Brave New World
In 1931, Aldous Huxley wrote a dystopian novel set in London in the year 2540 AD entitled “Brave New World.” In this future, people are grown in labs by the thousands everyday, and raised parentless in an ultra-controlled environment complete with Hypnopedia (sleep-learning), chemical persuasion, Classical Conditioning (commonly known by Physiologist Ivan Pavlov’s experiments with a dog and a bell) and Operant Conditioning (a term coined by Psychologist B.F. Skinner that refers to learning through behavioral consequences like rewards and punishments).
Though far from reality, Huxley makes us ask ourselves some fundamental questions regarding free will and individuality. The story plays with the extreme case of perfectly molding children with the expertise of an (almost) omnipotent deity: nurturing an intellectual Alpha class to take on the most important responsibilities in society, as well as Betas to come up right after them.
The government chemically damages embryos of Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons (the next classes in descending order) to hinder brain development to fill up the manual labor requirements of their society. The laborers are also reinforced to dislike books, flowers, art, and whatever else might distract them from their work.
Most people in this future society are happy where they are: with the work they’re doing and the social class they’re in. Everyone was conditioned to dislike the other classes and their jobs.
This made for a well-oiled caste system with minimal chance for revolutionary thinking.
The allusion to our own lives in present-day society is uncanny with the subtleties we can observe in our relationships, mass-marketing, organized religions, media, politics and so forth.
In a relationship we might have had or heard about, once upon a time, we most likely would have come across a lover that abhorred a particular quirk, attitude or preference of their partner’s. Naturally, the latter would tend to suppress that quirk to try and cloak it from their partner’s perception or remove it from their repertoire altogether. Whether the disgust expressed to cause such behaviors was verbal or not, this is basically Operant Conditioning, wherein we learn from the partner’s disgust not to act in a certain way.
This type of behavior and interpersonal conditioning is ubiquitous. It’s in our nature to automatically act for our own benefit. We naturally avoid things we dislike, we gravitate towards people and experiences we do like, and we give our own rewards and punishments to others’ attitudes and behaviors depending on our preferences.
Conditioning and Consumption
Seeing as we’re easily swayed by interpersonal influence, it doesn’t take a genius to think of ways this can be used against us. People are very susceptible to mass conditioning and manipulation: to behave in certain ways, to prefer certain things, to believe certain ideas — to incur personal or political favor or to satisfy whatever pure or ignoble end goal the conditioners desire.
In today’s global society, it’s quite obvious that consumption and profit are what the conglomerates are after. They’re running the show. This might be acceptable if the modus operandi were faultless and they were looking after the greater good, or even just the consumer’s wellbeing primarily, with profit coming as a secondary goal. But the reverse seems to be the case.
Globalization and multinational corporations usually run on some form of large-scale unsustainable planetary exploitation. Exorbitant amounts of “food miles” in normal consumer products (increasing fossil fuel consumption), pollution, deforestation, mining, human rights atrocities, animal cruelty, war… and the list goes on.
It isn’t initially obvious that we’re all conditioned by mass-media to buy that new phone, those shoes, that car or a house in this neighborhood. That’s because we’re made to believe our choices are our own, when in fact, they aren’t.
The forces of advertising make the suggestion that get you to buy something. We’re better off buying whatever they have for sale. It’ll make us cooler, healthier, more popular: it’ll give us happiness. Add a beautiful and healthy looking model and our brains make the connection that this product or service will make me beautiful or attract beautiful people.
We get thirsty and suddenly have a craving for a Coke, a Gatorade or a San Miguel beer. These Adidas shoes and Ray-Ban sunnies will make me more likeable. It seems many industries are leagues ahead of the game and have mastered the psychological intricacies of mass manipulation early on.
Our entire lives from diet to exercise to our ideas are molded by the society we live in. Thankfully, today it’s easier to tap into novel ideas and step out of our cultural box with the web. Open-source information (and unfortunately, misinformation) has the capacity to kick the proverbial mind-control out the window.
We’re conditioned by popular media to desire a certain type of beauty over another. In women (this varies of course, depending on your culture): full lips, big breasts, narrow hips, skinny legs, long, blonde hair, light-colored eyes, fair skin, sharp nose. TV shows and movies glamorize sex, cigarettes and alcohol.
Religions, politicians and the news have manipulated us to fear and hate the other: the Muslims, the communists, the immigrants, the criminals, that sports team or people from that school or city, or members of that organization. The lefts, the rights, LGBTs (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders), Lawyers, the lower class, the upper class, people of other races… anything and everything that’s portrayed to be so different from us.
Certain glamorized professions are seen as more desirable than others: the stockbroker, the investment banker, the pilot, the chef, the actress, the supermodel, et al. The short end of the stick goes to craftsmen and low-profile laborers: the fisherman, the carpenter, the farmer, the blacksmith, the glass-blower, etc.
People from small towns want to move to big cities to make their name and fortune. Is that an innate desire we all share? Is it possible we may have been conditioned by exposure to all the movies, books and music that tell us how wonderful it is to live in huge cities and be rich, famous and powerful?
Of course, the same can be said of the reverse. Like many others who have grown up and felt choked with the city life, I prefer to live and settle somewhere less developed, in a small town with a simpler, more stress-free life. No doubt, I was influenced by the books I’ve read or the people I’ve met.
Non-Muslims have been coerced into fearing and hating Muslims because radical groups from the latter religious orientation are accused of being behind most of the world’s terrorist attacks. At times blatantly, while at other times only barely perceptibly, we’re conditioned to like or dislike certain other races through selective media coverage, movies, books, music, what have you.
