Snap Out of It, You’re Not Actually Thinking Outside of the Box

Even when you think you are acting out, or thinking out of the box, you are not. Even when you think you are challenging “the system”, you are not.*

*At least probably

Alright, I know this may appear controversial. Bear with me. This thought did not strike me out of the blue – rather, I have to thank a guy whose name I unfortunately don’t remember for making me even think of this perspective. I owe most of the arguments to him, who I met at a social gathering of Extinction Rebellion The Hague tonight. After talking to him, I felt I had had an epiphany – I could already see myself typing away on my laptop, and rushed through the rain to get home as fast as possible and write down what I felt had to be shared with the world.

Joseph Nye’s works on soft power – which I do not want to go into detail about, but they are worth reading – emphasize the power of entities to shape people’s preferences and behaviour not through coercive means, but through “soft methods” that may even go unnoticed. In one of his works, he demonstrates how the USA used Hollywood movies to tilt the Cold War in their favour: By making the US and its capitalist culture appear appealing. But movies don’t even have to be employed as purposeful political tool to influence people. For instance, movies shape their viewer’s perceptions of what a “good” wife looks like, or what a “true” man should do or not do. Taken even further, media also shapes our perceptions of what acts of rebellion ought to look like if they are done “right”. Take Disney, for example. More than just a producer of children’s movies, Disney today also owns the Star Wars franchise – a saga about rebels changing the world and saving it from destructive powers. It tells success stories that inspire people to promote change in their own lives. It inspires people to speak up against injustice and becoming vocal advocates. The way the heroes win is often similar, and while they do bend some laws, it is rare that a hero wins in a truly innovative way that completely restructures the world. Yes, the bad guy in power may come to be replaced, but the structures are largely passed on to his good successor. Bad guys out, good guys in, problem solved.

Humans are thus fundamentally socialized to act within a limited scope of actions. After all, it is hard to imagine ways of doing things if they haven’t been done at least in a similar fashion before – coming up with radically different ideas is nearly impossible. You will always use what you already know and are familiar with as a point of reference. And somehow, the scope of action that is provided for satisfies most people’s needs. Within the options given, most personality types and desires and habits can be covered. Of course, sometimes radically different ideas do emerge. After all, some people do ditch society and go to live as nomads, even if this is absolutely not among the options provided for self-fulfilment in their culture. The problem that the guy at the social gathering and I started discussing was that once you find yourself breaking the scope of the box and thinking outside of it, you don’t know where to stop. What actions are possible? Nobody has told you before. You have no reference framework. And you are probably all alone out there because it has not become part of the things mainstream people even consider are doable.

This whole intellectual exercise may become easier if we 1. visualize it and 2. come up with some examples. Example 1: Ways of protesting against unjust policies

The box:

Hunger strikesProtests with postersSigning petitionsPhysically attacking politicians

The true scope of possible ways to protest against unjust policies:

  ???? Hunger strikesProtests with postersSigning petitionsPhysically attacking politicians           ????

Because I cannot even come up with any ways of protesting that are not within the options society makes available already, I want to bring a more straightforward example: Environment-friendly grocery acquisition

The box:

Buying at normal supermarkets and trying to get the best dealGoing to organic supermarkets to buy products that are sustainableGoing to a farmer’s market to support local producers

The options given in the box are all related to purchasing groceries at a shop or shop-like entity. Any idea society is currently coming up with has to do with both elements: 1. You need to buy groceries, and 2. you need to be able to get them from a stable place. However, even the more “alternative” sounding option – buying organic products at an organic supermarket – are not fundamentally different. Organic supermarkets, after all, are still supermarkets. Nothing about purchasing organic rice from there instead of non-organic rice from the Aldi is a rebellion against an oppressive system, even if you tell yourself that it is. Rather than being an innovative, alternative way of acquiring aliments, it merely replaces one element of an altogether flawed system with a slightly better element.

I therefore tried to come up with two proposals to actually break out of the box:

The true scope:

Growing vegetables in one’s garden Buying at normal supermarkets and trying to get the best dealGoing to organic supermarkets to buy products that are sustainableGoing to a farmer’s market to support local producersAsking one’s neighbours if they have leftovers they would otherwise throw away  

However, even the things that I labelled as “out of the box” are not truly out of the box. After all, I am able to list them quite easily. In this regard, however, I want to emphasize that how “out of the box” something is may depend on the cultural context – in India, for instance, they may appear extremely unimaginable and revolutionary, whereas they are practice in countries like the Netherlands.

I came up with the other example, of making one’s morning glass of milk more sustainable.

