Sunday, September 22, 2013

Feeding the Beast II: Saving Face

(What follows is a look at a social phenomenon from a particular perspective. At some point I will follow this post with a look at this same phenomenon from a different perspective – Don’t Feed the Beast II:Dissolving Face.)

A few weeks ago I had the educational honour of discussing guaranteed income (in German) to a live audience as one of a panel of three ‘experts’. The polite host asked gentle questions, and the three experts responded, agreed and disagreed. Why is this relevant to Econosophy?

There were cameras, lights, and expectations. Before the discussion started, the host asked me some questions about my position, my past, my present, what sort of a human I am. He was to introduce his guests and so needed to know something about them, and seeing as the whole affair had been allotted a mere hour, the introductions had to be brief (sound-bite conditions). After our short chat, his introduction transformed me into an economist and philosopher. I had asked him to announce me as a simple blogger, but he probably wanted to lend me – and by extension the panel – a certain gravitas. I did not correct him on stage during his introduction. Not only was it my first time as an ‘expert’ on stage, I am by nature polite and did not want to cost him any face.

Nor myself, for that matter.

Social face is incredibly important. Its import seems to intensify with age, more so when you are seen as an expert for whatever reason, then even more so when you are on a stage with lights and cameras on you, with anonymous but expectant folk looking up and listening to what you say. Public loss of face hurts and can have real consequences for career and thus lifestyle. We are imaginative social critters suspended in a society of one kind or another by a web of interconnected meanings and layered value judgments. Sever too many strands of your personal web and it can be as if society has ejected you. (The direct links between face and money should be obvious enough, especially if I quickly point out the parallels between face and capital.)

Anyway, the discussion was cordial and probably not all that unfruitful. But what I felt most keenly during that intense hour – and why I wrote “educational” in this post’s first sentence – was how I had been effortlessly slotted into a societal pigeonhole, so as to be more easily dealt with, digested, neatly positioned somewhere clear and fixed in society’s lexicon. I was suddenly granted a social face I wasn’t aware I had a right to don. It was so automatic. The evening just powered forwards and dragged me along with it, changed me, obliged me to behave a certain way. I can now imagine what it is to be a politician, a mouthpiece for something NotYou. People become mouthpieces and lose ‘autonomy’ as a consequence of powerful social forces (I’m ignoring ego-ambition and sociopathy here for the sake of brevity). It’s how all this works, how complex society of highly specialised careers works. This vast dynamic is not easy to change, to put it mildly.

Social face also happens to have an inverted Janus aspect; it points both outwards and inwards; ‘escaping’ it is therefore far from easy.

I happen to have been my family’s primary breadwinner since forever. My wife has concentrated on the (in my eyes) far more noble role of housewife and mother to our two daughters. This is our family situation. For various reasons and against that particular backdrop, I quit my job in October 2011 with a sketchy plan for both my wife and I to earn money, for me to earn and ‘work’ less than before so as to free me up to study and write more and to be the change I want to see in the world. In short, to stop feeding the beast.

In other words, I turned our family’s then 16 year old dynamic around on a dime. It was my attempt at a small leap forward.

I ‘failed’, and that ‘failure’ hurt (there’s far more to it than this simplistic rendering, but time and space don’t allow …). So I am at work again full time, now for an even bigger corporation, having hated the constant uncertainty of freelance translation work (for corporations). And I was struck too by my daughters’ need to save their faces in their public arenas: to appear in certain clothes, own certain gadgets, live a certain lifestyle. Even though I am their father, who am I to ask them to believe what I believe, to faithfully represent my philosophy as their ‘own’ social faces develop and are woven into their lives?

My life does not belong to me. It cannot. Such a concept makes no useful sense. It ‘belongs to’ (is caught up in and a part of) my social face, both inward facing (to self, family and friends) and outward facing. Not completely, but very much so. Attempts to change it have consequences not only on you, but on those around you. The entire web of your life is affected.

Be the change you want to see in the world. If we attempt this, we attempt it for the world, for society. In doing so we create a new social face and slowly turn into it, perhaps unknowingly. In some ways we become leaders, which is an obvious consequence if we want our example to inspire others. One consequence of this is that we become indebted to our task, a servant of it, owe it and others our time and creativity. And it becomes a source of pride, of positive identity. How then do we stay objective, how do we maintain our posture of service? To what do we stay true? Pride or principle? To those flesh and blood people who depend on our leadership or to something more abstract? Changing face, changing direction sets up dissonant forces that upset existing elements of our lives; the conflicting demands are difficult to balance. Where does I end and Face begin? An unanswerable question, but what is certain is that balancing the new with the old is not easy. Emotions and pride are powerful, as are the needs to belong and contribute.

This challenge to fundamental change magnifies as we scale up the type of living system that can be said to have a social face. Numerous institutions have co-evolved with society and increased in complexity since we began our civilizational journey many millennia ago, each institution with its own face and representatives (with their own faces) tasked with upholding their respective institution’s face (be it ideology, money system, political party, etc.). Oh what a tangled web we weave…

Institutions cannot just be stopped, smashed, changed; they are emergent consequences of underlying social forces and beliefs, just as our personal faces and identities are. Until we have transcended them, ‘destruction’ of any institution will simply cause its recreation, with a new name perhaps, but with the same general dynamic.

As I have repeatedly said, we are the beast. The beast is the comfort we have become accustomed to, our habits, the social and cultural momentum that is greater than us as ‘individuals’, the face we have invested in. The beast is ugly when we defy it, go against its grain, go solo, march off out of step to Somewhere Else, or when we have nothing of ‘value’ to feed it with. To fight the beast you need to have a certain robust insensitivity coupled with a fine sensitivity, buckets of patience and stamina, and the freedom to fight. Only a very few people are blessed (cursed?) with these traits and circumstances, and thus knowingly construct a social face which, if only in part, has its roots in a slightly different dynamic. Ralph Boes is one (on whom more in a later post), Franz Hörmann is another.

And yet none of the above means Perpetual Growth can ‘work’, it just touches on one aspect of human social life that goes some way to explaining why profound change is profoundly difficult, why we are entitled to a little forgiveness, why we need both patience and passion. The mighty forward momentum of this paradigm will grind down in the end; nothing lasts forever. Not one of my experiences alters the fact that paragdigms grow old and die, that now, in this complex and tightly global world, profound change is afoot, change brought about by the odd calculus of civilisation, and by the stirring emergence of empathy and brotherly love as it reaches outwards across borders and out to other species, in fact to all life everywhere. And beautifully, as it reaches out, it cannot understand the eddies it creates in the global mind as they task us with letting go of the old and beginning with the new, however we ‘choose’ to go about this work.