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Free to be Human

Following on from my previous review of the MediaLens book ‘Guardians Of Power’ I decided to take a look at one of David Edwards’ earlier titles, entitled ‘Free to be Human’. The book was first printed back in 1995, and deals with the subject of personal freedom, specifically that “there is no greater obstacle to freedom than the assumption that it has already been fully attained”.

Edwards begins the book (as he and David Cromwell did in Guardians of Power) with a description of the propaganda model devised by Chomsky and Herman, but the similarities between the two works essentially end here. Edwards then begins to widen out the propaganda model to encompass the myriad of different areas where we face a constant barrage of control and manipulation, and where views are filtered to fit the state and business interests. Whether it be in our personal lives, our religious beliefs, or our ethics. Edwards relies not on simple ‘conspiracy theory’ or other shallow explanations, but to the systemic ‘filtering’ of unwanted ideas and opinions described in the propaganda model itself.

Edwards bases many of his ideas on Buddhist teachings, something which I admit I had my concerns about beforehand, although I can safely say that my initial misconceptions around Buddhism were soon shattered, as I realised that Buddhism is a world away from the conventional theistic religions, the ultimate goal being personal enlightenment, rather than belief or worship of a spiritual God.

Edwards uses many examples throughout the book, the most interesting in my opinion being the desolated day-tripper, a man who sets off on a day trip with his family, and then becomes overwhelmed with fear when he realises that he cannot explain why he is taking the trip. Edwards then takes us through this man’s life, looking at how his mind has been moulded from birth to conform in our society, and how the sudden realisation of his dissatisfaction with life manifests itself.

Edwards reserves special (and very accurate) criticism for our profit-driven capitalist system. A system which, as he points out elsewhere in the book, is concerned not just with satisfying (essentially false) needs and desires, but of creating the very dissatisfaction it aims to cure:

The forbidden truth is that we are living by a set of lies which are necessary for short-term profit, at the expense of human physical and psychological life and global environmental integrity. We are living in a system where power ensures that the requirements of profit take priority over the requirements of living things – including to know that this is the case. Consequently our freedom extends as far as, and no further than, the satisfaction of these requirements, with all else declared neurosis, paranoia, communism, extremism, the work of the devil,or Neptunian nonsense.

In addition to criticism of capitalism as a whole, Edwards has many excellent points to make about the damaging effects of the beauty industry and their exploitation of post-war feminism in the pursuit of profit. He states that the emergence of diet articles and plastic surgery have contributed to an increase in physical and mental disorders, as well as a great distortion in the way women have come to see themselves, and is a perfect example of the mass media’s power to manipulate. (For example, he quotes from Naomi Wolf’s book ‘The Beauty Myth‘, which states that between 1966 and 1969, in direct correlation to the media’s new fixation on thinness and perfection, the number of women who perceived themselves as being overweight rose from 50% to 80%.) I was also fascinated by Edwards’ suggestion that the literature we now perceive as important to society, for example Shakespeare and Orwell, may also be a product of the filtering system, in that unpopular historical works may be suppressed entirely, or not published at all, whereas literature which supports the dominant classes or the current socio-economic system is exalted as ‘classic’.

Edwards also discusses the indifference with which most of us treat conflict, poverty and inequality around the world, and how we now tend to psychologically distance ourselves from these horrors, remaining passive to atrocities such as the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. One of my favourite quotes in the book comes towards the end, where Edwards discusses the sometimes absurd rationalizations we create when something we are told, which in essence makes perfect sense, conflicts so completely with our ingrained beliefs and learned knowledge:

Having chosen one of these rationalizations, moments later we can be settling back in our chairs in the office, or in the pub, or in front of the TV, feeling as ‘comfortably’ as part of the ‘real’ world as before. We will have avoided conflict and disruption in our individual, familial, social and career lives; we may have avoided confronting the waste of years, or decades of effort and striving for a deluded dream in a profoundly immoral and brutal system. (The cliché of the transformation of young socialist into old conservative is not a change from idealism to pragmatism but from rationality to rationalization.) The cost of surrendering our reason to rationalization is that we will tend to reject ideas that allow access to a coherent understanding of the world, including it’s problems, including our problems.

