How real is reality?

Antonio Gramsci's writings on the hegemony of ...

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The first step in changing our world is an examination of what actually constitutes reality. We are all products of our environment and as a result we inevitably take many things for granted, believing them to be the natural order of things. As a result of this tendency, slavery, child labour, the subjugation of women and certain classes and the assumed superiority of specific races were all at one time – and unfortunately in some quarters still are – considered to be ‘the natural order of things.’ As Sir Ken Robinson, the British campaigner for educational reform says,

we don’t see the world directly. We perceive it through frameworks of ideas and beliefs, which act as filters on what we see and how we see it. Some of these ideas enter our consciousness so deeply that we’re not even aware of them. They strike us as simple common sense. They often show up, though, in the metaphors and images we use to think about ourselves and the world around us. (1)

So what if many of the things we take as unshakeable realities aren’t fixed in some unalterable way but rather exist because we allow them to exist? 

Cultural transformation involves deliberate changes in individual choices and in institutional structures and norms. (2)

Reality Check…

Social reality is an expression of human agreement, someone is the president of a country and has the powers of that office because a system of government is created and acknowledged by the inhabitants of that country. When the fundamental agreements which frame belief and behaviour change, social reality will change.(3)

The idea of Cultural Hegemony was developed by the Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci in the early twentieth century.(4)  Gramsci, who spent much of his life in one of Mussolini’s prisons, raises some interesting questions about the nature of what we consider reality.

In a cultural hegemony everybody comes to believe that the way things are is the natural order of things. The ideas and values of the ‘ruling class’ are seen as the norm and their ideologies are believed to benefit everybody – whilst of course, really only being of benefit to the ruling class. Gramsci suggested that cultural norms (which vary from society to society and time to time) must not be perceived as either “natural” or “inevitable”, but rather that these cultural norms – institutions, practices, beliefs – should be investigated and reassessed to assist in establish greater social and economic equality.

According to Gramsci, people concentrate on living their lives in a way that is meaningful to them within their personal circumstances and as a result the rest of society seems to have little or nothing to do with her or him. But Gramsci would contend that each person’s life also contributes to making the social reality in which they live. (5) He maintained that this is how many systems are upheld because we come to think of them as the natural order of things – literally, as ‘common sense.’ We see the society around us as being the only way things can be and any attempt to change it is seen as is a ridiculous proposition which flies in the face of common sense.

Take slavery. There was a time in the Western world when slavery was considered ‘the natural order’ of things. Certain people were seen as a slave class and were owned by other people. The social practices of the time were built around this idea and nobody – even the slaves in all likelihood – thought there was anything that could be done to change this ‘reality.’ Slavery was so much part of social reality that wishing to escape from it was seen as an illness.

In 1851, American physician, Samuel A. Cartwright delivered a widely reprinted paper to the Medical Association of Louisiana, this paper was on the subject of a mental illness called drapetomania – an illness he believed afflicted slaves who were inclined to run away. Cartwright said this illness was a result of masters who, “made themselves too familiar with [slaves], treating them as equals.“(7)

He went on to say that,

“If any one or more of them, at any time, are inclined to raise their heads to a level with their master or overseer, humanity and their own good requires that they should be punished until they fall into that submissive state which was intended for them to occupy. They have only to be kept in that state, and treated like children to prevent and cure them from running away.“(8)

This example appears shocking to the 21st century Westerner as it is clear to us now that slavery is not the natural order of things but rather a social reality based on economic motives and mistaken ideas. But more useful than being shocked at the behaviour and beliefs of our ancestors, would be the realisation that we are just like them. People – like us – made that reality and people – like us – changed that reality. This is just as true of the many dysfunctional social realities we live with today as it was true of slavery. Dishonesty in governments and finance, poverty, abuse of women and children, lack of education and opportunity for the majority of the people on the planet – these are examples of social realities constructed and supported by us and therefore within our control. Just like slavery. 

So how do we distinguish between immutable reality and changeable reality? If we want our societies to improve we must be willing to contribute to improving them. And if we want to do this we must begin by investigating social reality for ourselves. We have a responsibility – as well as a right – to look at everything rather than just accepting what we see around us as unchangeable.

