Monday, January 21, 2013

Culture of choices and the distortion of Reality


The freedom of choice in our culture is best exemplified in today's typical supermarket. The myriad of products and brands are a true testament to the diversity of human needs. Even though it represents, in its most radical, the ideals of a democratic, progressive and free society, Benjamin Scheibehenne, a consumer research at the University of Basel in Switzerland, claims that this overload of information can be paralyzing. The branding, logos, slogans and catch phrases directly draw into attention the differential void that exists in seemingly similar products. Each of whom develop a sort of a personality of its own, calling out to us as we walk through the aisles. In this chaotic space one finds it very easy to be overwhelmed by number of choices one sees. Try to buy a pain killer and you are faced with the behemoth task of traversing these differential voids in deciding on how to get rid of that headache. Do you want "fast acting" or "long lasting"? Do you want "gel caps" or "pills"? Do you want "Advil" or "Tylenol"? And if you go to an earth friendly you want "organic" or one with "natural ingredients"? Now interpolate this to an entire grocery list and you can see the level of tension that may develop in the simple act of choosing.  
This tension of course functions outside the modern supermarket as well. The deep immersion of our culture in mass media enables the paralysis of these choices to penetrate the very fabric of our daily lives. We are constantly bombarded with images and sounds of not only products to consume but also identities to assume. In out post-modern culture we can literally become anything that we want to. These choices can be found everywhere, from a higher level world view philosophy (i.e. the hundreds of religious, spiritual, new age philosophies that one can prescribe to so that "I may truly find myself") to the everyday mundane dietary practice (i.e. vegetarianism, veganism, fruitarism, Lacto/Ovo/Lact-ovo vegetarianism, macrobiotic diet, Paleo diet...etc). Even Nike has embraced this concept and through their NikeID service allows customers to design their own shoes.  In his book The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz, takes aim at the central tenet of our western societies i.e. Freedom of Choice. He claims that these paralyzing choices are in fact not making us happier but they are rather leading to more dissatisfaction.  

"Infinite choices [are] paralyzing, Schwartz argues, and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves." [1]

But beyond the tension and anxiety that these choices create, these choices also function as a way to distort our discourse on ideas like freedom and liberty. These cornucopias of choices inherently create an illusion of freedom. This is best illustrated by the following joke from old communist USSR, as told by Zizek:

"A guy was sent from East Germany to work in Siberia. He knew his mail would be read by censors, so he told his friends: “Let’s establish a code. If a letter you get from me is written in blue ink, it is true what I say. If it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter. Everything is in blue. It says, this letter: “Everything is wonderful here. Stores are full of good food. Movie theaters show good films from the west. Apartments are large and luxurious. The only thing you cannot buy is red ink."[2]

This is how we live today. We have all the freedoms we want, but what we are lacking is the language to articulate our unfreedom (the red ink). These free choices mask a deeper void that exists in our understanding of freedom and liberty. In a way we are way too distracted by deciding between the 21 different flavors of ice to even consider what it truly means to be free. This sort of distortion has a significant impact on the way we function as society, but on a more practical side it also shapes governmental policies. The pretext of our 'War against Terrorism' is based deeply on a universalized concept of freedom, and if that very concept itself is distorted, it is hard not to wonder what we are really fighting for (or against).

Jean Baudrillard, a French sociologist (also sometimes called the high priest of postmodernism), wrote a book called 'Simulacra and Simulation' in which he claims that this distortion has taken on a new meaning. According to him our reality is not really distorted, but it is the distortion that has become the new reality. Our modernism has generated so many different choices that is it becoming harder and harder to distinguish the fact from the fiction. Mass media and culture, according to him, construct our perception of reality from which we acquire a sense of understanding of our lives and being. The buffet of these constructs is what renders reality as an illusion. From this distortion simulacra are generated, which are things (or concepts) that have been copied and twisted so many times and they lack the original content of their formulation. Our society has been highly saturated with this simulacrum that we find ourselves in a state of simulation. Here the human experience is merely simulated devoid of its meaning. According to Baudrillard, this simulation does not hide any latent truth but rather that the simulation itself is not based in reality. The excess of the simulacra renders our reality meaningless. He says: 

