In the last installment, we talked about ways in which ideology, or camp-thinking, has disastrous effects on your ability to understand (and be understood by) others, and hence leads to breakdowns in communication and the perpetuation of divisions between people. We talked about how isms:
- encourage you to surrender your thinking and perception of truth to leaders, experts, authority figures and gurus
- arbitrarily divide like things (such as humans) into un-like things, by imposing our limited perspectives on them and fixing those differences in place with identity labels
- invariably mean different things to different people, hence increase the likelihood of being misunderstood
- invariably result in a breakdown of communication and the dead-end of name-calling
- are enormous wastes of time, since most of it is spent defining and untangling our classifications for one another, and very little on actually communicating the content of our thoughts
I want to reiterate that what I mean by “ideologies” or “isms” is camp-thinking, i.e., declaring allegiance to an identity group, and the consequent restriction of your thoughts to working only within that allegiance. And, to contrast, what I mean by “independent thought” is using your brain without any allegiance to an identity group, and consequently placing no restrictions on where your brain may go in the search for truth. I believe that independent thought is the way our brains are designed to work. (Not “designed” as by a creator, but in the sense of “functioning at their most optimum level”.) Consequently, abandoning any trace of ideology, in your speech and thought, is like restoring the brain to its factory settings.
Thinking people don’t need ISMs!
So, let’s discuss the many ways that isms cripple (and if unchecked, destroy) society…
“Make no law, no fine theories, no judgments, and the people may love. But give them one theory, let them invent one slogan, and the game begins again.”
-John le Carre, Call for the Dead
1. ISMs Create Enemies
We’ve already seen how isms necessitate a breakdown in communication. A camp thinker simply isn’t interested in communicating, not in the sense of meeting another mind. A camp thinker’s aim, when they are talking or writing, is exclusively strengthening the defense of their tribe: they want to increase membership and decrease opposition. A camp thinker is after your mind’s compliance or its defeat, period. As far as they’re concerned, someone who does not belong to their classification is a potential convert or a potential enemy.
When you identify an “us”, you automatically bring into existence a “them”.
You may be thinking that “enemy” is an exaggeration when it comes to isms. After all, there are many factions of people opposing each other, in all walks (in science, in business, in politics, in nutrition, etc.) and yet they do so fairly harmlessly. Vegans don’t go firebombing the offices of Jenny Craig, for example, just because they adhere to a different camp of thought on nutrition. Two politicians arguing about the merits of their respective camps may be amusing for us to watch, but we know it’s just a performance, right? They’re not going to throw down with knives and chains, or raise armies against one another and gun each other down in the street. The debate seems harmless and academic, so what possible harm can their isms do?
But as we mentioned in Part Three, when we discussed cults, it’s not the extremity of the mental error that we are trying to eradicate, it’s committing the error at all. Lynch mobs and suicide bombs and genocide are just the most visible, destructive manifestation of the same mental error as different nutrition groups arguing with one another on YouTube, or politicians arguing on TV, or academics defending their philosophical school in scholarly journals, or scientists signing consensus petitions as if by sheer numbers they can conjure facts.
Here’s the thing: words are not harmless. By using “us and them” arguments, all of these so-called harmless groups limit their thinking (and the thinking of those who buy into their arguments) in exactly the same way as lynch mobs and religious “extremists”. The anger and frustration, the name-calling, the dead-end arguments, the ignoring of essentials and focusing on identities and labels–they are all exactly the same. The effects are real and they are devastating: time wasted arguing about inessentials, billions of dollars wasted producing and marketing and consuming things that are not the answer, time spent entrenching one’s own views deeper and deeper to the point where communication becomes impossible. (That time and money is wasted on election campaigns should be beneath mentioning).
And then, with enough time, comes the real devastation: when the entire society starts following blindly down paths we were never meant to go, controlled almost entirely by isms. What begin as academic and even enjoyable debates end up becoming economic and health policy, get encoded into tax laws, get inculcated into our children’s minds in school. People begin following entire career paths that are devoted to championing their particular cause, investing themselves emotionally and financially to the point where they can not, and will not, come back to any perception of truth. Gurus, authority figures and leaders spring up for us all to follow and give our money and backing. With even more time, institutions are brought into being–political parties and churches and armies and media corporations–who control enormous amounts of assets devoted entirely to enforcing their camp of thought on reluctant minds. They control what books are published and what articles are read and by how many people. They control television programming and film production. They control the political process, such that “voting”, once considered an essential guarantor of freedom, becomes a farcical choice of “our camp or theirs”. They control what food gets produced and at what quality, and whether it is really food at all or merely “laboratory edibles”. They control sexual practices and define marriages and control women’s choices to give birth or not. They control whether ships and planes and armies are launched, onto what soil, and they do so with righteousness of purpose.