 Mount Everest and the Atlantic Ocean belong to a type of reality that the philosopher John Searle(9) calls ‘brute’ reality. We obviously don’t create brute reality – though we do seem able to destroy it. Social reality is something different. We don’t make mountains and trees but we do make social reality – or at least we all help to make it and so we can all help to change it.

Assessing everything does not mean that we should necessarily reject all we find – it just means that we should actively choose for ourselves. If we simply reject everything this is just the flip side and therefore equally limited and limiting. Truly examining reality is only possible if we try to see with our own eyes. If we put aside not only our prejudices against everything but also our attachment to everything and try to make all of our decisions independently and with justice. We won’t be protected from making mistakes in this process but if we are more interested in discovering truth and justice and reality than we are in supporting any systems or persons, that in itself will protect us, as it will allow us to see our mistakes, rectify them and move on towards solutions.

Recognising that there may be things distorting or blocking our view of reality won’t make the obstacles disappear any more than just knowing you are short-sighted will fix your vision. However, diagnosing the problem not only allows you to take it into account, it may also allow you to find ways to improve your vision.  In order to do this, the first – and possibly the only truly vital step – is to begin to see ourselves as co-creators of the social reality rather than just its victims or beneficiaries.

1 Rethinking Prosperity: Forging Alternatives to a Culture of Consumerism – Bahá’í International Community’s Contribution to the 18th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development – 3 May 2010, New York, New York

2 Ken Robinson, The Element, p.251

3 Paul Lample op. cit. p.9

4 Gramsci, Antonio (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers. (ISBN 071780397X.)

5Ibid pp. 233-38

6 S. L. Chorover. From Genesis to Genocide (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1974). p. 150.

Cartwright, Samuel A. (1851). “Report on the Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race”. DeBow’s ReviewXI. Retrieved 2007-10-04.

8 Arthur L. Caplan, James J. McCartney, and Dominic A. Sisti (2004). Health, Disease, and Illness: Concepts in Medicine. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. p. 35 ISBN 1589010140.

9 John Searle, The Construction of Social Reality.

What is reciprocity?

The word ‘reciprocity’ is defined as – the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit and has its origins in the Latin word, reciprocus, which simply means moving backwards and forwards.    You have reciprocal trade agreements where countries agree on tariffs etc that are mutually beneficial and you even have reciprocal tools. Reciprocity is widely recognised as an important feature of successful co-operation but how does reciprocity between ordinary people actually work?

It’s reasonably easy to see how a negative version of reciprocity works. Consider the concept of ‘an eye for an eye’ – revenge – tit for tat – it has many names but it is always the same impulse almost as if there is some hidden balance that needs to be maintained.  Revenge solves nothing of course – but it is very much a natural instinct so instead of simply dismissing the impulse, perhaps we ought to look at how we might more productively employ it to strive to redress the balance in the world.

Our natural impulses are often allied to adaptive instincts that have helped us survive and develop as a species.  And this striving for reciprocity  would appear to be deeply rooted within us and, like any instinct, is neither good nor bad in itself – only in its application. If we look at our instincts as if they are  tools that we can employ to help us survive and develop in the world, rather than tie ourselves up in knots either suppressing or exalting these naturally occurring impulses,  then perhaps we can see more clearly how we might use them.  They are wonderful things and problematic – like any tool.  Even a humble hammer is all about application – it is enormously useful and – literally – constructive, if you want to hang a picture or build a cabinet or a wall but in other circumstances it can also be used to destroy or kill.  The solution is not to get rid of hammers but make sure we use them properly.  Just like our instincts.

A new look at family-ties.

In 1967, social psychologist, Stanley Milgram conducted his small world experiment while he was teaching at Harvard. 

This is the experiment that we have come to know as six degrees of separation (or even Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon as in the game) and it basically tracked chains of acquaintances in the United States. In the experiment, Milgram sent several packages to 160 random people living in Omaha, Nebraska, asking them to forward the package to a friend or acquaintance whom they thought would bring the package closer to a final individual, a stockbroker from Boston, Massachusetts.

The result was, that on average, most strangers are separated from each other by (at most) five to six other people.  Milgram’s experiment is much criticized and often repeated and while the exact outcome is disputed there does seem to be mounting evidence that we are more closely linked to everyone else on the planet than we imagine.  Given that Milgram’s experiment was conducted before the world wide web pulled us all even closer together, this is an amazing thought.

