The following article was first published on The Alternative UK on Oct 12, 2019
Pop music may be an unlikely metaphor for saving the world, but in the constant reinvention and embracing of new sounds that so typifies popular music across the western world, we might find inspiration for some profound, existential thinking.
From the cultural revolution of the 1960s, sound-tracked by psychedelia and the birth of a youth culture voracious for an identity mapped by sound, onto the brutal simplicity of punk, to dance music and to hip hop, the new can be inspiring and keeps perspectives fresh. Ground-breaking musical ideas are what pop music, at its best, is all about.
In a world beset with myriad global problems like climate change, economic injustice and populist leaders using racist rhetoric and mass disinformation, the time for groundbreaking ideas has never been more important.
But new ideas demand courage and honesty. New ideas require us to question deeply held convictions with intellectual rigour.
Much as a former metalhead might suddenly discover soul music and realise there is a wider world out there, so too might we, as a species, broaden our immediate horizons and see a world beyond that which has been handed to us.
Such a shattering of horizons is already happening in economics, where New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern recently announced that her government’s new budget will be based on the wellbeing of citizens, instead of the standard model of GDP.
Although a new approach in the western world, since the 1970s the Kingdom of Bhutan has operated a Gross National Happiness Index as a barometer of the nation’s success. This approach finds another modern analogue in Kate Raworth’s groundbreaking economic theories, expounded in her best-selling book Doughnut Economics where she exposes the fallacies at the heart of mainstream global economics.
This sort of talk is heresy not just to neoliberal economists but to almost anyone who has a grounding in modern economic theory. However, Raworth’s ideas are gaining traction and are already being used at the highest level of the United Nations to help direct their Sustainable Development Goals.
These are ideas which are based, not on the received wisdom of the past, but that instead question and reconsider everything we thought we knew about economics from the ground up.
In politics, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez as a figurehead of the new left in the USA has begun to ask serious questions about how the global political establishment operates. The mantra of her team, echoing down the corridors of power in Washington is best exemplified by one backroom staffer Ariel Eckblad, speaking to the Washington Post.
The basic premise is that we’ve created the worlds we live in, and so, maybe, we can recreate them.
Regardless of your political persuasion, this is a simple, obvious and provable maxim that could reset the tone for an entire political generation. But to think this way requires the courage to look at the world in a different way from how you have been brought up. It requires you to look at (you might say) a stranger’s music collection with an open mind and decide to listen to something which at first glance might not seem to have relevance to your own life.
In this spirit, what if we now direct our attention towards that which human beings prize most of all and are most resistant to changing – our sense of cultural identity and the traditions that form us?
When it comes to our relationship to our belief systems we remain children, mired in the restrictive concept that the way we see the world is how reality actually is.
Our inherited beliefs carry the weight of family history, environment and tradition. We bow to them for their moral and historical gravitas. They can be fundamentally illogical and supernatural and yet we are expected to respect their claims to defining a path or understanding of reality, and often they do offer useful paths for exploring and coming to terms with life. But that does not mean to say they are an accurate depiction of reality.
As a white male brought up in the west coast of Scotland, I have seen my fair share of sectarian violence enacted in the name of the true people. Catholics vs Protestants, Celtic fans vs Rangers fans, Republicans vs Royalists or any other permutation of the same stain that mars Northern Ireland’s cultural landscape. That Hibernian blemish finds its pathetic echo in the bigotry and inward-looking tribalism of large swaths of my hometown Glasgow and across other parts of Scotland too.
We are hardly unique in this context. It is very easy to choose a side and accept your place within a broader cultural context. But that’s not good enough anymore. Not with so much at stake on our small planet.
I’m going to make an assumption of my readers and hopefully it will not be too far-fetched. Assuming we are willing to accept basic historical and anthropological arguments as to how human civilisation formed, we shall proceed on the basis that our ideological beliefs are composed of the details and artefacts of our cultural and environmental histories and how they have shaped the present day.
A thought experiment: What if you, as someone with a clear sense of how they understand their environment and how they should act within it, were born in a different ideological environment? The odds of finding yourself in the correct environment would be astronomical.
What if you, a Sudanese Muslim, were born in an atheist Chinese family? You would feel rather out of place most of your life. But of course, you wouldn’t, because the highest likelihood is that you, as a product of your environment, would be a Chinese atheist. Cultures and tribes have come and gone throughout history. Yours, the one you identify with, the one that in some circumstances you might fight and die for, is no different.
This suggests one large, uncomfortable truth: Everything you believe in, the way you view the world, is nothing more than the circumstantial detritus of history that we use in the present to help define ourselves.
The wars and terrorism that occur across the globe, the populist far-right, the jihadists, the dictatorial communists on the left, or the status quo hugging centrists, for all the other factors that contribute to these movements, they all rely on restricted cultural viewpoints that enhance tribal differences and which are then played upon by any charismatic leader with a desire to stamp their truth on the world.
The same can be said about any of the great ideological power structures around the globe. Countries, religions, political groups, all rely on the assent of those who identify as them and with them.
