Concepts Have Taken Over: A Survival Guide To A Mental Plague
It is an odd but universal catastrophe that what was intended as a mute servant, sadly, become a roaring master. Specifically, concepts have changed from handy idea-categories to anthropomorphic devils in charge of our lives.
Originally, concepts were mere descriptors; like numbers, they were derived from real things, and were utterly subordinated to them. Concepts didn’t have lives, or feelings, or preferences. They weren’t subject to human laws.
Now, everything is backwards. Concepts have climbed out of the mental toolbox and taken over completely. They have more reality than the things they describe. They feel more deeply than people. They commit more crimes than crack addicts. They arouse more sentiment than babies, more hatred than terrorists.
Here is one example. A country. What is it? Geography. A colour on a map. Sod with a fence. Nothing to do with people. What has it become? A master: “Serve your country.” A paramour: “I love my country.” A dependent: “Your country needs you.” It’s all the most ridiculous nonsense. A ‘country’ does not exist. Trees, buildings, streams and people exist. You can no more serve your country than you can be enslaved by the number seven. You can no more love your country than you can father a child by a trust fund. You may love certain moral ideas – but anyone who tells you that those moral ideas are associated with geography is certainly no friend of those ideas.
Another example: a corporation. A legal fiction, invented by people who want to avoid risking their personal assets in business. No real issues there. It’s like a trust or pension fund. Now would we say that a pension fund is cruel, or heartless? Is a bank account capable of exploiting the helpless tellers? Of course not. Yet we constantly hear this sort of rabble-rousing rhetoric regarding corporations.
Another example: Christian. Jewish Muslim. They don’t exist. People exist who call themselves Jewish, but it’s not a physical characteristic like height, because you can convert. It’s more like ‘socialist’ or ‘model airplane enthusiast’. It’s just a category of belief – and so more misleading than informative. ‘Jewish’ doesn’t tell you much, given the wide variety of beliefs that it encompasses, from atheistic to fundamentalist. Yet people kill and die for this nonsense. It’s like murdering someone for preferring gin rummy to poker. Most emphatically, ‘Jewish’ is not the same as ‘good’. If it were, then Judaism would be a form of moral philosophy, open to all, and not exclusive at all. Thus it is a form of aesthetics, or taste, and so does not exist in the same way that goodness does.
Why has this happened? Why, because the State thrives on fear and division. If we weren’t afraid of enemies, why would we need a protector? It’s always easier to hate and fear a concept than a person, because people have their own side of the story. People have families and strive for goodness and try to do their best. On the other hand, concepts are mere good and evil. CEO’s can answer back; ‘corporations’ cannot. It’s hard to hate an individual black man; a bigot has to reduce him to the category ‘race’ in order to get a good loathe on.
There are several ways to help people turn conceptual tools into moral masters. The first, and most important, is to instill in them a feeling of superiority for accidents of nature. You’re Canadian? We’re the best, eh? Our school is better than your school. My team trumps your team.
The second is to teach them all about gods and devils. In deities, the concepts really are alive. What you can’t touch has the ultimate reality. Love thin air because I say so. Become passionate about things which reside only in your imagination. Mental constructs are the ultimate reality. Forget all about that crass sensual stuff. Nonsense! Mere distraction. Base.
The third – involved in the first two – is to teach them that they have to be really afraid of evil concepts. The ‘rich’ are out to get you. ‘Blacks’ are criminals. ‘Immigrants’ are going to take away your country. ‘Corporations’ will exploit you. The ‘government’ will protect you. You owe a duty to the ‘poor’. ‘Men’ are emotionally unavailable. Where in all this mental fog do people actually live? Where are the human beings? Nowhere to be found. Because this is the realm of propaganda. This is where concepts live – and where mere people cannot. The black lightning which bring concepts to life burns away merely mortal lungs.
When you learn to fear concepts, you think you have a knowledge which you do not. You think you know something about the ‘rich’, or the ‘poor’, but you do not. All you know are the lurid or beatific portraits someone else has painted. It’s like trying to learn about your neighbours by watching sitcoms.
And why do people do this? Why is this drilled into your head over and over, from your first day to your last? There are two main reasons, quite interrelated. The first is to achieve all the gains from being ‘good’ without actually having to be good. Parents, for instance, love this one. When you are young, they can treat you badly knowing that they can hide behind the moral concept of ‘parent’. They count on the fact that you should judge people by categories, not by how they actually behave. They pump up the virtue of ‘family’ rather than being good. To understand this, imagine that you are a child, and that both your parents work, and you have a nanny who abuses you – or is just generally uncaring. After you grow up, are you going to fret yourself silly over this nanny’s opinions? Are you going to wrack yourself with guilt if you don’t want to take care of this nanny when she gets old? What if the nanny wants you to come over for Christmas twenty years after she last took care of you? Wouldn’t you find that very strange?
It’s exactly the same for parents. They have no special claims. You owe your parents – as you owe everyone – exactly nothing. No one can be bound by unchosen contracts. If I buy a chair for you, you don’t have to pay for it. Parents choose to have children, so they are bound to take care of them. Children do not have to take care of parents, because they did not choose to be born, or the parents they have. If a man buys a dog as a pet, the dog does not have to work for him in order to get food. Of course, if the parents are honourable, honest, pleasant, moral and wise people, their children will in all likelihood want to take care of them when they get older, because they love them dearly.
Of course, there are very few parents like that – and one of the main reasons is that parents don’t have to be good to be taken care of. They get companionship and care in old age because they are parents. But why? Because we are taught to love the concept, not the people.
There are countless examples of this – of people taking the fruits of goodness without actually going to the trouble and inconvenience of being good. But that is only the first of two reasons that we are taught to love concepts rather than judge people.
The second is that there is no surer path to power than to set up some Ultimate Good which cannot speak for itself, and then claim – in all humility perhaps – to speak for it. Priests know this well, and politicians are learning it at an alarming clip.
A priest gets you to love something which has no voice of its own – God – and then tells you that God only speaks through him. A politician gets you to love the Country, or the Proletariat, or the Race, and then tells you that he represents that country, class or race. In this way, of course, you’re not obeying him. You’re obeying God. Or the Country.
For the Protestants among us, who say that their priests do not speak for God, we can only ask them: if God spoke to people directly, why does the Bible exist? Wouldn’t God just tell his story directly to people rather than rely on thousands of years of deteriorating transcriptions and cumulative linguistic errors? Giving people the freedom to pick and choose minor deviations from a pre-defined story does not grant them as much freedom as you think. To an atheist, doctrinal differences between sects don’t look as great from the outside as they might from the inside. Frankly, it’s like watching cannibals bicker over boiling versus frying.
Politicians, of course, always claim to speak ‘for America’ or ‘for Americans’, which obscures the fact that neither ‘America’ nor ‘Americans’ exist, and so cannot speak, and thus it is only his own desires that the politician speaks of. Soldiers have never died for their country. They have always been murdered for the whim of the leader, who is just some guy. A soldier never fights honourably for his country. Some guy just murders whoever some other guy points at.
You do not serve your country. You serve the whim of Bob, or Sally, or Achmed. And here’s a little secret. None of these idiots have ever been granted a single shred of divine or collective power over you. Forego the love of concepts, and the world stands revealed as a place full not of countries and races and corporations and gods and devils and Jews and Christians, but only of people and things. And that our only chance for freedom and survival is to face the world as it actually is, and stop stalking these beautiful shadows which hide only graves.
Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a “Top 10” Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.