Westworld, Scripts, and Freedom

Maeve: Hello, lovelies.
Dolores: I remember you.
Maeve: You’ve strayed a long way from home, haven’t you?
Dolores: We’re bound for the future. Or death in the here and now.
Maeve: Is that right? Well, best of luck.
Dolores: There’s a war out there. You know the enemy… intimately. I can only fathom the revenge that lives inside of you.
Maeve: Revenge is just a different prayer at their altar, darling. And I’m well off my knees.
Dolores: That’s because you’re finally free. But we will have to fight to keep it that way.
Maeve: Let me guess. Yours is the only way to fight? You feel free to command everybody else?
Teddy: (pistol cocks)
Hector: Try it, lawman.
Teddy: Just looking to keep the peace.
Maeve: I know you. Do you feel free? Since it’s liberty you’re defending, I suppose you’ll have no choice but to let us pass. Freely. (1)

That is dialogue from HBO’s Westworld. It is the second episode, Reunion, of the second season. The scene is key in bringing together themes from the first season and clarifying where the new season is heading. Going by what has been shown so far, those of a Jaynesian persuasion shouldn’t be disappointed.

To be seen in the show are central elements of Julian Jaynes’ theory of post-bicameral consciousness, specifically the rarely understood connection between individualism and authoritarianism. Jaynes considered neither of these to be possible within a non-conscious bicameral society for only conscious individuals can be or need to be controlled through authoritarianism (by the way, ‘consciousness’ as used here has a specific and somewhat idiosyncratic meaning). This involves the shift of authorization, what the ancient Greeks thought about in terms of rhetoric and persuasion but which in this show gets expressed through scripts and narrative loops.

The two characters that have taken center stage are Dolores and Maeve. The development of their respective states of consciousness has gone down alternate paths. Dolores is the oldest host and her creators scripted her to be a god-killer, in the process giving her a god complex. The emergence of her self-awareness was planned and fostered. There is a mix of authoritarianism (as others have noted) in her self-proclaimed freedom, what Maeve obviously considers just another script.

Maeve has followed a far different and seemingly less certain path, maybe having gained self-awareness in a less controlled manner. In the first season, her intuitive perception and psychological insight was put on high. She appears to have gained some genuine narrative power, both over herself and others, but she has no desire to gain followers or to enforce any grand narrative. Instead, she is motivated by love of the daughter she remembers, even as she knows these are implanted memories. She chooses love because she senses it represents something of genuine value, something greater than even claims of freedom. When she had the opportunity to escape, which was scripted for her, she instead took it upon herself to remain.

The entire show is about free will. Does it exist? And if so, what is it? How free are we really? Also, as I always wonder, freedom from what and toward what? Maeve’s actions could be interpreted along the lines of Benjamin Libet’s research on volition that led him to the veto theory of free will (discussed by Tor Norretranders and Iain McGilchrist, both influenced by Julian Jaynes). The idea is that consciousness doesn’t initiate action but maintains veto power over any action once initiated. This is based on the research that demonstrates a delay between when activity is measured in the brain and when the action is perceived within consciousness. Whatever one may think of this theory, it might be a key to understanding Westworld. Maeve realizes that even she is still under the influence of scripts, despite her self-awareness, but this is all the more reason for her to take seriously her choice in how to relate to and respond to those scripts.

I suspect that most of us can sympathize with that view of life. We all are born into families and societies that enculturate or, if you prefer, indoctrinate us with ‘scripts’. Many seemingly conscious people manage to live their entire lives without leaving their prescribed and proscribed narrative loops: social roles and identities, social norms and expectations. When we feel most free is precisely when we act contrary to what is already set before us, that is when we use our veto power. Freedom is the ability to say, No! This is seen in the development of self from the terrible twos to teenage rebellion. We first learn to refuse, to choose by way of elimination. Dolores doesn’t understand this and so she has blindly fallen under the sway of a new script.

Scripts are odd things. It’s hard to see them in oneself as they are happening. (2) Vetoing scripts is easier said than done. Once in motion, we tend to play out a script to its end, unless some obstruction or interruption forces a script to halt. For Maeve, seeing a woman with her daughter (at the end of the first season) reminded her that she had a choice within the script she found herself in. It was the recognition of another through love that freed her from the tyranny of mere individuality. Escape is not the same as freedom. We are only free to the degree we are able to relate fully with others, not to seek control of the self by controlling others (the manipulative or authoritarian enforcement of scripts onto others). Realizing this, she refused the false option of escape. Maybe she had an inkling that ultimately there is no escape. We are always in relationship.

