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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Every Man for Himself: Why Consumer Culture Killed Social Trust




I read an interesting book once that linked commercialization and social distrust within a society. The correleation showed that television watching, a device which plays a pivital role in the commercialization of a culture, had a negative correlation with social trust. This means that the more television people watched, the less social trust they had. But television itself is really the representative and propaganda machine of commercialism; the television tells us what to buy, what to like, how to behave, and perhaps most importantly, what our expecations should be. Commercialism in this respect would reflect a society whose cultural institutions were more aligned with beliefs and practices which favored consumption, the pursuit of wealth, the pursuit of profit, and competition in the marketplace which prioritizes profit over the collective benefit of the society. Now, it’s a common assumption that how a society operates in the marketplace is easily separated from how it operates personally, but the truth is that one is inextricable from the other. The marketplace environment and its philosophies will inevitably shape a society's social values, and in the case of this article, a society's ability to trust. As a side note: the U.S. is, by far, the most commercialized country in the world.

That being said, there exists, however subtle, an intuitive knowing and understanding of the people which is a direct result of a culture whose values revolve around a single-minded pursuit of wealth. Distrust, and more particularly social distrust, is born from a perception of ill intention or fraud. That's why phrases like "what you see is what you get" are still so valuable. People always go back to philosophies that embody values of trust and authenticity: things like "straight talk", and "no bullsh*t" enjoy a seemingly timeless fan base. There’s no mystery behind the idea that people want to be engaged in a genuine way. This is an important realization, as the core dogma of a society can be misinterpreted, especially in one (like ours) that commonly employs distractions from the truth. The crucial discovery here is that, no matter the functions of these other devices which shape our perceptions, we are ultimately guided by the principal that the truth is better than the lie.

As we live in a time of constructed perception, and most notably that of the advertising message, the average person has learned to understand manipulation quite well—so well, in fact, that advertisers invest billions of dollars to devise new ways of persuading us to buy. From the pervasiveness of these advertisement experiences has come an elusive contempt grown out of the disappointment in knowing that the world at large doesn't care about us, it cares about the dollars in our wallets. And advertising isn't the only way people have come to understand deception and disingenuous relationships at the hands of commercialization. We understand the frustration of realizing that a product was misrepresented, or that the "batteries not included" warning was written in such fine print, you'd need a microscope and a week to find it. But people experience deception on a much deeper level in the marketplace, which ultimately translates to a very human loss, and often times, feelings of betrayal. It’s this experience, more than any other, which serves to reinforce the idea that there are no good guys. Just look at the aftermath of hurricane Sandy.

Allstate is a huge insurance company whose motto has become synonymous with its name and the values it means to represent, "In good hands". Through mediums of commercialization, people are conditioned to believe that Allstate is a humane company that cares about its customers—the message being presented as: Don't worry, we'll take care of you. But, when push came to shove, Allstate customers weren’t in good hands. They got f*cked over on a bunch of technicalities in a effort to preserve bottom lines and to deny human need in the face of one of the biggest disasters ever to hit the New York, New Jersey area. Like so many times before, people were led to believe that the market cared about them, only to be told that their suffering didn't matter, that what mattered most were dollars and shareholders. After paying years in premiums, customers are barely getting a fraction of their losses or denied altogether. On one Internet forum, a commentator stated that he was once insured by Farmers Insurance, but had his policy cancelled after only one $400.00 claim. The list goes on. And, you can only imagine what goes on in the healthcare sector if this is what happens to home owners' insurance claims; a disaster like Sandy happens (on average) once every 5 years, MAYBE. People who are chronically ill often accrue claims for healthcare that last for the entirety of their lives.

But those are only the large and seldom experiences of deception in the marketplace. What about the everyday assaults that commercialism wages on our trust and patience? Comedian Patton Oswalt does a brilliant bit about Internet porn spam, comparing the tactics of the old and the new. Before, you used to get e-mails that clearly identified the contents as pornographic advertising right in the subject line. In those days, porn ads were certainly annoying, but at least they were upfront about it and gave you the choice to delete it. Then advertisers got sneaky, using Trojan horse tactics in order to get us to open their e-mails: identifying us by name or claiming that we had won a rare prize. Ridiculous. And it wasn’t just porn sites that were tricking us into interacting with them, soon everyone was using elaborate tactics of deception just to get our attention, waste our time, and insult our intelligence. The bad news is that it's only getting worse. Now, spammers can pose as real users commenting on your Facebook and blog pages, and I've even been to websites where trying to leave the site itself resulted in being directed to another advertisement. So, you see, from our daily experiences with advertising overload, we are constantly conditioned to expect deception and a misrepresentation of intentions. This expectation of deceptive behavior, and the subsequent cynicism and contempt that it creates, is then integrated into our social behavior.

