Have they not travelled in the land, and have they hearts wherewith to feel and ears wherewith to hear? For indeed it is not the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts, which are within the bosoms, that grow blind.
This verse of The Holy Quran (Surah al-Haj, 22:46) tells us that there is blindness more pervasive and more subtle than the blindness of the eyes.
There is deafness more insidious than that of the ears.
It is the blindness and deafness of the heart and mind – born of heedlessness, thoughtlessness, and the blind following of others.
What brings about this pervasive, though unnoticed, blindness?
It is the result of what we might call social hypnosis – a state of being where the individual’s intellect is lulled into acquiescence to whatever society dictates to him or suggests to him, though he feels himself to be a free and independent agent.
It is society which brings about this hypnotic state, placing the people into such deep oblivion that they succumb to its every suggestion day after day, encumbered by its influence from the cradle to the grave. We are lulled into a state of intellectual slumber by the unquestioning acceptance of customs, traditions, standards and conventional wisdom.
The customs and traditions of society and the unquestioned assumptions that society upholds act as a sedative upon the intellect that only a few people succeed in shrugging off. This societal sedation has a paralyzing effect on intellectual development.
Those who come under its sway cannot formulate any idea out of the confines of what society suggests to them. Society – either through its control of the media, its pervasive cultural presence, its web of values, its accumulated parables, or the authority of its customs, habits, and traditions – has the power to close the mind and stand as an obstacle to independent thinking.
This prevents people from being able to ascertain the truth about the world around them and about Allah. This is a kind of heedlessness that people in society fall into. You see them walking about, driving their cars, holding conversations, eating, drinking, and engaging in all sorts of activities. Yet, they are like intellectual sleep-walkers or people under hypnosis. Their perception is blunted.
The influences of people’s environment and cultural norms direct their life routines, their responses, their feelings, even their innermost worries, as if they are operating under remote control. However, as far as they are concerned, their thoughts are their own, and they are making independent decisions.
This social hypnosis is pervasive, influencing a person day and night. The person is oblivious to it. He is unaware that his behavior is in conformity with the dictates of society’s wishes and whatever opinion is currently fashionable. He feels perfectly free, that he does what he wants and thinks whatever he pleases.
He assumes that his attitude towards life, the assumptions that he holds, his philosophy, and religious convictions are his own brainchild. In this way he is twice defeated. First, he is defeated through his submission to the pervading social hypnosis. Secondly, he is defeated by his being oblivious to it.
He may even believe that his conformity is something noble, something that spares him the fears and insecurities born of being different or alone. He goes forth, struggles, hopes, dreams, and desires. Yet, if he paused for a moment to think about it, he would realize how trivial and beneath consideration so much of what he strives for actually is.
However, society’s expectations and the daily persuasiveness of its cultural imperative push him forward. The outlook of the people and their various aspirations are pegged by social expectations to such an extent, that it feels as if their hopes and tastes were set out for them in a chart.
Education, the media, and other influences dictate to the people what they should like and dislike, what attitudes they should have, and what opinions they should express. The people are the victims of these collective expectations, and they lose the ability to think critically for themselves.
From childhood, they accept as correct and true what is told to them. As they mature, they persist in accepting what they are accustomed to accepting, while believing that they are understanding things for themselves. Society encourages people, by every means of persuasion and intimidation at its disposal, to refrain from creative thinking.
A person, to the extent that he frees his mind, is successful at thinking his own thoughts. By contrast, the more his mind is subjected to society’s hypnotic influence, the more handicapped his intellect becomes and the less his thoughts are truly his own.
The phenomenon of social hypnosis exists in every society or social group that is closed and inward looking. A person in such a society or group will be, to a great extent, a victim of that phenomenon.
It can be observed that the more a person’s cultural experience is broadened, challenged, and renewed, the more that person’s mind is freed and the sharper his perception becomes. His cultural perspective, thereafter, becomes his own. The influence that social hypnosis has over him becomes weaker and its dangerous consequences are curbed.