Being in command of your own destiny is a funny thing. Too little and you have no freedom or liberty. Too much and you harm yourself and the community around you. There is a delicate balance to be struck between the two extremes.
There are (at least) two ways to learn anything. You can opt for being spoon-fed your information, by didactic pedagogues, learning everything by rote, or you can leverage your intrinsic motivation to learn by following your own curiosity, learning to learn, as well as applying your learning skills to the investigation at hand. This latter style of learning goes by a term I only recently learnt myself – heutagogy. In truth, people probably learn best by blending some aspects of each of these approaches. Sticking doggedly to one or the other may, in fact, be the hardest way possible to learn.
Most painters pour scorn on those that paint by numbers. If that’s all you do, as a painter, it’s extremely limiting and eventually, you’ll learn nothing new and consequently stagnate, never improving at all. However, as a starting point, painting by numbers may have a lot to recommend it. You learn to see the shadows and outlines, where to place colours, how to handle the paint and brushes and if you’re adventurous, how to blend one colour region into another. These are all useful foundational skills to master, without initially having to worry about draughtsmanship, perspective, paint mixing and the thousands of other techniques that should eventually serve you, as a painter. It’s a great way of starting somewhere, as is the Bob Ross technique.
Still, most painters would tend to lean toward reaching into the depths of their souls and painting something that isn’t there yet, on the blank canvas. Even then, do you paint representationally or abstractly? Which option permits more freedom and artistic authenticity? Can you work within the guidelines of a stricter technique and still express your own personality and style, in a self-determined way? As with all questions of self-determination, there isn’t only one right answer, despite what some autodidacts might insist.
As a musician, you could choose to play exclusively from sheet music of other people’s compositions, or specialise in remixing, like DJs do, but others will lean toward creating their own compositions, or improvising in a live, musical conversation. Which way allows you more degrees of freedom; to play from your heart in order to say something meaningful to an audience, through your musical rendition? Opinion is divided. Do songwriters exercise more command over their destinies than concert pianists? It’s hard to say. We need them both.
I have writing friends that insist the only way to write is to outline meticulously and to edit and revise three, four or more times, before their manuscript is complete and ready for publication. Others (like me) strive to make their first drafts as close to publication quality as possible, with minimal rewriting necessary and with a structure clearly in mind, but not explicitly outlined. Different disciplines. They put quality at different stages in the production process. Concision and clarity can either be something you actively pursue, as part of your natural writing style, or else you can achieve it by refining loosely constructed prose in successive iterations. Which way is the more self-determined? Do you follow a writing formula, adhering compliantly to its rules, or do you trail-blaze your own unique writing style. Shakespeare introduced multiple neologisms – words that had never before existed in written works. Do you?
A frequent complaint I witness in social media is that women cannot find decent partners (men). If you allow them to elaborate, they say they want the stability, protective safety, security and social status that comes with a partner that has a steady job, earning a substantial regular income, yet they simultaneously expect to find somebody exciting, creative, intuitive, spontaneous, free-spirited, interesting, daring, unpredictable and open to risk, when it comes to career pursuits. They appear to be completely oblivious to the blatant contradiction in their requirements; simply not realising that the non-existent overlap in their Venn diagram means they prejudicially exclude practically everybody. Self-determination comes with the sacrifice of certainty.
In everyday life, we don’t expect the government to tell you when to brush your teeth, which brand of toothpaste to buy and when and what to eat. We expect to enjoy a modicum of self-determination in the everyday choices of living, not live a regimented, fully directed existence. Dull, indeed, would be the soul that consulted a government web site to choose one’s daily attire, yet those suit-wearing City folk have all but done that, haven’t they? They have their designated uniform.
Artists, in general, prefer less governance over their work than most other working people. Thankfully, most references to “degenerate” artists have faded into history, though the term is enjoying a disturbing and recent “revival” on 4chan. I cannot imagine what being an artist in the Soviet Union, under Stalin’s reign of terror, must have been like. Every brush stroke was subject to censorship and official approval. Free-spirits were very quickly crushed and innovation driven out of the artistic world completely. Still, it provided a living for a bunch of bureaucrats only too gleeful to wield disproportionate power over artists that could create what they could never imagine themselves being capable of producing. I guess to them, it was a perverse form of self-determination. They could make up their own arbitrary rules and enforce them on hapless artists, who had little choice but to comply, or die.
