The essential point is this – we allow society to nullify (or negate) ourselves in return for some kind of package which is supposed to be life, but which isn’t. That’s the basic deal. That is the basic story of what’s going on. That’s it in a nutshell. So how much more ‘to the point’ could we be? This is exactly the deal we make and there are no two ways about it. The matter is crystal clear – no one but a fool would argue otherwise!
The matter is crystal clear and yet we allow ourselves not to be clear about it. This is of course the only way that we can commit wholeheartedly to society – by not facing up to the cost. We are very good at not facing up to the cost of social adaptation; we spot threats and enemies everywhere but never do we number among them the threat of ‘losing custody of our very soul’, so to speak. Other things spook us, but this apparently does not…
This is not a new dilemma – it’s something that’s been around ever since human beings first settled down in large groups, presumably. There has always been the danger that we will end up making the unwise decision to ‘sell our birthright for a mess of pottage’. And if this was the danger thousands of years ago when this line was first written down – and the human population was so very much smaller than it is today – then what must the danger be like now? Even the word ‘danger’ is inadequate in this context – it’s more of an inevitability.
What takes place when we ‘adjust ourselves to the way in which everyone else thinks’ – which in one way seems to be a perfectly reasonable thing to do – this is that a type of ‘switch-over’ takes place. Beforehand, we might say, our orientation was towards ‘reality as it is in itself’, afterwards it is towards ‘reality as it is being presented to us by the Group Mind’. Another way that we could put this is to say that our natural orientation is to be ‘curious’, just as children are ‘curious’; the ubiquitous process of socialisation changes this however – instead of curiosity conformity is now the thing. Curiosity and conformity are ‘antithetical principles’; the whole point about the ‘consensus reality’ is that we reach it by agreement, not curiosity. No one ever bought into a consensus reality by being curious (which is to say, no one ever ended up believing in the CR via an actual healthy interest in the truth of things as they really are).
Kurt Vonnegut says something like this. Vonnegut says that we agree with people not because we think that what they are saying is right but more as a type of social nicety, because we want to establish a friendly relationship, because we want to ‘establish ties’ –
And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with enemies, in order to express enmity.
The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of years, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might as well be badges as anything.
Establishing friendly relations with those around us is obviously important in one way – a very limited way – but we take it too far. We take it ridiculously far! When we are living within a consensus reality, a reality that we all collectively agree on, then curiosity actually becomes a thoroughly undesirable sort of the thing – no one gets on in the conditioned reality by being curious as to ‘why the rules are the rules’; we get on by accepting the rules, not by questioning them. We can of course see this happening all around us, in all corporate and institutional environments, in all organized groups – people become deliberately obtuse rather than acknowledging absurdities that are staring them right in the face. Who has not come across this type of deliberate obtuseness? If we don’t ‘play dumb’ in this time-honoured way then it is a fact that our careers are simply never going to get anywhere. More than this, our whole lives are going to be very hard indeed. We’re going to be ostracized. Who wants to swim against the tide of social convention?
This isn’t some fanciful theory that we are trotting out here – it’s very evidently the case in all arenas of human activity – when we are part of a group, when we are part of a consensus reality, then our fundamental allegiance is to maintaining the group, maintaining the (apparent) integrity of the collective viewpoint. There is therefore always going to be a conflict between ‘acknowledging the truth’ and’ maintaining the consensus reality,’ and when we are part of a group then ‘acknowledging the truth’ is always going to come very poor second! This might sound strange from the POV of our everyday thinking but the consensus reality is essentially a game and the only way to play games is by tacitly agreeing to ignore the fact that the game is only a game. Games work – as we all know – by substituting themselves for reality and – for obvious reasons – this substitution can never be an honest (or ‘upfront’) kind of a thing.
What we are essentially looking at here is the phenomenon sometimes known as ‘groupthink’. Groupthink is always a fundamentally dishonest business. If I’m engaged in groupthink then I speak the group’s truth and not my own and yet I cannot admit this to myself. I have to pretend otherwise. I have to pretend that I really do genuinely and sincerely mean what I say, even though, on another level, everyone (including myself) knows perfectly well that I don’t. This is the fundamental conflict that exists within all social groups; this is the ‘basic insincerity’ that lies behind society itself. It is of course perfectly possible to conform to what we are supposed to be saying whilst at the same time being clear that we don’t mean a word of it, but in practice this honesty is extraordinarily rare. We all know from our experience of living in this world that honesty of this sort is extraordinarily rare. It would be the height of foolishness to assert otherwise! We are not just talking about the isolated occasion every now and again when we are obliged to ‘tow the corporate line’ – adapting to the consensus reality goes far, far deeper than this. Our whole life has been constructed on the basis of the consensus reality and so to question any bit of it would be to question the whole thing. Pull on this particular bit of thread and the whole jumper comes undone, and then we’re going to get cold!
