Everyone needs a hug, right?

by | London, UK

Monday, 12 December 2011

tags: culture, europe



The sight of people hugging has become a commonplace, almost inescapable, feature across popular media in the UK. For reality TV programmes such as the X-Factor a show is not complete without outbursts of tears and copious hugging. Hugs have also become a visible feature of the Occupy movement. From Wall Street to Amsterdam; London to Brazil, groups of people can be found amongst the occupy protesters brandishing signs reading 'Free Hugs'.

The Free Hugs Campaign  was initiated several years ago with the purpose of going out into the streets of towns and cities offering hugs for free. As the Free Hugs Campaign has grown in popularity the 'hug' has emerged as both an action and symbol that serves to counteract the isolation and alienation of modern life.

The promotion of hugs has been further supported by the increasing political interest in happiness and well-being. Happiness is presented by organisations such as Action for Happiness as the antidote to the obsession with wealth and materialism that has caused a global economic crisis and increasing public unrest.

The ubiquity of the hug has set certain standards about how we should display our feelings and what our ability to show our emotions says about us as human beings. The hug is regarded as an action that is a necessary and natural part of being human. If an individual fails to engage in the hugging etiquette they are considered abnormal. Hugging has become a normative requirement. The hug is an attempt to transcend the binds of day-to-day life but as a social obligation, it has become another duty, rather than a liberation from repression.

The hug is perceived as a means to reconnect with our 'true' human selves and form solidarity with each other.  Hugs are designed to make us feel good and special by protecting us from negative thoughts and feelings. But they can also be about the reinforcement of a repressive sense of belonging and inwardness.

It’s also interesting to note that, as well as being a symbol of emotional liberation and authentic self-expression, the hug is also a physically restrictive position. The vision of open arms is a sign of comfort and reassurance.

But equally, arms can hold us in a tight grip, creating a boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’, those who belong, and those who don’t. Zizek has warned the Occupy protestors of the danger they might fall in love with themselves (read his article here) – and it’s arguable that gestures of mutual belonging and self-congratulatory reciprocity, like hugging, can be symptoms of a narcissistic political culture.

Of course, from time to time we all need a hug. But the idealism of the Free Hugs Campaign can lead to the idea that a quick feel-good fix can solve everything. For this reason it’s curious to see how the campaign has been incorporated so easily into the Occupy movement, despite its radical demands. An over-reliance on the symbolism of the hug, and other quick feel-good fixes, as a manifesto for making the world a better place, can blind us from seeing the complexity, and experiencing the discomfort, of facing political and societal problems.

© Caroline Pearce 2011

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