08 June 2007

Entrain: from Latin "trahere", meaning "to drag along"

In a conversation with friends, recently, about whether or not thought affects behaviour, I said by way of illustrating something or other that "When I buy clothes ... my choices operate in the narrow band of options bounded on one side by my thought out preferences and on the other by a strong gut level (and insecurity based) desire to "fit in" to the society within which I live."

Today, in an unrelated context, Jim Putnam says:

"... a TV commercial I once saw in which day after day an entire street of identically dressed men left their front doors, got into their cars, and drove off. In that extreme, is entrainment a good thing...?"

In that conversation with friends I didn't say (though I thought) that in my opinion 'fashion' is a terrible, terrible thing for the freedom of the individual. It is immeasurably valuable, of course, for social cohesion; but not for the individual within that cohesive society. Jim's advert is only a slightly exaggerated visual presentation of reality: the entrainment of fashion is a dead hand on the control levers of the individual psyche of which dictators with huge propaganda machines can only dream.

Whether that is, as Jim asks, a good thing, depends on viewpoint.

A pressure which causes young people to routinely go out in freezing winter weather wearing what my partner calls "half a teeshirt" (shivering and saying how cold they are, but never dreaming of putting on something warmer), or wear black in the baking summer sun, is clearly contrasurvival from a physical viewpoint.

On the other hand, I have to admit that if it weren't for this social instinct to behave as a herd humanity probably wouldn't have survived long enough to put me here with my ability to ask such questions.

In between those extremes we find the reduced employment prospects of men who refuse to tie a length of cloth around their neck for no practical purpose whatsoever.

Or, a few years ago, a young woman beaten to within an inch of her life by a passing group of other young people ... who said, when asked for a reason, "She was wearing green jeans." It is likely that not one of the youngsters would have assaulted the young woman on their own; but in a group they do so and offer a fashion justification. I don't seriously suggest that the fashion industry is responsible for that act of violence; but I do use it to illustrate my point that 'fashion' itself is just another word for constant, universal, low level mob behaviour.

I'm not knocking the beauty of entrainment as a facet of the world, any more than I would knock the beauty of the periodic table. But the use of either within a society is a different thing. Using the qualities of certain elements in the periodic table to create the explosion depicted and discussed by Dr C a few days ago is an ugly action, however beautiful those qualities. To draw a nation of individuals into collective support for routine use of such explosions, when few of those individuals would morally countenance the consequences themselves, is also an ugly action. The mechanism, in that latter case, is exactly the same one (with more horrific consequences) which makes me buy clothes which will "fit in". All three are ugly misuse of beauty.

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