As a species we rework much of human society in order to improve it. Archeologists and historians are constantly reevaluating and shifting their conclusions when new evidence comes to light. Natural scientists do the same when new information is presented to them.
For example, in modern western medicine we no longer seriously believe that phrenology is an accurate predictor of personality traits. If we can learn to treat group identity in the same light, there should be no reason (other than sentiment) that ideological boundaries cannot be redrawn or erased altogether.
This is not an advocation for a singular, global pan-culture, or for smaller, minority cultures to become absorbed within dominant ideologies. Enough damage has been caused by larger cultures lording over minority cultures through human history for that proposal not to sound terrifying.
Indeed, it is the dominant world ideologies that require this new thinking far more than smaller groups since given their size and power, they are inextricably linked to the global problems we face.
YOUR TRIBAL IDENTITY DOESN’T EQUAL YOUR TRUTH
What I would like to argue for is something far more complex than the erasure of cultural traditions and beliefs. I would like to promote the idea that ideologies come to be seen as they truly are – non-absolute, ever-evolving ideals which have no claim to the true way to be for anyone on this planet.
Again, I am not dismissing the glorious panoply of human cultures. That should be preserved and celebrated as we do with all things in which we instil worth.
I am talking about a new way of thinking. I am talking about an open-ended ideology of ideology, to spread the idea that whatever you believe is not necessarily true but is in fact, a rich and interesting element of human history to be experienced – but no more correct or true for you than any of the innumerable other ideologies you have not yet experienced or lived within.
We must find a way to make a species-wide psychological leap from “these things I believe define the true nature of reality” to “these things I believe are only historical rituals I practice in celebration of my culture and are open to interpretation.”
This idea is not as far-fetched as you might think. It happens throughout history. It is happening right now.
Christianity, as it is practised in Europe is a far different beast to the Christianity that was practised across the same continent for hundreds of years prior to the last two centuries. Indeed, even the second Vatican council in 1962 fundamentally changed how mainstream Catholicism is practised along with the relationship between clergy and laypersons. The fall of the iron curtain in eastern Europe in 1989 also caused a massive shift in self-identity for the people of the former Soviet countries.
Change in our sense of group identity also happens on a micro level every day. People with inquisitive minds learn about new cultures and religions constantly, embracing them as identity shifts and new practices are adopted.
This planet, this human race, needs new thinking. It needs us, the current guardians of the earth and of the species on it, to start questioning the deepest assumptions about who we are and why we should do the things we do. And from there, maybe we can apply that startling human ingenuity to create new ways of thinking about ourselves.
Ultimately, we must learn to tolerate uncertainty in our sense of group identity. Such an approach would lay waste to much of current populist sentiment and its attendant dangers – war, persecution of the other and powerful entities using patriotic sentiment to direct and control people.
Why is it so acceptable that lines drawn on maps, that we as individuals likely had no hand in, have become so important that we would fight and die for them? Especially when our sense of nationalism is usually only the product of historical chance, the dictates of merchant capitalism, tribal warfare and early advancements in cartography.
Suggestions like this won’t go down well in places like Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine or even the streets of Glasgow, because we immediately move into arguments of borders and ideologies protecting ethnic identities.
I argue that this is an unacceptable approach, placing abstract concepts and historical, human-generated ideas of country, religion and ethnicity above the wellbeing of living people.
Give multiculturalism a couple more hundred years and inter-ethnic relationships between opposing sides will probably make it too confusing to know who you should be pointing your guns at, searching at a checkpoint or defining as other.
What of daily life, of living unmoored from a traditional belief system which makes us feel rooted and part of something greater than ourselves? What happens once we step back from the abstract argument above? Can we ever convince people to loosen their internal grip on their group identity, to self-identify as untethered, new, seeking?
The logical conclusion to my train of thought would be to fundamentally re-arrange human society from the ground up. Leaving aside convincing most people on earth to view their beloved traditions and belief systems as happenstance and accident, there are still the world’s major political, economic and ideological power structures to deal with, all inevitably resistant to anything that threatens the status quo.
But that’s not to say we can’t start the slow and steady march towards this next stage in our intellectual evolution by opening the debate, much as Ariel Eckblad and AOC are trying to do in the US political landscape and Kate Raworth is showing can be done with global economic theory.
To be liberated from the chains of the past, to view human ideology and belief as a beautiful tapestry to be admired, rather than a rulebook to be slavishly followed no matter the cost, allows a blank canvas to paint a better future on. It allows constant change, which allows endless possibility.
Could we see an end to the forces that propel genocide, war, closed borders and an end to human beings used as pawns in the games of the powerful? All these things are possible when you remove the factors that allow human populations to be manipulated and directed according to the whims of power or a paranoid fear of difference.
The most important development for human society in the 21st century will be the removal of tribal identity from an equalisation with your truth. Framing historical belief systems as the only songs worth singing has led us far in human history, uniting people to build civilisations and accomplish amazing things.
But if we are to build a better, more inclusive world, it’s time to stop listening to the songs of the past and instead write some new tunes for a new future. And any pop kid will tell you, there’s nothing more exciting than hearing a great new song.
To quote the great pop philosopher Edwin Collins, ‘rip it up and start again.’