folklore, mythology, cultural studies and related disciplines
Recapitulation and application
Sample chapter from Simon Danser's new book The Myths of Reality
Alfred North Whitehead
Identification with a nation or a belief is a favourite trick to cheat loneliness.
... in contemporary societies, cynical distance, laughter, irony are, so to speak, part of the game. The ruling ideology is not meant to be taken seriously or literally.
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace in a continual state of alarm (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing them with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
With all these topics I have attempted to illustrate that these myths are created and sustained by social interactions, such that all the concepts which make up what we think of as 'reality' are socially constructed. This process of construction takes place partly through the mass media and – to a greater extent than is often recognised – through 'unmediated' face-to-face conversations and their counterparts on the Internet. The 'building blocks' of this construction (and the ongoing adaptation and reconstruction) are best described as narrative fragments or mythic fragments which allude to larger narratives, although these are rarely expressed in their entirety. Handy labels, metonymic allusions (whereby a part stands for the whole), quotations, slogans and even non-verbal icons or rituals substitute for the complexities of the overall idea or ideology. Frequently used metonyms include 'according to the Oval Office... ', 'a White House spokesperson said...', 'the Pentagon reports that... ', 'Number Ten alleges... ', 'the police' (when referring to a few specific officers not the entire force), 'Hollywood' (unless pertaining only to the geographical area) and a whole variety of expressions used in popular speech such as 'men in suits', 'Liverpool lost to Madrid', 'lend me your ears', and many more.
These narratives not only give 'shape' and 'substance' to underlying ideological ideas but also disguise them. We do not normally see the ideologies by which we structure reality. The mythic narratives act as a sugar coating for the ideological pill and enable it to be swallowed unknowingly. Or, to reiterate a metaphor used previously, myths are like the lenses in spectacles – we ordinarily look through them, not at them.
Similar concepts of narrative fragments are also encountered in cognitive linguistics and consciousness studies. Indeed, our sense of self is created and maintained by narrative fragments, such that our sense of self is also akin to a lens we look through rather than at. Although we are in part the authors of identities – as individuals and as members of numerous groups – in large part the narrative tales we create to express our identities are reflected back and 'the tales tell us'.
Furthermore, the sense of process and narrative sequence is deeply embedded in our cognitive processes. It is not so much that we create narratives about 'things' but more than we differentiate and create 'things' (and a great many other concepts) out of the underlying narrative processes. Attempting to understand such concepts as 'consciousness' and 'self' requires us to think of them more as processes than things. There is no 'thing' that is a whirlpool (you can't take a whirlpool home in a big bucket...), there is only water that is whirlpooling. There is no 'thing' that is a candle flame, only a constantly renewing stream of incandescent particles. Likewise there is no thing that is consciousness or self, only a delightfully complex renewing of the processes of consciousness and self-awareness.
Seemingly, our minds are disposed to think more in terms of verbs than nouns, which means that mini-narratives are implicated in the lowest levels of our minds, well before conscious rationality begins to intervene. No wonder then that the ideologies embedded in the mythic fragments transmitted via the mass media or conversations with friends also slip in 'under the radar' of rational scrutiny. Do we really stop to analyse such Humpty Dumpty words as 'democracy', 'the free world', 'terrorism' and 'insurgents' to assess whether they are being used in a paradoxical or hypocritical context?
evolution of human consciousness
If these suggestions are correct then, by implication, they are tied in with the evolution of human consciousness. While we can only guess about the processes of mental development in early hominids, clearly a defining characteristic is the ability to think in terms of concepts, ideas and narratives.
Ideas are very different to things, even if the idea is about some thing. If I have an apple and you have a banana and we swap over then we still have only one item of fruit each. Whereas if I have idea 'A' and you have idea 'B' and we exchange them, then we both have two ideas. This makes ideas very valuable assets. Unlike physical assets, giving away ideas does not limit our ability to use them. We can indeed have our cake and eat it too. OK, there may be tactical or strategic reasons why some ideas – like knowing where the best bananas are growing – are best kept to ourselves rather than shared. Combine this with a skill which humans share with the higher primates – the ability to tell lies, to spread misinformation – and the cognitive race is on. Now you need to outsmart other members of the social group who are getting better at thinking about what you are thinking about what they are thinking.
