Sunday, November 17, 2013

Social Change

excerpt from "Laboratories of Social Change" 
a lecture delivered by Doris Lessing in 1985.

Sometimes it is hard to see anything good and
hopeful in a world that seems increasingly horrific.
To listen to the news is enough to make you think
you are living in a lunatic asylum.

But wait . . . we all know the news is presented
to us for maximum effect, that bad news seems, at
least, to be more effective in arousing us than good
news—which in itself is an interesting comment on
the human condition. We are all regularly presented,
day after day, with bad news, the worst, and I think
our minds are more and more set into attitudes of
foreboding and depression. But is it possible that all
the bad things going on—and I don't have to list
them, for we all know what they are—are a reaction,
a dragging undertow, to a forward movement in the
human social evolution that we can't easily see? Perhaps,
looking back, let's say in a century or two centuries,
is it possible people will say, "That was a time
when extremes battled for supremacy. The human
mind was developing very fast in the direction of self-knowledge,
self-command, and as always happens,
as always has to happen, this thrust forwards aroused
its opposite, the forces of stupidity, brutality, mob
thinking"? I think it is possible. I think that this is
what is happening.

Let us look at something that is extraordinarily
encouraging. In the last twenty or so years [1965-1985] quite a
few countries that were dictatorships, tyrannies,
have opted to become democracies. Among them are
Greece, Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Argentina. Some
of these are precarious—democracy is always precarious,
and must be fought for. But countries that were
in the grip of single-minded, simple-minded, stulti-
fying systems of thought have chosen to attempt the
more complicated, many-choiced balances of democ-

In the balance against this hopeful fact, we must
put a sad one, which is that large numbers of young
people, when they reach the age of political activity
adopt a stance or an attitude that is very much part
of our times. It is that democracy is only a cheat and
a sham, only the mask for exploitation, and that they
will have none of it. We have almost reached a point
where if one values democracy, one is denounced as
reactionary. I think that this will be one of the atti-
tudes that will be found most fascinating to historians
of the future. For one thing, the young people who
cultivate this attitude towards democracy are usually
those who have never experienced its opposite: peo-
ple who've lived under tyranny value democracy.

It is not that I don't understand it—I understand
it only too well, having lived through the process
myself. Democracy, liberty, fair play, and so forth
these have been stuffed down one's throat, and sud-
denly you see the most appalling injustices all around
you, and shout: "Hypocrite!" In my case, it was
Southern Rhodesia, where democracy was for the
white minority, and the black majority had no rights
of any kind. But when people are in that state of
mind, what is forgotten is that a democracy, no matter
how imperfect, offers the possibility of reform,
change. It offers freedom of choice. It is this freedom
to choose that is the new idea, historically speaking.
I think we tend to forget how new these ideas are,
that an individual should have rights, that a citizen
should be able to criticize the government.

How new is it? When was this concept born into
the human community for the first time? At this
point, there are people who start muttering about
ancient Greece, forgetting that it was a slave state
that allowed certain minimal freedoms to a male minority.
For argument's sake, it would be safe to say
that our concepts of liberty, of the rights of the individual,
were born in the English Revolution, in the
French Revolution, and in the American Revolution.
Very young ideas indeed. Very frail. Very precarious.
That an individual should be entitled to the rule
of the law—why, three or four centuries ago, they
wouldn't have known what you meant by it. Now it
is an idea so powerful that strong and ruthless governments
are brought down by it.

An idea seems to have taken root that there is
such a thing as civilized government, even that there
is a general consensus what civilized government is.
How otherwise could the citizens of Argentina have
agreed that they wanted to sue their deposed government
for wicked and cruel behaviour? For improper
behaviour? This seems to me the most extraordinary
and encouraging thing—that it could be happening
at all, proving to us all that in the world mind there

is an idea of what government ought to be. Has there
ever been an example before, of citizens wanting to
sue a government for improper behaviour? I am no
historian, but it does seem to me that this is a new
thing in the world.

Yet I think we may very well see countries that
take it for granted they are democracies losing sight
of democracy, for we are living in a time when the
great over-simplifiers are very powerful—Communism,
fundamentalist Islam. Poor economies breed

But good ideas don't get lost, though they may
be submerged for a time.