In chapter three, Edwards criticises the belief in a cosmic father-figure (CFF), inherent in the great monotheistic religions, and then concludes that Atheism is just as dangerous because it provides ‘believers’ with the same certainty and security. This certainty then removes our need to look for answers to life, as our belief makes asking these questions unnecessary. Whilst I cannot argue at all with his reasoning on this point, Edwards then goes on to suggest that Atheism forms part of an ‘Unholy Trinity’ along with ‘Progress’ and ‘Consumerism’. Edwards’ reasoning appears to be that since Atheism does away with all spirituality, and emphasises the ‘pointlessness’ of existence, that consumerism and the idea of ‘having fun’ and satisfying our lusts will naturally take over as a result.

This was one area of the book were I did have some slight reservations. Whilst I would not argue that Atheism does have potential to fuel consumerism, I would counter that this is true of most mainstream beliefs. Therefore I can’t quite understand the assumed link between the three members of this ‘Unholy Trinity’ and why this is exclusive to Atheism.

I emailed Mr Edwards to congratulate him on an excellent piece of work, but also to question this link between Atheism and Consumerism. He very kindly responded with the following comments:

Incidentally, by “atheism” I really meant the assumption that life is ‘meaningless’, a happy (or unhappy) accident, that ethical norms are intellectual inventions with no grounding in anything beyond personal opinion, and so on.

To be sure, theistic religions have often been at the heart of systems of exploitation and violence, but they’re more useful for promoting servility and deference, less useful for promoting unrestrained hedonism. After all, they have traditionally (at least nominally) emphasised restraints on behaviour. Modern atheism promotes ‘Do as you please so long as you can get away with it.’ But that of course does not mean that theists are not often hedonists, or that theistic religions cannot also promote consumption.

My point was that atheism is really perfect for our kind of unrestrained consumer society where all values are subordinated to profit (as a matter of legal obligation for corporate managers). It also satisfies our conceit that we are scientific, rational creatures who have moved beyond all superstitious religious dogma. In fact there is no greater superstition than belief in the intrinsically existent self or ‘I’ – the new god at the centre of the materialist universe.

– Email from David Edwards  (22nd April 2010)

Free to be Human must rank as one of my favourite books, I doubt that any other author has sparked so much thought about my own existence and way of living, and I certainly see some aspects of myself in the desolated day-tripper, as I’m sure most people would. I can highly recommend this book as an effective antidote to the largely hidden ‘filtering’ system operating in the world today, and I will certainly be looking into the rest of Edwards’ work.

Update 22/04/10: Article updated with comments received from Mr Edwards.

3 Comments

  1. will will

    Looks like my kind of book, society is balls. Is it a heavy read or are you able to pick it up whenever?

  2. Karl Orbell Karl Orbell

    Very good analysis Jon.

    Generally I agree with Edwards as you’ve relayed him. I would take him to task on the transformation from young idealist to old conservative being a rationalization over reason move. I would say as people age they cut back their idealism as a result of pragmatism and fatigue. The older people have seen the battle for a long time and no how it plays and stop fighting so much as a result.

    Yes, the modern media has been harness to pervade our existence with control mechanisms that are breaking down the fabric of our lives to such an extent that people are getting ill and life is becoming traumatic for many, but it’s a case of our own predispositions as a race combined with the technology to exacerbate them causing our own destruction.

    Humans are psychologically plague-bearers, our minds are what needs an overhaul – society will follow.

  3. Will: Definitely, I read it over the course of about 2 weeks, although I went through phases where I was just hooked and couldn’t put it down, especially towards the end.

    Karl: Thanks for the comments!

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