Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

Sneering at dissidents: spiritual tonic for the modern bourgeoisie

June 11, 2010

As much as I love David McRaney for the challenge his blog poses to many of my misconceptions, one of his archived posts touches on a subject that winds me up.  It seems to be a cherished myth for those who would prefer not to reflect on the social and ecological cost of their lifestyle choices that there is no escape from the relentless onward march of global capitalism.  There is no rebellion one could engage in that impacts the big picture, no message one can communicate that isn’t fraught with hypocrisy and naivete, no behavior one can exhibit unmotivated by raw self-interest.

In McRaney’s (truncated, emphasis-added) words:

Wait long enough, and what was once mainstream will fall into obscurity. When that happens, it will become valuable again to those looking for authenticity…

You would compete like this no matter how society was constructed. Competition for status is built into the human experience at the biological level

You sold out long ago in one way or another. The specifics of who you sell to and how much you make – those are only details.

The subtext here is that the only way people can ever hope to express “authenticity” is by buying a shitload of pointless kitsch purposely designed for the “authentic” demographic.  Therefore, the story goes, we are all trapped.  There is no escape.

But what about simply being authentic?  It’s way cheaper and more effective than buying a T-shirt that says “I’m authentic!”  It requires only that we make a serious effort to determine what has real, immutable value to us and attempt to conform our behavior to whatever revelations unfold.

Adam Smith’s argument that pure self interest is the ultimate human motivator has captured the imagination of the bourgeoisie to such a breathtaking extent that competing philosophies are no longer seriously considered by most Western pundits, politicos and ideologues.  I suspect the idea is beguiling because, in a world where a minute fraction of the population sits on the lion’s share of the wealth, the notion that we can effortlessly advance the greater good simply by looking out for ourselves absolves us of shame.  If we can also embrace the delusion that it is impossible to free ourselves from selfish concerns, we can ignore claims that when “the self” is taken out of the picture, compassion flows as indiscriminately as rain and ethical behavior naturally arises.  We are not moved to contemplate how different our culture might be if it were structured around compassion rather than selfishness as long as we insist “compassion” is merely a deluded form of selfishness, from which there is no escape.

With the dogma of inescapable selfishness firmly entrenched, activists, dissidents and revolutionaries can be dismissed as childish, petulant attention seekers.  Even if some dissidents might have been partly motivated by lofty concerns to begin with, their message is entirely meaningless if it becomes popular or profitable.

Suffice it to say, I do not share this perspective.  I believe it is irresponsible, inaccurate, immature and empirically unsupportable.  While it’s true that the concept of individual self-interest underpins our current understanding of biological evolution, research makes it clear that selfishness is not our only motivator.  As it turns out, we are hard-wired to experience the joy and suffering of others as if it were our own.

As a dissident motivated by the desire to reduce the suffering of others, it seems obvious to me that the primary psychological force behind most forms of dissident behavior is empathy.  Whether for children laboring in unsafe factories, civilian victims of state violence, displaced or destroyed wildlife in a devastated biosphere or any other organism we believe has the capacity to feel pain or distress, we object because we feel it too.  It seems equally clear that the primary psychological force behind capitalism is indeed selfishness, exactly as its proponents would have us believe.  I have no idea how anyone is able to subvert their inherent capacity to feel the suffering of others when it interferes with their own personal gain, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that the pure selfishness embraced by the most passionate proponents of capitalism is not a universal and inescapable law.

To return to McRaney’s quote, if Ghandi could overthrow the British empire wearing nothing but a home-spun loincloth, surely there is more that is “built into the human experience” than “competition for status” and we have a great deal of choice in how we behave, regardless of how society is structured.  If the human psyche has a greater range of motives than pure self-interest, surely it makes a difference upon which specific values our society is constructed.  We have learned from our own experience that a society constructed on the principle of selfishness behaves selfishly.  It is not a great leap of imagination to propose that a society constructed on the principle of compassion behaves compassionately.