An example. I have been talking about what we
call the "soft sciences," social psychology, and social
anthropology and the rest, and their contribution in
understanding ourselves as social animals, and how
these young sciences are denigrated, patronized, put
down. As everybody knows, public money is getting
very short in Britain, university departments are clos-
ing, all kinds of studies are being cut. This type of
science has been badly affected, is often the first to
be cut'—yet I have just read that in various universi-
ties, departments studying social psychology, social
science and so forth have been reprieved, because of
their usefulness to industry. In other words, they are
proving their value where it counts.

There is another hopefulness, not now but for the future.
Because Communism has turned out so
badly, proved itself not only one of the bloodiest tyr-
annies ever, but also so inefficient that any type of
regime, no matter how bad, is preferred to it, we
forget that Communism was born out of the ancient
dream of justice for everybody. It is a very powerful
dream, a powerful engine for social change. Because
Communism is at this present time equated with barbarism,
inefficiency and tyranny, that doesn't mean
that the idea of real justice will not be reborn.

Meanwhile there is no country in the world
whose structure is not of a privileged class and a poor
class. There is always a power elite with the mass of
the people excluded from wealth and from any sort
of political power.

In my more gloomy moments, I do brood about
the fact that it took the Communists' Soviet Union
only a couple of generations to develop a power elite
as rich and as privileged as any in the world. Communist
China is reported to be going the same way
and so are some of the new African states. But if this
is some kind of an inevitable process, for this time at
least, that all types of society produce privileged
elites, then at least we should acknowledge it and
work for as much flexibility as possible inside the

There is no group or party setting itself up against
this state of affairs that does not see itself as an elite,
whether it be the dictatorship of the proletariat,
headed by the Communist party, or terrorist groups,
or the political parties of the democracies, which by
definition know what is best for everyone else.
Elites, privileged classes, groups better educated
than others . . . this seems to be the stage at which
the world is now, or at least, nothing else seems to
be visible anywhere.

There are all kinds of elites, some retrograde and
useless that only act as brakes on social change, while
others, I believe, are productive. If I say that I think
elites, privileged groups, are often useful, then that
makes me reactionary, but it depends on who the
elite is: as I said before, if you call it the vanguard of
the proletariat, then that changes things, doesn't it?
Or, if I say I think ginger groups, pressure groups,
are invaluable because they prevent a society from
going sleepy and unself-critical, then that is all right
too—no, it is the word "elite" that is suspect. Very
well, let's discard it: we live in a time when people
may murder for the sake of a word, or a phrase. . 

There is a certain social process that is known and
very visible, but perhaps not acknowledged as much
as it should be. It is that one where a new idea (or an
old one in new form) is accepted by a minority, while
the majority are shouting treason, rubbish, kook,
Communist, capitalist, or whatever is the valued
term of abuse in that society. The minority develop
this idea, at first probably in secrecy, or semi-secrecy,
and then more and more visibly, with more and more
support until . . . guess what? This seditious, impossible,
wrong-headed idea becomes what is known as
"received-opinion" and is loved and valued by the
majority. Meanwhile, of course, a new idea, still seditious
etc. and so forth, has been born somewhere
else, and is being cultivated and worked out by a
minority. Suppose we redefine the word "elite," for
out present purposes, to mean any group of people
who for any reason are in the possession of ideas that
put them ahead of the majority?

When you get to my age—I was bound to say
this at some point, you'll agree—when you get to my
age, watching this process continuously at work in
society is one of the more entertaining ways of pass
ing one's time. It is an entertainment on the whole
denied to all but a few of the more reflective young,
because the young are still able to believe more easily
in permanence. What! That the beautiful ideas they
cherish are destined for the dustheap? Of course not!

But suppose we got to the point where at least
enough of us could agree that this is a process continually
at work—even in societies that outlaw new
ideas, like the Communist ones—making it inevitable
that today's treason is tomorrow's orthodoxy.
Would that not make us more efficient than we are
now, less punishing and bloody-minded, and ready
to resist change? I think it would, and that there must
come some point when this, like other mechanisms
in society, will be used, instead of resisted or ignored.
They can be ignored only by people who do
not study history.

