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5.6.13

At The Mercy Of Symbols

How often have you stopped to consider how much of our lives are controlled by symbols?  When you think about it, we are literally ruled in every aspect of our lives by abstractions.  We submit to costumes, pictures and pretty words without hardly a thought to what we are doing.  Isn't it time we started questioning some of our most basic assumptions?

At the root of most cultures is something called 'law'.  Law is nothing more than a symbol for morality and ethics, not the real thing.  Law assumes that human beings are incapable of being kind, generous and loving, and substitutes those real things with codified penalties for not acting like human beings.

Those who profit from making, enforcing and judging laws tell us that without them, humanity would devolve into chaos.  Yet there are precious few cases to point to where the absence of law has led to utter dehumanization.  In fact, it has never, in anything approaching human history, been tried.  The reason is simple: in any group of humans, there are always those who want privileged positions of power over all the other humans.

The only palpable examples where the absence of law existed are war zones, which are artificial contrivances by the very people who create the laws.  Because war is, by definition, the breakdown of normal order, the result is naturally chaos and anarchy.  To point to those situations as justification for legal systems is rather disingenuous, at best.

In fact, the vast majority of people do not need laws.  Most people live their lives blissfully uncaring about laws because they don't need them.  Any given individual is driven by a desire to be left the hell alone to go about their business of raising and providing for a family.  For the most part, legal systems impinge on that normal desire.  Policing agencies, tax authorities and government at all levels are all designed to do one thing: interfere with the individual's life.

To do that, government agencies use a complex set of ritual costumes, logos, emblems, songs, pledges, and ultimately weapons to force people to conform to an abstraction that approximates morality and ethics.  We are all indoctrinated from birth to fear those symbols and do whatever they order without question under penalty of death.  Incarceration is nothing more than a form of living death because it robs us of some amount of our lives.  However, most of the infractions encoded as law are of little consequence other than to maintain control over the individual for the profit of another individual.

For instance, drug laws do little to protect me from you.  People who do drugs do little harm to others.  One could argue that the drug user harms their family, but that is hardly the concern of society.  That is a problem for the family to address and deal with.  Others argue that the drug user is a drain on society in lost productivity and additional resources such as healthcare.

That person's productivity means absolutely nothing to society other than in the loss of tax revenue to the state.  As for additional resources used, that is only a concern in cases where society at large is robbed of productive output to pay for the drug user's needs.  If the drug user is forced to pay for his own care, how has that affected society in general?

There are many people, commonly referred to as bleeding-heart liberals, who say that it is society's responsibility to save the individual from himself.  I beg to differ.  Society's function is to provide a mutually supportive network of individuals.  If someone doesn't want to avail themselves of it, why must they be forced, except as an exercise in control exerted by people who believe they are empowered to do so?

How many times have we heard that we should respect the office, if not the man?  We are supposed to show due respect for judges, elected officials and the like by the virtue that they hide behind revered symbols.  A judge is no more qualified to determine whether I am right or wrong than any other person on the planet.  But put him in a black robe and surround him with flags and seals and seat him on a platform, and suddenly this man stands above all other humans in his ability to determine the fate of others.

Take away the symbols and these people are indistinguishable from any other sot on the street.  They are just a fallible and prone to error as any other human on Earth.  The only difference between a judge and a rapist is that the judge has been trained to manipulate a symbol called 'law'.  But it sure doesn't take a judge to know that the rapist's actions are wrong.

A policeman is no more immune from the temptation to commit crime than any other human.  But give them a silly little uniform with lots of emblems and badges and suddenly that stand apart from all other humans as enforcers of an abstraction called 'law'.  It doesn't take long before the human in the silly suit starts to think that he is more special than the rest of us because people fear the symbols he hides behind.  That feeling of power almost invariably translates into the belief that he can break the law with impunity.

These are but a few examples, but once you start pondering this problem, you quickly realize that we grant a tremendous amount of our personal power and responsibility to nothing more than symbols.

Money is a symbol, and those who accumulate a significant amount of money are perceived to be more special than the rest of us.  You can take a homeless man and a banker, have them say the exact same thing, but people will discount the homeless man while giving great weight to the banker.  The only difference between the two is a suit and some money...symbols.

