As I was rewriting an essay on ethics of social media I was once again reminded of Erich Fromm’s thesis on the very notion of “conscience” in Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, a book he wrote back in 1947. I find many of Fromm’s ideas and theoretical treatments of the human condition relevant to the planetary conditions of the 21st century. Fromm divides the human conscience (human’s recall to him or herself) into two types (a bit simplistic, but appropriate for the sake of this post, I think). These are “authoritarian conscience” and “humanistic conscience.” People who operate with the authoritarian conscience have internalized the messages delivered to them from infancy to adulthood from different sources of authority such as their parents, teachers, ministers and priests [i.e., God], government leaders, other experts, and today, for many, the most powerful of all authorities, the collective juggernaut known as the media. Authority is singular in its power, one could argue in this context. Fromm (1947, 1990) writes, “One particularly important aspect of the uniqueness of the authority is the privilege of being the only one who does not follow another’s will, but who himself wills; who is not a means but an end in himself; who creates and is not created.” (p. 149, 1990)So, it follows that those who submit to authority, those who live in what Marcuse warned in his seminal book, a society of One Dimensional Man, will have rigid tendencies to develop authoritarian consciences. But of course, in open societies the authorities do not posses (collectively or individually) absolute power to construct the citizen’s conscience. Do they? Take for example, the public education in America.The positivist thinking and scientific logic delivers softly the authoritarian messages—and images—to our kids. John Taylor Gatto has written an excellent book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling [He has another one that came out in 2010, Weapons of Mass Instruction]  In this book, Gatto delineates the real agenda of the public education in America. The publisher (New Society Publishers) introduces Gatto’s book with a quote by Hannah Arendt, “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.”  Indeed, by inundating the populace with all things visual, one of the primary purposes of the authoritarian forces is to stifle critical thinking. What about the other form of conscience—the humanistic conscience. What is that about? In Fromm’s paradigm, this “is not the internalized voice of an authority whom we are eager to please and afraid of displeasing; it is our own voice, present in every human being and independent of external sanctions and rewards. This is the conscience, I argue, Nietzsche was referring to when he said, “What does your conscience tell you?” To be sure, listening to oneself in an image saturated culture (i.e., audiovisual culture) is a difficult art. It is the stuff of critical pedagogy.

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