Which brings me to another quite remarkable
phenomenon of our times. It is that young people are
not interested in history. In a recent survey in Britain,
young people who were asked what they thought
were useful subjects of study put history very low:
only 7 per cent saw any value in it. I think one reason
for this is psychological, easy to see and to understand,
particularly, again, if you've lived through
that stage yourself. If you are self-consciously
"young," and by definition progressive, or revolutionary
or whatever, but in any case, in the right
(young being against the old who are stupid and reactionary),
then the last thing you want to do is to
look at history, where you will learn that this attitude
on the part of the young is perennial, part of a permanent
social process. You do not want to read any-
thing that upsets your view of yourself as a gloriously
new and amazing phenomenon, whose ideas are
fresh, in fact just minted, and probably by yourself,
or at least, by your friends, or by the leader you revere,
an altogether new unsullied creature destined
to change the world. If I sound mocking, then I am
only laughing at my own young self—but that is the

I think that this attitude, that history is not worth
studying, will strike those who come after us as quite

After all, what we have seen since the French
Revolution (some would say since the Utopian and
Socialist groups of Cromwell's time) has amounted
to a laboratory of experiment in different types of
Socialism, different types of society, from the thirteen-
year-long war regime of Hitler, which called
itself National Socialism, to the Labour governments
of Britain, from the Communist states of Russia and
China, to Cuba, to Ethiopia, to Somalia, and on and
on. You'd think that people dedicated to production
of new'types of society would fall on these examples,
of what has actually happened, in order to study and
learn from them.

I repeat: one way of looking at the last two and a
half centuries is that they have been laboratories of
social change. But in order to learn from them one
needs a certain distance, detachment; and it is precisely
this detachment that makes possible, I believe,
a step forwards in social consciousness. One learns
nothing, about anything, ever, when in a state of
boiling ferment, or partisan enthusiasm.

I think children should be taught about history
not as is usually the case now, that this is the record
of long past events, which one ought to know about
for some reason or other. But that this is a story from
which one may learn not only what has happened,
but what may, and probably will, happen again.

Literature and history, these two great branches
of human learning, records of human behaviour,
human thought, are less and less valued by the
young, and by educators, too. Yet from them one
may learn how to be a citizen and a human being.
We may learn how to look at ourselves and at the
society we live in, in that calm, cool, critical and
sceptical way which is the only possible stance for a
civilized human being, or so have said all the philosophers
and the sages.

But all the pressures go the other way, towards
learning only what is immediately useful, what is
functional. More and more the demand is for people
to be educated to function in an almost certainly temporary
stage of technology. Educated for the short

We have to look at the word "useful" again. In
the long run what is useful is what survives, revives,
comes to life in different contexts. It may look now as
if people educated to use our newest technologies
efficiently are the world's elite, but in the long run I
believe that people educated to have, as well, that
point of view that used to be described as humanistic
—the long-term, over-all, contemplative point of
view—will turn out to be more influential. Simply
because they understand more of what is going on in
the world. It is not that I undervalue the new technicians.
On the contrary. It is only that what they know
is by definition a temporary necessity.

To my mind the whole push and thrust and development of the world is towards the more complex,
the flexible, the open-minded, the ability to entertain
many ideas, sometimes contradictory ones, in one's
mind at the same time.

We are-seeing now an example of the price a
society must pay for insisting on orthodox, simpleminded,
slogan thinking: the Soviet Union is a
creaking, anachronistic, inefficient, barbaric society,
because its type of Communism outlaws flexibility of
thought. "Life itself"—to use the phrase the Communists
like using—"life itself" is showing just what
happens to societies that allow themselves to ossify
in dead patterns of thought. (The new ruler Gorbachev
is trying to remedy this.) We may observe
how the Chinese, always a clever and pragmatic people,
are allowing themselves to change. We may see
how fundamentalist Islam creates societies that will,
because of their inflexibility, soon be shown up for
what they are, while other societies, more flexible,
more open, race ahead.

In the long term, I think the race will go to the
democracies,, the flexible societies. I know that if one
looks around the world at the moment, this may
seem a rather over-optimistic view, particularly when
we see that the new information about how we work
and function is used so skilfully and cynically by governments,
police departments, armies, secret services
—all those functions of administration that can be
used to diminish and control the individual.
But it is my belief that it is always the individual,
in the long run, who will set the tone, provide the
real development in a society.

