Wednesday, December 14, 2011

American Awakening: Occupy Wall Street, Deconstructing American Mythology, and Creating a Compassionate Society (part 2)

I THINK the OWS movement is a manifestation of problems that go deeper than employment (or lack thereof), income (or lack thereof), and debt (or the lack of lack thereof).
David Loy reveals a crucial truth to the nature and potential of the Occupy movement when he admonished we should "appreciate the general, unfocused dissatisfaction that so many people feel, because it reflects a general, unfocused realization that the roots of the crisis are very deep and require a more radical (literally, "going to the root") transformation".  The OWS movement is representative of the difficult realization about ourselves, more devastating than the economic injustices it rallies against, which is that our country’s values, our own values, are the source of our problems. 

Social conventions, such as an economic system, are based upon the choices people make. Choices are all about value. So I think at its core, the structure of our economic system is about value, our values.  It is a macro-manifestation of the everyday choices individuals make over and over again.  But how aware are we of this?  What are these values? And I’m not talking about values in the sense of what morally condescending people parade around with, holding their supposed virtuous morality over the heads of others they feel superior to, but values at a basic economic level. Our values can be identified by analyzing our behaviors, specifically our habitual behaviors. These behaviors are so ingrained that we often do not give pause and realize we make specific choices based on values, those of which we may be so used to making that the values that underlay them have become subconscious.

So what do Americans value? Based on our actions, I would offer up the following as the defining American Values:
-Material & Monetary Wealth:  This is not a shocking statement, though I think it’s underappreciated. This is so pervasive it is hard to condense all of the examples into one paragraph. The entire foundation of our consumer culture is based upon wealth, the gaining of, expending of, and displaying of. A great recent example:  on one day of shopping (an easy example of the value of material wealth), Americans spent over $11 billion dollars. Black Friday of 2011 saw Americans spend $11.4B. The importance of wealth is ingrained in our lexicon. Think of the ways we speak:  “How much money did you save? How much do you make? How much is it worth? At least you saved money. Well that didn’t cost too much.”  This is all in reference to either monetary or material wealth. It takes precedence over all other concerns.  I really don’t feel compelling to this point, that this is ubiquitous, but it is so intertwined into the fabric of everyday existence that I am having trouble detangling it to provide more illuminating examples. That’s how widespread it is:  We have trouble imagining what life would be like without concern for it.

-Productivity:  We value production and the perception of production, otherwise commonly referred to as productivity, or in more casual terms, “being productive”.   Our daily lives revolve around accomplishing tasks, whether this is getting things done at our jobs, or completing errands away from work/around the house. Each day we wake to a list of things we must get done, mentally checking them off as we complete them, fretting over what will be left undone, and continuously piling more tasks onto the list.  Our lives consist of a neverending to do list. Why is this?  It’s certainly not due to some inherent human nature. No, it’s because we have come to value it. We value productivity over any other possible choice.

-Consumption:  We value the opportunity to consume things and experiences.  This is shown by the choices we make with our limited amount of leisure time.  Consumption takes place when we go shopping, or in front of the television.  Certainly the former is understood, but the latter should not be mistaken for anything but a passive consumption of a service.  When we are not producing something, we are consuming something else.  

-Instant Gratification:  We love speed insofaras it saves us time by giving to us what we want, when we want it. This is in all facets of our society. We live life at a stupifyingly accelerated rate and as such will do anything and everything to save us time and get us what we want right now.  Just take a look at a few contemporary commercials to show how companies take advantage of our worship of speed.  Think of your frustration when something doesn’t arrive on time. I think of how I feel when I get stuck in traffic or slowed down by something outside of my control; I am anxious, frustrated, even angry sometimes.  I recall my last conversation with a stranger. For that matter, I can recall my last conversation with a loved one. No doubt they were mitigated by perceived time constraints, the attempt to get everything and anything done as quickly as possible. And why? Well, so that we can move onto our next task of production or consumption.

-Fame/Social Prestige:  Here is a list of reality television shows:  ( Sports stars, movie stars, music stars, television shows about stars, newspapers about stars, websites about stars, American Idol, The X Factor, Celebrity Chef shows, on and on…America loves (values) its celebrities and most would love nothing more than to be the next person to “make it big”.  Seriously, this is something we value deeply, whether we admit it or not.

Look at the list above.  This is what our country finds most important about human existence?  Certainly this does not encompass all Americans, and has not fully exhausted the things we value in our country. But these, in my eyes, are what are most ubiquitous, what drives much of our lives. No doubt the majority of Americans if asked to name what they valued most in life, they would not respond with these things. They would likely respond with family, religious/spiritual beliefs, being happy.  But what do the every actions of Americans say about what they value?  I would say they would tell quite a different story about what is truly valued and it would be much more aligned with the ones I mentioned above.  We have many problems in this country, but maybe none more pressing than a values problem.

1 comment:

  1. This is an interesting take on the OWS movement & society in general. It's so frustrating but it makes sense that most of American values would uphold the individual (i.e. power, money, status) over the collective as it's sort of how capitalism is set up. To many, hierarchy is a part of life, something to never question. It's this competition that makes it impossible for us to work in true collective and community based ways, I think. Compassion is connected to community and to thinking larger than oneself, which is not a value of the 'fittest' or strongest who often step on people to get there. (which is ironic because even the fittest have parents and friends and often religious communities they belong to). I really appreciate the OWS movement for beginning to highlight the tangible issues of corruption and am excited to read more analyses of the moral (or values as you write) issues as well. Bravo!