Yuval Harari’s claim that ‘clarity is power’ spurred me on in my search for understanding. Learning our place in the world, or at least the perceived place, is a big part of that understanding
I’ve certainly discovered that reaching the ‘good news’ that things are changing and that people worldwide are challenging the status quo has taken me a long time because I’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of so many writers and because the picture has been hidden under fear and a deluge of distractions.
I’ve come to see that a major reason why we continue with a ‘system’ that seems to be leading us into big trouble and why change is such a long time coming is that we see the problems in our world as separate incidents but we don’t think about whether the turmoil arises from the same root cause. So, I’ve been on a mission to see if I can get to the core of our troubles.
Learning our place in the world – human interaction
It was studying sociology half a lifetime ago that has helped me to some understanding of our world. I began to see things differently. It helped me to see that the way we live day by day isn’t some God-given reality but is largely the result of years of human interaction. This was something of a light-bulb moment in my grappling with the problems of our 21st Century world!
For millennia human society has evolved. Although some changes have been responses to changes in the natural environment – such as climate change and loss of food supplies – much has been the direct result of human decision making and management, generally by those who are in a position to benefit most from it. Not so much a conspiracy, more an intrinsic part of the system under which we happen to be living at any particular time and in any particular place in the world.
Until a couple of hundred years ago, our lives largely depended on what the local natural environment could provide, locally-grown food and locally sourced building materials. That all changed as industrialisation, with its need for factory labour, spread across the world enticing, and sometimes driving, rural people to a ‘better’ life on offer if they moved to live and work in the industrial centres.
Who holds the power to make change happen?
Who, I’m left wondering, are the people who hold the power to bring about change and how does it come about?
I guess that from the beginning of time the strongest, smartest and most ruthless have been able to manipulate things to their own advantage. The superstitions of witch doctors and the demands of tribal chiefs ruled the day. With feudalism came clearly designated roles and responsibilities, with the peasant knowing his place in the order of things, giving part of his produce to the Lord of the Manor and doffing his cap when the Lady passed by. Kings and priests have all ensured that those lower down the pecking order have known and kept to their place.
Perhaps the best view of our world would be that of an alien looking down on us from outer space, taking in the incredible differences in the way humans live on Planet Earth: Nomads in the vast reaches of the Kalahari Dessert, tree dwellers in the Amazon rain forest, commuters streaming ant-like to and fro to work in cities.
A good starting point in seeing why people live so differently is the word ‘culture’, a term used by sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists to describe the central essence of our everyday lives. Our culture includes all the procedures and trappings which make day to day life in any group possible – the language, religion, behaviour, norms, values, beliefs, clothes, rituals and social customs of any group.
These cultural ‘moorings’ are what make life predictable and help to bond groups of people living together. As we go about our daily lives it helps us to feel safe and part of the group if others around us behave in a reasonably predictable way.
I guess that’s why we sometimes find it difficult when people from a different culture come to live close by. I remember my parents telling me that when West Indians moved into their neighbourhood in London in the 50’s they felt uneasy because large groups would gather outside their houses on the road-side (little traffic then!) and would chat away, often making a lot of noise. That would have been OK in the Caribbean but not something my middle-class aspiring parents and their neighbours took too kindly to! After all, once these people started behaving ‘oddly’ what would they do next?
Next on my sociology agenda was ‘socialisation’, the process by which we absorb our culture. From an early age we pick up customs and rituals and how we are expected to behave. We come to see this as common sense.
In earlier times, and in current day societies as yet untouched by ‘development’, we learned about our world through our family, friends and the local community. Industrialisation brought with it formal education, a more widespread means of socialisation. Today advertising plays an important part in our socialisation. It’s used to encourage us to see how we should live, how we should look, what we should buy.
The impact of television……..
Around the middle of the 20th century a big change occurred when many people in the world took into their homes a new source for ideas and information – television. Today it’s uncommon for families in the ‘developed’ world to be without a television (or two or three!) and when development creeps into a society, television is one of the first desirable consumer items.
Advertising has increased massively since the 1950’s and now bombards us daily with messages on how we should look, how our homes should look and generally what latest gizmo we should buy. In 1990 in the US companies spent five times more on advertising than a decade earlier. Cartoons centred around toys with direct mail marketing to children enrolled in their company-sponsored ‘clubs’.
…… now dwarfed by the impact of social media
If the mid-20th Century exposure of the population to ideas through television is seen as a powerful tool by which cultural ideas are spread, it is dwarfed, and challenged, by the influence of the Internet and social media. The door has been thrown wide open to those trying to influence our thinking and to sell us ideas.
So, what are the beliefs and ideas which I’ve taken in as common sense as I’ve lived my life in my cosy corner of S E Essex? Will have to think about that next …