5. FIGHTING FORM
Oh, the power of form! It causes nations to perish, and it leads to wars. It is the reason why things arise among us which do not come from us. Without it you will never succeed in understanding stupidity, or evil, or crime. It governs our smallest reflexes, and lies at the foundation of our whole collective life.
Well, then, this is it. The time has come, the hour has struck on the clock of the ages. Try to set yourself against form, try to shake free of it. Cease to identify yourself with that which defines you. Try to escape from all expressions of yourself. Mistrust your opinions. Mistrust your beliefs, and defend yourself against your feelings. Withdraw from what you seem to be on the outside, and flee from all externalizations just as the bird flees from the snake.
- Gombrowicz, pages 82, 85
Gombrowicz thought that form, the confusion caused by other people influencing us and our consequent difficulties in finding our free will and establishing mature and unique identities, was the most powerful force on the planet, the underlying reason for most of humanity's problems.
I believe fighting form is the most important task an individual faces in life. As the second quote above suggests, Gombrowicz thought this also, and his belief has added poignancy, if not a little prophecy, coming as it did - being written - on the eve of World War II, when the world was forced to fight the form of Germany and Japan.
As we have seen, form is exceedingly complex and powerful. It also is regularly very difficult to recognize, and sometimes it is impossible to deflect. Indeed, our exposure to form begins in the earliest stages of our existence, as young children reacting to our parents.
The only way you can become a unique individual is to confront, and reduce the impact of, the sources of form in your life.
To begin, you should recognize that this will be a great challenge. Much form is addictive, and hence difficult to defeat. In addition, the sources of form are very protective of their power over us, and they will aggressively defend this power. It takes extraordinary courage and sacrifice to combat form. You only need imagine being in Hitler's Germany, and knowing he was wrong. You would have had to risk everything, your life and family, to confront this form. This clearly shows the depth of commitment that is required in the fight to achieve freedom.
But make no mistake about it, form can be beaten. The women's suffrage movements in Europe and America, followed by the much broader women's liberation movement, constitute just one example of how the most severe forms, entrenched in society for millennia, can be overcome.
Breaking free of form requires education, self-knowledge and rebellion. As was implied earlier, education is essential, since the more education you have the less susceptible you should be to social influences. When you receive messages that attempt to persuade you about the world and life, you will be better able to judge them, and you will also know what the subtext, the real but hidden message, is: that you should abdicate your independence and submit to the views of others.
Secondly, self-knowledge is essential. You are formed. People have been forming you your entire life. You have to analyze yourself, and understand your influences, as the first step in fighting them. You have to know your enemy, to give them a good battle.
And thirdly, rebellion is essential. There has to be a battle. You have to break the cycle of domination, of yourself by others, and also of others by yourself. You are also the enemy! Wittingly or unwittingly you have almost certainly been seeking to form other people, and you have to stop doing this. You have to let people be themselves.
As to rebellion, you might look at it this way. They've stolen your free will; you have to fight to get it back. One can argue that to be brainwashed means to be brain dead. When you are behaviorally manipulated you lose your flexibility and your free choice. This, for all intents and purposes, is death, at least as a self-conscious individual rationally driven by your own needs and desires. You have to fight to get your life back!
Education and self-knowledge are covered in their own chapters. This chapter will continue with some basic guidelines for fighting form, and then close with a few comments on rebellion.
1. You have to know you are imprisoned, before you can break free.
2. It took a long time to form you; it will take time to reverse it.
3. You will have to overcome any timidity that you have, including any predisposition against action.
4. You will have to fight the form in every situation that you encounter.
5. And, you must recognize that anything can be a form.
A few arcane (and not so arcane) examples include the following:
- Our physical orientation forward, including the fact that the most highly evolved part of our brain is the frontal lobe. Most of our perceptions and many of our ideas are unconsciously oriented forward as well. We tend to ignore what is behind us, including the past. (A Commentary on the Being Electric, William Daniel Drake, Jr., The International Cultivators Handbook, Wingbow Press, page 125)
- The extent to which we ignore our dreams.
- The form of time, including the form and consequences of wearing a watch; of how your day becomes structured as you grow older; and of how you feel guilty if you are not doing something that you are supposed to at a particular time.
- The form, which used to be commonplace, of not knowing your birthday.
