Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Teen Angst and the Omega Mentality

Romantic and Rationalist histories from the early modern period in Europe sometimes compared the stages of our collective phylogeny with those of each individual’s growth. These comparisons were mirror images of each other, because the Romantic assumed that the past is better than the future, whereas the Rationalist drew the opposite conclusion. So Rousseau, for example, maintained that children are inherently innocent and that the first humans were admirably childlike, uncorrupted by the antihuman conventions of mass society. By contrast, Auguste Comte assumed that reason is the driving force of progress and that the “positive,” fact-based scientific thinking of the contemporary Age of Reason was thus an improvement on the ancient stages of what he called more theological and metaphysical cultures. Naturally, the growth from the temper-tantrum-throwing child to the rational adult would likewise be one of progressive maturation.

These analyses tend to oversimplify. For one thing, children are far from innocent. Of course, legally they can’t be held accountable for their actions, but ethically they’re tyrannical. True, their selfish impulse to jealously guard their private property is reinforced by their parents in capitalistic societies, who swell their egos, while more egalitarian societies might not impose such materialism on those impressionable minds. But the child’s desire for tyranny is instinctive. Children are inherently racist and ruthless in preserving class distinctions. Bullies arise from an early age, as do followers and ostracized outsiders. Those who are different from the in-group norm are excluded, due to our instinctive fear of the unknown. Moreover, children naturally resort to violence to get their way. Likewise, the positivist oversimplifies by running together scientific and technological progress, on the one hand, with broader social progress, on the other.

But there is a sound basis for some such analysis that compares the evolutions of groups and of individuals. As Spengler pointed out, societies begin, develop, and end—just as our species as a whole had a beginning (or more than one beginning in our now-extinct fellow human species, such as the Neanderthals), is currently dominating the planet, and will inevitably go extinct, possibly by transitioning into some other species. Likewise, each individual is born before it grows, lives, and dies. Moreover, the early period in either case is marked by ignorance due to a lack of collective experience and memory, while the middle and late periods are oppositely characterized. Memories accumulate so that the adult can’t play with the same carefree abandon as the child, because the adult knows, for example, how the play would be perceived by jaded adult observers and is afraid of being embarrassed. Of course, some adults are more carefree than others, but even the most spontaneous and lighthearted ones will seem inauthentic and irresponsible, because unlike children, they ought to know better. Finally, the counterintuitiveness of objective, scientific methods of inquiry entails that these methods would have had to be relatively late historical factors, because they had to be discovered by trial and error; in particular, modern reason had to be defined in opposition to centuries of religious faith. And the technological power that follows from advances in empirical knowledge corresponds to the adult’s greater autonomy, as language and the cerebral cortex gradually assert their control on the brain’s emotive and other hardwired circuits. The upshot is that advanced industrial societies are freer than premodern ones, even if that freedom is tainted by the modern’s tragic understanding that a child’s fictions diverge from natural reality.

This starting point implies, at best, that early and late historical periods have some childlike and adult tendencies, respectively. There are further complications, however, such as that ancient adults must have been less childlike than their children or else our species would hardly have been able to endure. Moreover, instrumental improvements to technology can evidently infantilize rather than liberate us; more specifically, they liberate in the negative rather than the positive sense, meaning that they allow us to satisfy our desires without helping us determine what we should desire in the first place, so that the users of technology can regress rather than mature. To gain some insight from the forgoing comparison, then, we need to add another dimension to the analysis. Sociologically, the stages of personal growth are curiously correlated with the three main classes of any social species’ dominance hierarchy. The tyrannical child, lacking the ability to censor her impulses, corresponds to the sociopathic alpha predator, while the responsible adult matches up with the beta follower of alpha-written or approved social conventions, and the angst-driven teen bears a remarkable similarity to the marginalized omega who is last to receive the group’s bounties. 

Personal Growth and the Dominance Hierarchy

Let’s begin with the latter. It’s common to speak of teen angst, because teenagers are pressured to prepare for their adult responsibilities and they occupy an interim position, enjoying the benefits neither of childhood nor of adulthood. (The animated movie Inside Out explores this aspect of teen angst.) Existentially, however, the roots of that angst are deeper. The teen emerges from the child’s mythopoeic fantasy life, marked by magical thinking and a self-indulgent hyperextension of subjectivity so that the child personifies and socializes with her whole world, allowing her to feel secure even though the saga of raising a child is objectively perilous. And the teen contemplates her imminent entrance to adulthood whereupon she’ll sell out, losing not just her relative innocence but her teenaged ideals.