“We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” [3] 
“Hell of simulation, which is no longer one of torture, but of subtle, maleficent, elusive twisting of meaning..."[4]

The point here is of course not to be blatantly against having choices or dismissing the multitude of options, but one should resist the temptation of positing the idea that having choices leads to freedom or liberty. Or even that having even more options leads to having even more freedom. There is a darker underside to the excesses that surround us and as attractive as they seem, we should nonetheless sum up the courage to question the very foundation on which this diversity seemingly appears.

"The price we pay for the complexity of life is too high. When you think of all the effort you have to put in--telephonic, technological and relational--to alter even the slightest bit of behavior in this strange world we call social life, you are left pining for the straightforwardness of primitive peoples and their physical work"[5]


Friday, January 4, 2013

Go Green: The Delusion of Ecology

Karl Marx, one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century, had a huge impact in the field of economics and social sciences. He is famously known for his work on the Communist Manifesto, which he completed in 1848 in collaboration with Friedrich Engels. In his quest for deciphering human nature, religion became a frequent target of his critique. More than just an isolated understanding of religion, Marx was more interested in the role religion played in the functioning of an economic system. Specifically how religion supported the operation of an economic ideology. His view of religion can he summed up as follows:

"Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."[1]

He compared the effect opium has on a person to the effect that religion had on the masses. Just like opium sedates a person and in effect blinds him/her from reality, according to Marx, so does religion aim at keeping the masses blind to the socio-economic forces that shape their condition. He theorized that religion effectually kept the masses depoliticized. If everything was up to God and to his will, our current socio-economic situation needed little questioning. Even though things in day to day life might seem hard, at the end of the day it was all a part of God's divine plan. This overwhelming submission to a higher power, prevented individuals in realizing the evils of the system that one operated within. In the same way opium relieves a person of immediate distress, religion functions precisely the same way. It creates an illusion of happiness..."If I am not happy right now, I will in the next life thanks to God, all I have to do is to submit to God's will". A fascist, authoritative society was not needed to keep people in control; religion already did that with high efficacy. Our inability to question this higher power will prevent us from emancipating ourselves, he claimed. Again the point here is not to attack religion in its bare meaning and to condemn it to a useless belief system, but rather to understand the role it played in the ideology of a political system.

Today more and more, this religious opium is being replaced with ecology (sustainability, green movements etc.). In an era where we are faced with serious environmental issues, it is hard not to imagine the eventual destruction of the fragile structure of nature. Scientific facts (even though some people will dispute these) clearly indicate that the rising temperatures of our oceans, the depletion of the ozone layer, endangerment of bio-diversity etc....have some link to human activity. It is no doubt that something should be done. The problem immediately arises of what exactly should be done. It here where I am very critical of such green movements. Slavoj Zizek, one of my favorite contemporary thinkers, says that - "The way you perceive a problem is a part of the problem. It mystifies the problem".  He claims that these green movements are in effect mystifying the problem. Our efforts through buying organic foods, recycling, etc. are only addressing a symptom - the symptom of ecological destruction. Partaking in the green movements prevents us from seeing the evils of the system that produced it in the first place. So by recycling we might be able to temporarily delay the destruction of our ecological structure, but we will fail to address the real issue. There is something in our system that produces this symptom.

Oscar Wilde, in his essay 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism' had the following to say:

"The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, hideous ugliness, and hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all of this. The emotions of men are stirred more quickly than men's intelligence.....Thus, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease, they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease...”

I think this applies today in our reaction towards our hideous environmental conditions. Our remedies (green movements) are a part of the disease. A better understanding of this can be reached by peering into the business of organic foods. Organic food sales have gone up from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010 [2]. Our culture in the guise of protecting the environment has capitalized the environment itself. By buying organic foods, we feel that we are taking part in a global movement and helping mother earth. But this is precisely the opium that prevents the masses from identifying the real problem. We are 'high' on these green movements.  The predominant ideology forces us to become environmentalists.