- That it is only in the last century that a sizeable percentage of various populations has been able to read and write. (Ratey, pages 279-80)
- The way in which a child is born: naturally, with the mother not receiving medication for pain and without the use of instruments; with medication and the use of forceps and other instruments; and via caesarean; and also if the birth is premature or full-term.
- How much time you spend living and working on your feet and outside, in the natural environment, exposed to the sun and the rain, versus sitting inside a building of some type.
- The fact that in much of the world people still make judgments based on skin color, and women are viewed as property, as possessions, and not as free individuals.
- How your taste buds, the different tastes that you enjoy, are shaped by your culture.
- The varying sensitivity to which people in different cultures react to a casual touch.
- Living up to a name, or nickname.
- How you can prove that you love someone by buying them something.
- How two people who love each other should get married, and have children.
- How having children restricts your options for the future. How being a parent shifts your focus towards stability, security, a sedentary life and the accumulation of property, and away from diverse, dynamic, adventurous lifestyles.
- How such effects accumulate across and shape the nature of society, including its purpose, structure and style.
- The fact that sedentary societies consume far more natural resources than nomadic ones.
- That while the hereditary principle has for the most part been rejected as it applies to political power, it remains widely accepted for economic power, i.e., for wealth and property. (A History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, Touchstone, page 622)
- And the form that people on their own are suspect. (This is a social defense mechanism, but not against the solitary individual. Rather, it applies to the groups members, to keep them from any association with nonmembers, particularly with free-of-form individuals, with nonconformists.)
(One can also see from the above list how different forms may be linked.)
6. Form is determinism. Every source and type of form is a specific example of determinism, a specific impediment to free will. When eliminated, each represents a new outlet for personal expression.
As one instance of this, victimization arguments reflect a type of determinism. The premise of victimization is that we do not have a free will. Also, it is society's way of apologizing for its form, by allowing us to be its victims.
7. Lastly, in the battle against form you must prioritize your efforts. You should start by fighting what you dislike the most, about your life, yourself and your conditioning. You should also concentrate on the forms that affect your most powerful needs, and your oldest forms, those of your childhood.
Weapons and tactics
1. You have many weapons in the battle, all of which derive from your will, and all of which require that you exercise discipline and self-control.
2. The obvious tactic is direct rebellion - confrontation - in which you reject a form, and its source, outright.
3. Alternatively, there is passive resistance. You simply ignore the form, and let it know that it has no leverage or power over you.
4. You can also avoid form by associating with people with whom you feel comfortable, who do not try to shape you, who accept you as you are.
5. More generally, you should seek out environments, starting with your work environment, that are tolerant of diversity, that are not rigidly conformist.
6. Also, you should never provide the information that is used to enslave you. Do not participate in any surveys or focus groups. Protect your privacy. Limit to the greatest extent possible revealing any personal information to any social institution.
Sensitivity to form
1. The process of fighting form requires that you increase your sensitivity to it, and to begin, you should recognize that it is very difficult to develop a clear understanding of what other people think of you. Because of this, you should become hypersensitive to how the people that you meet perceive and type you. You should try to understand, and anticipate, their preconceptions.
2. If you sense strong typing, you should reject it, out-of-hand. Just shut the people out. Don't even listen to them, or argue. Simply walk away. This is particularly important if you sense that people are rejecting you before they even get to know you. Be especially aware of people who are negative. You do not need their rejection, so do not accept it. Reject them instead!
3. As was mentioned, form preys on our fears, and seeks to cause guilt, both of which in turn cause stress. You can stay alert to the imposition of form by playing close attention to your emotional state. If you feel fear, guilt or stress, or become agitated in any way, you should consider the cause. Ask yourself if you are reacting, unconsciously, to the imposition of a demand, spoken or unspoken, which you cannot fulfill or with which you do not agree.
Symptoms of stress include pessimism and an obsession with planning and order. More severe symptoms include a quick temper, nightmares, paranoia and depression, and ulcers.
(The emotion of fear is worth additional comment, since it is extremely difficult to eliminate conditioned fears. Once we learn to be afraid of something, our brains become programmed to remember that stimulus in the same way. Ratey, page 232 This is why the tactic of generating fear is so regularly employed: it is effective! Therefore, it is essential to evaluate those things which cause you to feel fear, and to reject all such stimuli with the exception of those which truly do represent a serious, likely, threat.)
