Is Facebook changing the way we see the world?
The other week I happened upon a great piece in The Atlantic discussing that very question. The essay argued that Facebook has permeated our consciousnesses to such an extent that we perceive our day-to-day experience through the “Facebook eye”—i.e. we (unconsciously) perceive our experience in terms of our understanding that we could package and “share” it on social media. The author writes:
“Facebook fixates the present as always a future past. By this I mean that social media users have become always aware of the present as something we can post online that will be consumed by others. Are we becoming so concerned about posting our lives on Facebook that we forget to live our lives in the here-and-now? Think of a time when you took a trip holding a camera in your hand and then think of when you did the same without the camera. The experience is slightly different. We have a different attachment to our present when we are not concerned with documenting.”
So one of the key insights of the essay is that social media users perceive the present as a “future past,” processing every experience as a potential future update, valuing the present in terms of how many ‘likes’ it would be likely to garner. I don’t think this frame of consciousness is as ubiquitous or constant as the author implies, but it most certainly exists. I’ve experienced it. I’m sure you have as well, if you use Facebook or other social networks.
Just last night I went to an Atmosphere concert near the UC-Berkeley campus and wasn’t surprised to see numerous young people near me filming entire songs, snapping photo after photo, or recording morsels to quickly send via Snapchat. I snapped a couple quick photos myself but otherwise kept my phone stowed during the show. I’ve come to feel that it’s a shame to interrupt the visceral, energizing, communal experience of a great concert—especially entire songs—by trying to capture pieces of it for some future viewing (which almost never happens) or to garner some digital appreciation on social media.
And yet, I totally understand the impulse to do so and have succumbed to it many times. I think all social media users experience it—the quick, subtle (or unconscious) realization that one is having an experience that one would like to share publicly, an experience one would like people to associate with one’s identity, and/or an experience one would like friends and family to view and ‘like.’ The Facebook eye in action.
When spelled out like this, the Facebook eye phenomenon seems kind of unsettling. Our urge to share our lives seems vaguely narcissistic, hollow, shallow. And many critics of social media have said just that. Is it that simple, though? At what point does social media usage become excessive and problematic? Is it wrong to seek a bit of appreciation and validation from our peers in this way? These questions continue to preoccupy me, and in the duration of this post I’ll elaborate some of my current thoughts on the subject.
Living for ‘Likes’
I (ironically) shared the Facebook eye piece on Facebook, and my friend Nick had this to say about it:
“Dude, I think about this all the time. I hardly ever use Facebook and it still affects me. Most people use Facebook a lot more than I do. When you’re worried about whether other people will ‘like’ your experience, you tend to forget to evaluate it for yourself. I don’t know. For some reason living to get ‘likes’ just reeks of inauthenticity to me. I hate to be so harsh about it, but it pains me to think that people aren’t spending their lives genuinely enjoying all life has to offer. Instead they’re trying to get other people to live through them.”
I found Nick’s comment to be perceptive and valuable—especially this point: “When you’re worried about whether other people will ‘like’ your experience, you tend to forget to evaluate it for yourself.”—though I wasn’t sure if it pushed deep enough into the complexity.
Nick seemed to be suggesting that for many people, the Facebook eye comes to dominate consciousness to such an extent that it is prioritized as a mode of seeing and becomes a kind of dictator. When one encounters something that feels ‘like’-worthy, one compulsively shares it, perhaps hardly even stopping to really experience or evaluate it for oneself. One’s life becomes a search for the next ‘like’-worthy event to capture and share, and one slowly loses the ability to simply bask in an experience for its own sake, to derive intrinsic joy from the activity of the present moment, to really look, listen, smell, taste, and touch the world. The value of one’s immediate lifeworld is reduced to the question of whether or not it can be converted into a stimulating or entertaining representation for a future audience.
