You might think that, born somewhere else, under different circumstances, you’d turn out pretty much the same as you are today, no matter what. The things you accomplished would have been accomplished, no matter where you started. You’d think the same thoughts, uphold the same values, pursue the same interests and develop the same skills and talents. We tend to believe our true, authentic selves would have found a way of being expressed, no matter what influences, hindrances and discouragements we were subjected to.
What we don’t like to acknowledge is the possibility that, given better encouragement, resources, luck, breaks, opportunities and happenstances, we could have become a much better, more successful, more fully-developed version of ourselves, instead of the frustrated, constrained, self-censoring human being we have been conditioned to become. We could have become more compassionate, forgiving, non-judgemental, less petty, with greater emotional depth and intelligence, free from bigotry, nastiness, greed and selfish tendencies to intimidate, if only our life-learnings and opportunities had been different.
We believe our thoughts are our own, yet strangely we share them with people of equivalent privilege and life luck, but oddly not with other groups of humans. If we’re such self-made individuals, what can explain the marked homogeneity of attitudes, thoughts, beliefs, values and morals? Are we as unaffected and unshaped by our environment, parents and peers as we like to imagine? Under similar pressures and stresses, would we opt to be Oskar Schindler, or Josef Mengele? Nobody can say for sure, until they’re put to the test. We are, until that moment, like Schodinger’s cat, both potential hero and villain at the same time – unresolved until observed.
Here’s the truth. We aren’t predestined to become the people we become. We’re shaped by the prevailing ideas and orthodoxies and these, more often than not, limit us, because we are governed by the lucky. The lucky construct a self-serving narrative that asserts if only you were more like them, you’d be lucky too. They make cases for narcissism, sociopathy, violence, venality, prejudice, base behaviour, low cunning, cheating, lying and all manner of corruption as the secret recipe for their good luck. Follow these instructions, they claim, act as we do and then you might be deemed worthy enough to be included amongst the very luckiest in society.
There’s good reason to believe that if you change the shaping forces, which mould each and every one of us, you change almost everything about who we would have become. The change could be drastic and radical, if the shaping forces are significantly and diametrically opposite to those that made you. We’d be very different people, if what we’re told and trustingly believe from birth was drawn from an alternative set of ideas and narratives, or another intellectual tradition entirely.
We become what we’re told to become. If we deviate far from this, the deviation is relatively small. We might be different in detail, but not in substance. As much as our youthful rebellion rejects the culture and orthodoxies of the older generation, we eventually gravitate toward sets of ideas that share a great deal in common with those of our elders. This is why monarchies persist for generations and why revolutionary changes to systems of governance settle to become almost indistinguishable from the systems they replaced. What, for example, is the material difference between being ruled by an autocratic, absolutist czar and a plutocratic, authoritarian, totalitarian oligarch? It’s a very fine distinction. The obedience, collusion and deferrence are pretty much the same. Never underestimate the ferocious, terrifying power of conformity.
The fact that our very essences, as people, are so evidently fungible leads to some interesting morphological possibilities. With different ideas in all our heads, our creative potentials could be unlocked and we could live very different lives, governing ourselves in a very different way. Certain of our capacities and potentials can be activated, and others not, so that we turn out another, ideally better way.
The author and playwright, Wallace Shawn, noted, “There’s no reason to doubt that every healthy human infant is born with the potential to play music beautifully, to read with sensitivity, to do scientific research, to put on plays, to draw and paint, and certainly to think. To think, to understand, to reason, to analyze arguments. And naturally also, to develop, to grow. But almost all of those who are born unlucky have been brutally prevented from developing more than a fraction of their own abilities, and this is perhaps the most shocking fact about our human world.”
Imagine we believed fervently in non-violent eudaimonia, where thriving and growing, as flourishing people, is held up as the highest, most desirable good, instead of the things we seem to value and reward most today: conquest, power and predatory domination. What if generosity was our aspirational social goal, instead of selfish greed? How different would you be if every social institution that existed supported, rather than prevented, your every nobler instinct as a human being? What different choices would you/could you make? Could it really be so difficult to create organisations designed along these lines?
The usual objection is that the utopian project would fail because it goes against human nature, but are we in danger of putting the cart before the horse? Isn’t our so-called human nature largely an imprint of the way we chose to design our organisations and establishment edifices? If we designed our institutions differently, with different principles, missions and visions, couldn’t we change human nature in its image? What if we guaranteed an end to traumatic childhood abuse and alienation, strove for greater equality and chose to place thriving above profitability, efficiency and productivity? What would be expressed as human qualities, if these explicit goals were ambient?
The writers of the Redacted Tonight television show recently tweeted:
“Should it bother us that our foreign policy consists mostly of bomb first, ask questions later? That our international relations debates are largely discussions on when + how to internevene in other nations? That profit motives of war are rarely reported by the so-called press?”
The answer to this rhetorical question is, of course, obvious. Yes, it should bother us. If our institutions of governance, corporations, finance and media were constituted differently, we would be bothered. The fact that we aren’t tells us that our institutions are pathological and hence dysfunctional. They believe in and uphold things that are inimical to human life, preferring death, waste, despoliation and destruction to peaceful co-existence. This is the road to extinction.
How different would we be, as people, if our foreign policy were different? We’re not the audience; we’re part of the drama and we’re as mutable as the thoughts we think. Do you really think a different foreign policy is impossible?
We’re told there is no alternative to how things currently are, but if true, we’re rapidly headed toward total oblivion. Our best and only hope is that something better must be possible. To access those alternative ways of thinking and being, however, we have to be willing to re-examine every article of faith to which we doggedly adhere. There is, ironically, no alternative.
We’ve let important aspects of human life become the playthings of speculators and the super rich. Does it have to be this way? Of course not! Their rule has no inherent legitimacy. If we were aware and awake, we’d challenge them to demonstrate their legitimacy to have everything their own way. They, for a fact, know that they couldn’t. Their much vaunted meritocracy is a sham.
If being an artist meant you’d live a comfortable, secure, thriving existence, instead of starving, for example, wouldn’t more people become artists, rather than stock brokers and hedge fund managers? What would that do for humanity’s ability to experience a deeper range of emotions? How much more innovative originality would decorate and enhance our daily existences and lives? In short, doesn’t our current collective mindset severely limit the range and breadth of human possibility?
It’s not utopian, therefore dismissible, if all that prevents it from becoming a lived reality are the thoughts we think. We could choose to simply change one imagined, hallucinated reality we collectively brought into existence (our current “real world”) for an equally plausible alternative one, in which we’re all wiser, more compassionate, emotionally deeper, freer and far more creative, happy and fulfilled.
Why don’t we? Imagine the people we could become.
Now there’s a thought.