4. Next, you should recognize that society wants to control you, and one of the best ways it can accomplish this, perhaps its most effective technique, is to get you to do it yourself. In this regard, the system wants you to feel guilty any time you let go and really enjoy yourself. Therefore, you must fight your tendency to accept this guilt, to give in to the repression and let go less and less. One way to do this (this is another consequence of the principle of equality) is to recognize that if you think something, or like something, or do something, many, many other people do so as well. There is no reason to feel guilty about it!
5. Similarly, society is very good at getting to us through our closest associates. Our family and friends may not realize it, but many times they are used as the conduit for social messages to us, including disapproval (guilt, again) of any habits or tastes which we have and enjoy which society chooses not to tolerate, such as inappropriate consumption, as of tobacco, or inappropriate under-consumption, through not buying enough material possessions. Social sources of form also clearly understand that by using our closest associates in these ways, they put us in a very difficult position, since to reject their messages we must at least partially reject our friends. Rather than get into arguments over this or that issue, an approach that you can use to counter all such problems is to project, to your friends, a strong personal sense of identity and the implicit demand that it - that you and your freedom of choice - be respected.
6. Finally, you should be alert to your language, including the words that you use and the beliefs and behavioral systems that they unconsciously incorporate. All sorts of forms are hidden in language, especially in slang. Indeed, this is of the utmost importance, since language is the intermediary between our thoughts and actions. Our thoughts are shaped (and also limited) by the language that we use, starting with the specific tongue - our native language - that we learn as a child.
1. Ignore all superstitions.
2. Be cautious with anyone who says that they are going to help you. Their likely intent is to find some way to help themselves. In addition, you should not be concerned with how something looks. And, anything that you have to get used to, is a form.
3. Fight developing the traits that your parents have which you dislike, especially their addictions.
4. Also, you must confront, and through exercising self-discipline defeat, your own addictions. You should recognize that in addition to causing fear, guilt and stress, form is responsible for many of the addictions that people develop. (This is why there are so many twelve-step self-help programs available.) For instance, many social occasions revolve around, and virtually require, the intake of alcoholic beverages. But some people do not have the strength of will to resist the temptations of this drug, and these occasions, and become alcoholics.
5. More generally, you should learn to stop defining yourself through your undisciplined and unethical actions. Many people actually do wrong, knowingly, as a perverse means of self-definition.
6. If a form starts to lead you along, you have to cut it off right then! Do not let it get a grip on you, any grip at all. The longer it has a hold on you, the harder it will be to break free of it.
7. One of the basic messages of form, which is also the defense of class structure and inequality, is that you should know and accept your place in life. If you are in a lower class, you are told that you are inferior and that there is nothing you can do about it. Don't complain, and don't get out of line. After all, it is your fate or destiny to be like this.
Needless to say, you should reject all messages such as these.
8. Avoid a sedentary life, or escape if you are trapped in one. Institutions depend on - they require us to have - such lives. By following the routine of working, watching TV, sleeping, working, watching TV, sleeping - again and again and again - we best serve their needs. (Watching the game is how the weekend is controlled.) If you are getting fat, or aging prematurely, don't go on a diet, or try a new drug. Instead, change your life! Find one, create one, that requires physical activity and exercise, and that gets you out of the routine.
9. Similarly, avoid the comfort zone. You have to challenge life, continually, to get the most out of it. Besides, comfort zones are rarely comfortable. Indeed, they regularly are very uncomfortable, just not quite uncomfortable enough to get you to do something about it. And as time goes by you adapt to the discomfort, and accept it as normal. And perhaps then it gets even worse, but still you tolerate it, now that you have adapted. If this has happened to you, you must escape, you must break the cycle and get out.
10. It will also be necessary to redefine your sense of happiness. You must learn what, specifically, makes you happy, not settle for the sources of happiness which you are told should make you happy, i.e., those which are meant for you, which are intended to be enough for you.
11. We saw that form inevitably engenders power conflicts. These can only be eliminated when people have a fundamental willingness to compromise; when they don't always have to win. Unfortunately, such a willingness is usually evident only with people who love each other and between the best of friends, in other words, between people who will sacrifice their interests for the other.
