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They know what’s best for me. Or do they?

You’re a student sitting for your public examinations, one of many such sets you have endured in your short life. Recently, someone asked you a question about a subject you completed two years prior. You received a top grade in that subject—yet you can remember little about it and cannot answer the question. You briefly consider that this is because you were only studying for the sake of passing the exam and getting the certificate, not for the sake of learning something for life. But you suppress this thought and continue memorising, because certificates are what your parents and future employers want from you. 

It’s election time. You attend a rally thrown by a popular contender. Amidst the tumult, you find a fifty-bob note pressed in your hand by aides of the likely winner. Later, some baseball caps are thrown into the crowd. You join in the stampede to get one. You go home with your pitiful gains in hand. You wonder whether this candidate will ever do anything meaningful for you and your people, but the folks around you are ululating enthusiastically for him. You decide to vote with them.

You’re a new employee in a leading organization, very proud to have been selected. In your first week at work, you are told of the company dress code. It is very strict. Men must wear suits and ties in only two or three designated colours; women should confine themselves to certain skirt lengths and heel heights. Immediately after this orientation session, the CEO addresses the new joiners on the enormous disruption challenge facing the industry. Everything has changed beneath our feet, says the CEO, rallying the troops; we must innovate or die!

You’re an executive heading for an industry conference. The agenda is spread over two days, and is a series of long talks and presentations by various industry heads, experts and regulators. Most are predictable and pedestrian and mind-numbingly boring, and you have to yawn and doze your way through them. You know this, and so does everyone else, yet no one voices the thought, or tries to make the gatherings better. Year after year, your peers gather with you in the same way. They do it because that’s what everyone does.

You’re a CEO at your annual general meeting of shareholders. You are asked to pose with your chairperson for the regular commemorative photograph. The photographer asks you to hold your company’s annual report and pretend to point at something and smile with the chairperson. This pose strikes you as fake and infantile, but you know that’s what everyone else does, and it’s what your company has done for decades, so here we go—flash, pic done for another year.

At every stage of our lives, in every possible activity, we come across the standard, normal, accepted way of doing things. We are trained, brainwashed, and indoctrinated, systematically and emphatically. A few question the received wisdom and customary protocols; but they are soon overwhelmed by the force of the majority and the power of the rule-makers. The priests, minders, owners, and rulers decide how things are done. We comply, because surely they know best?

A few years ago, Apple’s late founder Steve Jobs uttered the following:

“When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”

That there is the nub of the matter. For a while, perhaps a long while, we believe that the overlords know best. They must know what they are doing; these must be tried-and-tested norms that they are enforcing. They are smart people; they know what they are doing. And then you wonder: the world’s rule-makers took us into the norms of superstition, patriarchy, slavery, genocide, and monopoly—and kept us there for centuries. The only progress has actually come from the sceptics and the mavericks.

Someday, realization will hit: “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people no smarter than you.” A further realization: these rules and norms and customs are designed to keep some above others, to promote obeisance and unquestioning deference.

What you do after that realization, whenever it happens, is what defines the course of the rest of your life.

(Sunday Nation, 24 April 2022)

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