Dichotomies of the Dominant Paradigm

Dichotomy: a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different. (source)

Dominant Paradigm: A “dominant paradigm” refers to the values, or system of thought, in a society that are most standard and widely held at a given time. Dominant paradigms are shaped both by the community’s cultural background and by the context of the historical moment (source)

I work with a great team of people at an awesome company that makes a very ethical product. I have a great job, and I’ve had several other great jobs in the past. I’ve worked for mega-corporations, I’ve worked for tiny little startups, and everything in between. The vast majority of the people I worked with were hard workers and sincere people.

But when that alarm clock goes off in the morning, I feel a deep seated anger towards the ‘system’: The rules of society that all but force us to pursue money at the expense of all else. I feel weird that I’m 32 and despite having had several great jobs, I haven’t found contentment in my job, as the dominant paradigm says I should. At its most simple root, I can’t give up the idea that humans aren’t supposed to live this way.

Here are some things I just don’t get. Call these the dichotomies of the dominant paradigm:

  • According to positive psychology any activity that is said to bring you pleasure, engagement, meaning, and a sense of ‘flow’ can be said to make you happy. I certainly get all these aspects from work at my job, but it still leaves me feeling hollow and dissatisfied.

  • Trying to find contentment outside of work has proved unfruitful. Even when I am not working, I can’t achieve the ‘flow’ and engagement that a full day sailing, hiking, or snowboarding can. There’s not enough time in a day to decompress and achieve that special mental state I associate with happiness and contentment.

  • Most intelligent people would agree that it is rational to seek the highest good. If a rational person was free to choose between the cubical-based life of a knowledge worker vs leisure time while immersed in nature, doesn’t it seem more rational to choose leisure time? If so, why don’t more people do it? Can one conclude that people are therefore not free to choose? Why is there this vast sea of humanity dedicated to the cubical-based lifestyle?

  • The dominant culture encourages young people to go to college and take on debt. Then they are encouraged to get married, have kids, and buy a house. The house puts you further into debt and children are a worthy choice, but a financial burden. This lifestyle encourages you to be a good tax payer and good consumer, certainly. And yet, I have met very few people who have followed this path who can be said to be ‘happy’ and ‘content’. I certainly wasn’t. Instead I would describe them as ‘harried’ and ‘stressed’. Why then do more people not pursue alternative lifestyles?

I’ve had ‘great’ jobs and sincerely great coworkers. When I look back at all the people I’ve worked with since college, I can’t image better people. Yet the job leaves me hollow and I can see the same hollowness in most of their eyes. I can’t find contentment in activities outside of work or those social relationships developed at work. In my experience the benefits aren’t worth the cost.

Perhaps that’s my ‘flaw’. I have always felt socially inept. Capable of intimating empathy in others, but unable to palpably feel that empathy. Additionally, without children and a mortgage, my financial back isn’t up against the wall. I think that explains my lower tolerance for the pain of daily life, too. Most people have a ‘better reason’ for putting up with these flaws in the dominant paradigm than I do.

Whatever it is, I have found the middle class lifestyle lacking. At no point can it match the overpowering sense of freedom, creativity, and inspiration every time I go sailing around the San Juan Islands. That’s why my time spent cruising this summer is not a vacation. It’s not a sabbatical. It’s my real life. When I come back to work in the winter, that will be something else.

I’m fond of saying that ‘boating is an expensive hobby, or an inexpensive lifestyle’. This is what I mean when I say that.

Related posts:

What 'Living On a Boat' Means to Me
The Nature of Evil
A Tenuous Contentment
6 Responses to “Dichotomies of the Dominant Paradigm”
  1. Jim says:

    Hi Chris,

    You have posed some interesting questions. What is unsatisfying about the modal culture? Why do people persist being engaged in it? I’ll take up the second question a little.

    ‘Why’ questions are difficult, because they seek to understand causation. I believe that culture is a systematic suite of traits that has been selected for, in the Darwinian sense. It is historical, globally non-optimized, and amoral (except when ‘morality’ had adaptive value). Culture is very plastic, and there are an infinite number of variations, which are the fodder for its evolution.