Social behaviour is key to understanding hominid evolution. There is a direct correlation between the brain size of primates and the size of the social group they live in (the only notable exception is the almost solitary orang-utan). As the primates with the largest brains by far, early hominids almost certainly lived in larger social groups than other primates, probably in the order of several hundred individuals. Such social groups bring with them competition for food, water, mates and nest sites. It brings the risk of treachery such as theft, extortion and adultery, and maybe also infanticide or cannibalism. As Jean-Paul Sartre famously remarked, 'Hell is other people'. Forming coalitions, exchanging favours, enforcing repayment of debts and collectively punishing cheaters are all good social strategies. Being 'smart', even shrewd, would score very well in such social groups and help to cope with all the arguments and stresses inevitable in such large social groups. Being 'smart' enabled us to evolve into domesticated primates.
Even though modern social life has subverted the original reasons, our brains still work along the same old lines. Whereas once seeing attractive members of the opposite sex unclothed could only be done in physical proximity where mating was a possibility, after the successive invention of representational drawings, photographs, films and videos the physical proximity became the exception rather than the norm. Before there were plays, films and TV dramas, we only witnessed the emotional struggles of people you had to out-psych every day. Before reliable contraception, status and wealth were converted into children; the wealthier you were the healthier your children should be. Now children can be postponed, temporarily or permanently, and wealth can be accumulated in other ways. When lean years are never far away – and for most of the world that is now, not the past – there are good reasons to eat sweet and fatty foods. Nowadays watching soap operas is less stressful than dealing with real families, watching porn less challenging than seeking sexual partners, climbing the corporate ladder more wealth-creating than childbearing, and excessive eating is interrupted not by famine but obesity-related illnesses.
meanings not things
The inherent ability of our brains to think in terms of mini-narratives means things and people are in a sense secondary to the potential ways in which things and people interact, and the meaning and significance we give to those interactions. Reality is more about the totality of meaningful and significant interactions than it is about the things and objects.
This is hardly a new idea. Western philosophers and academics have been drawing the same conclusions, from a wide variety of starting points, for over a hundred years. Indeed, apart from some of the work on consciousness, many of the underlying ideas in this book were known twenty or more years ago. And they are even better known in non-western cultures – Hindus and Buddhists have long taught that the world is maya, an illusion. More specifically, this illusion comes from our concepts not our senses.
Since they have no essence, phenomena do not exist as true or false, as delusion or non-delusion, but because the mind has identified the objects, saying, this is a faculty, these are senses, and this is a house; and it discriminates and clings to them as subject and object.
We see what we believe, and not just the contrary; and to change what we see, it is sometimes necessary to change what we believe.
Almost everything people believe in as grown ups consists of lies they were told as children. Culture is nothing more than agreed upon lies.
Our concept of reality is artificial and culture-bound. Reality is a projection of our self identities, which have been formed by the social world (with all its commercial, political and religious ideologies) which controls economies and families alike. The western notion of 'reality' is the world of jobs and 'leisure', money and progress, success (in which conspicuous consumption of status-enhancing goods and services is more important than fame or respect), and a whole pyre of cultural baggage.
Our so-called 'education' systems are processes which lead to the undiscriminating acceptance of middle class myths and values. They lead away from any kind of inner awareness. Is this why so many adolescents want to 'get out of their heads'? Is it because they feel that their heads are not their own? Is it any wonder that children from non-middle-class social backgrounds rebel against these educational processes, even if modern society fails to offer a more empowering alternative than crime.
Our concepts of 'reality' are habits we adopt, like good manners and wearing particular kinds of clothes. One of the concepts of the western habits of reality is the false assumption that there is a definite and definitive 'real world' out there.
This is a fallacy born out of the Renaissance. According to it, knowledge is simply a process of correctly categorising and comprehending a finite reality which adheres to the laws of physics. Our so-called common sense blinds us to the 'cognitive templates' that shape reality. These cognitive templates can also be thought of as societies' deeply-rooted myths, ideologies and metaphors.