The form of conversations, or of communication rather than language, is a good test of your willingness to compromise. For example, in a conversation do you have to have the last word, just the actual last word spoken? Many people are addicted to having the last word, and it is a nightmare when they come together. Their conversations go on and on and on. You should reflect on a few of your most recent conversations and ask yourself, how often did you have to have the last word? If the answer is always, you may be able to improve your ability to compromise by learning to control this habit.
The fight for power manifests itself at all levels but, as the last point shows, it is particularly noticeable in small matters. You should strive to limit your desire for control, your need to demonstrate that you are the one who has the power, over the small decisions of life. This is particularly important if you want to maintain a loving relationship (again, love is regularly not enough), since such a desire for control, so evident in the games that partners play, can easily lead to a breakup. (A similar issue is the division of chores between partners. The best policy is: if it needs doing, you do it now.)
This is another situation where it is essential to use your will. In relationship conflicts, and all other highly charged emotional situations, the best course of action is regularly not to say anything. You must use your self-control to bite your tongue. Also, what often happens in such arguments is that the person who has the weaker position will refuse to listen to reason. They will attempt to counter it in some way to maintain their power and the strength of their position, such as by:
- Reacting with emotion.
- Reacting with silence: a refusal to talk.
- Responding with a purposeful misinterpretation, and then an emotional reaction.
- Accusing the other person of something that they are actually worried about in themself.
- Shifting the argument, either directly or subtly, to another subject, one that they can win.
- Or taking something personally which wasnt intended that way at all.
Again, the best response when something like this happens is not to say anything. You do not want to escalate the argument. Instead, walk away from it and allow for a cooling down period, after which a compromise should be easier to achieve.
Of course, arguments over small matters that explode into all-out brawls can reflect more than an unwillingness to cede control. Particularly in romantic relationships, there is often an imbalance of power, in one way or another (depth of feeling, possession of money, interest in sex, etc.), between the partners. (This is the equilibrium issue: a relationship is also a system.) The partner who feels at a disadvantage may escalate and redirect small arguments to try to resolve their real concern, which is the lack of balance, and it is well worth noting that this redirection is rarely conscious. More often than not it is driven by the unconscious, and manifests itself in emotional and even irrational behavior. But, while the behavior, this partner's passionate words and actions, may be objectionable, it is essential to understand that they reflect a legitimate and underlying concern.
A more general way to reduce the number of power conflicts in your life is to refuse to compete with other people, including by learning to control your desire to always get your way. You should reject standard definitions of success. Don't compete with other people, and try to beat them: to win over them. Only compete internally, with yourself, to see what you can do: what you can accomplish.
12. Fight your desires. As the last point suggests, this is perhaps the most important step of all. Form regularly causes us to have desires which are not part of our normal human needs, or which even conflict with them.
One desire that it is essential to defeat is your desire for possessions, since they enslave you in many different ways. First, possessions require a lot of money, which means you will have to work a lot of the time to afford them. Many people also satisfy their desire for possessions by taking on a lot of debt, but you must avoid this like the plague. Taking on debt is the end of your freedom. It programs your future as clearly as a prison sentence.
Secondly, possessions are used to define and type you, so you should be very careful about what you own. In general, you should try to simplify your life and reduce the number of things that you need or want.
Thirdly, possessions have another form, a form all their own, which is simply the form of spending money. This is the satisfaction that you get from buying things, because other people buy things. Doesn't it feel good to buy things? God, I feel like buying something right now. Let's go to the mall!
Reducing your need for possessions reduces your need for money. Therefore, you don't have to work that much, and you can use your greatly increased spare time for other pursuits. Or, you can save the money that you earn and then use it to buy your freedom, through an early retirement or by doing a world trip.
Here are a few additional tips regarding the desire for possessions:
- Don't look at any advertisements, and never do anything an advertisement asks of you. If you do watch an ad, think: Brainwashing, brought to you by Nike [or any other advertiser], the choice of the conformed!
- Avoid exposure to all celebrities, cults and idols, including TV, movie and music stars, models, politicians, business leaders, religious figures, etc.
- More broadly, avoid exposing yourself to strong images, including images of such things as war, violence and death. Such exposure marks you indelibly; you can never forget it.
