social construction


Not long ago I wanted to share all my impressions and findings with the world. After all, knowledge is useless if not shared.
As time passed by, I started to realise that it was a terrible waste of time. No one really cares what you have to say. Seems obvious now, but because I do care about sharing valuable ideas and knowledge, regardless of the person who expresses them, I just assumed others will do too. I know many individuals will argue that they do, but who they choose to listen to is often guided by their own self-esteem. They wouldn’t listen to a beggar in the street, but they would to a famous business man. Even though the beggar may be more honest in his life lessons than the business man who often spins a nice semi-fake story. Without a strong social position, your ideas are nothing.

So I will not be writing much from here on.

But I would like to share one last thing: the fundamentals of my logic and actions which give meaning to my existence.

I know my life, just like everyone else’s, is a bleep in the never ending darkness of space and time, a spark preceded and followed by infinity. And in the face of infinity, almost everything is meaningless: our homes, our cars, our fame, our lives, hopes and dreams.

Yet we give so much value to these small things in so far that people sell their organs for a new phone. It’s funny how, once we go beyond basic necessities, once we free ourselves from our struggle to survive, we find ourselves empty and aimless. For a time religion filled in this emptiness. But with religion withering away, our egos stepped in and set value to all these materialistic things in an attempt to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless life. We chase nothing but phantasms of our own mind.

Yet, as I wrote earlier, there is a dim, almost impossible hope that in the face of infinity, we may still find meaning to our existence. That’s because as individuals we may fade away and die, but as a collective we endure. Just pick up a book by Plato and read some passage, as you do his thoughts echo in your mind across millennia.  “Speak my name and I will live.” as an ancient Egyptian papyrus wrote.

Our collective knowledge, spirit, ideas and desire transcend the barriers of space and time and through it, our small, insignificant lives suddenly gain some meaning. We as individuals may die, but our thoughts and our genes live on in our collective consciousness. One can only hope that one day our distant offerings will reach the end of the universe and beyond and through them, we will too.

It is said we come with nothing in this world and leave with nothing, but in between we shape it and are shaped by it. If  there is any chance for our lives to have any meaning, however insignificant, we should make sure that those who follow us can pursue their path towards a bigger and brighter future. Our kindness will inspire them, our harshness will make them stronger, our greed and selfishness will chain them to the ground.

I choose to work towards that future and from that follow all my actions and attitudes.

I hope one day I will not be alone on this. That others would have figured it out and together we will all go to the end of the universe.

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From my perspective, Carl Sagan has literally brought a revolution in the way people see and understand the world. Although it could be argued that his view on our society is in many ways self-evident, it is the beautiful way in which he can articulate and express this view that is really outstanding and touches not only the mind, but also the “soul” of those who are willing to listen to him. It is highly likely that his perspective on humanity and our place in the universe will leave an important mark on our history, even if this claim may sound farfetched today.

My main argument in this regard is the fact that, in his attempt to popularize science, Sagan has struggled to give meaning to human existence in a way which inspires us to do greater things, things which far surpass our focus on everyday personal achievements. In this way, his view on our place in the universe can give meaning to our lives in a way similar to religion.

I will leave you to him now:

Evelyn Waugh wrote in his book ‘Robbery Under Law’ in 1938 just before WWII:

‘Civilization has no force of its own beyond what is given it from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilised man to keep going at all. There are criminal ideas and a criminal class in every nation and the first action of every revolution, figuratively and literally, is to open the prisons. Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity. The danger does not come from merely habitual hooligans; we are all potential recruits for anarchy. Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace; there is only a margin of energy left over for experiment however beneficent. Once the prisons of the mind have been opened, the orgy is on.’

In stark contrast to the “civilisation” of the developed world, there are some places in Central Africa where people, living in stricken poverty, kill each other with untold savagery, where rape is common and cannibalism is still on the menu. Our tendency here, in the so called “West”, is to sweep these things away, feeling compassionate about the people living in those conditions, but at the same time distancing ourselves from them. We tend to think… we are not like them. But five hundred years ago, us, the same peoples of Europe who are now the pinnacle of social evolution, developed some of the most horrifying means of torture, regularly conducted public executions, and developed means of human exploitation which formed the basis of an entire economic system. To some this has the sound of a bad dream, but it was all very real.

Going back in time a few more millennia, we can find that the same people of Europe used to kill each other with fascinating savagery, conducted human sacrifices and partook in cannibalism.

Thus, the difference between Central Africa and our “Civilised” World is not space, but time.

The greatest danger right now is it to think that our savagery has been defeated and it will never re-emerge again. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the past few centuries we’ve managed to cage our savagery in the basement of our mind, under hard locks and steel doors. But, without vigilance, without a constant reminder of how we got to our present state, the danger of spiralling back into anarchy is very real. Paradoxically, it is our thirst for more and more freedom that weakens our self-imposed chains.

I cannot help to think that something is terribly wrong with our world. I cannot pin-point it, I cannot say for certain what it is, but it is there, like a splinter in my mind which gives no rest.

I know for certain that this feeling is not something which is specific to myself, but it is something shared by many people.

The difference is that for each us it manifests in a different way. We feel something is wrong and we try to blame it on something, like the stupidity of others, or the government, or the capitalist system, or inequality, or whatever else you can think of… but never ourselves.