Such cognitive templates are not adopted by any conscious learning process. Rather they are internalised by cumulative exposure, exposure to fragments of the overall myths. Such truncated references to complex beliefs and assumptions are rarely challenged. This may be one reason why people hold on to prior assumptions when presented with contrary evidence or arguments. The mind that holds an idea becomes held by it. Indeed, as Laurens van der Post noted:
Human beings are perhaps never more frightening than when they are convinced beyond doubt that they are right.
We live our lives seeking such illusions as progress, happiness, love, security and freedom. We attempt to distinguish between such illusions as sanity and insanity, right and wrong, equality and inequality. We fear change, not understanding that everything is always changing, because change is inherent in how we think about time. We then attempt to impose cause-and-effect scenarios that project into the future from our self-created narratives about our past. We identify with groups and belief systems to trick ourselves into thinking we belong, although in so doing we divide society into numerous mutually exclusive entities, each of which has the potential to act aggressively against any other.
We cannot live without such illusions. These shared illusions are what separates us from the unfathomable and unbearable chaotic complexities that underlie the concepts we regard as 'reality'. In other words, such illusions are our 'reality'.
Those who say 'I don't have an ideology' are still seeing the world through an ideology, a deeply-rooted Christian preconception that the world is ruled and controlled by God, whose intentions are inscrutable and beyond human comprehension, so there is little point into looking too far into the underlying causes of events.
This is entirely contrary to the views of this book, that all meaning is created – and continually recreated – by human thinking. When we look for 'God' and higher causes we are not looking for something inscrutable but, rather, a reflection of our prior assumptions, a mirror created by our own culture. Those with the most ardent religious beliefs are those least able to cope with uncertainty and, through their faith, find an illusory certainty. They then need to defend their illusion from any criticism to retain the sense of certainty they have attained. This leads to the attitude that 'If only everyone else thought like me then the world would be a much better place' and related varieties of bigotry.
One of the key assumptions of western culture is that reality is essentially logical and rational. This illusion is clearly sustained against frequent everyday experiences which suggest otherwise. It is also a deeply-rooted illusion. Indeed it goes back to the Classical and Hellenistic Greek cultures. As is revealed from the literature of that era, the Greeks did not understand irrationality and intuition. So they simply ignored them. And western cultures ever since have laboured under the delusion that irrationality and intuition can be ignored or, if they are not ignored, are somehow far less important than so-called 'rational' thinking.
In recent decades neuroscience has suggested that our right brain hemispheres operate more 'intuitively' and 'irrationally' than the left hemisphere. It is as if for over two millennia western culture has worked hard to sustain the delusion that half our brains do not exist to sustain the illusion that the world is essentially rational. Yet, despite these deep-seated beliefs, there is no scientific evidence that the universe works in the rational way envisaged by the Enlightenment. Indeed, what evidence that has been produced by modern physics suggests that at the level of sub-atomic particles the universe is very 'irrational' indeed. Would we have done better if for two millennia we had ignored our left ('rational') brain hemispheres?
we create gods according to our desires
When our attempts to impose cause and effect break down then causality is transferred to deities, angelic beings, spirit helpers or otherworldly demonic entities. By creating this concept of the divine we effectively created a 'back up system' for causality for when so-called rational cause and effect fails. Gods and the like are very useful for plugging this major error in our attempts to understand reality.
Gods are useful in other ways too, of course. They overcome the problem that we can only see reality from a single, embodied point of view – we need gods (or the concept of gods) to provide omnipotent, all-seeing overviews. As Mark Turner put it:
A person has a single life, by which I mean not that we live only once, true as that is, but that as human being – a mind in a brain in a body – leads a singular rather than a general existence. A God's-eye view is a general view – it can belong only to a being whose existence is without limit or locale. Since God's eye is everywhere, eternal, and all-seeing, it is undifferentiated. To the eye of God, there would not be alternative ways of seeing, but only seeing pure and absolute and permanent. A human being does not have a God's-eye view. A human being always has only a single view, which is always local. This is so unacceptable as to have been sufficient reason for the invention of God.
Just as all social groups define themselves largely by what they exclude, so we define our sense of being human by what we are not. One aspect of being human is that we are not deities or otherwise supernatural. Therefore the concepts of deities and the supernatural are a necessary part of our understanding of being human. But having invented these concepts of our 'excluded other' we have a tendency to believe that they really exist.
