Mar 04

To my friendsters

yuppies at the beach

A friend of mine used to tell me that looking at facebook depressed him because it seemed like everyone was having these amazing, satisfying lives, while he seemed to be going from one trial to another. It makes sense to me that we would post the best of ourselves for others to see and not the worst, but perhaps the fact that he was scrolling through the lives of hundreds of friends and acquaintances at once was deceptive, insofar as someone always has something good to share if you look at a big enough group. I personally know very few people who would claim to be content in any meaningful way with their life. Although everyone is making a valiant effort, and few people are outright failing.

How one defines success or failure is another matter. I know successful people by any worldly standard: their mothers would brag about their achievements breathlessly. And I know people who are not successful in the eyes of society, necessarily, but they do good, honest work, and have nothing to complain about in that regard. And yet, I know very few people who would say they are content. I certainly wouldn’t claim to be happy with my life.

Dear friends, acquaintances, fellow travelers through life, I am lonely and discouraged, and the conversations I have with you individually don’t resolve these feelings. I should say that I am not in any bad way, that I’ve been in a bad way before, and am now in a relatively good place. The best, in fact, I’ve been in maybe 15 years. In a good enough place to want to address the people with whom I’ve shared this world, although I am not sure what if anything I hope to come of it.

Many people think it’s a waste of time to complain about problems outside of one’s immediate control. This may be called the Alcoholics Anonymous school of thought: that whatever the external situation, we only ever have control over ourselves, and therefore we should focus on the things we can change within ourselves rather than things in the external world. That may well be a fine attitude, but sometimes a person tossed around helplessly by conditions outside of their control just needs to hear their fellow humans acknowledge that we are all in this same boat, at the mercy of events and circumstances, and there is little any of us can do about it. While it’s true that our reactions to external events are the only things we can control, not everyone can summon budda-like equanimity in the face of adversity. But everyone needs to feel like they belong to a group of fellow men and women, dealing with the same problems.

I don’t feel like I do. I don’t feel like I belong to a group of fellow humans sharing their problems and triumphs, the same external reality as me. Not most of the time. Not in a way I could call satisfying. At 37 years of age, having lived half my life in the same city, mostly the same neighborhood, knowing many of the same people for decades, I often feel like I am pretty much alone in the world. It’s kind of terrifying. In the long run, it becomes debilitating. It’s a feeling that, little by little, smothers initiative and hope, like an advancing glacier.

The last time that I did feel like I belonged to a group of people who shared daily struggles and joys was when I was in my early twenties. I was friends with some amazing people, and we all saw each other all the time, talked constantly, had lots of fun. I think we all looked forward to the future. It’s not that the future was disappointing, I don’t know, but the present certainly somehow turned out to be so. I’m still friends with many of the same people, but we don’t see each other as much, either because we don’t live close to each other, or whatever else. I’d like to think that maybe they all kept the feeling of belonging to something awesome, just sort of brought it with them to a new great thing. I’m sure it’s true for some of them.

I would assume that the people I know are smarter, more creative, more original and interesting, more gregarious, more goal-oriented and harder working than a group of people taken at random from the population, and yet I know very few people who would say that they are content with their lives. Maybe half the time, or on a good day. My friends may be special people, but they’re no more happy than anyone else. On the other hand, I know many people who are regularly tried to their limit by life, and sometimes past their limit. It seems that happiness has little or no correlation to smarts, creativity, sociability or hard work.

The problems we have with happiness are easier to understand with reference to the hierarchy of needs as described by Maslow. A person is first concerned with physical needs—food, shelter, safety. Only if these needs are met do we move on to the next level—belonging to a group and being loved. If all these are met, we can work on gaining the respect and esteem of others. Above all these is the work of self-actualization. Paradoxical as it may seem for educated, intelligent, and relatively affluent people to struggle with the more basic needs, it is no accident. The modern world would be impossible without lonely, insecure people. Aldous Huxley called our way of living “organized lovelessness.” There is not much love passing between the members of a civilization which considers its members chiefly consumers. Friends share things, buying and selling is technically something that only happens between antagonists.

