There is a common complaint that people often fall back on - "it's the way things are and we can't change it." It's a complaint that appears to have the power to brush aside the glare of the light that threatens to illuminate one's insecurities and desires in a world he or she finds so difficult to escape. It's a complaint that is pulled out of the bag ever so often by those who'd rather join the rat race than step back to see that something is wrong, because it might mean losing one's status and respect, losing one's job, losing one's friends, or perhaps more generally, losing one's chance at being accepted as part of the system, even if it might mean being mediocre and totally selling out.
I don't really know how to begin describing or defining this world that traps us, but if I had to put something to it, I'd call it a materialistic world that's run by capitalist and realist 'ideals'. It's a world that reduces vices and virtues into costs and benefits, it's a world that defines power and value through money, it's a world that imposes huge costs on those who cannot or do not participate in it, it's a world that takes everything that makes being human a wonderful thing and then sells it all back as commodities, it's a world that alienates and disrupts relationships, it's a world that makes us desire things we never really needed and then makes us unhappy when we cannot have those things we never wanted in the first place, it's a world that gives us far too many unnecessary choices to make, it's a world that thrives on unthinking participation, and it's a world that keeps everyone trapped in a cycle of competition.
I think such a world has the potential to reduce people into beasts, and very often it has done so.
I have a grand vision which I might even consider a dream; a dream that I most probably won't ever see coming true even if I died trying to realize it. The progress of the effort, if successful at all, will be in inches so small the whole venture might seem naive and silly. But an inch is still an inch; that is infinitely greater than nothingness.
The vision begins with modestly making people more discerning and critical by making them ask just one more question about reality and the world they live in. Even if people aren't convinced about the way I feel about the 'system', the moment I can get people to just ask that additional one more question, I would have inched one step closer to the ideal of fighting against what might seem like a hopeless battle.
Because I believe there is a critical tipping point. Once people start asking more questions about this materialistic world, the exploiters - who often get their recruits and establish their base of serving minions from people who were afraid of losing by not participating - will have less people to recruit. Once less people refuse to jump on the bandwagon, those who impose their will on the masses through power and money lose their validation, and the tides might then turn.
How might one encourage more critical thinking? Imparting general knowledge and inculcating a wonder of the world, I might suspect. It is somewhat sad, but those who have come of age will be hardest to reshape and might have to be overlooked; it is the youths that, once fed with knowledge, wonder and desire, will become the bedrock on which a virtuous society that is critical of the ills of capitalism, materialism, exploitation, realism and mediocrity will rest. One might thus realize how growing up surrounded by art, music, literature, history, dance, religion and general science might just do the trick to open the window of the heart and soul to what is beautiful. And subsequently, abhor what might come to contaminate that. The power hungry exploiters at the top of the political and economical hierarchies will have less undiscerning people to join their ranks.
Is it little wonder how difficult it is to change the kiasu attitudes of Singaporeans, when from a very young age most of us are taught to be competitive in school and get good grades or lose out? For the most part, the entire education system (compulsory, no less) is geared towards citizens participating unquestioningly in the machine so that it is well-oiled and efficient and does little to reward us with fulfilling our capacities as human beings.
As for the hardened, older ones, continue to shake their understanding of the world, should you be enlightened enough to do so. Squeeze that one question out, and we've moved closer to the dream.
Indeed, it might be a lot to ask of people who aren't as 'privileged' as I am to be able to see the world this way, or who might have been through difficult childhoods where education and knowledge is scarce and thus might have developed very strongly competitive and realist natures. But I don't think this makes the vision any less right or worthwhile to strive for. In fact, if the world wasn't the way it is right now, (1) the terrible social inequalities that keep families and children stuck in a cycle of poverty might not even exist (or might exist to a much smaller degree), or (2) children won't live in a world that encourages and develops cut-throat behaviour and competitive natures, because it won't be rewarding to seek power to solve the problem of gaining social validation.
I also believe that I'm privileged enough to be in a sort of position that might potentially allow me to carry out what seems to me a responsibility, such as if I do end up in academic circles in future and am granted an audience.
It is definitely an uphill struggle, because there are huge costs for defecting from the system. Some are obvious, such as being ostracized or being judged as 'inadequate' for not being rich in terms of the currency of the system, some are drastic, such as getting kicked out of the university you teach in because your idealisms are getting in the way of the practical objectives of the institution, while some are more insiduous, such as losing friends in the process.
It is a difficult battle, but I believe it is a battle worth fighting for regardless of the outcome.
"It seems strange that my life should end in such a terrible place, but for three years I had roses and apologized to no one. I shall die here. Every inch of me shall perish. Every inch, but one. An inch. It is small and it is fragile and it is the only thing in the world worth having. We must never lose it or give it away. We must NEVER let them take it from us."
- Valerie, V for Vendetta