Hypocrisy -a defining feature of the civilised psyche, #1 (part two of two)

In the first part of this post I described the typical hypocritical mindset of the modern ‘civilised’ person, which is reflected by the impossibility of ‘ethical consumption’ in our globalised consumerist culture. We are forced to continually ‘bracket off’ the uncomfortable truth about the human suffering and environmental destruction inherent in even the most ‘ethical’ of modern lifestyles.

I then put forward six criteria for truly ethical consumption, as benchmarks to work towards. I recommended that we treat our hypocritical failure to achieve these criteria, as ‘moral persons’, with gentleness, vigilance and humour. Also, let me here inform you that this post ends on a very positive / constructive note.

Now I want to look at the underlying narratives and stories that we tell ourselves as a society, which allow the continuation of our gross hypocrisy.  These narratives and stories are often pushed aggressively by the institutions, including corporations, of the financially richest people on Earth, in order to shore up their positions. This aggressive pushing is often not done consciously -it is a manifestation of unconscious (perhaps genetically driven) patterns of domination of certain quarters of society over other certain quarters, but amplified through technology and the powerful marketing machine of global corporate capitalism.

Thus, although these aggressive narratives are bringing humanity and whole ecosystems to the brink of extinction, characterised by their promotion of deeply unethical consumption (as opposed to the six criteria I have laid out), this is not something we can blame individuals for. Nevertheless, the behaviours of some individuals must be stopped.

My perspective on how unconscious narratives (as well as conscious stories) guide human behaviour from day to day is strongly influenced by my reading of Vivien Burr’s introduction to ‘social constructionism’.

According to social constructionism, a branch of social science that also serves as a critique of the social sciences, the whole of reality is socially constructed, meaning that so-called ‘facts’ are only facts by social agreement between human beings. Obvious examples are institutions like nations and money, which are only real insofar as we believe in them and act in their image. What is harder to understand is the contention that even the ‘facts’ of physics and biology are social constructs with no objective reality.

The ‘critical realist’ branch of social constructionism contends that there are ‘brute facts’ underneath our linguistic and socially constructed understanding of reality, but of course we can never see them objectively -only through our perspective of human language.

I am not a postmodernist, in the sense that I think that clearly, there is an objective truth of ‘brute facts’. The critical realist branch of social constructionism is useful in helping us understand knowledge in a fluid and social way. Once we realise that, regardless of brute facts, the way that knowledge is gathered, understood and expressed is by social agreement, and so is highly political, then we can begin to understand how better to understand and express reality in ways which promote environmental and political justice.

‘Narratives’, in social constructionism, are wholly unconscious drivers of human behaviour -threads of meaning which tie the social constructs of reality together.

Various hypocritical narratives (or stories that become hypocritical when they are internalised by so-called moral people, which most of us think we are) in modern global culture, prevent the six criteria of ethical consumption from being realised.

One such narrative is the one that says ‘capitalism makes everyone richer’. When we look at the living conditions of half of the population of the world, and the traditional community ties, including ties of efficient resource use, that have been broken by capitalism, we can easily see that this narrative is false. The narrative becomes hypocritical when internalised by folk who see themselves as moral, who unconsciously lean on the narrative to maintain their affluent lifestyles. I am not exempt from this.

This narrative and other related narratives have become deeply embedded in our culture and so in our psyches. You could say they are a means by which hypocrisy has become an essential feature of a functioning modern psyche. How could we live with ourselves without this integral hypocrisy? Because it is integral, it causes most of us minimal stress, except in moments of crisis and breakdown (which may become increasingly common as the current version of global civilisation reaches its natural resource limits and we are confronted with the truth). These hypocritically internalised narratives are not only abstract ideological bases for the continuation of a destructive global culture. They are stories that are continually lived and re-invented from day to day, in the culture that we consume and create, and in our social interactions and conventions of speech. These capitalist and related industrial lullabies (for an industrial communism of luxury is just as bad as industrial capitalism) are embedded in even the simplest of objects and phrases that we use from day to day.

For instance, vague and seemingly benign phrases like ‘hard work always pays off’ tend to be used in contexts which encourage us to equate hard work with personal profit to be spent at the expense of other people and the environment. ‘Organic and fair trade’ cotton clothes from halfway around the world persuade us that we are moral in how we clothe ourselves, but such goods could be worse overall for maintaining our hypocritical psyches than goods compared as ‘unsustainable’.

