Dave's Progress. Chapter 96: Being Different.

I have just finished reading "Brave New World", Aldous Huxley's account of a future society where human beings are no longer born, but genetically "produced" and socially conditioned so that they fit, unquestioningly, into the roles given them. So, there are those who are "manufactured" to be less intelligent and so perform only menial tasks, where others, the so-called "Alphas", are engineered to be more intelligent and therefore take on more demanding roles. What is important, however, is that they are all conditioned to be "happy" in their allotted roles, and none envy either their superiors or inferiors. Indeed, the status quo is maintained by keeping the populace distracted with almost enforced sexual promiscuity and the promulgation of a drug, "soma", which seems to induce an unthinking state of pleasure.
However, into this scenario comes Bernard Marx, an "alpha" who begins to question the nature of his society. Marx is beset with questions about why things are as they are, and as a result of his questioning, there is a rumour that something went wrong with his conditioning. Indeed, he is increasingly seen as "different" from others of his station, and as a result he is lonely and frustrated. Add to this Bernard's relationship with a "savage" named John, a person who was "born", rather than "produced", and who has a fondness for Shakespeare. John previously lived on one of the "savage reservations", but was himself, being more intelligent than the other savages (that is "born" rather than "produced" people), somewhat alienated from the culture in which he found himself. So, when Marx brings John into his own apparent utopia, the stage is set for a tragic denouement.
The book came over to me, then, as as much a treatise on being different and alienated from one's environment as it is about the tyranny of a future society, and this got me thinking about how we treat difference in our own society. Indeed, more and more, I came to feel that Huxley's vision of the future perhaps had a deep resonance with our own culture.
For instance, many philosophers, particularly those of a Marxist bent, would feel that the "self", far from being the manifestation of our own individual thoughts and feelings, is rather culturally produced: it is the product of our own form of social conditioning. For Marx, this social conditioning comes in the form of ideology, forming a sort of prism through which we see the world. Others, like Foucault, use the term "discourse" to describe the set of practices, assumptions and views which govern a certain age. According to such philosophers we are, then,"conditioned", not in the very visible way Huxley's book describes, but almost subconsciously, soaking up whatever societal norms are prevalent at a given time. Indeed, Althusser, in his paper "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" showed how the individual is conditioned through various arms of the state, such as school.
The way we are conditioned, then, is perhaps more subtle than Huxley's very obvious way, but in his foreword to the book he seems to hit on a point which may have resonated with these other philosophers, and that is the essential problem of authority, of how to get people to, essentially, be akin to slaves, without them realising or being unhappy with it. For Foucault it is the subconscious conditioning of discourse which provides the answer, as, he states, "how could we seek to be slaves".
I'm sure, though, that if you asked any average person in the West if they were free, they would say yes. But is this the case, given the arguments above. Indeed, such arguments seem to raise the question of whether freedom, or freedom of thought, is even possible, even in the most ostensibly "free" societies.
This is where some might feel that, perhaps, madness is the only true freedom there is. By experiencing psychosis, for example, we somehow shed our social identity and conditioning and we literally lose our previous sense of self, and by doing so, experience some form of Dionysian abandon, at last a true freedom. It is, then, by becoming "different" that we are inevitably labelled "mad". In fact, in Huxley's book, the old cultural practices of the savages are seen as not only disgusting, but "mad" by the new breed of human. However, those who feel that madness does provide us with a certain freedom must, I think, in the end, recognise that one can not possibly function in society when feeling this way. All practicalities, it seems, go out of the window when we are in a psychotic state, or, as a friend of mine succinctly put it, such freedom leaves us with one important question- who's going to buy lunch? Furthermore, in Saul Bellow's account of one young man's exploration of freedom and choice, "Dangling Man", the main character, after having nothing to do for the entire novel eventually enters the army, stating emphatically, "I am no longer to be held accountable for myself; I am grateful for that. I am in other hands, relieved of self-determination, freedom cancelled. Hurray for regular hours! And for the supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation!" So, would freedom, if we truly knew it, actually live up to our expectations?
But, to return to my previous point, one only has to look at how difference is treated to see that we are more like Huxley's society than perhaps we would choose to admit. For instance, in terms of mental health alone, being diagnosed with mental ill health can mean entering a whole new world. As Rufus May, at one time himself diagnosed with schizophrenia and now a radical psychologist suggests, having been diagnosed as having psychotic experiences one automatically enters into what he terms a "taboo identity". Indeed, the same has been true of race or sexuality, and it is only with time and changes in discourse or ideology that such differences are finally acknowledged by and included in the larger society.
However, we all know that discrimination, prejudice and stigma over being different is difficult to eradicate. Indeed, the creation of stigma is known to happen in almost all cultures. And so it is that perhaps Claude Levi-Strauss was most accurate in his description of why difference seems to be so unaccepted:
"...it would seem that the diversity of cultures has seldom been recognized by men for what it is - a natural phenomenon resulting from the direct or indirect contrasts between societies; men have tended rather to regard diversity as something abnormal or outrageous...The attitude of longest standing which no doubt has a firm psychological foundation...is to reject out of hand the cultural institutions - ethical, religions, social or aesthetic which are furthest removed from those with which we identify.  'Barbarous habits', 'not what we do', 'ought not to be allowed', etc. are all crude reactions indicative of the same instinctive antipathy, the same repugnance for ways of life, thought or belief with which we are unaccustomed...Faced with the two temptations of condemning things which are offensive to him emotionally, or of denying differences which are beyond his intellectual grasp, modern man has launched out on countless lines of philosophical and sociological speculation in a vain attempt...to account for the diversity of cultures, while seeking, at the same time, to eradicate what still shocks and offends him in that diversity."
So, it seems that being hostile to difference is almost a part of human nature. We all know, however, that such things as tolerance and understanding can be nurtured. Perhaps that is our only hope that being different will eventually be accepted. Perhaps that is our only hope of creating a real "brave new world that has such people in it".
That's all for now from your normal, average delusional and paranoid man.


