Friday, February 04, 2011

A Haircut and a Suit of Clothes

This post is optional - I know, all posts are optional.  I guess what I’m saying is this one will need a little bit of work on your part; and, if you aren’t in the mood, feel free to move along.

First, the quotes come from this article by Wallace Shawn.

Shawn says we are the victims of our personal and societal perceptions, which are self-reinforcing.  We look at the exterior, the haircut and the clothes, and judge the interior.  By doing so, we limit ourselves and everyone else.  We play roles, we don’t live lives that we are capable of.

Had he stopped there, I’d be in agreement; but, according to Shawn,”[t]he global market selects out a tiny group of privileged babies who are born in certain parts of certain towns in certain countries, and these babies are allowed to lead privileged lives. Some will be scientists, some will be bankers. Some will command, rule, and grow fantastically rich, and others will become more modestly paid intellectuals or teachers or artists. But all the members of this tiny group will have the chance to develop their minds and realize their talents.

“As for all the other babies, the market sorts them and stamps labels onto them and hurls them violently into various pits, where an appropriate upbringing and preparation are waiting for them. If the market thinks that workers will be needed in electronics factories, a hundred thousand babies will be stamped with the label ‘factory worker’ and thrown down into a certain particular pit….The reason…was not that [they] lacked ability but that the market wanted workers, and so [the babies were] assigned….

“[U]ntil they’re ready to go to work, they’re all assigned appropriate costumes. And once they know what costume they’ll wear, each individual is given an accent, a way of speaking, some characteristic personality traits, and a matching body type, and each person’s face starts slowly to specialize in certain expressions that coordinate well with their personality, body type, and costume. And so each person comes to understand what role he will play, and so each can consistently select and reproduce, through all the decades and changes of fashion, the appropriate style and wardrobe, for the rest of his life.


“If we look at reality for more than an instant, if we look at the human beings passing us on the street, it’s not bearable. It’s not bearable to watch while the talents and the abilities of infants and children are crushed and destroyed....Their performances as these characters are consistent and convincing, because they actually believe about themselves just what I believe about them -- that what they are now is all that they could ever have been, they could never have been anything other than what they are. Of course, that’s what we all have to believe, so that we can bear our lives and live in peace together. But it’s the peace of death.


“If the play we’re watching is an illusion…, then the division of labor, as now practiced, is inherently immoral, and we must somehow learn a different way to share out all the work that needs to be done. The costumes are wrong. They have to be discarded. We have to start out naked again and go from there.”

Shawn blames the self and societal delusion on capitalist markets, without any explanation and goes on to conclude that we must become socialists. 

It seems to me that he is just trading haircuts and suits of clothes.  I don’t know of anything about capitalism that creates or exacerbates the human tendency to categorize things and to see oneself in the better category (or to see someone or something else as the reason we aren’t).  So too, I don’t know anything about socialism that frees people to see themselves and others more clearly.

I don’t know of any society, historical or current, that has an economic system that results in clear-eyed self-examination or judgment of others.

Shawn seems to me to be an anti-Ayn Rand.  She thought rugged individualism would be our salvation.  He thinks cooperative production and allocation will do the trick.  Both systems, show their flaws when exposed to reality.  Neither system will result in the “perfection” of mankind by realization of the potential of each of us.  That brings us to my favorite verity.  People are basically cussed.  This is a verity that of course calls out for a divinity.  But, because we are cussed, we can't agree on just who that divinity should be, giving us as many flavors of god as there are political and economic systems.  So, on second thought....

1 comment:

Posol'stvo the Medved said...

It sounds to me that Shawn is making an elaborate "the workers control the means of production" argument.

In theory, this is a lovely concept, but we do not live and/or operate in a theoretical world. In practice, one or two workers control the means of production and the rest are usually satisfied to follow along as sheep. Until such time as they realize that the one or two are living in nicer accomodations than them. At which point they (theroetically) rise up themselves, and a few NEW workers control the means of production. Or they accept their fate.

Bottom line, in my opinion, and in agreement with what you are saying, it is human nature to exploit nature to one's advantage, a "nature" that includes other human beings, natural resources, etc.

Altruism on a societal scale simply does not exist.