The box:

Buying soy or oat milkHaving your own cowsBuying milk in glass bottles

The true scope:

  Realizing that consuming milk is only an issue of preference, and that you don’t need to spend  money on any of thisBuying soy or oat milkHaving your own cowsBuying milk in glass bottlesMaking oat milk yourself because it is easy and cheap  

As I touched upon above, the “box” exists as a key regulator of our human interactions. Governments in some countries may of course be trying to keep a curb on radical ideas, but mainly, movies and states and all the other institutions exercising social control are doing so because that is just how society works. After all, if people were acting in completely unpredictable ways, how could we ever co-exist? At the same time, labelling certain behaviour “radical” – even if it is still well within the box – can help give people space to lash out. It cannot be denied that humans sometimes want to act out and be mean to others, or do something that they didn’t think they would ever do in a more positive sense. Humans sometimes want to shatter expectations. If a person who is normally well within the middle of the box therefore comes up with an idea that scratches at the boxes’ boundaries, he may satisfy this itch to act out, but the institutions around can still handle him.

One could even make the argument that this is all that humans usually want – when we have the desire to be “extreme”, we don’t actually want to destroy everything, but merely satisfy our own need to associate ourselves with a difference label. In this regard, I want to draw on some concepts from social psychology, but again I fall short of a proper analysis – after all, I never studied psychology in depth. Take my current example: I am wearing more clothes that are traditionally associated with “hippies”, am wearing bandanas, and shop at the local organic store. I try to bring my own containers when I buy soap, and I want to signal to the shopkeeper and generally all people around me that “I care about the planet”. Why do I want to do so? As humans are fundamentally social creatures, we tend to seek the support of those similar to us. If we ostracize ourselves from one group, we do so because we seek a better “home” in a different group. By trying to appear “alternative”, I may be intending to signal that I have torn down the shackles of conformity, and that I have achieved enlightenment. While I have moved closer to the boundaries of the box, I have not crossed them – I still fit into a group, and I in fact want others to recognize me as part of that group. Being seen as “alternative” and “vegetarian” signals to others that I am trying to be an ethical consumer and that I am trying to save the planet.

In the end, I am not “alternative”. I am not even vaguely revolutionary. The activities I engage in to “save the planet” are organized by established groupsemploying tested techniques, when overcoming the real problem needs more radical rethinking. Instead of truly pushing the boundaries of the box, I am merely moving outward within it – while my own veganism may be unusual in society, it is not unthought of, and something that is provided as an option that society can accommodate. Therefore, assuming the traits associated with the outer boundaries of the box gives me the security of others being there – others like me, others who support me. If I truly moved outside of the box, I would be all alone, left without strategy, role models, or guidance, and possibly ostracized for not being anything society could ever prepare for.

So what are the implications of all this?

Climate change, poverty and inequality are not symptoms of humanity – instead, they are symptoms of our current system of organizing ourselves. For decades, economists could only think in terms of “GDP growth” – strategies regarding improving human livelihoods may have differed vastly across political camps, but all groups agreed: Growth is a must and cannot be compromised. Today, economists are slowly starting to imagine economic prosperity to be possible without GDP growth. In fact, the planet may need de-growth ­in order to survive.

To go back to my milk example: Most options that are portrayed as radical are not in fact radical – they still promote consuming, just that they promote consuming a different kind of product. They still promote drinking a product that was shipped from somewhere else. They merely seek to substitute one thing for another. The idea that one could also just, you know, not have milk-like products in one’s diet is nothing that is promoted as an idea. While this milk example may seem somewhat absurd, it can be easily applied to much more important issues. At this point, the whole underpinnings of society might have to be overturned, everything we take for granted. But how does one even learn how to think outside of the outside of the box? That is the question.

Our current political spectrum:

The far leftThe centre leftThe centre rightThe far right

The political spectrum that could be:

  ????The radical leftThe centre leftThe centre rightThe radical right           ????

One thought on “Snap Out of It, You’re Not Actually Thinking Outside of the Box

  1. A very interesting challenge. I agree that we aren’t really thinking outside the box as much as we are just moving to the very side. But, I propose that it’s not so much about thinking outside the box, but rather about pushing the boundaries of the box itself by building upon existing ideas. Art and Science , however radical, build upon work and experience of all previous generations. But they still open new frontiers. For example ,in Physics, Sir Issac Newton or Albert Einstein are men are considered to have radically changed science. Yet, the work that they did was extension of work done previously. It’s just that the leap they expanded they expanded the boundary of box much more than other people. Finally, as you said, Humans still want to belong some group. Will/Can we take on being so untethered to a social group by being extremely radical?


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