It is not always easy to go on valuing the individual,
when everywhere individuals are so put down,
denigrated, swamped by mass thinking, mass movements
and, on a smaller scale, by the group.

It is particularly hard for young people, faced
with what seem like impervious walls of obstacles, to
have belief in their ability to change things, to keep
their personal and individual viewpoints intact. I remember
very clearly how it seemed to me in my late
teens and early twenties, seeing only what seemed to
be impregnable systems of thought, of belief—governments
that seemed unshakeable. But what has
happened to those governments like the white government
in Southern Rhodesia, for instance? To
those powerful systems of faith, like the Nazis, or the
Italian Fascists, or to Stalinism? To the British Empire
. . . to all the European empires, in fact, so recently
powerful? They have all gone, and in such a short

Looking back now, I no longer see these enormous
blocs, nations, movements, systems, faiths, religions,
but only individuals, people who when I was
young I might have valued, but not with much belief
in the possibility of their changing anything. Looking
back, I see what a great influence an individual may
have, even an apparently obscure person, living a
small, quiet life. It is individuals who change societies,
give birth to ideas, who, standing out against
tides of opinion, change them. This is as true in open
societies as it is in oppressive societies, but of course
the casualty rate in the closed societies is higher.
Everything that has ever happened to me has taught
me to value the individual, the person who cultivates
and preserves her or his own ways of thinking
stands out against group thinking, group pressures.
Or who, conforming no more than is necessary to
group pressures, quietly preserves individual thinking
and development.

I am not at all talking about eccentrics, about
whom such a fuss is made in Britain. I do think that
only a very rigid and conforming society could have
produced the idea of an eccentric in the first place.
Eccentrics tend to be in love with the image of eccentricity,
and once embarked on this path, become
more and more picturesque, developing eccentricity
for its own sake. No, I am talking about people who
think about what is going on in the world, who try to
assimilate information about our history, about how
we behave and function—people who advance humanity 
as a whole.

It is my belief that an intelligent and forward
looking society would do everything possible to produce
such individuals, instead of, as happens very
often, suppressing them. But if governments, if cultures,
don't encourage their production, then individuals 
and groups can and should...

We live in an open society... We are fortunate in that we are able to teach ourselves what we will, if our schools seem to us deficient; and to reach out anywhere at all for ideas that seem to us valuable. 

I think that we should make more use of these freedoms than we do....

By using our freedoms, I do not mean just joining demonstrations, political parties, and so on and so forth, which is only part of the democratic process, but examining ideas, from whatever source they come, to see how they may usefully contribute to our lives and to societies we live in.

from Prisons We Choose To Live Inside, by Doris Lessing
pgs. 63-75.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Persuaders

