Tuesday 10 December 2013

Ideology of the Individual

Where do our beliefs come from? To begin with, during childhood, our belief system is likely to be based on the belief systems of our parents, after all, they seem to manage to exist in the big wide world following those beliefs, they must have some idea of what they are doing, surely? This idea that we need to look to others to form our beliefs, particularly in early life, is reinforced by the fact that children, as a rule, are not really listened to or believed as often as they should be. Any beliefs I held as a child were considered, by the adult population for the most part, to be naive or fantastical. I think this is because children are not really considered reliable sources of information, because any real beliefs, from an adult perspective, must surely be learned through years of arduous trial and error. That idea is, I reckon, a half-truth. The beliefs we have developed as adults tend to go through a process of change and renewal as we experience more and they are put to the test, time and again. But we must not forget that children view the world in a far more honest manner, they tend to call things as they see them. That is something we train ourselves out of as we mature, for the sake of other people's feelings or differing perspectives. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it could serve to remind us that children should be listened to. Their perspectives are not necessarily wrong, but without the prejudice of years under their belts.

Sometimes beliefs can live inside you for years, having never been properly developed or challenged. Maybe you’re careful to never, ever break a mirror or always tap your head when tempting fate? These little superstitions tend to fall through the cracks, because the logic of them can never be tested. Have you avoided seven years of bad luck through keeping your mirrored items intact? Have you missed some terrible ironic consequences because you remembered to tap your noggin? Who the fuck knows? There are some beliefs that are so bizarre by their very nature that their validity can never be put to the test. The beliefs we form as a child can persist way into adulthood and have a discernible impact on the person you become. One would assume that these beliefs develop out of real experiences, and sometimes they do. I can, however, give you two examples from my life that will support the fact that both real and imagined ideas can turn into beliefs.

The first one was real. I do not necessarily trust authority figures. Now, this idea is not based on one solitary experience, unfortunately, but one experience will give you enough of an idea of how this belief was formed.

I was about ten, in the Brownies and away from home on a weekend camp. I was terrible Brownie, honestly I was. I was excessively short, excessively dumpy and excessively clumsy. I had a knack for showing myself up and was always more focused on what was in my head than whatever it was I was supposed to be doing. I was far from a deliberate renegade; I did not have the confidence or wit to be one. Still, I knew that my Brown Owl hated me, super hated me. I've no idea if I shared my observation with anyone at the time, the woman was respected and revered by her peers and my fellow Brownies, and the chances of my whining sounding like anything other than pettiness or paranoia were pretty slim. Still, I knew it... and there was a day that proved it to me, more than any of the undermining comments or reverse favouritism ever did.

We were having our lunch of jacket potatoes, and after eating the middle of my potato I set about the skin. My mum had always told me that it was good for me and I very was hungry, all the needless dusting and tea making had really taken it out of me. It was then that I sensed Brown Owl staring down at me; reviewing me with her mean beady eyes (or at least, when I try to remember what she looked like those are the main features that come to mind) she stood up, made a beeline in my direction and stopped everyone eating with her reprimand. Yes, reprimand. The woman tore me off a strip or two, verbally only, thankfully, for being such a disgusting child for eating the skin. Would that it had ended there, but the old bat made me walk, cheeks burning and all eyes on me, outside, with only my socks on, into the snow (yes snow, I'm not bigging this up, there was only a dusting of it on the ground or it may have even been a heavy frost, but still, it was cold and it was gross) down to the end of the garden where I was instructed to spit out the skin she had not allowed me to finish.

That same day, a fellow Brownie got a special merit point or cookie or good star or whatever for being spotted specifically and carefully dusting around a picture of the Queen. Bellend.

For years afterwards I believed that I hated the skin on potatoes, I genuinely did, having long since forgotten about that horrid day. I think it was only when someone questioned me on the matter, years later, that I actually thought about it for the first time in years and the truth came tumbling back. It was then that I realised that I was not a disgusting, weird girl, but that Brown Owl was a bully. I just didn't see it at the time, couldn't see it because I had not really learnt what a bully was, or that they could appear in all different forms, no matter their position or the way they were supposed to behave. Now I eat potato skins sometimes, sometimes not, it depends on how I feel. The point is that I no longer do or don't dependant on what someone else made me feel.

Not all beliefs are based on real life experiences though, here's an interesting one for you. I believe that lawyers are manipulative. Where did I get this one from I hear you cry? American crime shows or the media construction of what lawyers are supposed to be like? Nope. I got this belief as a result of a mock trial based on a fictional book that took place during an English class during my early teenage years. I shit you not.