To reiterate and rephrase, as modern individuals we internalise and constantly refine and redefine a complex system of narratives, in unconscious agreement and compromise with one another. The narratives that dominate in contemporary civilisation are the ones that are pushed most ubiquitously and aggressively by the marketing forces of capitalism and the richest people on the planet. We internalise them despite ourselves. These marketing forces don’t just work in obvious channels of advertising, but in the very categorisation and expression of human knowledge and experience. In fact, the essential underlying driving narratives of capitalism are themselves forces of marketing. Forces of marketing which are internalised by aspiring moral human beings as hypocrisy.

The complex system of narratives that we draw upon daily includes ethical narratives which take us in the direction of planetary repair, community building and even the positive evolution and transformation of global civilisation as a whole. However, these constructive narratives yet have a relatively small purchase on our psyches, compared to the prevalent destructive ones. This truth, and our knowledge of this truth, compounds our general hypocrisy. This again brings home the importance of taking our integral hypocrisy as modern beings, lightly. Taking a harsher approach could easily be the recipe for mental breakdown. While on the positive side there is a human tendency to attempt a moral synthesis of all narratives within the self (largely on an unconscious level) there is also the tendency of narratives to fragment and interfere with each other. Thus, even the most noble of narratives become polluted and co-opted by the more dominant and oppressive narratives e.g. stories of capitalism and the related patriarchy.

Conflicting narratives within individuals, groups, nations and humanity as a whole can be rooted in differences in ideology, climate, race, historical culture, national identity and so on. While most of these differences are social constructs i.e. not objective or at least not ‘final and fixed’ differences, considering the ‘brute facts’ – or let me say ‘beautiful facts’- of Nature, we can use what we know of Nature and Natural events to provide a grounding for new synthesized global narratives which are regenerative of humanity and the planet, and which actually hold true. However, it is not enough to ‘create wonderful stories of how we want the world to be in the New Age’, although I admire the efforts of philosophers and others in this area, and they do have positive stories to contribute to the synthesized whole. Much more than this, it is vital for a more sustainable human civilisation i.e the next stage of human civilisation that will emerge after the coming turmoil, that the current dominant and oppressive narratives, especially the hypocritical stories of capitalism, are subverted and integrated into new forms. For the advance of humanity, to attempt to ignore or destroy the momentum and oppressive power of capitalist narratives would be naive, and cause the unnecessary mental breakdown of individuals -something which will increasingly happen too often anyway.

A truly regenerative, wholistic and therapeutic narrative is one that is not only ‘true’ as far as is possible in a socially constructed reality, (thus reducing hypocrisy) but one that magnetises, subverts or integrates less sustainable and more oppressive narratives / narrative aspects to or with it. Such narratives potentially are simplifying beacons and purifiers within the whole over-complicated global narrative complex that we carry around with us from day to day. In social constructionist terms, the most ‘true’ stories are the most sustainable ones. I personally think that narratives must be simple and dynamic in order to become unconscious driving forces in a wide diversity of human beings.

Let me give you an example. Related to the narrative of ‘capitalism makes everyone richer’ is the narrative of ‘anyone can make it as an entrepreneur. All you have to do is work hard and believe in yourself’. Clearly this is bullshit, and creates hypocrisy, although thousands of YouTube videos would have you believe otherwise. Ability to succeed at running your own business depends very much on which country you live in, what kind of education you have had, etc etc. This is not to deny the value of individual self-belief, hard work and passion to make change (and some ecopreneurs I think, do make relatively positive change, if they are working ultimately towards supporting the six criteria of ethical consumption).

But this narrative can be subverted and rephrased to support relocalised, sustainable human culture, in a way which minimises hypocrisy. This could also be called ‘ethical marketing’. Try, ‘anyone can make it as a productive local community member. All you have to do is work hard and believe in yourself’.  This is a thousand times more true than the equivalent entrepreneurial narrative. It may seem that I am making an obvious point. Perhaps I am, but it is also a profound one. If this alternative narrative were marketed in the right way, and to the right level, as part of a strategy of narrative re-telling and re-marketing in general across society, significant cultural shifts could be achieved, and many aspiring entrepreneurs could be subverted to support community and Nature. The point is, it is not enough to perpetuate this narrative in the same old ‘alternative’ circles. (Although it is fine to do that.) For a smooth Transition / Descent to a relocalised post-corporate-capitalist culture, there is a clear need for some of us to challenge dominant oppressive narratives more thoroughly by engaging with the whole contemporary marketing system and subverting it. This is about using a very powerful tool, while we still have it, to reach as many people as possible, to lessen the potentially increasing hardship inherent in our current civilisation reaching its natural limits.