The example of someone who is obliged to tow the company line, or come out with the bland meaningless jargon that their organisation wants him or her to come out with is a very good one all the same however because we can all easily relate to this type of ‘internal conflict’. It feels very bad to go around being fundamentally insincere and knowing that one is and so – in practice – what we do is that we tune out of the conflict by allowing ourselves to believe our own lies. This is the oldest story there is – we end up believing in our own convenient fictions! No matter where you go in the world you will find this happening – people believing in their own convenient fictions. It’s just too uncomfortable to stay conscious in this world of ours otherwise – there are far too many lies going around for that. We might even find out that it’s all lies….
A simpler way of putting this is to say that we play games, but we are not conscious that our games are games. We could be conscious of our games (or ‘conscious in our games’, but that would be highly ‘inconvenient’, if we can continue to use that rather inadequate word. We exist within a system and in order to gain advancement in this system we need to take it for granted, not question it. There is no pragmatic advantage in becoming aware of the system as a system, of the game as a game. Moreover, this is a cumulative sort of a thing – lies always add up, in other words! In any one instance we might opt to do what is ‘pragmatically or politically advantageous’, so to speak, but over time the sheer weight of all these little decisions to ‘play the game’ add up to one vast inertial mass – a vast solid inertial mass that has become all but impossible to go against. Lots of little lies become one big lie; lots of little evasions become ‘one evasion’, and that ‘One Big Evasion’ is what we commonly call ‘society’.
We are so very averse to seeing this. Collectively speaking we are absolutely averse and we won’t see it; the generic mind will never see itself what it is (the generic group mind always assumes itself to be right and so of course it can never see itself what it is). As ‘individuals’ we are also extremely averse to seeing this truth, for the simple reason that society supplies everything for us – it supplies our identity, it supplies our way of seeing the world, it supplies our friends and our relationships, it supplies a whole life, in fact. We are dependent on the social system for so much (for far more than we would ever allow ourselves to see) and this dependency makes it impossible for us ever to look at it critically. As the character Morpheus says in the film The Matrix –
The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.
The only thing about this is that the life which the system supplies us with, in return for our compliance, isn’t actually worth it, as we have said right at the beginning of this discussion. Deep down we know that it isn’t worth it! How could we not know? What possible worth could there be in a ‘second hand reality’, a reality that is never more than ‘someone else’s idea’ of what is real or true? And what’s more, we can’t ever find out who that ‘someone else’ is either because every person we come across is going to a fervent believer in ‘someone else’s idea of reality’. It’s ALWAYS ‘someone else’s idea of reality’ and that someone else doesn’t actually exist. That ‘someone else’ is ‘the system’ and the system isn’t real. It’s a thing we made up, supposedly to help us…
What could possibly be more ludicrous than living our lives on the basis of what ‘someone else’ has told us that life should be? Could our keenness to conform to the consensus reality really outweigh our own actual interest in (or curiosity about) what life actually is, or about what reality actually is? Could this really be the case? Could we really be that shallow? And yet it clearly is. We clearly are that shallow. It very clearly is the case, and who could possibly deny it? It is abundantly obvious (more than ‘abundantly obvious’, even, if that were possible) that all of our energy is channelled into conforming to the so-called ‘reality’ that has been presented to us by society, by ‘the system’ (by thought, as Krishnamurti says), and none at all on ‘checking it out for ourselves’!
The question is therefore, “What kind of a life can we create for ourselves on this on the basis of ‘second-hand ideas’ (and ideas are always second-hand)?” Very, very clearly, the answer has to be that it’s going to be an inauthentic life, a sham life. It’s not going to be our life that we are living, after all – it’s ‘someone else’s idea’ of what our life should be and – as we have already said – that ‘someone else’ doesn’t even exist!