If the above description is indeed an accurate picture of many human lives in 2015—and I think it probably is—then our situation feels vaguely dystopian. Most would agree that the immersive, flowing reality we occupy is so much more than 57 ‘likes’ waiting to happen. To lose the ability to really taste the world—i.e. to feel viscerally alive and to want for nothing beyond the present moment—is, to me, pretty tragic.
On the other hand, there are plenty of other aspects of (modern) life that remove us from the present moment, and if people don’t really know what they’re missing out on, should we really care? Are we ever justified in moralizing how someone else chooses to spend their time, if it isn’t directly harming anyone? And I mean, c’mon, I enjoy plenty of things that take me out of the present moment. I like daydreaming and such. I try to remain at least marginally mindful of my environment throughout the day, but nobody, apart from some monks and possibly Eckhart Tolle, is mindful all the time.
Still, there’s something about perpetual out-of-touch-ness with the present moment that feels unsettling. In a great piece on “cathedral consciousness,” my friend Keith articulated a case against endless absorption in “techno-connection” that resonates with me:
“No prayer or mantra is necessary for the development of a broader awareness of one’s life-world. All that is needed is the cultivation of a sense of the perpetual moment in which we reside. Time spent in a sacred space—whether it be St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a yoga studio, or a meditation cushion—broadens one’s perception of awe in relation to the lived world. The instant relief of angst brought about by scanning social media, messaging, or otherwise tuning in to the at-times overwhelming world of techno-connection may blunt our recognition of our participatory enmeshment in the world around us, but it also limits our potential for involved, transformative action in that world.”
So Keith argues that failing to recognize one’s “participatory enmeshment” (beautiful phrase) in one’s immediate lifeworld might limit one’s ability to engage in transformative action in that world. In other words, over-absorption in digital technology can prevent us from noticing and acting on important issues in our day-to-day lives, relationships, local communities, states, nation-states, world, etc. If you’re someone who thinks consciousness of environment and conscientious action are important for preserving individual liberty, finding meaning, creating a more sustainable and equitable global system, etc., this argument might appeal to you. Because I value those things, it appeals to me.
And thus I think the issue of people becoming over-attached to digital technology/social media and perpetually out of touch with their immediate worlds is troubling. I think it necessitates that we approach social media with caution, viewing it as potentially quite addictive and destructive. I can say firsthand that I have danced along the edges of the abyss when it comes to social media. There have been long periods of time in which I have used it compulsively and excessively, and I have witnessed myself lose sensitivity to the world around me as a result. So from firsthand experience, I can say that the danger is real. I’m still seeking the right balance, learning to be more mindful and deliberate with my usage.
The Average User
One consolation is that I don’t think the majority of us are hopelessly addicted to social media to the point of losing the ability to taste the world and take meaningful action within the world. I think there’s a spectrum here, with non-users of social media on one end and hopeless addicts at the other, and I think most people probably fall somewhere in the middle. So what of these masses—the average user in between the extremes? Is the Facebook eye still a problem?
The author of the Atlantic piece seems to suggest that if we use Facebook at all, it will affect our psychology, causing us to see certain experiences—particularly novel ones—as opportunities to share something ‘like’-worthy.
I don’t think it’s particularly problematic to want to share novel experiences with one’s family and peers. In fact, I think that urge is pretty fundamental in human psychology. I feel social media can be used in ways that facilitate real community and genuine connection, but I think sharing becomes a problem when a) it interferes with one’s ability to really experience and act conscientiously in the present (as discussed above), and/or b) one’s social media life becomes an elaborate spectacle disguising the absence of the genuine connection, community, and relationship that should underlie it (more on that below).
Semi-Related Tangent About Social Confessions
There’s a great 8-bit philosophy video on why we take selfies arguing that sharing self-pics on social media is a way of making a “social confession”—fulfilling a deeply ingrained need to reveal our true selves in public. The video draws on the philosophy of Michel Foucault to argue that our need to make “social confessions” might be a cultural remnant of the same impulses that led to Christianity’s insistence on confessing one’s darkest sins to a priest. Posting intimate things on social media might be the modern manifestation of “Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.”