This implies accumulating capital, in as ethical a way as possible, to fund the ubiquitous telling of these new integrative stories. However, perhaps so much capital may not be needed. With the rise of social media and near zero marginal cost of online content creation and sharing across the internet, narratives such as ‘anyone can make it as a productive local community member’ can be spread as never before, and indeed this is beginning to happen. To truly challenge and integrate dominant oppressive narratives however, and win over audiences, the new narratives must mimic (and perhaps gently mock) the old narratives, and the way that the old narratives have been told, as closely as possible. It is common business knowledge -and true- that it is notoriously difficult / unwise to try to change a potential customer’s behaviour. The key to gaining customers / audience members is ‘giving them more of what they want’ or in this context ‘giving them a more sustainable version of what they want’. This cannot be done by telling people that their current consumption habits or entrepreneurial aspirations are wrong. Not without giving them clear and attractive alternatives.

I would like to bring up my concept of ‘Deep Story Telling’ here. Deep Story Telling acknowledges that the underlying narrative complex in society is perpetuated across all social interactions and in the entire physical human-made environment, including the online and virtual environments. The re-telling of narratives and the telling of new ones, to support Transition, means story-telling on the level of the conscious reconstruction of language, including the phraseology of the everyday, the reconstruction of how we associate and understand ourselves as social human beings (including online), the reconstruction of economics, and the embedding of positive sustainable futures -epic tomorrows- in every building, and every object that we use.

This is an exciting opportunity for all of us to create literary, artistic, entrepreneurial and practical forms which obviously or subtly manifest a fresh and Nature-integrated narrative landscape. One that is permeated with truth i.e. deep sustainability. One that normalises a new kind of civilised human psyche which is not dependent on hypocrisy -such a moral psyche as has never before evolved. This moral narrative landscape must be shared online as much as possible, to subvert the dominant oppressive narratives. The hypocrisy of using an internet which may itself be unsustainable, can be acknowledged and integrated.

Finally, it is crucial that we live out the new story-complex as we create it. We cannot tell stories of relocalisation without at least beginning to relocalise ourselves. The great ecological advice for our times ‘think global, act local’ might be more helpfully redefined, for some of us doing this Deep work, as ‘think global, tell stories online, live them out locally’.

If, by telling these stories some of us are able to accumulate global capital, in order to redistribute it and further propagate sustainable Deep Story Telling, whilst at least living in a relocalised way some of the time ourselves, then I suggest that this could be a viable and noble path. We may have to sacrifice ourselves to hypocrisy more than we would like, in order to enable more of humanity to live sustainably and hypocrisy-free in the future.

 

 

 

Hypocrisy -a defining feature of the civilised psyche, #1 (part one of two)

We are all a bunch of hypocrites. It defines us as civilised people, and it defines us as modern people, but bear with me -there is a positive way out.

***

There is a lack of coherency in my moral stance towards the world. There is a constant presence in my subconscious of the hypocrisy at the heart of modern civilisation, which includes me within it.

This is a hypocrisy which allows members of a society (the ones that perceive that they care) to claim a high morality whilst they conveniently ‘bracket off’ the past and current enslavement and exploitation of peoples around the world. Without the exploitation of workers around the world, modern ‘moral persons’ (myself included) would not be able to enjoy their affluent post-industrial standards of living, including their complex high morality.

Similarly, the destruction of the non-human natural environment is depended upon for the continuation of our luxurious -and morally luxurious- lifestyles.

We can claim to live ethical lifestyles by making so-called ethical consumption choices, but really, ethical consumption choices are extremely rare. Almost all consumption choices support a global economic and political system which is founded upon unlimited economic growth on a planet of finite resources, and also a system which has resulted in the richest 1% in the world owning half of the world’s wealth. Just think about that for a second. This is a problem when those richest 1% are not doing all they can (to put it mildly) to address the global crises that afflict our species.

Exceptional, truly ethical consumption, within the current global capitalist system, and considering the global crises, would have to adhere to the following criteria:

1) Products and services would have to be sourced and produced locally to their point of consumption, meaning that every element in the supply chains of that production would have to be local. Local production allows the highest transparency of process and thus highest potential energy efficiency of production. Also, the least transportation involved, the greater resource efficiency. Local production is also more resilient to global and remote events, including crop failures and environmental disasters. Finally, fair trade and the fair treatment of workers can be assured if the whole production process is within local reach. ‘Local’ is of course a subjective value, but should be taken to mean within decades of miles, rather than hundreds and thousands of miles. ‘Local’ does not necessarily respect state boundaries as state boundaries are not a criteria of sustainability (just look at the military conflicts around the world).

2) Products and services created / consumed would have to result in minimal ‘waste chains’ in production and consumption i.e. processes of waste and disposal, and such processes would have to be kept local. Truly ethical consumption implies that there is no ‘waste’ whatsoever in the product consumed, although ‘waste outputs’ may have been converted into inputs into other systems / processes, run by other agencies in the community.

