Certain truths seem inimitable, like: Age is just a number.
Wrong! Age is a word.
Friedrich Nietzsche helpfully explains in Human, All too Human, (1878) “Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.”
Postmodernist, post structuralist, post ‘Life Jim, but not as we know it.’ 2020 has been a year where many grand narratives have weakened, waned and died. A year when that which many never imagined came to pass, and brought a friend with it. Summers in the armpit heat of the Tropics, separation from loved ones over space, and often too, over time, prolonged exposure to those same loved ones in quarantine. Some lighter losses- The Guardian reports that women have ditched the iVenus and the hot wax, going au-natural in the body hair department- Yes kids, Mummy is doing Movember... Some harder losses- many lives have been taken by the virus. For those it’s touched, it’s been tough. This is life.
Covid 19 has changed the way many of us view life. 2020 has been a year of re-evaluations. Like some horrible, inverse countdown, the uncertainty rises with the years of the fledgling century. What does it mean to be an expat in the middle of a global pandemic? What does it mean to be grounded, literally, to a breed of wanderlusts? What does it mean to be good in a world gone mad?
Honestly, I have no idea. Thankfully, there is a whole field of thought which suggests that this may be a move towards an honest appraisal of life, rather than away from it. The idea that telling someone what we want and how we feel is easy seems pretty straightforward. This is at the heart of many stories, a hero pursuing a goal at all costs- the goal ever present and unwavering, like a mosquito in the bedroom in the depths of night. But simply opening the mouth and declaring the feeling or intention may be more difficult in practice than in theory.
Culture and nurture play a huge role in determining the things people feel able to speak openly about, and those which must be hidden away behind the skeletons in the closet. Missteps in communication of an authentic and honest truth begin early, when children are not allowed to speak openly about their feelings, or to express them in the authentic ways known only to the young- screaming, hissing, biting, punching, tearing, crying and whining. Angry retaliations, or fragile pleas for quiet by parents similarly quietened in their own childhoods quickly teach children to hide or modify natural impulses to chew on each other or explore their full lung capacity at a supersonic pitch. Slowly, slowly, educational and childhood theories promote positive emotional nurturing for apprentice humans.
“Bad communication has its roots in the feeling that you can’t be truthful, and tolerated, and loved.” Alain de Botton, philosopher and author writes in The School of Life; An Emotional Education, (2019). Habits formed in infancy and early childhood, can and do become hardwired into the cognitive operating system, however, and as with so much in life, it is harder to unlearn something than it is to learn it, just the same as you can’t un-fry an egg. Worldviews are nurtured in the womb, their roots reach far deeper than most are willing to believe.
So what’s all this got to do with truth, and with me, you might well ask? What have these dishonest babies got to do with anything?
As 2021 draws near, certain inequalities still exist in our global societies of which we are all aware. And yet, as a species, we are quite unable to stop ourselves from tripping over the same rock twice. Your average, garden human is hardwired to believe certain versions of reality by around five years of age. Implicit biases and ways of being form the basis for all future understanding. “There are no facts, only interpretations,” adds Nietzsche in On Truth and Lies in the Nonmoral Sense, (1873), calling this tendency to pan the happenings in the physical world through subjective knowledge sieves “perspectivism.”
Culture is the non-biological or social aspects of human life. It refers to the way we understand ourselves as individuals and as members of society, including stories, religion, media, rituals, and even language itself. This demonstrated itself amply in 2020 when more collective cultures enjoyed relatively shorter lockdown times than their more individualistic counterparts, valuing the greater good over individual rights. Unfortunately, extensive levels of individual freedom also allow for the corresponding degree of poor choices and freedom to indulge in misguided behaviour.
And yet, surely if there is any truth, it is that there is good inside all people. And everyone considers themselvesto be good. So what then, are the narratives that sustain practices of hate and prejudice in our global human culture? It can only be a story that is held to be as true as your name, your hair, your mother tongue? The very words that allow us to articulate our experience in the world? A story that paints other groups at bad, or less or wrong in some unpardonable way.
2020 has taught me some things about truth.
Step 1. Think.
Step 2. Think about what you thought about.
Bad information leads to bad choices. In the information age, it has never been easier to seek out knowledge, to update the cerebral software. Culture encapsulates and engenders all that we know. Lack of a proper awareness of this fact leaves us lost in a sea of interpretations. In the face of an increasingly unpredictable world, it’s comforting to cling to that which we know to be true. Rioters and voters and people suffocating under the weight of these truths have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers in 2020. They reclaim the right to mandate over their own bodies, the right to breathe, the right to be.
Hegemony, political or cultural dominance and authority over others, means that the ones who walk among us with souls that shine a different light from the dominant culture spectrum are subordinate to the mainstream. Diversity is dangerous. Different is deadly. Back with Ug The Caveman in the Palaeolithic era, this made sense. Evolution had no space on the bus for dead weight.
It still doesn’t. Diversity is the spark that makes the human race electric. Understanding that the old ways may not be the best ways can be liberating.
There are plenty of stories we’ve outgrown, stories like women being denied the vote on account of sex. It’s 100 years ago this year since universal suffrage was granted in the U.S. Little has been made of this monumental shift in worldview in the media. Women in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to drive a car in June, 2018. It’s been one year since abortion was legalized in Ireland. If we are to look at how the dominant narrative about women and women’s rights has evolved over a century, it’s clear that once the hegemony absorbs new knowledge, change is possible.
Taking a deep breath and admitting that this has been a batplop crazy year, that life is sometimes blind jump into the abyss, that no one really knows their ass from their armpit- this can liberate all of us. Or that’s my interpretation. Nietzsche would warm again making absolute judgements either way.
As Jeremy Goldberg said, “Courage is knowing it may hurt and doing it anyway. Stupidity is the same. That’s why life is hard.”
First Published in The Nanjinger, December 2020.