Silicon Valley maintains the consequences of what they’ve moved fast and broken are not their problem. They Imagine they’re creatively self-determining, taking control of the situation by sheer force of their will, but they’re not accepting their responsibilities. Who will be expected to mend all the potholed highways, so that self-driving cars can enrich their inventors? Their belief in their supreme isolation has consequences for the society around them, which they pointedly refuse to acknowledge. They think they’re engaged in extreme exercises in self-determination, but in the process, they are preventing other people from determining their own fates and lives. They’re barging in on other people’s concerns, for profit. Often, they cause a net loss of autonomy for the population as a whole. Our choices are limited to what they choose to provide.
On social media, they tell us that our time lines are our own; personalised to our tastes and wishes, but that isn’t true. What they fill your time line and mine with are ads you didn’t want to see and news items that pander to, rather than challenge, your prejudices. There is very little content in that publication that you would have actively asked to see. We don’t have very much self-determination at all, because control over what we see is not given to us. It’s sold to advertisers.
Anarchy, a system of self-determination that does away with rulers, imposes personal responsibility on each member of society, to get things done. There is no shirking. Under civic self-determination, unless we organise collaboratively to run the railways, there won’t be an “authority” to keep them running on time for us. Instead, though we take the lazy option of installing politicians, mystical supreme leaders, party politics and elections, so that we can pretend the pressing issues of our lives are somebody else’s problem. It’s a basic mass delusion. We think we don’t have to worry about environmental destruction, climate change, corruption, crime, the upkeep of decent social services, education and a myriad other necessities, because every few years, we vote and we pay our taxes. The rest happens by remote control, without us troubling our heads with any of it. Except the truth is, it doesn’t.
Here’s my proof that people actively opt against self-determination: those that complain about there being too much politics on Facebook and Twitter. These people point-blank refuse to engage in debate on subject matter that has serious impact and significance in their lives. They don’t even know how to debates the issues, so that actionable outcomes are reached by consensus. Instead, each “political” discussion turns into a war zone, with all sides fighting from entrenched positions, throwing insults at each other, defending their particular sacred cows to the death, until, by attrition, only one person remains standing, whereupon they declare themselves the victor. It’s a ridiculous way to consider the inevitable, weighty matters of life. Ignoring them entirely instead, leaving important questions unresolved or delegating them to a cadre of self-serving crooks and liars, who do as they wish, is perhaps the very worst response.
Community building takes diligent work, but we’ve almost lost the art, due to a toxic, Ayn Randian fantasy we appear to have swallowed uncritically and wholesale. We’ve come to believe in hyper self-determination, where it’s every man for himself, in dog-eat-dog competition that only the “strong” can survive, where each human accomplishment is nonsensically attributed to the grit and determination of sole individuals. It’s not only completely unrealistic to believe in such a fairy story; it’s also a philosophy of living which takes a huge, lonely, emotional and psychological toll on everybody that participates in it, whether willingly or not.
A popular pass time at the moment, Mindfulness, also has a dark side. While being a useful antidote to the insane anxieties associated with living in the current world, Mindfulness also kicks planning a desirable future and learning from the past into the long grass of being somebody else’s problem and responsibility. If you focus exclusively on the now, somebody else has to learn the lessons of history. Other people will be left to construct the future, according to their own plan and agenda. Like voting and paying taxes, it’s an opt out. You leave the big questions to other people to deal with, so that you don’t have to.
Humanity doesn’t appear willing or ready to shoulder the burden of personal responsibility that self-governance and self-determination imposes. We’d rather be passively governed, so that we can comfort ourselves that it’s all somebody else’s fault. As we watch the last dying embers of the living world extinguish themselves, we can take cold solace in knowing it wasn’t our doing. Except, it most assuredly was.
We’re good at self-determination in art and in learning, in the main. We know how do this. There are significant achievements made possible only because of our collective agency, applied collaboratively. Self-determination is a familiar skill. It’s not beyond our capabilities. We have the power. We don’t have to wait for our delegates to do the right things. We don’t have to witness people dying needlessly in hospitals, because our elected leaders refuse to spend our taxes wisely. We don’t have to tolerate racist leaders, or corrupt officials. You can simply act, as a population, in their stead. Fire them!
Our greatest creative potential is in the society we create and leave as legacy to future generations, yet we cry out like helpless babies to be governed by flawed, corrupted, mystical, self-interested leaders; to devolve doing the hard work to anybody else but ourselves. The result is, though, that nobody does the hard work and so the world crumbles to hell, while we bitch about plastic packaging.
Our determination to create the conditions for balanced self-determination (not too little or too much) is what will matter most. We need to look to ourselves first.