3) Products and services consumed must be made using sustainably sourced materials. The definition of a ‘sustainably sourced’ material is open to debate, but common definitions include lack of ‘damage’ to the environment in the material’s extraction and processing, as criteria. This is conveniently vague. I would suggest that a sustainably sourced material is one that, in its harvesting and processing, preserves or even enhances local habitats, biodiversity and ecosystem services.

4) Truly ethical consumption pays attention to all the workers that have been involved in the creation and selling of the product or service. Beyond fair trade and fair treatment and payment of workers, if any workers commute over long distances to get to work in private fossil-fuelled vehicles, and arguably even private vehicles fuelled by a renewables-based energy grid, then the sustainability of the product is seriously open to doubt. (Unsustainable is unethical). Commutes may be mitigated by incorporating into them other functions useful to the community. Additionally, the coherence and sustainability of human culture is damaged by excessive mobility. Fragmented culture in turn can result in a further disconnection from and degradation of the environment.

5) Similarly, it is highly questionable whether products and services that rely on consumers from distant places, including via the internet, can ever be sustainable or ethical. As in 4) above, waste of fossil fuels and other energy sources, degradation of the environment, and fragmentation of human culture are all implied.

6) Finally, the nature of the product or service itself, including what it is used for, how it is used and what narratives it plays a role in / supports, is implied in ‘ethical consumption’. If the product or service encourages the consumer to disregard these six principles in any other products and services consumed, then it is unethical.

Now we can see why some form of ‘protectionism’ of local economies (although that word has negative connotations) is a desirable thing. Refer to the writings of David Fleming on this.

Perhaps you think my definition of ‘ethical consumption’ is too strict. If so, please enlighten me with your definition. I would be happy to debate this. However, the point is that most so-called ‘ethical’ products and services hardly begin to address the reasonable six criteria detailed above. Or, where one or two criteria may be addressed thoroughly, others will be relatively neglected.

But we must not dwell in guilt! We must not beat ourselves up. We are now all part of an infinitely complex global economy and civilisation. The infinite complexity is rooted in an infinite complexity of interactions with the natural environment, some less ethical / sustainable, some more ethical / sustainable. A compounding factor is that the complexity is almost unfathomable / untraceable. The only way to ensure a mostly benign impact on the planet and other people, is to live radically at odds with modern society. The most realistic way to do this would be to live in an insular community of likeminded individuals. A level of civil disobedience of ‘the law’ is also implied.

We have been heavily conditioned since childhood by the marketing forces of consumerism, to want what we don’t need. We can aim by degrees to support the truly ethical consumption criteria detailed above. This implies supporting the relocalisation of culture and economy, globally. Meanwhile, we can take our hypocrisy lightly. For instance, for the time being I prefer to view the internet as an incredible tool, which in one light it truly is, that can connect me, paradoxically, to a global movement of ‘relocalisers’ who are questioning and attempting to slowly transform the current global economy -at least theoretically which is a good start.

Hypocrisy seems to be essential to all large, centralised civilisations. It was certainly essential to Rome, where luxurious strides forward in philosophy and culture belied and depended upon the Roman slave-holding system. (For an interesting perspective on this, read Abdullah Ocalan’s ‘The Roots of Civilisation‘). We can conceive that in a future decentralised version of civilisation, hypocrisy may not be so necessary. However, once we accept that hypocrisy is ingrained in us as (modern) civilised people, there are various psychological responses available to us. We can use all our emotional and intellectual repertoires to treat ourselves and our consumerist habits (and behaviours to which we are bound by law) with, for instance, gentleness, vigilance and humour. We can then at least begin to restrain ourselves to the extent that ‘no consumption’ is the best kind of consumption, when the criteria 1) through 6) above cannot be achieved.

In the second part of this first post on hypocrisy and modernity, I will look at the underlying narratives and stories that we tell ourselves as a society, which allow the hypocrisy to continue. I will look at how we are often living out fragmented and conflicting narratives, compounding the hypocrisy that is already inherent in some of those narratives. I will draw on the insights of ‘social constructionism’, a branch of psychology which is also a critique of the field of psychology.

I will also look at how we can consciously create alternative more helpful narratives which support relocalised futures, using techniques of Deep Storytelling.

Finally, let us celebrate the fact that we are hypocrites and be joyful about it! For if we are not conscious hypocrites, we are unconscious ones -the most dangerous and destructive kind. Either that or we are consciously cynical or worse, consciously immoral. These are cowardly and defeatist positions to occupy.

Good luck.