Society controls us. To state this sounds fairly obvious but there’s more to this than meets the eye.
On one level we could say that society is necessarily a system of controls, of one sort or another, for the simple reason that any large mass of people need ‘regulating’ in some way – for example, we need to agreed upon which side of the road we should drive, and then, once this has been agreed, the decision needs to be enforced. On this level the notion of control seems fairly harmless, and as we have said, pretty much necessary. Once we do abide by the practical conventions that need to be adopted if we are to live collectively without ongoing chaos, then – it might be naively assumed – we will be left alone to get on with life as we see fit…
This is of course however very far from being the truth. Whilst society ought to be content – in theory at least – with regulating or managing the collective side of life, this most certainly isn’t the case! As every student of sociology knows, society controls us in much more subtle and insidious ways than this. The explicit rules and regulations are just the icing on the cake – it is the ‘implicit’ rules that really do the controlling. What happens with the implicit (and therefore unacknowledged rules) of society is that we obey them without even knowing that we’re doing so – we don’t know we are obeying the implicit rules because we aren’t actually aware of them!
In sociology these invisible rules are known as ideology – one definition being: ‘Shared ideas or beliefs which serve to justify and support the interests of a particular group or organizations.’Wikipedia defines ideology as “a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of society to all members of this society.” It therefore constitutes what is called a “received consciousness.” Ideology isn’t therefore about controlling what we do but controlling what we think. It’s about controlling what we think in such a way that we don’t even know we’re being controlled. This surreptitious form of control isn’t in the best interests of everyone either – it’s only there to serve the status quo, to serve the established authority.
In essence, society controls us by rewarding us when we conform, and penalizing us when we don’t. We learn at a very early age that we have to “go along to get along”. This sounds so simple and yet at the same time it’s such a tremendously powerful mechanism that it’s practically irresistible. After all, who can afford to be excluded from the social group – what hope can we have of getting anywhere if we have to ‘go it alone’? One association we have with this sort of thing is at school, which is when the brutal effectiveness of peer pressure first becomes obvious. As we move into the teenage years we tend to be particularly sensitive to the possibility of social exclusion, not to mention the ever-present threat of being actively labelled as an oddball, weirdo, freak, etc.
But the control we’re talking about goes beyond our normal concept of peer pressure. If we take a jump from sociology to the psychology of childhood, we can say that for a child the most important thing has got to be the acknowledgement and acceptance of its parents. No one can deny this. Straightaway, therefore, this need throws up a potential problem – suppose your parents aren’t able to acknowledge you for who you really are, what are you going to do then? This may sound like a crazy question – what parent after all cannot love their child for who they really are? In one way this objection is valid – without any doubt, most parents start off loving their children unconditionally. The ‘problem’ only really sets in when the child starts to develop and differentiate as an actual individual. It is at this point that our unconditional love as parents starts to turn into the ‘acceptance-versus-rejection’ reaction that arises out of our unconscious conditioning.
We are conditioned, and the fact of this conditioning means that we are bound to pass it on. The way we usually understand this process is in terms of passing on beliefs, attitudes, opinions etc, but conditioning means more than this: when we’re in the conditioned modality of consciousness nothing is seen for what it actually is, but only for what our conditioning says it is.
This absolutely has to be the case – if I could see things for what they really are then I wouldn’t be conditioned! Conditioning only allows us to see its view of things – that’s the whole point of it. This being so, there’s simply no way that we can, as parents, acknowledge our children for being ‘who they are in themselves’. As time goes on we will reward them more and more for being the way that we think they ought to be, and penalize them for not being that way. We will mould them in our own image – which is of course what human beings have been doing since time immemorial. And then the job that we started doing as parents will be continued by our so-called ‘educational’ system. As Robert Anton Wilson says, it was never the purpose of society to create a perfect person,
“…but to create [CRATE] a semi-robot who mimics the society as closely as possible – both in its rational and irrational aspects, both as the repository of the wisdom of the past and the sum total of all the cruelties and stupidities of the past.”
The essential way to understand conditioning is therefore this – when we see ourselves in our children we reward them with our attention, our recognition, and when we don’t then we punish them with our lack of attention, with our lack of acknowledgment. Faced with this uncompromising reality, what are we to do? It’s either ‘adapt and survive’ or ‘don’t adapt and get rejected’… As children we simply aren’t strong enough to ‘go it alone’ and reject the conditioning that we’re being imprinted with, and so we ‘give up’ our true, unconditioned selves and become whatever it is that gets accepted by our parents and – later on – rewarded by our society.
This isn’t really anyone’s fault – our parents are simply doing to us what was done to them. If they had been given the gift of unconditional love then they would pass this on to us. And if on the other hand (as is much more likely) they had been landed with the tainted gift of conditional love then it is this that they would pass on to us instead! Unconditional love doesn’t seek to control – it’s given freely, without any strings attached, without any unspoken requirement for us to ‘play the game’. Conditional love on the other hand is all about control – it isn’t really love at all but acceptance/approval/validation, and this substitute for genuine love is only given to us if we allow ourselves to be controlled, and become whatever (or whoever) it is we are supposed to be. This is conditioning in a nutshell – it’s a reversed form of love. Genuine love values us for who we truly are, conditioning values us only when we have been made into whatever the conditioning requires us to be, demands us to be…
So this exact same process continues once we move on into society at large. Society doesn’t value us for who we truly are – it cannot because it is a system that is based on mechanical rules. True, it is made up of people but it’s made up of people who it has moulded in its own image. It’s not independent consciousness that we encounter in society but ‘received consciousness’ – the conditioned form of consciousness that substitutes for the genuine article.
Society doesn’t just control us – it moulds us, it ‘makes us it’s own’, it creates us in its own image. When we conform to society we’re rewarded – we’re given recognition and approval and status and influence. When we fail to conform all of these are withheld from us. It’s as if we’re not people at all but ‘non-persons’ – people of no account, invisible people, people without a voice… And so the hidden irony here is that even if we do succeed in society’s terms – and become successful, rich, respected, etc – the price for this successful adaptation is that we have had to become who we are not.
The system values and rewards only those in whom it recognizes itself, and so – in reality – it values and rewards only itself!
So if I want to be rewarded by the system, I have to become the system. No one wins in this game. The only ‘winner’ is the system…
About the Author
Nick Williams is a staff writer for CSGlobe, where this article originally appeared.
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