, we can choose to remind ourselves of the sanctity of consciousness or we can choose to deny it. Likewise, exploitation of objects is also normal. Objects exist to be used and this sometimes includes people we objectify.
Part of the human experience is that we choose to objectify ourselves in exchange for money to be exploited by others. This is commonly referred to as “a job”. The man who drives the city bus is a unique consciousness living in his own subjective universe within which he is the centre, the main character in his story, but to the passengers on the bus he is objectified as simply “the driver” to be exploited for the purpose of reaching their destination. At any point the driver can exert his agency, pull the bus to the side of the road, get out, and walk away, however he chooses to play the role of the driver and be exploited by others for the sake of money that he will use to better his universe when he is not playing the driver. We expect taxi drivers to behave like taxi drivers, salespeople to be salespeople, and waiters to be waiters.
At any point the individuals playing these roles can exert their agency and behave like people rather than an object. That is the difference between normal objects with no agency, like a hammer, and objectified people who ultimately have agency whether this is acknowledged or not.
In our mass media age there is a type of objectification that largely goes unnoticed. As an example, let’s look at the difference between Harrison Ford and Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford, a unique consciousness, surrendered his agency to become the object Harrison Ford the actor in exchange for money. He was exploited by directors and photographers for the purpose of creating a character known as Indiana Jones. While Harrison Ford has agency, Indiana Jones does not. He is a fictional character like any other object with purpose, form, and function but without agency. Indiana Jones does not choose what to say or how to act. He cannot choose not to find the Ark of the Covenant in the way our bus driver can choose not to drive his bus. This is decided for him by writers exploiting the character like they would any other object.
Likewise, a model takes part in the creation of a photograph. The model is a person and the photograph is an object, in the same way that Harrison Ford is not Indiana Jones. One is an objectified person and the other is an object. Harrison Ford does not own the copyright to Indiana Jones in the same way that the copyright of the photograph belongs to the photographer and not the model.
It may seem silly to have to point this out because it is so self-evident. No one confuses a picture of a Pamela Anderson with the actual person Pamela Anderson, and yet in practice they might look at the picture and say, “That’s Pamela Anderson”. So here is a question. If someone is being naughty to a picture of Pamela Anderson, then who or what is being exploited? Pamela Anderson or the picture of Pamela Anderson? The answer is the object, the picture, and not the person. This picture may be twenty years old and the model no longer looks like picture. Perhaps the picture has been photoshopped in which case the picture is fictional, and the model is merely the starting point in its creation, like the model who posed for the Mona Lisa.
Yet it is common to hear that the media and advertising objectifies and exploits women. The irony is that this statement is itself objectifying and exploitative to women. The essential argument is that the creation of objects derived from certain women leads to the objectification and exploitation of all women. Some women may not like the fact that other women choose to participate in the creation of an object, a sexy photograph, that other women might find intimidating. However, this does not constitute exploitation beyond the exploitation inherent in having any other job. However, perceiving the world in terms of group identity denies individual agency, and therefore consciousness, which then leads to objectification and exploitation.
This is the third type of objectification and exploitation. The first is self-objectification; the job we chose. The second is the creation of media objects, like fictional film characters or pictures. The third is group objectification.
It is natural for people to form groups and it is again natural for people to objectify and judge these groups. The important points to consider are which groups are formed through agency and which are not. I may choose an ideology to believe in or a political movement to be a part, however I did not choose my race, gender, social status at birth, or nationality.
Suppose someone says that not enough women are enrolled in the sciences in university and they want to address this imbalance. Okay, first look at how many women requested to be enrolled in the sciences, how many were denied, and why. If it turns out that only a few women as compared with men chose the sciences, then the problem is that women were exercising their agency in a manner that did not suit someone else’s purposes. At this point is becomes clear that individual women are being objectified as a universal idea of womanhood to be used for someone’s socio-political purpose, in other words, exploited.
There is a cognitive fallacy known as “No true Scotsman”. It goes like this.
Person A: "No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
Person B: "But my uncle Angus is a Scotsman and he puts sugar on his porridge."
Person A: "Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge."
In this illustration, Person A is making a statement of fact which Person B refutes with an example. Person A then modifies the original statement in a way that will refute the example. This also applies to group objectification when the illustration can be taken more literally.
So, someone might say that all Black Americans are Democrats. Someone else might respond saying that there is an entire group of Black Republicans. Yes, but they are Uncle Tom’s, in other words, “they are kissing up to the white man at the expense of their own people”. This is like saying that they are not true African-Americans because they do not conform to my idea of reality or to my expectations. This becomes another example of objectification based on group association and then exploiting the very group that they propose to be protecting.
There is no such thing as a group consciousness. There are individuals who choose to be part of a group, other groups we are born into, but either way humans are not a hive mind like the Borg in Star Trek. Every person possesses their own special and unique consciousness. Honouring the sanctity of consciousness means reminding ourselves of this fact particularly in this era of identity politics.
The sanctity of conscious is not a great discovery by any stretch. People recognise it every day, but not by name. I have always thought that being inconsiderate is the worse bad behaviour. Not because it causes more harm than something like anger or envy, but because it is insidious. An inconsiderate person does not know that they are inconsiderate because they do not consider the consciousness of others. Acknowledging the sanctity of consciousness simply underlines the point.
Therefore, it is important to remember the words of Edward Kenway when dealing with the Subjective universes of The Others. “I'm not of the same mind, mate. But I won't begrudge you the state of yours”.