We have dispensed with independent thought

Are we just going to continue outsourcing every foundational fibre of our being?

Artillery Row

We seem to suck on every juicy teat that comes our way these days. Like those grown men who dress up as babies as they role-play regressing to an infant-like state, society seems to have gone mad for lactation as it indulges in a wholesale adult breastfeeding binge. In a way it is perfectly understandable. It’s tasty, requires little effort and seemingly gives us enough to go on.

We are leaving it to media, well-dressed pundits, social justice activists and the government to tell us what to think and believe—going along wholeheartedly with whatever they tell us. Few people appear to dare trust their gut instinct, or what they intrinsically think, or sense, might be right (especially if it goes against the prevailing winds of social commentary).

The outsourcing trend that has come to dominate the business world—from the likes of customer services being palmed off to developing countries to Uber Eats replacing home cooking—is now happening within every social, political and moral realm of our lives. It’s most apparent regarding the so-called culture war issues that dominate identity politics, ranging from LGBT+ rights to Black Lives Matter to the patriarchy.

We appear to have no moral backbone left

But it’s there too with the likes of Brexit, Donald Trump—whereby if you happen to hold any opinion that dovetails with anything Trump has ever said (regardless whether he actually believes in it himself) then you apparently are a Trump supporter (even if you can’t vote in America because you aren’t actually an American)—and even celebrating a Christian Christmas, and it continues to seep into every other area of our lives with tenacious toxicity, as all that is traditional and dyed in the wisdom of the waning years is lampooned and falls skewered by the wayside.

“The pessimism that people feel about conservatism isn’t due to electoral annihilation, it is that when conservatives are governing and have power they don’t seem to do all that much with it and they just tend to be a footnote to the progressives that are in the ascendancy in mainstream culture, [while] there’s really minimal resistance to it,” Ben Woodfinden, a political theorist at McGill University, says in The Critic podcast Are Conservatives Losing? “And there is minimal desire by those in the highest offices to do anything about it, and that engenders a real pessimism about what is the point of any of this.”

Perhaps that pessimism partly explains why we appear to have outsourced our ability for critical analysis or to even trust ourselves. The result: we lap up what is peddled by self-styled commentators, experts and academics as they apply the likes of critical theory to every facet of our lives—even to our bodily functions. This was illustrated by a story I heard on the Camino pilgrimage that I am currently undergoing on the Iberian Peninsula (about which I am increasingly unsure whether it has anything to do with finding God or is simply a means to escape the collapse of my country and everything I assumed it stood for in the face of Covid-19).

An Irish pilgrim in his early thirties told me how he had been walking with a 21-year-old man from Canada. Fresh out of university, the young man was amazingly bright and articulate, and the Irish man said he was enjoying the stimulating conversation that ensued. One day, though, the Irish man stopped by the side of a track for a pee and, as is the want of a male with full bladder, got to the task quickly.

“That’s why I will not stop fighting for female rights,” the young man pronounced—in total earnestness—mid stream.

The coronavirus-induced indicators point to a future dominated by big data and macro-surveillance

There is a discussion to be had—and which occasionally makes it into the public sphere—about the lack of urban public toilet facilities having a more negative impact on women and limiting their freedom of movement, and about men peeing too freely in the wrong places. But—and leaving aside the fact that I have listened to a group of female pilgrims enthusiastically discussing mastering the art of a quick pee on the trail (it’s a bit harder on the thighs, yes, and takes a little longer, but not by much)—one is left pondering what is going on when young men, that half of the generation who will go on to forge our collective future, are freaking out over their ability to pee quickly out in the countryside and associating it with the persecution of women; it is no coincidence our Canadian friend turned out to have taken a course in feminist studies at university.

