Photograph of art space through door. Inside there is a woman painting patches of colour on the wall.

5. How the current context shapes people

The main symptom of the current system in people is the loss of the ability to discriminate. To distinguish between the essential and the insignificant is very difficult in this society.

On one hand, the media and technology produce a fast, constant and varied stimulation of the nervous system. Physiologically, the effect is that of a mental saturation that reduces our ability to discern. We perceive the different stimuli, but the value that we attribute to them is the same.

The media promote a cultural phenomenon known as ‘illusory reality’. Virtual reality in games and the internet, the cult of fame, reality shows, public confessions, etc., contribute to the confusion between the real and the imaginary. Theories on what is real apart, this confusion between fiction and life also reduces our ability to discern between the important and the superfluous.

Advertising encourages this confusion, as it allows it to give importance precisely to the superfluous. Also, advertising suggests a future that is incessantly postponed, it excludes the present and eliminates all possibility of development 1. This has a paralysing effect on people, which is strengthened by the inability to establish priorities.

The inability to distinguish between the significant and the insignificant which is translated into the inability to establish priorities, is also reinforced by the internalisation of the specialisation of the methods of production. The specialisation in the methods of production, be it physical or intellectual goods, prioritises the detail over the general, the personal over the group. This makes us lose perspective of society as a whole, so we do not feel responsible for what we do not see, or do not feel close to. Sometimes we are not even capable of seeing ourselves as a whole. This lack of perspective also effects how we establish priorities.

The supply and demand model has extended to all spheres of life, from work and family to sexual life. People see each other as products and experience their lives as an investment that should give them the greatest possible benefit under existing market conditions 2. The pleasure of consuming substitutes other pleasures.

This reduced ability to establish priorities based on what is important and what is not, and experiencing life as an investment, together with the contempt of rationality encouraged by the democratic ideal, favour the cult of opinion, in detriment of criteria based on knowledge. The democratic ideal also encourages the idea that rationality is normal and that what is normal is true. This supposition is false.

The idea of truth for us, if not for all then at least for many, is more comfortable than the idea of truth itself. Thus, often we use opinion when we do not have knowledge. Because opinion is personal and subjective, we experience diverging opinions as personal attacks. Influenced by the democratic ideal, we tend to value all opinions the same, whether they are based on well founded criteria or not.

However, despite the fact that we fit within the system without friction, we are also aware that social conditions are unfair. This contradiction makes us feel powerless. What we are and what we would like to be, does not coincide, not when we see the injustice around us nor when we believe the message of advertising.

Sometimes this contradiction makes us act. Often we continue life submissive. A submissive character is a mutilated character, whether it fits or not with the needs of a system 3.

  1. Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: BBC and Penguin Books. p. 153: “Publicity, situated in a future continually deferred, excludes the present and so eliminates all becoming, all development. Experience is impossible within it. All that happens, happens outside it.”. ↩︎
  2. The idea of Capitalism shaping the character of people can be found in Fromm, E. (1995) The Art of Loving. London: Thorsons, p. 67. “Modern Capitalism needs men who co-operate smoothly and in large numbers; who want to consume more and more; and whose tastes are standardised and can be easily influenced and anticipated. It needs men who feel free and independent, not subject to any authority or principle or conscience – yet willing to be commanded, to do what is expected of them, to fit into the social machine without friction; who can be guided without force, led without leaders, prompted without aim – except the one to make good, to be on the move, to function, to go ahead. […] What is the outcome? Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions.” ↩︎
  3. This idea of the submissive character as a mutilated character can be found in Fromm, E. (1981) Sobre la desobediencia. Barcelona: Paidós, p. 27. ↩︎