Indeed, the teen has the potential to reach an enlightened state in which she might develop an authentic way of responding to the world without the childish, alpha tantrums or narcissism or the average adult’s humdrum distractions. But that existential flowering is typically cut short by the imposition of a coming-of-age initiation ritual, from the bar mitzvah to Japan’s seijin shiki to the Satere-Mawe’s bullet ant initiation to the humanist’s civil confirmation. All religions and cultures celebrate the transition to adulthood, although the exact age differs from one ideology to the next. Still, the initiation ritual always occurs after the person loses her childhood naivety and before she inherits her adult responsibilities. That just happens to be the period in which the individual first acquires the cognitive capacity to understand her true position in the world, by comparing her outsider social status with the existential condition of life as a whole, lost as all creatures are in an indifferent universe. Moreover, the teen’s introverted tendencies and outsider status confer objectivity on her, since she’s liable to interpret our games and dramas from an external vantage point prior to her having much investment in them. The teen falls through society’s cracks just as the omega is abandoned by her superiors and just as all living things drift through nature’s vast and pointless cycles without even the distinction of being afterthoughts.

Instead of dwelling on the subversive realization that life is absurd, the teen is rescued by the clarion call to beta herd mediocrity. Instead of stunting her emotions with a prolonged period of existential reckoning so that she doesn’t develop into a fully-functional adult, as the Western psychiatrist would put it while mistaking normality for goodness, the teen is forcibly assimilated by the tribe. Peer pressure and the promise of inner peace through diversion-based ignorance or repression of primordial fears turn the renegade teen into a human worker bee. The adolescent might have learned to sublimate her antisocial insight and conceive of an honourable lifestyle, one that prizes intellectual integrity and personal authenticity more than happiness or social functionality. But a mass uprising of young rebels, such as you find now in the support for Bernie Sanders’ campaign for being the Democratic nominee in the US presidential election would be as dangerous as an epidemic of marijuana use. There’s a rush to defend the status quo for the same reason that birds of a feather flock together and children who look alike ostracize the abnormal kids: as I said, we instinctively fear the unknown or the less familiar, and so we’re inherently conservative. Moreover, we’re predisposed to selfishness and so we calculate that our odds of safety and pleasure are higher in a civilization guarded by robotic beta troops than in an upended, anarchic field of awakened individuals.

As I suggested, children are proto-sociopaths and thus they’re the seeds of alphas. Betahood is imposed on teens in the minority of cases by their genes, which make them sickly or otherwise abnormal so that their peers exclude them, they lose out in the nepotistic struggle for network supremacy, and so they fail to ascend their dominance hierarchy. Most betas are formed, though, by social conditioning which domesticates them, taming their wildness. Alphas, remember, are the ambitious, extroverted individuals who are unencumbered by a conscience or by excessive rationality or objectivity, who thus succeed through heroic action, acquiring wealth, power, and the adornments of the materialistic good life, and who consequently are corrupted by that process or by the treacherous rewards for their labour. The alpha’s ideal is the subcriminal psychopath; the alpha’s forerunner, therefore, is plainly the average child. All of us behave as wanton psychopaths during our summer of childhood, after which most of us develop psychological mechanisms for channeling our antisocial impulses in socially acceptable ways. Even young siblings will push each other down for deigning to touch each other’s toys. When faced with the prospect of playing with a foreign youngster, the child would sooner shun the stranger, hiding behind his or her mother’s skirt. When coaxed, children will play together, venting their imagination as though there were no external world beyond their control. Children are manifestly the most selfish creatures. Everything must be done to their exacting specifications. When something goes awry, they whine, cry, and scream because they don’t understand the root of the world’s recalcitrance. Likewise, the sociopath is baffled by society because he’s unable to feel empathy. He turns his rational powers to the sole task of manipulating others to fulfill his whims. Like a child, the sociopath is liable to resort to force to get his way. The sociopath has no room for empathy because he’s fixated on his greatness. Like the ignorant child who boasts that she’s just defecated, the sociopath presumes that all means are justified if the end is his glorification.

Finally, there’s the beta, the domesticated, functional, normal adherent to society’s expectations, the quintessential follower who overlooks the leader’s sociopathy because the beta is burdened by fears of inadequacy and of the unknown—especially the unknown of life outside the stifling tribe. The beta is the happiest of the three main sociological types: her social life is the easiest because she’s adept at identifying with the collective, neglecting her potential for individual greatness to fit into society. The beta copes with fleeting moments of dreading the world’s brutality and alienness by pledging her allegiance to the crazed alpha, who is the historical model for godhood. God will make everything right in the end; so runs the mantra that echoes long after the ancients’ infatuation with the guileless derangement of theistic anthropocentrism. The child is god of her inner world which she foolishly mistakes for the universe at large. To preserve some measure of their dignity, prior to the age of rational enlightenment, the ancients traded that childish fantasy of world domination and their worship of human alpha males as gods, for submission to an abstract version of both, to the so-called personal creator of nature. Although modern betas won’t perceive their situation in these terms, their submissiveness speaks volumes. As is their wont, they compromise: since reason makes theistic religion embarrassing in respectable company and the beta is eager to showcase her psychological normality, the beta favours the alpha as the half-way point between the naive fantasy of world domination and the casuistry of faith in an incorporeal deity. Thus, the beta can act as a modern adult even though the precondition of her normality is the alpha’s insanity. Not just standards of fashion, architecture, and other so-called matters of personal taste trickle down from the upper class to the rest; statutes in general are often written directly or indirectly by power elites. The beta won’t risk involvement in a grassroots movement until it’s neutered by the powers that be. And so the beta trusts in alpha-ruled society for providing the distractions and the rewards for normality, which deaden her angst-inducing existential sensibilities.

