Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The price of freedom

For some reason a lot of things lately have been reminding me of an old idea of mine. This was that many of the 'vices' of modern life arise from the desire to escape from oppressive individual relationships. It first occurred to me in relation to the success of the supermarket. The death of the small shops was mourned. But I myself rather like supermarkets. Why is that? Well, one reason is that I like the impersonality. The person at the till is a stranger, they do not know my social, marital or parental status. They probably don't think too much about what I have bought, or habitually buy. And if they did it would not be part of the normal repertoire for their job to make any comment on it. I will not be called "luv" or "dearie".

Similarly for the success of television. How much less oppressive it is to relate to people on the TV than to people in real life! Sociology deals too little with the oppressive nature of face to face interaction, despite Goffman's comment that "interaction is dangerous". How much easier to have the trials and tribulations of various people laid out skilfully before us by script writers. We can talk about these with others, without any personal implications, without blame or even envy.

Hemingway was fascinated by the way in which bullfighters in the 1940s and 1950s were first raised to the stratosphere of praise, and then viciously condemned when, inevitably, they fell short. In this was he foresaw what we do to 'celebrities' today. But, unlike in the corrida, characters in the soap operas do not actually get gored by bulls. They do not actually have to show courage and do not risk the taint of cowardice.

And take the motor car. Why are we driving headlong towards destruction of the earth? Because we would rather do this than share our space with others. I once saw what I thought was a very sad lecture on what people do after retirement. A large number spend their newly acquired free time just driving around. heaven forbid they would engage with other people rather than an internal combustion engine. Other people might judge them. And I don't mean to criticise by saying this. I don't blame anyone for designing their life to avoid the judgements and stereotypes imposed by others. It is just too bad that living this way destroys the planet.

It seems to me that our technology (now we can get on to the internet, social media and so forth) increasingly allows us to escape the tyranny of the judgement of other people. This has been a more or less totally ignored (correct me if I am wrong) determinant of the adoption of new technologies. Women do not have to put up with day to day, low level oppression by men. Children can escape constant judgement by their parents. People of more modest social status can avoid the contempt of those who regard themselves as superior.

But of course this comes at a price. As we detach ourselves from  our fellow human beings, in some ways our lives are impoverished and made more precarious. Only in a more equal society will the retreat into virtual worlds be reversed.