Monday, January 08, 2007

Emergence of Awareness, or, how I started to become an anarchist

I'm posting something that I actually wrote in April of last year. With all the personal harrowing of systems and ideologies I've engaged in since then, I found the clarity of which I was possessed in that moment refreshing. My ideas have become more elaborate and specific since then. But, reflecting back, this was the beginning of my awakening, at least in spirit, as an anarchist in many ways.

"You were given the same explanation ... as everyone else - but it apparently doesn't satisfy you. You've heard it from infancy but have never managed to swallow it. You have the feeling something's been left out, glossed over. You have the feeling you've been lied to about something, and if you can, you'd like to know what it is...." Ishmael, by David Quinn

I've been thinking a lot lately, and very seriously, as I often do. It seems that people don't do that very often. By and large, they say, "you just have to live your life," and go on, taking several important things for granted as they continue to plug into the system of life which is the only thing they know. Evaluating... that makes one ask too many questions that don't have simple answers.

Living life is a wonderful and important thing. I have nothing against living life; in fact, I'd like to live life myself. But there's just one problem. That system, the one that we as people live in and take for granted, the context in which most of our life and our way of living is framed--it's based on questions not asked. It's based on de facto compliance with authority. Is that good? Let me ask one of those unasked questions--why would a person base his or her life on that which is taken for granted, handed down by authority? The answer to that question is that there is no good reason to. Where is the inherent truthfulness and moral superiority of that authority? There is none, it's an illusion. The truth is, that authority keeps people down. It keeps them from asking questions. It keeps them ignorant. It is ignorance. But we will continue to live in it, until people are collectively moved by something to take it down themselves.

The pattern is set for many 0f us in a myth we have been taught from our youth. In most of Judeo-Christian culture, it's the first lesson. Whether taught explicitly or implicitly as a natural derivative of the story, it has its effect all the same. Adam and Eve are in a garden; it's a nice place, there's enough to eat, and they don't seem to have to worry about anything. But they are there, living their lives, without any real knowledge of anything. That is, without any knowledge except, "you can eat fruit from any tree, but this is one thing you can't do. You can't eat the fruit from this tree right here, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge (of Good and Evil). To do so is disobediance. It is forbidden." So the benevolent parent, God, has set the bounds. This is knowledge that shouldn't, in the inherent virutuousness of obedience, be obtained. To do so is transgression. Natural curiousity, man's inherent desire to ask and know, is off limits in this. But an intelligent creature comes along. He is a snake. He tells the woman, "hey, deep down, you're curious about that fruit, aren't you? Why are you going to listen to him? He has knowledge, shouldn't you? There should be nothing stopping you from gaining that knowledge. Rise up, eat the fruit, throw of the shackles of ignorance that hold you bound to this meaningless life. There are no sacred questions, no forbidden fruit. You are the gods; be as them." In essence, the snake was telling the woman to take nothing for granted. She took the fruit, and gave it to her companion, the man--a truly charitable act. Together they gained knowledge; their eyes were opened, their whole outlook was different. But they were penalized, sternly, by that patriarchal figure, God. Where the snake had led them to rise up, he put them down, punished with more constraints and commandments not to be questioned, along with a world of sorrow and trauma and clothing (it turned out the body, an embodiment of self as much as is curiousity, was also evil). But man and woman had begun the acquisition of knowledge, which would ever be the dynamic force in their saga.

If there is one thing that is changed in my outlook since I learned that lesson as an impressionable child, it is the position of the heros in the myth, and on which side is the virtue. Is it on the side of snake, who encouraged them to gain knowledge, to rise up, to learn to consider themselves from an informed perspective, or the authority figure, who told them not to be curious, not eat the fruit, not to gain that knowledge? (Some do say, theologically, "wait, that's not how we believe; it was good for them to take the fruit after all." But the point is the same. It is spelled out in the lesson. Obedience to authority is right, while questioning or defying that authority is transgression).

Everything we've ever been taught that we take for granted has the potential to be wrong. And I'm starting to think that much of it is; I feel that I've been lied to, or rather made to buy into a system of perpetuating arbitrariness and misconstructions, for most of my life. This is especially the case for things that aren't normally thought about or evaluated: from parents, from teachers and administrators, from church authorities, from government figures, from law enforcers, from media and advertizing, from public service messages. When I was younger, I was taught that children are to be seen and not heard. I was taught that if the carpet were green and an adult were to tell me it was blue, I was to agree that it was blue. That did indeed warp my mind, and many people will agree that such things are too strict or just plain wrong, but that kind of wholesale buying into authority is so pervasive that hardly anyone escapes it after all. Call it the system, call it the establishment, call it the man, call it the machine, call it the powers that be, call it whatever you will. It is there, it is the ruling system, whether as a collective force or several entities. It is the vestiges of the old world, and the impositions of the new. And it is not reality. In it's many forms, it's a grand illusion that keeps people from asking questions.