The Deeper Meaning

The point isn’t that most adults are betas, although that too is so; no, the deeper point is that the social structure of adulthood has beta characteristics, that the very notion of graduating from the teen’s omega-like limbo to a period of normal social functioning presupposes an adherence to betahood as a personal ideal. Adulthood as such is for betas; by contrast, the power to rule over adults is fit for children pretending to be adults, who are the sociopathic alphas. Whether it’s the arrogant male who seduces the fickle female by entertaining her with clownish displays or it’s the cynical politician who exploits the postmodern vestige of democracy for personal advancement through the oligarchy’s revolving door to private enterprise, the alpha must be childlike: he or she must be amoral, taken by the infantile notion that the masses must be “led” as though at recess on the playground, and driven to create a new world by the power of imagination as opposed to languishing in systems established by previous rulers. Betas toil on the rungs of social ladders held in place by psychotic, childlike alphas at play. The standard power dynamics are thus perfectly absurd: the responsible, cautious betas are pawns in a game played by overgrown children, their ideals of seriousness and normality mere devices to distract them so that they can suspend their disbelief and permit the emperor to scamper unclothed. While parents control their children, most parents are controlled in turn by higher-order children. Adults laugh at the child’s foolishness only to devote most of their waking hours to working in all seriousness in a dominance hierarchy that tends to elevate sociopaths who are cursed with the childlike freedom to be able to do whatever they want.   

Meanwhile, the intermediate stage between childhood ignorance and adult servitude, which leaves the teen in limbo, is essential to the omega mentality. Ethologically, omegas are the weakest members of a group of social animals. In humans, however, omegas enjoy a kind of vengeance against their masters, because human brainpower is greater than our physical strength. If the weak will inherit the earth, it will be because brains trump brawn, not because of some contradictory faith that a physically all-powerful deity will reward the puniest persons. Though left out in the cold, the human omega can seize that opportunity to size up the world and even to teach the preoccupied masses the lessons of introversion and objectivity. Thus, the religions of prophets, visionaries, and monks as well as the science of nerds changed the course of history.
Again, the point isn’t that adult omegas are trapped in a teen’s mentality, although that too may be so (see, for example, the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and note how the omega male in that movie takes his revenge by teaching his superiors the true meaning of love); instead, the point is that the taboo of teen angst reveals the existential importance of outsiders in general. The human omega is the quintessential social outsider, the one who doesn’t advance her position in social hierarchies, but stands apart from them and sees them all the more clearly. Between the indulgence of carefree animalism in which the child/sociopath is unencumbered by the crippling higher-order principles of ethics or philosophy, and the pretend seriousness of adulthood, there’s the opportunity for existential awakening, when the individual has the capacity to understand without yet having surrendered the ideals of her youth or been snowed under by diversions. Omega adults are reduced to occupying a teen-like limbo, because they’re ostracized and left with all-too much free time to mull over their wretched condition. That condition, though, belongs to all of us in our most authentic moments, when we choose no longer to deceive ourselves. From the philosophical perspective on the ultimate fate of things, alphas and betas alike are pitifully deluded mammals; all of us are fundamentally wretched and abandoned, even if the herd of adult followers shuffles from one pastime to the next, uninterested in the underlying processes, and even if the power elites can afford to play advanced dress-up.

We can speak, then, of childish historical periods or personalities and likewise of compromising, milquetoast ones, but we can also speak of such tendencies within or opportunities for each of us. After all, each human brain has lower- and higher-order functions, the autonomic reactions, instincts, and emotions, and the language-based capacity for unifying mental states in moments of focused awareness that become memories classified by the beliefs and goals that define us as individuals. We all regress to infantile states of glee or authoritarian rigidity and we all succumb to the pragmatic temptation to play it safe, to be invisible as shells of ourselves in the mob. And we all face our existential predicament now and again, exercising reason in defiance against our evolutionary and social roles, as doomed individuals seeking to understand what’s really happening, without the comfort of delusions, sometime before we perish beneath the crushing weight of nature’s indifference. Besides the peculiar correlation between the broad stages of historical development and those of the personal kind, there’s the fact that those collective and individual stages are accumulations of the sort of choices made by all of us. If someone proceeds to the limits of corruption, becoming a predator in service to natural cycles and losing her miraculous ability to defy them as dictated by an aesthetic vision, her sociopathy has been molded by a thousand betrayals of her better nature. The same is so for followers and losers. And if the herd of consumers in the monoculture inhabits an ever “braver” new world, seeking only comfort and security as what Nietzsche called the last men, that’s because we all often wilt under pressure; we follow the pack instead of listening to our inner daemon until the chance of satanic rebellion has past and most of us have become wholly artificial ourselves, livestock for the godlike wild things that remain.  

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