- Under no circumstances buy anything that uses hype, or the concept of cool (and you can be cool, too!) in a sales pitch.
- When you consume things, don't finish them. Save a little for later. (This is a good way to regain your self-discipline.)
- And, be alert to creeping materialism, which occurs when your desire grows as you age and your income grows to support it. Recognize the increasing desire for what it is: an addiction. Limit having, and using, credit cards, and to repeat the earlier point, under no circumstances take on great personal debt. (The only possible exceptions to this are to buy a house or a car, but even these are debatable. Most new housing construction destroys natural spaces: there are already plenty of houses and apartments available, and for rent. As to transportation, where possible you should use public sources. You should only get a vehicle - start with a bicycle - if you live in an area that is not serviced by public transportation.)
An example of another type of desire that you should try to defeat is the desire to have power over other people, and, more generally, to be powerful.
13. Lastly, you must fight your own form. Over time you should try to understand the biases and prejudices that you have, and then use your willpower to eliminate them. To begin, you must fight your tendency to type people; to jump to conclusions about them. Instead, you should reserve your judgment. Learn to see people as individuals, and be patient: give them the time that they need to reveal themselves.
One problem with your own form is that most of the time when you impose it on other people, you do it without even thinking about it. To counteract this, you will have to increase your self-awareness. For instance, a common way in which we transmit form to our family and friends is through sharing our worries. You should try not to put such pressures on people, to make these small impositions of fear, guilt and stress.
In summary, you should learn to be self-effacing; to minimize your direct personal impact. Also, if you are in a situation where you feel compelled to simplify someone, you should make your simplification positive. Focus on what you sense is good in the other person. Control your reflex to be negative. (Another arcane social form is this tendency to be negative, which in turn arises from the overwhelming importance that is given in many societies to competition.) In addition, you should limit your predisposition to complain, and if you must criticize people, try to be discreet and indirect. Conversely, if you are criticized, fight your tendency to become defensive. Listen to the criticism, acknowledge it, and then present your own views. And finally, you must fight transference, which is the redirection of your emotions to other people. For example, if someone makes you angry, but you have no recourse with them, don't transfer your anger to other people who are weaker than you or over whom you have power.
How can you fight form if you are working inside one of the social institutions that are responsible for so much of it? As to yourself, you must recognize that over time this experience is changing you: it is conditioning you. Your proximity to your peers (and insularity from others), is gradually, unconsciously, causing you to accept the institution's messages and values. Moreover, you may well be one of its tools in its attempts to achieve the subservience of others.
What can you do about this? First, you should remember that you do have a say in your choice of employer. You can leave your particular institution, and the entire world of institutions as well. You can go off on your own, or find a small group of like-minded individuals with whom to work. In addition, if you decide to stay in the institutional world, you should recognize that some environments are more tolerant than others. For instance, some corporations are open and easy-going, while others are like armies. If necessary, you can change jobs; you can find a better environment. Also, by maintaining your awareness of the institution's culture, its conformity, you can quietly counteract it to maintain your independence. You of course also can (and should) push for change, but be careful. Most institutions are intolerant of internal dissent (of all dissent), and you could easily find yourself fired. More generally, you should refuse to sell yourself. Use the institution; don't let it use you. Work long enough to get the experience that you need, and then strike out on your own. It is guaranteed that you will find working for yourself far more rewarding than being a paid employee. Also, if you ever achieve great success on your own, try not to forget your roots - your ideals - what you were fighting for.
As to the effects of the institution on others, you should refuse to pander its most egregious messages and, in any case, avoid the worst of the worst: don't work in advertising!
Another special case involves people who are struggling to survive, include all of the poor and disadvantaged people around the world. Of what concern is form to them, and how can they even think of breaking free of it?
In many cases such people are poor both in income and education, and the latter - their ignorance that derives from their lack of education - makes them particularly susceptible to form. In addition, in the modern world there is no place, no matter how remote, that is untouched in the institutional quest for domination and control. The sources of form want to influence everyone. The simple answer to the above question, then, is one of utility: such people, who constitute a majority of the world's population, must try to fight form, to the best of their ability, however feeble, simply because they are among those who are most at risk.
