Subjectivity, Culture, and What is Real

"If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things." - René Descartes

An interesting trend that has come about in recent history is that of questioning everything and rejecting those rules and rigidities of life that do not "feel" right. However, people generally reject one set of rules for another, which just replaces one with another. It is not necessarily a great awakening, and it is merely a transitory period that is a repeat of past decades and centuries: "the current generation is not the same as the last, rage against the machine until you become the machine."

One of the beliefs I have is that fundamentally, all things social norms, laws, and rules are made up, and the only authority that is granted to them, is that which you give them. A great way to exemplify this is that it is impossible to tell if all humans see colour the same way: how would you explain a colour to someone who has never seen it before, without a sample? The Ancient Greeks didn't even have a word for blue - they called blue things "Wine-coloured". Laws are simply an agreement between citizens to follow specific rules, with consequences if we do not. If that agreement breaks down and people stop respecting the agreement and outcomes, then the laws lose their power. Ergo, laws aren't real, but the implicit contract we are all bound by is. This is a basic description of the "Social Contract", and this idea also heavily influenced Robert Peel when he invented modern policing, which is policing by consent; this is why British Police generally do not carry weapons.

One of the side effects of my belief is that I don't like labels, and I fundamentally dislike things like demographics. I am a middle-class white man in my 30s, living in Australia. I grew up poor, missed a lot of days at school, and had very average report cards. I was on low-income scholarships in high school, and I got a scholarship due to my economic disadvantage in University. If I had listened to the labels that society put onto me into by virtue of my demographics, I would probably not have achieved what I have been able to accomplish so far.

All of this brings to mind a saying by the Buddha in the Dhammapada:

The thought manifests the word;
The word manifests the deed;
The deed develops into habit;
And habit hardens into character;
So watch the thought and its ways with care,
And let them spring forth from love
Born out of compassion for all beings.
As the shadow follows the body, as we think, so we become.

We are what we think we are; it is that simple. Do not let anyone ever tell you what you are or what you should be. Be the version of you that makes you and those around you feel good. Don't label yourself, don't label others, and ignore what society tells you to do. Don't even talk about labels, because the mere concept of a label simply locks you into the mindset of "fitting in", which is not something you need to do. Ultimately, it only matters what you think, not what everyone else thinks.

"Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen." - Epictetus
"We suffer more often in imagination than in reality." - Seneca

The vital thing to note in all of this is that what society wants is not necessarily wrong or inherently unjust. But, there is a vast difference between what society says and what society does. In the same way, parents chastise children for behaviour they usually are guilty of themselves. Ultimately, I believe you should follow the laws; they are generally a good indicator of behaviours that will have negative effects on others. We cannot live a virtuous life by causing people harm. However, let's not forget that Socrates was executed based on the decision of a jury which was acting in a completely lawful capacity.

There is a positive bend to all of this: don't stop at what society says is good, be better. For example, the Local Governments in Australia tell everyone to put recyclable material in their bins for recycling. But, up until very recently, they shipped all this material to China where it basically went into landfill. I go out of my way to reuse and recycle in my life where possible, and generally, now limit consumption to ultimately reduce the amount of waste I produce. Be better in spite of the limitations others put on you.

I would consider myself to be a Stoic. Taken with my belief about the reality of things, I build my morality and beliefs in a way that is summed up succinctly by Marcus Aurelius: "Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one." I do things if they have positive consequences, I keep doing them; if they don't, I stop. I also don't measure my success by the standard hallmarks that usually fit within demographics because my success is how I feel about something, not how other people feel about things or how they feel about me.

Ignore everyone else, focus on you, and most importantly, really love yourself. Here are a few quotes from my favourite philosopher, Seneca, to take away with you:

"The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not."
"Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them."
"When the longest and shortest-lived of us dies their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any of us can be deprived is the present, since this is all we own, and nobody can lose what is not theirs."