Words Fly Up, Thoughts Remain Below
In my first few years of university I was a business major and had plans to become a wealthy debutante, or something of that ilk. I was academically gifted and came of age in the eighties, when the foundations of the unabashed materialism we take for granted today were first laid out. In my first year of business school, the student council had t-shirts made with “GREED” strewn across the front, in large block letters. On the back of the t-shirt was the remainder of Gordon Gecko’s notorious speech from the movie Wall Street.
We proudly wore our obnoxious t-shirts each day for the first weeks of that semester. We were smug and self-assured for a bunch of twenty year-olds who had achieved nothing in our own right to warrant such bluster. We were cashing-in early on what we expected would be the glory achieved in the years ahead. With youthful zeal we goaded and pissed off social work majors, feminists, sociology professors, and everyone else who had come to university for an education. Eventually the Dean of business got squeamish when news of our antics spread beyond the faculty walls and sparked criticism the school was cultivating a bunch of insensitive money-grubbing jerks. He suggested the shirts be worn at the country club only, and not on campus.
In my second year of business school I decided to take a political science course for my Arts elective. I was exposed to the writings of Rousseau and others of the French Enlightenment. Most importantly, I was introduced to the act of political and philosophical thought. I read Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality in one sitting, from evening until the next morning. I did not fully grasp what I had read, but the concepts I was exposed to resonated with me deeply, despite my intellectually un-curious upbringing. Rousseau’s Discourse still profoundly shapes my thinking on the subject of inequality, an issue more relevant today than it was in 1992 when I first read it.
I had been raised in a fairly secular materialist family of corporate executives and merchants. Politically, people in my family were die-hard conservatives. The political “discussion” – if it can be so-called – was a mix of sermons against the Liberal government of the seventies and included corporate fatwas issued by my CEO grandfather against every union in existence. These were phlegmatic spectacles where cauldrons of vitriol simmered, fuelled by gallons of the left-wing lunacy that seized my working-class town at the time. At no time did the political discourse attain the loftiness of Rousseau’s line “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” The oratory from my grandfather was more of the variety “those goddamned union thugs are gonna be the death of me, Jackie”
Without any thought to the consequences, I transferred out of business school and became a political theory student the following year. I dug into Plato, Aristotle, Burke, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and all the prognosticators of secular, magical thinking we call “ideology” these days. I fancied myself an urbane young gentleman, as all of us philosophical types did. The idea of wealth acquisition seemed a quaint, trivial pursuit and was quickly dismissed for loftier aims.
Deep down, I knew my destiny was that of low-paid, academic vagabond living a nomadic, hand to mouth existence, leaving in my wake flowery philosophical tracts nobody could really understand. But I and other humanities-loving romantics seized our generational rite-of-passage as young-uns with the right prescriptions to save the world from the blight left by the generations before. We strutted with an air of superiority to the ingrate business and engineering students willing to squander their youth in boredom to acquire marketable skills. What a bunch of Philistine losers for choosing a life of wage-slavery to corporate masters, so it went.
As an earnest political philosophy undergrad oodles of the post-modern jargon cascaded from my mouth. Had I not denounced religion as the opiate of the masses, I’m certain my friends would have thought I’d become a Seventh Day Adventist and was speaking in tongues. But I was enamoured by the prospect of something as simple as a word to encompass such elegant, noble ideas so succinctly. I remembered my pre-Enlightenment years, when I was a “Philistine business student,” how the word “Greed” had been wielded as the blunt instrument to profess ill-will and launch polemic; how it simultaneously asserted a misanthrope’s worldview as it kicked others to the curb.
As a budding philosopher, I was exposed to words brimming with intellectual heft, but which also lent an air of gravitas to the ego uttering them. I grew to love big, conceptually-rich words that left others clueless in their wake. Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, and Merleau-Ponty were masters of pretentious word-porn that got me off again and again. My idelogical zeal was a reflection of my relief to have been liberated from the stultifying prison of early indoctrination at the family dinner table. Those wily Frenchmen had a flair for rhetorical embellishment, and the rest of us passed it off as a systematic philosophy.
Fast forward twenty years later. Life did its thing: it buried my insufferable ego under mounds of humble-pie. I messed up so many of the things that really mattered, despite how clever, loquacious, and learned I thought myself to be. All that learning and education was so bereft of practical wisdom when it came to the real-world problems in my own life, and was totally irrelevant to the lives of others I encountered in my career in law enforcement. It makes me realize I invested much too heavily in the hype – the corporate hype, the left-wing intellectual hype, the ideological hype.