Part of me feels that this theory is mildly troubling because I don’t want to believe that my culture has conditioned me to need to confess my true self to someone. Plus, people from a wide variety of cultures are obsessed with selfies/social media. I’m inclined to think that the need to reveal one’s true self to other people may be an ancient and universal human need, and that that need can be expressed in strange ways in some societies, depending on the openness of the particular culture.
If confessing your sins to a priest is the only time you reveal your true self, your culture is probably pretty intolerant, ignoring many aspects of the human experience. If you feel comfortable sharing your most personal thoughts publicly on social media, your culture is probably fairly open, at least in the digital context.
I can think of at least one strong criticism of the theory that selfies or social media posts are genuine “confessions” though: much of what is posted on social media hardly seems to be about revealing our true selves so much as constructing further superficiality in the form of contrived and idealized images—e.g. vacation pics in an exotic location in which everyone is grinning widely in every picture—intended to make one appear exceedingly cool or exceptionally happy. In such cases, which are all too common, social media content becomes akin to advertisements for one’s own life—“MY LIFE IS SO AWESOME AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY WANT IT.”
I’d guess that this latter form of social media usage tends to occur when the subject in question is insecure about his/her life and wants deeply for others to approve of his/her existence. This sort of user is likely to fall toward the ‘hopelessly addicted’ end of the user spectrum, I think.
However, if we’re all honest with ourselves, there’s probably some element of contrivance and idealization in most of our social media identities. If we thought too much about this, we would get into questions of what it means to be an “authentic” or “genuine” person. Nietzsche famously challenged us to “become what you are,” whereas Alan Watts thought that all any of us can ever be is a “genuine fake.” This question can lead one to a veritable thicket of apparent paradoxes in a hurry. From my perspective, some people do seem to exude an ineffable authenticity, and I think this quality tends to correlate with people’s ability to accept themselves entirely, to be comfortable with who they are, to “do their thing.”
Farther Down the Rabbit Hole of Social Confessions
Sub-tangent because fuck it: what if treating social media/the Internet as a space for confessions is culturally beneficial?
It sort of makes sense that in a society in which superficial communication is the norm, any public suggestion of a deeper, vulnerable, fragile self could be considered a kind of confession. “Confessing” one’s true self publicly then becomes a means of subverting the status quo and pointing to the deeper truth of the intricate worlds each of us carries within. Sincerity as culture-jamming. Vulnerability as radical interbeing-indicating, community-forming tactic.
This is the sort of thing David Foster Wallace was talking about when he predicted the rise of a literary ethos of “New Sincerity” that would arise to challenge the detached irony and cynicism of post-modernism. Wallace’s famous quote on New Sincerity from that one insanely incisive essay about TV is too good not to share:
“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”
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I think the art rap movement (see Open Mike Eagle, milo) embodies many of the qualities of New Sincerity. Many have said that the alt lit movement (see Tao Lin, Mira Gonzalez, Melissa Broder) does as well. I agree with those people.
I would like to see more people actually treat social media and the Internet at large as a space for vulnerability, for New Sincerity. Transparency and vulnerability put all of us more in touch with the reality of connectedness and of one another’s lives and show us that we aren’t weird or crazy or alone in our experiences. Contrived, superficial usage of social media has the opposite effect.
Social Media & Video Games
The hopelessly addicted social media user has much in common with a typical video game addict. In both cases, one is going through the motions with the primary purpose of earning accolades, badges, etc. Let me clarify that I think both social media and video games can be life-enhancing and can facilitate real community and meaningful interaction, but that I think that in both cases it’s easy to overdo it—to become overly consumed by the Facebook eye or the mission to win accolades that lack real social value/currency.
