Capitalism and Divergent Thinking.

For the purposes of this post it is important to note that when I refer to “capitalism,” I am referring to Big C Capitalism.  Also, it is worth noting that I am an idiot, that I am not an expert in any field, least  any of the ones that might relate to the following piece, and that I failed Psych in college.

Capitalism loves homogeneity.  It’s no mystery why… packages that are all the same size and shape are easier to stack, store, and ship.  Financial predictions are easier to make based on things that are produced and sold all the same.  Shipping is cheaper.  Mechanized production is much easier, making the item in question even cheaper to manufacture.  One look at the dizzying variety in our grocery stores shows that despite all the different packages, we’re really looking at six different kinds of kidney beans, four different kinds of canned tuna, and a few dozen different kinds of bread that more or less taste the same.  Meanwhile the real variety is absent.  Each aisle contains countless versions of the same handful of products.  It turns out that it’s not all that difficult to acclimate consumers to this homogenized range of products, either… even our films have their formulas.  Screenplays must hit certain spots within specified time frames in order to be considered for production in Hollywood.  Almost any film is possible, as long as it follows the formula.

Capitalism values homogeneity in its people as well.  Oh, sure, job descriptions will tell you that managers are looking for creative thinkers, but the fact of the matter is that creativity involves risk by nature, and to capitalism, which pursues profit, this risk is not an opportunity but a cost.  When things are unpredictable, efficiency declines and costs go up.  In fact, every large, successful company really only needs in between one and ten “innovators” and then an army of robots to carry out the wishes of those innovators.  The fact is that for now, it’s easier and cheaper to employ humans to fill those roles.  Even so, a firm hand is kept to ensure that these people, these biorobots, remain within their designated parameters. Capitalism also offers a reward for this conformity.  We are told that if we follow the rules, and work hard, that we will be rewarded with prosperity.  Since most people in the post industrial landscape lack the means to scrape their own living from the earth, this is a pretty good deal for most citizens, and honestly it does a better job of making sure everyone is taken care of than homesteading would.

Even our own brains reward conformity.  Social conformity, in a primate with essentially no natural weapons, was a matter of survival for nascent man.  Social conformity made the group work, and the group was the weapon.  It is our social nature, after all, that turned us down the large-brain side of that particular fork in the evolutionary crossroads, and as far as I’m aware we’re the mammals with the most complex and highly developed social structure on earth.  This is what the big brain made possible, and a part of that is the ability and the desire to conform to social norms.  To feel as though one belongs to a group is a necessary feeling, rewarded with the impression of safety and warmth.  In fact, experiencing the fear of death can inspire greater urges to conform in us.

This is seen not just on an individual basis, but also on a broader scale.  Societies tend to fluctuate on a cultural spectrum, from collectivist to individualist, based on the level of prosperity being experienced.  Individualism is preferred when times are good; with survival needs taken care of, attention can turn to individual choice and self expression.  When times are lean, societies tend to pull together to ensure that the needs of the society are met.

In contrast to this urge for conformity that is encoded into our societies and indeed, into our very brains, we also experience a strong need for self-expression.  This need is considered a part of the need for autonomy as enumerated in the three needs in Self-Determination Theory… autonomy incorporates both the need for agency in one’s life and outcomes as well as the need to act in accordance with one’s self.  The nature and origin of the self have been discussed and studied by people far, far brighter than I, and I won’t have time to go through that in any depth at all, so I’m inclined to skip that conversation entirely and just say that for the purposes of this discussion, the self is a thing that we all have, and it is made up of all of the traits that make us who we are.

So we have a natural, intrinsically motivated desire to act in accordance with the self.  This desire is so strong that it overwhelms the risks of such authentic actions, and at times the biological urge for conformity… all for an action with no tangible or external reward.  It is an action which is its own reward; in fact the existence of an external reward can undermine the value of the act of self expression by preventing it from satisfying our need for autonomy.