Another good example: how many people do you know with college degrees that are complete boneheads? Yet how many employers would give greater weight to the degree (a symbol) over someone far smarter with an 8th grade education?  And this in spite of the fact that some of the greatest minds in history did not complete a high school level education.

Symbols run our lives, but we devote precious little time to questioning the basic assumptions behind those symbols.  Take TeeVee commercials, for instance.  Take any old actor, put them in a white lab coat and sling a stethoscope around his neck, and suddenly we imbue him with the authority to speak about our medical needs.  Put a ring on his finger and we assume he is married - take it off and we assume he is not.

Place an actor in a kitchen with a bag that has a loaf of bread and a bunch of celery sticking out of it, and we assume that they just came home from shopping, not stealing those items from their neighbor.  Put an actor in overalls and have him wipe his hands on a rag, and suddenly he's an expert on car engines and motor oil.  And worst of all, take a celebrity face and have them expound on the virtues of your product and people will give his opinion far more weight than some putz standing on a street corner.

Our entire lives are run by symbols, and more insidious, those symbols are controlled by people who want something from us that we would otherwise be unwilling to give up.  The fact of the matter is, if all authority figures were to disappear tomorrow, it wouldn't take long before life settled right back to normal.  Sure, there would be a few bad apples, but they wouldn't last long as now you and I and our friends and neighbors would start relying on each other rather than muscle-bound boneheads in silly outfits who could care less whether we lived or died - as long as they get their pension and paycheck from you.

Individuals are more than capable of running their own affairs.  Mutually supportive groups of individuals are far more effective than layers of authorities whose only motivation is to get paid for producing nothing.  The only thing that keeps us from doing away with the whole damn lot of them is symbols, and the conditioning we receive to surrender our personal power and responsibility to those symbols.

We are fast approaching an epoch in history where all the symbols that have ruled us for millennia will break down.  As we sit here, all those layers of authority are crashing down around us.  People no longer trust government.  Money is no longer all-powerful.  Laws have so far overstepped the bounds of reason that people are rejecting them out of hand.  Schools, religion, science are decaying rapidly.  Eventually, the preponderance of lies and weight of corruption will erode any last vestiges of trust in the underpinning symbols of our civilization.

What then?

We have come to a point in history when those who manipulate symbols are making a concerted effort to unify all their symbols into a worldwide power base.  At the same time, individual humans have been empowered like no other time in history.  All the while, humans are going increasingly distrustful and unwilling to surrender their power to traditional symbols because of the heavy weight of corruption behind them.

When it all collapses, as it must at this point, are we prepared to take back the individual responsibility implied by the loss of the symbolic power structure that has ruled our civilization for thousands of years?

This is an important question and one that must be widely debated over the next couple of decades.  How we answer that question will determine the course of humanity for a long time to come.  It will profoundly affect every aspect of life for our descendants.  Will we simply replace our current symbols of power with another system like it?  Or will the individual become the ultimate symbol of ethics, morality and enlightenment?

Our technology has placed power at the most democratic level possible - the individual.  This is an awesome responsibility, but also a liberating one.  We have the ability now to make each person their own legislature, judge, pope, and police.  We have the power to make each of us an authority, expert and professor.  But we can just as easily piss away the opportunity and allow the corruption to continue unabated.

Will we continue to respects the office or the person holding it?  Will we continue to allow the will of others to be forced upon us through fear of symbols?  Will we take back the responsibility to chose our own paths, and accept the consequences good or bad?  Or will we continue to abdicate that personal power out of laziness and ignorance?

The profound implications of our current epoch are mind-boggling in their breadth and scope, but the challenge before us should not stop us from thoroughly considering what we want for humanity going forward.  Our progeny will either respect us or deride us for the choices we make now.

The first step is a complete examination of the symbols we fear and submit to in our daily lives.  Is self-rule really as frightening and chaotic as we are told, or is that a fairy tale to reinforce the stranglehold on power that a very few have in our society?

Perhaps it's time we found out.