Tag Archives: consumerism

Blaming the Culture

I recently read yet another overheated article suggesting that huge numbers of people in Western democratic countries are either depressed or demoralized, and blaming this “psycho-spiritual crisis” on our consumerist culture.

Our descent into the Age of Depression seems unstoppable. Three decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was 30. Today it is 14. Researchers such as Stephen Izard at Duke University point out that the rate of depression in Western industrialized societies is doubling with each successive generational cohort. At this pace, over 50 per cent of our younger generation, aged 18-29, will succumb to it by middle age. Extrapolating one generation further, we arrive at the dire conclusion that virtually everyone will fall prey to depression.

The article does concede use of a rather over-inclusive definition of “depression;” evidently, when people who have been diagnosed as depressed are examined more closely, the majority don’t actually meet the clinical criteria for that diagnosis. The rest are merely despondent, or as the article labels them, “demoralized.”

[D]emoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment….

In a paragraph that certainly demoralizes me, the article describes the attributes of this social angst, and ascribes them to consumer culture:

As it is absorbed, consumer culture imposes numerous influences that weaken personality structures, undermine coping and lay the groundwork for eventual demoralization. Its driving features – individualism, materialism, hyper-competition, greed, over-complication, overwork, hurriedness and debt – all correlate negatively with psychological health and/or social wellbeing. The level of intimacy, trust and true friendship in people’s lives has plummeted. Sources of wisdom, social and community support, spiritual comfort, intellectual growth and life education have dried up. Passivity and choice have displaced creativity and mastery. Resilience traits such as patience, restraint and fortitude have given way to short attention spans, over-indulgence and a masturbatory approach to life.

I’m not sure what constitutes a “masturbatory approach to life,” but it’s an interesting term…

The article continues at some length, condemning the “void” in which contemporary citizens find ourselves. You can click through and evaluate the argument for yourselves. In my case, although I found several points persuasive, taken as a whole, I would classify this as one of a growing and unhelpful number of  “pox on modernity” diatribes that assumes a rosy and ahistorical past of human connection and satisfaction, and simplifies a complicated issue that philosophers have wrestled with for a very long time: what gives our lives meaning?

How do we create a culture that provides everyone with a sense of purpose while avoiding a coercive imposition of collective norms and the “uniformity of the graveyard.”  

There is much to criticize in consumer culture. There was also much to criticize in the cultures that preceded it. Singling out consumerism writ large as the sole driver of contemporary angst, however, misses the point.

Our problem is larger: how do humans create a society that respects our differences and facilitates individual moral autonomy, while still providing the social infrastructure necessary for meaningful community? How do we create a society in which we can be fully realized “I’s” within a co-operative and nurturing (but not stifling) “we”?

Somewhere between a stultifying communitarianism and a dog-eat-dog libertarianism there’s a (non-masturbatory) “sweet spot.” We need to locate it.

Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the Economy

There have been a number of Facebook posts noting the contrast between our tradition of giving thanks for what we have on Thursday, and then joining the frenzy of acquisition that begins the next day with Black Friday. (Does anyone know why we call it “Black Friday?”)

Tis the season to consume. And while it may make us feel morally superior to condemn the orgy that is the Christmas shopping season, reality is more complicated than such condemnations might suggest.

Individually, most of us don’t need the gadgets, trinkets, toys and–let’s be honest–mountains of disposable trash that we buy during this time of year. Collectively, however, our economy depends in significant measure upon the Christmas buying season. Should I complain about the forty emails I’ve already had this morning urging me to buy this or that on “cyber Monday”? Or should I hope for a robust season of buying unneeded stuff, as welcome evidence of economic recovery?

This structure of culture is what students have difficulty appreciating. Why do Americans have only two political parties? Why don’t we start another? Well–one tries patiently to explain–our entire political system grew up around a two-party reality. Changing that structure wouldn’t be impossible, exactly, but it would be a massive undertaking–far more massive than most of us appreciate.

Haven’t civil rights laws mostly eliminated racial discrimination? Well, those laws have certainly changed many behaviors. But the structure of discrimination still operates. Your company has a job opening, so you call a friend. Until your friends are truly integrated, that friend is likely to look a lot like you. Attitudes about “those people” persist. Neighborhood “complexions” change slowly. Civil rights laws nudge us toward cultural change, but the pace of that change is slow.

So what do we do about the waste inherent in a consumerist culture? On the one hand, the mountains of unneeded “stuff” pose an environmental hazard–there is enormous waste involved, energy expended, resources consumed. On the other hand, our economy depends upon the activity of buying and selling and consuming. It’s a conundrum.

Merry Christmas.