This is not just a desire that we have for ourselves; we also seem to seek out authenticity in other people.  We cast about in the world, desiring not just authentic action and authentic expression, but authentic experiences, authentic interaction, and the chance to witness authentic expressions of self from other people.  We are moved by these interactions and expressions because they touch something inside of us, something that is terrifying and wonderful.  Authenticity plucks a string inside of us, and we vibrate in sympathy.

The truth is, existence as a human being is often a horrible burden, and not just in terms of practical stressors, like money or food or emotional security, but due to the fact that we bear up under great personal responsibility, the kind of responsibility that only a thinking creature gifted with free will can know, and exist in a continual state of imperfect knowledge.  We are creatures who conceive of the world, but who are incapable of conceiving a world without us, and still are cursed with an understanding of our own mortality. Is it any wonder that so often we retreat from authentic expression of the self into the comfort of the group, the safety of the homogeneous?  We relinquish responsibility of doing and instead sit back and watch.  We lunge for the carrot and in doing so accept the yoke.  It’s so easy to do, especially in a world that wants, needs us to be consumers, and will offer us pretty much anything that we think might bring us even a moment’s comfort.

This isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, but I do think that it leads to a deep and undefinable unhappiness… a sort of a sickness of the soul.  This is not to say that conformity is bad, or even that capitalism is bad.  These are just parts of being human.  But it does emphasize the importance of creative work; work often judged as not having a real place within a capitalist society.

The artist serves a purpose, in that through their actions they take on the risk and the burden of authentic self-expression and reproduce that for others to view and experience, so that everyone can feel that ahh feeling without taking on those risks themselves.  The artist reaches into what it is to be human, like a modern shaman reaching into a world of gods and devils (and indeed, I’m not convinced that art is possible without interaction with the Divine, but that’s for a different post) , and brings back meaning, and then reproduces it in a benign, non-threatening form for all to enjoy.  The artist helps to keep people spiritually whole in a terrible world.

So how does that work, arguably valuable work, fit in with a society in which all labor must be boiled down to dollars? Especially if we grant, as above, that the urge to express the self and to create are intrinsic, but can be undermined by the offer of an external reward? How is that compartmentalization accomplished?


We Are, In Fact, Our Egos.

Last summer, I think it was, a bunch of paper fliers showed up around town.  They were on white letter-size printer paper, and they had a message hand-written on them in what appeared to be highlighter:

“You Are Not Your Ego.”


This is a regrettably common sentiment among the creative types; the idea that the Id is somehow the true self and that the Ego is harmful or not a real part of you because it restrains the Id out of a sense of fear.

Okay, before I go on, I want everyone to know that I have no background in psychology, and in fact am a community college drop out.  It’s important to understand that I do not at all know what I’m talking about here.

Got it?

Okay, so I think that people who dispense this claptrap do it with the best of intentions, I really do.  But I feel like either a) the people who do so don’t understand Freud’s Structural Model and are using the words incorrectly; b) that it’s a side effect of an aspirational approach toward human thought and behavior that is not just wrong, but also damaging; or c) both of the above.

So let’s talk terms.

The Id, as Freud described it, is a mass of instinctual desires.  It is the only part of the structural model that we are born with.  It drives libido, aggression, hunger, all of those things that are more or less common to all animals.  It will not tolerate delayed gratification, it wants what it wants immediately and there is no reasoning with it.  Infants have no moderating influence; they are just Id… so if they are hungry and are not fed, they cry.  They cannot tolerate the conflict between the desire and the availability of the object of that desire.  I’m sure that you can see, particularly in adults, how the Id can be capable of a lot of darkness and danger.  This is why it terrifies me when people assert that the Id is the true self.

The Ego moderates the desires of the Id with reality, and seeks to satisfy those desires in the least harmful way possible. For instance, the Ego is responsible for enabling us to not just take what we want, but to purchase it instead.  The Ego restrains the Id, and as it does so, it fulfills basic and genuine needs.  Functions such as cognition, judgement, intellect and memory reside in the Ego.  The Ego is the root of conscious awareness, and of a sense of self.