The implications of all of us being so closely connected to each other are very profound. Many of us have nameable relatives that are separated from us by six steps and in a broad sense we consider these people to be part of our family.  But the fact is that biologically the entire human race is beyond doubt one family.  This can no longer be disputed – a banker on Wall Street and a pygmy in the Amazon are family.  The sequencing of the human genome has proven beyond a shred of scientific doubt that we are not only all originally from the same family but, in fact, that we are all originally African.[1]

In spite of differences of race and colour and culture and attitude we are just one big dysfunctional family.  It is obvious that we are not a united family, there is no doubt about that but that is because unity is an outcome of action and it doesn’t just happen by itself.  When we make a conscious decision to work together, to cooperate and strive to find ways to make the world a better more functional place we will have a chance of achieving unity, but not until then.

Oneness is different.  Oneness is a fact. A natural fact. Like gravity.  Or electro-magnetism.  Or death.  The oneness of humanity is not a utopian ideal it is a fact and as long as we fail to recognise it as such we will continue to find it difficult to get on with each other at all levels – from the family to the workplace to the governing of our countries and the interaction between our governments.

Within a functional family we would expect to find love, mutual assistance, support, forbearance and concern with each other’s welfare.  This is not considered ridiculously idealistic as a goal for a family and many therapists and supports exist to help us all achieve these important ideals within our families.

Now that we know that ‘our family’ includes all sorts of people – children who are being sold for sex and slavery, men, women and children struggling and needlessly starving to death, minorities who are persecuted for their ethnicity or beliefs – maybe we won’t only feel concern for them but also responsibility and a certain entitlement to have a say in their welfare just as we might with members of our known family?

There are many factors that we need to incorporate if we are to become a functional human family and developing an understanding of reciprocity is one.  It’s not the only one and it’s not an obvious one but it’s a bit like oxygen – it may not be obvious and life is sustained by many, many other things but oxygen is a deal-breaker – life on earth can (largely) not exist without it.  Reciprocity is a bit like that – it’s the energy that makes the system run, the medium that allows it to grow, the atmosphere necessary for progress.  In a sense, reciprocity is like the principle of functional oneness.

[1] Race, Ethnicity and Genetics Working Group, National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethseda, California, USA. The Use of Racial, Ethnic, and Ancestral Categories in  Modern Genetic Research.

Regarding reciprocity…

Humanity is a complex, dynamic system of oneness – that’s a fact.  We doesn’t act in a unified way (unfortunately) that’s also a fact but that doesn’t change the reality that the human race is a system of oneness, it just shows we don’t know how to operate the system.

A system of oneness is a system of reciprocity and it’s more than just the simple action of give and take. It’s all about co-creating environments and conditions that work for all involved. There are many examples of reciprocity in nature – examples like the hermit crab and the anemone.

The hermit crab finds its home in vacated shells of whelks or other mollusc.  One species of hermit crab carries a large pink anemone on its shell so that when octopi or fish who like to feed on the hermit crab approach, the anemone shoots out it brilliantly coloured tentacles, and stings the intending predators.  This is a good example of living co-operation as the crab returns the compliment to the anemone, which feeds on the droppings and discarded food of the crab. When the crab needs to move to a larger home, it gently detaches the anemone and takes it along.

In human relations, just as in nature, reciprocity creates an actual environment.  Once this environment is created all manner of new and wonderful things can happen and the co-operation we need to learn in order to survive and prosper will get a real chance to take hold.

Apart from the obvious, the difference between us and hermit crabs with their anemone companions is that we have free will.  We get to decide what to do, and in our efforts to do what is best for ourselves we can think that acting only from self-interest will be the most advantageous.  This isn’t true.  It is now widely believed that our greatest advantage lies not in individualism but in reciprocity and cooperation – and that’s not just because it’s a ‘nicer’ way to be but because it’s a more practically advantageous way to act.

Like the anemones and the crabs we share our planet.  Whether we like it or not we are interconnected.  One family.  One unit.  As well as being undeniably cousins according to our genome, we are all now living in a world that is becoming increasingly smaller.  Like an extended family packed into a small house we need to accept our interconnectedness and work out how to get on with each other.