I am slightly embarrassed to admit this, but I entered into university studies not with lofty aims to “get educated” but to obtain a credential, any credential would do, that would maximize my chances of retiring a multi-millionaire, the earlier the better. I was academically gifted and came of age in the eighties; when the greed cult that has blossomed in the twenty-first century was just getting off the ground. This credo dictated that anyone with half a mind for academics would be foolish not to channel their intellectual efforts pursuing a field of studies in one of the professions that held the most promise for a financially lucrative career: law, medicine, and business.
Medicine was my first choice. That is, until I realized I would have to forsake my youth and devote all my time and energy to the excruciating amount of studying required not just to MAYBE get into med school but to get through the intensive curriculum leading to the sheepskin with E K Saunders “M.D.” No thanks, I wanted to get a degree AND party while I was still in my twenties, the prime of my life; a time when I had plenty of party in me and there were plenty of parties to be had.
To my nineteen year-old mind, delaying gratification until my thirties – the time it would take to finish medical school and become licensed – was foolhardy: I might be dead, or worse, married with kids and a mortgage. Thirty-somethings do not party, they spend weekends at the hardware store picking out counter tops; they bicker over bougie brunches about whether they should paint the guest bedroom in glossy or matte finish. If they have parties at all, they are “dinner parties” that end at ten and don’t cut into most of the next day. Dinner parties don’t involve running out the back door cradling a carton of beer under your arm when the cops bust the joint, sleeping beside a toilet, or waking up beside your bestie under a strange table in a house you both have never seen before. Frankly, “dinner parties” at any age are to partying what square dancing is to dancing.
No, I would not forgo the only time in one’s life when partying and binge-drinking were a socially-acceptable pretext for countless inexplicable antics; those that only a twenty-something college student could get up to without irrevocably tarnishing all future hopes of professional respectability. Nobody charged with murder or embezzlement would retain a lawyer who shotgunned ten beers before doing cannonballs into the backyard pool over the weekend. If the partner of the firm specializing in criminal defence did that every other day in their twenties? Meh, how much per hour? I was not going to pilfer the opportunity to cash in a decade’s worth of drunken hall passes. I wanted, no I needed, to do shotguns and jump off rooftops and run through the streets naked.
Having my noble, perfectly rational marching orders in hand, I chose business school rather than medicine. 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 gaggle of over-grown children 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 became 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 concealed when we young protégés were sullying campus with our ill-intentions that were not yet as culturally widespread as they would soon become.
In my second year of business school on a whim I took a political science course as a non-business 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. It was odd, this thinking thing. In business school it was all about “doing.”
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 and academic program that was openly hostile to thinking (and still is, frankly). 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 unabashed 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 and any politician who pandered to them (a knee jerk idea I still harbour thanks to the indoctrination).
These were phlegmatic spectacles where cauldrons of vitriol simmered, fuelled by gallons of the left-wing lunacy that bamboozled my working-class town at the time (and still does). At no time did the political discourse attain the loftiness of Rousseau’s iconic observation, “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”.
I was hooked. Absolutely, unequivocally spellbound. Seduced, smitten, or abducted if you were to ask my family. The much-maligned faculty called “thinking” and I were soul mates. In my family, coming to the Sunday dinner table with flowery declarations that “Screw this ‘business degree’ nonsense, I’m going to be a thinker!” was tantamount to a Montague declaring to his family at breakfast “By jove, I’m going to marry that Capulet girl”.
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. Within a year, the goal of wealth acquisition was displaced from being my life’s mission to 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. Isn’t it romantic – to sacrifice a living so humanity could benefit from my thoughts?
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, we brashly asserted.
As an earnest political philosophy undergrad oodles of the post-modern jargon – or utter nonsense, depending on who you ask – cascaded from my mouth like oil from a tanker run aground at sea. Had I not denounced religion as the opiate of the masses, it is beyond doubt my friends would have thought I had been hoodwinked by an evangelical sect and was speaking in tongues. In fact, I was enamoured by the prospect of something as simple as a word to encompass such elegant, noble ideas so succinctly, even if nobody else knew what it meant.
As a budding philosopher, I was exposed to words brimming with intellectual heft, that 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 playful Frenchmen had rhetorical flair, a keen eye for intellectual embellishment, and the shrewdness to pass 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 – all that thinking – was so bereft of practical wisdom. When it came to the real-world problems in my own life, thinking was totally irrelevant to the lives of others I encountered in my career in law enforcement. By the way “doing” all those pointless business case studies would have been no better. I came to the realization that we invest much too heavily in the hype – the corporate hype, the left-wing intellectual hype, the ideological hype.
The “hype” we really need is wisdom – which cannot be learned in a textbook or from someone at a lectern.
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 for debates 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 would be futile if they were not so compelling 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.
Though I never did get that medical degree, the years I endured the disease of ardent ideological affliction fortified the knowledge to offer the following prescription: look inside yourself to discover the emotional traumas, anxiety, and anger that renders your mind vulnerable to belief in ignorant, cruel, and destructive ideas. The appeal of ideologies, so often apocalyptic and fatalist in outlook, points to humanity’s deep-seated impulse to self-destruction. Thankfully, our capacity for meta-cognition, should we choose to use it, can temper this prerogative. The impulse itself is perhaps nature’s version of a litmus test – one that requires immense self-reflection to uncover the reasons we got drawn into ideas that are ultimately destructive. In successfully navigating a path out of this hell-realm in our minds, we are left with wisdom about how we got there in the first place and a renewed commitment to do that which is life-affirming.
Holding the mirror to that base part within, without looking away from what it reveals and retreating into soothing dogmas is the best medicine for our mental and emotional health. The on-going process of loosening the mind from its vulnerability to nihilistic ideas in our conditioning immunizes against our being seduced by the elegant straw men of Manichaean delusion. We must continually sharpen our minds against the ignorance and cruelty in the ideologically-charged invective so cavalierly flung in the air; to cut it down with the blade of wisdom so as to prevent destruction when it lands. Consider it Doctor’s orders.