Can you imagine, for example, if something as innocuous as a debate over nutrition eventually worked its way into government nutrition guidelines? And if a Department of Agriculture, and a Food and Drug Administration would dictate nutrition policy for the coming decades? And if their guidelines were subject to lobbyists, such as wheat growers and dairies, each throwing in unfathomable amounts of money to influence government policy? And if certain crops, such as corn, received subsidies and benefits, such that far more was produced than you and I would ever consume on our own? And if small, independent farms became unable to charge fair prices compared to subsidized, industrial farms, or to deal with the crushing weight of regulations on their products? And if it became economically unfeasible to produce real, whole foods, in comparison to pumping out trillions of pounds of soy and corn products laden with chemicals? And if the animals fed with the corn and soy products, when they necessarily became sick, were then pumped full of antibiotics before going to market? And if, based on an innocent desire to follow “good nutrition” by following the government’s guidelines, people became embroiled in the worst health debacle since the bubonic plague? And that in response to this health care crisis, the pharmaceutical industry, with its own lobbies and subsidies, not only flourished but also successfully convinced almost the entire population that its products were “necessary” to a healthy life? And that medical care would become so costly that it would require insurance policies to pay for it? And if based on rising costs of the pharmaceuticals, and the insurance to pay for them, the government deemed that the answer was more nutrition guidelines, more subsidies, more control and regulation, and the outright nationalization of the health industry?
I can imagine that. I can imagine it quite well.
Now, if misguided nutritional philosophy could become so disastrous, what of “Us and Them” thinking, pertaining to race or religion or political beliefs or economic class? It doesn’t take any imagination at all. Just take a look around.
With enough time, even seemingly trivial ideas can become warfare on our lives if we let them. The consequences are serious enough.
The Us-Them ideas can all be stopped at their source. Drop the camp allegiances. Think things through for yourself. Argue on the facts and the essentials, not on who belongs to what camp. Realize, above all, that there are no enemies. Not really. I don’t mean this in a “Kumbaya, let’s ignore the crazed killers and all hold hands in a field of flowers” kind of way. I mean that the enemies you have were created by stories. We invented them. In confusion–because of limited perspectives, because of fear, because of ego, because of indoctrination that gets handed down from one generation to the next–we create factions out of one another. We become locked into self-imposed blindness, a kind of scotoma that only allows us to see the world that our ideology cares to reveal to us.
What starts with “us” and “them” eventually launches ships.
2. ISMs Cause New Ideas to Be Perceived as a Threat
Schopenhauer said that truth passes through three stages: First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident.
We live in a constantly changing word, yet we refuse to acknowledge it. We clamor for change, yet oppose it at every turn. We seem to have a built-in bias for the way things have been, say, in the last decade or two. This, we think, is “normal”. From our limited perspectives, two decades might as well be an eternity. Anything before that is laughably irrelevant, and anything after it is too far in the future to worry about.
The present, bad as we may find it, is what we fight to preserve.
And yet, when we take a historical perspective, we see that change is the only constant. Everything else fades. Everything that people regard as important now will be completely, absurdly irrelevant in fifty years time. It may sound scary, but you could find comfort in it: it means we don’t have to fret nearly as much as we do.
New things are always opposed. Almost everything you see around you right now had to be fought for against naysayers. In fact, go ahead and really look around for a second. No matter where you are, all of it–everything beyond what grows in the ground or scampers over it–was first an idea in someone’s mind. Every piece of furniture, every piece of technology, the house or office you might be sitting in, or the plot of grass in the park, the coffee in your cup, the food on your plate, the clothing on your body. Everything had to be conceived and brought into existence for it to be in your world right now. Consider the books on your shelves and the music and movie files on your computer. Consider how many people it takes to have just a single book published or a movie made. The art on your walls, the graphic design on the magnets on your fridge. How many minds had to work on everything you have at your disposal right now? A thousand? A hundred thousand? I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me there were the products of a million or even two million minds in my house, right now.
And yet, for each one of those minds–every single one–there was someone who said it either could not be done, should not be done, or made little sense to do. Sometimes (more often than not, in fact) we are our own naysayers, inventing all the reasons for ourselves not to pursue an idea.
So, for every idea that sees the light of day, how many are there that don’t? If the ratio of ideas the come to fruition to those that don’t is even 1 to 10, how many ideas do you think are killed off in the course of one day? What if naysayers (including ourselves) crush a hundred ideas for every one that they don’t? Consider how many ideas you yourself consider and reject over the course of a day. Now multiply that across the entire population of the planet, and multiply it through all the time that there have been humans.
To think where we might be as a species, if even one percent of those quashed ideas saw the light of day, is staggering. But, as a species, we hold ourselves back. We go on, day by day, choosing the comfortable, the familiar, the status quo.
And modern humans are not content with just leaving the status quo up to chance. At some point we invented ideology to shore things up a bit.
Ideologies are rule-sets for enforcing the status quo.
