The title of this blog post has been repeating in my head for the last couple minutes.
I just read a rant by the comedian Russell Brand (who is kind of my hero) about how the Western political / economic system needs to be overthrown. I basically agree with him that modern capitalism is broken because it doesn’t serve the good of the whole, and tends to lead to lowered rather than raised consciousness. But I get worried by the progressive / socialist program for change, too, because it seems to be about replacing freedom (which is the one thing that capitalism really gets right) with coercion. I think Russell’s with me, insofar as he goes after progressives for not having a sense of humor (it’s hard to be repressive if you have a sense of humor). But still it’s hard when the counter-culture agenda is anti-freedom / pro-conformity.
My feelings on this can be summed up by my all-time favorite political quote, “You’d better free your mind instead”.
So okay. Where I agree with progressives is on the notion of “consciousness”; i.e., that there’s a differentiable spectrum in the quality of human experience ranging from mental slavery / addiction to love / transcendence / freedom, and that this is a variable that belongs in the realm of social discourse. This is in stark contrast to classic liberal thought (liberal in the founding-fathers way, not the democrats way) where the basic unit of social / political existence is the (white male landholding) enfranchised individual, who are all “created equal” and act / vote with autonomy. Economics, which as an academic discipline is in many ways the intellectual heir of this line of thinking, has its concept of the rational actor… the idea that humans don’t act as rational agents is a new exciting development for economics, and I think the concept that humans might be psychologically different from each other, or even more radically, that the the psychological profile of someone can change in response to personal growth and transformation, seems to be outside the academic pale.
What I would like to see is a unification of these strains of thought. There is a lot that the sort of classic liberal model gets right… basic individual rights and freedoms, grounded in the statutory equality of everyone… plus the robustness of system design that works in spite of individual’s selfish behaviors. But on the flip side, the idea that consciousness is perfectible, that humans can improve and be non-selfish, is the reason to care about the existence of the system in the first place.
This is a really old debate, and for most of the 20th century the free market model has won most of the big wars, but I don’t want the debate, I want the synthesis.
Anyway, I started trying to make a point about psychological freedom, and ended up drifting into political freedom, which is related but different. What I was trying to say about psychological freedom is that the psychological health of a society, the degree to which it has a positive rather than negative impact on consciousness, is the degree to which there are socially-approved ways of processing experience.
“Processing experience” is basically the ability to express, reflect on, and share the things you encounter in life. It’s a marking-to-market of ideas against reality, the ultimate destruction of bullshit. I think one of the most important books I’ve read in the last ten years is Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton which lays out a fully developed theory of how honest encounter with and transformation of experience is the most important — maybe only important — component of psychological health, happiness, and growth. However, the method that Brad is promoting — radical honesty — is most definitely not socially-approved. The mainstream reaction to it is, this is weird, this is disturbing, this seems like a really really bad idea, which is why Blanton’s ideas have remained pretty fringe.
However it’s possible to agree with his diagnosis without agreeing with his prescription. (It’s not just him, to be clear… a lot of his ideas are very consistent with Buddhist psychology, and have been increasingly picked up by western scientific thought — c.f. the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn). Societies have a large variety of approved ways of processing experience. They all come with various pros and cons.
The thing to understand about experience (this is one of my biggest takeaways from Radical Honesty) is that perception is ephemeral. The reactions, both intellectual and emotional, that one has to the external world are naturally fleeting, and this process of continually having and then un-having perceptions is healthy. Pathology is being locked into intellectual / emotional perceptions, where the mind stays rigid as experience curves away from it. (Here’s another post I wrote on this from a different angle). Honest expression of perception is dangerous to the degree that expresser and audience are unaware of its ephemerality and mistake it for fact. For instance it might be honest to say “I hate you” to a loved one, but that’s not an absolute universal truth, it’s more true for about 2 seconds, and the very act of saying it tends to make it un-true.
So the various societal mechanisms for processing experience tend to be ways of containerizing the expression so that the transitoriness can play out before someone misinterprets things and stuff gets out of control. There are many, many failure-patterns. Probably the biggest one is the person making the expression feeling socially pressured to be consistent, and keep holding onto their belief to avoid being “wrong”. This can lead to cascading effects where it the consistency pressure causes the belief to become integrated into one’s sense of personal identity, and eventually whole cultures form around such beliefs… this is how things like political parties, religions, and other similar pathologies propagate.
So from an anthropological view, I’m very interested in how different societies do this. I don’t know enough about this but during slavery in the US there were a lot of secret ways — songs with cryptic lyrics — for slaves to express and process their experience without being punished for it. This is an extreme case where honest expression was explicitly and violently forbidden, but every society has a variety of pressures against such expression and compensatory mechanisms that arise in response.
So, what are the socially-approved ways of processing experience in our culture? Here are some that come to my mind, with some pros and cons:
-Being drunk. This is a huge one for college students and young professionals. The period of drunkenness provides a cleanly delineated container for thoughts and behaviors that wouldn’t be acceptable normally. There’s a dual protection: 1. everyone around is generally also drunk, which suppresses their ability to be judgmental, and 2. there’s a degree to which you’re allowed to disown the things you say and do in the hard light of morning. (Although this ability is capped — there are limits to the degree to which one can disown stuff, which generally correspond to the degree to which one does something which is instrinsically not transient, such as physically hurting someone else).
-Social media. Social media allows people to express themselves to the community without addressing themselves to a specific individual. This creates a space where it’s possible to express things that might be hard to say if one had to find someone specific to say them to. On the flip side, there’s a lot of community scrutiny of what people say and publish on social media, which acts as a censoring mechanism. So it’s definitely a mixed bag, and I think a lot of the ambivalence people have about social media (most people gripe about it, but most people use it) comes down to this.
(There’s a whole essay to be written about why I hate Medium so much… it represents the ultimate social media failure mode, the fetishization of performing expression in exchange for approval, leading to pure performance without expression).
-Creating art. This is a very very old one (though I guess so is getting drunk). It’s okay to talk about how much you hurt over your breakup if you release it in an EP. (I just saw Frightened Rabbit play last night — their whole oeuvre is basically convincing audiences to cheer along to their expressions of emotional pain. Not to be critical, though… they’re really good at it, and being an audience is also a way of participating in the processing of experience).
Anyway that’s what comes to mind off the top of my head. There’s probably about a billion more words to be written on the various ways these dynamics play out. For instance, in the workplace… I’ve been watching The Office, after reading this brilliant analysis of it. Or in subcultures… in fact, I suspect that subcultures largely exist because they offer alternate approval channels for processing experience.
The thing to point out, though, is that all the above methods are somewhat indirect and have drawbacks. My guess is some degree of indirectness is necessary; there has to be some containerization, some context in which experience can be processed with enough safety margin to allow the more explosive thoughts and emotions to naturally dissipate before they harm the social fabric. But there’s probably better and worse ways of doing this, and maybe one of the big problems with contemporary politics and capitalism is that there aren’t good general mechanisms. So to tie this back with where this started, I think what I’m saying is that handling the dichotomy between capitalism and socialism might come down to carving out a space for psychological freedom, which can be oppressed on either end of the ideological spectrum, but is inherently connected with the social conditions… you can have free minds in an oppressive society, but they are forced to be marginalized rebels.