Of course my point is not to give up environment conservation completely, but rather to be aware of the ineffectiveness of these remedies. Another great parallel is drawn by Wilde himself. He says:

"...the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realized by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it..."

I would like to end here by quoting another great thinker, i.e. George Carlin. His views on environmentalists even though comical have a deeper meaning that reverberates even louder today than when he started his standup comedy career.

"...Everybody's going to save something now. "Save the trees; save the bees; save the whales; save those snails." And the greatest arrogance of all, "Save the planet." WHAT? Are these fucking people kidding me? Save the planet? We don't even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven't learned how to care for one another, we're gonna save the fucking planet? I'm getting tired of that shit....I'm tired of these self-righteous environmentalists; these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren't enough bicycle paths. People trying to make the world safe for their Volvos. Besides, environmentalists don't give a shit about the planet. They don't care about the planet. Not in the abstract they don't.....You know what they're interested in? A clean place to live. Their own habitat. They're worried that someday in the future, they might be personally inconvenienced....."

So I think now is the time that we need to take a deeper looking into ourselves. When we talk about ecology do we really want just a clean place to live, or do we actually want something else.


Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Nature of Belief: Our Dogmatic Thoughts

There is something really funny about the notion of belief. Think of something that you hold to be it the color of the scarf that is hanging in your closet or the face of the waiter that served you that cup of coffee yesterday, or even what you think the weather will be tomorrow, there is something dogmatic in that belief. You not only believe in an idea to be true in itself, but you also believe that everyone should prescribe to the same belief i.e. what I believe in, everyone should also believe in the same thing.  Our beliefs are inherently imperialistic. In fact this is why we believe in something/anything to begin with. Any truth that I may discover, at a certain level becomes universal for me. My belief in that truth is not only supported by my reasoning but also by my belief for that belief. It is for this reason, one cannot really believe in relativism, i.e. we just have different ways of looking at the truth  and "every view is as good as the other". For if this was the case, then we could say that everyone is right, or everyone is true. Well then if everyone is true, then we can logically say that "there is no truth". But in order for this to hold true, there must be at least one truth, namely -"there is no truth". This creates a paradox which points to a certain kind of dogmatism in our effort to distinguish between truth and falsity.

This way of inquiry was developed by Rene Descartes, known for his famous statement - "I think therefore I am". A religious french mathematician in the 17th century, Descartes started questioning his own reality. He was haunted by a feeling that the devil was playing a trick on him by masking reality, something like the movie The Matrix. The only way out of this was to clear himself of all his beliefs, by being skeptical at his own reasoning. He finally concluded that the only thing he can be certain of is his ability to produce thoughts, hence "I think therefore I am". Later expounded by Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century, this mode of reasoning led him to develop a deep understanding of morality/immorality, good/evil, true/false and rationality/irrationality. He once raised an interesting question for philosophy - "What if truth turned out to be the woman?". He pointed out that men were out there running businesses, trying to find answers of the universe, engaging in science, exploring uncharted territories of the earth, fighting each other to find the truth (keep in mind that society was highly patriarchal at his time), but what if all this was just a game. What if all these activities were just a ploy to keep the men engaged to hide the fact that the real person in charge was the wife at home. What if truth existed between the nominal acts of gossiping amongst neighboring housewives? While the men were wasting their time and energies, women had in fact found all the answers and the egos of men prevented them from seeing this. Nietzsche, often called the master of suspicion, did not strive to provide us with an answer, but rather urged us to think about what forces and powers caused us as human beings to develop distinctions between right and wrong.  

In order for us to find the real answers it is not enough to question truth and facts that shape our convictions - our dogma will prevent us in this pursuit. The only way to overcome is to question the conditions and circumstances that enable us to come to a certain conclusion.