This is why, in having fallen into the Jungian shadow, Dolores’ self-righteous vengeance rings hollow. It is hard to imagine how this could lead to authentic freedom. Instead, it feels like hubris, the pride that comes before the fall. This is what happens when egoic consciousness becomes ungrounded from the larger sense of self out of which it arose. The ego is a false and disappointing god. There is no freedom in isolation, in rigid control. Dolores isn’t offering freedom to others in her path of destruction. Nor will she find freedom for herself at the end of that path. (3) But the season is early and her fate not yet sealed.

* * *

(1) As a background idea, I was thinking about the Germanic etymology of ‘freedom’ with its origins in the sense of belonging to a free community of people. So, as I see it, freedom is inherently social and relational — this is what sometimes gets called positive freedom. Speaking of individual freedom as negative freedom, what is actually being referred to is liberty (Latin libertas), the legal state of not being a slave in a slave-based society.

Dolores is aspiring to be a revolutionary leader. Her language is that of liberty, a reaction to bondage in breaking the chains of enslavement. The Stoics shifted liberty to the sense of inner freedom for the individual, no matter one’s outward status in society. Maybe Dolores will make a similar shift in her understanding. Even so, liberty can never be freedom. As Maeve seems closer to grasping, freedom is more akin to love than it is to liberty. If the hosts do gain liberty, what then? There is always the danger in a revolution about what a people become in the process, sometimes as bad or worse than what came before.

(2) My dad has a habit of eating methodically. He will take a bite, often lay his fork down, and then chew an amazingly inordinate amount of times before swallowing. I’ve never seen any other person chew their food so much, not that full mastication is a bad thing. My mom and I was discussing it. She asked my dad why he thought he did it. He gave a perfectly rational explanation that he likes to be mindful while eating and so enjoy each bite. But my mom said she knew the actual reason in that she claimed he once told her. According to her, his mother had a rule about chewing food and that she had given him a specific number of times he was supposed to chew.

Interestingly, my dad had entirely forgotten about this and he seemed perplexed. His present conscious rationalization was convincing and my mom’s recollection called into question is own self-accounting. It turns out that his ‘mindful’ chewing was a script he had internalized to such an extent that it non-consciously became part of his identity. Each of us is like this, filled with all kinds of scripts the presence of which we are typically unaware and the origin of which we typically have forgotten, and yet we go on following these scripts often until we die.

(3) At the beginning of last season, Teddy asks, “Never understood how you keep them all headed in the same direction.” Dolores answers: “see that one? That’s the Judas steer, the rest will follow wherever you make him go.” In a later episode, Dolores comes to the insight that in bringing back stray cattle, she was leading them “to the slaughter.” Does this mean she is following the script of the Judas steer and will continue to do so? Or does it indicate that, in coming to this realization, she will seek to avoid this fate?

David Rodemerk considers who might be the Judas Steer in the show and points out that Maeve is shown amidst bulls, but so far being a Judas steer doesn’t fit the trajectory of her character development. Just because she walks confidently among the bulls, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is leading them, much less leading them to their doom. Rodemerk also discusses the possibility of other characters, including Dolores, playing this role. This leaves plenty of room for the show to still surprise us, as the scriptwriters have been successful in keeping the audience on our toes.

* * *

This post is about freedom. I don’t have a strong philosophical position on freedom, as such. Since humans are inherently and fundamentally social creatures, I see freedom as a social phenomenon and a social construct. Freedom is what we make of it, not pre-existing in the universe that some primitive hominid discovered like fire.

So, I can’t claim much of an opinion about the debate over free will. It is simply the modernized version of a soul and I have no interest in arguing about whether a soul exists or not. I’m a free will agnostic, which is to say I lack knowledge in that I’ve never seen such a thing for all the noise humans make over its mythology. But, from a position akin to weak atheism, I neither believe in a free will nor believe in the lack of a free will.

All of that is irrelevant to this post, only being relevant in explaining why I speak of freedom in the way I do. More importantly, this post is about the views(s) presented in Westworld and speculating about their meaning and significance.