For the sake of completion, the Super Ego is the portion of the psyche that internalizes societal rules and expectations. It is where morality and feelings of guilt come from.  It restrains the Id, galvanizing the psyche toward morally and socially appropriate actions.  The Ego mediates between the Id and the Super Ego.

It’s worth noting at this point that as I understand it, Freud’s structural model is no longer in use in practical psychology, or if it is, it’s generally not used in the way that it was originally conceived.  Freud had some odd ideas about human psychology that are too firmly based in gender and sexuality to be of much use in modern psychology.  Still, if you’re going to use words, you should probably know what they mean.

The fact of the matter is, we are very much our Ego.  As seen from my brief and inexpert description above, the Ego acts in a conciliatory and defensive way, and some of the strategies that it employs may be deceptive in nature, but that doesn’t mean that the Ego somehow doesn’t exist, or can be excised from the psyche.  The strategies that it employs are employed in the pursuit of fulfilling very real and valid psychological needs.  Moreover, the ego is what makes us people, rather than a collection of desires and social directives.

This idea that we are not our ego is well-intentioned, but incorrect and in the end probably damaging.  It’s a sort of a hippy-dippy notion that says that you can have whatever you want and can be whatever you want to be if you live without fear.  This on the surface is a benign statement that some may find inspirational, but it’s yet another aspect of the sort of aspirational thinking that seems to come in cycles in western culture.

The most extreme example of this that I’ve encountered is The Secret: a book and a film that propose that one can have whatever one wants through the miracle of positive thinking.  This of course leaves people dying of cancer bearing up under the burden of not having thought positively enough to cure their cancer, or the homeless person not having thought positively enough to bring himself a modicum of prosperity.

I feel like I’ve been writing about this a lot lately.  What I’m saying is this: while it might seem harmless to espouse this living without fear as an ideal, the reality is that these fears, these dangers, and these risks all exist, and are valid.  To insist that the ideal way to be is to exist outside of them is to insist that the ideal existence is outside of humanity, and this sort of thinking is why I left religion.  This view of life as a struggle toward unattainable goals sets all of us up for failure.

The doctrine of the positive thinking movement does not set us up with the tools that we need to deal with the darkness and the horror that exist in the world… instead, it seeks to distract us with work that will never be finished, like Sisyphus and his stone, and we never give ourselves the opportunity to feel and work through those feelings, and this activity, this experience and internalization and rationalization of horror is a big part of what being a person is.

People are not perfect; they were never intended to be and not one of us every will be. We are all just people; and we are all a little monstrous.  We are all terribly terribly flawed, and we are just thrashing in the mud and struggling to find or make a place in the world for ourselves.   And to expect ourselves or anyone else to be anything more than that is not just wrong… it’s cruel.

We are all our egos.

How to Tell the Truth.

I underwent a polygraph examination for the first time.  I’m not under investigation for any sort of crime… it’s required for applicants to civil service positions, and it’s a part of the process of gaining employment with law enforcement agencies.

I was delighted to have received the call, if not a little surprised.  I had applied for a position with them back in October, and had gone through the oral boards interview, and hadn’t heard anything after that.  They had filled the positions that I had originally applied for, but this was a different position within the same pay grade, in a different department.  I agreed to the appointment immediately, which they had scheduled for the very next day, a Saturday.

After the elation had faded, I became very nervous.

I had never taken a polygraph examination before.  While I know enough about the process to have abandoned the childish impression of a “lie detector” the likes of which you might have seen on cartoons flashing a red “lie” light in response to the subject’s statement.  But I knew that they would ask me questions about my drug use, drinking, and criminal past, and I worried that such facts about my life could be misconstrued, and that even if I passed the test (which I would), the revelations of the test could impact my perceived hireability.

