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The Challenge of the Unceasing Need to Learn

Role-Playing, Reality, and Identity


Aug 27, 2009


As noted by Thomas Szasz, in his 1974 book The Myth of Mental Illness; "the concept of a distinctively human, normal, or well-functioning personality is rooted in psychosocial and ethical criteria. It is not biologically given, nor are biological determinants especially significant for it. I do not deny, of course, that man is an animal with a genetically determined biological equipment which sets the upper and lower limits within which he must function," but "[c]learly, different societies exhibit different values. And even within a single society, especially if it is composed of many individuals, adults and growing children have certain choices about which values to teach and which to accept or reject. In contemporary Western societies, one of the principal alternatives is between autonomy and heteronomy, between 'risky' freedom and 'secure' slavery."

"Looking at problems in living from this point of view, it seems apparent that much of what goes by the names of 'growing up' ... [and] 'becoming sophisticated' ... are all processes having one significant characteristic in common: the person learns that the rules of the game -- and the very game itself -- by which he has been playing are not necessarily the same as those used by others around him." The notion "rules of the game" refers "to the regulation, by explicit rules, of ... complex behavioral situations. Imitative rules thus articulate customs, while social rules articulate moral-religious prescriptions or secular laws. The sanctions vary accordingly: failure to learn or comply with imitative rules leads merely to being thought of as eccentric, stupid, foolish, or naughty; deviance from social rules, however, brings serious consequences upon the offender, ranging from stigmatization to expulsion from the group, and even to death."

Thus, understanding the consequences of deviance from social rules, if the goal is to "foresee and foretell what a person will do, it is often not necessary to know much about him as an individual. It is enough to know the role he is playing." Therefore, to know humans "the first things we must know about human actions are the norms and goals that regulate the actor's conduct. The basic sciences of human action are, therefore, anthropology and sociology, for it is these disciplines that are concerned with exhibiting, in a systematic manner, the framework of norms and goals which are necessary to classify actions as being of a certain sort."

Normalized frameworks are instantiated through the use of specific high-level rules that are context dependent, and "[r]esistance to the rules may be tolerated to varying degrees in different systems, but in any event tends to bring the individual into conflict with the group. Hence, most persons seek to conform rather than to rebel. Others try to adapt by becoming aware of the rules and of their limited, situational relevancy; this may make it possible to get along in the system, while also allowing the actor to maintain a measure of inner freedom." The degree of inner freedom attainable is inversely proportional to the conformity conceded by the actor; the less you conform the more inner freedom you have. However, the consequences of non-conformity dictate the range of inner freedom that is realistic. Accordingly, "[t]he desire to ... [conform or to be] ... more important than one ... [actually] is is likely to be strongest, of course, among children, or among persons who are, or consider themselves to be, in inferior, oppressed, or frustrating circumstances. These are the same persons who are most likely to resort to various methods of impersonation."

"Implicit in ... [the] strategy ... [of impersonation] is a deep-seated belief that instrumental skills are unimportant. All that is needed to succeed in the game of life is to 'play a role' and gain social approval for it. Parents often hold up this model for their children to follow." Paradoxically however, where social approval is an ends, when a child does follow such a model "they soon end up with an empty life. When the child or young adult then tries to fill the void, his efforts to do so are often labeled as some form of 'mental illness.' However, being mentally ill or psychotic -- or killing someone else or himself -- may be the only games left for such a person to play." The paradox of impersonation towards the end of social approval is thus not only self-defeating but potentially personally and socially destructive.

"Conversely, those who have been successful in realizing their aspirations -- who, in other words, are relatively well satisfied with their actual role achievements and definitions -- will be unlikely to pretend to be anyone but themselves. They are satisfied with who they are and can afford the luxury of telling the truth about themselves." Hence, Paul Goodman; "Identity is defined by its task, mission, product; role depends on the interpersonal expectation of the others."

Pursuing mission, identity, telling the truth about oneself, and avoiding the self-destructive pretension of impersonation is only possible through the accumulation of self-knowledge and the achievement of a non-solipsistic ethical and intellectual autonomy. "The idea that self-knowledge is a good is, of course, the ethics of rationalism and science applied to the self as a part of nature. An integral part of this scientific ethic is the principle that knowledge should be clearly stated and widely publicized and that it should never be kept a secret, especially from those who want to acquire it or might be affected by it. In particular, knowledge must not, according to this ethic, be kept secret by a small group and used as a source of power to mystify and control, stupefy and dominate, other individuals or groups." In this way secret pyramids are no first wonder of the world, renowned for their mystifying so-called "intellectual" dominance. Instead, pyramids housing secret information are the sharply pointed anti-ethical construct of the envious and domineering conformist seeking to configure social rules in such a manner as to tip the balance toward themselves unfairly in all situations. Here, information is prized primarily for its social power, thus being used to control and terrorize others, and to deflect even surface examinations of the controller's own self-esteem.

Generalizing, the post-modern social situation stands thus: "man ... [is] faced with a choice between two basic alternatives. On the one hand, he may elect to despair over the lost usefulness or the rapid deterioration of games painfully learned. Skills acquired by diligent effort may prove to be inadequate for the task at hand almost as soon as one is ready to apply them. Many people cannot tolerate repeated disappointments of this kind. In desperation, they long for the security of stability -- even if stability can be purchased only at the cost of personal enslavement. The other alternative is to rise to the challenge of the unceasing need to learn and re-learn, and to try to meet this challenge successfully ... [The] problem is the dilemma of a man so far withdrawn from life that he fails to appreciate, and hence to participate in, the ever-changing game of life. The result is a shallow and constant life which may be encompassed and mastered with relative ease."

For my part, I believe the latter alternative corresponds more directly with the peaceful and ethical potentialities of mankind, because it accepts the stark realities of natural evolution and the sub-stratal game of physical survival. A "social trend toward worldwide human equality -- in the sense of equal rights and obligations, or of participating in all games according to one's abilities -- need not be a threat to men and women. On the contrary, it represents one of the few values still deserving our admiration and support."


Part of the series: Zwingli