Dissent and Compromise

Like the initiate of a secret society who has broken free from the undifferentiated collectivity, the individual on his lonely path needs a secret which for various reasons he may not or cannot reveal. Such a secret reinforces him in the isolation of his individual aims. A great many individuals cannot bear this isolation. They are the neurotics, who necessarily play hide-and-seek with others as well as with themselves, without being able to take the game really seriously. As a rule they end by surrendering their individual goal to their craving for collective conformity - a procedure which all the opinions, beliefs and ideals of their environment encourage. Moreover, no rational arguments prevail against the environment. Only a secret which the individual cannot betray - one which he fears to give away, or which he cannot formulate in words, and which therefore seems to belong to the category of crazy ideas - can prevent the otherwise inevitable retrogression. [1]
Plato's Cave

Many people express a desire for improvements in society; in fact, have you ever met anyone who does not? This desire would be a uniting common ground, were it not the very swamp of human conflict and struggle - and it is a reflection of the slippery nature of words, where changes which are 'improvements' according to one person are another's poison.

As people made 'improvements' in the economic efficiency of food production, hens came to be kept several to tiny cages in great batteries. Many thousands of hens to a warehouse are fed an output-maximising diet, manufacturing eggs Henry Ford style, with no time or energy wasted on running about or pecking the ground. We may compare this with the way in which many human beings are given little option but grudgingly to perform unpleasant, meaningless labour for a minimal wage, a wage which they are expected to return to the companies for manufactured consumables, including industrial food which allows the eater a short-term feeling of reward. Thousands of people are kept in grey blocks of flats or left to a sprawling mess of insubstantial sheds. Is this the good life for God's creatures, in this, our civilised world?

Many people know about these miseries - and countless others - from the world's news gatherers. Like coffee, only the 'highest quality' is gathered, and taken as a stimulating palliative at the end of the day, the brain having become so numb that it needs waking up in order to relax. News images stimulate a mental activity which satisfyingly discharge any motivation to act, reinforcing an association between real urgency and the womb of an armchair. Thus, many people know about these miseries yet are unaware of them. Life - even one's own - is in a box, just one channel among others. At the flick of a switch, heaven is available in the soap operas; hell - oblivion - would be to turn the machine off. Images on a screen, by their safe, emotional distancing, hardly affect us, and, in any case, the constant speedy excess of information paralyses our ability to think and act on it. If the news of suffering and injustice does affect us, we may seek out more information to help us make sense of it all, to verify, clarify and prioritise - ending up either chasing round in circles of information and interpretations or becoming lost in trivia. We may give money to charity, assuaging our conscience while closing our eyes to the causes of suffering - including our own. After all, perhaps the greatest guilt comes from the subliminal awareness that we ourselves are suffering but not doing anything about its causes, caught up in a system of hypocrisy which prides itself on enlightenment through truth and information, while casting a shadowy dark age of general insensitivity. - Perhaps this insensitivity becomes a psychological necessity, a defence against an avalanche of world reality which might come crashing down onto us: perception nowadays "streams into us 'modern souls'" so that "we ourselves are a kind of chaos."[2]

This is the view of an idealist who has swallowed a standard account of modern alienation. There is bountiful advice for the treatment of this condition. "Don't think so much", "get married", "grow up", "you're crazy", "just relax and enjoy yourself", and so on. Advertising imagery tells you how the modern person should live. Family has expectations of you: the same family - and society - who taught you to be good will become disturbed if you show signs of taking 'being good' to an unusual extreme. There may be much truth in these responses; morality can be a front for quite different motives, of course. But, then, by the same token, so can advice. A slight degree of youthful freedom is soon squashed by conventional expectations of adulthood, and one sees the greatest minds, in their youth, apparently committed to justice and radical change, settling, instead, for the 'good life'. The human spirit is complex and fickle, like a sheet of newspaper being blown down the street, a cry of horror at a story of domestic violence on one side, a naked woman on the other. Several years ago, a university friend, the son of one of England's highest law lords, the Lord Chief Justice, shook hands with me, agreeing that if he deviated from the path of righteousness, I would have the right to throw a brick through his window (I was calling myself an 'anarchist' at the time!). He tried to do some good at the World Bank - probably a contradiction in terms anyway - but soon ended up earning his millions at a commercial city company.

