Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Twilight Zone Episode: Number 12 Looks Just Like You

This is one of my favourite Twilight Zone episodes and I thought for a change of pace I would share it with my readers.

The Plot (from Wikipedia)

In a future society, all young adults go through a process known as "the Transformation," in which each person's body and face are changed to mimic a physically attractive design chosen from a small selection of numbered models. The process gives everyone a beautiful appearance, slows deterioration due to age and extends a person's lifespan, and makes the recipient immune to any kind of disease.

The motive of the Transformation is social harmony. According to Professor Sig, a psychologist with the Transformation service, "Years before, wiser men than I…saw that physical unattractiveness was one of the factors that made men hate, so they charged the finest scientific minds with the task of eliminating ugliness in mankind."

18-year-old Marilyn Cuberle decides not to undergo the Transformation, seeing nothing wrong with her unaltered appearance. Nobody else can understand Marilyn's decision, and those around her are confused by her displeasure with the conformity and shallowness of contemporary life. Her "radical" beliefs were fostered by her now-deceased father, who gave Marilyn banned books and came to regret his own Transformation years earlier and committed suicide upon the loss of his identity.

imageDespite continued urging from family, doctors, and her best friend, Marilyn is still adamant about refusing the operation. She insists that the leaders of society don't care whether people are beautiful or not, they just want everyone to be the same. Her pleas about the "dignity of the individual human spirit" and how "when everyone is beautiful, no one will be" have no impact. After being driven to tears by the inability of anyone to understand how she feels, she is put through the procedure and (like all the others) is enchanted with the beautiful result.

Dr. Rex, who operated on Marilyn, comments about how some people have problems with the idea of the Transformation but that "improvements" to the procedure now guarantee a positive result, thus indicating that there may be modifications made to the mind as well. Marilyn reappears, looking and thinking exactly like her best friend Valerie. "And the nicest part of all, Val," she gushes, "I look just like you!" The last shots are of her, admiring herself in the mirror and smiling.

A clip



The whole point of science fiction in general and the Twilight Zone in particular is to get you to see the world from a different perspective with all sorts of possibilities either wonderful or terrible.   From when the episode first aired in 1964 to the present we can see how our society is moving ever closer to the society depicted in the story.  It is a question of degrees and with each passing year our world increasingly resembles Marilyn’s. 

The author of the Wikipedia article noted, “It is believed that dating, looking sexy, sex, and marrying or mating is done often, (Val comments on how everyone marries 10 or 12 times). The society is probably sex-centered, since Lana, Val and Marilyn (after being made sexy) are only wearing some leggings and tank swimsuits.”  Since the dawn of humankind women have always used sex and beauty to their advantage.  Here we have a sort of hyper-feminised culture where this natural tendency is elevated to an extreme at the expense of everything else.  Likewise, many of the men portrayed are also feminized.

Notice in the clip the authors that Marilyn had been reading and Dr. Friend denounced as illegal smut.  Most were Romantic poets.  Now what if, just what if, there really are secret masters.  What if they discovered that they did not have to outlaw reading great writers, or certain philosophies, or understanding history and politics.  What if they discovered that if you give people enough bread and circuses that such knowledge becomes deemed unnecessary in fulfilling their desires --  to be beautiful, sexy, popular, and to have fun.  What if they discovered that they did not have to outlaw or burn such ideas, but just make them irrelevant so that people chose not to read them.  Sure, you could have the intellectuals, but they would be weirdoes tolerated by society. 

The thing is, during the Nineteenth Century, Charles Dickens went on a sold-out international lecturing tour and Lord Byron was a rock star.  Sure, Charles Dickens did not sell as well as the authors of the penny-dreadfuls, but he was popular nonetheless.  He was not quarantined as an “intellectual” as if he was different from everyone else.  Going to a Dickens lecture was mainstream entertainment.

In Celtic faerie tales, the sidh or faeries would cast a spell, usually over themselves, so that they appeared radiantly beautiful to humans.  This deception was called a glamour.  This Scots Gaelic word has moved into common modern usage to mean beautiful, alluring, or having sex appeal, but the word still retains its meaning of illusion and deception.

What motivates a teenager?  All humans need food, shelter, clothing, and property and humans often judge each other according to how well they can acquire these necessities of life.  It is not just about having these things but also having the knowledge and character traits that facilitate such success.  In the real world knowledge is power and a benefit.  But teenagers do not live in the real world.  Their needs are provided for them.  They are judged by the adults by their grades and by their peers by their popularity.  These involve two entirely different skill sets.  Among the teenagers, the geek is the outcast and the beauty gets the crown, but as adults traditionally the geek gets the high paying job and the beauty usually has to marry well to survive.  The value of glamour is a glamour, a passing illusion.

But what if adult life was more like high school?  What if the State took care of you in your adult life as your parents had when you were a teenager.  Wouldn’t the adult world become more like high school where the air-headed bimbo had a high social value because she was hot and the intellectual was an outcast?  I’m not suggesting that society has reached that point, however there is a very large segment of the population conditioned to that way of thinking and it is portrayed often in the mass media as desirable. 