    Nevertheless culture has temporal and spatial modalities. Our western culture has two, I believe: waste (energy put to non-reproduction) and technology. Waste has adaptive value when carrying capacity is highly uncertain. Technology is a reallocation of the energy that would have been used for reproduction into tools, processes, and ideas that raise the carrying capacity and otherwise provide resiliency. Historically, it has served to overcome some weaknesses that resulted from high waste. The origins of this culture are well known to have been in the highly ecologically uncertain river valleys in the middle and near east some 5000+ years ago and also in central and south America in similar settings. Once the benefits of technology to survival became increasingly manifest, western culture became dominant. Importantly, humans did not design the culture–nature, through countless experiments did. Nevertheless, it is not inevitable, and the behavior is being confronted by limitations in global resources never previously encountered and by instabilities caused by access to individuals to highly destructive and readily available technologies.

    A consumerist lifestyle (waste) and extreme specialization (technology) are attendant, core properties of western culture. In the historical context, they are an inherent part of what has made western culture so incredibly successful.

    Other behaviors exist in a continuum of behaviors and serve as the raw material for selection. Widespread practice of modal alternative behaviors, however, no longer exists (selected out) or is limited to certain ecological pockets (e.g., the Amazon basin and the deep Sahara). Western culture has successfully replaced them.

    Western culture is not globally optimal, has no sense of ethics (a human mental construct or itself a product of natural selection, e.g., altruism), and is undirected. It is not pretty or just, any more than the breeding behaviors of black widow spiders are ‘pretty’ or ‘just’. It has simply proven to be (vastly) superior within a unique historical context. However, cracks are appearing, and ironically, it is our culture’s greatest and fiercest tool, science, that is allowing us to see dimly ahead to the collision between our culture and the end of resources that were previously essentially unlimited.

    Humans do have a sense of ethics, though, and there are vestigial or otherwise alternative sensibilities (still largely within the ‘western’ paradigm). We desire a different reality.

    The impossible task is to design a just, ‘pretty’ culture that has greater fitness than the system _nature_ has designed. Entire continents of peoples have confronted it (e g., indigenous Americans) and been crushed, and nature has already run and rejected countless experiments. Also, we are not designed to understand and deal with time, especially future time. We are inherently spatial creatures, and our most successful tools, like physics, are essentialist.

    All of this is to say that we don’t begin to grasp the power of the forces we are confronting and how we have been shaped and utterly depend on them.

    Any of us can choose a more or less alternative lifestyle, but to truly change the evolutionary course will require the greatest intellectual effort humans have ever mustered. It’s a task as grandiose as Seldon’s task imagined by Asimov and worthy of all our attention.



    • Chris says:

      Thank you, Jim, for your well thought-out comment. I agree with everything you said, and appreciate an honest attempt to answer these ‘dichotomies’. I know I’m not the only person who asks them.

      I suppose one reason I blog about this lifestyle I’m adopting is that I’m convinced the nomadic way of life is due for a comeback when paired with recent technologies like energy harnessing (solar, wind, generators, & batteries) and construction methods (insulation & fiberglass).

      Studies show that cities take a disproportionate amount of people when the overall population increases. I think if that trend was to reverse, that people could spread out around the earth rather than consolidate, it would solve a lot of our social and environmental issues today.

      The good news is that there are no technological barriers to people adopting a nomadic way of life. The hurdles are simply cultural. I guess what boggles my mind is that it hasn’t caught on yet. All of the nomads I have met are in love their lifestyle, and yet a disproportionate population of western culture slaves away in a cubical. I’m convinced that most people aren’t even aware that a nomadic lifestyle is an option.

      • Jim says:

        Hey Chris,

        I think that pioneers like you will have to continue to develop and demonstrate alternatives. These ideas and their implementation are the fodder for change.

        Human intention, given our lack of understanding, is not causative. Indeed it’s our misattribution of the effect of our intent as cause rather than more properly as another source of variation that prevents us from making progress. The ’cause’ is natural selection.

        Think too that nowhere on earth, except in certain very specific types of places, has this lifestyle (dispersed, generalist) survived, despite its previous practice by nearly every person on earth a few centuries ago.