A Few Apophatic Reflections

September 12, 2008

I love the incoming links feature of wordpress. You never know what you’ll find!

Where Brad says “for a disturbing look at apophatic theology played out to an extreme, click here”, that’s me. I’m the disturbing look. Looking at a few of his other posts (ie. a Macbeth-esque contemplation of whether or not it’s OK to get a t-shirt that says “theology kicks ass”, concluding that it is fine to buy one because, after all, theology is “really, really cool” – but not OK to wear it because someone might get offended) I actually felt a rush of pride for being disturbing to a person like this. Not because I like to disturb people, but because being disturbed is often the first indicator of an unexamined, oppressive belief system that is begging to be re-evaluated – that’s crack cocaine to an apophatic. I felt like I’d done him a favour, although from our brief discussion it seems he does not feel the same.

Since I have begun to upset the Christians, I thought it might be a good time to elaborate on the perspective for which my blog is named. What I practice is not apophatic “theology”. In other words, it has nothing to do with imposing additional narratives (ie. gods and religions) on my experience of awareness, and everything to do with maintaining freedom from such impositions in order to enhance my awareness.

I have found life is enjoyable to the same degree it is experienced with open eyes, an open mind and an open heart, and upsetting to the same degree that I filter my experience through an inflexible narrative.

The foundation for this perspective was meditation. I didn’t know at the time that I was “meditating”. I thought I was just sitting on the beach – alone, in silence, thoughtlessly, sometimes long enough for the tide to come in and go back out again, a few times a week for several months. Eventually, I experienced a sudden, massive reorganisation of my psychology that has endured to this day.

In the weeks that followed I was in a state of epiphany, stamping out fallacy after fallacy as my altered psychology showed me submerged darkness underlying of everything I believed to be bright. I saw that I could not chase beauty without running from ugliness; that pain is the cost of pleasure; that I could not elevate people I admire without lowering people I find distasteful. I found I could only eliminate “evil” in myself by giving up my attachment to “good” – and everything became infused with goodness. I stamped out the “ugliness” in myself by letting go of “beauty” – and everything became infused beauty. The icing on the cake was that these were new forms of beauty and goodness, and they came packaged with their own dark opposites. After a few cycles, I began to suspect the process of releasing attachments and revealing ever more expansive forms of beauty and goodness was likely to be continuous.

At the time I was busking for a living on the streets of Vancouver. I left in the morning and stayed out all day, hammering away on my guitar and chatting with the sorts of people one meets while loitering on urban street corners. This era of listening to the stories of mad vagrants and the intoxicated graduates of Canada’s residential schools (while piqued professionals scurried by in wide semi-circles) is the first I time I experienced life with my eyes, heart and mind wide open. I had become the embodiment of divine love, truth and beauty: I felt a love which does not judge; I knew a truth which makes no claims; I found beauty in the ugliest of places.

All this seems very much at odds with “theology”. It’s unlikely I would ever have attained this perspective had I been distracted by the study of a god or religion (although nothing is impossible). As far as I have seen, western religions do not encourage their followers to become the embodiment of divinity; they point to a book, or an icon, or an abstract concept and insist that “divinity” lies within. They practice a “love” founded on shared loathing of the wicked. They dictate a “truth” that makes preposterous claims, then condemns the incredulous. Religious “beauty” is founded on the fear of death and decay, or it consists of nothing more than glamour: beguiling words and pretty things. In fact, I suspect the phrase “I became the embodiment of divine love, truth and beauty” makes western religious readers quite “disturbed”, but what can I do? That’s how it felt.

I don’t meditate any more, but I do napitate. I can conk out anywhere – planes, trains, family gatherings – for a period of mental inactivity that looks and feels very much like a nap, except that I am awake and aware of my surroundings throughout. It’s very refreshing, but doesn’t seem to result in any more profound awakenings. That is fine with me, though – I can happily spend my whole life integrating the awakenings I’ve already had.