25 September 2005

Escape from reality

Escape from reality

I would say that ‘escape from reality’ is quite a common expression in our everyday language. The common meaning is to entertain one’s self in order to forget the drudgery of life.

Put in a an other way, we try to amuse ourselves to forget the boredom or suffering in our life. For example, some would take holidays in some exotic destination, usually referred to by marketers as a tropical paradise, to get away from the rat race. At the other end of the spectrum, we have addiction, maybe to some substance such as alcohol or even drugs.

Concepts like suffering, boredom and even pleasure are very common human experiences. But the modus operandi of what we mean by “escape from reality” is the pain, suffering and boredom. Even before we start asking ourselves what we mean by reality, we can start by asking whether pleasure is always the experience we seek. Probably not, after all, physical pain may sometimes be relieved by some medical drugs, which do not as a rule cause pleasure; some situations of boredom may be overcome by a change of activities and so on. But would stealing food to relieve one’s hunger be a case of escape from reality; especially if the person doing the stealing is quite poor?

I would argue that we can apply this expression to the example about stealing above. By stealing the food one would be relieving the pain of hunger, but the relief is also temporary. I would say that temporary relief is a necessary condition for the meaning of “escape from reality.” The expression does not mean the same as for example, give up on life, change one’s ways, start afresh, try something new and so on, but it does mean the same as, for example, “escape from it all“.

Also, this expression does not question the nature or degree of pain nor suffering nor boredom involved. After all what might be fun for one might be boring for an other; what is pain for one is a pleasure for the other. This might be too obvious to really be important, but take the case of suffering because one is poor and suffering because one cannot afford the latest sports car. Sure, the suffering of one is not the same as the other, but at the personal level the difference is of substance and not of form. We might even be able to report the same behavioural symptom in both these people, for example, expressions of sadness, withdrawal, lethargic behaviour, maybe even anger and expressions of frustrations.

The expression itself is also neutral about how long we have to escape for. A weekend away from it all might do wonders for some people, but for others anything shorter than a fortnight might be a waste of time. But as I said above, what is important is that the escape is temporary. A week on a tropical paradise is not the same as a lifetime on such a paradise; a loaf of bread is not the same to poverty and hunger as two square meals a day, with snack ad lib, are.

One of the reasons why we cannot pin down what pain, suffering or even boredom are or even how long we need to escape for, is because these are all based on subjective criteria. We might be able to know what is going on physiologically, when someone is in pain, but this does not mean we can feel what they are experiencing.

This leads us to ask three questions:

1) What are the moral implications of the expression, escape from reality?

2) Is there a collective pain that invokes some sort of collective escape from reality?

3) What is the opposite of “escape from reality”?

I agree with you that is time to look at what we mean by reality.

The kind of reality we are interested in is the kind we experience every day. For this reason we need not concern ourselves with such things as the reality of quantum mechanics or the nature of sense perception. In our everyday life we come across two types of realities. The reality that is personal and subjective, that is the reality we perceive and experience. And then there is what we may call objective reality; the way the world actually is. My frustration from not having the latest sports car is something only I can feel and experience. However, it is a matter of fact whether the sports car manufacturer can supply a model in blue colour. This is something that can be confirmed by asking the manufacturer, and has nothing to do with my experience.

We are all familiar with this subjective-objective debate about reality. And equally familiar is that quasi form of reality which is sometimes called induction. The point about the “quasi” is because this reality seems to sit on the fence. We sort of know what to expect, but it is not yet fact. For example, I'm not imagining that the company can supply a model in blue, they've done it in the past, but I still have to confirm this with them.

When we escape from reality, we can find ourselves involved in a number of moral issues. Whether people who live in abject poverty are right to steal food is a basic question in ethics. Equally a basic question in business ethics, is whether companies ought to over hype a destination. Also true is that these questions tend to end up going round in vicious circles. So for this reason I won’t specifically look at them directly.

Maybe, the moral question we ought to consider is not whether stealing is morally right, for example when one is hungry, but whether one has a moral obligation to consider that stealing is an escape (from reality) and not a solution (to one’s reality). Is there a moral difference between stealing a loaf of bread, say after a natural disaster when everything is in chaos, and for a poor person to steal a loaf of bread every time they are hungry? Is there a duty to try and overcome our poverty, maybe in the same way that there might be a duty to help the poor?

