Many of us have experienced the unpleasantness of a “team-building” exercise. During such events, either (a) we embrace it because it is “easier” than “real work” or (b) we find ourselves annoyed. In this scenario, (a) should eventually go to (b) for those that are logical. If you are quagmired in (a), you need not read any further.
What exactly do “team-building” activities accomplish? George Carlin has one broad hypothesis. Not that he is wrong, but Barbara Ehrenreich has another hypothesis that is more nuanced and hits closer to the mark. Like most effective forces, these exert their control imperceptibly. You may need a pair of special glasses to see the marionette strings, but they’re there.
The strings are often self-made, sadly enough. All that one needs is a little motivation in the right direction, and hidden commands take over. You’re not the Manchurian candidate. In this scenario, there’s not even an attempt at subterfuge.
With just a little operant conditioning, triggered the right way, serious consequences emerge. This is called a token economy. It functions much like a real economy, in all its error-prone glory. And just like the real economy, material achievement takes priority over all else, creating a mindset of gaining wealth and forgetting all but self. In both forms of economy, the tokens are meaningless. They are only valuable because we choose to give them meaning. And we make that choice as a distraction from the fear of confronting boredom that would otherwise motivate our actions. We run from boredom because it reminds us from the fact that eventually it all goes back in the box after your own individual game is over. You can’t take it with you. No one here gets out alive.
“Boredom rests upon the nothingness that winds its way through existence; its giddiness, like that which comes from gazing down into an infinite abyss, is infinite.” – Søren Kierkegaard
Amidst all this arbitrarily imposed competition, people forget the initial boundaries. A simulacra is established and the system becomes naturalized. People eventually call out for interpretations of a sense of “fairness” – but this is a highly contingent system. As such, morality is placed upon a subjective backing, which cannot possibly withstand the amount of objective scrutiny it needs to undergo by linguistically conscious animals such as ourselves.
When the unjust is labeled as such, and the people making claims for justice are denied other routes of action, violence emerges as a rectifier. The goals that were formerly just fantasized about are finally brought to reality. But large displacements require large forces, and so the imposition of a new rule requires a form of extreme sustained violence. Such violence externalizes the obstacles that need to be defeated, and the milieu is reinvented in unpredictable ways in attempts to eliminate these obstacles. This combination of externalization of inner obstacles and subsequent reordering of the surrounding landscape to accommodate a solution is well known to us, but in another form: nightmares.
Thus, the modern predicament has emerged, with its complicated web of interactions designed to avoid both boredom and nightmares. What has emerged instead is also problematic.
Our ontology is Panglossian – we assume that some inventor, some businessman, or some politician will bring out the solutions we need instead of bringing ourselves to that point of motivated effectiveness.
We privilege epistemic fideism and obscurantism as we hand over more and more intellectual terrain to these same people who are trusted to bring “solutions”.
Socially, we are cynical towards power – so cynical to all forms of power, including our own, that we make no demands to change the status quo, but instead assume it ad infinitum even when we desire change.
Ethically, we resign ourselves to making each person fungible instead of a uniquely contributing individual – we assume each person is one piece in our game, instead of each person possessing their own.
However, as I’ve written before, I don’t think there is an evil human nature (if there is a human nature at all). I do think it is true that people, when acting as agents with minimal coercion, tend to resist social structures that mold persons unfavorably.
That means ditching the superficial “team-building” exercises and going for something deeper instead.