Long Form Scholarship Contest: 3rd Place
Congratulations to Rose Waldman, a creative writing MFA student at Columbia University, for submitting the 3rd place entry in our long form scholarship contest. You can read her full entry below.
The Freedom to Think
Ever since Aristotle’s Rhetoric entered the public realm, scholars have been debating the concept of persuasion as it relates to influencing human behavior. Is persuasive speech ethical? Is it manipulative and unjust or beneficial to the development of the human character? Within his lifetime, Plato himself altered his views on the subject, considering the study of rhetoric immoral and unworthy of serious study in Gorgias (ca. 386 b.c.) and then conceding its significance for “winning the soul through discourse” in Phaedrus (ca. 370 b.c.), his final discussion on the topic. What makes the subject so compelling is that it centers upon the very essence of what makes us human: our ability to think. To imagine that another person, our equal in the human rank, would tinker with our thoughts, our brains, our crux, is a frightening notion, serious enough of a threat that deliberations over its ethical codes, which began in times of antiquity, still continue to this day.
The contemporary debate focuses on the application of behavioral science to human behavior. Behavioral science is rhetoric moved up a notch. Or several notches. Instead of simply using persuasive language to try to influence another’s way of thinking, behavioral scientists use their knowledge of the human mind, particularly how it interacts with its surrounding environment, and apply that knowledge, in various forms, to make the person respond in specific ways. For example, in Christine Rosen’s essay “The New Behaviorists” she states that Barack Obama used a team of behavioral scientists to advise him during his campaign, and implies that the behavioral scientists’ advice was key to Obama’s winning the election. In other words, many people may have been unknowingly manipulated (by the scientists’ behind-the-scenes gambits) into believing that Barack Obama was the one they wanted to vote for.
According to Rosen, the “behaviorists’ attempts to control others raise difficult questions about freedom and personal responsibility.” Their tactics appear to be based on precisely those doctrines that rhetoric has always been criticized for: manipulation, control, improper influence. Rosen illustrates the political repercussions of applying behavioral science to a society’s norms by drawing a direct link from the new behaviorists’ form of freedom, which is a “freedom from “bad” habits (smoking, overeating, not saving for retirement)” to its ensuing result in “citizens who might eventually become habituated to the idea that complicated choices are best left to government to sort out for them.”
Rosen’s position is a popular one, at least in the abstract. If asked, most people will say that they are against the limiting of freedom in any way, that individuality is one of the most important tenets of democracy, and that allowing the government to make decisions for individuals is a form of State Socialism, antithetical to what democracy is supposed to stand for. It is not for nothing that words such as rhetoric, demagoguery, sophistry, and censorship have negative connotations: they all signify manipulation and limitation. Limitation of thought, and by extension, limitation of freedom.
And yet, if it is true that most people oppose limitations and forced conformity, how has the self-help genre—which pushes these limiting viewpoints, which preaches a discipline of societal conformity, which expounds the discourse of behavioral science—become the successful, money-making entity it is? If we genuinely want to think for ourselves, why are so many of us searching out so-called gurus? How has the hypnosis industry, particularly as used for weight loss, nicotine, alcohol and drug addictions, become this colossal multi-billion dollar field?
The reality is that despite most people’s theoretical antipathy for constraints, discipline, control, and guidelines, in actuality, they crave them. Life can be a confusing maze, and people are generally happy to find someone who is willing to direct them out of the labyrinth, whether by speech or actions. If there were no demand, there would be no supply. The same individuals who claim to vilify restrictions and directives are the ones who have created the behavioral science metaphorical monster. It is they (we!) who have willingly produced the societal conditions in which the new behaviorists can blossom.
These contradictory positions—the yearning for complete freedom of restrictions while simultaneously embracing the channels that seek to restrict us (the book that tells us to lose weight by following a specific plan! the film that instructs us to buy only organic fruits and vegetables in order to save the environment!)—are not a mark of societal cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance causes discomfort. It often motivates the person to rebel against one of the opposing ideas in his head. For example, referencing the instances listed above, it may make a person decide to remain happily fat. Or eat decidedly un-organic fruits. He would make these decisions with the awareness that society has been pushing its ideal of weight or environment preservation onto him. His refusal to conform to society’s ideals or to restrict himself because of its views would be deliberate, a quiet rebellion, an asserting of independence. But for most of us, the contradictory positions operating concurrently in our brains do not make us uncomfortable, because we are not consciously aware that we are censoring ourselves or conforming to a behaviorist’s ideal. Instead, we have bought into the modern social norms to such a degree that we are convinced we are doing exactly what we want to be doing, not because society tells us to do it but because we ourselves have so decided. Even as we huff and puff our way through a rigorous exercise routine, we believe that it was our own decision to do this, never realizing that we were “brainwashed” by the countless advertisements, magazine articles, books, etc. that we’re inundated with. (And which, quite probably, were created with the help of behavioral science.)
There are two chief reasons for our collective subliminal advocacy of the New Behaviorists’ mode: our fear of original thought and our fear of anarchy.