I have read arguments among the feminists regarding a split in their ranks.  One group sees sexuality as female empowerment and another as female denigration, but lets face it, women get more status in society, even among other women, by being sexy than by being a stodgy feminist intellectual.  In his book, Letters From the Earth, Mark Twain supposes that if by magic the old men denouncing sexuality were made young for the day that they would spend that day trying to get some.  I suspect the same could be said of stodgy feminists.

In this episode we discover that Marilyn’s father had committed suicide after the having the procedure.  This was before changes were made to the mind as well as the body.  You can imagine why this might be necessary as the mind is essentially rejecting the new body, just as the body might reject a transplanted organ.  The mind has to accept the notion that being beautiful and sexy is the highest of values in order to fully appreciate the new flesh, but in the end it is only an illusion.

I can see how the benefits offered by the transformation can free mankind from the tyranny of the flesh.  I’ve discovered as I have grown older that my mind has not changed.  As a single man with no offspring my lifestyle has not really changed since my youth.  What has changed is my body.  Like gender dysphoria  where a person believes themselves to be inhabiting the body of the wrong gender, we find our minds trapped in a body of the wrong age.  The mind is young and nimble but the body is old and with that outward appearance comes the social reactions and judgements.  The actions of a young man that society my deem cool and sexy are viewed as creepy when done by an older man.  So age forces you to grow-up and to adopt other values more in keeping with reality.  Would eternal youth produce a society of teenagers where sexuality, status, and fun become the most important things in life?  Perhaps.

Rod Serling closes the episode with these words:

Portrait of a young lady in love - with herself. Improbable? Perhaps. But in an age of plastic surgery, body building and an infinity of cosmetics, let us hesitate to say impossible. These and other strange blessings may be waiting in the future, which after all, is the Twilight Zone.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Deceit of Sentimentality

The Victorians were not big fans of sentimentality. This has been misrepresented in the popular stereotype of the aloof, stodgy, and unemotional Victorians. One thing I find amazing when reading many Victorian writers is how well they understood human psychology, the works of Samuel Smiles comes immediately to mind. His book Self Help (1855) began the self-improvement movement of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

In 1972, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced the idea of a cognitive bias, defined as “a pattern of deviation in judgment that occurs in particular situations, leading to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.”

Since then, about a hundred cognitive biases have been identified by psychologists. The Victorians may not have had such a fancy word as “cognitive bias” but perhaps they had a greater understanding for the human capacity for self-deceit. This concept was widely understood as sentimentality and discouraged in Victorian society as a vice.

Sentimentalism describes an orientation to reality where a person believes that how they feel about reality takes precedent over what is actually true. Sounds silly, doesn’t it, but it is an easy trap to fall into when a person confuses their subjective feelings of reality with reality itself.

I wonder how many people define good and evil according to their feelings. The good is that which makes me feel good and evil is that which makes me feel bad. So, liberals are good because their idea of free school lunches makes me feel good and conservatives are evil because their idea of taking away school lunch programs makes me feel bad. In such a situation, it does not matter if the conservatives, for the sake of this example, can make rational and supported arguments as to why school lunches create more harm than good. Nothing said would change the fact that the idea of not having school lunches makes me feel bad. This is sentimentality in action.

Oscar Wilde wrote, "Selfishness is not living as one wishes to live, it is asking others to live as one wishes to live." This is the path of sentimentality. When a person believes that their feelings take precedent not only over reality but also over the feelings of others, then we are dealing with a person with a severe ego problem, or what philosophy calls solipsism, simply defined as person who believes that they are the centre of the universe and other people are nothing more than animated scenery.

I do not believe that anyone would consciously subscribe to solipsism, but their actions imply this to be their unconscious driving belief. We find this in people who decry the speck in the eye of another, but fail to see the mote in their own eye. A phrase found on the internet, “Your rights end where my feelings begin” also illustrates this perspective.

Words like sentimentality, ego, selfishness, feelings, solipsism, and even arrogance are all part of the same conceptual package. Most of these are considered negative traits with the exception of sentimentality and feelings which in themselves are not bad things. The problem comes when they are put into positions of cognitive power within the psyche; when feelings about reality take authority over the rational thoughts about reality.

Think of it this way. Reason is the king on his throne. Feelings are the advisor whispering in the king’s ear. These suggestions are considered by the king and either acted upon or not according to his judgement. Sentimentality is the court jester who makes us laugh or weep at a movie or indulges fond thoughts of nostalgia, but ultimately the emotions inspired by him are not derived from reality. The advisor is a great advisor. The jester is a great jester. However, neither is qualified to be king.

While the Romantic Era denounced sentimentality the current era has embraced it. People are socially conditioned to it. People are encouraged to follow their hearts, to just believe, and express their emotions. In films, all the guy has to do is express his feelings and the girl comes running. It does not work that way in real life, but we have been socially conditioned to believe it does.