Facebook ‘likes’ can actually be seen as one means of taking this video-game potentiality of living for meaningless accolades and bringing it into the real world—i.e. making life itself into the video game. It’s true that Facebook ‘likes’ can be meaningful social signals, but they also often seem inherently shallow, a kind of real-life gamerscore. And this transference of hollow accolades from the realm of fictional game to that of day-to-day life seems to provoke in many people a strong negative response. That is, a lot of people express strong distaste for those who seem to obsequiously seek ‘likes’ on Facebook. We’re prepared to tolerate the idea of people seeking meaningless achievements in video games, but the idea of people living their actual lives solely to accumulate shallow accolades feels more unsettling.
But then, isn’t this phenomenon just the stripped-down, barebones essence of what much of society already is? Innumerable people live their lives with the overriding goal of accumulating inordinate wealth or status symbols or prestigious positions just to impress other people and to signal that they’ve “won the game.” I think “living for ‘likes'” is just one mega-overt example of a larger trend—i.e. living for social power and quantifiable superiority—that already permeates our society and is woven deeply into our culture and our economic system.
And it’s incredibly hard to break out of this game. Those of us thinking about this sort of thing tell ourselves that we’re above it, but I’m afraid many of us (myself included) almost unconsciously seek a sense of status and recognition in various domains—with social media being one particularly tantalizing space for social leveraging—to try to satisfy our need for others to understand and appreciate us.
As I argued in a recent and closely related post, this desire for recognition isn’t in itself problematic, necessarily:
“From one point of view, craving recognition is just part of our psychology. Our brains release serotonin when we’re publicly recognized in a positive way. On some level, we all need to feel recognized and appreciated, and I don’t think it’s wrong to feel gratified when we’re honored in some way for our work or accomplishments. But we should note that for most of human history, being recognized and appreciated publicly was not possible without a genuine, loving community that one was benefiting in some way. This genuine community constituted the foundation for long-term well-being and was the context in which the release of yay-I’m-getting-recognized chemicals was meaningful.
A problem that I’ll leave you to think more about is that nowadays society and technology are sufficiently complex that our brains are often tricked into releasing serotonin, even when there’s no genuine, supporting community around us to render those happy-feels meaningful. If I get an award at work, I might feel fleetingly proud of myself, but if I suspect that all of my co-workers secretly covet the award and don’t give a shit about me, those prideful feelings will fade quickly and may ultimately feel hollow. Similarly, if I top the world leaderboards in a video game while playing with a group of online peers who I’ve never met in real life and who may not care about me at all, the victory may feel vaguely empty. And, if I get 50 ‘likes’ on a profile pic but can’t seem to actually get any of those ‘likers’ to spend time with me in the real world, I might feel a brief high but also a palpable lack, a sense of artificial love.”
So, again, we all need recognition/appreciation on some level, but historically that recognition/appreciation has come from immediate communities in which we are enmeshed, from people with whom we share close bonds. I think that in the modern world, because we’re so lacking in real community, relationship, and connection—because we’re so alienated from one another for various reasons—shallow games of approval-seeking (social media being the quintessential example) have arisen to satiate the parts of ourselves that crave genuine community, love, and social integration.
Ironically, though, without genuine, in-real-life community as a foundation, social media cannot satiate us. Rather, it only leaves us looking for our next fix, our next brief surge of serotonin when the proverbial ‘likes’ pour in. It becomes a never-ending cycle of craving accompanied by a vague despair at what the heart senses to be an empty facsimile of real connection.
It’s disconcerting to witness the empty approval-seeking that’s so common in modern life and to recognize that one is inevitably affected by it to some extent. I really think the only antidote—the way to break the cycle and end the despair—is to find and cultivate genuine, loving, radically accepting relationships and communities, to find the actual love and acceptance that we’re trying so hard to replace with ‘likes.’ I think this should be accompanied by deliberate limiting of social media usage and periodic detoxing from social networking sites.
I also suspect that a kind of inner transformation—call it a “spiritual” transformation, whatever—might help to liberate one from the negative effects of social media and modern life generally. I’m talking about internal processes of discovery and self-understanding and acceptance and healing that birth certain realizations: I am sufficient unto myself; I am enough; this experience of life and myself is all I need; I can detach from all the games and status-seeking and be okay nonetheless; etc. Paradoxically, it seems that once one begins to have these realizations, one more easily finds the sort of genuine love, connection, and relationship that remedy alienation and replace or newly contextualize the games of social media.