How far does one trust one's beliefs and motives, and how far does one take them? But, then, what are the beliefs and motives behind that question? Perhaps this is a symptom of a modern type, living in a rationalistic, technological society, cut off from their instinct. Plato, the father of modern reason, was suspicious of instinct, and, for him, the truth was to be found through a programme of education culminating in the perception of the highest, abstract, moral truths. But what if one's education system is mainly a process that contributes to conditioning us into accepting society's unhealthy norms and values, and into the perception of what's on TV - which is what I would call a perception of abstract truths. Perhaps this is no accident: if truth, in Plato's abstract, rationalistic sense, does not exist, then the illusion that it does can act as a cover behind which an education system serves other, concrete ends. For example, sociology has become the futile collection and analysis of meaningless statistics - meaningless because, in the name of 'objectivity', social data are (supposedly) stripped of any interpretation, and futile because it is impossible to generate meaning out of processed meaninglessness; 'data' only exist within some kind of perspective of interpretation. Learning, for its 'own sake', is what the world's most prestigious academic institutions pride themselves on. Yet there may be a mechanism of divide and rule at work behind this image: a sublimation of the questioning spirit into 'rational' argument, which, because of the very nature of reason, cannot lead anywhere in particular. Thus, the education system lives to serve the current ideological interests, while presenting itself otherwise. What does your instinct, if you can feel it, say about this?

Something which science has shown us is that when battery hens are given the choice to live outside in the open or to return to the enclosure of their cage, they will prefer their cage for a long time before venturing out into their eventually preferred open space.[3] Are we not all creatures of habit, in preferring even what we do not really like because it is familiar and seems safe? This accords with Plato's story of how difficult it is for someone to emerge, from deep inside the shadowy cave of their illusions, into the clear light of day:

'And if', I went on, 'he were forcibly dragged up the steep and rugged ascent and not let go till he had been dragged out into the sunlight, the process would be a painful one, to which he would much object, and when he emerged into the light his eyes would be so dazzled by the glare of it that he wouldn't be able to see a single one of those things he was now told were real.' [4]
We may grant that Plato spoke much truth, too.

Our Caves

How do we come to recognise our own cave? A cave is like a womb - or an ancient memory of the womb - before the violent trauma of birth. Indeed, Plato presents Socrates as a midwife of ideas.[5] The cave is also like a dull lounge or bar with a TV in the corner, the distorted shadows cast by the crackling fire onto the cave wall like the images transmitted onto the glass surface of the cathode ray tube.

I find it fascinating the way a single night's dream can have so much more of a real impact on us than anything we've watched on TV for a whole month. One night, my brother had a dream - a nightmare - about dissidents in a tyrannical black African state publicly being tied to logs and burnt alive, their flesh bubbling and cracking like meat. This kind of dream has a visceral impact, emotionally confronting one with realities that might otherwise have been acknowledged only very superficially. The dream may have several different meanings, perhaps at both the psychological and political levels, but it made such an impression on the dreamer as to make it difficult to ignore. I believe that dreams are one of humanity's sources of wisdom, now, sadly, ever more shouted down and crowded out by the constant onslaught of the advertising and media industry, or trivialised in the majority of 'self-help' books.

