Book Burning as a Form of Behavioral Modification
Imagine a scenario:
You’re taking leisurely stroll down the sidewalk in your downtown, enjoying an unusually sunny day. It’s been cold all winter, but today is an anomaly and you won’t be missing it. You’re happy, warm and carefree in a way not common for the season. As you round a corner, you come across something you’ve seen 1,000 times: two squirrels, mating. (revision: two birds, two dogs, two bugs, two rabbits?) It means nothing, you smirk, sigh or plainly fail to take note. After all, they’re just animals.
Now, replace the bottom bug with mom and the top bug with dad. SORRY. You’re not into traditional gender roles. Okay, bottom bug is dad and mom is top bug? Okay, scratch that. Family is creepy, right? Replace bottom bug with a coworker, a student, a stranger you met last week, your boss. Revulsion. Non sequitur. Hostility. Why is 72 doing this to me?
But the real shock in all of this is that for bugs, mom and dad making babies in front of them is nothing short of normal. For virtually every iteration of mammal (except humans), insect, bird, and fish has made peace with the old in-and-out. For the typical human—at least 99% of the ones I’ve met in my nearly three decades of life—the flow of life comes to a screeching halt like a needle thrashing into the vinyl at the sight (or, in some cases, even the suggestion) of sex. The endocrinological deluge, the psychological firestorm, and the quantum leap between socially acceptable and unacceptable fall upon my fellow man like a knapsack full of cinder blocks.
Those squirrels enjoy a curious privilege. For what they’re doing so brazenly on the sidewalk, in my state, they’ll pay dearly (if they have the misfortune of being a human); it’s a felonious sex crime which puts you on a registry and terminates every healthful interaction with the public you would’ve otherwise had, not to mention a healthy dose of imprisonment. Up there with rape and molestation is making babies on the sidewalk. UNLESS, of course, you are a squirrel. Or an ant. Or a moose, or any other non-human creature. Leading me to wonder if the Karmic reward for cosmic goodness is worth it. Is it worth it to be human, rather than, say, an anhinga?
The other day, I was challenged, degraded and stalked by a stranger for giving my companion a very innocuous kiss. The stranger’s point of contention essentially boiled down to my affection being disgusting. The Oxford dictionary provides this definition for the word ‘disgusting’: ‘Arousing revulsion or strong indignation.’ When I think of disgusting, I think of rotting vegetation, morally heinous actions, abusive language, death, and other powerfully negative things.
And I must confess that I am empty for platitudes. When I try to determine what about myself and the squirrel is so distinct that it could cause such a chasm of difference in reception, I’m at a loss. Shall I take the moral route? Shall I take some sort of biological route? Is there a simple, cultural distinction between us due to the overpowered, sophisticated human brain? At the root of my confusion lies a question older than dust: What distinguishes men from animals, or is there any distinction at all? On the surface of it, it seems self-evident we are different. Yet we have incredibly similar biology, similar evolutionary development, and all the other trappings of the garden-variety mammal. And these various counterpoints lead me to dissatisfaction.
I have a hypothesis, however: Why are humans so utterly distinct? I say the written word is wholly responsible. The codification of moral law, and wide-spread dissemination of other written materials, resulted in multi-generational behavioral modification leading to a cultural diversification. Such-and-such clan followed the sun god, and such-and-such clan followed the secular laws and programs. Each had a code of conduct which covered various aspects of behavior, including sexuality, and these behavioral patterns were not only observed by their progeny, but upheld long after they died. The codified behavioral pattern became dynastic unto itself. Thousands of years later, even Moses somehow manages to inspire small children.
When a tiger in the jungle of Karnataka dies, it leaves behind no memoirs. Its biography remains unwritten. Its ways are unrecorded and the only surviving record of its legacy is the eyewitness accounts and fleeting moments of its life where it was imitated by its ilk and kin. The whale, though it is obviously very intelligent, leaves behind no scathing indictments, philosophical treatises, or letters of any kind. The starling writes no novels, and the bees compose no symphonies. Note: The tiger’s life was worth remembering, and its life was remarkable. The whale could probably write a novel to make Melville shake in his grave if it had the same facility with English as Ahab; the starling has seen more stories played out before its eyes than the accomplished voyeur; the bee spends all its days making music, but opinions are divided on what any of it means.