It comes constantly through television, radio, newspapers, and magazines. If it is stamped by public service, persuasive marketing, or official statements in media and press conferences, it is as taken for granted as anything. How many children are raised to be at the whims of advertising and marketing? From the youngest age, it tells them what to do, what they need, what must be bought to keep capitalism running smoothly. These are the virtues, it tells them, to espouse. Be hardworking, make money, buy things. It doesn't matter if the things better your society or anyone else's society, or really even your life or anyone else's; it only matters if people want them or can be made to want them. Self is defined by occupation and possessions. Thoughts which do not readily contribute to the production and exchange of goods and services are not particularly useful thoughts.

When in school, the school is right. The school has the high ground, and the child, who is compelled to attend, is at its mercy, save for the rare parent who will stand up. If an administrator says a particular feeling, attitude, outlook or style is responsible for youth, it is responsible; if irresponsible, it is irresponsible. The school is a place to learn to conform and get ready to live in the world. More than it is a school of knowledge, it is a school of the system, and therefore, of life... because the system is life, unless you don't take it for granted that it is. I don't mean to say that all administrators and educators are doing this to children, or that those who are are wittingly doing it. But it is happening, because disciplined obeyance to authority is the primary educational practice.

In legal precepts, law is the end of justice. Anything outside that, it is not an issue of justice, because the law dictates justice. If the police are reprimanding, firing at or otherwise physically or emotionally assaulting anyone, it is because that person or collection of people are in the wrong position, the wrong side of vested authority--not that they have in every case done something morally wrong. If the sober judge, upon the high and regal stand, brings the gavel down on a ruling, that gavel has acquired a holy status. It is the law not just in this case, but of the land henceforth. If someone is denied rights that the law has not given them in the first place, then they have no reason to assume such rights, which must not then exist. Laws, law enforcers, and judiciary officials are a necessary part of our legal system, but there is entirely too much put into the positions themselves, and the absoluteness of the law, and they are too easily abused.

If authority shouldn't be trusted or obeyed by virtue of itself, then, where do we start from, what can be trusted? We have to be able to trust something. Men and women have ways to ask about, experience, learn, and evaluate truth for themselves. That's where it needs to begin, in our noble selves. We have senses with which to experience the world, and minds that can interpret those experiences. And, most importantly, learned and shared knowledge is, or should be, free to all. When something is reviewed, when it is tried and tested and scrutinized and always up for evaluation, and shown to be an accurate description of reality, it isn't begging acceptance based on authority. It isn't enough that the discovering generation tasted the fruit. Each generation must taste it for themselves, and keep tasting, to make sure of how it tastes. But there's more to life than that; we have feelings along with our thoughts, and those feelings are part of us. Morals are precious which are based on empathy, based on human experience. Hell should not be a scare tactic, nor should heaven be a manipulating reward. I believe the human experience should teach us all we need to know about heaven and hell; enough to move away from the hell that is in the world and to create more heaven in it, for oneself and everyone.

Authority everywhere is largely unquestioned and unchallenged--not always the rulings of the authority, but the virtue of the authority itself. It's even more dangerous in this society because there are dictatorships and authoritarian regimes to compare with in order to keep secured a false sense of freedom from it. People are hardly able to rise up and see, and there are few times when they actually get the feeling that they are unwittingly complicit in active deceit, negligent error, and tragic social injustice on a massive scale. But sometimes they do... and those times need to be caught onto, held to, cherished, and made into catalysts. Only if that happens, on a large scale, will the world be ready to embrace the vision of positive change that will occur by knocking down the blinders and barriers that impose themselves on society. Because while still in the framework of that illusory system...

people might think I sound crazy.


Blogger Greg_Shealy said...

Wow, that is a really great post. I can't agree more with you. Good stuff.