The real is what really feels real. If we open our heart to it, we are led there. This happens through a mixture of head and heart, although we, in this Western European culture, so dominated by the head, often need to make a special effort to find the heart - without mistaking the heart for the crudities of Americanised emotionality. As Kant famously put it, "thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind."[6]

When we notice the wounds of falsehood, hypocrisy and lack of compassion, both within ourselves and without, we become aware of the cave, that there is a cage around us. We look for a way out, becoming aware of a space of greater alternatives. Yet we also like the familiarity and security of our old home, even if we know that we could be better off by leaving it. Perhaps we imagine that we can bring the wonders outside into our cage with us; but that would be to crush the very beauty that attracts us, in the decadent grip of bitterness and resentment - often, our rancour will even drive us actively to seek out and destroy beauty. Unable to see a way out, we tire our bodies and minds shaking the bars and cursing the world we live in, fighting and scheming amongst ourselves in displaced frustration.

The Sun

We are the animal which knows, consciously, that it is going to die. Thus, the cavemen retreated into the cave in fear. Coming out into the sunlight, we know we have to risk - even welcome - death as the end of life, otherwise, we deny the path of life itself. As the sun warms the skin, we feel the ultimate condition of our existence. The sun burns itself out unreservedly, giving us life, willing its own end; afraid of willing our own, we slump in shame at our vulnerability and impermanence, preferring to bury our head in the sand. (For, if our head is not in the clouds, it is only, in fact, our head that is in the cave, since there is no total escape from the blindingly obvious).

Do not underestimate the depth of our fear of seeing through conventional values, when they serve to shield us from this greater fear of death. We know - both too well and not well enough - how the dissenter must live with their new vision and how it is received, back amongst the cave-dwellers:

And if he had to discriminate between the shadows, in competition with the other prisoners, while he was still blinded and before his eyes got used to the darkness - a process that would take some time - wouldn't he be likely to make a fool of himself? And would they not say that his visit to the upper world had ruined his sight, and that the ascent was not worth even attempting. And if anyone tried to release them and lead them up, they would kill him if they could lay hands on him. [7]
The oppressor will evade acknowledgement of their own imprisonment by imprisoning the dissenter, and will evade acknowledgement of their own end by killing the dissenter - denying freedom and life because they know that they, themselves, are neither free nor fully alive.

Like the sun, we rise - and may, even, rise above - day after day…

The Mouth of the Cave

A rather negative picture has been painted of the cave, and of the womb, woman's organ of life, growth, protection, preparation, and a kind of immortality through regeneration. The fire at the mouth of the cave would protect its vulnerable inhabitants from outside attack. The cave walls would be painted with some of the first images, by brothers and sisters in the close proximity of a dark, intimate place. The baby is umbilically connected with the womb wall, touching it with its hands and kicking it with its feet; upside-down, bat-like, waiting for the time when it is ready to leave this closure and breathe the fresh air.

The cave - the womb - is just as good as the sunlight, just as much the source of life as the sun. It is this that Plato forgets, mistakenly seeing the darkness as all bad, the light as all good. A child can leave the womb too soon, a bat can leave the cave before winter's end, the caveman could venture too far outside the cave at the wrong time. Jung saw clearly that a human being suffers mainly insofar as their light and dark, conscious and unconscious, known and unknown are not integrated into some kind of positive relationship. Plato, by contrast, oversimplified the distinction between good and bad, offering a somewhat disintegrating - repressive - view of experience and the world; he was reacting, after all, against the values of Homeric, oral poetry and of Greek tragedy, where the full, kaleidoscopic range of experience was celebrated in voice and music, body and mind.

Described in other terms, lack of integration is the repression, by organised powers above, of elemental forces below, and this operates simultaneously at both the psychological/spiritual and social/ political levels:

Our arms are branches heavy with fruit:
the enemy shakes and shakes us,
and the better to harvest our fruit
they don't chain our feet, they fetter our minds... [8]

It is not enough that the people wake up, that they finally become aware of their misery and the causes thereof. True, there is a great deal of elemental power, more power indeed than in the government, taken together with all the ruling classes; but an elemental force lacking organization is not a real power. It is upon this uncontestable advantage of organized force over the elemental force of the people that the might of the State is based. [9]