The trial was supposed to consider whether the bully of the book forced the protagonist into a tragic accident through his constant harrassment.* I was to play the mother of the boy, who was there to convince the jury that the bully was responsible for the death of her son. I gave a statement ahead of the trial, which was to be considered and I would be questioned by both the prosecution and the defence accordingly. The idea being that the defence wanted to cast doubt over how close my character’s relationship was with her son, thereby undermining her as a reliable witness.
In the statement I had not mentioned which football team her son supported. Being a girl, I had not considered this piece of information even relevant. When a member of the prosecution team approached me and asked me to name a football team (or rather, agree to the one they had decided upon) I was helpless to deny his request. Reason being, they had sent in my Kryptonite, the biggest crush I ever had at school (this was fairly public knowledge to everyone, so it is safe to assume that there was some calculation involved here) and I agreed, overwhelmingly so, just happy to make him happy. I would have said the kid’s favourite football team was mint chocolate ice cream if he had asked me to, I’m sure of it, I so adored the lad.

Anyway, the day of the mock trial rolled around and I was put on the stand (a chair next to the teacher’s desk) and grilled by both sides. It seemed to be going fairly well, and when the prosecution asked about the football team I dutifully responded with the name, whatever it was, of the football team decided upon. When the cross examination began, out of nowhere, the defence claimed I was a liar and that I had changed my statement. They claimed that I written the name of her son’s favourite football team, Manchester United (or whoever, still really don’t care about football...) and to now say it was a completely different team showed that she didn’t really know her son at all! I was furious. I certainly had been a bit sneaky in agreeing to name a team outside of the statement, but I definitely had not mentioned any team in the statement, I wasn’t lying! The prosecution were adamant and this back and forth went on for some time until the teacher found my statement, and after giving it a little check, declared that there had been some ‘confusion’ and told the ‘jury’ to disregard that piece of evidence. When I spoke to the teacher after the trial and asked to see the statement, it turned out that SHE had been asked the same question by the defence ahead of the trial, and as I had not mentioned a football team, decided to write a team name on the bottom in blue biro. I can see it in my mind now! So my statement had been tampered with and she hadn’t even bothered to let me know. Unsurprisingly, the jury found in favour of the defence.

In retrospect, all of the above was an enlightening social experiment for the class, the way both sides tried to play dirty was really interesting, but what stayed with me was that feeling of utter injustice, that someone could directly call me a liar and I couldn’t defend myself. Because I’ve heard similar stories of injustice from real and fictional people over the years, this belief that lawyers were liars ready to pull you apart, was reinforced again and again. It got to the point where I thought that I must have had strong first-hand experience of it, so intense was my conviction and distrust. It was only when I actually thought long and hard about the origins of the belief that I realised where it had come from. Now, let me be clear that I’m still yet to have any first-hand experience of lawyers to prove or disprove this belief, but I am now hyper aware that the root of that belief was a fictional court case (you’re a crook, Captain Hook!**) Despite that, the emotions I felt during the experience were real, they weren’t someone else’s, they weren’t imagined, so does this constitute a real belief? Is it fair to apply it to the real world equivalent? I think this can only be proved or disproved, for me, through a comparable real life experience. But it is a very interesting thought, that it is our experiences which develop our beliefs, regardless of how ‘real’ those experiences are.

No matter how they are formed or where they come from, it is our beliefs that dictate the choices we make throughout our lives, the things we choose to accept and the things we choose to fight against. For me, one of the things I take a stand against is Coca Cola. It is a moral choice, knowing what I now know, I can't in good conscience give that company my money or my support (to learn more please see my 2012 post Let me Share the Happiness) Now, I've recently finished a novel by the very intelligent, if not always satisfying, author Scarlett Thomas, called Popco. The characters within that novel make regular reference to how obscene mass production of milk is for the animals involved. This troubled me quite a bit, should I learn more about it? Open the Pandora's Box? But I love milk and feel that it's an important part of my diet, especially given the risk of osteoporosis in later life (not helped by the vast amounts of Coke I used to drink before I knew about all the torture, rape and murder.) But surely there would be some hypocrisy in boycotting milk and still eating mass produced meat? Given the sort of practices that go on there, and the inhumane treatment in that industry? Suddenly we're not talking about one thing I need to look at but a need to unpick my entire lifestyle despite my cultural background, current social environment, my tastes and desires. Then suddenly one of her characters referred to Coca Cola as being an excellent weapon for sticking it to the man, because it's sticky and can damage computers. The comment is not made ironically, it's meant as a genuine aside, no mention of the atrocities that company have committed that have affected me so deeply on a personal level. That's when it hit me, our moral choices are based on our own personal set of priorities and individually crafted sets of beliefs. What affects one person on a deep emotional level may not even cause another to bat an eyelid.