I feel that over the last several years I’ve been undergoing a process of transcending various dissatisfying games of approval-seeking, but I won’t pretend I’m not still to some extent caught up in our culture of signal competitions and shallow recognition-seeking. The highs can feel great, but there’s ultimately an emptiness there, I feel.
It’s hard to imagine how one could entirely escape these and other deleterious effects of modern life and Western culture without creating alternative spaces for existing—real and digital off-grid communities—wherein one could exercise more control over the culture one creates.
As for digital off-grid communities, this blog and its respective social media channels are an example of an attempt to create a culture of authentic and meaningful online community and interaction. We probably fail in some ways, and we’re still present on the very social networking sites this post is questioning, but hey, it’s a start.
As for physical, IRL off-grid communes or intentional communities: maybe someday. It’s been a long-time dream of mine to start some kind of intentional community/alternative educational institution for artists and freethinkers of all flavors. It remains to be seen whether the complex confluence of forces that is my life will drift in that direction within the next few years. I tend to g(r)o(w) with the flow. I will say that conversations have happened, and the possibility is real. Reach out to me if you’re interested in something similar or know of opportunities to participate in/contribute to something of the sort.
It’s true that off-grid or alternative communities can effect change by transforming the people living within them and by exemplifying entirely different models for living that can broaden the general populace’s ideas of what is possible. Ultimately, though, one should note that off-grid communities represent more of an individual or small-scale escape from the conditions of modern life, as opposed to a large-scale solution. Some writers believe a mass-migration out of cities and a return to smaller agrarian communities is on the horizon, but I’m not so sure about that. It seems overwhelmingly likely that the majority of mankind will continue to live within urban areas into the foreseeable future.
So, while we’re all still stuck in cities and reading Twitter on the subway, we would probably do well to chill, first and foremost. We’re enmeshed in a ridiculously complex and seriously dysfunctional global culture and society in this historical moment, and if we try too hard to escape or separate ourselves from the conditions of the modern world, we might end up hella alienated or deranged.
I think it’s probably a good idea to cultivate an awareness of our immediate, day-to-day realities and to deliberately detox from social media. When I’m able to spend multiple days without the Internet, or check social media just a couple times per day, or delete social media apps from my phone for days or weeks at a time, I feel less scattered and as if I’m regaining an ability to participate in the world around me.
And participating in the world around us is what we need to be able to do, if we want to take transformative action within modern civilization. And if you’re still reading this long-ass essay, I’m assuming that you, like me, do want to take transformative action. I’m assuming that you too would like to see large-scale change.
But if off-grid communities/alternative cultural spaces do not constitute a large-scale solution to the destructive effects of modern life and society, what does? What do we need to do to transform the entire human enterprise and the activity of the earthly biosphere in such a way so as to create a sustainable, equitable world in which we are no longer alienated from ourselves, each other, and the natural world?
That is a damn good question.
We might first want to work on healing and liberating ourselves, lest we unconsciously embody many of the principles of the culture/society we’re trying to change.
Beyond that, we need to transform the prevailing systems of our global culture and society. And beyond that, we need to transform the mythologies—the most basic stories we tell ourselves about what life is and who we are—that underlie those systems.
As I just alluded to, managing our relationship with social media and our shallow approval-seeking tendencies is, unfortunately, just one aspect of cultivating the genuine community, real communication, and participatory ways of being that can heal us and liberate us, to some extent, from the alienating forces of the modern world. Frankly, these alienating forces run fucking deep, underlying our institutions and informing the most basic stories we tell ourselves about how the world works. Healing and liberation, on a wide scale, require the re-imagining of our global systems and our most fundamental mythologies.