The need to love and be loved, and to belong, is very basic to us. If we find ourselves denied the opportunity to love and be loved or to belong, we can’t move forward to the higher needs, the direction in which fulfillment lies. Our society is full of people whose need for love and belonging has been thwarted to various degrees and for different reasons. Families don’t live together in multi-generational households like they used to, which puts a huge physical and emotional strain on everyone.  We don’t grow up knowing the other people in our community, either because of how much everyone moves around nowadays, or because there is no community to speak of. A child today doesn’t expect to follow in its parents’ footsteps as it once did, but instead has to figure out, almost from scratch, who he/she is and what he/she will do in life. This question of identity used to not only not be a source of stress, but was instead a source of positive experiences. Children learned a trade from their parents, slowly building up their ego as they gradually mastered more and more difficult techniques. Now you struggle to find out who you are and establish your identity, choose a career, figure out what makes you tick at the same time as you’re learning what makes everyone else tick… Even under the best circumstances, this can be gut-wrenching. On top of everything else, our society is obsessed with individualism like no other, making it hard to even talk about many of these things lest we seem weak.

My very unscientific assessment is that many or most people in this society are extremely fucked up. It’s been so long since we’ve lived with anything remotely resembling humane and functional social arrangements, we don’t even realize we’re fucked up or that there may be another way. Under these circumstances, those of us who have maintained some semblance of sanity in our social life should probably be hailed as heroes. God knows it’s not easy. If you’re such a person, someone whose home is a place of love and whose relationships are based on respect and support, I hope you will keep in mind that the reason the rest of us don’t live as you do isn’t because we don’t want to, but because we are thwarted in our efforts every step of the way. Some of us, before we even begin to try, others by ourselves as we pursue strategies we didn’t know lead nowhere.

The rest of us, god help us all. Our need to love, be loved, and to belong is so strong and our options often so limited we tend to take what little in way of this that we can, whatever the circumstances. As a kid, almost every one of us has had a friend or group of friends who put us down and made us feel like shit, but we still hung out with them again and again. Hopefully, not for very long. As adults, we often do the same thing: we stay in awful relationships, jobs, and “scenes,” simply because the immediate need is so great. Or we settle for half-way satisfying arrangements, getting half of our needs met, because that may well be the best we can do. I think this is what Facebook is to most people: we would prefer to have real communion with others, but when we for whatever reason aren’t able to do that, Facebook fills some of that need. It can be hard to initiate real communion with people when the faces of everyone you pass on the street look like they’re passing kidney stones pretty much all the time.

Maybe you’ve heard that Americans now have two close friends each, on average, down from three a generation ago. Facebook notwithstanding. A quarter of Americans have no one at all to talk to about serious things, and another quarter have only their immediate family members. In another study, it was observed that Americans touch each other just twice an hour on average when two people engage in casual conversation. The French touch each other 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans 180 times. I don’t put much stock in studies and have little but anecdotal evidence to go on otherwise, but it’s simple common sense that even having friends and lovers, families and social networks of certain kinds may not necessarily offer us the emotionally fulfilling experience that we need. The quality of the social networks matters. I’ve lost friends to suicide who had hundreds of online friends and dozens of real-world people who cared about them deeply. None of it matters if we aren’t part of a meaningful whole.

I wish I lived in a neighborhood full of families living right there where they work, small stores selling all kinds of stuff, so that when you walk out of your house to buy groceries a few blocks away you see your neighbors and can catch up, and when you’re hanging out on your porch after dinner, you see the neighbors’ kids playing in the street and keep an eye on them so they don’t get into trouble. Living in this kind of neighborhood, you don’t have to post stuff and “like” stuff to remind people you exist, you get to have meaningful interactions just by living there, and maintain your privacy to the degree you prefer. Where everyone knows everyone else, someone is bound to check on you if you fall ill and miss some part of your routine. You have no idea how much time and energy having that kind of social network saves: from sharing knowledge, tools, chores, carpooling, baby-sitting, etc. etc. And you get to not be lonely, alienated, purposeless, meaningless, that is to say, you get to be sane.