I understand how exposure to ideas can expand a mind – so long as the mind is inclined to remain open through that process. However, what I’ve learned in spiritually unraveling my ego for the past near decade is the peculiar cultural tendency in our mode of discourse to use ideas to close a mind rather than to open it. I grant there are remnants of Nietzsche and the French post-modernists in this observation. However my ideas about this depart from Western critics by the insight that the foundational cultural bias, which posits mind and body as separate spheres of our humanity, is as much responsible for our susceptibility to dogma as our belief in “rationalism.” All our Western critical movements – Marxism, feminism, post-modernism – blossom from minds rooted in the same ego-obsessed gardens as the Canons they criticize.
These inclinations have combined to make us more certain of the truths generated in our rationalizing minds than, say, from our intuition or inherent wisdom about the realities before us; bellwethers which can only be found by looking into our bodies. When it comes time to solve vexing problems, the habit is to foreclose access to these other parts of ourselves to gauge the options we are considering. We look to that so-called rational mind alone, without seeing how ideologically tainted, and emotionally-charged our perception of things has become. Our belief-systems are a balm for deep-seated emotional ailments, which is fine if you’re debating at the dinner table. However, to the extent they render us susceptible to wholesale distortions of reality – which they inevitably must – they can spell disaster. Real-world problems call for a mind that perceives reality with the wide-open lens of wisdom rather than through the blinkers of dogma.
In no arena is this psychic danger more evident than that of politics. There’s an election in my country right now. A man with a graduate degree from one of this country’s leading universities is trying to keep his job as Prime Minister by race-baiting, fear-mongering, and attacking rivals as gutter-mates with disenfranchised segments of our society – drug-addicts and sex workers. He has implied his political rival is a “brothel-operator,” which may score with people whose lives happily avoid that seedy reality, but it does so by directing scorn toward the socially and economically marginalized citizens whose lack of choices pushes them into sex work. Suggesting a rival isn’t fit to hold office because he’s a “druggie” seems to condemn the millions of people among us struggling with substance abuse and addiction.
No political candidate in a developed nation should affix himself to such tactics in his campaign; no man should vie as leader of a democratic, pluralistic nation who holds such open contempt for such large segments of the citizenry he deigns to govern. I suspect his “rational mind” is incapable of seeing the implications of his tactics in quite these terms, because his mind is locked in its ideological prison. In this, he would be no different than many who engage in politics; who believe stridency is the prime virtue, and dread accusations of “flip-flopping” in their views when realities change, or when their ignorance about an issue decreases.
I want to flatly condemn the purveyors of such tactics, but I can’t. I lampooned the opposing philosophical extremes of my youth to show how fully I can relate to the lure of ideology and its propensity to stir adherents to polemics. I am aware of how our political affinities endow us with feelings of heightened intelligence and superiority in respect of those with opposing views. Such distortions heighten our sense of self-regard and justify provocative behaviours that de-humanize for political advantage those outside the narrow bounds of our rhetorical interests. Since we are righteous, we can do no wrong, so the thinking goes. One cannot make an omelette without breaking some eggs. And so on, and so on.
I understand how easily hooked a man is to the ideological bait cast in front of him at an age when he’s accomplished nothing in his life and is desperate for the golden egg to make his mark. That is when most of us first put on these ill-fitting ideological clothes to help us through the confusion, doubt, and anxieties about the unknowns that lie ahead. The delusion of certitude ideology provides not only allays our fears but rationalizes whatever ethical shortcuts we deem necessary to achieve our objectives.
The divisive tactics in today’s politics wouldn’t be used if they weren’t so appealing to those impulses. I am not willing to condemn so many fellow citizens for succumbing to those habits and fears, because I have been there myself. Certainly, it is troubling how few political actors seem willing to exercise more self-reflection about their conduct; to make efforts to curb their ideological excesses. I feel compassion and sadness for the genuine fear and insecurity that propels this behaviour, and wish we were less inclined to search out and extol political remedies for crises in the psychological health of the collective mind.
It is clear to me the people who cross the line of decency in their discourse – oddly, it always seems to be those on the political right – are beset by emotions that compel them to cling to abject, ignorant ideas to alleviate feelings of insecurity. It is heartbreaking to witness successful, highly achieved, and otherwise intelligent adults so caught in the throes of such deep-seated emotional affliction. How else could they see no wrong in lying, in wilfully distorting facts, or in slandering and scapegoating swaths of their fellow citizens to win an election? It is so far beneath the privilege of being elected to serve one’s people.
My advice, having suffered the pitfalls of ardent ideological affliction myself, is to examine the fear that stirs belief in nonsensical, delusional hype. The process of de-programming the mind from its faith in the unqualified truth of such ideas – elegant and soothing as they may seem – is a greater source of wisdom than the straw man of ideology could ever be. Ideology taints the heart and renders the mind, possessed of infinite capacities when we are born, as small as the books and rhetoric that enclose it with fear. It makes us ignorant to the extent of cruelty in the politically-charged words we cavalierly fling in the air, and oblivious to the damage inflicted on others when they land.