The real world of illusions
I have always believed that the concept of a ‘real world’ is an illusion. And yet, this is a term I have often heard child and youth workers use with respect to enforcing rules and expectations. ‘In the real world, there are consequences’ or ‘in the real world, you get fired for being late’, or ‘how will he function in the real world if we let him get away with this’. What real world? Is it the real world as you experience it or as I do? Is this world real because it is predictable? Or is it real because it has rules, expectations, norms and the like? My own experience provides plenty of evidence to dispute these constructions of the real world. I have often broken rules without consequence; my expectations of the world have frequently not been met, and I have personally witnessed social contexts with rather stark variations in rules, expectations and norms. It always seemed to me that the real world is an illusion designed to impose social control and barriers for expressing difference. What actually happens in the world is not about it being real, but rather about the many ways of exerting power and influence.
Perhaps this is why, as a child and youth worker, I have typically valued non-compliance on the part of youth more so than compliance. As I understand the world, you get what you need, and sometimes what you want, much more so if you are uninhibited by a bunch of rules and expectations created by others but not necessarily followed by them. I think that much of popular culture promotes non-compliance, and the broad appreciation of such cultural contributions to making sense of life provides some evidence that ‘the real world’ is far from determined at this stage of human development. Just think of Sinatra’s “My Way”; hardly a song that promotes compliance or cooperation.
Over the last few years, and perhaps especially over the past few months, I have been re-thinking my construction or deconstruction of the ‘real world’. Corporate corruption scandals in the UK and the US, preventable humanitarian disasters in Dafour, Iraq, and the Canadian Far North, and the very existence of a ‘Bush Administration’ (either one really) have made me wonder. Is it that there is no real world, or is it that we live through the real world of illusions? The difference is substantial and impacts our role as child and youth workers. To the extent that I have spent most of my life disputing the existence of a real world, non-compliance made sense. Why follow the rules of something that doesn’t exist? Why cooperate with people, institutions and laws that are created and re-created to serve the desires of the few? But if indeed there is a real world, a real world of illusions, non-compliance no longer makes sense, because it simply perpetuates the illusion of resistance.
In conversation with a youth I worked with some time ago, I asked why he kept breaking the law and ending up in jail. His response was reflective of the typical ‘screw authority’ mind set that often characterizes young people who feel alienated from the conventions of mainstream society. “Why should I not break the law? Sometimes I get caught, sometimes I don’t, but at least no one is telling me what to do or organizing my life for me”. After some further conversation and reflection, he then explained to me the benefits of anarchy; everyone should just do whatever they want. Follow your own rules. Be loyal to your friends, but trust no one. Look out for yourself first. That’s what politicians do, and that’s how rich people live.
When I think of this conversation now, I realize just how far off he was with his conception of anarchy. His actions, proud and fiercely independent as they were, represented anything but resistance. He actively contributed to the perpetuation of our control-oriented society. His mindset legitimized ‘tough love’, the criminalization of behavior, mental health and childhood victimization, and the on-going hegemony of rule makers (public and corporate). It is because of non-compliance that the compliance industry thrives.
But if we think of the world as being constituted by a set of illusions, each with its own set of rules and norms and expectations, we can equip young people on the margins to find their way without contributing to their own oppression. The nice thing about illusions is that they contain no truth, no right way of being or feeling or experiencing, and no universal rules. Illusions are what we rely on to make decisions for ourselves, what we need to move forward (or backwards or sideways), but in fact, illusions take us nowhere at all. In today’s world, the skills required to get through life in a satisfying and meaningful way are not performance skills but constructive skills. We work hard at constructing our own illusions of success and upward mobility, based on material considerations, family life, happiness or personal fulfillment. We know that these are illusions because each one of us takes an entirely different path. We comply with the illusions of others, including the illusions of those in power or in positions of influence because we can shield our own illusions from theirs. In fact, the last thing we would want to do is to draw attention to our personal, customized illusions, lest they be interpreted as a threat to the illusions of others and therefore eradicated.
As a child and youth worker, I can think of many examples where the concept of illusions becomes pertinent to what we do in the moment. Sometimes we consequence youth for not telling the truth. In so doing, we are imposing a value (honesty) that is entirely an illusion; virtually all individuals in positions of power and influence in most societies lie, cheat, and manipulate. In the real world, lying gets you ahead faster than being honest. In the real world of illusions, the very concept of ‘getting ahead’ is a lie, especially when imposed by one person on another. Rather than imposing a consequence for dishonesty, perhaps we should simply ask: ‘help me understand your version of the truth?’
As child and youth workers, we have to become more conscious of the world around us. It is not a world that we should mindlessly impose on our youth. Instead, we should help our youth create their own illusions, because in the real world, reality is a function of the quality of illusions we construct for ourselves.