Isms, remember, are a deliberate choice to view the world from a certain, fixed perspective. They are static. They are a declaration that all the thinking that need be done has been done. They do not go in pursuit of new truths. They select the truths that they wish to perceive for all time. To ensure that end, there are strict rules about who is be considered an allegiant member of the camp and who a betrayer, or non-member, of the camp. If anyone strays from the hardline of the camp (the core beliefs of the ism) the core does not change; the camp merely rejects the strayer. It does so by all the methods we have discussed so far: it tries to recapture them, it excommunicates them, or it kills them off. The ism then, is never under the threat of turning into to something new, since anything “new” is disposed of, or becomes, by definition, a new ism.
Ideas might evolve, but isms do not. New camps form.
What does this mean for us as a society? Under the direction of our ideologies, we are constantly on the lookout to ridicule and quash the new. Anything that is perceived as “not us” is a threat to our identity, and therefore must be stamped out before it upsets the old order. If a new, rival camp surfaces, we will almost certainly ridicule it, since it threatens to take our membership away if we do not. But even if a new idea in isolation, unconnected to any ideology, comes to light – for example, that different species originate from common ancestry and develop new traits by gradual adaptation to environmental pressures – the idea is ridiculed and violently opposed before, one day, being accepted as self-evident.
Science has always struck at the heart of identity. Evolution by natural selection, for example, says we are, at a fundamental level, the same stuff as trees and grass and antelopes and worms and fish and mollusks and bacteria. No wonder it was violently opposed by a society that had built its belief system on the notion of a divinely favored species. But so it goes with all scientific discoveries; that every molecule in us and on the planet was manufactured by distant supernovae, for example, or that every particle and every sub-particle in existence may be reducible to tiny 1-dimensional oscillation of energy known as a “string”. All of our discoveries are nothing less than our coming to know the essential oneness of the universe. And all opposition to new discoveries is resistance against that idea; that no, there are separate (and special) things called “Us”.
Some people think that resistance is permanent feature of humans; that no one’s mind ever changes–that a change in ideas only comes about when the old guard dies off.
Speaking about scientific theories, Thomas Kuhn said: “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” This is not far off from the truth. In fact, I think it’s an accurate description of intellectual history as far as ideologies are concerned. Once people have devoted themselves to an identity camp (or a “paradigm” to use Kuhn’s word), it’s very difficult to get them to break their allegiance. Sometimes, a generation does have to die off for the ism to topple, and for a new ism to have its day.
But this is not necessarily the case for independent thinkers.
If I swear no allegiance to an identity camp, I am free to follow the tail of truth wherever it may lead. I have no stake in perpetuating a core set of beliefs through time. In fact, nothing could matter less to me. There is nothing about an idea that would cause me to keep it other than its truth-value. Truth, to an independent thinker, is the one and only standard of judgment to apply to an idea, whether new or old. Without any camp allegiances, there is no secondary gain to keeping an untrue idea, nor even a primary gain. In fact, if I discovered that a belief of mine was untrue, there would be every reason to discard it, since persisting to believe it would taint my thinking on related matters, and cloud my ability to see the truth in general. As an independent thinker, all that I care for is that my mind is oriented to reality, as much as I can achieve such an orientation.
There are limits, of course. Sometimes change comes slow even to an independent mind. Limited perspective, limited experience, time, lethargy, survival needs; all of these serve to slow and confuse our pursuit of the truth. And yes, there is resistance from others, and our desire not to rock the boat. And of course there is indoctrination. Even if we have declared ourselves to be without allegiance in our ideas, indoctrination can take years to rid from one’s thinking.
Now, of course we will never get rid of survival needs or the march of time, but perhaps (and indeed, the premise behind this entire series is that) we can do something about the indoctrination. (Especially the doctrine that you must “be” your beliefs!) In the very least, we can be aware of indoctrination, and on guard against it. But even more, with conscious focus, and by thinking without allegiances, over time we might even eradicate it. With enough time and effort, we might possess the ability to change our minds on anything. Nothing I regard as “true” is too sacred for me scrutinize. Of course, there are certain things that I feel more certain about than others, and some beliefs that will likely accompany me throughout my entire life’s journey. But, here’s the point: there is no secondary gain to holding those ideas as sacred. (And no secondary loss to questioning them). If a Catholic priest, on the other hand, calls into question the central tenets of his faith, he has a serious identity problem on his hands. (Not to mention a serious career problem, and the shock and approbation of his fellow priests, parishioners, friends and family.) He has too much to lose to question his faith, and too much secondary gain to not allow his mind to question too far. But an independent thinker has nothing to lose and everything to gain by doing so. They have no fear of spoiling their membership in an identity group if they call even their most deeply held beliefs into question. Nothing is sacred when it comes to truth, and independent thinkers know the value of questioning even their deepest beliefs.