Little imagination is required to realise that we create gods in our own image, according to our own desires, and even according to our own perversions. By 'offloading' responsibility to the deities, the followers of a belief system can advance their own interests while claiming to be divinely inspired. Some of the better exponents combine this with expressions of humility to conceal, at least from themselves if not from others, their megalomania.
Having created our gods, we then become enslaved to the ensuing beliefs. Much of this is driven by personal insecurity which organised religions pander to by offering the illusion of certainty, peace of mind and a whole host of 'subsidiary illusions' such as salvation. Religions revolve around charismatic preachers and cult leaders with a thinly-disguised sense of their self-importance. Their preaching techniques are largely 'borrowed' from recognised hypnotism techniques. Dick Sutphen has provided an excellent description:
If you'd like to see a revivalist preacher at work, there are probably several in your city. Go to the church or tent early and sit in the rear, about three-quarters of the way back. Most likely repetitive music will be played while the people come in for the service. A repetitive beat, ideally ranging from 45 to 72 beats per minute (a rhythm close to the beat of the human heart), is very hypnotic and can generate an eyes-open altered state of consciousness in a very high percentage of people. And, once you are in an alpha state, you are at least 25 times as suggestible as you would be in full beta consciousness. The music is probably the same for every service, or incorporates the same beat, and many of the people will go into an altered state almost immediately upon entering the sanctuary. Subconsciously, they recall their state of mind from previous services and respond according to the post-hypnotic programming.
Watch the people waiting for the service to begin. Many will exhibit external signs of trance--body relaxation and slightly dilated eyes. Often, they begin swaying back and forth with their hands in the air while sitting in their chairs. Next, the assistant pastor will probably come out. He usually speaks with a pretty good 'voice roll.'
A 'voice roll' is a patterned, paced style used by hypnotists when inducing a trance. It is also used by many lawyers, several of whom are highly trained hypnotists, when they desire to entrench a point firmly in the minds of the jurors. A voice roll can sound as if the speaker were talking to the beat of a metronome or it may sound as though he were emphasizing every word in a monotonous, patterned style. The words will usually be delivered at the rate of 45 to 60 beats per minute, maximizing the hypnotic effect.
If, in common with many people, you find it hard to envisage a world without a god then avoid creating one in the image of humans, and thereby sharing our various foibles. If you must have a god in your reality, create one worthy of respect and who has more going than the motley crew who get most of the attention. Thinking of god as an all-encompassing aspect of the universe (what Hindus would recognise as Brahman, the immeasurable being of ultimate reality) puts no limitations on god, least of all the political and partisan entanglements of established concepts of deity. Neither does the believer need to withdraw tortoise-like from the everyday world to seek the illusion of 'an inner god'. If you so desire, such an infinite sense of deity can be thought of as manifesting as a variety of lesser deities, whether anthropomorphic or zoomorphic (again, Hinduism provides abundant examples of deities such as Shiva and Ganesha which are regarded as 'aspects' of Brahman). As I said earlier, we create gods according to our own desires – so set your 'desires' to the top of the range rather than settle for a down market conception!
why are they telling us this?
Throughout most of this book I have reiterated that what we think of as reality is constructed by a two-way process that involves each of us as individuals interacting with various social groups and cultures. While we in part produce our self identities, in much greater part our identities are a consequence of what we consume. And we consume films, TV dramas, documentaries and news programmes in great quantities. Our social identities are mostly based on our consumption of television. Thinking of TV as being an opiate of the people masks its far more powerful role as the creator and sustainer of social identities. Clearly TV moguls from time to time make some evolutionary changes, mostly small and incremental, although occasionally more abrupt.
As well as promoting a wide (but most certainly restricted) range of ideologies, television also offers the illusion of understanding. We feel that having watched a half-competent documentary that we 'understand' what the topic was about. We rarely have the ability to assess the ideological biases, the excluded objections, the biases and/or competence of 'experts' etc.