The day of the appointment, I got up, got dressed, and put on some makeup… a rare thing for me, and drove downtown.  I arrived early and met a couple of friends for coffee, who distracted me with philosophical conversation about humanity, the failings of the theistic binary, and the role that religion plays in human life.

It was a stormy day, and my attempts to get myself looking professional were wasted; I left the house looking like a fat Job Interview Barbie and arrived looking bedraggled.  My examiner seemed nice enough, and he put me in an interview room with a questionnaire that was somewhere in between forty and sixty pages long.  The room itself was constructed of unadorned cement brick. It contained on small table and two chairs placed on opposite sides.  The carpet was the sort of flat felt-type carpet in the bland blue color that one sees so often in institutional decorating… not a dark blue, nor a light blue… the most nondescript blue in existence. He left the door open.  The questions were on the subject of past and current criminal behavior, past and current drinking and drug habits, questions about self harm, about my temper, about sexually deviant acts and about the killing of animals.

Once the questionnaire was complete, he ran through the questions, and asked me for deeper details on a couple of them.  I sat in the chair, and had two straps placed on my chest, one above and one below the heart, and some metal plates were strapped to my fingers.  I was told to hold still and look straight ahead, and he tacked a sheet of paper with the number five written on it to the wall in front of me.

He ran me through the baseline test, in which he asked me “is it a one?” and “is it a two?” all the way up through six.  He instructed me to say no to every question, meaning that I would have to knowingly lie as we got to the number five.  Afterward he showed me the chart showing a change in breathing and sweating at the time that that question was asked, and explained that even though he had directed me to lie, and even though I may not have physiologically felt any different as I lied, that the metrics changed when I did.

The polygraph is a controversial piece of equipment.  It is considered unreliable enough that the results of a polygraph examination are often not admissible in court.  This makes sense, since a guilty verdict puts a person’s life and liberty in danger, and should not be reached based on bad data.  This was not a test to determine guilt or innocence, though… it was more of a broad evaluation of a person’s character.  How likely is this person to lie, to steal, to accept bribes? Can this person be blackmailed?  The polygraph relies on a skilled examiner in order to be performed well, and to have the results interpreted correctly.  This kind of subjectivity is terrifying, and the situation itself is one of manufactured intimacy that is startlingly immediate and very high-stakes.  There is also a feeling of powerlessness… I had no way to appeal the results should they come out unfavorably, and I had to simply trust in the experience and credentials of this stranger… a stranger, I might add, who now knows more about me than many of my friends.

He then ran me through the polygraph examination, which consisted of I think twelve yes-or-no questions regarding the questionnaire I had completed.  He would ask a question, I would answer with yes or no and only yes or no, and then we would wait twenty-five seconds before moving on to the next question.  I had to sit totally still, and look straight ahead.  Sit still, looking only straight ahead, for twenty-five seconds.  Just try it.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

He ran me through the questions twice, the same questions each time.  When he told me that he was done, I sagged to the side in the chair, exhausted, dry-mouthed, and with my head pounding.  Sitting still and looking straight ahead is not something I do.  It’s not something most of us do… even when you think you’re sitting around doing nothing, you fidget without thinking about it, or look at that pattern of bumps on the wall that looks kinda like a person’s face.  But we don’t sit still doing nothing, looking straight ahead.  Not even when we sleep.  The focus required to keep myself from moving was so tiring.

I passed the test.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that I get the job, however.  I have now admitted to my prospective employer all of my crimes, all of my drug use, all of my past and current drinking habits.  I have admitted my financial past and present, the past due status of my current bills and my standing with collections agencies.  I have revealed details about my temper and my past and current emotional state.  They know about my bad times and my good times, and about all of the things that I’m ashamed of.  Because admitting all of these things is necessary to passing the polygraph, and the polygraph is necessary for getting the job.

I can now see the power of the polygraph examination, if only for its psychological effect.

So I don’t know.  We’ll see.  How likely do you think you would be to get hired by an employer who knew everything bad about you?