If the beliefs are not worthy, they can be discarded without shame or loss of identity. If the beliefs survive the scrutiny, they will be stronger for it.
So, having no allegiance means that a generation of independent thinkers does not need to die off for new ideas to take hold. Without allegiances, we can always identify indoctrination and work to eradicate it. New ideas may take hold in us at any time, assuming they are worthy of doing so. In other words, independent thinking is not a guarantee of overcoming indoctrination, but it’s the best shot we have. Only independent thinkers welcome new ideas and challenges to their views.
Some people think our current information age is “too democratic”–that is, it allows equal attention for very poor or mediocre ideas along with the good. But I don’t think that’s quite accurate. What the information age has done is allowed an equal playing field: everyone can have his or her say. There was a time when an essay about the foolishness of isms, for example, in order to reach other minds, would have had to pass through the eye of a very small needle: about four or five publishing companies or magazine and newspaper corporations, all of whom would have been controlled by an ist of some sort. In other words, an essay of this sort never would have reached another mind. Technology has made it possible for us to discuss such heretical things, without your access to it being controlled by a camp thinker.
On the contrary, prior to our current technology, I think it’s precisely the bad and mediocre ideas that used to become entrenched, walling themselves up with institutions that you and I could never dream of challenging. But now we can. The Arab Spring is proof of this; ideas are being discussed in the Middle East that would not or could not have seen the light of day even ten years ago.
You’re reading this. We are making telepathy happen. We are discussing new things. Sure, as a society, we will still tend toward the status quo. But now, the independent thinker has a chance. New ideas have a chance: they can reach other minds without having to wait for the old guard to die off.
3. ISMs Cause us to Ignore or Dismiss Desperate Cries of Warning
One species of “new idea” is the desperate cry of warning. Isms seek to eradicate these too, in exactly the same way, and for the same reasons.
A cry of warning is essentially when someone challenges the current path that we are on, as a society. Someone who points down the road and says “We don’t need to keep going this way. I’ve looked ahead and there is nothing but disaster at the end. Let’s turn around before it’s too late!” But there’s a problem: the cry of warning challenges the status quo. Indeed, it challenges the society itself. And right off we have an identity problem: is the person issuing the cry of warning “with us” or “against us”? Our focus immediately turns to their identity rather than their message. Even though the cry of warning may be issued out of love for the society and a deep desire to save it, the protectors of the status quo see the warning as an affront, or a declaration of warfare on the society.
For example, if an economist decries the current monetary policy of the administration as laying the ground for the worst monetary collapse in modern history, the administration, rather than listening and taking heed, defends itself by attacking and denouncing the economist as the type of “ist” who is likely to oppose the administration on any grounds. The message of the economist is therefore buried and lost. The focus becomes the identification of his camp and whose “side” he is on. “Forget about the message,” they say, “look at his identity. Why should we listen to an x-ist?”
Many of us can remember a time in the U.S., not too long after the 9/11 attacks, where a horrifying sentiment start to creep up in conversations and in media: if you’re against the President, you’re against America. At the time, I thought: if there’s one thing Americans ought to include in their patriotism, it is the right to criticize their own government. And yet, here they are giving government full rein to commit whatever civil liberty abuses it might dream up under the umbrella of “keeping us safe”. When people issued cries of warning that their liberties were being eroded by an out-of-control administration, they were labeled, incredibly, as “contrarian” and “anti-American” and “pro-terrorist.” Now, more than a decade later, we live with the Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, suspended habeas corpus, warrantless wiretaps, secret surveillance, and the newly signed National Defense Appropriations Act. These violations are now regarded as government operating as normal. Are we being “contrarian” if we point out that the current administration, despite promises to reverse civil liberties abuses by its predecessor, has doubled down on every single one of them? When do we drop the blatant, disgusting fiction of “you’re either on the President’s side or on the terrorist’s side” and listen to the cries of warning that our liberties are being eroded?
But rather than look at the situation nakedly, with our own eyes and minds unfettered with ideology, we persist in trying to understand the world according to camps. “Our camp thinks this, their camp thinks that.” And if the cry of warning comes from outside “our” camp, or from a camp whom we have identified as the “enemies” or the “them”, we ignore or dismiss the content of the warning entirely.
The camp thinker does not listen or pay heed to warnings. What they hear is: “They” are challenging “us”. “They” are saying that “we” are wrong.
What disasters might befall a society that thinks like this?
Let’s say, for example, that I’m a scientist, and I have discovered that a serious, but preventable, calamity is about to befall our nation, such as the spread of an infectious and deadly virus, unless we act now. But there is a problem. Those who are responsible for acting on my advice, such as the CDC, do not want to hear my advice since I am not on their board, nor a member of any scientific committee that they typically pay heed to. As far as they are concerned, I am a “rogue”. Furthermore, several members of Congress whose voting for and authorizing my advice don’t happen to like my political beliefs, and they have seen fit to oppose, ridicule and pull funding from several other of my proposals in the past. Finally, the administrator of FEMA has decided that since I work for a private research institute, and not government, my membership and motives, are not to be trusted.