But some idiot on the internet? He can write anything—anything at all. He can influence one hundred thousand people in an hour (more, even), as in the cases of the popular bloggers of our day. Look at the furor Donald Trump makes when he writes. His writings may seem frivolous, but they’re backed up 1000 layers deep on a million servers in every nook and cranny of human development. Before the fly on the wall of WordPress.com, the fly had a father, writing letters, books, and reading the stories his father, and his father’s father left behind. His mother, and her endless stories which were her mother’s endless stories, mostly recorded in books sitting on the shelves. There is a near-immutable continuity which springs out of the written word. Even when the nuclear family—and by extension my analogy—breaks down, the library, the college, and the friend step in to save the day with seemingly endless volumes of information.
When I consider what influenced me, I am dismayed. I realize that I am predominately influenced by the abstract, carefully imparted knowledge of those in positions of influence throughout my life. Am I more than the sum total of the Bible, Orson Scott Card, George Orwell, Shakespeare, Homer, Harper Lee?; of the progress reports of my teachers, graded papers, essays, speeches, television, radio, and music?; of Jung, Nietzsche, Einstein, Freud, Camus, Voltaire, and Plato? Much is made of the oral tradition, but the direction of:
- what I think about myself
- the world around me
- the nature of reality
- my conception of God
- my relationship to mankind
- my moral conduct
is almost entirely directed and derived from written words. If you ask me about eating blood, I’ll quote a book. If you ask me about murdering a man, I’ll quote several books. If you ask me about sexuality, I’ll introduce you to my personal library. But in this hypothetical series of questions you’re asking me, I am rattled by the realization that these are the same questions my sons will ask. And I will give them the same treatment when I answer them. Is any part of my development influenced by nature? To what extent will their development be influenced by nature?
I try to imagine what it would be like if mankind had no written words. We would be such a fecund species, wouldn’t we? Imagine if the things which feel good—sex, intoxicants, affection, sleep, eating—were elevated to their natural place in our consciousness instead of being hammered down by abstract ideas inherited from dead men in books. Men and women would pursue these above all else. That’s not all that different from 2018, I suppose—except in one very crucial way. Without the written words of dead men, we would embrace our proclivities without shame and celebrate their fulfillment. Furthermore, we would have nothing but tolerance for those around us who did the same.
Imagine a world without sexual convention, a world without social shame, without moral terror, without existential dread, without emotional confusion.
What you have imagined is the life of a beetle.
You have imagined a life which emanates out of the natural function of the self and environment. And it is my best bet, after all these years of consideration, that this must be what distinguishes us from the rest of our animal peers. We have found a new fountain of motivation which does not spring from natural function, but from an almost purely mental and abstract source: written language. The birds chirp, the bees vibrate, the goats yell, and the sheep bleat, and I’ll be a radical and call that language. But that language is not multi-generational. We have usurped the natural discontinuity of generations by creating mediums of exchange which persist long after the death of their creators.
The billy kid will look upon its mother and father to learn its behavior and everything it doesn’t learn from mom it will learn from its natural environment. But the human kid will spend every waking moment of his life being steered away from learning from its environment and toward the tried-and-true teachings of a million dead men before him, and he will only learn to embrace his function through rebellion. And then, if he does eschew the teachings he is given, and rebel, and embrace the inner man, he will become…
The most reviled man in society. The womanizer. The one-night-stander. The nudist. The public masturbator. The guy who smells like B.O., feet and grass. The guy who urinates on trees and occasionally walks on all fours. The guy who shags in public and grunts when he should shake hands. The guy whose hands you don’t even want to shake because they’re slightly too pink with blood.
He becomes the prisoner. The behaviors of the wild animal are not only being weeded out of our young, they have become criminalized and the punishments for such are tremendous. It isn’t a matter of preference to listen to our dusty forebears. It is a matter of survival. It is said that history is written by the victors. I’m afraid to admit that sometimes the chimpanzee in me wonders if it isn’t time for a little book burning and public indecency.
During the composition of this post, I listened to [Dissociation] by [Dillinger Escape Plan]. Cerebral, emotional, visceral, violent, mature and exploding with dissonant fury, Dissociation came to my attention with a news story about it being the final recording by Dillinger Escape Plan.
This record is heavy and dour enough to explode your kidneys and emotionally intelligent enough to weep with you as you bid farewell from the top floor of the hospital. If you can’t handle a cerebral deathmatch unfolding in your ears, this won’t be for you.