Nature or nurture? A question that has eluded not only me but the entire human race for as long as we have existed. If we were to solve this perennial debate once and for all, then humanity might just be able to rectify some of today’s most pressing concerns. But is this really possible? It dawned on me the other day while watching the highly unorthodox film Gummo that the ability to diverge away from conventional wisdom is possible, that objectivity is nothing but a fallacy. When it is all said and done, when the bleak midwinter arrives, I want to ascend from this earth knowing that I did all I could to improve the lives of the people around me. This is certainly not a novel notion, millions if not billions of humans have set this is as their primary function for millennia. You would think that a happy ending should result, wouldn’t you? Just flick on any news channel and you will see that a happy ending has yet to materialise. Death, disease, war, climate change. Rinse and repeat. It’s not a pretty sight. Yet does it have to be like this? Surely original sin is as much of a fallacy as objectivity? Well perhaps it isn’t, and perhaps we have been fools for attempting to perfect humanity. Persuading eight billion people to follow a single path to emancipation is incomprehensible. But fear not. There is a reason to hope and there is a reason to smile, for the sun still shines and the water continues to glisten beneath it.
Long story short, Gummo serves as the catalyst for this piece because it is so bloody different. If you want to see a film with essentially no plot, no structure and no central protagonists then I highly recommend it. The ‘essential building blocks’ of a film, as termed by John Yorke, are simply ignored by the director of Gummo, which I found immensely refreshing. Not only was it interesting to see a film totally unique in its manifestation, so too was it reassuring. It made me feel like it is possible to break the mould, not only in film but in numerous facets of the world we inhabit, not excluding socio-economic systems. Gummo inadvertently propelled me into a mad frenzy of research. Are we socialised into accepting ‘norms’, norms that are nothing more than make-believe, or are we pre-disposed into becoming something that we have no real control over? Moreover, how do we really know if we’re dismissing something that has long been accepted? May it be that the degree in which we dissent at orthodoxy is confined by the orthodoxy itself? More questions than answers at this point.
In the West, to be slim, well groomed and tanned is to be vogue. If you were to ask most people today to describe their definition of beauty, there would be a discernable pattern in their answers. If the Tardis was to arrive suddenly at your front door with the Doctor pleading you to accompany him/her to the 18th century, upon arrival you would discover that tastes differed tremendously. What is yearned for by the masses in 2018 would be laughed at by the elite of 1718. To be tanned meant you were an impoverished agrarian, to be slim meant you had few means of sustenance, to have white teeth meant you were unable to afford the luxury goods of cocoa and sugar. If you were a corpulent, pasty man or woman with a crooked smile, then you were you the cream of the crop in 18th century Europe! Who would have thought it? You see, nothing is rigid enough so that we have to accept it as an objective truth. A reverence for tradition may well be advised in some ways, but just because something currently exists does not mean it has always existed nor does it mean it should have to exist well into the future and beyond. After all, homo sapiens have only inhabited this planet for a minuscule proportion of its existence. Did neoliberalism constitute a central pillar of planet earth directly after the big bang? I’ll let you make your mind up on that one.
For better or for worse, those at the helm of society tend to forge fictional justifications for why it is them who are the best off and not others. These justifications then act to perpetuate the established order, hence the creation of rich and poor, Brahmins and Shudras, Ying and Yang, the list goes on. We are all biologically created the same way, more or less, and while different genetic makeups ensure some people are born with natural talents, their position within a socially stratified environment largely determines whether this talent is optimised through attentive nurture or whether it stagnates, never materialising into something spellbinding. No better case study exists to exemplify this point than that of slavery. Were slaves in North America and Western Europe predominantly black simply because they were racially inferior? If anything it is the opposite case. Western Africans were less susceptible to malaria and yellow fever, two diseases which were decimating North American workers, therefore it made economic sense for colonial business moguls to select Africa as a point of investment. The pre-existing slave networks in Africa affirmed this decision.
However, from a moral standpoint, these reasons for exploiting the African people would not suffice, which is why you begin to see the eugenics movement come into the frame around the same time; the belief that the condition of the human race could be enhanced through discouraging reproduction of certain persons and encouraging breeding by persons presumed to be racially superior. Aristotle believed slaves to possess a ‘slavish nature’ which was meant to account for their position in society. That somehow being a slave was uniquely innate to slaves themselves. The same sort of tenuous justifications came to apply to the transatlantic slave trade. In reality, these justifications are easily refutable. In the words of Noah Yuval Harari, ‘there is no biological difference between slaves and free people. Human laws and norms have turned some people into slaves and others into masters’. But slavery, at least in its original form, has been eradicated by most countries today, proof that orthodoxy is not objective, and that it can be disregarded for the betterment of humanity.
At this point, there is certainly reason to be optimistic. The changes we seek can be realised if we want them enough! This has been the perception of thousands before you and will continue to be the perception of thousands in the centuries to come. What I have realised, however, is that this perception is fundamentally flawed, and ultimately selfish, for it contravenes the basic principle of pluralism. If you were a slave, you would view the abolishment of slavery as a good thing, but if you were a slave owner, then you would not. Slavery is not objectively a good thing nor is it objectively a bad thing. Who really has the right to deem it one way or the other? I personally think slavery is abhorrent, but just because I think that does not confirm my opinion as an objective, everlasting truth. This presents a very tricky problem. It is believed that since the Enlightenment and the dawn of humanism and secularism, that increased reverence for the human race has been a step in the right direction. The dogma of religion has been slowly quelled by organising the human race based on approbation for the condition of man and woman. Since the Enlightenment we have given birth to doctrines of fascism, communism, neo-liberalism – all of which have inflicted havoc upon millions, condemning them to lives of misery. Even though science is now law, it has not prevented the proliferation of revolutionary movements akin to religious ones. The ongoing attempt to answer the human need for meaning has simply disguised itself in a veil of humanism. Once a revolution is accomplished, a revolutionary becomes, by definition, a conservative. It was only after registering this did I realise there will never be an answer. As one socio-economic system is replaced by another, regardless of how smooth this transition is, there will never be one that quenches everybody’s thirst. This is why we need to study history if we are to avoid the mistakes of our predecessors. My definition of freedom is different than my neighbours, but then is this because we have experienced different paths, in that we have been socialised differently into believing separate strands of ideology, or is it because of something else? It is beyond fathomable.
Universal truths have never existed and never will, despite what you are taught to believe. Question everything. Don’t be quick to judge. And breathe it all in. This is the beauty of it all! I sit here now in awe of the world I’m immersed in. Pragmatism, cooperation, and compromise are essential if we want this human race to proposer for future generations. But wait. Ask yourself this. Are they?
Written by Joe Tomsett