In the 1920s, there was war, hunger, a few rich people and poverty. Today the situation is the same, except that there are many more people at war, hungry, rich and poor; not to mention the gazillion animals and plants who have died while we figure out better ways of killing each other. Anyway, while our questionable path to the even more questionable progress requires urgent counter-measures, I am trying to figure out some personal mess. My analysis led me to trace the substantial source of my mental unhinging to the 1920s, in particular to a tribe of scientists called ‘Behaviourists’.
These misdirected, well-meaning group of people thought that mind was a useless thing to study since we can’t see it or measure it; instead, one should focus on how different prompts can result in desired behaviour and measure these quantities. Voila! The mind goes out of the window. Their experiments were lauded as a success as they could make pigeons play table-tennis, make rats walk a tight-rope and do many other circus tricks by giving rewards for the right move and punishments for the wrong one. Well, that’s okay, but the act remains a reaction to environmental stimulus as the pigeons weren’t thinking of winning the table-tennis grand slam or the rules of the game. Scientists eventually moved on, but the behaviorist story seemed too attractive to let go, after all, who doesn’t want to be a control-freak? So began the cultural appropriation of an idea, in the form of schooling and parenting through a series of rewards and punishments; from chocolates to slaps to obsession with degree certificates. Humans are predictably more complex than pigeons and rats, and this form of mind twisting only allowed kids to figure out the rules, instead of understanding why they were there in the first place. It also made ‘things’ synonymous with happiness, and so here we have a hyper-thingified world with everything up for grabs.
By the time I was born, it seemed too late to save the world, and instead I was already one of the rats scampering along with other rats to find that extra tidbit of good grades and nods of approval. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t too good at doing these reward/punishment schemes. Sometimes good marks meant a treat, and sometimes bad marks also meant a consolation treat where they would generally do a good cop interrogation. Well, that meant they were open to reason, and that meant I could talk my way out!
Well, not always, but the idea remained. Now, look at the trouble it got me into. Neither here nor there, the metaphorical chimera of romantic ideas and peer pressure. I am not looking for the cookie but apparently, those are the only things one is supposed to worry about. I got jostled into an engineering degree, finished it and left the field altogether; walked into a PhD degree, walked out of it, later walked into another one and now contemplate being a farmer. People confuse introspection for whimsicality, and the courage to risk a fall by stepping off the perpetual treadmill as laziness. I am only learning to shrug off the labels. Looking around, I see many other rebellious rats too. If culture is a form of collective imagination, maybe we could bring to life a new culture of freedom; and we need be rats no more.
(Image credits: 1996 edition of The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. Sourced from http://www.brainpickings.org)