I also think the exact same way, but I would say instead that this very thing -- the unquestioning nature with which people approach authority and the degree to which power (in its manifold forms) become accepted wisdom -- makes our lives more meaningful. Evolution has made us from children to adulthood prone to listening to what we hear and believing it. Its our nature. It makes very good evolutionary sense for a child to take as gospel truth when his/her parent says, "don't play in the river or an alligator will eat you." Sure the odds are not very good that the child will in fact be eaten, but natural selection programs him to instinctually listen to the figure of authority. Likewise, the way in which our social system has evolved from prehistoric times requires a certain degree of compliance to authority. When the priest or priestess looks at the moon and says, "it is time to plant our crops," everyone has to do it so harvesting and sowing can be done in time and efficiently. I would say to a degree the compliance you rightly observe is something that we -- as both individuals and a society -- have built into us. It is inherent as our survival instinct and as primal as our desire to protect children. In a way though, I am OK with this. It keeps me from taking myself too seriously, and frankly keeps me from being hopelessly depressed by the actions of others.

Does this mean then that we are doomed to a life of being a zombie on the way to a grave? Or should we move to Montana and live a unibomber existence? I would say that the right answer is neither. Rather, in the absence of being able to change massive power structures, the need to make an individual difference becomes all the more important. Of course I have an interest in politics, write my legislators (darned near daily), vote, contribute money, and engage in political discussions; but ultimately, this is not how to best survive in a world where the society's mechanisms of control are so omnipresent. As you say, we cannot escape our context (ie parents telling you carpet is blue, mental outlook, etc.) or the multiple formal structures consciously designed to control behavior (ie schools, police forces, etc.); however, we nonetheless have the ability to survive WITHIN the world without going insane from the futility.

Shiller was once asked what he wanted to do with his philosophy. He answered (paraphrase), "To make a decent wage and living comfortably while doing as little as possible." He was of course being tongue in cheek, but I think his comment partially answers what we can do. On the one hand, I think, we need to enjoy life and not work twenty hours. We only have one chance at life, so lets see what all it has, and have as fun a time as we can in the process. I want to eat well. I want to love well. I want to drink well. I want to think well. Fight societal power by living in the moment, enjoying it, and making an honest effort to “fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run.”

More importantly (and this is in some ways the point of my post) we can make a difference by engaging in the local and individual. Make individual, small, unnoticed differences that you think will have specific effects. I teach. I write. I just want to get through to a few people, and leave society's underlying power structures to fuck themselves. At least I know that I am making a definite change in my immediate surroundings and can look at the ways that I challenge societal power on an individual level. If I can broaden others lives by sharing with them (not telling them) my opinion, then I can truthfully say that I feel as though I am fully participating in the human experience. In my own little way I am fighting as hard as I can against societal ingrained mechanisms of authority. I am screaming and yelling against the totalitarianism of mundane everydayness. I am just doing it in a mundane everyday way.

Perhaps this illusion of freedom is just the illusion of a fly in a spider web. Perhaps societal power still controls my world outlook. But I can't do anything else, it is who I am, and it is how I make sense of the world.

12:04 AM  
Blogger Joey said...

(I hate to discuss something in terms of evolutionary psychology, because I believe human culture and psychology are emergent phenomena that have new dynamics that can't be reduced to the evolutionary processes from which they may have arisen, but, okay).

Sure, the shaman or the chief held special positions in the tribe, and yes, this was important. Usually, they had certain knowledge or experience that warranted a certain amount of respect and adherence from the tribe members. But, and here is the important thing, it is a disadvantage to the tribe if that adherence to authority becomes so that any of the tribe members are unable to make important realizations themselves--and, as the size of the tribe increases, positions of power are increasingly used to protect or even increase that power. There is a difference between respect for genuine leadership and unquestioning obedience to authority. (what if, say, a person realizes a better indicator of fortune than one of the soothsayer's--the soothsayer may try to stop it to keep his position).

On a more familial scale, dealing with parents and children, it's obvious that any parent that prevents his/her child from learning to question and discover things for himself/herself is crippling that child. It's better for a child to learn from
his/her own perceptions and experiences than to simply take the parents word for things (my mother has my niece believing all sorts of crazy things, and I'm fighting to get her to learn that she can approach the universe and ask questions herself).

There are respected authorities in every establishment, but real revolutions often come from the more unorthodox practitioners on the fringe who are onto something. That isn't to say that the fringe is always to be trusted, but if too much weight is given to the orthodoxy by virtue of their orthodoxy, an oppressive and authoritarian system has emerged. Even when the orthodox opinions have the most truth to them, they have to be accepted by virtue not of authority, but by understanding their intrinsic worth as truth. (As Carl Sagan said, "Arguments from authority don't count. Authorities have been wrong too often.")

About enjoying life... well, as I said from the start, I think that is important too. But I also think the truly meaningful life is more important that the merely pleasant life. And to attain that meaning, you have to transcend the confines of authority.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Greg_Shealy said...