Take the opposite example, where someone takes some form of drugs, to escape from their reality of boredom, desperation or fear, the latter maybe from peer pressure. Do they have a duty to consider whether their escape is morally justified? Do they have an obligation to consider a more permanent solution to their problems? Maybe in the same way that the authorities are morally obliged to stop the supply of addictive drugs. In fact, whether it is poverty or whether it is drugs, we do hold those in authority or power responsible for these problems and issues. We usually use expression like, "I wish the government would legislate....," or "What is the government doing about.....?" to express our belief that governments ought to be involved in solution to find solutions to poverty, drug abuse and so on.

While few would argue against a government helping the poor, do a government have a duty to alleviate our boredom, or our dull life? But there is an even more important question we can ask of those in authority. Are the policies and strategies of a government providing an escape or solving problems? Are trucks of food solving hunger in poor countries, is unfettered illegal emigration solving the standard of living in fourth or fifth world countries? Is imprisonment solving crime in inner cities, is the market place increasing the living standards of all?

Of course, the question we are really interested in is, how do we get someone to consider their moral obligations in the first place?

Moving on, there is something curious about pain, suffering, boredom and similar feelings and emotions. On the one hand only we can feel our pain, but on the other we all have the same physiological structure. This, in my opinion, is the key to the second question above. The collective pain that might exist is in fact the collection of people having the same pain experiences from a given common cause. Although individuals are feeling pain or fear, our ability to extract patters from a given set of data gives us the concept of collective pain or fear. This, of course, is an epistemological phenomenon and not a metaphysical fact. Fear, from an approaching hurricane, equates to collective fear if most of the people living in a city are panic stricken and maybe try to flee the forthcoming disaster. This is an easy case to appreciate because we are dealing with objective reality, most people would know what a hurricane is when they see one. And would know what to do when they see one: run.

Take an opposite case. Under dictatorships, and sometimes not, it is very necessary to have a real or imaginary enemy to justify one’s powers. The whole of society is engrossed in the culture of defeating the enemy, children grow up in an atmosphere of having to fight the enemy. The economy and the military forces are geared up to deal with this enemy. Of course, those who believe this sham would no doubt feel unsafe and threatened, and no doubt would support any measures taken by their leaders. The point is that collective fear, from real or imagined causes, can easily be manipulated, especially by those in power, but not exclusively since there are many businesses that function on this principle. Offering escape type of solutions to this fear works very well in the short term, for example occasionally accusing someone of spying. This works in the same way that stealing a loaf of bread or taking a short weekend works at the personal level. Short term justification over long term solutions.

However, there are important differences between the collective scenario and the personal scenario. To being with, there can be no doubt about reality at the personal level; if one is bored at work, for example from having to shift papers from one end of the desk to the other, there can be no doubt what one feels. But this does not mean that all are bored from doing this work. However, at the collective level the cause of the fear, or whatever, there must be something that exists independent from the individual. The hurricane is independent from everyone in the city, and in a way so is the enemy the authorities keep talking about. A lot depends on what we take to be true and what we accept to believe in. Hence the importance of induction is that it is very easy to manipulate beliefs by manipulating the facts, or just simply presenting them in different light. A war that took place 400 years ago can easily be presented as a urgent modern threat.

Of course, collective fear and pain need not be the result of manipulation. It is quite rational that people fear wars or hurricanes; some would say that such fear is hard-wired in us as a survival instinct. The opposite is also true. Sometimes we fail to see danger when we ought to. For example, excessive sun bathing, failing to take economic precaution during high levels of inflation. And then there are matters relating to the defence and security of one’s country; history has shown us many times that this is not a matter to be trifled with, yet many would still wish to give this a miss. We also have examples when society might experience fear when none is called for. Our attitude to other cultures might feature prominently here.

In a way, escape from reality, is a short term solution to a very old problem: pain. Reality itself is a very hard task master, finding out what is real is not easy. A lot depends on our knowledge about the world, which is saying a lot, since we might not have the time, the means or the ability to discover what is true and what is false. Hence, escaping by doing the right thing might not be as easy as we might think, since we might not know enough about what to do.

And here is where the third question above comes in: is there an opposite to the expression, escape from reality? Theoretically, escape from reality is supposed to do us good, even if it is short term. So, theoretically, the opposite is something that, supposedly, will do us harm. And what can do us more harm than flight into fantasy?

Take care



10 September 2005

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