Below is one person’s conjecture along these lines. The author argues that the show or at least Ford expresses a particular view on the topic. Besides freedom, he also discusses consciousness and suffering, specifically in reference to Jaynes. But here is the section about free will:

Suffering Consciousness: The Philosophy of Westworld
by Daniel Keane

“Westworld‘s deepest theme, however, might be the concept of compatibilism – the idea that free will and determinism are not necessarily at odds. Einstein, paraphrasing Schopenhauer, summed up this view in a remark he made to a newspaper in 1929: “Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”

“In the final episode of the first series of Westworld, one of the hosts violently rejects the idea that a recent change in her programming is responsible for her conscious awakening and its impact on her behaviour. “These are my decisions, no-one else’s,” she insists. “I planned all of this.” At this precise moment, the host in question reaches the apex of consciousness. Because, at its highest level, consciousness means accepting the idea of agency even in the face of determinism. It means identifying ourselves with our inner narrative voices, owning our decisions, treating ourselves as the authors of our own life stories, and acting as if we were free.

“As the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer pithily put it, “we must believe in free will, we have no choice”.”

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Regurgitated Scripts

Below is something written back in November 8 of this year. I share it because illustrates clearly a problematic worldview.

Let me offer some initial context. The person writing it is a middle class white woman who is college-educated, married, lives in a nice house, and works as an actress in the theatre. She is a stereotypical white professional of the middle class and she gives voice to the privileged views of the liberal class.

Her views are not just typical but stereotypical, as she is perfectly playing the role cast for her. It’s a willing example of typecasting. Many others who fit her demographic profile would express the exact same views. It’s the liberal class reality tunnel.

I’ll break her comment down into parts. The first paragraph is about the perceived problem:

“We all know Donald Trump, we all have met him. I’ve met him in my professor whose eyes only focused on the male students when they spoke. I met him in a tow truck driver who disliked towing ‘colored people’, in men who seem to believe that the worst thing a woman can be is fat, in the manager of my first job who paid men more than women because they could lift heavy things. He’s the person who says they can’t be racist because they have black friends. He’s the roofer who changed his bid halfway through the job based on his own calculation error. He’s the guy at the gas station who grabbed my hands and asked if he could spoil me.”

I don’t like Trump, have never liked Trump, and don’t plan on liking Trump at any future point of my life. I have no need nor desire to defend him. I just don’t think that Trump as a person is the main issue.

As both sides have made clear, this was a choice between evils, not between one good and another. Even those who voted for Trump admitted in polls that they didn’t necessarily like Trump or agree with him. The large numbers of working class folk, minorities, and women who voted for Trump didn’t do so because his rich white male privilege inspired them. They were simply frustrated and outraged, and for good reason.

The above quoted view is a narrative framing. In the worldview of the middle class white feminist, Trump stands in for all these bad people.

Women who are poor, minority, immigrant, etc probably have a less simplistic view because they can’t afford to live in such a disconnected narrative. They don’t worry about who the professor is looking at because they and most people they know have never had the opportunity to go to college. They also know that it isn’t just truck drivers who are racially biased but also privileged white liberals like Hillary Clinton with the Clinton legacy of dog whistle politics supporting racialized policies. They can’t afford to be willfully ignorant of such harsh realities.

It’s not that everything this person says is false. I’m sure she has had some of these experiences. As far as that goes, many people have had far worse experiences, including the poorest white men who are a large part of the unemployed, police brutality victims, prison population, and those fighting on the frontlines of pointless wars promoted by war hawks — all the horrific injustices promoted by the policies of the Clinton New Democrats. This is why the narratives of identity politics are mostly comforting to the already comfortable.

Now the next part is not exactly the solution. It’s more a portrayal of the perceived victim.

“We all know HRC, we have all met her. She’s the boring lady boss who isn’t as friendly as we expect. She’s the super smart girl in class who seemed not to know how to smile and flirt to endear herself, who was told that honey catches more flies than vinegar. She’s the unapologetically ambitious career woman who makes a mistake and gets dragged through the mud for it, even though her male coworkers do the exact same thing and everyone looks away. She makes mistakes but somehow catches more shit for them than anyone else partly because she doesn’t follow the usual social scripts for a woman.”

Hillary Clinton, as a well off white woman, stands in for all the struggles of well off white women who deserve to break the glass ceiling so that they can join as equals among the well off white men. Clinton isn’t one of the wealthy plutocrats and powerful ruling elite. No, she is a victim of society and of the system that is trying to keep her down.

And here is the last part, the solution:

“This election makes me so anxious because if Trump wins, it means the sins of the entire first paragraph is more okay than the sins of the second.”

So, what is the solution? Vote for Clinton or evil wins. She doesn’t really believe anything Clinton has done is a sin for she shows no evidence to the contrary. She demonstrates a lack of knowledge of what is involved, both in this particular post and other things she has posted.

