Saturday, 27 April 2013
Of That Which You Oppose
Winston Churchill once made quite a profound observation about how the British people handled the Second World War. He said that the war passed through phases. You had the 'phoney war' period, you had the Blitz, you had the North African campaign, you had D-Day.
And in every phase, the British people seemed to think that this time, this phase would last forever. That this phase was the war. That it would go on, just like this, in these terms, until it ended.
Of course, it didn't. Each phase ended, as phases do, and a new phase began. But every time the assumptions of stasis were broken, they would reform, very quickly, around the new phase of the war.
This speaks, I believe, to a very deep characteristic of all humans. That whatever the situation is in which we find ourselves, we very rapidly build the assumption that it is eternal. No matter how many phases we go through, the one we're in now is always the one which we feel is the normal one. The real one. The final one.
Well there's a completely different way you can look at human beings, at what they're fundamentally doing and why. That we are not the rational processing machines that we assume we are, but something quite different in nature.
That humans do not process rationally, instead fill fictional rational processes with moral colour and emotional quality, for the sake of show.
The importance of stasis takes on a completely new level of importance from this perspective. Not just of generating a static understanding, but of defending it. Maintaining it. Colluding with others to protect it from what might disturb it.
This is because every display needs a context for it to have meaning. If you are a brave and noble warrior of Christ, heroically slaying brown-skinned infidels, in the context of Medieval Europe, you are a hero. In the context of the modern world (or at least that parts I'm happy to visit), you are a deluded and brutal monster.
This is why there is so much at stake when it comes to assumptions. They are the bedrock on which the display of the human self is built, the stage on which the action happens, and makes sense. To question that context is to throw into doubt the purity and goodness of the self who acts within it.
That's why people act to entrench assumptions, and entrench the idea that the situation that they are in is eternal. If the context is eternal, the display has eternal relevance. And that's the payoff. That's what matters. A display of self that is unimpeachable, and who's moral importance resonates with the ground underfoot, and the stars in the sky.
But of course, just having a flat, dull, eternal context is of little use or value. If the context does not provide sufficient fodder for vibrant display, it is useless.
And so there is another, closely related dynamic. It is the movement toward hysteria. Toward the construction of a conflict, and a siege mentality, where the situation is deeply interwoven with, and essentially dominated by, an enemy, or threat.
That enemy can be anything. The most easy and convenient targets are often the ones chosen. The enormous but utterly irrational pull of racism throughout modern history makes a lot more sense from this point of view.
In fact, you could go further. From this perspective, bigotry makes sense.
That's not to say it makes moral sense, or is in any way a good thing. It's very much not. But when you look at the specific contour of all kinds of bigotry, from racism through homophobia to the plight of the 'untouchables' in India's caste system, it can be very hard to understand why such things occur. Why they persist. What their fundamental nature is.
And because it's so difficult to comprehend, it can be very difficult to overcome - both socially, and personally. And on a personal level, a very large part of what makes racist abuse, and homophobic abuse so deeply hurtful is the assumption that the people who are being bigoted hold that opinion because of something you have done, or something that you are.
From this new point of view, however, it can be clearly seen that this isn't true at all. The actual reality of what black people are actually like, or what gay people are actually like, has essentially no relevance to the phenomenon of bigotry.
What matters is that they are different in some way that is easily communicated, and do not have the capacity to meaningfully challenge the abuse. Everything else is incidental - everything. The actual content of the vivid, passionately expressed racial fury of the white supremacist, for instance, isn't really relevant to that white supremacist.
What's relevant is that there's something to appear passionate about. Everything else is filler.
The same is true with gay people. The actual content of the vicious abuse that many gay people have to deal with on a day to day basis is not chosen because of any actual problem bigoted people have with homosexuals. What instead is happening is that people who want to display pick on the topic of gay people, because it is clearly delineated, and easy to fill with lurid sexual content.
The extension of legal protection for minority groups, and specific recognition for hate crimes has been hugely important, and will continue to be, when it comes to reducing these things in society.
Another thing of great impact is dragging this abuse into the light of day - which is what the Civil Rights movement in America did very well. Once the reality of it is seen (attack dogs, water cannon, etc) very few people have the stomach for it. And the mass condemnation that results strikes to the very core of the reason bigotry exists in the first place.