George Monbiot, with customary insight and indigence, observes:
Picture a situation in which most of the media, despite the overwhelming weight of medical opinion, refused to accept that there was a connection between smoking and lung cancer. Imagine that every time new evidence emerged, they asked someone with no medical qualifications to write a piece dismissing the evidence and claiming that there was no consensus on the issue. Imagine that the BBC, in the interests of 'debate', wheeled out one of the tiny number of scientists who says that smoking and cancer aren't linked, or that giving up isn't worth the trouble, every time the issue of cancer was raised. Imagine that, as a result, next to nothing was done about the problem, to the delight of the tobacco industry and the detriment of millions of smokers. We would surely describe the newspapers and the BBC as grossly irresponsible.
Now stop imagining it, and take a look at what's happening. The issue is not smoking, but climate change. The scientific consensus is just as robust, the misreporting just as widespread, the consequences even graver.
fear of phantom threats
The Pentagon has always been deeply devious in its use of the media. In recent years it has become clear that the short films created in the 1950s about how people should protect themselves in the event of atomic bombs were specifically intended to create widespread fear of a nuclear war rather than offer any useful advice. 'Duck and cover' may be a snappy catch phrase but is cynical in the extreme as a way of contending with blast waves and gamma radiation, still less a nuclear winter.
Since then the Pentagon and associated presidential advisors (together with what are little more than subagents working for the British Prime Minister) have become if anything more devious. When TV news starts telling us once more about a 'real threat' of terrorism in a major western city, we should be asking 'Why are they telling us this?'. There is nothing newsworthy about there being a more-or-less constant threat of terrorism in America and Europe. There may be some pragmatic reasons for reminding people to be alert to unattended baggage or other suspicious behaviour, but that seems hardly to be why such news reports are issued. The underlying reason we are regularly reminded of the risk of terrorism seems to be more akin to the Cold War 'propaganda' – to create and sustain a level of fear.
In an era where politicians no longer expect ever-improving prosperity for their voters, and the phrase 'You've never had it so good' applies to an ever-diminishing (although increasingly disproportionately affluent) percentage of the population, they have stopped offering dreams and instead promise to protect us from nightmares.
Only the politicians, they claim, can avert dreadful dangers that we cannot see or understand. At the heart of this darkness is a powerful and sinister network of international terrorism, that can only be countered by a sustained 'war on terror'.
But, like the Emperor's new clothes, the threat of terrorism is a fantasy which has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians. The same fantasy also benefits the grandeur of the terrorists. Undoubtedly there are guerrilla fighters throughout the world who are contesting real and perceived oppression. Some are seeking to displace secular regimes with ones based on fundamentalist religious practices. But almost all of these groups have limited aspirations, usually relating to bringing about changes in a specific country. A good example is in the UK's backyard, where Irish nationalist groups have a long tradition of terrorist activities. However connections between such terrorist groups are minimal and usually deeply distrustful.
Since the beginning of 2001 the American security services have built up a myth (originally instigated by the FBI as part of 'creative' legal proceedings to prosecute Osama bin Laden) that there is an international terrorist organisation called al-Queda. There is no evidence that al-Queda exists, outside the minds of Pentagon and CIA experts. Osama bin Laden only used the term himself after the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, after George W. Bush used the term to refer to his supposed organisation. Clearly it suits bin Laden to promote the myth that he is at the hub of a web of 'sleeper cells' and not, as all the evidence shows, simply the financier (but not commander) of a very small number of the most extreme Islamists. Other than this small group Osama bin Laden has no formal organisation – apart from the phantom one the Americans have invented for him...
The 'reality' of al-Queda is a dark illusion that has spread unquestioned through governments around the world, the security services and the international media. It is an illusion promoted by American neo-conservatives (such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney) to reassert the myth of America as a unique country whose destiny is to struggle against evil throughout the world. It is little different from the scriptwriters of Star Wars and a whole host of Hollywood action films taking charge of the White House. The reality of the 'war on terror' is a 'war on phantoms', in effect a war of lies.
In an age when all the old school political ideologies have lost credibility, the only means politicians have left for maintaining their power is to create fear of a phantom adversary.
American presidents as archetypal alpha males
If the fear of phantom threats is not enough to empower politicians, then they adopt the tactics that any frustrated playground bully adopts – they start bullying. The first President George Bush, perceived by many as a 'wimp' simply invaded a small, Third World country (Panama was the victim of choice). An easy victory came within a week, the 'wimp' image vanished and Bush's popularity soared. Son 'Dubya' upped his credibility by trashing the Afghanistan military forces (which could muster 100 tanks, 200 artillery guns and 45,000 men against the world's most powerful military power). Any alpha male of a gorilla or chimpanzee pack would have done likewise if his status was being questioned. Legions of medieval kings did too – and Shakepeare's dramatisation of Henry V's dominance-enhancing strategies is still part of our culture.