My cries of warning are buried, my career ruined, and the calamity continues forward unopposed. My identity, to my society, is more important than my message. When the calamity does finally ensue, my society does not turn to me. Those in charge claim they are “in control of the situation” and have their “top minds” working around the clock and that they are “taking all the necessary steps.” Sounds familiar, right?
And so it goes with us, as a society. What minds and voices are silenced by the current status quo? What problems are we facing, as a society, that already have brilliant, elegant solutions, of which we will never hear? Might we have abundant, clean energy? Transportation that runs on limitless matter-energy conversion? Stem cell research that might have eradicated thousands of deadly diseases? Technology that might employ millions and raise the standard of living of every one on the planet? When Nikolai Tesla died in 1943, military intelligence officers ceased his notes and work, including, it is believed, some unfinished patents. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
As we discussed in the post on end times, this is exactly what historians and researchers have identified as a primary reason for societal collapse: the inability of the society to agree on how to solve its problems (i.e., internal conflicts, squabbles, power struggles and the consequent inability to act). When economists warn us that a monetary collapse is inevitable, we label them with the usual convenient political labels and dismiss them as members of the wrong camp. When political analysts warn us of encroachments on our freedoms, we dismiss them as conspiracy theorists or “contrarians”. When people cry out against modern food manufacturers, which has us living on laboratory edibles and pharmaceuticals instead of real food, they are dismissed as Internet kooks.
Is total collapse very hard to predict under these conditions?
As a society, we ignore the very things that we desperately most need to hear, because to us, camp membership is more important than reality. We are like the Trojans who repeatedly ignore the dire prophecies of Cassandra, secure in the belief that our mighty kingdom will stand forever.
There’s a crucial difference, however.
When Troy fell, Cassandra was regretfully acknowledged as a misunderstood prophet.
When our society falls, the emphasis will be on whose camp is to blame.
4. ISMs Create the Illusion of “Sides”
If you and I disagree how to go about something – say, building a house – we discuss it and offer points in favor of our own position. If I say we should lay the plumbing first, and you say we should pour the foundation first, we argue it out using logic and use our minds to reason with one another.
At no point during the argument does it ever occur to us that, because we disagree about the methods, we want different things. It’s not like one of us wants a structurally-sound, safe, well built house and the other wants a shoddy wreck, unfit for habitation. Nor does it occur to us that one of us wants a house that is suitable for foundation-type people, and one suitable for plumbing-people, and that we each have to stand up for “our own kind”. We don’t assume that, since we are arguing, we constitute two factions of fundamentally incommensurable people each clamoring for what’s best for “us”.
We acknowledge our shared goal, we lay out our reasons, decide on the best course, and we build the house.
Our orientation, while arguing, is reality. Not “what is good for my side” versus “what is good for your side”, but what will happen, in reality, if we follow my methods of house-building versus following yours. Our ends are the same.
But when it comes to political conflicts, or racial conflicts, or language conflicts or religious conflicts, we legitimize the notion of “sides”. This party represents Type-A people who want x, and this party represents Type-B people who want y. Both sides, we say, have legitimate claims, and they want different things, each suitable only to their own kind.
Thus, we buy into a story that says: human society consists of nothing but camps of people who are different at a fundamental level, and therefore, that the job of each camp is to grab up whatever they can for their own type.
To perpetuate this story, we ignore or dismiss great, big, heaping chunks of reality, namely, all the things that make us alike and our needs the same. We particularly ignore the possibility that we may be confusing our categories with reality. We fall in love with our categories, since we think, in particularly Western fashion, that once we have categorized things, we have understood them. We want to understand the big, bad, confusing world. And when someone gives us ready-made differences (language, race, political, or religious), who are we to argue that all these things might be illusions based on limited perspectives? They help us to “understand” the world, so we happily perpetuate them.
But suppose we took the “category glasses” off for a moment and just perceived humans. Might we not perceive many commonalities? And might we not perceive that many of the commonalities are more important/fundamental than the differences?
For example, from a perspective rooted in fear and confusion, we might call a fair-skinned person one “type” of being, and a dark-skinned person another type of being, and assume that the needs of each are different. We might even structure our society such that each “type” we have identified has a different set of opportunities, living conditions and even purpose. We might even say that only one of the types has any possession, or even need of, things called “rights”. We might not do this out of any malice or hatred, but simply because, from our perspective, we are obeying natural laws. We have asserted the reality of our categories, and so we bring about a society that obeys that reality.
But supposing, instead, we regard the fact of fair or dark skin as a trivial difference and acknowledge that, in fundamentals, both are the same type of being? Mightn’t we structure our society differently? Wouldn’t the needs and opportunities and rights of both fair- and dark-skinned people be seen as shared? And, in time, depending on the level of fear and confusion which we have ascended from, might we not even come to call such a perspective enlightened?