A Talk by Vance Packard


Annotations: The NEH Preservation Project

Beyond 'Eggheads': Vance Packard Pulls Back the Curtain on Advertising, 1958

Wednesday, December 05, 2012 - 01:10 PM

Licensed for use only on NEH-funded Annotations blog.Vance Packard Testifying Before Congress, July 26, 1966 (© Bettmann/CORBIS/Corbis Images)
At this Books and Authors Luncheon, Vance Packard tries to dispel the idea that his book, The Hidden Persuaders (1957), is merely about the quirks and absurdities of advertising's use of "motivational research." 
In fact, what he had in mind when he wrote the book was "a protest against the over-commercialization of American life." Packard feels we are in danger of losing many of our basic rights, citing three areas of specific concern. The first is "the growing boldness in invading the privacy of our minds." This concerns subliminal messages, flashes of popcorn, say, or Coca-Cola, in a movie theater, too rapid to be consciously perceived but resulting in increased concession-stand sales. Second is "the deliberate encouragement of irrational behavior." The shopping list, he claims, is a thing of the past; 70 percent of the items purchased at a supermarket are now bought on impulse. "Psychological obsolescence" now gets people to replace perfectly good appliances, cars, and even houses, because they are no longer in style. Finally, he laments a change in the American character itself. We are the most materialistic nation on earth, he says. Whereas the youth in other countries are "aglow with idealism," young Americans have succumbed to "the pressure to consume."
The great question, he concludes, that we must ask ourselves, going forward, is, "How can we work out a spiritually tolerable relationship between our dynamic economy and our free people?"  
A popularizer before the word itself was popularized, Packard (born in 1914) spent the early part of his career working for newspapers and magazines. In 1952 he began writing books, combining his reportorial skills with a deep-seated conviction that the course of American society had gone awry after the war. The Hidden Persuaders tapped into a sense of paranoia and loss of control felt by the consuming public. Reviewing its initial reception, The New York Times, in his obituary, recalled:
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, A.C. Spectorsky called the book ''frightening, entertaining, and thought-stimulating.'' The work remained on The New York Times best-seller list for a year. ''Hidden Persuaders'' became all the rage; many readers claimed they were being subjected to subliminal advertising every time they noticed a glitch in their television reception.
The advertising industry was incensed, denying the sinister motives imputed to it. Even today, Advertising Age's 100 People of the Century grudgingly lists Packard, noting:
The public bought the book and its premise. Packard explained that ad agencies used psychiatry, motivational research, and related social sciences to create subliminal selling patterns. Ironically, his work contained enough distortions to diminish its value where it might have counted most -- among ad makers.
Packard went on to write several more best-sellers all stemming from the same premise, that conformity was on the rise and materialism was doing away with the American virtues of independence and simplicity. These included The Status-Seekers (1959), about social stratification and social-climbing; The Waste Makers (1960), about manufacturing's need to convince people to buy things they don't need; and The Naked Society (1964), about the loss of individual privacy. Although none of these books contained much original research or thinking, they did bring together scientific information and personal testimony, aiming at a "middlebrow audience" whose concerns mirrored Packard's own. His findings have been variously characterized as scary, comic, only of interest to "eggheads," as well as the possible basis for a musical. As the website of his alma mater, Penn State, summarized:
Readers and critics quickly associated the…books as playing an important role in the awakening of consumer awareness among Americans. He was once described in Publishers Weekly as “our most popular popularizer of sociology.”
Indeed, it was after hearing a lecture by Packard that a young Betty Friedan determined to write a similar type of book about her own concerns, which later became The Feminine Mystique
Packard's clarion call to action, or at least to increased awareness, sounds somewhat muted today. As Mark Greif, in an essay marking The Hidden Persuaders' 50th anniversary, notes:
What’s surprising is the degree to which we’ve all become sophisticates, engaging in our own Packard-like critiques of consumer culture without changing our habits. We know we buy irrationally; we just don’t care. We imagine that the “manipulators” at J. Walter Thompson or BBDO play only on the fears and hopes of desperate consumers who aren’t as “conscious” as we are (in which case it’s hard not to admire the ingenuity of the advertisers), while we ourselves are smart enough to decide when to give in. On the last page of The Hidden Persuaders, Packard had to acknowledge the paradox: “When irrational acts are committed knowingly they become a sort of delicious luxury.” We seem to enjoy both knowing that ads are hustling us and choosing to be hustled.
Packard continued to produce books that showed his uncanny ability to anticipate the concerns of the reading public. His last book, published in 1989, was The Ultra-Rich: How Much Is Too Much?
Packard died in 1996. He was 82.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.
Note: Some poor audio quality due to condition of transcription disc.


 Vance Packard

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Human Communities

By Idries Shah

All human societies are based upon, and their continuity and growth are reinforced by, the use of hope, fear and repetition.

Although this simple structure is not visible to the overwhelming majority of people, everyone who is concerned with human groupings uses and approves the application of hope, fear and repetition.

The structure is employed in every type of organisation: whether tribal, national, political, religious, recreational, educational or other.

Two things militate against the recognition of the structure by the people in it and those operating it:-

1. The seeming diversity of objectives of the societies in question;

2. The very simplicity of the structure. It is so obvious as not to be self-evident in the way in which people think things are self-evident.

There is also an unspoken, because unrecognised, consensus in human thought upon this matter: Because everyone is accustomed to being manipulated by hope and fear, and because everyone assumes that repetition is necessary, the possible progress in analysing this situation is virtually at a halt. It is as if one might say: 'We make sounds. Why should we turn these into words? They suffice us.' — in a pre-verbal condition of man.

