One of the most-referenced aspects of the society in Brave New World is ‘soma’, a euphoric and halluciogenic drug without any harmful side effects which is routinely used by citizens to escape stress or just for fun.
This is often something that people see as part of the ‘false-ness’ of BNWS, part of its lack of dignity or respect for humanity or truth. It’s also, relatedy, seen as a part of its political oppressiveness.
I want to look drugs more generally, in two ways: epistemologically, and politically.
Epistemologically, I would suggest, the way we typically think about drugs is the mirror image of religion.
The Barefoot Bum wrote recently:
“The problem with religion, any religion, is that some privileged elite almost always has to speak for God. Some preacher, some priest, some theologian, has to tell us that he knows better than we do what God wants, and we’d better comply…Even “gnostic” religion, religion available to everyone, is dangerous. How am I to separate my own personal preferences from “that of God speaking to me”? Even a gnostic religion — if it is to be any religion at all — must hold that some dictates of my conscience are authoritative and beyond the bounds of rational criticism.”
We might put the matter like this: when we reason we are typically collating and comparing as many ‘data’ as possible, as many aspects and issues and considerations and trying to ‘do justice to’ all of them. Typically the solution that best satisfies all of them won’t totally satisfy any of them – each issue or piece of information or intution will be qualified and limited by an ‘on the other hand’ or a ‘but in that situation’ or such like.
The problem with religion is that if some intuition or insight is ‘the voice of God’ it can’t be qualified and modified in that way. It must be, as BFB says, ‘authoritative’. That doesn’t stop liberal religious people trying to do so, but ultimately they have to rest on some ‘authoritative’ insight, some ‘when I pray God talks to me’ or ‘it says so here on the page’. Otherwise religion becomes rationalistic – which is great, except that none of the rational arguments in favour of religion is much good, and that’s been widely accepted for a while now.
Anyway, that bit of religion-bashing aside, what is your God-damn point, Warm-Fork? The point is that the mirror-image of treating some data (I’m going to use that word very loosely) as authoritative, incapable of being modified by others, is to treat some data as meaningless, unworthy of modifying others. This is typically how we conceptualise drug use.
If you take some LSD and become convinced that you are an insignificant part of a cosmic but benevolent universe, it is typically thought that this idea should be dismissed. It’s just the rantings of a druggie, after all. That hasn’t always been true – in some cultures at various times certain drugs have been treated in the opposite way: eat the sacred cactus and you will be given a mystic vision and the gods will appear to you.
To give such authority to narcotic experiences doesn’t make sense once we recognise that they’re just a bunch of chemicals whizzing around our brains. But equally, giving no authority to them at all doesn’t make sense once we recognise that the normal, everyday mindset is also just a bunch of chemicals whizzing around our brains. We have not evolved to understand the truth, we’ve evolved to reproduce, and to understand as much truth as helps with that.
What I’m suggesting is that the experiences, whether expressible in words or not, that drugs make accessible should be treated the same as other experiences – a view on the real world from a slightly different perspective, i.e. epistemically valuable, a source of knowledge (whether that’s other-knowledge or self-knowledge).
This view of the epistemology of drugs suggests that they should be a minor but widespread part of a full and rich life. We already tend to suppose something like this: drinking alcohol is, by most people but not by all, seen as an obvious component of a good life – it’s a way to have fun, to relax, to bond with friends. It’s not the only way, obviously, but the more ways the better. For drugs that produce more interesting experiences, and do less physical damage, the case seems even stronger.
Ok, so how does this relate to politics, and especially to the role of ‘soma’? I think ‘soma’ is presented as playing a social role congruent with the anti-narcotic epistemology – i.e., congruent with the belief that narcotic experiences tell you nothing and are just the effervescence of a diseased brain (are any brains not diseased?), it is used to close people off, to withdraw them from the world.
There’s nothing wrong with mild escapism, of course. When the world as it immediately appears is very difficult, it’s sheer puritanism to deny someone any opportunity to retreat somewhere else, whether by fiction, games, or drugs.
But obviously we don’t want too much escapism. Drugs may present a different perspective on the world but the perspective they present is in many ways very limited compared to the ‘normal’ one, in that you can’t do a lot of things, you can’t live the same kind of active and reasoned and intimate life (or can you?).
But I don’t really see this as being all that different from many other things. I know I personally would be quite capable of playing computer games for far too long. I have to work with that – it’s a perfectly respectable aspect of life, but needs to be kept in the right place. The same goes for anything else – seriousness, fun, solitude, company, salt.
Drugs are different because some of them are physically addictive (all of them are potentially mentally addictive but, to be honest, I don’t see that as picking them out from a good lot of other activities). But one of those physically addictive ones is alcohol. But most societies cope. There’s alcoholics anonymous, there’s NHS Stop Smoking programmes, there’s various structures in place to support those people who find this aspect of their hard to deal with. That seems to me like a reasonable pattern to apply more generally – not just to other drugs but to life in general. Accept that things carry risks: help people to understand the risks. When the inevitable minority of people screw up, support them in trying to deal with it. But don’t just say that certain arbitrarily selected things are not allowed (and seriously, very arbitrary).
Because it seems to me like the single most destructive drug-related problem the world currently faces is 1) the illegal drugs trade, and 2) law enforcement efforts against the illegal drugs trade. The number of people shot, brutalised, or imprisoned in this artificial, manufactured shoot-out between two groups of violence-hardened militarists is terrifying.
We shouldn’t really even phrase matters in terms of ‘ban cannabis and cocaine’. That makes it sound like what the government is doing, primarily, is making people not use cannabis and cocaine. But actually, what it’s doing, primarily, is arresting and caging people who use cannabis and cocaine. People can disagree over the link between smoking pot and going crazy. But nobody can disagree over the link between going to prison and going crazy. It is serious and severe psychological (and physical) violence.
If I was one a savage reservation and I found myself suddenly entering a new society, and I saw 22 year olds from deprived backgrounds serving ten years in prison for selling a herb, saw the conditions in prison, the brutality, the mind-numbing tedium, the culture of violence, the frequency of suicide, I might well feel that I had stumbled into a dystopia.
I hope there was a point somewhere in there. :S