In politics, evidence has shown that more people vote for or against someone according to how they feel about a candidate rather than according to policies. This was never as apparent as in the 2008 US Presidential election where Barack Obama was granted almost divine status because of how he made people feel. He was even given the Nobel Peace Prize less than a month after he took office. In the three years since, his interventionist military policies have been no different than those of his predecessor, George W. Bush who was universally reviled for his use of the military. In the same vein, the global anti-war movement was a powerful force during the Bush presidency, but vanished under Obama despite the fact that he increased troops in Afghanistan. Why? Because people felt bad about Bush, but they feel good about Obama. It’s all about sentimentality.

Another feature of modern sentimentality in society and politics is the use of emotional human shields to defend or promote a political position. These are people that society has good feelings about that a political group associates themselves with so that it is impossible to challenge their politics without looking like you are attacking the people that society loves.

So you cannot be against the welfare state without appearing like you hate the poor. You cannot be against state regulation of the internet when its proponents are doing it “for the children”. You cannot be in favour of English in California without looking like you hate immigrants or that you are a racist. In Britain, you cannot be in favour of cuts to the National Health Service without looking like you want to get rid of nurses. You cannot be against government waste without looking like you hate teachers. You cannot be against political correctness without appearing like you have no consideration for others.

If we define the moral as that which makes us feel good, and we associate ourselves with members of society that make people feel good, then we are on the side of the angels; and anyone who stands against us is evil, and evil must be destroyed so we can all live happy lives together.

In America this largely describes the liberal-type, but the conservative equivalent is not immune to sentimentality. The difference is that the Right is largely Christian and their ideas of morality come not from feelings but from religious doctrine. That is not to say that they do not have strong feelings about that or that they do not use it justify pre-existing feelings. Sentimentality is indeed present among conservatives, however unlike with liberals it is at least counter-balanced with a fixed traditional religious doctrine rather than whim-based emotionalism and social conditioning.

The libertarians tend to draw their moral foundations from secular philosophy. Many of those philosophers were Christians, but others were Atheists or Deists. Religion does not play a major role as the focus is primarily on immediate practicalities. Theirs is the belief that the moral is the rational, whether the rules of reality were of a divine source or not is largely irrelevant to the fact that they are true. This lack of sentimentality makes libertarians easy targets for the sentimental who paint them as uncaring because they do not subscribe to the same emotional motivations that they do.

The archetypal sentimentalist is a creature of ego who cannot perceive the world beyond their own feelings, which they feel very deeply and sometimes to the extreme. They exist trapped within a cage of limited perception where they cannot see reality beyond their feelings. In practice, they treat their feelings as a sort of seventh sense [the sixth sense is balance btw] that gives them insight into the world rather than recognising that how they feel is just how they feel and nothing more. They confuse the internal world and the external world, the subjective and the objective, fantasy and reality.

This creature is the Twentieth Century norm and manifests itself to varying degrees in a huge number of variants in all political, social, and religious orientations. The Victorians were right to perceive this level of self-delusion to be a vice. The question is how does one fight a plague that is so wide-spread? I accept that it is not easy. Who wants to tell the crying person to shut-up. She and all her friends might think she is crying for the poor trees destroyed by evil loggers, but you know that she is actually being sentimental and only crying for herself. Who wants to be the cold, cruel voice of reality and be the bad guy for what is right?

So what can you do to save society from this virus? Nothing. Society can mean one of two things. It’s either a word used to describe the interactions between a number of individuals or it’s a collection of individuals on which we impose our unique beliefs about it, just like I’ve done in this essay. According to both definitions, very few people have the means to even try to affect it. But what you do have power over is yourself.

This is where the Church of the Romantic comes into play. The whole point of a philosophy or religion is to make yourself better. In this instance this means learning to recognise sentimentality in yourself and others and not be ruled by it. Learn to recognise the difference between real and fake emotions.

When your girl says she loves you and you feel all gooey inside, that’s real. After she has dumped you and you sit alone in your room mourning what you think what coulda, shoulda, woulda been if only, that’s fake. Real emotional responses are to real things. Fake emotions are responses to your idea of things and therefore have more to do with what is going on in your head than anything real world. Real emotions are sudden reactions to your perception of external stimuli and usually seem to hit you from nowhere.

Here’s another example. When you are watching TV and the commercial comes on with the starving kids in Africa and you get all choked-up, that’s fake. You are getting emotional over your idea of starving kids in general and not the reality of a specific kid you know and have a relationship with starving to death. Yes, there are children starving in Africa. That is real and something can and should be done about it. This action can be accomplished without sentimentality; the kind that makes you reach for your wallet for any aid organisation that comes along without thinking things through.

Edward Bernays, the father of modern marketing and propaganda, understood that people are motivated by their feelings.   If you can control how people feel about a concept, and by concept I mean their idea of a person, place, or thing, then you can control them. These are the strings that control the puppet.  This also works if you know how they feel already and match whatever you are selling to those feelings. If successful, then people will think that this manipulated concept of reality in their minds is in fact reality itself. You see this at work most often in advertising, media, politics, and the cult of personality.

The goal of the Romantic is to condition yourself to see and passionately feel what is and not be led astray by feelings of what is imagined. Yes, we can indulge our sentimentality and it can even help to fuel these passions. Just don’t let the jester sit on the throne lest the kingdom come to ruin.