Such a hypothesis (about words not being necessary) would be adequate only under circumstances in which there was no real need for coherent speech. In a society, in other words, where there were no dissatisfaction and no real curiosity leading to investigation which might result in the production of a useful instrument (that is to say 'speech') and the removal of a source of tension and annoyance leading to frustration (for instance, superabundant grunting and chattering!).

When such statements as the foregoing are made clearly enough, experience shows that they tend to elicit two main automatic reactions. These reactions may be presented as attempts to avoid or resolve the challenge. In fact they are capable of doing neither.

Summarizing the first reaction:

'Man can learn only by these methods. To abolish them would be to prevent learning and reduce the chances of human cohesion.'

Summarizing the second reaction:

'This contention does not prove that there is any other way of learning or organisation, or that quality and measure in these techniques exists or needs to exist.'

Now, it is always difficult to deal with prejudices which provide people with advantages — such as not having to think. It is equally difficult to satisfy people who inwardly but not admittedly fear that they might be revealed as shallow; or who fear that the consequences of admitting something unfamiliar might 'change' them. It is difficult — it is not, however, impossible.

If it were impossible, the human race would have died out through lack of adaptive capacity. It is true, though, that those who cannot or will not adapt to constructive but unfamiliar information are members of the segment of humanity which does, in the cultural sense, die out. Those individuals, schools of thought and societies which have not adapted to 'now' (that is, unfamiliar) information and environmental changes have died out.

The two main reactions just quoted are less plausible than the contentions which they oppose. For that alone they could be dealt with merely by ignoring those who hold them, and regarding the actual fact of holding such opinions as evidence of the incapacity of the person to adapt to unfamiliar ideas: evidence of his relatively poor survival ability.

But there is a mechanical trap here, and it is worth observing in passing. People who oppose 'new' or unfamiliar concepts can be made to accept them if the 'new' conception is sufficiently energetically projected. That is to say, there would be no real difficulty in conditioning, by fear, hope and repetition, these objectors to 'believe' that fear, hope and repetition were undesirable in quantity or quality. The trap is that you would now have plenty of conditioned people who objected to conditioning because they had been conditioned to object! They would be useless to further understanding, almost by definition, certainly by the crudity of their operational capacity.

So agreement with your original statement, or 'belief' in it, is not what is aimed at. This in itself is a very unfamiliar concept, since virtually all human societies prize above everything agreement and belief. What do you seek, they will (and do) ask in bewilderment, if you do not seek converts, heroes, martyrs, believers, dedicated supporters, disciples, propagandists, enthusiasts, representatives, common denominators, and so on. 

What you seek, because it is an essential prerequisite to understanding, is people who can accept the possibilities which follow:-

1. That virtually all human communities are established and maintained by the reward/punishment and repetition mechanisms;

2. That there might be an alternative;

3. That this alternative might not require the abandonment of membership of one or several of the 'basic' types of grouping; the basic type is a grouping produced by hope and fear and maintained by repetition;

4. That it might even be necessary for man to remain, for some of his purposes, formally grounded in one or more 'basic' grouping;

5. That it might be possible to add the unfamiliar form of relationship to one's range of experience, without disturbing the 'basic' type already implanted;

6. That there may be a value in some form of understanding which could be prevented by conversion;

7. That it might be useful to observe and recognise the occurrence and operation of the 'basic' structure in all forms of human association which surround everyone; 

8. That it might be advantageous to absorb this 'new' information rather than to react to it as if it were a key, panacea or magic wand;

9. That it is being suggested that it could be the exclusion (not the cultivation) of emotional or intellectual bonds based on hope and fear and operated by repetition, which could open a door to knowledge of a kind different from that which is available through the single system just described.

From The Commanding Self, page 63
© 1994, The Estate of Idries Shah  

from The Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Political Correctness

By Doris Lessing (1992)

While we have seen the apparent death of Communism, ways of thinking that were either born under Communism or strengthened by Communism still govern our lives. Not all of them are as immediately evident as a legacy of Communism as political correctness.

The first point: language. It is not a new thought that Communism debased language and, with language, thought. There is a Communist jargon recognizable after a single sentence. Few people in Europe have not joked in their time about “concrete steps”, “contradictions”, “the interpenetration of opposites”, and the rest.