But, you should remember the principle: at essence they are no different from anyone else. They must break free, and they can. They can (and do!) understand life, and what is happening to them, and they can fight it. They can combat the small influences in their lives, as well as the great.
At issue is the form of their culture, their particular situation, and the limits that are placed on them. They may need to break free of autocratic rule, by striving for democracy; or of corruption, by creating and enforcing a national rule of law; or of ignorance and superstition, by advancing their, and their children's, education.
In conclusion, to be free you must reject form. You must also recognize that the sources of form will never give up. Even when you believe they are defeated, they will rise again. You therefore can never give up, either. This struggle is an essential condition of life.
But you can do it; every one of us is able. You can break free, and there is no better time to start doing it than now.
To close this chapter, I will make a few introductory remarks about rebellion, which should serve to clarify further what is involved in the process of fighting form.
Now you do what they told you. Got you under control.
Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!
- Killing in the name of, Rage Against the Machine
My apologies for the obscenity, but it makes a point. Rebellion is not a weak word. It represents a strong, and sometimes violent, act. In the worst cases you - maybe not you, but many people on the planet - are being formed, and controlled, with violence. In some circumstances pacifism and non-violence will work, they will be effective against the violence, but in others they will not. Rebels in conflict situations risk their lives, and their families, for their beliefs. Real rebellion requires that you take chances, and expose yourself to danger.
Rebellion in concept is simple. It means you will not do what you are told to do. However, in practice it is always difficult. This is because, in addition to the danger, there are the risks of false, and misdirected, rebellion.
In conflict situations false rebellion is rebellion meant only to achieve power, but which is presented as a fight for social justice. With victory, the rebels renounce their stated aims and instead become the next group of dictators. As for misdirected rebellion, this occurs when rebels undermine their ethical foundation by engaging in terrorism or by colluding with criminals. For example, many of the individuals who fought colonial powers around the world, particularly in the decades following World War II, were false rebels. When their nations achieved independence they consolidated their power, often by using force against their former allies, and then established autocracies.
The same types of risks will exist in your rebellion against social conditioning. For instance, conformity is often disguised as rebellion, such as in the lyrics of pop music. Pop music, by definition, is conformity.
Rebellion does not mean being hip, hot and cool. That's just more form. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, a real rebel, said: I'd rather be dead than cool.
Rebellion should serve a purpose: to achieve personal freedom, or to change the social order. Unfortunately, it can easily degenerate into anarchy, nihilism and self-destruction, and Kurt proved to be a tragic example of the last.
Following someone with a loud voice, even a loud cool voice, being part of a mob, even a trendy mob, is not rebellion. Real rebels are not just looking for a better conformity. (The Little Drummer Girl, John Le Carré, Pan, page 137)
In addition, in your rebellion you should try to keep emotion out of it. Your rebellion may be driven by hate, or rage, over what has happened to you, over what people have done to you, but when you do rebel you should suppress these emotions. Guiding your rebellion with reason will make it much more likely to succeed, and much less likely to be misdirected.
Lastly, I want to return to the issue of good form. This is because it is not necessary to rebel against it. In the Form chapter I talked about the basic issue of what forms you should accept and which you should reject. What basis can you use for making this decision?
The following are a few guidelines:
- If a form is intended to get you to stereotype, judge, or injure other people, or the natural environment, even if it only has such a consequence indirectly, reject it.
- Similarly, if it positions you relative to others not in a viva la difference fashion but in an us versus them manner, reject it.
- If it is intended to get you to buy things, reject it.
- On the other hand, if its intention is to get you to behave ethically, with regard to others, to nature, and also to yourself, such as to encourage you to work hard and make the most of your circumstances and life, accept it. (Of course, this isn't form at all: it's education.)
- If it rewards merit, accept it.
- If it relates you to, and encourages you to be part of, some positive trait or human achievement, accept it.
For your culture as a whole, you should accept the forms which:
- Define your culture's approach to existence, if you agree with them.
- Represent traditions of cultural excellence.
- Are traditions that support peace, both internally and with other cultures.
- Are not barbaric, intolerant or nonsensical.
You should reject your culture's traditions that are barbaric, intolerant or nonsensical in the context of modern (and your) understanding and practice, as well as those traditions with which you do not agree.
© Roland O. Watson 2001-2005