Indeed, what other meaning could the word “enlightenment” have than this: shedding the confusion of perceived differences, and coming to acknowledge commonalities?
In reality, there are no different humans, just as there are no different beings, just as there are no different entities at all. We divvy each other up, according to arbitrary classifications, and then we lock our perspectives in place by giving them labels. We falsely classify humans into different races, and we say Race A has features 1, 2, 3 and needs a, b, c, and Race B has features 8, 9, 10 and needs x, y, z. We forget that if we drop the division, we see that the features and needs of all races become identical. This gives us an enlightened starting point to reason with one another. It means that, in the end, when we drop the confusion of camps, we see that we want, and can work toward, the same things. We can drop the foolishness of building a house for “plumbing” people vs. a house for “foundation” people, and just get busy building an f-ing house.
Now, obviously I’m using race deliberately here, because I trust that as a society (apart from some backwards-thinking holdouts) we have come to acknowledge the triviality of racial differences, and the commonality of the needs and rights of humans regardless of race. I’m trusting that the reader possesses a sufficient level of enlightenment to see the eradication of racial barriers within a society as a no-brainer. (Duh, of course so, Richard.)
My question: can we not do the same with politics or religion?
Again, as a society, we are stuck in thinking our categories “exist”. We are stuck in the verb-confusion of “being” our isms, instead of simply “believing” in certain ideas.
In politics, we buy into the story that says: you belong to a class of people. There are Type A people (we’ll call them “the rich”) and Type B people (we’ll call them “the poor.”) And for the rest, who are neither, we’ll call them “middle class”. There are certain politicians who stand up for each of these groups. Also, there are politicians who represent their various races, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, etc. And finally, there are politicians who represent various religions, or denominations within a single religion. So if you happen to be a Catholic-Hispanic-Middle Class voter, your job is the find the candidate that is Catholic, Hispanic and stands up for the rights of the middle class. If your choices are between a Catholic White defender of the middle class, and an Atheistic Hispanic defender of the poor, you will have to decide which of their traits are most important to you: religion vs. race vs. economic class, and make your choice accordingly.
This is how many, if not most, people vote, and the polls which we hear flying around at election time (Candidate A has “the black vote” and candidate B has “the gay vote”, etc.) back me up on this.
Camp allegiances. Not what the politicians have to say on the issues, nor deciding, in reality, what the consequences of their policies might be. Just: “whose camp am I in?” “Do they represent me and my family?” After all, if they are “one of us” they will stick up for “our interests”.
Is it any wonder that, in such a state, “doing what is right” is the least of a politician’s concerns? Of far greater importance: bringing to bear the force of government on getting what I can for “my type” of people, and appeasing the leaders of “my party”, and currying favor with the current administration by dealing away peoples’ rights in exchange for more of the same. (And of course, let’s not forget the politician’s A-1 top priority, portraying oneself as the hero, and portraying the opposition as villains, a.k.a. The Business of Seeming. When people are treated to the same playacting performance over and over, is it any wonder we come to perpetuate the notion of “sides”?) The fact is this: the day-in, day-out activities of your elected representatives have almost nothing to do with what is true and right, and 100% to do with camp allegiances.
So, if I think political sides are an illusion, does this mean that when a politician gets elected to office he or she should just try to hold hands and get along with everyone in the spirit of all of us wanting the same thing? Am I saying that there are no grounds for opposing anyone in politics, for any reason, and those who do are creating conflict where none exists?
No. When I say that we create “enemies” and “sides” out of a perspective of fear and confusion, that does not change the fact that once created, the enemies, and all of the potential harm they bring, exist. It would be foolish in the extreme, and not very reality-oriented, if I pretended that an armed man threatening me and my loved ones with our lives was not “really” intending to do us harm. Clearly they are, and clearly my imperative is to defend us, as best I can. It’s tragic that it has come to be so; that some people are so deluded in their beliefs to make an enemy out of me. But once they have taken a step to harm me, my only recourse is to fight back. The same holds true in politics: it is tragic that government has been hijacked by various gangs each trying to grab up what is best for a perceived “them”. It is tragic, that as a society, we have bought into the story of “camps” and legitimized them. But now, given that this is the reality, I believe it is the absolute imperative of any elected official to stand in 100% opposition to this misuse of government. That, and nothing else, is what I elect them to do. Perhaps, in some future society, an elected official will be nothing more than a caretaker, an overseer whose job it is to make sure that the system is functioning as designed and not overstepping its bounds. But in this society, in the place we are right now, an elected official is either complicit with the broken system or is, unfortunately, a freedom fighter, whose job it is to fight the system itself. The circumstances have made it so. You see, given that our political lives have been swallowed by those who believe in camp allegiances, the only appropriate response is to oppose them all, with no mind to party allegiances, or allegiance to the current administration, or to the media… and total allegiance to the principle of good government, which means one which safeguards our freedoms from abuse, and does not dare to abuse them itself.
