We live in what can only be described as a copy-cat world.
We have this way of copying each other – we copy what each other thinks, we copy each other’s way of seeing the world, and as far as we are concerned this a good thing, this is the way to go! Conformity is the name of the game! Kurt Vonnegut says in Breakfast of Champions that we have this over-riding tendency to agree with each other not because we feel that what we are agreeing with particularly makes any more sense than anything else, but rather as a way of being friendly, as a way of establishing a social bond –
“So in the interests of survival, they trained themselves to be agreeing machines instead of thinking machines. All their minds had to do was to discover what other people were thinking, and then they thought that, too.”
In Top 5 Ways to Practice Non-Conformity in the Matrix the author states that –
“By default, people seem inclined to conform to the ideas, environment and behaviors around them, at least as a means of survival and of fitting in.”
Uncritical adaptation to the existing system is how we survive – it’s a fundamental survival strategy, and one that we learn from a very early age. The situation where everyone agrees with everyone else creates a very bizarre situation however – straightaway we find ourselves caught up in a framework of values which is entirely arbitrary, and yet which no one will admit to being arbitrary. The contrary is true – the merest suggestion that the way of doing things that we’ve adapted to is not the only possible way is reacted to with crushing condescension. People will look at you with pity, people will look at you as though you’d lost your mind! Within this assumed framework to be thinking the same way as everyone else is ‘right’ and not to be thinking this way is ‘wrong’. This is the most basic law of social behavior there is – to be like everyone else is ‘good’ and to be unlike them is ‘bad’. Almost every society there ever was has been based on this simple (if totally ridiculous) ‘rule of thumb’ – if you’re like me then you’re OK and if you’re different then you’re not…
This isn’t just the case for behavior or how we look, it’s also true for how we think. It’s true for the way which we have of understanding the world, and understanding ourselves. Amazingly, we copy how to see the world from other people too! It’s perfectly true that doing this allows us to create strong social bonds with those around us, but if I have to do this in order to be accepted then this is simply asking too much! Its one thing to copy what someone else is wearing but to copy our world-view is frankly insane. Copying how to see the world from everyone else is actually self-negation since as soon as we give up our own unique take on life we give up who we truly are. At this point I cease to be the unique individual that I am and become ‘a generic human being’.
I become a generic human being with lots of friends who are themselves generic human beings, but this type of ‘friendship’ isn’t really worth very much. How can it be worth anything if the very basis of it is me pretending to be someone that I’m not, and you pretending to be someone that you’re not? This is a very crazy situation, although we rarely notice it. Everything becomes about how good we are at copying, how good we are at sussing out what other people are thinking, and then thinking that way too, as Vonnegut says. We have a kind of radar that allows us to detect what the ‘in-thing’ is, so that we can then hopefully get better at doing it than anyone else. This skill is the key to what we call ‘success’! If on the other hand I go down the road of getting better at doing what I value, what is meaningful to me, then unless what I’m doing happens to be valued by lots of other people too there is no way that I can become successful. ‘Success’ only occurs when there’s mass social validation and mass social validation only happens when I get specially good at doing something that everyone else already sees as a worthwhile kind of a thing to do.
Of course it does happen from time to time that somebody who is ‘thinking for themselves’ (rather than ‘accepting what they have been told’) makes a breakthrough and gains widespread acceptance after doing a lot of hard work on their own. For whatever reason, the collective (and inevitably conservative) viewpoint can no longer deny the value of the work and so the new ideas finally get taken on board. But what happens then is simply that this new way of looking at things becomes the new ‘standard’ that no one is allowed to question. Everyone then rushes in to adapt to this new way of thinking and capitalize on it in whatever way they can. In essence, what this means is that we’re all happy to jump on board when the ideas have been publicly validated, but not before. This sort of thing is of course what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn refers to as a paradigm shift.
This seems to be the natural way of things – most of us just aren’t interested in thinking outside the box. Succeeding to whatever extent we can within the box is good enough. That’s what we dream of – making it big in the box! This is fine of course if that’s what we want to do. There is a tremendous irony however in the way that we don’t in the least bit seem to value our ‘free-thinkers’, our ‘eccentrics’, our ‘oddballs’. Culturally, we rely on them as trail blazers, as pioneers, and yet until or unless they become mainstream we have no time for them. We absolutely depend on these ‘free thinkers’ to inject much needed new life into our stale way of seeing things – it certainly isn’t going to come from the ranks of the regular, ‘unquestioning’ folk – but at the same time we don’t in the least bit value them for this. Quite the opposite is true – we actively ‘take against’ them. When it comes down to it, if we could possibly manage in some way to not give them the space to exist, the space to be different, and force them to become regimented in their thinking like the rest of us, we would do! The list of great thinkers who were shunned and persecuted by their compatriots is a long one – the father of computing Alan Turing, to give just one poignant example, was driven to suicide. The BBC documentary Dangerous Knowledge looks at Turing’s story, along with that of Kurt Gödel, George Cantor, and Ludwig Boltzmann, all of whom who are greatly appreciated in retrospect, but not during their lives. Nicola Tesla is another example of an absolutely seminal thinker who was either ignored or exploited during his life, and who is still practically unheard of even now, despite the fact that we all benefit from the AC mode of electrical transmission that he invented!
The way our ‘default mode thinking’ works is that we can only see value in ideas that have already become accepted, in ideas that have the stamp of orthodoxy on them. Psychologically speaking this comes down to the deeply engrained mental attitude of not wanting to take a risk. We play it safe, we go for the secure option in all things. On one level this ‘playing it safe’ option makes a lot of sense. On any other level than the ‘obvious and short-sighted’ however the strategy of ‘never taking a risk’ is of course utterly disastrous. We’re forever opting for short-term benefits, and this means that there’s never going to be any meaningful change taking place. The result of playing it safe is stagnation and stagnation, apart from being a thoroughly unpleasant sort of a thing to be stuck in, also gives rise to all sorts of toxicity. As William Blake wrote 200 years ago, “Expect poison from standing water”.
Risk-taking with regard to new ideas is a sign of mental health. The flat refusal to countenance anything that might be different to what we already understand to be true (which Robert Anton Wilson refers to as neophobia) is a kind of mental malaise – worse than a malaise, it’s a veritable living death. What we are afraid of when we succumb to the fear of taking risks is life itself – and so neophobia has the inevitable consequence that we turn our backs on life itself…
A culture that turns its back on life is very bad news for all the people that happen to be born into it, which underlines even more how vitally important it is to have those unusual risk-taking individuals who Colin Wilson calls outsiders. We may not like these outsiders, with their odd ways and their strange ideas, but we need them all the same!
By Nick Williams | TNP