Going off-script October 13, 2023 on Drew DeVault's blog

There is a phenomenon in society which I find quite bizarre. Upon our entry to this mortal coil, we are endowed with self-awareness, agency, and free will. Each of the 8 billion members of this human race represents a unique person, a unique worldview, and a unique agency. Yet, many of us have the same fundamental goals and strive to live the same life.

I think of such a life experiences as “following the script”. Society lays down for us a framework for living out our lives. Everyone deviates from the script to some extent, but most people hit the important beats. In Western society, these beats are something like, go to school, go to college, get a degree, build a career, get married, have 1.5 children, retire to Florida, die.

There are a number of reasons that someone may deviate from the script. The most common case is that the deviations are imposed by circumstance. A queer person will face discrimination, for instance, in marriage, or in adopting and raising children. Someone born into the lower class will have reduced access to higher education and their opportunities for career-building are curtailed accordingly; similar experiences follow for people from marginalized groups. Furthermore, more and more people who might otherwise be able to follow the script are finding that they can’t afford a home and don’t have the resources to build a family.

There are nevertheless many people who are afforded the opportunity to follow the script, and when they do so, they often experience something resembling a happy and fulfilling life. Generally this is not the result of a deliberate choice – no one was presented with the script and asked “is this what you want”? Each day simply follows the last and you make the choices that correspond with what you were told a good life looks like, and sometimes a good life follows.

Of course, it is entirely valid to want the “scripted” life. But you were not asked if you wanted it: it was just handed to you on a platter. The average person lacks the philosophical background which underpins their worldview and lifestyle, and consequently cannot explain why it’s “good”, for them or generally. Consider your career. You were told that it was a desirable thing to build for yourself, and you understand how to execute your duties as a member of the working class, but can you explain why those duties are important and why you should spend half of your waking life executing them? Of course, if you are good at following the script, you are rewarded for doing so, generally with money, but not necessarily with self-actualization.

This state of affairs leads to some complex conflicts. This approach to life favors the status quo and preserves existing power structures, which explains in part why it is re-enforced by education and broader social pressures. It also leads to a sense of learned helplessness, a sense that this is the only way things can be, which reduces the initiative to pursue social change – for example, by forming a union.

It can also be uncomfortable to encounter someone who does not follow the script, or even questions the script. You may be playing along, and mostly or entirely exposed to people who play along. Meeting someone who doesn’t – they skipped college, they don’t want kids, they practice polyamory, they identify as a gender other than what you presumed, etc – this creates a moment of dissonance and often resistance. This tends to re-enforce biases and can even present as inadvertent micro-aggressions.

I think it’s important to question the script, even if you decide that you like it. You should be able to explain why you like it. This process of questioning is a radical act. A radical, in its non-pejorative usage, is born when someone questions their life and worldview, decides that they want something else, and seeks out others who came to similar conclusions. They organize, they examine their discomfort and put it to words, and they share these words in the hope that they can explain a similar discomfort that others might feel within themselves. Radical movements, which by definition is any movement which challenges the status quo, are the stories of the birth and spread of radical ideas.

Ask yourself: who are you? Did you choose to be this person? Who do you want to be, and how will you become that person? Should you change your major? Drop out? Quit your job, start a business, found a labor union? Pick up a new hobby? Join or establish a social club? An activist group? Get a less demanding job, move into a smaller apartment, and spend more time writing or making art? However you choose to live, choose it deliberately.

The next step is an exercise in solidarity. How do you feel about others who made their own choices, choices which may be alike or different to your own? Or those whose choices were constrained by their circumstances? What can you do together that you couldn’t do alone?

Who do you want to be? Do you know?

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