I know many people don’t trust this notion of an “idyllic neighborhood,” since the idea of it evokes nothing in their minds except the WASPy, white picket fence, small town ideal of a place that is supposed to represent everything that’s good and great about America but is in reality more often than not a bigot-infested, repressive, close-minded hellhole many of us have been lucky to escape from and never look back. A great neighborhood full of people who trust and help each other isn’t automatically a false ideal, or a Trojan horse for small-minded values. Just as a white picket fence, waspy small town isn’t automatically devoid of acts of genuine acceptance and generosity.

This stereotyped kind of place might exist here or there, to greater or lesser extents. There have been summer days when I could have sworn Riverwest is this idyllic kind of a place. But really, not so much. What makes a great neighborhood what it is takes place over years, decades, centuries, not days. Riverwest is ok and all, but… There are few places to shop and none to work so you have to drive everywhere. The kids seem more jaded with every year refusing to acknowledge you even if you see them walk past your house twice a day for years. My own generation is getting to an age when realism trumps idealism, so we make ourselves scarce. People around town seem to be terrified of each other. And no one visits anyone anymore.

So, I’m sure it’s me now as much as anyone else, passing the shitty attitude around and around instead of opening myself up to people, but it’s got to stop. No one’s gonna win, at this rate. I don’t imagine it’s a matter of simply gritting your teeth and smiling more. But to be honest, I’m not even sure what to suggest. I kind of think we’re fucked. The people who can be civil and neighborly do their best, with various degrees of success, while everyone else is trapped in awfulness by either poverty or money, health or trauma, lack of imagination or an evil upbringing. Whatever.

I hate to end on such a negative note. I guess the severity of every problem is in the end in the eye of the beholder. The reason I’m so pessimistic about this issue is that every component of it seems to be stacked against a positive outcome. Americans (and westerners in general) don’t see this as a problem, are by and large not aware that their quality of life suffers because of the individualism and materialism of their lifestyles. When we inevitably feel depressed and bewildered, we’re likely to look for the cause in the things we are doing and consuming rather than in the things we are failing to do. Economic institutions which have such sway over our lives are not only not concerned with the death of the community spirit, they actively encourage it because it is their meal ticket. Corporations are well aware that members of strong communities make for bad consumers, and that conversely, depressed, lonely people are the best consumers. The government is the weakest it’s been in a long time and getting weaker by the day. Even assuming that people wake up and demand a saner, more sustainable community-oriented society, it’s very unlikely that the holders of real power who exercise disproportionate influence over our governments would take it laying down. Do you even realize what it would take, specifically, to backtrack from the rapacious model of capitalism we have become prisoners to? An end to economic growth, for starters: sustainable communities are by definition zero growth, on the whole. A dismantling of virtually all economic systems with global reach: we can’t be ferrying raw materials across the globe to be assembled by semi-serfs and shipped back to where people can afford the finished products. This should be obvious. These strategies will necessitate a mass exodus of people living in places like Phoenix, Arizona, since there’s no way millions of people can live in the desert without exploiting the resources acquired elsewhere.

The list goes on and one. All we’re trying to do is re-introduce sanity, but this requires dismantling all the insane things we’ve surrounded ourselves by. We’re obviously not going to do anything of the sort without a cataclysm on the order of a nuclear war. Short of this, we can just try to smile more and hope for the best. There are many, many good people who refuse to participate consciously in selfish, shortsighted behaviors, and I hope I can spend more time with some of them in the near future.