If you're still having trouble understanding the relationship between the distrust bred within consumer culture and that which we experience in our personal lives, consider the example of an overworked parent. The parent, being at the mercy of a tyrannical boss and unrelenting performance pressure, comes home and projects those same demands onto the relationships they have with their children and spouse. Suddenly, their spouse appears to demand a perfect partner, and their kids can’t be satisfied. Before long, the negative experiences of work begin to color all other aspects of their lives and the anger and disgust get directed along with it. The thing is: people tend to overlook just how powerful the economy is, and therefore, how interconnected it is with our experiences—not just publicly or financially, but privately as well.

Just as the relationship with our parents often establishes patterns by which we interact with others and the world, so too is the impact of commercialism and a single-minded value of monetary wealth. Our relationship with the economy is one of the most extraordinary and unseen powers that influence human behavior. Nearly every decision you make this week (and every week for the rest of your life) will have some direct or indirect connection to your participation as a consumer and the complex economic institutions that reinforce that dependancy. WOW.

Americans watch more TV than any other developed nation in the world. And TV, being the propaganda machine for a culture of commercialism, helps to fuel social distrust in three simple ways: advertisements, bad news, and drama.


BUY THIS CAR AND YOUR LIFE WILL BE MORE ADVENTUROUS.


You know the commercials I'm alluding to: some crazy off-road truck tearing up desert sand on a hot sunny day, or that speedy 2-door coupe that somehow zips around all the traffic and blows up that hot chick's mini-skirt as the driver zooms past all the stop lights. They sell us the image of a better life, but all we get is more debt, higher insurance payments, and a car that breaks down in 6-months.

BAD PEOPLE AND BAD THINGS ARE EVERYWHERE.


There's an amazing book called, "The Culture of Fear: Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things—crime, drugs, minorities, teen moms, killer, kids, mutant microbes, plane crashes, road rage, and so much more", that masterfully illustrates the power of negative media. It was necessary for me to include the entire title in order to illustrate the long list of "bad stuff" that news sources will try to convince us exists just outside our windows—all for the sake of ratings and (YEP, YOU GUESSED IT) advertising DOLLARS. Tell people the world sucks 24/7, and they'll start locking their doors. News media outlets in this country were bought and sold a long time ago folks, and all they care about are advertising dollars. That means they gotta get us to sit there for 4 hours straight with 'round the clock horror stories. They don't call it INFOTAINMENT for nothing.

COP SHOW, HOSPITAL SHOW, COP SHOW, 

HOSPITAL SHOW, COP SHOW.


Ever notice that either one of two shows are always on: a cop show, or a hospital show; death, blood, vaginas, and penises. Dramatic events, disasters, and jaw dropping deception by the characters involved are key ingredients for modern television. At any given moment, someone is lying, cheating, stealing, killing, or doing all four at the same time while having sex. Ultimately, these shows heighten our senses and create the kind of excitement in the brain that conditions us to make associations with the events on TV. We start becoming hyper sensitive to others' behavior and make assessments that fall in line with what we've been taught by popular media. And so, we set out to confirm guilt, deception, and wrong doing in our social interactions and, subsequently, punish them harshly. We look for reasons to distrust. We develop a black and white sense of justice and "all or nothing" cost-benefit thinking that leave little room for the grey area that's required for compromise and the sustenance of deep, meaningful relationships.

THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR YOU.


Listen my friends: the world is an awesome place. There are so many amazing people doing so many amazing things out there for the good of our species and the planet. Don't let commercialism and its propaganda machine dictate the details of your humanity. You decide. Wake up. Turn off your TV. Turn off your computer. Call your friends and family members and tell them how much you care. Get involved with volunteer groups, political groups, and charity work. Reach out to people. Don't hold back. The world is waiting for you.