        To be more effective, I think we need to develop a Darwinian evolutionary perspective of human culture and scientific tools for its analysis, modelling and engineering. Some work is available as a basis, including work in evolutionary archaeology (e.g., Robert Dunnell) and agriculture (e.g., David Rindos).

        Those tools would be used to effectively guide cultural design to contest those aspects of Western culture that, I believe, will cause extreme harm under the changing reality of the end of resources (e.g., extreme overconsumption of resources and climate change), are inherently destructive and destabilizing (e.g., designer biological weapons), or cause suffering and a diminishment of human happiness and dignity (e.g., the corporate form).

        I see something really interesting with this lifestyle–increased freedom from the corporate form (possibly the most destructive human social structure). People simply aren’t free to make good choices (or speak out) when they depend on corporations for the most fundamental aspects of survival–clean air, water, food and shelter).

        Pragmatically, I think we should break the power of banks and other corporate forms to own real property and instead allow individuals to have shelter and seek their own livelihoods without indebtedness and subsequent wage slavery. Living on a boat takes away a large amount of power from profiteers. Profiteers and their proxies in government will of course seek to control that for their own gains if it becomes threatening.

        Like you, I’m interested in not just life-styles for people who want to live on the water, but for people on land–maybe land trusts to give people access to affordable land they can work and be free on, and of course sustainable choices like clean energy independence and small (and tiny) houses. Coupled with appropriate technology, even high technology as you say, I agree that there are new and exciting possibilities. I’ve been visiting the Seattle metro area for a few weeks, ensnarled in the terrible commutes (both on the road and on mass transit) and see the consumptive waste and dehumanizing side effects, truly saddening. While I have a job that allows remotely based work, it’s still corporate based. I look forward to converting that work to a non-corporate business.

        Off to work on the boat! Chasing electrical issues, then the engine. Hope to be in the San Juans when the safety issues are fixed (engine and thru-hulls). Modest leaks and bottom paint too. Maybe in a month!

        (btw did you see the Kitsap newspaper article last week on cleaning up derelict boats and helping boat owners?)

        Keep going, Chris!

        Thx, -j

  2. Hi Chris,

    An interesting read, which could very well be called “My hermeneutic understanding of why I’m here while nearly everybody else is over there. Why?”
    I think it’s a calling to conformity, the ingredient that fostered survival of the tribe as the basic nucleus of early society. People can’t discard that urge, like many other seemingly unshakable social norms, it’s innate, a sort of glue that keeps 8 billion in tune to silent marching music. You wouldn’t believe the healthy shock I felt when I realized that my philosophy professors were, overall, just as impregnated with the norm as everyone else and biased beyond belief!
    Now, what I really find fascinating is why a small percentage of humans break the mold, some more successfully than others. These are the people who have unique stories and personalities and who, in our time, have been given the gift of internet to realize they’re not alone.
    Out of the matrix but not crazy, that’s my motto.

  3. Mike says:

    I know this is 11 months after the fact.

    Western culture is incredibly successful . . . western countries are incredibly wealthy. The only reason people are able to live fairly comfortably in a semi-nomadic lifestyle in western countries is because these countries are so fantastically wealthy. Middle class people who live in western Asia are so poor as to struggle to afford enough water for a sponge bath. Really, one Indian guy I work with now, made the equivalent of $12.50 a day as an electronic engineer working for Arm in India. $25 will bring a water truck to fill your home cistern, about 1k gallons, that’s 2 days of labor to buy a months worth of water, and that water is polluted by our standards. That doesn’t include food, (at global prices), or the rest of the living expenses. The only reason people can choose to live a simpler lifestyle in the west is because of the disposable income spent to buy and discard cars and boats. If everyone else in the west chose to live simpler, or were forced to live simpler ala totalitarian government, the supply of inexpensive cars and boats would dry up instantly. Consider the Ukrainian women who were not too shy as to boast of robbing the luggage of the Malaysian airlines crash victims of their makeup and toiletries. Whilst I doubt you know a western woman who would dare to use another woman’s makeup. Let alone that stolen from the dead.

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