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Sculpting the Mind

Most of us accept, today, that there is a portion of the mind that the individual does not directly control. We have implicit assumptions, ideas, and beliefs that affect our daily lives, whether we are consciously aware of them or not. Most of us who do not consciously view ourselves as racist or do not espouse racist ideals have caught ourselves making inherently racist assumptions when we see someone of a different ethnicity on the street. Harvard’s implicit racism tests provide a striking empirical demonstration of this phenomenon. Most of us accept, today, that the subconscious maintains a degree of control and influence that is beyond our active, conscious awareness.

But the subconscious is not an independent, freely active beast. Our subconscious ideas are formed by our actions, our circumstances, our experiences. Every datum of input that strikes the mind shapes the mind. These data make often imperceptible (and currently immeasurably small) changes to our psychological makeup, and they become self-reinforcing.

Every time someone uses the phrase “that’s gay” as a pejorative, it reinforces the notion that that phrase is, indeed, a pejorative. And even those of us liberally-minded enough to be believers in equal rights for all sexual orientations, those of us who don’t espouse a conscious homophobia, will use that phrase to express a general dissatisfaction with a situation. Every time we use that phrase, we make homosexuality a deeper insult. The subconscious hears this, registers it, and makes it more valid to use again as a negative. When it becomes more valid as a negative descriptor of circumstances, it becomes more negative as a descriptor of human beings.

But we are not total slaves to this subconscious mechanism. Just because we have this predisposition towards using the word “gay” as an insult doesn’t mean that we must use it or interpret it as such. We are not immutable slaves to the subconscious.

It is possible—indeed, even easy—to use that part of the mind of which we are directly aware and which we feel ourselves to directly control to influence the subconscious. Remember: every datum shapes the mind. When someone says “that’s gay” and we make conscious note of the incorrectness of this descriptor, we reinforce the notion that the phrase is not, as it were, an apt description of the undesirable.

A campaign is running now to fight the use of this phrase because of the way it demeans homosexuals. What is, I think, more important to us as individuals, though, is the way that the use of phrases like this demeans ourselves, regardless of our sexual orientations. When we unthinkingly use a phrase like that, we are handing over a piece of our conscious agency to our subconscious apparatus. We surrender part of our freedom, our will, to a hidden agent inside the mind that acts without our mindful recognition and intention. As such, in order to re-assert our freedom from our own minds we must become mindful and aware of our actions, our words, our predispositions. When our casual language and assumptions conflict with our espoused beliefs, we can change those casual assumptions simply by refusing to allow the act to go unnoticed.

This cuts both ways.

Not only can we, through self-mindfulness, attack our implicit negative assumptions, but we can reinforce our positive assumptions. Every time you tell a loved one that you love them, you are reinforcing that love, and you are reinforcing love in general. This extends to the meta: every time you act in a mindful manner, you reinforce your own mindfulness.

This kind of awareness will not change our implicit assumptions overnight. But it will allow us to slowly take back our agency from the subconscious, it will allow us to slowly regain control over our own minds and our own ideas. Every single time we act to intentionally sculpt our own minds, we make a slight change.

The sculpting is not limited to linguistic actions. Ever single datum shifts the mind. It is well documented that certain postures and physical microexpressions express our state of mind without conscious intent of physical display. It has also been empirically documented that the reverse is true: intentionally adopted physical displays can influence our state of mind. So every time we hold our bodies in a posture of aggression, we reinforce our own aggression. Every time we hold our bodies in a posture of confidence, we reinforce our own confidence. Every time we hold our bodies in a posture of inferiority, we reinforce our own inferiority. And every time we hold our bodies in a posture of peace, we reinforce our own peace.