As a society, we have a fear of original thought. Thinking a matter through—analyzing, reasoning, rationalizing, objectively debating two sides of an issue—is genuinely hard work. With life challenging and difficult as it is, few of us feel like adding grueling mental work to our routine. It is so much easier (with the added benefit that we get to feel righteous) to close our minds and allow the “authorities,” the experts, to do the thinking for us. And since “everyone” is listening to these same authorities and abiding by their imperatives, we are in sync with society, reassuring us of our sanity and normalcy.
The fear of original thought also stems from a lack of self-conviction, a doubting in our abilities to recognize the truth, to identify real talent, to distinguish between genuine brilliance and imitative skills. This fear is not without merit. As evidenced in an anecdote originally featured in the Washington Post, most of us have not developed a refined inner aesthetic, an adeptness to differentiate—on our own, without being guided—between genius and rubbish. On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell, an internationally renowned violinist, stood incognito in a subway station and played music for about forty-three minutes on one of the most expensive musical instruments in existence. “The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.” A hidden camera documented passersby’s reactions and donations. Of the 1,097 people who passed by, “seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.” People pay hundreds of dollars to attend a Joshua Bell recital. They sit in hushed reverence and exclaim over his prodigy. And yet here he was, performing for free, and nearly nobody stopped to listen. What was lacking was rhetoric. What was lacking was behavioral science. An authority to tell them that this was artistry, beauty, genius. No wonder we fear original thought; as a society, we seem to have lost the ability for it entirely.
The second great fear, our dread of anarchy, is what has created a fecund environment for the New Behaviorists’ tactics. Although we tend to romanticize various anarchist movements, especially those that are artsy in nature (think Dadaism), our idealization is academic. In actuality, the slightest whiff of anarchy brings out a collective ugly defensiveness, a wary vigilance that has enabled such shameful events like the Kent State shootings in 1970 or the modern day resistance to gay marriage because of its perceived designation as “sexual anarchy.” Certainly, there are individuals who rise up against those who try to limit us this way. Thousands of people condemned the Kent State shootings and thousands are fighting for gay equal rights today. But as a rule, we view anarchy, and acts that may lead to it, as a threat. Consequently, we encourage social norms, albeit allowing for the adjustment and slow changing of these norms as the mindset of each new generation evolves.
As far back as the eighteenth century, Kant understood this notion. “Certainly one may say, ‘Freedom to speak or write can be taken from us by a superior power, but never the freedom to think!’ But how much, and how correctly, would we think if we did not think, as it were, in common with others, with whom we mutually communicate!” We must have structure if a society is to flourish. We must establish a set of rules, mores that all must abide by. And if this is so, logic dictates that it is only a tiny step from creating social norms to pushing them onto others. That’s how human nature works: it perceives the threat of anarchy, protects itself by creating rules, then seals the protection by compelling all others (or at least trying) to conform to these rules. Thus, we have an intellectual elite or a government or a scientific community admonishing us all to lose weight, to quit smoking, to abstain from using drugs, or to save money. And if their rhetoric isn’t enough, they raise the bar: they tax soda and junk foods; they raise the price of cigarettes; they make drug use illegal; and they convince employers to build a savings plan into their employees’ earnings. Suddenly, we are part of a monolithic society, all of us conforming to the same ideals. We are all contentedly restricting ourselves because we have been led to believe that doing otherwise may, potentially and gradually, lead to anarchy.
The irony is that should a state of anarchy ever develop (the type featured commonly in the apocalyptical sci-fi genre), social norms or behaviorism would be of no use. Behaviorism makes no effort to create a genuinely moral person; it merely sets boundaries. In a state of anarchy when all boundaries fall away, a society that is used to being guided by behaviorists would likely resort to animalistic, do-anything-to-stay-alive actions.
However, despite the potential dangers of the new behaviorists’ style, our debating the various aspects of cultural conformity is a luxury we enjoy precisely because of our country’s social structure. If, indeed, each person were to think entirely for himself, set her or his own rules, decide independently what is right and what is wrong, we would be exerting most of our energy on basic survival. The limitations that society (or the new behaviorists) impose on us are what keep us anchored, safe, so that we have the space and opportunity to utilize our energy for indulgences. Writing essays on behavioral science, for example. Or creating art. Our in-control culture is what enables us to produce the occasional out-of-control rant, the unstructured, dizzying work of art, or the frightening, unrestrained sculpture.
Perhaps the one reassuring note in light of the conventional reality is the knowledge that despite the necessity of a conformist social construct, the norms do keep on evolving. As a society, we fear deviance and, therefore, try to “fix” those we perceive as deviant. In the past, that meant we locked up individuals who were mentally retarded, treated gay people cruelly, condemned masturbation, and stigmatized premarital sex. And yet nowadays, terms such as “premarital sex” seem as outdated as a handkerchief in a man’s suit pocket. Masturbation is a given, mental retardation is treated with kindness, and gay people are encouraged to be proud of their orientation (though more work needs to be done in this arena). These new social norms give us hope. Despite the inevitability of new behaviorists and their ilk, individual daring still keeps succeeding in amending the collective mindset.
“It is the mark of an educated mind,” Aristotle proclaimed, “to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” The human mind, if it is intelligent and educated, is still able to think for itself. In the end, it is stronger than rhetoric. Stronger than behavioral science.