Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Be thine own palace, or the world's thy jail"

The slide into mass-thought is inevitable. There is no hope of avoiding it. This is not a strong statement that I am making in order to set up some optimistic reversal at the end of this post. There is no hope of avoiding it.

When I write against the twisted, zombified version of "community" that people talk about today, it is not in the wish that "things will change." They won't. The general person has resigned him or herself to the idea that "community" is everything; that he has no need of privacy or anonymity; that she needs to actually own nothing -- just pay for it and keep it "on the cloud." People are cool with YouTubing things from their bedrooms, dirty socks on the floor and pictures of the grandparents on the nightstand notwithstanding. Why should the world not see my bedroom? Why should I clean my bedroom for the stupid world? 

The other day, in an in-class debate, a student used this argument: "If you have nothing to hide, why do you care what the government sees of your phone records?" Clank. [That was the sound of my jaw hitting the floor.]

Speaking of the kids...they operate under new social paradigms. They have been conditioned over the years -- as a teacher, I have watched them change -- to the point that discussion of online privacy leaves them with quizzical expressions. Who cares?

(So you know, if you are a parent, there are sites out there, like "Snapchat," through which they can send pictures that are timed to disappear -- whatever is in the picture is temporary. Scary. No need to worry about making a permanent mistake...)

So, why write about it if there is no hope for society? Because if I were writing to "change things" I would be subscribing to the same notion as everyone else: that change needs to happen in groups; in societies; in masses. I am not, however, writing to "change things" but to, maybe, convince the odd individual to walk away from groupthink -- not to change the world, but to help the individual make his or her personal world what he or she chooses it to be. I have said it before: I see hope in the person, not in people.

I think we need to build a fortress against the all of this noise. We need to feel that it is okay to be alone; to exclude ourselves from things that others feel obligated to participate in. One of my favorite quotations, ever, comes from John Donne: "Be thine own palace, or the world's thy jail."

If there is any hope in all of this, for me, it is in the fact that I don't really believe that the world will become a full-on, Orwellian, dystopian nightmare with troops of thought-police wandering the streets. I really don't. But I do believe it will be one in which personal thought will morph into group thought; in which people willingly, in the belief that it is their best chance at happiness, will fall into line, thinking comfortable thoughts that fit into the harmonies orchestrated not by an evil dictator, but by tides in popular and in governmental thought.

In that world, if not in the world of, say 1984 or A Brave New World, we will still be able to be our own palaces. But we can't do that if we don't take our own paths of thought. I don't want to (and cannot -- who the heck am I?) save the world; I just want individuals in the world to save themselves by breaking the rhythms of thought that the world has beaten into them. While everyone else is in 4/4 time, I will think in 7.

Don't join me. Think in 9/8, or...something.


  1. This is one of my bugbears and I've been struck by how the workplace has changed since my parents' day. On the one hand we live in a far more tolerant society and discrimination against people on grounds of race, sexuality or disability has rightly been made illegal. But it seems as if a more insidious discrimination has replaced it, stigmatising people who are "outsiders".

    My parents worked with a variety of eccentrics, some of whom were clearly on the autistic spectrum, whilst others had been driven half crazy by the War. But as long as they were punctual, diligent and hard working, nobody cared about their personal quirks.

    There was no nonsense about being part of a "team" and to say that X was or wasn't a "team player" would have seemed absurd and laughable.

    Today, it feels as if the line between the public and the private has become very hazy and the pressure to conform to certain norms is greater than ever.

    David Karp's novel 'One' is an interesting alternative to Nineteen Eighty-Four, depicting a less overt, seemingly-benign dictatorship that is far more similar to our own than Orwell's dystopia.

    1. Steerforth -- I haven't read Karp's novel, but I will certainly look for it now.

      It really is a force, this "team" mentality. Just the other day, we had a judge as a guest speaker in school for "law day" and his presentation was interesting, but it was so distractiingly laden with "get involved" and "contrinbute to the community" and "teamwork" that I could barely stand it. The kids stand in this constant wind every day; how can we hope for them to even consider that not participating is okay?

      A few of us can shout into this wind, but, you know how that sounds... Still...