Various writers have addressed how we might approach this task. Riane Eisler’s ideas of the need for transition from a dominator culture/society to a partnership culture/society resonate deeply with me. I’m also presently taken with Charles Eisenstein’s ideas of transforming our collective Story of Separation—i.e. the mythology of the separate, self-interested self that underlies modern life and is built into and reinforced by our institutions—into a new Story of Reunion, a mythology of a connected self that needs real community, meaningful communication, and to express its natural gifts.
Eisler and Eisenstein seem to be talking about largely the same thing, and they both hold that this transformation of global culture has already begun. You might be skeptical of the possibility that we could be in the midst of a major cultural transition/transformation. I am too, and in fact I still find it kind of cringe-worthy when I hear people talking about the “next step in human evolution” as an inevitability that we must seize. I’m not so sure about these things and view them with a tempered optimism at best. However, if we reflect on even the last 150 years of history, there have been some rather significant indicators of a shifting of the tides from a world of hierarchy and domination to one of equality and partnership. In an essay on Riane Eisler’s views on transitioning from a dominator to partnership culture, I wrote:
“If you pause and reflect, you’ll note that in a little over 150 years, the United States has seen the end of slavery, the attainment of suffrage for all citizens, legislated equality for all genders and races/ethnicities, major strides toward legislated equality for all sexual orientations, paradigm-shattering environmental initiatives, and major steps toward the legalization of cannabis and a saner drug policy generally. The Occupy Movements have challenged systemic economic and social inequality worldwide, and in many places ideas such as universal health care, free higher education, and a Standard Basic Income have been implemented or are taking hold. I take these facts to be indications that a renaissance of partnership values is presently occurring on this planet—that the human race has begun collectively to realize that it now faces an ultimatum: cooperate with each other and the planet, or self-destruct.”
So I argued that there are indicators that a cultural shift has been taking place. I then suggested ways we might push this shift forward in our day-to-day lives, while noting that if this process is indeed happening, it will occur over quite a long span of time:
“Pushing this movement forward begins with each of us—with the day-to-day, unglamorous decisions we can make to treat people as equals, to show respect and kindness, to try to imagine the lives of others, and to openly express and demonstrate love and affection. We can have candid, gentle conversations with others about these ideas. We can support humanitarian projects and political reforms that aim for a more equal, compassionate, open, sustainable society. We can create videos, blogs, music, social media content, and other art or projects that challenge the status quo and contain messages of love and togetherness. The Internet can help us and might just be the supreme tool for greatly accelerating this transition/renaissance. In these ways, we can continue to re-orient the collective human enterprise away from division, inequality, alienation, and domination toward unity, equality, openness, partnership, and love.
If this process is indeed occurring and will continue to occur, it will be a slow one. We shouldn’t conceive of it as something that will occur in our lifetime, but rather, as a revival that began centuries ago and will continue indefinitely into the future. We must think in terms of what one special professor I was privileged to work with calls the “long now”—a term referring to the long-term resonances, amplifications, and ripple effects that can result from the smaller-scale work we are able to do in this moment.”
If you’re interested in continuing down this line of thinking and exploring how we might remedy, on both an individual and systemic level, the destructive effects of our present global society, I highly recommend the book, The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future by Riane Eisler. I also urge you to pick up Sacred Economics and The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible by Charles Eisenstein. I am halfway through the former and feel as if it is one of the most important books I have ever read. I haven’t started reading the latter, but it comes highly recommended from trusted friends, and the excerpts from it that I’ve read have been potent indeed.
In fact, I’m going to conclude this essay with two excerpts, one from Sacred Economics and one from The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible. The first, from Sacred Economics, is one of the best summaries I’ve seen of the “elephants in the room” in our modern world—i.e. the fundamental problems that leave so many of us feeling alienated and desperate for something that feels more real and meaningful:
“The situation in America, the most highly monetized society the world has ever known, is this: some of our needs are vastly overfulfilled while others go tragically unmet. We in the richest societies have too many calories even as we starve for beautiful, fresh food; we have overlarge houses but lack spaces that truly embody our individuality and connectedness; media surround us everywhere while we starve for authentic communication. We are offered entertainment every second of the day but lack the chance to play. In the ubiquitous realm of money, we hunger for all that is intimate, personal, and unique. We know more about the lives of Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, and Lindsay Lohan than we do about our own neighbors, with the result that we really don’t know anyone, and are barely known by anyone either.