The neo-conservative scriptwriters appointed by George W. Bush to key posts in his administration invented the supposed links between the (phantom) al-Queda and Afghanistan. Then they contrived connections between al-Queda and Saddam Hussein, while profoundly misrepresenting intelligence reports about Iraq's 'weapons of mass destruction'. The outcome hardly puts American imperialist intervention in a good light. Afghanistan has been left with a power vacuum where the intimidation of local war lords is the nearest to civil government. And the strategies of 'shock and awe' which opened the second Gulf War have crumbled to human rights abuses by US troops and an ever-growing series of suicide bombings.
In this climate of ever-growing mistrust of the 'Dubya' administration, there is ever-growing speculation that the attacks on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 were instigated by America's own security services to provide a pretext for implementing the already-drafted PATRIOT Act and the attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. Whether or not such 'conspiracy theories' are correct or not is essentially irrelevant – what is key is that in a climate of neo-conservative fantasies then contrary fantasies are as readily accepted.
The creation of 'iconic' mythic moments is clear when the Stars and Stripes were raised on the rubble of the World Trade Centre by three New York fire fighters as a clearly intentional invocation of the photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal towards the end of the Second World War when six American soldiers raised their country's flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima.
Deceit is clear from the 'upbeat' acronym of 'PATRIOT Act' for the seriously repressive legislation which has the full title of 'Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism'. Depending on who is deemed a 'terrorist' – a terminology that has proved to be used very flexibly in the past – depends on exactly how the wide-ranging powers of the PATRIOT Act will be implemented.
Intentional and wide-ranging deceit is clear from the remarks of a White House aide interviewed by Ron Suskind in October 2004:
The aide said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. 'That's not the way the world really works anymore,' he continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'
belief is rarely fixed
This chapter has picked up on a few of the more prominent ways in which religious, political and economic myths pervade modern society. As the previous chapters will have indicated, these myths are the more 'superficial' of those which make up reality – underneath the religious and political mythmaking are several levels of myths about the nature of knowledge, consciousness and self. The overall outcome is that what we take to be reality comprises of a variety of shared belief systems.
However there is one aspect of belief systems that I have so far ignored. That is that, in practice, everyone's beliefs on a specific issue vary according to who they are talking to, or other different contexts. While belief systems can usually be expressed in terms of strongly polarised distinctions (such as 'good' and 'evil'), in most contexts beliefs are not strongly polarised. We usually qualify our remarks with 'maybe', 'sort of', and such like, so that our opinions fall somewhere nearer the middle. Rather than expressions of firm belief, such as 'Oh yes, I do believe that – without question', we are more likely to say 'Not really, but... ' or 'Possibly there could be something in it'. Even outright disbelief is softened to 'It's not that I don't believe in it, but...', 'I don't really think so' or 'I usually take no notice of that sort of thing'. Indeed disbelief is even more commonly expressed as laughter rather than verbal contradiction or counter-argument.
Above all, we change the certainty of our expressions according to who were are with. Most of the time we seek to conform to other people's views by trying to find an overlapping point of view, or choose to contest quite specific aspects of otherwise shared belief systems. We avoid social confrontation by passing over in silence the views of people with seemingly quite different beliefs (although behind their backs we may make disparaging remarks about them being 'nutters'). Out and out expressions of bigotry – my belief system is the only right way and the world will be a much better place if everyone agreed with me – is, thankfully, the exception rather than the norm.
beliefs are contradictory
In the postmodern, multi-cultural society that most western people under about forty have been brought up in, the sort of stance associated with 'my belief system is the only right way' places the exponent of such views in the intellectual kindergarten. Taking one's belief system too literally tends to be associated with contradiction, unwitting hypocrisy, and psychological problems.
