A Refugee in the Collective Unconscious Camp

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about voice and power—without the former, there is no latter. It occurred to me that this reasoning might take too much for granted of a priori assumptions about how and why conversations are reality generators.
It is my—and certainly not only my—belief that the world is a construction of discreet linguistic aggregates. Our language—the way we label things and the linguistic associations we match with a particular phenomenon—had creative agency of how we interpret the world. If we call something good, it’s good. Bad, bad. Ugly, ugly. And so on.
This is distinct from any ideal that states that there is a “thingness” about something—that things have inherent properties. My belief (which is just a patchwork philosophy of Buddhism and various other belief systems) doesn’t presuppose any inherent value in something. There is nothing that is inherently ugly, beautiful, warm, cold, sweet, sour—these adjectives and perceived qualities that solely hinge on linguistic assignment and then agreement from others (though agreement is not a necessary condition—it’s just the way to concretize reality. When a population agrees upon something, you have a new reality. When one person agrees upon something, you have a mad man or a prophet).
If you buy this idea, then it’s easy to see why not being able to give rise to your voice and not being able to create agreement through conversation and communication is a supremely disempowering act. Like Henry Ford said, “whether you believe you can or you can’t, you’re right.” It’s a matter of language.
I will momentarily address a potential caveat to above philosophy, which is the potential to expand the definition of the word “language.” I’m starting to believe that there are languages that are not lingual (i.e. emanating from the tongue). There might be sonic languages that lack a specific representational value; e.g. people might hear a musical note and it conveys a language just as defined as if someone were to say the word “dog”. Likewise there are visual, kinesthetic and gastronomic languages.
But for now, I will focus on the big daddy: spoken language (I will include mental discourse in this category as it usually sounds like barroom chatter).
So I went out last night to a Christmas party cognizant of these things. I was thinking about how too often I become an unwitting immigrant of other peoples’ realities. Because I don’t give rise to my reality, or because I don’t even invite people to my reality, I submit and shuffle into the linguistic refugee camp of the collective unconscious. These camps tend to be pretty barebones: their primary amenities are lowest-common-denominator discussion. Oftentimes, no one person creates these camps; they are makeshift shelters designed for temporary relief from verbal conflict or rejection. We submit to these substandard conditions for a number of reasons. First, those of us whose reality does not accord with the collective unconscious are hesitant; in having a perspective that does not receive widespread agreement, we are placed in the position of defending our case (or becoming hostile to contradiction). Other reasons include a shaky hold on our own reality. This happens to me many times. About a year and a half ago, I decided to absolve myself of as many harmful behaviors as I could; this included my chief way of making money (I was working in the profoundly wasteful catering industry). Intellectually and empirically, I see what’s going on: the degradation of our planet and our wellbeing through commercial culture. Freeing myself from that system has had a distinct liberating effect on my overall happiness. And yet to introduce this idea—to assert that maybe the way most of us are living is really harmful and in error—is not always a popular move. Generally speaking, most people assiduously avoid change.
So I’m at the Christmas party. It’s in midtown on 5th Ave. My friend, who is a writer for TreeHugger like me, invited me. It was an odd spot, as the friend is an environmental consultant and the typical hovel of such types is either below 14th street or in Brooklyn where I live. But alas, there I was, in a room filled with smartly dressed, run-of-the-mill yuppies.
For example, I rode the elevator with a dyed-blonde named Lindsey. At first she looked cute, but upon closer inspection I could see the concealer makeup. She spoke the squeaky and vague way of the uninformed. She said, “My friend and invited me here. [in hushed tone] She just lost her job, and she needs all the support she can get.”
Now, what if I were to invite her into my reality? What if I were to say, “Perhaps losing her job will be the best thing that ever happened to her? [Assuming the safe assumption that the job she got fired from was in some bullshit industry like advertising] What if she were on a road to liberation from a life-sucking system of consumer culture?”
But my response was, “Nice to meet you.”
Therein lies the other reason for not introducing people to your reality: laziness. I just didn’t feel like getting into it. Obviously, I wouldn’t have to say things as incendiary or confrontational as the aforementioned remarks, but I could have made a remark that called into question the inherent negativity that is associated with unemployment.
But I was lazy.
I headed to Bonnie who I knew “got” me. She comprehended my reality for the most part. And she introduced me to another writer George who got me as well. While we didn’t see things eye-to-eye on all matters (he was a lot shorter than me), we had a lively exchange of perspectives. We talked about the interplay between our emotional states and the environment. We talked about the rift between our convictions to save the planet and our habits. We talked about cinema and food and many other matters. We generally found agreement. We had our own little camp in an apparent the larger camp of lowest common denomination.
We went to get a drink in the kitchen and we start talking about “real cost”—a belief that generally the retail cost belies the environmental and social costs of any given product.
Another girl I’d noticed hovering around me decided to enter our little camp. She too wore a lot of concealer makeup, had a thin face with stringy, blond hair and wore a cheap looking fuchsia dress. I thought to myself, “What an opportunity for an invitation to join our camp.”
She engaged the topic in a frighteningly naïve manner. I explained to her a little a bit about real cost. I used clothing as an easy example, describing how most of the cost of clothes is marketing costs and that the cost of the manufacturing is comparatively tiny, and that this tiny manufacturing cost doesn’t account for environmental factors or fare wages or humane working conditions. I asked her if she’d be willing to pay an extra 40% at H&M if she knew that her clothes were made in a sustainable manner.
She responded by asking whether, in the absence of manufacturing jobs, albeit low paid ones, Third World workers would starve to death. I explained that many of them are starving to death with the jobs, using the example of Cathy Lee’s Kmart clothing line (it was discovered that is was made through exploitive child-labor: adolescent girls working in factories where they worked 16 hour days and were punished for peeing during work hours).
She responded again saying that we should think about buying American. She wondered why that wasn’t played up any more.
I responded by first explaining that after the fall of the garment unions, “Made in America” lost some of its values. But more importantly, the global expectation of cheap merchandise has displaced any consumer patriotism—that the interests of the marketing and retail machines, interests primarily of the top-tier corporate leaders, trump those of the workers.
It was tiring frankly. George didn’t even try. He through in the occasional remark, but for the most part was stewing in revulsion over this girl’s simplicity.
But for me it was a triumph. George and I eventually walked away, but I felt happy that I didn’t become immersed in her reality. Her reality, while not necessarily a “bad” one, wasn’t as well formed as mine, which is not to say that I gave her clear-cut alternatives. I did however give her concise questions that she might formulate her discern her own reality—that some day we’ll meet again and she will no longer be a slave to the lowest common denominator.
And through achieving a modicum of agreement from her, through bringing new language around this particular topic, I didn’t feel powerless. I believe it is only through the persistent promulgation of enlightened and critical dialogue—oftentimes when it’s uncomfortable or just can’t be bothered—is the only way we will find personal and collective liberation.

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