The total one-sidedness of how abortion is viewed and dealt with in society—and the fact that the consensus around that particular take can never be called into question—is one of the clearest examples of the modern phenomenon of a single narrative being relentlessly pushed and taking over how we all collectively view and discuss a thorny conundrum. The problem with this trend of capitulation, all too often in the name of fashionable and hollow platitudes—a great example being the compulsion in the UK to take a knee for the American Black Lives Matters movement, as if showboating your “anti-racism” trumps actually living a life in which you treat everyone of a different ethnicity equally, often far more than equally by raising them into the realm of love and affection—is that it is conditioning us to be utterly pliable, primed for supplicant, teat-yearning status when we collide with something like Covid-19 and the overbearing government response.

We appear to have no moral backbone left, which is compounded by how if you can’t think for yourself then how can you be expected to stand up for yourself and what you suspect is right or appropriate. And that is a big problem when a government starts acting in authoritarian ways, because if you then accept any policy willingly and show those in power that they can get away with it—which is exactly what we have done during this year of Covid-19—they crack on with gay abandon and keep going further.

We are leaving it to media, social justice activists and the government to tell us what to think

Hence civil liberties are being blown away like dust in the wind, and we are saying and doing nothing. Rather, we are running with open arms toward Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor and his dreadful assurances, away from what we know in our hearts to be true (if we dared look there): “Thou wouldst go into the world, and art going with empty hands, with some promise of freedom which men in their simplicity and their natural unruliness cannot even understand, which they fear and dread—for nothing has ever been more insupportable for a man and a human society than freedom”, the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus in Seville during the Spanish Inquisition. “Oh, never, never can they feed themselves without us! No science will give them bread so long as they remain free. In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet, and say to us, ‘Make us your slaves, but feed us.’ They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them!”

And just like the masses that the Grand Inquisitor mocks, we accept the answers from the chosen few who are seemingly above us in order to avoid what the inquisitor calls the “the great anxiety and terrible agony” that humans endure “in making a free decision for themselves.”

The corollary of this inability to make decisions for ourselves tends to be a yearning for safety at all costs, which appears to be being borne out during the pandemic. Recent polls indicated—and this was before reports of a new more transmissible variant of the virus—that a majority of the British public thought that the government’s coronavirus rules over the Christmas period were not strict enough. Security over freedom appears an increasingly acceptable trade-off. And I don’t buy the talk of “It is only until the vaccine rollout”, especially given those reports of the virus mutating already.

We need to have a deeper think about how our present reality is getting uncomfortably closer to the 1977 science fiction short story The Intensive Care Unit by J.G. Ballard, in which humans live their entire lives in comfortable isolation; all interaction with others, even their own immediate families, is done via cameras and screens.

“My own upbringing, my education and medical practice, my courtship of Margaret and our happy marriage, all occurred within the generous rectangle of the television screen,” the narrator contentedly tells us.

Indeed, it’s as if the writers of yesteryear saw this all coming. In E.M. Forster’s 1909 novella The Machine Stops, a subterranean world is inhabited by people living in isolation in apartments that are “hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee,” from where they are fed, clothed, medicated, entertained, titillated and professionally occupied. Every aspect of life is experienced virtually or summoned and dismissed through gadgets and gizmos, all of which are linked to a Master Machine.

Forster depicts a world in which people rarely leave their apartments—travel outside requires permission from a technocratic elite—tactility is shunned, and the unruly system of public gatherings has long since been abandoned. People interact from their rooms using “glowing plates,” while everything you need can be delivered through a swift “pneumatic post.” The echoes in our current predicament of Amazon, Uber, Netflix, the all-conquering Zoom and government-funded work furloughs are uncanny.

We are failing to take heed of Forster’s lesson that we cannot fake connection in order to ensure we are protected and safe. All the coronavirus-induced indicators point to a future ever more dominated by big data and macro-surveillance coupled with micro-compliance and micro-paranoia. Do we just want to feed the machine, outsourcing everything to it, and live life on the leash, or are we willing to say no to the machine to save what really matters? In terms of Covid-19, this would mean a freer life in which death is a greater risk, and in terms of the culture wars and identity politics, it would mean a freer life in which ridicule and derision are a greater risk.

“As much as you would get the usual accusations of fascism or those sorts of things from progressives and from all sorts of voices in the media, I think some of us essentially just need to grow a backbone and push back against stuff like that,” Woodfinden says.

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