Is learning self-preservation the same as learning system-preservation?

I pose the question having never heard of “system-preservation,” so I’m stuck now with defining it.

In my current unit on Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul, an elegiac exploration of the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan in 1996, I’ve asked my students to consider the effect of learned helplessness and conformity on Kabul’s citizens. Learned helplessness is a survival mechanism that emerges when we’re beaten down by life so much that we no longer believe our efforts matter; since any effort is futile, we shut down all hope and settle for simply surviving. (In other words, we learn helplessness.) Self-preservation may be the only rebellion left. Conformity is our default setting in social situations (aka life); we relentlessly (and mostly unconsciously) adapt to our environment and the people within it. We fit in. We do this because fitting in means surviving, and we’re designed to focus on optimizing survival. We’re designed to optimize self-preservation.

What of consciousness? Isn’t that the variable which enables us to transcend our default setting? Doesn’t it allow us to do more, to hope for more than surviving? Given how many forces conspire against our agency, mocking our consciousness and swaying us against our will, perhaps it isn’t fair to claim that we ever do more than self-preserve. After all, life wants life, and not much else. Does consciousness really make us different from, say, lichen?

Let’s table that last paragraph and presuppose the transcendent impact of consciousness, leaving us able to imagine our capacity for social change. If we really are just animals and consciousness a trick that lets us merely witness our own ultimate impotence, unable to change anything happening around us, then I may as well not write any of this. I refuse to accept that possibility; I reject the way it absolves all of us of moral responsibility in advance. (The feeling of freedom is sufficient for me to assert its reality.)

When a society or a community gets you to focus only on self-preservation, how can you do anything but system-preserve? Let me give you an example. Imagine a school that teaches you obedience. Pretty easy, right? If you’re not comfortable imagining a school, imagine any setting in your life. For our sake, let’s stick with the school: You learn how to follow and obey rules and submit your will to authority figures. All for your own good. You also learn leadership, but it feels like a bit of a ruse; you learn how to operate efficiently within the system, subjecting those below you to the same rules and obedience that you had to endure. It worked for you, after all. I mean, you’re on top, right? Or at least, you’re on top enough to make you feel like it’s worth it, the obedience and all.

Your brain chemistry changes, and you learn a certain degree of helplessness (you don’t stop hoping, but you likely stop imagining, and maybe even questioning); you become ruthlessly effective at keeping the system you learned in place. You internalize and intuit so fluently that you can’t imagine an alternative to this existence. It just feels so right. You behaving on the belief that the system is and ought to be the way it is rewards you immensely. You earn badges and honors, and you are recognized publicly for your alignment with the system. Symbols and speeches abound to reinforce the legitimacy of the hierarchy. You fit so perfectly that you have no reason to think that you’ve sacrificed your self to this system; that you’re sacrificing others to it as well. Your learning how to self-preserve benefited the system’s preservation. At what point did you give up your freedom? Were you ever free? (What if the system is good and worth preserving?)

Throughout his work, Michel Foucault detailed the transition in power structures from physical to psychological colonization. In 1996 Kabul, the Taliban completely overran its people, bodies and minds alike. The Swallows of Kabul reveals how its citizens didn’t buy wholeheartedly nor mindlessly what the Taliban imposed, but their awareness that everything was wrong did nothing to mitigate their hopeless reality. Take any situation in which you know – or even slightly suspect – you’re being manipulated. Heck, consider this: when are you not being coerced by others into fitting in? Are you smarter than billons of years of evolution?

I’m not sure where to point you after you step into that consideration. I’m not even sure where I’m trying to direct myself. This post was inspired by a kernel of a thought: self-preservation means system-preservation. I don’t know how to pop it.

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