In other words, the standard I hold an elected official to is just what we have been discussing from the very first post in this series: truth-orientation instead of camp-orientation.
Do I really expect to see such a freedom fighter succeed? I really don’t know. The system is pretty far-gone. I have my doubts that it can be fixed from the inside. What I have no doubts about, however, is that you and I, by talking about and dealing with what we regard as true and right, are laying the groundwork for what politicians will come along in ten or twenty or thirty years time. In this sense, we are, by how we think and talk with one another now, making or breaking the future of our political lives.
So consider the choice: we can go on talking about “sides” and classes and factions, and what’s good for this type of person vs. that type of person, and go on perpetuating the story of the many camps of humans each of whom has the legitimate task of grabbing up whatever they can for their own. Or, we can chuck the story and turn our minds to this: what is true of all humans, everywhere? How can they exist together and function in harmony? What type of government can guarantee such a future?
In other words, we can go on perpetuating our isms, or we can declare our minds free of their poison, and bend those minds, together, toward the truth. Perhaps, someday, we may look upon the divvying up of humans by religion or political beliefs as foolish and backwards-thinking as the divvying up of humans by race. For now, we can only dream about it.
5. What Starts in Your Mind as an ISM, Eventually Becomes True of Society
Language is a powerful and tricky thing–it can convince us to believe things that simply are not true. Psychologists know this, and therapists use it in their practice: what we call “self-talk”, the language we use to reinforce our own beliefs, often has very little to do with reality. Our subconscious minds may be screaming the truth at us, but we can easily bury those thoughts with words, strung together in sentences, which express beliefs and generalizations that are quite the opposite.
I would even go so far as to say this is the source of most people’s pain and misery. Not their circumstances, not the people around them, but their own beliefs, held in defiance of reality. When we ignore reality, it bites back. When we ignore our implicit, subconscious beliefs, they produce the pain of fear, anxiety, doubt, anger, depression, etc. These emotions are not “bad” or “wrong”. If you think about it, they are enormously valuable signals: the body’s way of screaming at us to fix something about our misguided ideas.
But we are masters of repression, and language has an enormous capacity for driving those subconscious signals down deep where we can ignore them in our waking life. Language helps to perpetuate beliefs, good or bad, and if they do so long enough, despite much pain and numerous setbacks, those beliefs eventually become societal institutions. In fact, given enough time, they become the story that the entire society pursues, as a whole.
Let’s say I come up with the idea that men are superior in every respect to women. Once I get others believing in this idea, and we pass it forward through time, we start to make small changes to the way our families and social gatherings function. Women are not invited to speak their mind, and in fact are told to speak only with permission. Each family designates a patriarch, the eldest male, who becomes the leader of his own tribe; he decides who is to marry whom, who is to enter what profession, and how the collective resources of the family are to be divided. While females may have a say in the raising of children and running the operations of a household, only men are allowed to gather and decide important matters pertaining to larger society. The men decide what is to be built, what is to be produced, and what wars of conquest are to be fought. The men become our heads of state, and impose strict rules on women hiding their bodies and even faces. Women are not allowed to look at men who are not their husbands, and men are forbidden to touch women outside their own families. The women exist only to keep the home and raise the children. They are essentially assistants to help their husbands achieve their glory in the great competition of life. Before long, we even alter our entire mythology to describe the “evils” of femininity: the feminine is the source of Original Sin, the ideal is the Virgin (who has suppressed her femininity). Religious traditions involving any trace of feminine sexuality or body or nature-worship are utterly outlawed, on pain of exile or death. We may even go to wars with other societies who share the same premise–the suppression of the feminine–but with whom we disagree about the amount it should be suppressed, and fight on those grounds, as if we were bitterest of enemies. Whereas in the past, we viewed nature as a goddess and sought harmony with her, we now speak of conquering and bending her to our will, and we devote much of our daily activity to doing just that.
So, what started off as an idea in my mind, when perpetuated through language, eventually becomes the whole purpose of my society, its raison d’etre: to exalt the masculine and suppress, enslave and ridicule the feminine.
This is exactly how isms function to make a society. What starts off as a simple belief about “what is true of us” vs. “what is true of them”, eventually becomes the purpose of your entire society. Its institutions–family, marriage, government, economy, military, and religion–are all arranged accordingly. The day-to-day life of the society becomes the acting out of the basic Us-Them story. If I am raising a family, my job is to raise my children to believe the story. If I am in business, I pursue the part of the story pertaining to winning over my competition. If I am in the military, I act out the part of the story pertaining to conquest over the enemy, etc.