The most effective form of political repression is executed through the collective self-repression of individuals. A society replicates and evolves its values - homeostatically maintains the body-politic - by conditioning its individual members to feel and think in specific ways; parenting, education and the media being the most obvious strands of this process. It is easy to underestimate the power of the urge to conform, to attain and maintain the 'love' and 'acceptance' of one's parents, family, fellow citizens, and - last but not least - of one's self. Of course, every human being needs love and acceptance, and needs it from the bottom of their heart. But this goes to show the level of psychic torture caused by being 'loved' and 'accepted' only for being something other than we really are. It is in this sense, that psychological and political repression are the systematic and institutional corruption of Love. To dissent from this repression is to affirm the real, rather than to compromise one's self and others.

The conclusion, then, has to be that overcoming repression can only be carried out at both the political and psychological levels; in principle, one cannot genuinely happen without the other. To "become what you are!"[10] is both a personal and political struggle, a struggle to find one's voice at the mouth of the cave.

And, all the while, the moon dances rings around us…


  1. Carl Gustav Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, translated by Richard and Clara Winston, Random House 1961; p.376.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, translated by R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin 1990; 224.
  3. Marion Dawkins (1977) 'Do Hens Suffer in Battery Cages?: Environmental Preference and Welfare', Animal Behaviour, 25, p.1034.
  4. Plato, The Republic, translated by Desmond Lee, Penguin 1974; 515e-516a.
  5. Plato, Theaetetus, translated by Robin A.H.Waterfield, Penguin 1987; 148e-151e.
  6. Emmanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, translated by Norman Kemp Smith, Macmillan 1929; A51/B75).
  7. Plato, The Republic; 518e-517a.
  8. Nazim Hikmet, Rubaiyat, translated by Randy Blasing and Mutlu Konuk, Copper Beech Press, 1985, p.42.
  9. Michael Bakunin, Social and Economic Bases of Anarchism, in Irving L.Horowitz, ed., The Anarchists, Dell 1964; p.132.
  10. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by R.J.Hollingdale, Penguin 1969; Part Four, The Honey Offering, p.252.
By Keith Fisher, August 1998.

Further web links:

Human nature
Maybe the planet would be better off without any of us. 'What we have is the mentality of a coyote and the ability to create all manner of weapons. Alexei Sayle.'
4.1.01 Independent Mankind is far more beastly than the beasts. 'From a talk on George Orwell, given by the novelist and critic Margaret Drabble to the Royal Society of Literature.'
23.12.00 Telegraph Leader - Thank you. 'Throughout the year, these pages are full of accounts of murders, rapes and man's unpleasantness to man. It is easy to forget that the great majority of the British are well disposed towards their fellow beings, and want nothing more than to help them.'
Media and debate
5.3.01 Guardian Take a proper gander. 'A survey shows that party political advertising is a waste of money. But then doesn't effective propaganda work best without the target's knowledge? Claire Cozens consults the people who have tried to tell you how to vote.'
17.1.01 Guardian Staging TV debates further dumbs down the politicians. 'In an age of stage-managed elections, control of the image is all.'
15.1.01 Times Letter - Honesty's place in politics today
10.1.01 Times Letters - Modern philosophical debate and the nerve to think. '...From Mr Keith Fisher.'
28.7.00 Independent The illusion and delusion of information
Loose tongues and liberty. 'As the only animals with the power of speech, we should revel in our ability to challenge the forces that try to silence us, whatever the consequences. By Hanif Kureishi.'
China 'sending dissidents to mental hospitals'
The Taliban of the west. 'This war is threatening the very freedoms it claims to be defending. George Monbiot.'
18.9.01 Guardian The need for dissent. 'Voices from Britain and the US highlight the risks of a hasty response.'
2.5.01 BBC Actress 'angered' by May Day reaction
22.2.01 Guardian Wearing a T-shirt makes you a terrorist. 'Anything with a slogan could put you outside the law now.'
1.2.01 Guardian It's official: I'm a menace to society. 'Simply carrying copies of my book is enough to get you banned.'