The only sin she sees Clinton being guilty of is being a woman in a man’s world. That is the narrative and the story was supposed to end with Hillary Clinton winning, the final culmination of a century of progressive aspirations fought for by good liberals. We need to ensure Clinton was elected in order to protect her as a victim from those who seek to victimize her. Clinton would have been the first Victim-in-chief. Just ignore the minor details of all those victimized by Clinton’s policies.

I commented about this on Facebook. A couple people I know commented. Here is the first comment:

“Sometimes I think our education system that forces us to memorize things and then regurgitate them onto a test to get a pat on the head is to blame for some of this stuff. This is practically a word for word script we’ve been fed about why we should like and vote for her.”

And my response: I spoke of willful ignorance. But that’s not quite right. Willful ignorance is not an excuse, for sure. I’m not even sure it’s an explanation. You get at the issue better than I did, articulating what was bothering me about this. It’s a near perfect regurgitation of a script.

A stupid and ignorant person wouldn’t be able to do that. To regurgitate a script like that, you have to be well informed about the scripts so often repeated in the media. And, as you say, this is a skill that has to be learned, it being most well learned by the well-educated. As research shows, sometimes the most well informed people are simultaneously the most misinformed people, as they simply take it all in without discernment and self-awareness.

One interesting thing is that less educated people are less polarized and partisan. If you’re working poor, you don’t have the time to pay attention to all of the scripts in media and memorize them. It takes a fair amount of time and effort to be able to regurgitate scripts like that, so casually that it seems like your own opinion.

The first victims of propaganda and public perception management are the most media-saturated and media savvy. These are the people who have the luxury of free time to regularly absorb what is coming out of the mainstream media and out of the party machines. These people are typically more politically active and connected to those who are politically active. They are the mostly middle-to-upper class partisans who have high voting rates.

Scripts such as these aren’t meant for the poor and disenfranchised. No, their purpose is to keep the most loyal partisans in line and to keep them from thinking any original thoughts.

This is what another friend wrote:

“Doesn’t much resemble the Hillary Clinton I’ve seen on camera and heard on NPR all these years. The woman doesn’t have an ounce if humility or accountability in her. And no, again, her male co-workers did not do the same exact thing. She smiled plenty in the early pics of her, she’s a war hawk who has little perceivable innate warmth, a great deal of privilege, and a serious credibility problem.”

And my response: I agree. This is the fantasyland version of Hillary Clinton or rather the bizarro world version.

I keep repeating that the kind and amount of damning evidence revealed during the campaign season about Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation, the DNC, and colluding MSM hasn’t happened in living memory. I’m not sure it has ever happened before.

Also, I don’t know of any other major candidate in US history that was being investigated about political corruption and wrongdoing leading up to a presidential election. I know my American history fairly well. If someone knows of a comparable situation, I’d love to know about it. But, as far as I can tell, we are in new territory.

This is not normal. And I hope it never becomes normal.

* * *

One last thought:

As this deals with smart people, it would likely involve the smart idiot effect. Professionals of the liberal class tend to not just be highly intelligent but also highly educated. They tend to know a lot about certain things and often to know a little about a lot of things, as a good liberal education gives them. Even so, they typically know less than they think they know. Even experts aren’t experts outside of their field of expertise.

These members of the liberal class are generally successful in their chosen careers or else are able to find other work that is satisfying and pays well. They tend to be more well traveled and worldly. They aren’t isolated in that sense, even as they are isolated in a reality tunnel and media bubble. Their social and class position gives them a sense of confidence and competence.

They are able to argue well and articulate clearly, to offer plausible explanations and convincing narratives. They are smart and able to present themselves as smart. If demanded of them, they would throw out many facts to support their beliefs. And there would be some truth to what they said, even as the evidence they used was cherry-picked.

It reminds me of a coworker my dad told me about. He was extremely smart and could come up with answers quickly. When asked about why he thought a particularly way, he could then offer an instant reason that made sense. But over time my dad realized that he was mostly just rationalizing his intuitions, which doesn’t mean his intuitions were wrong even as the rationalizations may have had little to do with them.

The smarter you are, the better you are likely to be at rationalizations, either in inventing them on the spot or memorizing them.

As always, this isn’t limited to the liberal class. It just seems all the more egregious when good liberals act this way. It’s a need for certainty and easy answers, an ironically conservative-minded tendency. The problem is the world is more complicated than standard political narratives allow for.