I have to say I really like this discussion. It has been a very good while since I could talk about free will and authority in such a way.

I think you are absolutely right, and I certainly didn't mean that we should just have fun in life. Your are absolutely right. My point was that we need to think well and interact with others, and in order to do either effectively we need to realize that it is an illusion to think we can escape the authority structures in which we are caught.

The problem is, simply put, that we cannot transcend structures of authority without living the life of a medieval hermit. Authority (in its nearly infinite forms) surround us. We have no more control to resist it than does the piece of driftwood in the ocean. They range from mundane expressions of state authority (traffic signals), ‘moral’ patterns of behavior that arisen from socialization (opening a door for an old lady), to something as basic as how we understand our very own body and sickness in it.

Power structures are simply inescapable so long as we interact in any way with others. That is the reason I brought up evolution, because we are hard wired to work in communities, interact according to informal rules of social behavior, and obey formal and informal power structures. Look at common primate behavior (collective grooming, communication, the existence of dominance hierarchies, mother/infant bonding, learned behavior, aggressive/affiliative behavior). Humans, apes, and monkeys do these all. To transcend structures of authority would be to forsake something as fundamental to the human (and I guess primate) experience as abandoning learned behavior.

My point is simply that it is impossible to be engaged in society and simultaneously transcend authoritative systems. The mechanisms of societal control are simply too great. Moreover, they are to a degree necessary. We have to drive on the right side of the road and we cannot steal when we feel like it. I guess we could move to the wilderness and live some Rousseauian dream, but living in the woods and eating acorns is not my (and I assume your) idea of a worthwhile life.

Given this, I would posit that we accept our fate as being mere products of social context and are at the mercy of any number of subtle and formal authoritarian power structures. Once accepting this there comes a freedom, which is in and of itself, I think, paradoxically a type of transcendence of these structures. We can then focus on increasing the well-being ourselves and those in immediate social orbit. We can think freely, while be cognizant of the fact that we are inextricably intertwined with society. There is the true transcendence. As Lao Tzu wrote:

That which you want to contract
should first be expanded
That which we weaken
should first be reinforced.
That which you want to pull down
should first be raised
From where you want to take
to there should first be put.
I call it
comprehend, before things clarify.

5:02 PM  
Blogger Joey said...

Yeah, this is where I think you may be misunderstanding me. I'm not saying that we need to be completely free from our nature; indeed, human nature is essentially tied to human happiness. I'm not saying I would want to give up, say, sex or relationships, simply because it is my inborn nature and societal convention that I seek those things. What I'm arguing against is blind adherence to authority. In many cases, this could be freedom to pursue our true natures.

I know this discussion isn't essentially political, but there's a strong political example. When most people hear the word "anarchist," which is one of the words I use to describe my personal political (and many other arenas) philosophy, they assume it means a society without order. But that is a great misconception; the intention is to have order without orderers, and rules without rulers. Indeed, society needs rules and order to work at all. But the question is for whose benefits and prejudices those rules are set, and who that order favors. Why in the world would I want the freedom to drive on the wrong side of the road when it could get me and others killed? Would I live recklessly to assert my freedom to do so? No, of course not. Well, some people do, yes. But such a senseless kind of freedom is not the kind of freedom I would seek. The freedom I seek is the freedom to actualize the most beautiful, noble, and meaningful things in my nature. For me, that would entail being courteous and safe while driving, helping old ladies, and engaging in activities that promote joy and fulfilment in the social activities between myself and others. It would also entail other things, such as, for example, directing my own creative activity instead of being a wage slave to someone else, or following my own path instead of going along with the status quo. This is where the questioning of authority and sometimes defying of authority comes into play. Visionaries and revolutionists are often non-conformists who have a deeper awareness of their nature, the nature of the world, and the things that are the most important to them.

One last thought about human nature--there are better things and worse things about it. It is an important reference point for our values and how we live our lives and function in society, but we must not let ourselves feel that we are constrained and determined by inborn nature. As I said before, human mind, consciousness, culture, and actions are emergent phenomena, complex patterns that are more than the evolutionary processes that gave rise to them. That means that we choose the things of our nature that seek to enhance or subdue; as Nietzsche said, to find meaning in life, we must engage in self-overcoming to do so. In an existential sense, we can become what we decide to become instead of consigning ourselves to fatalist determinism. That's one of the things I mean by transcendence.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Greg_Shealy said...

Well, that makes a lot of sense. I am afraid that I just misunderstood you. Sorry about that! Thanks a lot again for making me think.

7:20 PM  

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