Saturday, 21 August 2010


Apologies if the last post came across as a bit abrupt. It reflects a frustration I've felt for most of my life. The feeling of a huge difference in priorities between myself and others, the feeling that most people have adopted one or more of the shoulds of the last post and are busy working away at them, without any doubt that they are correct.
On the whole, I don't really mind what views other people hold as long as their influence is largely benign. In fact I can often feel more comfortable around people with less conventional opinions because they can at least relate to the feelings of isolation and threat that comes from being different.

The problem comes when you're forced to conform to other people's values.
School and employment have been difficult for me. Generally I can't get over the feeling that these institutions are engaged in a bizarre set of rituals strongly enforced by people who unquestioningly consider them valuable. A lot of the rituals, like enforced appearance, fixed schedules, restricted breaks and eating times, can be considered acts of submission, similar to the routines that many young children experience when they are being raised. I have never really respected these little psychological manipulations, but as a necessity of avoiding the conflict that breaking them entails, I tend to conform.
There are few things that I find more disturbing than the fanatical certainty in the eyes of authorities and peers when enforcing or supporting these rules, especially if people are suffering because of them.
Although, I should add I have had the occasional chuckle when the rules force authorities to act absurdly. I remember a time in school when an otherwise sensible teacher decided to clamp down on pupils wearing boots instead of shoes. The problem was that all the footwear looked alike because the trousers covered them. She came into class looking slightly crazed and started pulling up the trouser legs of boys she didn't like the look of. It was moments like that, that undermined many authorities in my eyes.
Of course it's not simply the conditioned obedience, from almost the very beginning of school, there is repeated ranking and assessment. Without explanation, each person is judged as being 'good' or 'bad' at arbitrary challenge after arbitrary challenge. It didn't take long for me to realise that these assessments are rarely a measurement of any practical or socially beneficial ability. However, it was not until I was older that I could understand their role as another form of motivation and manipulation. The sad thing is that so many people view the process of schooling as being for learning, the development of mental capabilities. Not a single lesson (at least not one that I attended) encourages the asking of questions and the creation of explanations, unless you have your own motivations, few people try to understand the purpose of education. It's a rare and wonderful surprise when you find people who do though.

Another worrying realisation, is that so many 'successful' people have been a little too brainwashed by this process. This was brought home to me when I saw the 2010 state of the union address, each side cheering or groaning depending on which team they played for, but it was when Barak Obama said 'I will not accept second place for America' and the whole room gave him a standing ovation, that I realised that they primarily cared about winning and probably didn't really care what is was they were winning at. Being a little too keen on winning can lead to some nasty consequences.

For Britain the emphasis seems to be less on winning and a bit more on striving for parental approval, trying to be 'good enough'. I met an Eton graduate recently, I liked him, he seemed miserable. We were at the bar and my dad came up and tapped me on the shoulder, he asked if I could order a drink for him. I'm very lucky that for the most part my dad and I have successfully transitioned from father and son to friends. The guy commented on how he wished his relationship with his father was more like mine. From the pain in his eyes I felt I had an insight into the frightning effect boarding school had on some people, how institutions can exploit the strange need (evolutionarily speaking) for most (boys in particular) to need the approval of their fathers. The Etonion in question was driven into a profession he didn't want (corporate law) because it was 'good' and led to lots of money. It's worrying to think how many professions are dominated by unhappy people searching for approval. Often from parents with the same unresolved needs.

With so much institutional manipulation ramping up our drives and with so little consideration of what we're actually driving towards, it's little wonder many people feel a desire to go back to a simpler life. It's unfortunate that such desires can lead to an enthusiastic luddite streak, fostered, I suspect, by the very institutions that drive this dysfunctional society (and who are threatened by technological innovation). Because, for me, the natural solution to this problem is technology.
Art may help you forget your problems (or at least feel less bad about them), government (when working well) may stop them getting worse, but if you really want to solve a problem, it's technology, and the rational scientific thinking that it's based on, that really gets the job done.
We live in an era of relentless technological progress, and it's fascinating to me that such a gulf exists between the progress in technology and that of other fields. Of course that's not to say that how these capabilities are being used is ultimately benefiting people, but it clearly has potential.
Despite this, most people involved in technology are generally mocked by everyone else. At heart, this mocking seems to be rooted in a disparity between our evolutionary status values and our educational ones. Being good at technology doesn't generally require that you get on with people or even understand them, in fact it's probably an advantage if you're a bit of a loner, giving you time to understand the complexities of whichever technology you're dealing with. Most people aren't thinking too far from what bubbles into their heads, so most reasoning on status doesn't go too far from "Is this person fertile?" "Is this person free from disease/weakness?" "Is this person likely to protect me/ensure I get resources?" and all the physical and behavioural traits associated with signaling this. And like any disparity between what we feel is important and what is formally acknowledged, people are driven to undermine and ridicule those who appear successful yet lack an appearance that they respect.

However, elaborating on technology and its virtues is probably best kept for another post. The real question is, what can these experiences teach me in terms of how I should act?
Now it would be preferable to build up a morality based on some strong rigorous principles, but the reality is that even when people do this, they are often just rationalising their own feelings. Feelings that have been formed from their experiences and their conditioning. So if I'm being honest, what are the shoulds that I've adopted.

I should control how I am manipulated.

I generally associate manipulation with suffering. In my childhood, the psychological techniques used to control behaviour tended to work against me, so I quickly learned if I was going to improve things for myself I'd have to understand this process and protect against it.
Although studying such effects has given me a lifelong fascination with how they work. I have very strong emotions and when the manipulation is positive, I love its effects. From films to national pride, I love to be engrossed in the sea of psychological triggers that shape mood and emotion.

I should be honest unless I do not respect the person I am lying to.

Understanding manipulation can get very lonely sometimes, you feel an enormous gulf between yourself and other people. And just like like a critic, just because you understand something doesn't mean you can use that knowledge yourself. My strong emotions tend to show on my face so being a manipulator is not really an option (even if it was a desired one). As a result I try to be straightforward with people, my hope is that they will be honest in return and ideally through this I can find people who have similar values.
I've added the exception because of the (depressing) realities of education, work and social interactions. Life often forces you into situations where complete disclosure will just lead to a conflict that achieves nothing. I hate being forced into these situations and resent the people who force me into them. I don't respect people who cannot interact in a genuine way or who choose to believe an easy lie rather than a difficult truth.

I should try to make others feel good (particularly if they do not feel they have value).

This is the one kind of manipulation that I generally agree with. Having experienced sadness myself, I feel it strongly in others. The difficulty comes when my desire to be honest conflicts with a desire to make others feel good. I know that a lot of these ideas would make an otherwise content person unhappy, unfortunately these people are a little lost for me. My hope is to find a perspective that is both honest and can lead to a good life. Ideally I can find (or create) a community where I can experience this, where people can be both wise and mutually supportive.

I should decide for myself what is valuable.

And finally, I feel I should work out what is valuable. Most manipulation is grounded in how we determine value. Protecting against those manipulations means understanding whether something is important or not. If I could determine what is valuable for myself, that knowledge would be a great defence against the negative views of others. It would also offer a basis for making me feel content with my choices and actions. Of course such a value system would have to be true, otherwise I would have to spend my time deliberately avoiding thinking about it. Which, because of my personality, is pretty much impossible. The ultimate satisfaction would be if these values were shared with others. Life can feel like being an undercover cop when you're in a community whose values you don't agree with, and escaping that feeling is (I think) what I'm really searching for.

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