Original Article written for TEDxKEA (TED talks) : This is the elongated version
“The human race is the most stupid and unfair kind of race. A lot of the runners don’t even get decent sneakers or clean drinking water.
Some runners are born with a massive head start, every possible help along the way and still the referees seem to be on their side.
It’s not surprising a lot of people have given up competing altogether and gone to sit in the grandstand, eat junk and shout abuse.
What the human race needs is a lot more streakers.”
Be a Streaker
“Stand out from the crowd,” “be different !” Inside us all there is a little child who would like to emerge from the shadow of the masses and just be him or herself; unabated, untamed – free. Yet in a world historically obsessed with uniformity, as many will contend, it can be taxing to ride against the current. In an age where food has been standardized, culture commodified and in which work life remains for many, a monotonous, mechanized monochrome labour of effort, it is clear that we need to break the pattern and strive to be ourselves.
Reiterating the ethos of TEDxKEA, one of our aims is that of giving ideas the wings they need to soar. In a world whose agenda is increasingly set by corporations with the capital backing that matches and exceeds the GDP of many a nation, too many bright ideas are all too often shot down before they have the chance to leave the nest. Moreover, many more sparkling ideas find themselves held ransom to the ideals and agendas of fat men with unending wads of cash and fringe perks that milk all that is good in an idea and turn it into a mechanized process of money – making. Social entrepreneurs, radical academics, the kid who stood up to the bully; society is replete with examples of people who, to quote Irvine Welsh “Chose not to choose life” (Cue the start of Danny Boyle’s critically acclaimed film, ‘Trainspotting.’) For these lone wolves, the barren wilderness of our corporate – agenda propelled world in which is a minefield that few traverse with their ideas and idealism intact.
From Whitman to Ginsberg; Individuality and its Roots
Movements towards greater individuality in mass society have their roots in the writings and actions of the likes of Oscar Wilde, William Blake, Walt Whitman and David Thoreau. Ardent skeptics of the monotony of the industrial age, these greats of our world were preoccupied with the dehumanization of culture and society that industrialization implied. For them, a return to the more “natural” patterns of human behaviour alien to the workings of industrialist society was a longing that manifested itself prominently throughout their writing. More recently, individuality has been promoted through the Beat generation of post WWII America in the fifties. For the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the folly of a post war world moulded by the perils of conflict and the standardization of society thereof were lamentable elements of the United States that needed to be medicated through promoting the power of individuality. The so – called “Beatniks ” of the fifties formed a critique of mechanised, pro-nuclear America that was a backlash against, among other things, the anti – subversive McCarthyist movements of the decade. This was a group of free thinkers who were truly radical in thought and deed. Their works toyed with taboo subjects such as homosexuality and drug use, in themselves vehement rebellions against a regime that sought to standardize and commodify all aspects of social life. Indeed it was these more extreme manifestations, amongst other influences, that laid the cornerstones for the liberalism of the sixties, driven by the counterculture and hippie movements respectively. The works and lifestyles of the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg inspired writers like Ken Kessey to pick up the baton and continue the drive towards greater individuality through literature such as ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ (which was later recreated in Hollywood with Jack Nicholson playing his familiar wide-grinned starring role). From these humble fringe movements, the seeds of revolution were sown, as the horrors of the Vietnam war peaked, abroad and within America respectively. Feminism emerged as one of many screaming voices of dissent and a shift towards left politics ensued. The drive to individuality reached the upper echelons of society and the frameworks for a (slightly) more tolerant world were laid. The rest is history.