What is of no use is black people, gay people, or any other minority that is subject to abuse, beating themselves up or blaming themselves for what is going on. This isn't a pep talk. It's just the facts. There's really no point - not because it makes you feel bad, but because the abuse simply is not connected to the reality of what is going on with either of these groups of people.
In both cases, the context is built, and set in stone, complete with an eternal enemy who can be brutalised, misused and crushed. All for the sake of something very specific. A clear goal, that emanates from the bones of human nature.
To display. To display morality, in some clearly set terms that resonate with others who accept those terms. And in that resonance, the true nature of the human self is revealed. A mating display, to attract others, and spread the genes.
In this way human beings are beholden to their evolution. Constrained by it, even as it casts all this in the compelling (if somewhat superficial) illusion of rationality.
And were the world itself to be a static place, this would probably be all humanity could ever be. Some people do question their actions. But few question the context against which those actions occur. And those who do?
They find that their questions - and any answers they might have that would disturb the context - face an amazingly well-organised wall of silence, mockery, and neglect.
So well organised it is, in fact, that it is far more effective than anything human beings actually intentionally do. If you want to organise a business, or a sports team, or even a little event like a birthday party, getting human beings to all act in concert is often like trying to herd bees.
But when it comes to assumptions, and having those assumptions thrown into question, human beings respond with an incredible unity, almost like a massive flock of birds moving as one. The tyranny that entrenches belief systems, and leaves human beings open to the systems of control that those beliefs empower, does not extend from the top down.
It extends from the ground, up. From the masses, upward. It is not political masters imposing stasis on the people. It is the people imposing stasis on themselves and each other.
Political power just exploits it. And static delusion does rather leave human beings open to exploitation.
But in fact, it's even deeper than this. Political power often has to exploit it. The people at the top of the mountain are often the least able to undertake any serious reconsideration of the foundations of the mountain they have climbed, whether they want to, or not.
It has happened, but is not common, and rarely does it have any longevity.
The strangely short history (all things considered) of Soviet Russia is one example of this. Another, far more ancient, would be the attempted reforms of the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenatun. A radical reordering of social and cultural assumptions from the top down is harder than you might think, and harder still to make stick.
Much of human history - certainly over the last 500 years or so - has been the wrenching story of these assumptions colliding with reality, and the extreme levels of effort that human beings throw in to maintaining ideas and belief systems that are clearly false.
Much of the noise, stasis and chaos of today can also be clearly understood from this point of view as well.
The incredibly potent, very deep and instinctive movement to close down new avenues of thought. To ignore and neglect them. To quickly contain and shelve new perspectives. To render them safe, and tame. To protect that iron consensus that provides a stable backdrop against which to display.
But we are living in, as the Chinese say, interesting times. The advances in technology, especially communication technology, make these assumptions far more vulnerable than they have ever been. To put in from Churchill's perspective, the phases of the war have never changed so quickly.
Static assumptions have one goal - to entrench a compelling backdrop for a vibrant display. To be unchallenged, to be stable, to allow hysterical moral display, and preserve the context that makes it seem coherent.
And it might seem from this point of view that stasis is the enemy, that challenging stasis is the way forward for human beings.
But of course, that's just moving the pieces around. When stasis becomes the enemy, we just get a new context, complete with fodder for hysterical shrieking. Change for change's sake becomes the answers. Many radical movements of our time fall into this trap - I support whatever change can be had, because I am radical.
It ends in a kind of reflex protest to everything that is older than a week, and any new reforms or things labelled 'progressive' are defended with immediate and extreme fury, that has eternal meaning in the context of the eternal importance given to change.
Something else has to serve as the beginning of a new way forward - and when I say new, I don't just mean new in the context of our novelty driven times. New shoes, new clothes, new gadgets, new fashions. The product cycle, basically - which serves only to put a new skin on the same old process.
I'm talking about something new in human history. A new dawn for humanity, a new path that has genuinely never been walked before on any serious scale, or for any serious amount of time.
I think it is arguable that at several points through history, individuals have attempted to instigate this new path, but I also believe it is undeniable that their efforts have, historically speaking, always been subsumed into a new rigid consensus.
