Thursday, December 3, 2015

Authority and despair

We wonder why anxiety and depression are so prevalent these days.  Millions of people profess to be unfulfilled and dissatisfied with their lives.  Some are driven to suicide, some to ostentatious acts of violence against random strangers.  Most choose just to soldier on in varying degrees of apathy.  You might be one of them.  You might feel that your life really doesn't matter, and in a certain tragic sense, you're absolutely right.

We've built - on a foundation of good intentions, to be sure - a society in which you, as an individual, don't matter.  Consider the perspective of a child, and the things done to you by people with good intentions:

At five years or so of age, you're forced to leave your family for several hours a day to sit in a room full of strangers, whether or not you're emotionally or intellectually equipped for it yet.  You are segregated by age, and discouraged from interacting with children a year younger or older.  You are told when you may speak, when you may eat, when you may play, and when you may empty your bladder.  You are told what you must learn, in what order, and by what methods.  Your interests, preferences, strengths, weaknesses, and values as an individual are summarily disregarded.  If you disobey, or fail to perform to expectations, you are punished.  Obedience to authority is the highest value.

You are also judged.  You aren't permitted to learn at your own pace; your progress is constantly monitored.  If you fall behind the average, that's a bad thing, and you know it.  If you get ahead of your designated age group, they have no idea what to do with you, either.  You could be either held back or advanced a grade, and ostracized from the other children you've been made to see as your peers.   

After twelve years or so, you leave to go out in the "real world," but your individuality is still largely scorned.  You're sorted and categorized by the government according to your ethnicity and ancestry, your place of origin, your sex, your age, your lifestyle, your income level, your skin color...You are told how you may or may not earn a living, how a large portion of your income must be spent, what you may or may not do with your own property, with whom you must or must not interact.  If you disobey, your property may be confiscated, or you might be locked in a cage, even if your choices have caused no harm to anyone.  Obedience to authority is the highest value.

Conformity is necessary to keep the machine running smoothly.  It's an assembly line, a factory.  School is geared toward mass-producing "educated minds" who will be "good citizens."  That too is an assembly line, in which your function is to generate tax revenue for the state and not rock the boat. 

Assembly lines are wonderful for efficiently producing exact copies of a model.  Raw materials are refined to a uniform consistency, and pressed into molds.  Sometimes that's exactly what's needed.  An assembly line is not so great for turning out works of art, though.  An artist considers all the strengths and weaknesses of his or her medium, and uses them to produce something of unique beauty and significance, with no two pieces being exactly the same.

Should a human mind be a mass-produced product, or a work of art?  What effect might embracing the wrong method have on peoples' mental health, on their sense of self, on their feelings of fulfillment and purpose?  And how might anxious, alienated, unfulfilled people behave toward their fellow man?  With respect and kindness, or with suspicion, envy, mistrust, or even murderous rage?

We tend to accept things the way they are because we know no better, much as an abused child might accept his abuse as simply "how it is."  That's just how families work, he thinks, and where would he be without them?

We're taught to fear the possibility of true change, of true freedom, of true respect for individuality.  We may fear what we see happening around us, but we fear even more what might happen if we change course, and so we double down.  More laws, more authorities, less wiggle room for the individual to do something unforeseen and screw up the plan.  We'll accept chains on ourselves for a guarantee that the other guy will be chained, too. 

The way things are now may not be ideal, but the devil you know is better than the one you don't know.  It's often easier to pretend the one you don't know isn't even worth acknowledging as a possibility, much less seriously considering. 

Does it have to be this way?  Are we building the best possible society, with clear thought and respect for our fellow human beings?  Or is this thing we've wrought simply the product of fear and clinging to hopes of a false certainty that doesn't exist in this universe?

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