Dec 15

Current Trends in Socialization

painting of a giant phallus running over pedestrians by dmitry myaskovsky

How much does the way we conceive of human nature matter? Normally, we pay very little attention to it, with the exception of philosophers, but I’m not even sure we still have those. It’s been suggested that people are the product of their genes, which would mean that human nature is something programmed into us the way dog-ness is programmed into dogs. I think its more like a collage of different influences: our genes, which is another way of saying the millions of years we spent as all kinds of other animals before we evolved into primates, hominids, sapiens; everything every other human has ever figured out before us and passed down to us in the guise of “culture”; the social conditions we are born into; the material circumstances of our life; and surely other stuff, too.

In our century, the idea that humans are competing with each other all the time has become widespread. This idea didn’t exist until Darwin came up with the theory of evolution and natural selection. Before Darwin, societies conceived of their members at various times as free sovereign beings, god’s children, vessels of sin, and other things. People can be treated as the subjects of their own destinies or as objects of oppression or exploitation, in accordance with the way they are thought of. Today, we have the ability to feed, clothe, house, and entertain everyone on Earth, and technological tools to make the planet a paradise. It seems to me that the idea that humans are always competing with one another is a way to justify maintaining the status quo: a world of economic inequality, where the haves have everything and the have nots make everything. The richest 1% now own as much wealth as the other 99% combined, a level of disparity never seen before– not in Ancient Rome, not in Genghis Khan’s times, not in the age of the Robber Barons.

Any other conception of human nature would imply certain inalienable rights to mankind; at a minimum, the dignity not to be treated like something disposable. Not in the “competition” model of society. Here, no one owes anyone anything, and getting away with something at others’ expense means you’re smart. If someone isn’t doing so well, it’s their own fault. Poor people are poor because they are stupid and lazy. Rich people are rich because they are smart and worked hard for their money. Any boy or girl can be the president of the U.S.A.

People are not by nature competitive. Some are, and some aren’t. But people are social to a fault, and have a profound need to belong. This need is so strong that, in a fascist society people adopt fascist principles, and in a socialist society they adopt communitarian ones. In a capitalist society people adopt heartless capitalist principles, and act the competitor because that’s what society at large promotes and values. To think that the American personality is what people are really like is ethnocentrism: there are plenty of other people living in other ways in other societies even now, despite the centuries-old campaign to rid the world of any way of living that doesn’t recognize private property and such.

For how often one hears the American way of life is evoked and lauded, you’d think it would be a well-defined, well-understood thing. But what the American way of life is, exactly, is rarely discussed, and never defined: all we get are the clichés “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and the “American Dream” (now more likely to be achieved almost anywhere else). Yet, the American way of life is a real thing as well as a slogan, and can be described and understood.

For a period of decades following World War II, the material standard of living in the U.S. was the highest in the world. European competition was bombed to pieces while American industry had spent the war years making things like cars, planes, and bombs. Americans got used to being well off and being able to afford stuff, and ideas of social justice were put on a back burner amid this unprecedented prosperity. When movements for social change came back around after thirty years, they were of a very different kind from those of the Depression years. Depression-era social movements were about economic issues, which naturally begged the question, “why exactly do the haves have everything and the have-nots nothing?” Late 1960’s social movements were often born of boredom rather than poverty and injustice, and the infusions of energy provided by the genuinely revolutionary movements happening at the same time or shortly before, movements for an end to segregation or apartheid for blacks and indigenous people, end to colonial occupation, and perhaps for equal rights for women, didn’t really catch on with kids rebelling against what they imagined was oppressive conformity. The rebellion against boredom eventually produced results: American capitalism responded to the crowds by providing products tailored to individual tastes, and learned to sell lifestyles and experiences. Apparently, this solution has kept everyone content for 45 years and running. Content not to riot, anyway.