Made rigid and set, in ritual, ceremony, reverence and stasis because of the process we have just been looking at.
But something has changed now. The times in which we live open up a new opportunity to instigate that change on a much wider scale, and in a much truer form, than has ever been seen before.
Nothing is guaranteed. This is not a shoe-in. It is a window of opportunity, nothing more. And maybe it will not be enough - but maybe it will be. Because when it comes to static assumptions, the cavalry has arrived.
The cavalry of constant, rapid change. The speed of change, change in culture, change in the social terrain, change in technology, change in society, has accelerated to such a degree that rigid assumptions no longer really need to be challenged.
They die fast now. They die anyway. Almost as soon as a new idea is coined it begins to lose relevance and die.
The impermanence of that which you oppose has never been more palpable. In ages past you might have opposed (quietly) the rigid dominance of the Medieval Church, but the impermanence of that structure would not have been obvious. And moreover - it would not have been practical to rely on that impermanence to sufficiently erode that structure, in your lifetime, to allow unsanctioned ideas to flourish.
There is so much people oppose now. This enemy and that. This ignorance. That fear. This bigotry. That system. This structure. That.
But just as the static context fast becomes irrelevant, so too does the threat, and the enemy. And so new contexts are built, new enemies are created. It would perhaps be somewhat uncharitable (but perhaps not untrue) to suggest that this, when you really boil it down, is the main social purpose of the news media.
But even then, with all the funding and selective reporting, and moral panic and hysteria, technologically advanced attempts to re-institute new fearful contexts work against each other. So many piled on so many - so many potential fears and horrors, so many new enemies to hate, and flashy worlds of packaged conflict to occupy?
After a while, even the dullest and least interested members of the audience begin to raise an eyebrow.
The cavalry that has arrived is the exponentially increasing speed of change. It is not some little issue now, but a rapid and moving force that has no sensitivity to the human need for static understanding.
There is no longer much purpose in challenging the system. Reality is challenging the system. And reality, unlike you, is bigger than the system, older than the system, and several orders of magnitude more robust.
The interesting thing is this. That seeing the impermanence of that which you oppose takes the eternal out of that opposition.
It removes the power that conflict draws by casting itself as eternal.
This strikes to the very heart of the old chains of human nature. The construction of conflict, and prisons of thought. The generation of suffering and pain for the sake of display.
So deep is it, in fact, that it might seem tempting to see if there is any way to impose this idea on society.
But as we have seen, the problems of society are symptoms, not causes. They rise from the source, which is human beings, you and me. And a problem cannot be resolved unless it is addressed at source.
And because of this, it is not in believing this idea, or in pushing it as a belief, that its power can be realised.
It is instead in your heart, in the most intimate spaces of your soul, where change must begin.
To be the change you wish to see in the world. And not to impose it on others, but to spread the word of such a possibility to those brave enough to attempt it.
Consider the very real impermanence of that which you oppose.
This is a genuine gateway to a new kind of living. The impermanence of that which you oppose removes the ability of opposition, conflict, anxiety and pain from casting themselves as eternal.
Emotional opposition is the beating heart of human agony.
In this, there is incredible peace to be had. The desire to fight, to create fights, to sustain them - it is very fundamental to the human animal, but very unpleasant also. It shuts down perspective, narrows vision to a laser-thin line, and living in this way means that your experience of life is profoundly narrow. Far more fraught with fear and anxiety. With loneliness and rage.
A more open life, happier, more replete with creativity and the true, simple joy of being alive.
And if you just do this, you should get some good results. You're striking very deep. To make these results permanent means you have to strike a little deeper still, and that's what the article One Song is all about.
But it's not just an anesthetic for the soul, or a way to experience a fuller kind of life, although yes, it does have those qualities. It also, interestingly enough, opens up a new way to effect very dramatic change with quite small amounts of effort.
Not no effort. It isn't magic. But in considering the very real impermanence of that which you oppose, and in this being able to step away from the useless noise and fury of fruitless opposition, something else hoves into view. A way of doing things that is very different from the old, conflicted ways that create more problems than they solve.