The things we need the most are the things we have become most afraid of, such as adventure, intimacy, and authentic communication. We avert our eyes and stick to comfortable topics. . . . We are uncomfortable with intimacy and connection, which are among the greatest of our unmet needs today. To be truly seen and heard, to be truly known, is a deep human need. Our hunger for it is so omnipresent, so much a part of our experience of life, that we no more know what it is we are missing than a fish knows it is wet. We need way more intimacy than nearly anyone considers normal. Always hungry for it, we seek solace and sustenance in the closest available substitutes: television, shopping, pornography, conspicuous consumption — anything to ease the hurt, to feel connected, or to project an image by which we might be seen and known, or at least see and know ourselves.”
The second excerpt, from The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, reflects upon ways we might work to transform Story of Separation into a Story of Reunion—to help us transition, individually and systemically, from the world of division and alienation outlined in the above passage from Sacred Economics to a world of community and togetherness in which we are in “cocreative partnership with the Earth,” as Eisenstein puts it:
“Traditional populist strategies such as strikes, protests, direct action, civil disobedience, and so forth have an important role to play in disrupting the prevailing story. They are, however, both perilous and insufficient on their own to the task at hand. They are perilous because even if they come from a place of compassion and nonjudgment, they very easily trigger old habits of hatred. Their nature is to create a perception that there are two sides, one of which will win and one of which will lose, one of which is the good guys and one the bad guys. They are also insufficient, because they disrupt the prevailing story on only one level. They might disrupt the story we call “the economy,” but they leave untouched the deeper, less visible mythos that defines our civilization and embeds the economy. This limitation doesn’t mean that these strategies aren’t useful or necessary. But we need to work on other levels as well. So, let us look at some other ways, other kinds of ways, to disrupt the Story of Separation.
One example is “culture jamming,” ranging from pranks like fake advertisements to campaigns such as “national buy-nothing day” and “TV turnoff week.” Subversive and illegal art, à la Banksy, also falls into this category, as might incursions of clowns into office buildings or business conferences. The Yes Men, who impersonate corporate and government officials on television interviews, are also culture jammers. All of these expose the inauthenticity, the insanity, or the inhumanity of dominant narratives.
Another form of disruption is simply to create a living example of a different way of life, of technology, of farming, of money, of medicine, of schooling … and by contrast reveal the narrowness and dysfunction of dominant institutions. I do not entirely agree with Buckminster Fuller’s adage “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete,” because sometimes the existing reality suppresses these new models. Does your local building code allow composting toilets or sod roofs? But there is truth in it nonetheless.
The most direct way to disrupt the Story of Separation at its foundation is to give someone an experience of nonseparation. An act of generosity, forgiveness, attention, truth, or unconditional acceptance offers a counterexample to the worldview of separation, violating such tenets as “Everyone is out for themselves,” and affirming the innate desire to give, create, love, and play. Such acts are invitations only—they cannot compel someone to soften separation-based belief systems. Generosity can always be interpreted as ‘He’s trying to get something from me.’ Forgiveness can be seen as manipulation (as so often fake forgiveness is). Truth can be ignored. But at least the invitation is there.”
Rest assured that the changes for which Eisler and Eisenstein advocate are, again, not going to happen over night. However, as I noted above, we must think in terms of the “long now,” of how our contributions at this present historical moment will resonate and ripple forth to become the realities of future generations. If we are indeed in the midst of a disruption of several thousand years of cultural momentum and a re-direction of our most basic human paradigms from domination and separation to cooperation and community, I for one feel excited to be alive and invigorated to contribute in some way to this transition, this renaissance.