When we create, we draw upon our influences. No artist can deny that. The range and scope of our influences, the things that we took in at an earlier time as our signature absorption of our particular culture, provide the raw materials for the creations that we, in turn, will bring forth. Culture is, to this extent, self referential and self reinforcing. We perpetuate ideas by taking them in and then reworking them into new art. The same essential ideas re-emerge, in new guises.
Our influences also limit the range of possible creations. Our built in assumptions, unless challenged and expanded upon, or questioned and replaced, can exert significant, unconscious boundaries on the types of creations we might make.
You can readily observe this phenomenon if you know some young teenagers. When young teens begin to write stories, the works they produce bear more than a passing resemblance to stories told to them in earlier years. The same themes and outcomes are apparent. The raw materials that are their base assumptions about the world and how it works are evident in their own stories. Even if they have a different moral compass and hold other values dear, the material of their stories clearly shows what their working assumptions about the world and how you succeed or fail in it happen to be.
Without decades of experience of the world and their own long lifetime of observations to draw upon, at this young age, teens more or less assume that things are a particular way because they have always been so and that this is the natural order of things. Their frame of reference is too brief to question those assumptions. They don’t know if things used to be different, historically, or if other future possibilities exist. Their world views of the likely future and view of history is that it will be, or was much the same as today, only more so. I’m generalising wildly, of course and there are likely to be exceptions, but I think this, in the main, holds true of the cohort as a whole.
Consequently, the stories teenagers create (especially boys, it seems) are frequently about conflict and violent domination, set in a world of sometimes extreme scarcity, rather than abundance. Killing and maiming others is often portrayed as a survival tactic. It’s a pretty bleak kind of world to write about. These kinds of stories emerge even if the teen grows up in a pacifist household and sincerely holds peace loving ideals.
It’s possible that some of the aggression and competition apparent in these teen stories can be attributed to the presence of testosterone, but I think that much of it has to be due to the subtle, consistent indoctrination offered up by television, movies, stories written for the young, computer games and other narrative devices. The parental household dialogue can also be mistaken for being quite pessimistic, when parents respond to the daily news or economic and political affairs; even if the parents are somewhat more optimistic for the future than their casual reactions to the news media would lead their kids to believe.
What children and teens quietly take in is a constant diet of bleak conflicts, characterised by extreme, seemingly random, deliberate violence, set in a world where scarcity has been engineered as an economic system choice. Killing and maiming are discoverable, in high definition colour, on every news bulletin. Injustice is there for all to read and watch and people are encouraged to compete with each other, for crumbs. Observing their own parents, teens will note that their household is dominated by work concerns and discussions about money. Frustrations brought home from the office are played out in front of the kids. Why wouldn’t kids come to assume that this is the environment they have been born into – a kind of planetary scale gladiatorial contest, where survival depends upon the use of violence and guile, with no holds barred and that even in winning such competitions, there will be another tomorrow and the rewards for winning will be both meagre and temporary. If that’s all you know, it will strongly influence the stories and art you create.
When you consider the messages reinforced by our culture to young people, it’s easy to begin to think that war and poverty are inevitabilities, instead of deliberate, optional, human choices, made by a small number of self-interested leaders and imposed upon millions of innocent bystanders. You could be forgiven for thinking, given the hero worship lavished on all sorts of entrepreneurs and billionaires with questionable ethics, that the rich are rich because they always earn it fairly and squarely, since they’re better than the rest of us. You could conclude that a necessary personality trait for succeeding in business is that you must be a thorough going arsehole. I am stating this as an observation, not as an endorsement of a world in which we must all be arseholes just to survive. In fact, it’s utilitarian in the extreme, but wholly naive, to believe that you, alone, can be the only successful arsehole in a world saturated with them, but the exception is what people believe in.
Could it be that there is some wider agenda in feeding us on this particular diet of narratives? Is it accidental, deliberate or yet another manifestation of the unconscious replay of what a previous generation were told were the truths about the world? Are we trained to think, over a lifetime, by the media, our entertainment industries and other cultural artefacts, to simply believe in, uphold and shore up the status quo for the benefit of those that enjoy its benefits disproportionately?
I contend that if they only put blue paint on your palette, then you only paint blue pictures. The range of stories and narratives that predominate in a culture go on to strongly influence and constrain the range of creative expression exhibited by younger generations. What we feed them is what they, in turn, serve up.