From the Garden of Eden of Individuality to The Sodom and Gomorrah of Corporate Agendas
What has changed since the swinging sixties ? Today, as we are all too aware, the ideals of individuality are still wholeheartedly counterbalanced by mass society and its standardization. This is true of the developing world as of the developed one. Advertising bureaus pelt and bombard us time and again with shrapnel of who were ought to be and what sort of stereotypes we should live up to; we are surrounded by billboards and print screens that mooch off the ideals of the sixties, the very same ideals that tie into the push towards individuality – freedom, being oneself, being different. We find ourselves at the mercy of advertising that puts iconic figures like Che Guevara on cigarette packets to feed the tobacco industry and the big fish that fester in it; the very same advertising that tells us to share a Coca Cola with our “brothers” and with “Kim” and “Michael.” We are encouraged to “Just Do It,” “Be free,” “Free your mind” and lots more, in the name of supporting our favorite brands and their sales in a neo -tribalist craze that has reworked the core of our communities. A quick glance at the slogans of most major corporations today will clearly show that it is hard to find examples that do not in some way or other align themselves with some of the rhetoric of the individualist drive of the sixties.
Let’s shift our focus momentarily from advertising, to another sector of the economy which concerns itself with people that stand out but ironically, almost hypocritically, is a gatekeeper for what is hot and what is not, thereby standardizing the very thing it tries not to. The modeling industry is one part of our world that remains dominated by one particular type of beauty – ratified and cultivated through fashion magazines and popular fads. Where are the ethnic minorities and those perceived as too large or too short or too “out of the realms” within this discourse ? Why is their beauty not considered legitimate enough to strut the catwalks of Paris and Milan or did we as a society simply come to the conclusion that their traits and characteristics are less appealing than others ?
To round off, we can delve into yet another area of society where mass standardization and the prevalence of one particular type of person dominates the arena, making it difficult for anyone who is different to have a say in the show; the corporate world which I have admittedly lambasted in this article. Again, there are telltale signs of an imbalanced narrative dominated by one type of person, men. Where are the women in this particular narrative ? A report from the English parliament earlier this year pointed out that In the UK, women constitute 51% of the population but only 23% of MPs; 24% of judges and 17% of FTSE 100 Directors. This points to a very obvious truth, namely that, sadly, most remain in secretarial or supportive administrative positions whilst men make the decisions that for better or for worse set the agenda for our world.
All of these examples from different sectors of the economy beg the question, where is individuality in this commodified mess ?
Fly Over The Cuckoos Nest
One could go on and on when it comes to chastising the nature of our world today. What is important is that we, collectively, find a way to work towards a solution to the society of mass production and untamed consumption. It is imperative that those with the drive, guile and wit to think outside the box and emerge from the sea of stragglers as people with ideas, do so unimpeded.
It is important that we, people of ideas and creativity, some of whom are reading these very words, carry these ideas over the parapet of corporate hijacking and onto the plateau of dreams that will help humanity address our core issues. When the multi-million dollar firms come knocking with dental insurance, a house, a car and wads of money for your brilliant idea, it is vital that we pursue what is morally and ethically correct, that our ideas aren’t hijacked and dragged across the barren wasteland that so many other plans now call their graveyard. If we have any aims of empowering individuals – you , me, the garbage man that passes by in the wee hours and our next door neighbour, we must have the strength to see our ideas through to the end and resist the financial seduction of those who wish to take the idea for themselves to use it to churn a handsome profit.
In all this critique, let me also make it clear that brilliant ideas and profit are in no way necessarily a bad thing. My argument stems simply from the banal fact that many of the profits made by multi-billion firms that prey off the individualism narrative are not sufficiently re-invested in society. This is pseudo-individualism, not the real thing. Whilst corporate social responsibility (CSR) is doing its bit to become standard organizational practice, it is clear we have a long way to go in order to address the issues that continue to divide society, many of which, essentially lie within the topic of class struggle and addressing difference. We have to adopt new strategies to combat this struggle and fight for the rights of all and this starts with a drive towards individualism – cultivating the skills and attributes of each and everyone individually for the common good. We need to “fly over the cuckoos nest” and escape the ensnarements of a commodified world. The TED brand has, since its inception over 30 years ago aimed to give people with ideas the frames with which to air their groundbreaking views to the broader public. TEDxKEA aims to do no less – and you can be a part of continuing the drive towards individualism, building on what we learned from the steps made in the sixties.