The first time I saw that mind-deadening slogans had the power to take wing and fly far from their origins was in the 1950s when I read an article in The Times of London and saw them in use. “The demo last Saturday was irrefutable proof that the concrete situation...” 

Words confined to the left as corralled animals had passed into general use and, with them, ideas. One might read whole articles in the conservative and liberal press that were Marxist, but the writers did not know it. But there is an aspect of this heritage that is much harder to see.

Even five, six years ago, Izvestia, Pravda and a thousand other Communist papers were written in a language that seemed designed to fill up as much space as possible without actually saying anything. Because, of course, it was dangerous to take up positions that might have to be defended. Now all these newspapers have rediscovered the use of language. But the heritage of dead and empty language these days is to be found in academia, and particularly in some areas of sociology and psychology.

A young friend of mine from North Yemen saved up every bit of money he could to travel to Britain to study that branch of sociology that teaches how to spread Western expertise to benighted natives. I asked to see his study material and he showed me a thick tome, written so badly and in such ugly, empty jargon it was hard to follow. There were several hundred pages, and the ideas in it could easily have been put in 10 pages.

Yes, I know the obfuscations of academia did not begin with Communism --as Swift, for one, tells us-- but the pedantries and verbosity of Communism had their roots in German academia. And now that has become a kind of mildew blighting the whole world.

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that ideas capable of transforming our societies, full of insights about how the human animal actually behaves and thinks, are often presented in unreadable language.

The second point is linked with the first. Powerful ideas affecting our behavior can be visible only in brief sentences, even a phrase – a catch phrase. All writers are asked this question by interviewers: “Do you think a writer should...?” “Ought writers to...?” The question always has to do with a political stance, and note that the assumption behind the words is that all writers should do the same thing, whatever it is. The phrases “Should a writer...?” “Ought writers to...?” have a long history that seems unknown to the people who so casually use them. Another is “commitment”, so much in vogue not long ago. Is so and so a committed writer?

A successor to “commitment” is “raising consciousness.” This is double-edged. The people whose consciousness is being raised may be given information they most desperately lack and need, may be given moral support they need. But the process nearly always means that the pupil gets only the propaganda the instructor approves of. “Raising consciousness,” like “commitment,” like “political correctness,” is a continuation of that old bully, the party line.

A very common way of thinking in literary criticism is not seen as a consequence of Communism, but it is. Every writer has the experience of being told that a novel, a story, is “about” something or other. I wrote a story, The Fifth Child, which was at once pigeonholed as being about the Palestinian problem, genetic research, feminism, anti-Semitism and so on. 

A journalist from France walked into my living room and before she had even sat down said, “Of course The Fifth Child is about AIDS.”

An effective conversation stopper, I assure you. But what is interesting is the habit of mind that has to analyze a literary work like this. If you say, “Had I wanted to write about AIDS or the Palestinian problem I would have written a pamphlet,” you tend to get baffled stares. 

That a work of the imagination has to be “really” about some problem is, again, an heir of Socialist Realism. To write a story for the sake of storytelling is frivolous, not to say reactionary.

The demand that stories must be about something is from Communist thinking and, further back, from religious thinking, with its desire for self-improvement books as simple-minded as the messages on samplers.

The phrase political correctness was born as Communism was collapsing. I do not think this was chance. I am not suggesting that the torch of Communism has been handed on to the political correctors. I am suggesting that habits of mind have been absorbed, often without knowing it.

There is obviously something very attractive about telling other people what to do: I am putting it in this nursery way rather than in more intellectual language because I see it as nursery behavior. Art -- the arts generally -- are always unpredictable, maverick, and tend to be, at their best, uncomfortable. Literature, in particular, has always inspired the House committees, the Zhdanovs, the fits of moralizing, but, at worst, persecution. It troubles me that political correctness does not seem to know what its exemplars and predecessors are; it troubles me more that it may know and does not care.

Does political correctness have a good side? Yes, it does, for it makes us re-examine attitudes, and that is always useful. The trouble is that, with all popular movements, the lunatic fringe so quickly ceases to be a fringe; the tail begins to wag the dog. For every woman or man who is quietly and sensibly using the idea to examine our assumptions, there are 20 rabble-rousers whose real motive is desire for power over others, no less rabble-rousers because they see themselves as anti-racists or feminists or whatever.

