Thursday, August 18, 2011

Self Made

Many years ago I was having lunch with a friend at a casino in Las Vegas. Midway through the meal, I excused myself to go to the bathroom, first asking my friend where it was. He replied with a chuckle that I would have to go through the casino first. This struck me as odd and inconvenient. My friend explained to me that casinos are deliberately configured to entice people to gamble, and therefore the placement of the bathrooms was another way to get visitors to toss a coin or two into a slot machine on the way to the bathroom. The notion here was that people are subconsciously ‘conditioned’ to throw their money away, just as capitalists of all stripes use advertising to ‘programme’ people to buy their wares, whether or not the person needs them.

Something about this explanation didn’t sit well with me. Yes, I had heard my entire life that the vast majority of people were easily programmed automatons, pulled in one direction or another by forces beyond their control. In anthropology, the popular expression for this phenomenon is ‘nature vs nurture’, which refers to conflicting notions concerning the development of personality in man.

I stubbornly replied to my friend: ‘If this is so, then why don’t you or I so mindlessly toss coins into slot machines, like the rest of the rabble?’

Without blinking, he answered, ‘Because we’re thinkers and aren’t so easily swayed the way most people are’.

I didn’t pursue the conversation, opting to relieve myself instead. Still, it is a question that bothers me even today. Examples of this viewpoint are everywhere in Australian and American culture: people are fat because they’re conditioned to over-indulge in vast quantities of sugar and fat laden foods; or they mindlessly spend their money on the latest gadgets because Apple makes pretty looking boxes and advertises them like no-one else.

The nagging question, which I have since answered for myself, has been: how do we know people engage in this behaviour? If they’re conditioned, then it stands to reason that everything they do is either automatic or mindless. Free will is thus a myth.

Is it? Does it not also stand to reason that if all we are is unconscious impulses, then how is it some people are capable of independent thought? Does this not have implications about how our personalities are formed, too?

I argue that man is capable of rational and independent thinking and that some choose to exercise their minds, whilst others allow themselves to drift. They accept pre-formed ideas and conclusions without questioning because they have never learnt a proper thinking method.

In previous articles, I have addressed a host of issues and ideas that I have questioned for many years, without getting at the crux of why so many people today default on that responsibility. There is nothing particularly special about me as against most other educated adults, save one thing: I have always considered it my solemn responsibility to think - about everything. For example, I reject the notion of state run education, not because I’m some right wing Christian lunatic, but because the transmission of ideas and knowledge to young people is far too important to entrust to government. I did not arrive at this conclusion as some do. I spent years observing various school systems in North America and Europe, both as a student and a teacher, and read vociferously on the history of education. In short, I reached my conclusion on the value of a free market in schooling through a scrupulous process of thinking.

Another factor preventing independent thought is fear. Many people fear their own minds and the result is they don’t trust themselves. So they default on their responsibility to exercise their rational faculty and go along with the latest fad or fashion, or worse, they actively follow charismatic rulers who promise to shower them with free gifts. The grave error they commit in abdicating their minds is they eventually abdicate everything else, too.

From the youngest age, whether I was admiring my father in the newsroom as the managing editor of my hometown newspaper, looking up to a skyscraper in New York City and marvelling at man’s ability to build such a structure or even relishing the skill of a favourite novelist in devising a cracking good plot, I held to one constant viewpoint: the self made man is the ideal to emulate.

To be self made does not imply that one ignores or attempts to diminish others. On the contrary, a self made man seeks out others like him and says, in effect: ‘Let’s trade!’ In my life on three continents over the past 25 years, I have succeeded in finding other such men and women. Some were further along in their thinking, while others were beginning their quest for greatness. In every case, the joy in encountering a kindred spirit continues to give me objective proof that the future is a bright one.