In her new book, Monoculture – How One Story is Changing Everything , the 2011 George Orwell award winning author FS Michaels quotes Vaclav Havel on the pressures to conform in communist Czechoslovakia:
In a society grown rigid with ideology, Havel said, you come to accept that you live according to that society’s values and assumptions. If you were to refuse to conform, there could be trouble. You could be isolated, alienated, reproached for being idealistic, or scorned for not being a team player. You know what it is you are supposed to do, and you do it, not least to show that you are doing it. You go along to get along, he said, and so you confirm to others that certain things in fact must be done if you are to get along in life. If you fail to act as you are expected to, others will view your behavior as abnormal, think you arrogant for believing you’re above the rules, or assume you’ve dropped out of society. The society grown rigid with ideology gives you and everyone else the illusion that the way things are is the way things are meant to be; the story you hear is natural. It has been told and retold for years. Everyone tells it.
In truth, Havel said, that story is not natural; there is an enormous gap between its aims and the aims of life. Whereas life moves toward plurality and diversity and the fulfillment of its own freedom, the system demands conformity, uniformity and discipline. The system, Havel said, “is a world of appearances trying to pass for reality.” That world of appearances operates on a kind of automatic pilot, permeating and shaping the whole society. Though the world of appearances is partly stable, it’s also unstable because it’s built on appearances. Living within the world, you don’t have to believe in it, but you have to act as if you do to get along in life.
Sometimes the whole thing seems innocuous enough for you to shrug and say, What’s wrong with going along with the world of appearances anyway? You then accept the rules of the game, Havel said, become a player in the game, and so make the game possible in the first place.
What Havel describes is, of course, life inside a monoculture, i.e., a master narrative that comes to dominate everything else, shrinking diversity, and directing us without us knowing too much about it. While Havel’s monoculture was a product of communist ideology, almost everything he describes translates effortlessly to the dominant monoculture of ours today, which, as FS Michaels defines it, is the economic story that we have come to believe is the story of life itself. The story that being rational, efficient, productive, and profitable are the ultimate expressions of being in the world, to the exclusion of everything else that makes us human.
Being in a monoculture doesn’t mean that everyone has to explicitly believe the same thing or act in the same way. The rules of the monoculture are often undefined and not clearly articulated, but they are implicitly felt by everyone:
We develop a strong sense of what’s expected of us at work, in our families and communities — even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don’t ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist — or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can’t say exactly what we would change, or how.
Monocultures slowly change the way we think and act – in terms of our work, our relationships with others and with the natural world; in terms of our community, our physical and spiritual health, our education, and our creativity. They become the sole fabric with which we weave meaning into our lives, to the exclusion of any other possible meaning.
Yesterday I was looking at the catalog of a nearby college. I couldn’t believe the courses they were offering. How to use a computer. How to make a good investment. How to get a good job. How to, how to. There was hardly one course to make the inner man grow. If you suggest that a course in ancient history may play a role in a person’s growth, they laugh at you. What relevance does it have to our life today? — says 93-year-old Sophie Mumford in 1995, interviewed by Studs Terkel
In our extremely individualistic society we have come to see isolation and loneliness as akin to ‘the human condition,’ instead of as by-products of a certain kind of social arrangement. —Robert Solomon
But of course the problem is, as with the monocultures of the past (religion and superstition, for example, in the dark middle ages, and the monoculture of science and machines that followed it), the story of economic values and assumptions isn’t the whole story of what it means to be human. It may be one story, but it isn’t the only story. By closing ourselves to everything else that makes life vibrant and diverse and worth living, by choosing only one meaning for human existence, we end up paying a heavy existential price.
You can transcend monocultures – and you see people around you doing this all the time, some without even realizing it. Part of this is knowing that you’re in a monoculture and are living a life that isn’t authentic to you. Once you know what the monoculture constitutes, you can decide whether it serves a useful purpose in your life, or whether you want to transcend it and live in a wider spectrum of human values instead. It doesn’t mean dropping out of society or isolating yourself from the world or starting a counter-cultural movement. It means to live your life with dignity, and free from manipulation.
As you begin to live aligned with your deepest values instead of solely economic ones, your actions from day to day will in time be marked by a high degree of inner freedom. The independent life can take almost any form, and can encompass whatever it is you do, wherever you are, in whatever sphere of activity you already happen to be in. You can live alongside the monoculture and create parallel structures that allow you to experience the breadth and depth of human values and build on what resonates with you as an individual.
Go out in the woods, go out. If you don’t go out in the woods, nothing will ever happen and your life will never begin. —Clarissa Pinkola Estes