bazza said…
Levi-Struas's description of how human (and other animals for that matter) attack percieved differences between theirs and other societies goes down to the smallest level and repeats like a Mandlebrot diagram.
What I mean is that even within different socities there are smaller 'splits'. Eg: Sunny Muslims feel the need to obliterate Shias and vice versa and so on ad infinitum.

Incidentally Huxley wrote Brave New World because he thought that the message in Orwell's 1984 had not come through clearly enough.
Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’
David said…
Dear bazza,
Thanks for your comment and the interesting information contained therein.
It is interesting to compare Huxley's vision of the future with Orwell's and it is hard to decide which is the most prescient. Although neither such societies appear to have come to pass, they still both resonate with me and appear to contain elements which are indeed reflected in our own culture, although perhaps to lesser degrees.
Thanks once again, bazza- always nice to hear from you.
Yours with Very Best Wishes,
klahanie said…
Dear David,
I have read this blog a few times, now. I had picked up on bazza's observation in the comparison between Huxley and Orwell.
Now, your posting was what I consider a profound and interesting analogy.
So, I thought it best to reflect upon one point in this posting. I am convinced that we are making significant progress in the acceptance of those who are considered to be 'different'
Yes, we have a long ways to go, but I do envisage a 'brave new world' where we celebrate the diversity and uniqueness of all.
Take good care, David and stay warm.
In kindness, Gary.
David said…
Dear Gary,
You appear to have picked up on the essence of this post, anyway, and I too hope that we can look forward to a "brave new world" where difference is accepted and no longer stigmatised.
Yours with Very Best Wishes,
dcrelief said…
Dear David,
This was great. I truly admit I am envious of your diligence of research.
"Hope for acceptance"; I like that. And freedom? I think it was a dream, left behind, when the first folks came West. Who knew?
Thank you, dc
David said…
Dear dc,
Thanks for your comment and it is so nice to have you back again.
I hope you like the look of my blog aswell, as I have changed it recently.
I shall now speed over to your site to make a comment!
With Very Best Wishes,

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