Americans are obsessed by the idea of individualism: one can safely say that individualism has become one of the pillars of the American way of life. Despite all evidence to the contrary, everyone believes they are unique. In 1880, the ten most popular boys’ names were given to 40% of all newborn boys. Throughout the 20th century the proportion has been shrinking. Today the top 10 most popular boys’ names account for about 8% of male newborns. People used to name their kids in honor of a relative to continue a human chain through generations, or at least to give their kids a name respected and popular with their peers. Today, parents want to give their kids a unique name, which will presumably help them grow up into a unique individual. The names have changed, too: only half of the most popular boys’ names in 2015 were even in the top 50 until recently. Top 3 of 2016? Noah, Liam, and Mason—boys, Emma, Olivia, Sophia—girls.

The most important thing we misunderstand about our nature as human beings is the degree to which we are social beings. Everything we do depends on our continual engagement with others of our own species, and the rest of creation. We can’t achieve anything without the support of others. Very slight failures of socialization in childhood can make a person permanently miserable and incapable of doing anything for themselves or anyone else.

It’s hard to over-emphasize the degree to which we under-estimate our social natures. Most of the problems people hire psychologists to fix for them stem from improper or inadequate socialization, at childhood or another point in life. Ironically, psychologists’ method of solving these problems often involves advising their patients to focus more on themselves, which works just fine if your goal as a medical professional is to continue getting paid indefinitely, but not so well if you’re actually trying to get better. Society has been described as running on “organized lovelessness.” If people were properly socialized at all stages of their lives, no one would work a shitty job for a minute longer than it takes to make sure one is fed and clothed. Properly socialized people would never stand for a society built on violence, as ours is, and you can bet they would have no trouble coming together to find ways to overthrow the rotting carcass of the oppressive civilization around them and build a better society from scratch. In a million ways, people starved of human warmth and affection are the absolutely indispensable foundation for a society like ours.

Most people are raised in an environment social enough to maintain basic function, but not nearly enough to create complete human beings. From civilizations’ point of view, it’s a delicate and necessary balance. Below a certain threshold, people stop functioning; above a certain threshold, people stop being manipulable. Because people innately understand their need for socialization, and make efforts in that direction in any situation, there is a constant effort to break up these efforts. At the same time, where socialization is too retarded, the costs of policing people become too high.

What happens when socialization falls below a critical threshold? The story is told adequately in commonly sited statistics. In 1972, U.S. prisons held 300,000 people. Today, they hold 2,300,000. This is actually undesirable to a capitalist society, since somebody has to pay for all these prisoners. Ideally, they would all be working at McDonalds for just enough money to buy essentials and an occasional iphone or whatever. It may be argued that this social model, call it the U.S./ third world model, is competing with the European social model, where workers get higher wages and support a greater proportion of the overall economy than in the U.S. at the expense of the richest of the rich. I see it as an experiment everyone in the business of oppression is happy to see carried out: how low can you go before the little people either rebel, starve, or go mad, whichever the case may be in the particular experiment. The fact that European “elites” accept slightly lower portions of the pie to ensure slightly smoother social functioning may or may not be better than the “take ‘em for all they’re worth” mentality of the American super-rich. Neither system is currently doing anything constructive to prevent the impending global climate catastrophe. Still, considering that it’s impossible to get anything at all done among people lacking socialization, I would probably prefer Europe to America.

Have I communicated how worrisome (and debilitating) I find the current trends in socialization? More and more, people I meet seem to lack even basic social graces, never mind the instincts to be supportive to one another. Everyone believes themselves to be smarter, better, or anyway more special than everyone else, and this is considered normal, if not a good thing. Selfishness is, for many, a virtue. Personal ambition is assumed to take precedence over relationships. And in spite of all evidence that we are a nation of lonely people, everyone insists that what they personally need is money, or love, or fame, or new breasts, anything but the obvious—friends and family, a good home and community.

Socialization is invisible to us until it is gone, at which point we all of a sudden realize that we can’t get anything done without some amount of it. But it can remain invisible after it is gone, too, especially when so much effort goes into convincing us that the problem isn’t our world, it’s us. But it’s actually not us for once: the society we inhabit is the problem.