Brains are delicate things…
14 Jan 2011 – “It’s only natural” pdf to be posted shortly
“It’s only Natural”
Samuel Johnson said that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” I reckon that the word ‘Natural’ is the last refuge of the lazy, the idiot and the bigot.
Nothing about human culture and society is ‘natural’. Humans create symbols, create meaning. So much of what we do is through language and thought, which are not ‘natural’. Competition is one human possibility. Co-operation is another. Which is ‘natural’? Both. And each has its place. Everything humans do, by definition, expresses human nature- be that navigating unknown oceans, cannibalism, war, art, writing turgid rants,
If there is one human nature, why is there such a vast number of ways in which human societies have organised themselves (just look for a minute at anthropology or sociology)?
If genetics explains anti-social behaviour, why do crime rates go up and down so much with economic conditions?
If humans are all so naturally greedy and acquisitive, why is so much money spent on advertising?
If humans are all so naturally aggressive, then why do States spend so much money on propaganda to make us hate the Enemy? Why did so many soldiers in WWII not shoot their guns, or shoot to miss unless under direct attack themselves?
You could argue that these are just unlocking ‘natural’ tendencies. But if they have to be unlocked, then something else ‘natural’- co-operation and tolerance for example- must be around. And then it becomes a discussion of which ‘natural’ tendencies our society encourages, which is a very different argument.
In some societies it is/has been “natural” for older men to have sex with 14 year old boys- or girls
When did you last hear someone say “I’m not a racialist, but…(it’s natural that women are weak and incapable and natural that blacks are stupid and vicious.)”
Yeah, just about as “natural” as the suicidal tendencies of lemmings. They don’t hurl themselves off cliffs, unless pushed by Walt Disney documentary makers desperate for good pictures. See http://www.snopes2.com/disney/films/lemmings.htm
Fear of the unknown is “natural”. Whether that fear is talked through and turned into understanding and tolerance, or hyped into hatred and war is a CHOICE. A choice that bosses make, often to cement their own position.
Natural is used to mean “customary”*. When people don’t want to defend customs, they’ll say “natural”. Well, two hundred years agio it was ‘customary’ to capture Africans and sell them as slaves, or to send children down mines or up chimneys. Natural doesn’t mean morally right or acceptable
Natural is used to mean “nice, friendly, harmonious”. Well, arsenic, bubonic plague and cobra venom are all ‘natural’.
Natural is used to mean “in accordance with God’s law”. Oh yeah- which God, which Law? Who interprets? And what about the problem of evil (theodicy)? Frankly, any god who allows the amount of really grim shit that happens on this planet is a sadistic fucker not worthy of worship.
(For the distinction between custom and tradition, see “The Invention of Tradition, eds Ranger and Hobsbawm)
Roland Barthes Mythologies
But the word `myth’ can also mean a ficticious, unproven or illusory thing. Barthes is concerned to analyse the `myths’ circulating in contemporary society, the false representations and erroneous beliefs current in the France of the postwar period. Mythologies is a work about the myths that circulate in everyday life which construct a world for us and our place in it. What joins the journalistic articles and the theoretical essay is the conviction that what we accept as being `natural’ is in fact an illusory reality constructed in order to mask the real structures of power obtaining in society. Mythologies is a study of the ways in which mass culture – a mass culture which Barthes sees as controlled by la petite bourgeoisie constructs this mythological reality and encourages conformity to its own values.
We inhabit a world, then, of signs which support existing power structures and which purport to be natural. The role of the mythologist, as Barthes sees it, is to expose these signs as the artificial constructs that they are, to reveal their workings and show that what appears to be natural is, in fact, determined by history.