It turns out that much of our cultural narrative owes its character to the fact that, unbeknownst to most of us, people with psychopathic tendencies (in that they feel no empathy for others) have tended to become our charismatic, ruthless leaders. As they call the shots, they tell a narrative that asserts that this is normality and that no other normality is possible or desirable. They would say that, wouldn’t they?
Those with such tendencies tend to say (in fact, do say: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nick-simmons/interview-with-the-psycho_b_5534192.html?utm_hp_ref=tw ) that there will always be war and aggression, because psychopaths are necessary, when the chips are down, to act without thought, to cause things to get done, without the “delay” that would be incurred, if they thought about how their actions will affect others. They paint themselves as saviours of all of us. The psychopath being interviewed in the article even has the audacity to equate perfect pitch, a generally benign human trait, with psychopathy, which is frequently malignant. Saying that psychopaths are necessary to humanity, as they just might save us when the species is under threat and equating their psychopathology with a musical ability, is a seductive and manipulative point of view. It disguises the fact that most actions of those with psychopathic tendencies are wholly self serving. Psychopaths rarely consider the consequences or collateral damage associated with their decisive actions and hence are never able to answer the questions, “is this the right time to do this?”, “should we do it in this way?” and “is this thing worth doing at all?”. Perhaps the delay is a worthwhile thing after all.
In fact, there is a considerable body of evidence that allowing charismatic, psychopathic leaders to act without constraint or thought of the consequences to others is threatening the very survival of life on earth, in significant ways. They’d sell us all out, for temporary personal gain. Our cultural narrative needs to turn away from the hagiographic praise for those that act without conscience or empathy, to one that questions their actions, motives and the promised, but seldom delivered, benefits for all mankind. In many, many cases, the actions that these leaders paint as imperative are nothing of the sort and we’d all be far better off if they stayed home and did nothing.
One might wish to believe that the news media itself is not run by those with a psychopathic tendency and that they only reflect the psychopathy of our leaders and public figures, but read this account of the News of the World, under Andy Coulson’s leadership: http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/jul/28/-sp-bullying-hypocrisy-andy-coulson-reign-news-of-the-world-hack-attack-nick-davies You will note, from the article, that several of the main players in the news department were described as devoid of empathy and that they answered to a board of a similar persuasion. A quote from the article clearly and bluntly states: “There was no room for doubt or conscience. Human feelings did not come into it.” It also says, “This was not just about hypocrisy. It was also the key to a crucial editorial distortion: regardless of the reality of the world they lived in, the News of the World was pretending in print that the nation lived by an antique moral code. It was fiction. It was also the cornerstone of their justification for their most destructive work.” These are the people that create our popular culture and set the agenda about what we all discuss, daily and how we see the world. It’s a distorted viewpoint, written and published by distorted people.
The raw material for our children’s future stories and creations needs to be based in fact. A recent study concluded that young children who are exposed to religion have a hard time differentiating between fact and fiction. Five and six year old children from different schooling systems were presented with three different types of stories – religious, fantastical and realistic. The aim was to gauge how well they could identify narratives with impossible elements contained within them, as fiction. The study found that children who went to church or were enrolled in a faith based school were significantly less able than secular children to identify supernatural elements, such as talking animals, as fictional.
By relating seemingly impossible religious events achieved through divine interventions (e.g. turning water into wine) to fictional narratives, religious children would more heavily rely on religion to justify their false categorisations. Is this the raw material for future narratives we want to feed to our children? When a cohort is unable to reliably differentiate fact from fiction, all manner of manipulations are open to those that don’t care what effect their manipulations might have on their prey. People can be convinced of any absurd proposition (such as that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, to cite just one example). When you feed young people on a diet of official, mainstream media fictions, the result is that net bamboozlement simply increases. This makes them vulnerable to harmful manipulations. It’s not good to become prey to those that predate.
Another recent article I came across, which describes how conservatives think, was this one: http://www.alternet.org/scientists-discover-fascinating-psychological-reason-why-conservatives-areconservative?paging=off¤t_page=1#bookmark
This article provides some alarming and controversial conclusions. These have a significant impact on the stuff of stories that our children take in as base assumptions, which they will subsequently use to form and propagate their own world views and gamut of possible outcomes for humanity in the future.
