True oppression and the political problem of the mind


graphic by Tyler Herron

In the midst of one recent midnight dorm discussion, my friend Jonathan brought up the knotty topic of mental health: How much is outside encouragement to blame for things like suicide? More generally, to what extent is the mind controlled by influences beyond its reach?

I ended up conversing heatedly with my friend Rohan, an ambitious and passionate future neuroscientist, about a subject I knew very little about: the brain. Biological influence came into play after Rohan held that conditioning could influence the brain beyond one’s control. Eventually, so the argument went, one develops an obligation, like Pavlov’s dogs, to simply respond. Suicide is only an extreme example, a result of perhaps years of such “˜conditioning’ that could assumedly cause other mental illnesses.

Although Rohan may not have known it, he made a great case for “˜safe spaces.’ The battle for free speech right now is being fought in academia, but it’s not being fought well. Safe spaces have borne their fair share of ridicule over the course of their recent intrusion, but few people have gotten to the core of why they’re so fundamentally wrong.

It’s more than just pampered elitists getting easily offended; after all, the contemporary left brands itself as nonconformist, breaking socially constructed oppressive barriers with a karate chop of some kind that isn’t an appropriation of East Asian cultures. The critical left is all about invading traditionally “˜safe’ spaces like the church or the academy or the Boy Scouts. The campus safe space issue goes deeper than just some liberal double standard. Repression of free speech in the academy springs from the idea that people are the result of things they can’t control. The onus of personal responsibility is shifted from the actor to some other source “” a trigger.

Critical progressives causally link trauma, PTSD, anxiety and other mental disturbances to external factors, typically the great boogeyman of the oppressive society. Safe spaces are supposed to address this by providing a therapeutic, equal oasis where such factors can be diminished.

It’s about more than just dangerous exposure to different ideas, it’s about first establishing the right to exist, about preventing psychological issues that lead to grade slippage, rage, obesity, death, you name it. Rather than diminish the value of these issues, we should examine the faulty logic of this claim.

The state of modern academia leads us to leave the dubious link between white guy dreads and impending mental illness alone for right now. Additionally, no one could reasonably dispute that conditions like PTSD are indeed externally triggered.

However, taking an issue seriously doesn’t mandate the acceptance of progressive thought. More fundamentally important is the thesis that the actions of another person can force one outside the realm of individual judgment.

Arguably, it may just be human nature to want to foist personal responsibility on something else, like fate or astrology. Our postmodern age is no different; maybe we’ve just traded the sidereal for the biological or societal. I am, and thus I think “” that sums up the progressive principle of personal decision.

Words have power “” of that I am intimately aware. However, to claim that someone’s speech can render others unable to control themselves is to rob individuals of their agency. If human thought is but driftwood buffeted by society and biology, the individual cannot steer himself.

I recall how just before Trinity’s New Student Orientation Diversity Lecture, all of the speakers were sitting in an empty Laurie Auditorium, giving their prepared speeches for practice. One student told the story of her Puerto Rican grandmother’s tenacity in the face of discrimination and heavy familial responsibilities.

One professor said, “That’s great, that’s inspiring, but remember you don’t want to send the message that just anybody can lift themselves up by their bootstraps.” Inspiring indeed. Yes we can! But no, you can’t.

The implications of materialism are hollow and horrifying. Free will becomes a feeble myth compared to the ineluctable forces of one’s status or physiology. Although the concept in its purest form really only enjoys influence in university dissertations, it’s spread its tentacles into the public. We see it on the news every time a terrorist strikes and it had to have been his parents, his hometown, his mental health, anything but his choice of belief. We see it in the courtroom when people are convicted for encouraging suicide “” a despicable thing to do, to be sure, but it doesn’t rob someone of their own personal agency. Life itself, to the modernist, becomes nothing more than the result of chemical luck.

Je pense, donc je suis. “I think, therefore I am.” I won’t go so far as to embrace Descartes’ sentiment as down-the-line conservative thought, but as far as free will goes, we should embrace the idea that individuals control themselves, not that their state of being predicates their thoughts and actions.

We should reject the materialist idea that we think because of what we are. Otherwise, the societal enslaves the individual. A person who is at the mercy of their society thus loses all control. That is true oppression.

Interestingly enough, my friend Rohan has a devoted interest in Stoic philosophy, which is all about overcoming the forces that seek to conquer the will. Just as a little prophecy of Isaiah, somewhere down the line that belief will clash with his self-professed materialism “” but then again, he can choose to ignore that.