In practice, most of us spontaneously adapt our belief systems according to our social situation. Quite commonly we adopt contradictory stances at different times, although maintaining the illusion of them being consistent within some broader belief system. As noted earlier in this chapter, lying and deception are traits shared by many higher primates, so perhaps we should regard all forms of this – including self-deception – as inevitable.
For example there are people who say quite emphatically that they don't believe in newspaper horoscopes but when asked why they don't read them, respond with a statement such as 'Well they might say something unpleasant may happen... ' – which betrays that they do have some degree of belief in their significance.
Such contradictory stances appear frequently among people who hold religious beliefs that require followers to adopt a specific moral code, such as avoiding marital infidelity. Moral codes, it seems, apply to everyone else – but only to me when I feel like it. Christians have long since been able to combine the Biblical injunction 'Thou shalt not kill' with widespread slaughter of religious and political opponents. This long-standing contradictory stance has been sustained by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, both practising Christians yet the instigators of a war which, by the time of writing, has led to the deaths of in excess of 50,000 Iraqis. The belief system which led to this war values control of the largest oil reserves in the world more than the lives of all those on both sides of the conflict who have died, been injured or had their lives ruined as a consequence of this Christian-led invasion.
Contradictions and hypocrisy have long been part of politics but their blatant use, hidden behind the thinnest of 'spin', has become endemic to American-led consumerism and the global capitalism which is sustained by this consumption. And anyone who has watched Matt Groening's characters in The Simpsons – such as Mayor Quimby, Chief Wiggum, Reverend Lovejoy and Mr Burns – will be well aware of the extended satire scripted around their hypocritical actions that seem only one step removed from the 'reality' of suburban America.
All belief systems may be illusory and ultimately arbitrary. Nevertheless most people would agree that some 'myths' are necessary. My personal preferences include the right not to be assaulted or murdered and for other people to recognise that I would deeply unhappy if they removed many of the books and chattels which clutter up my home. I also prefer that friends only stay or move into my home by invitation, and that my neighbours don't disturb me unnecessarily. On the other hand I expect to have the freedom to do just about anything that does not infringe other people's rights – I want the right to wave my arms around wildly, but recognise that this right extends no further than the tip of your nose.
By a process of extension these same rights extend to my neighbourhood and, because Britain is a relatively small island, my concept of 'neighbourhood' may at times extend as far as the country's coastline. This means that implicitly I 'believe in' the armed forces, policing and a legal system (although I certainly do not believe in the basis behind many of the laws which criminalise no-victim crime or, worse, prosecutes the victims of organised crime such as many drug users and prostitutes).
There is also a need for democratic political systems which enable individuals to collectively challenge corporate interests. (While both British and American political systems were founded on this premise, in recent decades the political systems in these – and most western countries – have been subverted such as they now support corporate interests, leaving individuals disenfranchised and enslaved to the corporate order of things.)
The upbringing of children, both within the family and through the education system and 'peer group' influences, is in large part the transmission of a society's ideologies. Culture-less 'anarchy' is neither desirable nor achievable – seeking some sort of social identity is fundamental to human instincts – although I would prefer to see considerably more self-awareness of ideological prejudices within families and school curricula. At the present time education can easily be confused with a process for ensuring that people grow up being unable to think for themselves, to be placidly exploited in poorly-paid service industry jobs.
Likewise, mass media, the entertainment industries and religion are all key aspects of how we create, develop and limit ideologies. Life would be more than a little boring without any of these, although a full range needs to be promoted from which people can 'pick and mix' in a flexible, indeed at times inconsistent or even self-contradictory, manner. The only belief system which has no place is the one which asserts that any specific belief system is better than any other. You can have any belief you like, except bigotry.
Thinking of beliefs as somewhat arbitrary is not simply cynicism or postmodern relativism taken to excess. In essence, it means beliefs can be thought of more like the different tools in a tool box – just as a screwdriver is of limited use for driving nails in, so too a hammer is ineffective for putting paint on. Thinking of beliefs as tools for achieving specific effects is far from being cynical, it is both enlightening and hugely empowering.
Bronski¸ Michael, 2003, 'Arabian night sweats', Boston Phoenix, 16 July.
Also 'The Power of Nightmares' (three one-hour programmes directed by Adam Curtis and broadcast on BBC2 Autumn 2002).
copyright © Simon Danser 2005