This somewhat scholarly article concludes that the conservatives in charge are psychologically, perhaps even physiologically, different creatures to creative, progressive, open-minded, flexible-thinking, artistic people. Conservatives have a biological need for structure, order, closure, hierarchies, enforcement of law, and imposition of their will. They need everything to be locked down according to their desires. Unfortunately, humans don’t have the capability to do this without extremely harmful unintended consequences. While conservatives think they want to rule the world, the actual responsibility for doing so is beyond their capacity to cope with it.
This is not to equate conservatism with psychopathy, though it is obvious that, in some particular cases, there is a considerable overlap. The article does not address psychopathy and there is no evidence to conclude that all conservatives lack empathy, are not creative and treat other human beings as prey, or playthings to be manipulated. It is possible to be conservative and yet be caring of others (as long as they are not outsiders and can be trusted) and not especially manipulative (though the conservative mindset is characterised by a love of rules, structure, law enforcement and order maintained by force and threat).
The biology of conservatism, which is, the article asserts, hypersensitive to threats, was an evolutionary winner in the Pleistocene era, when wild animals and any number of natural catastrophes could kill us all at any moment, but is madly maladaptive in a world full of the means for planetary scale destruction of all life, through enforcement tools like nuclear weapons and through the domination and conquering mindset, which lays waste to the environment and sees enemies, where there are only other earthlings.
The biologically conservative mindset, the article goes on to say, is fundamentally threat-oriented, in that it wants to eliminate perceived threats by killing, destroying, obliterating, burning or poisoning them out of existence. These conservative thinkers rarely consider the effect on bystanders and the collateral damage so caused. For example, winning a nuclear war but leaving the “battlefield” uninhabitable still feels like a good idea, to those that require a settled closure to the perceived problem of “otherness” – other races, customs, idea and beliefs.
People who think conservatively tend to treat soil systems and medicine the same way – divide and conquer, dominate and control, remove and replace. Real biological systems don’t work this way. To maintain healthy organisms, eco-systems, bodies and soils, you have to be accepting of a certain amount of diversity and apparent chaos, because these systems are, in reality, highly complex matrices of evolutionarily successful organisms, all doing what they do, in concert, to survive. Stepping in and trying to isolate, control, purify and improve along a single dimension, by force or brutal violence, is actually contrary to the natural state of these systems, which exist in equilibrium – harmony and balance, achieved over millennia of evolution. These delicately balanced systems are not tolerant of the imposition of human will for arbitrary purpose (or more correctly, for the purposes of making conservative people feel they have achieved control). In trying to eliminate the threats perceived by conservative humans, the whole system is degraded and threatened with destruction.
The most alarming assertion and the bleak prognosis of the article above is that those who are biologically conservative can never be changed. They’re wired this way. Yet, there appears to be no limit to the scope of their desire to intervene. The implications of this, if thought through, are staggering.
The other kinds of humans – the creative, sensitive, highly emotional, passionate, mercurial, progressive, artistic types, that are comfortable with change, innovation, new ideas, ambiguity, compromise, settlements that involve not getting everything you want, who can accommodate a plurality of viewpoints, ideas, beliefs, cultures and ways of being, are actually the ones that cause all the improvements in the condition of man. To be conservative in your thoughts is to be, almost definitionally, sclerotic. The creatives, in contrast, are the imaginative visionaries and seers that solve the hard problems and seek betterment for all, rather than sticking to what they know, keeping everything locked down, under control and the same as tradition demands, ensuring that outsiders are kept at bay. I suggest that this other kind of biology, the creative type, has a distinct evolutionary advantage, at a point in human history, where the conservative mindset has brought us to the brink of extinction and created unbearable suffering for millions of innocents.
Returning to the central thesis of this post, which is to discuss the palette of raw materials that we provide as narratives and the base assumptions that we indoctrinate our children with, either by default or design, we can ask some fundamental questions. Here are a few:
Why is it unlikely that war will, in the future, be recognised as too costly, in human lives, environmental destruction and on the economy? Could a perfectly plausible narrative about the future not be that war will become rare? If war is too risky, due to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, could we not conclude that rationality will ultimately win the day and that wars will be seen as a stupid option, even to psychopaths or simply to conservatives that wish to impose their will on others they perceive as less worthy than they are? If so, why don’t our present day narratives and stories reflect this view?
Why won’t we learn to co-exist as earthlings, rather than as nationals of nation states? The nation state is a human construct. We can remove it, just as we created it. In fact, the notion of governance being necessary and inescapable is also open to question. We don’t need it to prepare a meal for ourselves. Why should we need governance at all and governance by whom? Psychopaths and conservatives?