Racial profiling is real. Across the board in the USA, there are 5 times more black Americans in prison than whites, even if African-Americans only make up 12-13% of the total population.
There is evidence that the American society has internalized the criminal stereotype of African Americans. For example, in experiments where African American and white individuals perform the same act, respondents have reported that the black figure is more threatening than the white figure. Likewise, in surveys asking about fear of strangers in hypothetical situations, respondents are more fearful of being victimized by black strangers than by white strangers.[41
Effects on Diversity
Perhaps we’re not aware of the fact that our own individuality is oftentimes overruled by social constructs. What results from all this conditioning is a dilution of diversity and a loss of individuality.
What’s fashionable seems to win over what’s meaningful, and the name of the game shifts from “living my own life” to “living for the acceptance of others,” A.K.A. “living to fit in, with the least amount of ostracization.” Don’t get me wrong: I suffer the same fate.
While it seems some forms of conditioning are bad, others can be good. Health and fitness have been inculcated into the modern-day psyche as important aspects of living a happier and fuller life. It’s “in” to be fit, to play sports, to go to the gym, to look after one’s figure. I’m glad for that.
Growing up in the Philippines, it’s easy to admit that “family” is placed at a higher value than most other things. I have this impression that Western societies give less value to the elderly. There are nursing homes aplenty for them in the west, but that service is unheard of where I’m from.
But like I’ve said, all our behaviours and beliefs are formed by the societies we grew up in anyway, so no one is really to blame. It’s terribly difficult to say if one culture is better than another. Progress in the eyes of one culture might be seen as regress in another. And who’s to say when one point of view is more correct than another?
When we act kindly to others, we usually receive some kind of positive reinforcement. A favor might’ve been retaliated, a gift reciprocated, a love requited, or it simply made us feel good to be nice. That’s positive conditioning, too, B.F. Skinner-style (Operant Conditioning).
Morality of Conditioning
Seeing as the act itself can be positive or negative, is it safe to say that psychological conditioning — that is, exposing children (and adults) to certain stimuli and their respective rewards and punishments — is a morally neutral act? Is it a practical technique, just like many other psychological tools, which can be used for the benefit or detriment of a person or people in society?
Does conditioning to any audience, regardless of motive — for the greater good or for personal profit, fame or influence — take away diversity and individuality? Instead of allowing someone to naturally take her course through life, you, as a parent, for instance, take it upon yourself to reinforce in your child the desire to become an airline pilot, or to dislike cats. To like classical music and to hate hip-hop.
While the conditioning we give to our children mostly happens involuntarily — frustrated artists expose their children to the arts, doctors encourage a path through medicine, former athletes train their children in their sport of choice — they reflect the frustrations we carry around in our own lives. It’s a natural instinct; to pass on our interests to our kids seems innocent enough.
Nature and evolution has, so far, thrived through random mutation and diversity. With evolution at a standstill, how would we adapt to the changing world and universe around us?
As in the case of Huxley’s “Brave New World,” what are the moral implications of conditioning the mind (even prenatally) if the end goal is to have a happier, more functioning society? In his dystopian tale, part of the goal of their controlling government was to increase consumption to fuel the capitalist lifestyle of their paradigm.
Huxley’s future society was easy to perceive as undesirable. What if in an alternate story, the method and end-goal were both free from foul-play and questionable motives but still made use of mass conditioning? Is deliberate conditioning in this case also undesirable? To bring us closer to the answer, let me take you through a simple scenario-playing in our mind’s eye.
Let’s say that in the distant future, a major breakthrough occurs in Neurochemistry and Nanotechnology. An inexpensive nasal spray is made widely available to the public with neurochemical-secreting nanomites (easily crossing the blood-brain barrier) that would alter our desires, perceptions and personalities?
It would make us happy with what we had and who we were, indifferent to what we didn’t have or who we weren’t, it’d render us incapable of avarice, violence and cruelty. It’d make us develop compassion and generosity to all, we’d feel no pain, fear, inadequacies or sorrow. We’d never feel alone.
Would it be morally wrong if, later on, the future world government forced this upon everyone? I try to imagine this future and fail to see its unquestionable merits. I can’t help but wonder, would this “perfect” world be missing anything, without the strife, without the hardships, the cravings and the hatred, the lust and the greed? What would we miss if we lost our differences, our quirks, our anxieties, our anger? Maybe nothing, or maybe everything.
The Significance of Diversity
It gives me the creeps to think about a perfectly happy life without the downs that give it stark contrast. Wouldn’t “happiness” lose its meaning if there were nothing but? In the same light, wouldn’t “life” lose much of its depth and beauty if it never ended?
Swimming in diversity, it’s hard to picture what we would be like without it. But I have the inkling that being a part of a human race devoid of diversity would be a drab. No surprises, no challenges. No storms to break the monotony of blue skies and calm seas.
As always, to force some change upon oneself is foolish. So there’s no call to external action at the end of these ramblings. Be aware, is all. Don’t undervalue your individuality. Embrace our weirdness, anger, selfishness and insecurities. Embrace the fact that no one is exactly like us with all the same experiences, thoughts and preferences. We’re all unique and the world is better off because of this. We shouldn’t strive to be like everybody else for adoration or acceptance.
I frequently catch myself wishing I was more like one way or another, or wishing this painful experience didn’t happen to me, and I remember to do away with all the hoping and desiring and be content with my life and myself as I am.
As the Stoics suggest: Amor Fati, Latin for “love your fate” — quirks, flaws, failures, hardships, despair, depression, pain and isolation included.
“My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity. Not only to endure what is necessary, still less to conceal it — all idealism is falseness in the face of necessity — , but to love it!”