A professor friend describes how when students kept walking out of classes on genetics and boycotting visiting lecturers whose points of view did not coincide with their ideology, he invited them to his study for discussion and for viewing a video of the actual facts. Half a dozen youngsters in their uniform of jeans and T-shirts filed in, sat down, kept silent while he reasoned with them, kept their eyes down while he ran the video and then, as one person, marched out. A demonstration -- they might very well have been shocked to hear -- which was a mirror of Communist behavior, an acting out, a visual representation of the closed minds of young Communist activists.

Again and again in Britain we see in town councils or in school counselors or headmistresses or headmasters or teachers being hounded by groups and cabals of witch hunters, using the most dirty and often cruel tactics. They claim their victims are racist or in some way reactionary. Again and again an appeal to higher authorities has proved the campaign was unfair.

I am sure that millions of people, the rug of Communism pulled out from under them, are searching frantically, and perhaps not even knowing it, for another dogma.  

-- from the New York Times Op Ed page, June 22, 1992

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Transpersonal Psychologies (VI)

excerpts from "Higher States of Consciousness" in States of Consciousness, by Charles Tart (1975):

Three systems for value-ordering d-SoCs [discreet states of consciousness] are described below to illustrate that explicit and detail orderings are possible. Two are from the Buddhist tradition and one from the Arica traditions. While none of these is scientific, each is capable of being cast as a scientific theory and tested. 

    Figure 17-3 presents an ordering of nine d-SoCs that are all higher than ordinary consciousness. These are d-SoCs[2] to be obtained sequentially in seeking enlightenment through a path of concentrative meditation in Buddhism. 

     The underlying value dimension here might be called freedom. The Buddha taught that the ordinary state is one of suffering and entrapment in the forms and delusions of our own minds. The root cause of this suffering is attachment, the (automatized) desire to prolong pleasure and avoid pain. The journey along the Path of Concentration starts when the meditater tries to focus attention on some particular object of concentration. As he progresses, his concentration becomes more subtle and powerful and he eventually moves from formed experiences (all form has the seeds of illusion in it) to a series of formless states, culminating in the eighth jhana, where there is neither perception nor nonperception of anything. 

    Figure 17-4 illustrates another succession of higher states within the Buddhist framework. Here the technique involves not one-pointed, successively refined concentration, but successively refined states of insight into the ultimate nature of one's own mind. Starting from either the state of Access Concentration (where ability to focus is quite high) or the state of Bare Insight (proficiency in noticing internal experiences), the meditater becomes increasingly able to observe the phenomena of the mind, and to see their inherently unsatisfactorily character. The ultimate goal is a state called nirodh, which is beyond awareness itself. Nirodh is the ultimate accomplishment in this particular version of Buddhism, higher than the eighth jhana on the Path of Concentration. The reader interested in more detail about these Buddhist orderings should consult Daniel Goleman's chapter to Transpersonal Psychologies {128}. 

    The third ordering (Figure 17-5) is John Lilly's conceptualization of the system taught by Oscar Ichazo in Arica, Chile. More background is available in the chapter by John Lilly and Joseph Harts in Transpersonal Psychologies {128}, as well as in Lilly's Center of the Cyclone {35}. 

    In the Arica ordering the value dimension is one of freedom and of which psychic center dominates consciousness. The numerical designation of each state indicates the number of cosmic laws supposedly governing that state, as expounded by Gurdjieff (see Kathy Riordan's chapter on Gurdjieff in Transpersonal Psychologies {128} and Ouspensky {48}), with a plus sign indicating positive valuation of that state. For example, in the +3 state only three laws govern; a person is less free in the +6 state, where six law govern. A minus sign indicates negative emotions. Thus the ordinary d-SoC, the-24 state, is a neurotic one of pain, guilt, fear, and other negative emotions. The-24 state is also under 96 laws, making it less free, as the number of governing laws doubles at each lower level. 

    Lilly notes that this ordering of highness does not hold for all possible tasks in this scheme. The +12 state and higher, for instance, involve a progressive loss of contact with external reality and so become lower states if one has to perform some external task like driving a car or eating. 


-- Charles Tart, 1975