Language perpetuates ideas in a way that makes them very hard to change, except over many lifetimes. People may feel and know that their society is pursuing a bad, or ill-conceived story. But since they have no language to make their feelings and thoughts known, they suppress their beliefs within themselves, and follow along with their society’s trajectory. The language of the society’s story may be very old and well established, thus difficult to challenge. It may have been repeated over and over, like incantations, so often that people can no longer see the alternatives.
Marx famously called religion the opiate of the masses. But this is true of all isms, not just religion. As a society, we follow the story that we have been told from birth: there are Us, and there are Them, and everything great our society has produced is proof. If you feel that the story is wrong, there is something wrong with you, and we have priests or therapists for you to talk to. Failing that, we have a nice selection of pharmaceuticals. Failing that, well… that is what prisons and executioners are for.
Given the power of language, is it any wonder that a society comes to adopt bad health, bad education, bad science, bad politics and wage bad wars?
Without the language to oppose it, who can say different?
If you guessed that my answer is the independent thinker, you’ve probably been reading the rest of this series :). Thinkers who do not swear allegiances are the only hope of a society pursuing a bad story, because they are the only ones who do not buy in to the implicit belief that different beliefs = different identities. To an independent thinker, there is no Us and Them. There is only Us and the mess we’re in, and the rest is simply society’s fairy tale to the contrary.
Of course, many thinking people, faced with the overwhelm of their society’s language, turn to apathy. It’s understandable, especially if you think you are the only one who thinks the way you do. Which is why Step One in overturning your society’s Us-Them story is the old telepathy game again: meeting other like minds.
I don’t mean joining groups and movements. Society knows exactly what to do with such attempts: it ridicules them or drives them out of existence with its money and power and institutions. And, in any case, when we join movements we run the risk of crippling our thinking faculties in all the ways we discussed in Part Two. No, thinking people do not need to join movements–but they do need to talk to other thinking people, and share their ideas. Not “being” a this or a that; just connecting brains. Simply knowing that there are other minds out there willing to do so, who do not hold allegiances–in fact, who deliberately avoid such a thing–and who are interested in pursuing the truth with no agenda for this or that ideology, is an immense psychological relief. You cannot oppose your entire society alone; not and hope to stay sane (or even alive, in some cases).
As I said in the Introduction to this series, I believe there is a growing swell of people who are sick to death of ideologies and see them as the dead-end that they are. They are ready to declare their minds free of any allegiances, and simply pursue the truth as they see it and call society out on its fairy tale version of reality. I think this marks a new developmental phase for humans: it means we are on the verge of adulthood. Sure, we could blow it all here and perpetuate our adolescence for another thousand years to come. Or we could undergo precisely the kind of transformation of consciousness that Eckhart Tolle describes in “A New Earth”: a transformation into a species does not see thinking as an identity tag for labeling one another and starting wars, but as a way of acknowledging our shared fate and the existing bridges between our minds.
Here we are at the end of another post. Do I expect anyone to leave their ism behind when they leave, tucked somewhere between the raincoats and the old boots? No, probably not. For many, this would be like stepping out into the rain without the safety of their old, trusty umbrella. Even if you were to point out that it was sunny, they’d still think: yeah, but it might rain five minutes from now.
People who have decided on their isms will take them everywhere. Even if you point out that their umbrella is full of holes.
But I do expect there are one or two things here that are causing some questions to rattle around in the old drawer–things that ring familiar when you step back and look at society.
Most of us have been guilty at one time or another of uttering the sentiment that “society is crazy!” or “people are insane!” What this post asks you to consider, is: what if society isn’t insane, but is actually just obeying the rules, as best it knows how, each of us playing our part in the grander story, and the outcomes are crazy because, well… so is the story. That these are the logical outcomes we get from believing the things that we do.
What if we took a step back and saw that it was all just a play, and that we could leave the theatre any time we wanted, if we could just break with the illusion that it was all real or necessary?
What if we could just change the story?
This hints at the answer to the all-important question: Okay, RW, even if you’re right, what the heck do we do?
We’ll get to it next time, I promise.
For now, tell me what you think, so far. Does society invent enemies, or are the enemies real? Are new ideas perceived as threats to the status quo, or are they embraced by our supposedly open-minded society? Are cries of warning dismissed and buried under the veil of identity, or are those just conspiracy kooks, and everything, in reality, is just fine and dandy? (Does anyone really think this??) Do we foolishly pit ourselves against one another in “sides”, based on our invented categories such as race, religion, economic class, political beliefs, etc.? Or are we all, in reality, separate tribes that must grab up whatever we can for our own “kind”? Is our society pursuing a bad Us and Them story (or stories)? Or are we witnessing humanity at its most advanced, inclusive and “enlightened”?
Listen, society may seem big, scary, and impossible to control, but it’s all really just people sharing ideas. So, whatever you think about society, let’s you and I connect brains.
What do you say?