Here’s the test, for me, if it feels like the right decision, it’s the easiest thing in the world for me to abstain, or boycott, or rail against something. I can’t explain it, but when you believe in something, truly believe in it, following that belief feels as natural as breathing. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced that feeling; it’s like being in love. You know when you are in love, you just know it. That doesn’t mean to say that your feelings can’t or won’t change, but when you feel it, you feel it, there are no half measures. I’ve learnt that the problem with subscribing to any specific ideology outside of my own is that it involves committing to actions I don’t necessarily believe in. There will surely be aspects of that ideology that you agree with, there are bound to be else you wouldn’t have been drawn to it in the first place. But then, is it really right to follow that ideology even if parts of it contradict your own beliefs? I suppose this ties into the stories I told you above and the beliefs that formed as a result of them. Both ideas really boil down to distrust of authority figures and a dislike of being controlled, of being told how to live, what to think. I think this is an idea we can all relate to.

Ultimately I have to follow my own belief system, even if it is flawed and contradictory and subject to change, because it is the only one I will stick to when the rest of the world isn’t paying attention. Because I only have myself to answer to, I’ll only act within the boundaries of my own conscience. I will take a certain amount of being told what to do at work, but this is solely because I’m paid to be there and do that job, I’m not asked to do it out of the goodness of my heart. Even then, I have my own set of rules on how I expect to be treated and what sort of behaviour I will and won’t accept from other people and myself. I will also take a certain amount of being told what to do by the establishment, because we need to follow some system of organised chaos, and even if this one is not perfect, it’s the only one we have at the moment.

I suppose if I had one belief that I would hope to pass onto my hypothetical children, earlier than I learned it, it would be, don’t automatically trust people in authority. If something seems wrong, it probably means that it is, and it is always better to speak up than not. Hopefully, I’ll be the sort of parent who will listen to their kids. Because they really might have a point, even if they are commenting on my own behaviour and beliefs! That does not mean to say that you should not respect people in positions of authority, but you should do that with any person you meet for the first time, you should give them a basic level of respect just as they should do you, no matter their uniform or how many letters they have before or after their name. Trust, however, is a different matter entirely, you should never give someone your trust before they have earned it, and only you will know what it takes to earn your trust. It is those people, the people you learn to trust, who will influence you and help you to develop your belief system. Of course you will make errors in judgement along the way, you will be misled and make mistakes, but you will learn from it all the same. That’s all part of the process of learning to trust yourself and your own views as they develop.

The culmination of this trail of thought is this, we all discern between what we consider to be real and valid and meaningful and what we consider to be bullshit. If I explained my views and my beliefs to you, you may agree with some and disagree with others, but that is part of the joy of individuality. You’ve not lead my life, and I’ve not lead yours. Maybe we’ve had similar experiences, maybe not. We tend to surround ourselves with people who have similar outlooks on life, similar beliefs systems and priorities, but it never hurts to interact with people who think the complete opposite of you. A belief is not one worth holding if it cannot be considered, tested and amended where necessary. Blind faith is an oxymoron. How can we have faith in something if we don’t believe it, deep inside our brain lobes? I’ve decided to stop feeling guilty for not being able to live up to other people’s expectations of me at all times, I only need to live up to my expectations of me (and my loved ones- to a point!) So remember my blueberries, do what feels right for you, and the rest will follow. And try not to worry so much about it all either, you’re a good person, you’ll figure it out.

*I tried to find the book we used as an example for this ‘mock trial’ and whilst I think I found it, the details of the plot don’t tie up with my memory of it, so I’ve decided not to reference it directly. I think this is a detail best left ambiguous in this instance for the purposes of telling the story. That’s my excuse bitches and I’m sticking to it! ;)
** Mega kudos to you my friend if you got that reference! :-*

1 comment:

  1. I can totally relate to your Brownies horror story. I have a similar one only it was Snowy Owl who was the bad owl for me. So, we were all playing a game where we had to pretend to be squirrels, gathering nuts off a rug on the floor. Accidentally, I trod on the rug and the nuts went flying. Snowy Owl demanded to know who was the perpetrator of such a heinous crime but the shame was too much and I couldn't bring myself to admit it was me. Sadly though, my traffic-light red face gave me away and she proceeded to roar at me in front of everyone for something that a) really wasn't that big a deal and b) was a genuine accident. I never went back to Brownies again.