Why, also, is it considered unlikely that we will recognise that we already have abundance, sufficient for all and that scarcity is a false construct overlaid on the riches, to divide haves (who have too much) against have-nots (who don’t have anything)? A more plausible scenario, for the future, is that we wake up to this fact and set about redistributing our abundance more equitably. What reason is there not to do so, other than the constraints of arbitrary money games that we, ourselves, have invented and can just as easily modify or discard?
Who says environmental destruction is inevitable, if we can curb greed, planned obsolescence and take recycling, repair and reuse seriously? This is the sort of idea that should be in our cultural narratives, which we pass down to our children – possibilities, rather than inevitabilities.
Why should there always be a stratum of elites that “own” all the money and resources, when more equitable and just forms of human organisation are available? There is no law of physics which underwrites selfishness and greed. We should see those traits for what they really are, in the human population – aberrations. I’ve never yet heard anybody seriously ask how much they will be paid, if they pass the butter to somebody that asks for it, at the dinner table. We are, by nature, a population of generous, giving, sharing and dare I say it, basically communistic creatures, by inclination.
As much as the economists and business would have you believe that we are all solely driven by self interest and monetary gain, there is just as much evidence for altruism and selfless acts of compassion. The story those lacking in empathy tell is that we all lack empathy, or ought to. The real story, apparent to the majority of humanity, is that we are not. Again, this is the sort of narrative that needs to be seized upon, by the creatives and included in the palette of base assumptions that we give to our children.
Who says the uncompassionate and merciless will always be the winners, in the game of life, if we can begin to isolate them and limit the scope of their harmful actions and their agency in committing them? The story of our future selves that we could just as easily tell is that the meek shall inherit the earth. We can begin to talk about gentleness and kindness as being the route to success and true happiness, in life and for the accumulation of material objects, through ruthless, brutal competition, the losers’ way.
All of these equally and perhaps more plausible possibilities, to describe our collective future, generally fail to find their way into film scripts, games, stories and the media narrative, today. Artists can change that.
The arguments against a brighter future are actually not compelling. They all rely on the argument that this is just a consequence of our debased human nature, but is human nature debased? If it were, why would we observe so much compassion, caring, volunteering, altruism, emotion, love and concern? Surely that’s our true nature and the violent, dysfunctional one is a projection of some very unwell psychopaths that happen to run things and who have control over the primary story telling apparatus of our age.
While we continue to repeatedly reinforce the message that the future will be a bleak, violent, unjust dystopia, that’s all we’ll get, because we’ll close off all thought about other brighter possibilities. If we put a better future into the realm of unthinkable thoughts, because there are no stories and narratives told which expound on them imaginatively, then kids will grow up with a limited vocabulary to describe anything other than the dysfunctional systems and organisations we currently endure. We’re better off feeding them on a diet of pure possibility.
The future is built on the stories we tell ourselves and our children. The stories are constructed on the edifice of our built in assumptions about the world. Artists can do important work in changing the assumptions we all hold to be self evident, when in fact they are nothing more than the artefacts of systematic indoctrination. Artists are the people with the ability to think other, more positive and benign assumptions and to train our kids with these thoughts instead. We can change the base assumptions.
Artists are at the front, in the information war, to instil other possibilities in the future narrative of mankind. Even the biologically conservative can, in time, come to accept that tradition demands peace, inclusion, openness, acceptance, tolerance and diversity, just as it always has. They may be more inclined toward their harsh and violently divisive ideas always, but at least artists can feed the creative creatures among us with optimism and hope, along with ideas for how to create a better world that can really be designed and brought to fruition.
If the article I quoted above turns out to be correct and conservatives can’t be changed, we will have to deal with those of a threat oriented mindset until evolution selects them out, gradually and over time, if, in fact, evolution ever does. There may be, it has to be said, residual fitness and adaptive advantage for this type of person, no matter how repugnant they can be to more creative creatures. Evolution preserved them for a reason and may yet continue to do so.
My feeling, though, is that the creatives need to be in the ascendant and may yet assert their fitness and adaption to circumstances, rather than ceding the planet and its future to the other type, who seems hell bent on destroying it. We’ll see. In the meantime, artists can change the conversation, even if some people refuse to participate in it. We’re not going to change the minds of those without a mind capable of being changed, but we can have agency and impact, as creatures that create better possibilities.
A better future begins with better built-in assumptions about it and about us.