Reclaim your mental sovereignty — A first step to liberation

How dominant culture molds our thoughts and behaviour against our interests

We are born into a world loaded with existing social conditions and structures. These along with our biological predispositions, are how we are shaped, forming our identities, ideologies, and norms. We find homeostasis with certain beliefs, behaviours, desires and emotional reactions, that are approved by society in general or by certain groups within it. This is how we form an equilibrium and find stability. As time passes, these beliefs become normalised, so much so that they are rendered invisible. All of these influential forces are omnipresent, but we rarely question or notice how they shape our behaviour and understanding of the world.

It is a natural tendency to avoid situations that disrupt this stability, especially if they are reinforcing our own privilege or status. This is evident in a phenomenon called “the backfire effect”, a manifestation of confirmation bias, in which people resist or outright ignore evidence that conflicts with their beliefs. We would like to think that when presented with facts or new information we alter our opinions and incorporate them into our thinking, but when our convictions are contradicted existing beliefs get more entrenched regardless of their factual basis or lack thereof.

Under the current dominant economic and social structures, these normalised behaviours are manipulated to benefit those in positions of power. Under neoliberal capitalism (or whatever offshoot of crony capitalism, plutocracy, kleptocracy we are inhabiting) corporations and the 1% can buy access to decisions, pollute the political arena, enclose public space and employ the media machine to push their agendas. All the while people are forced into the role of consumers rather than citizens, constraining our influence over decisions that shape our lives to economic exchanges or “voting with our dollar” in a system that marginalises individual choice.

Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Know nothing, Believe anything, Forget everything)

In “The Society of the Spectacle” (1967), Guy Debord examines the image-saturated consumer culture of a capitalist driven world and how this “Spectacle” manifests in everyday life. Debord defines the spectacle as the “autocratic reign of the market economy.” as capitalism’s instrument for “distracting and pacifying the masses.” Bread and circuses.

Debord believes that capitalism is an inherently uncreative system, and through an obsession with profit it works against our human interests. Capitalism has come to occupy our social and mental life, having been organised by the needs of the ruling economy. The spectacle reduces our reality to an endless supply of commodified experiences, while encouraging us to focus on appearances and cultivation of the ‘individual’. For Debord this is an unacceptable degradation of our lives.

“ advanced capitalism manufactured false desires; literally in the sense of ubiquitous advertising and the glorification of accumulated capital, and more broadly in the abstraction and reification of the more ephemeral experiences of authentic life into commodities.” 
– Guy Debord (1958) Preliminary Problems in Constructing a Situation.

In “The Great Transformation”, Karl Polanyi wrote while all previous social organising principles saw markets, land and money “embedded” within social relationships, capitalism “dis-embedded” them, removing any social, religious or moral constraints from the operation of the market. Capitalism became the first social organising principle based on selfishness, the first system to make greed, competition, non-cooperation its credo.

Under this market economy individuals are deemed “rational agents”, making the optimal decision for themselves based on the feasible outcomes available. But our choices are constrained from the outset and when we are acting with self interest alone, our “rational” choices are blindsighted by external interests. We are sold things we want, wrapped up as “needs”.

How people eat, dress and are entertained are all viewed as deeply personal aspects of life. Our communication, media, cultural stereotypes, social myths and everyday actions are mediated by these structural constraints from above. In a consumer culture, we are in reality operating under an “Illusion of Choice”.

If we can realise the motivations behind those in positions of power, we might see that some of our “choices” are not beneficial to us, our community, our ecosystem or the non-human animals here with us. What is comforting and “normal” is not necessarily justifiable or moral. These external forces make us complicit in actions we would otherwise deem morally repugnant, reinforcing unequitable social hierarchies in forms of oppression through speciesism, classism, systemic racism, gender and sexual normativity, militarism, ableism and ageism.

Total liberation is that which concerns all sectors of the personality. 
— Frantz Fanon, The wretched of the earth

Liberating yourself from social conditioning is about recognising how these external factors control, manipulate and limit your actions and beliefs. It is about becoming conscious and shifting your actions to align with with your core values and morals. This process is liberating not limiting, it is about self-emancipation, connecting and enfranchising your mind to make better choices in the world and to remove the locus of control exerted over you.

Once we develop the tools to see past the dominant cultural norms, we can look to what social structures we no longer need to conform to. These include, but are not limited to, consumerism, political systems, gender roles, notions of beauty, religious practices and food production systems. If we can reclaim our minds, we can start work on the identification, criticism and practical dismantling of illegitimate authority in all aspects of life.

They have no consciousness of themselves as persons or as members of an oppressed class.
– Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

One of the glaring examples of a disconnect between morality and normality is carnism. Carnism was coined by social psychologist and author Melanie Joy in 2001 and popularized by her book Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows (2009). Carnism is described as “the invisible belief system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals.” Through Carnism we are conditioned by routine, ritual and profit to consume the flesh and secretions of some non-human animals, while placing an arbitrary higher moral value on others. This system of oppression causes violence on billions of non-human animals every year, something most of us would find abhorrent if we shifted the species from tuna to dolphin, or pig to dog.

Carnism runs counter to our core humans values of compassion and justice. Most people would not support or commit violence on any sentient being. To continue to operate, carnism therefore uses defense mechanisms to distort and manipulate our natural human empathy so that we act against our core values without knowing we are doing so. It teaches us to not feel, to not be human.

Safety and stability are at play by accepting that meat-eating is “natural”, “normal”, “necessary”. As a cultural practice it is considered common sense, the way things are and something we must do to survive. Once held as a cultural default it is inherited in other foundations of society, seeping into the study of nutrition, family life, food satisfaction and stories in entertainment, they are all tinged with carnist undertones and defend it accordingly. It is important to note that these defenses aren’t the view of the individuals, but are systemic defenses used to hold steadfast ideologies that justify an industry that profits from the exploitation of non-human animals.

The most intelligent people seem capable of holding schizophrenic beliefs, or disregarding plain facts, of evading serious questions with debating-society repartees, or swallowing baseless rumours and of looking on indifferently while history is falsified. 
– George Orwell, London Letter in: Partisan Review (Winter, 1945)

In elucidating these concepts we aren’t trying to evoke guilt. Indeed, guilt is counterproductive in effecting change, as it usually leads to denial. What we are trying to highlight is the seriousness of the situation and the subtle mechanisms we use to avoid confronting or accepting the realities in front of us.

So how do we shed these external manipulations and work towards liberating our minds? It is not simply a matter of overhauling our worldview in one fell swoop, but being constantly critical, and dismantling old agendas to evaluate, think and behave in new ways. This requires constant education, openness to uncomfortable truths and recognition of our own cognitive dissonance.

We should be collectively working towards a world that incrementally overcomes unnecessary suffering for all beings. This has been the driving force of positive progress in many ways. Reclaiming your mental sovereignty allows for more critical engagement with the world, taking back a bit of autonomy from the mass-mediated hall of mirrors that we live in, and is a starting point for any social justice or liberation movement.

Some simple mechanisms to put in place include limit your amount of exposure to bad social conditioning and reducing contact with its sources. This might include;

  • Be critical of your own prejudice and open to new perspectives.
  • Seek out new knowledge and information to challenge your own position.
  • Limit or remove the amount of commercial and social media you consume, if it is “free” you are the product (google, facebook, instagram, commercial TV).
  • Don’t buy what you don’t need, critically evaluate your consumptive practices.
  • Don’t concern yourself with outward physical appearance or your possessions as a marker of your identity or value.
  • Stop measuring up to others as a means of “success”.