I remember a lesson I learned from a kung fu teacher. He said this - that when men want to show how strong they are (usually to ladies), they tense their arms, and show their muscles. But then, it's not their biceps (the muscles along the top of the arm) they tense, it's their triceps too - the muscles along the bottom of the arm.
And it looks very strong indeed. But both muscles are working against each other, and so no matter how strong it looks, it generates no net force.
This is like that. Instead of making a display of conflict for the illusion of strength, you're free to actually use your arm as intended, and though it does not look anything like as spectacular, a new option arises.
Because instead of pouring all your effort into conflict, to destroy and defeat the foe, be that foe fear or anxiety, sadness or despair, anger or any of the manufactured scapegoats we are given to despise, you can pour it into something else.
Instead of beating down the false (which reality can do far better than you can anyway) you can do something else. You can cultivate the true.
But what is the true? What is to be tended in this world where all static thought is meat for the feed?
Well, put it like this. Reality will shatter static assumptions. But it will not shatter itself.
Work to uncover the true contour of the real, the hidden nature of humanity itself, to bring new clarity to the deep ways in which those brave enough to make the attempt can genuinely break free of the chains of the past?
All that is shaken will be. And only the unshakable remains.
And there is quite an amusing irony to be seen here. Because after so much effort and so much pain, so much blood and so much blindness, all in the service of preserving an illusion of eternal context, the truth is, there actually is an eternal context anyway, that needs no maintenance, and sets no yoke around our spirit.
Not things in reality. Not the form that reality takes right now. But the reality in which all forms occur, the convergence of possibility into the real, that moment of total coherence that is the nexus of all being.
We have spent many thousands of years inventing fictional eternities on which to stand and show.
Perhaps it is time we put away such childish things, and, in the spirit of humility, curiosity and hope, set ourselves to discover.
To discover the shape and contour of what can never be shaken. What can never break, or be superceded, or become irrelevant, or change.
That the only stable mindset in a world where all our fictions die is a mindset that seeks the real, whatever the cost, and whatever it may be.
This is the revolution of our time, but not if we choose to fight it.
Only if we choose to cultivate it.
This is what is called a 'paradigm shift'. A fundamental reordering of understanding, but not for the sake of fictional, enforced and shallow stasis, based on false eternities. Instead, it is for the sake of that which is already eternal. The truth.
Philip K Dick once penetratingly said that "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." And he was right. And it is in that step beyond belief that is the step away from the past, and into the future.
It is a sad thing that the majority of people today who give any time whatsoever to thinking about such things, can only see the possibility of fiction replacing fiction.
But what if what replaces the fiction isn't some new theory that tries to impose a false stasis? What if, instead, it's something different in kind. Different in nature.
Instead of arrogantly imposing ideas that suit us on a world that shatters them almost as soon as they come, we do something else. We accept that the little fictions we create can never be anything like as stable, or as potent, or as elegant, or as beautiful, as the insights we find when we open our eyes to the real.
Discovery, instead of manufacturing. Humility to the deep truths of reality, not an ignorant denial of them in the sake of what suits our little needs in the next five minutes. Curiosity about their nature, their contour, their shape and connection, not wilful blindness to questions that we'd rather bury for the sake of our little egos.
It is a very deep change of direction, a total reordering of how to deal with knowledge. Thomas Kuhn wrote of how such revolutions occur. And they do not occur by fighting.
It's not about persuading those who refuse to consider, or who refuse to be pioneers. It's not about changing the mentality at the top. The top is in this up to its neck, and is very jumpy about new ways of thinking.
Instead, it's about nurturing and supporting the work of those who do consider, and do pioneer. Much as you might water a plant. You don't need to force a plant to grow, not if it has good roots. But it does need to be watered, and tended - especially if it is growing in the midst of many, aggressive weeds.
The time has come - but not for a new idea. Instead, a new way of handling ideas. Of handling belief, and handling assumption. Not to protect and enforce it against reality, but to throw it against reality, and by doing so, and seeing how it breaks, discovering more of the real.
And no matter how deeply entrenched the assumptions of today are, and how much many in power and positions of intellectual authority refuse to allow serious questioning of the assumptions on which their authority is based?
Well, put it like this. They may have great power. But they are not immortal. And as Charlie Chaplin once said - as long as men die, freedom will never perish.
For the future belongs to the real.