As we become aware of our actions, our words, and our bodies, we can shape our own minds, and through this we can build respect, peace, confidence, love. We can, if we so choose, cultivate a mindfulness of self that allows us, through sheer awareness, to make ourselves better. But remember: every single datum shifts the mind. So when you cultivate peace and respect in yourself, and your body and words start to reflect this state of being, you project that outwards into the minds of others. Your projection becomes their data, and the subconscious apparati of others are affected, changed, sculpted. Through making ourselves better, we can make those around us better. Through the simple act of being aware of our selves, we can become the change we wish to see in the world.

Categories: ethics, philosophy
  1. Narrative Fiction
    November 17, 2010 at 11:54 pm

    Your best post to date, I think and one which resonates deeply with me.

    One thought that occurred to me was the role of humor, especially satire, in this goal of mindfulness. With racial humor like the Chapelle Show, I’ve heard arguments on both sides as to whether or not the program’s effect is to further internalize racial attitudes, or to draw them out for examination. your thoughts?

    Satire I think may be a bit more clear cut in its aim and effect most times. Take for instance, “That’s Gay,” an infoMania segment hosted by Brian Safi. It seems pretty clear in its stabs just which attitudes it questions.

  2. November 18, 2010 at 9:09 am

    I intentionally didn’t discuss humor in this respect, because I think it can be hard to generalize into a global argument.

    At an abstract level, what we have to deal with is the coupling of ACTION with MEANING. That is, my claim here is that every time we absorb a particular datum into our psyche in a particular fashion, what we’re reinforcing is the legitimacy of that absorption method. This is a highly personal process.

    When Dave Chappelle cracks a racially-motivated joke, there is no way to a priori determine the effects it will have on the generalized individual psyche. The effect it has on the instantiated individual psyche apprehending that datum, however, becomes reinforced. So when those of us lacking in what we can call “racial sensitivity” listen to Chappelle and find him hilarious, we internally legitimize racially-motivated humor.

    Now, the more subtle effects of this legitimization are more difficult to understand. That is, when Chappelle cracks a joke about sleepy Mexicans, and I find it funny, I’m definitely reinforcing the legitimacy of the humor of that kind of joke. However, whether that reinforces the stereotype (thus propagating harmful racism) through access and use of it or subverts it (thus undermining harmful racism) through absurdifying it into the humorous realm is a question of the individual’s experience of the humor.

    However, once we have recognized the dual-pathway nature of this kind of thing, we can start to consciously adjust our own interpretation. That is, if we hear a racially-motivated joke, we can consciously capture it upon apprehension and make note of the absurdity of the stereotype against which it plays. If we do this, we reinforce the notion that the stereotype is, indeed, absurd, and in doing this we can subvert it internally.

    External conditions of racially-motivated humor are more difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain. That is, I can understand racially-motivated humor to be playing against the absurd, but if I make a racially-motivated joke, I require a very strong empathetic connection with the audience to determine if acceptance of that joke will reinforce or subvert negative stereotyping. As such, if we give a damn about the condition of held stereotypes in others, we have to be very careful about the style, manner, and context of our utterances (it is, I think, theoretically possible to deliver a joke in such a fashion that it lends itself so heavily towards an absurd absorption that we can utter with a safe assumption of general subversion, but that again requires a strong empathetic connection with the audience).

    At this point, the other reaction-reinforcement pathway worthy of consideration is offense-taking. Clearly, there are those who hear Chappelle’s jokes and react with disgust, finding him unhumorous, degrading, and insulting. A vocal reaction to this most definitely attacks the notion that the racial stereotypes against which he plays are wrong and untrue, and it certainly roots out a subconscious assignation of negativity towards other races.

    At this point, we have what can almost be thought of as an aesthetic choice between paths of fighting against subconscious racism. Do we wish to fight implicit racism head-on, attacking it by denying the humor of racially-motivated jokes and, more globally, calling implicit racism to carpet every time it appear, or do we want to fight it more subtly, subverting it my diverting implicit racism into attacks against racist assumptions; it becomes a choice of hard power versus soft power, and that choice (along with its myriad, deeper ramifications) is left, as it were, to the consumer.

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