Remarkably, all these issues we try to blame are social in nature, and far-reaching, indicating some sort of social connection between ourselves, our problems and our social world. Yet this is somewhat puzzling in a world where each of us thinks in a highly individualistic fashion. Basically, what happens to others shouldn’t affect us. Problem is, this works both ways, if we don’t care about others, then so will others not care about us.

My impression is that somehow we have lost ourselves along the way to modernity, we no longer identify with anything and we try to fill in that void with all sort of issues which, in our view are of concern for everyone. Basically we want to do something that matters and it is noticeable. We search for these issues which are social in nature because we want to be part of something larger, something that gives meaning to what we do. I am fairly certain that while this will patch up our need for social importance and consequently for identity (since our identity is constructed in relation to others) , it will not solve it. We are still making a mess of our planet, we are still trying to live on the back of others without even realising it, and we are stuck with the same social and political issues for decades. We may solve one or two minor problems with our social activism but the big issues are still there, pressing on us, while the average less-social-minded individual dreams of getting a well-paid job and a fancy car. Unfortunately, the more we dream of these material things, the less common they will become since they will not solve our real problems and not make our world better, in fact they lead to the opposite result.

Part of this problem is also because for many years the need for social identification and meaning was filled by religion, but with religion adapting or disappearing in our modern society, now there is a void that needs to be filled with something.

While I cannot give a clear argument for why our modern society has somehow stripped us of ourselves, (in short) my impression is that our modern way of life is at odds with what we are supposed to do; with our fundamental thoughts, feelings or instincts. Maybe the world we create is not compatible with the world we are made to live in. Sometimes, what we think is better, is not necessarily what is better. Maybe this is the splinter that we feel but cannot understand. In in the end, it’s easier to bury our heads in small things that give short-term pleasure, just like a chubby girl eating chocolate when she is upset because her friends told her she is fat, instead of facing the harsh reality.

Time will tell if what we do today is right or wrong. As evolution will continue to shape us both physically and socially, the social systems and personal philosophies that are inefficient will die out. If our world fails, there will be others to take its place. My only concern is that we could have achieved so much and yet we achieved so little.

The funny bit is that, we are not even certain any more who this “we” I just mentioned is. Our problems may run deeper than anyone can imagine.

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In world politics the past few years have been an overwhelming cascade of events. But in many ways this was a natural development. The world rarely stays still and it is foolish to think otherwise.

Nowadays information, people, goods, ideas and money travel around the world at speeds unsurpassed in any previous age which in turn makes everything happen much faster, sometimes too fast for anyone to control. And when things get out of hand it takes either a miracle or a strong and competent leader to get them back on track. Unfortunately the world does not have such leaders, not at this time at least. Without such leaders the tasks falls on pretty much everybody to get things working again. It is our responsibility at this time to recognise the problems we face, to accept them as problems (even if they contradict are deepest believes) and try to find solutions to them.

In the worst case scenario, one my think that we live in a world where socialism has failed, capitalism has betrayed us, were tyranny still looms and democracy has become a shop in which we have to buy every few years a bunch of bad, expired products which we are forced to wear until the next shopping spree. But however depressing these times may seem it is important to remember that all we do and all we have matters only in relation to one another. We need one another even if it is to show off or brag, to humiliate or to help, to build monuments or make wars. Nothing makes sense in a world where each one of us would be alone. So as long as we exist as a society, there is still hope.

In the previous post it was briefly explained that when it comes to studying and understanding society (which is largely the purpose of social sciences), the final goal should be to find models and methods for building a better social order, a better economy, a better political system etc. Explanatory theories (the classical scientific method) which focus on “why things are the way they are” may still be useful in so far as providing information, a sort of a prior experience (wisdom) to the current endeavours of society building but should never be considered the main purpose of social sciences. It shall now be further shown why “explanatory” approaches even when used as means of wisdom gathering still offer an incomplete view of the social world.

As previously explained, the way society is built is not independent of human actions. In fact humans are very capable in shaping the way they construct their political and economic systems. The myriad of economic systems and political systems that exist today and have existed throughout history lay testimony to the various ways in which humans can organize and reorganize themselves. In this maze of different ways of doing things there is supposedly some underlying explanation to why a certain social or political model was adopted at a certain point in history and geographical space. The logic is that once there is a good understanding of the mechanisms that created this economic and political model, then it should be much easier to understand its problems and if possible improve it/ change it accordingly.

While the above logic stands in theory, in practice there is a major obstacle in applying it because there is a lack of consensus on the best way to explain human social organisation. Without such a consensus any attempt to build a social organisation is the result of intuition rather than of knowledge. It is like when a cathedral starts to show cracks, but instead of having a solution which can be determined through logic and knowledge, there are tens of different plausible explanations to why the cracks appeared in the first place. Each of these explanations also point towards different solutions. As those who need to fix the cracks have no choice but to pick one solution and as it is impossible to objectively be certain which solution is the correct one, then they have no choice but to rely on personal experience and intuition (one can call this ideology) rather than knowledge. Obviously this is a problem because the chosen solution is likely to be only a temporary fix, if any fix at all. This is why, before discussing how to build society there should be at least some general consensus on the basic forces and rules that govern society building, independent of human actions. This is not necessary a theory but rather a set of universal acceptable truths about human interaction and human nature.

Continuation in part iii….pic