In two of my previous blog posts, I have touched on a number of important, but little-discussed topics. In Asperger’s and Me, I wrote about the unconscious biases suffered by people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, even those with “mild” autism, or what used to be termed Asperger’s Syndrome. In my last post, I challenged conventional mental health orthodoxy by suggesting that happiness does not come from within, and I pointed out that uncritically repeating said statement to people who are genuinely suffering, without actually examining why they have those feelings, is unhelpful. But these problems don’t exist in a vacuum; they are broader symptoms of today’s society. Of course, no human society is perfect, none ever have been and that is unlikely to change any time soon. However, at least in English-speaking countries, modern society suffers from three traits in particular which are destructive both to other people and the environment around us: selfishness, consumerism, and conformity.
Let’s tackle that first one. “Selfishness”, defined here, doesn’t just mean really petty actions taken out of blatant self-interest, like parking in a disabled space in a car park. My definition of selfishness, at least in this blog post, includes a very broad set of behaviors that show a lack of respect for the thoughts, feelings and basic needs of other human beings. Whilst this may also have been a problem in the past, it has been amplified in the modern era, for reasons I will explain below.
Cast your mind back to the human societies that existed roughly between 1700 and 1950. People in many countries around the world, including Britain, France, Germany, the United States etc. depended on sustenance agriculture, and relied on relatively local sources for things like food, furniture, pots and pans, shoes and toys. Anything, and indeed everything, you could think of was available from a local source that was within a one hundred mile radius of where you lived. Every town had a greengrocer, a carpenter, an ironmonger, a cobbler. This meant that individual villages, towns and cities were effectively societies within themselves, and as opportunities for travel were fairly limited, an individual’s social life revolved exclusively around others from their hometown, people like the greengrocer, the carpenter, the ironmonger etc.
In other words, people knew personally, and might have even been friends with, the people they depended on for basic services, which promoted respect and mutual understanding. Elderly people often make note of how neighbors knew each other when they were younger; whilst they may be looking back with rose-tinted glasses, anecdotal evidence, memoirs, films and records tend to back up the notion that communities in the past came together more often.
So what has changed?
The other two traits of modern society, consumerism and conformity, are both a cause and an effect of our selfishness epidemic. Consumerism, or more bluntly, out-of-control capitalism, bears the biggest responsibility for the destruction of the close communities described in the previous chapter. Businesses have willingly sacrificed the well-being of all living things in pursuit of ever-cheaper prices, manufacturing savings and greater shareholder profits. The immediate human result of that is that the greengrocer, the carpenter, the ironmonger and the cobbler are now out of a job, as their small, local businesses can no longer compete cost-wise with big corporations. When this started to happen in the early twentieth century, those people could have usefully employed their skills by joining said big corporations. However, beginning in the 1960s and 70s, many companies moved their manufacturing hubs away from western nations towards China and the developing world, because labor is cheaper and regulations are less enforced.
The negative impact of this is threefold; one, it undermines communities by taking away the jobs that they have relied upon for generations; two, it exploits people in developing nations who are underpaid compared to their western counterparts; three, shipping those goods halfway across the world damages the environment.
The environmental impact of out-of-control capitalism is often overlooked, at least until it begins affecting human life. However, our embrace of single-use plastics, globalized supply chains, and a lax regulatory environment has devastated the natural world, driving endangered animals to extinction and contaminating our mountains, forests, rivers, and oceans with refuse and toxic chemicals. This will not be breaking news to most people. However, what many environmentalists do not appreciate is that change can only come when the system that led to the climate crisis in the first place is fully dismantled.
Which brings us to our third vice; conformity. Consumerism exploits conformity by pushing the narrative that we’ll be happier, or smarter, or more popular, if we buy Product X, whether that product is a car, or a vacuum cleaner, or a mobile phone. In 2020, we are constantly having commercial advertising shoved in our faces; on TV, on billboards, on the side of buses, on Facebook, on YouTube, on Instagram. This facet of conformity is fairly easy to recognize. Unfortunately, conformity runs far deeper than that, and it is this more pernicious kind of conformity that is the most damaging. It is also the hardest to confront, because it reveals several uncomfortable truths about human nature.
Consider, for example, a typical high school. Is everyone friends? Chances are, the answer is no. There will be cliques. The popular kids. The nerds. The bullies. The bullied. The people who are good at sport. The people who are good at chess.
Now, imagine a “popular kid”. What kind of things do they do? What do they look like?
Do they use a wheelchair?
Are they good at chess?
Are they bullied?
Are they overweight?
Chances are, the popular kid you imagined was none of those things. You probably imagined someone who was physically fit, not socially impaired in any way, conventionally attractive and good at sports. That’s because we, as humans, have been conditioned to think of the latter group as superior, and that goes back to long before the modern era, before the industrial era, even. In a Neolithic, iron age society, a person who needed a wheelchair would have likely been left to die, assuming they weren’t of particularly high status. Disabled, weak or otherwise unwanted children were murdered by their parents.
Thankfully, today, no sane parent would ever dream of doing anything similar, and most of us live in a resource-rich world where every child can be fed sufficiently. Despite this, our unconscious biases have lingered, everyday people suffer from discrimination based on their disability status, their physical appearance, or their weight. Racism and homophobia may be the most obvious and hateful forms of discrimination (indeed, the concept of unconscious bias is often brought up in discussions about racism), but in reality, they are just the tip of the iceberg.
Another aspect of conformism that negatively impacts modern society is the “echo chamber”. This happens when an environment forms (typically online, but this can happen in real life as well) in which a person only encounters beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that alternative views are not considered, and in severe cases, the people that hold those views are demonized. This aspect of conformism is linked to the decline of the community as described previously, as people increasingly socialize in unnatural environments such as universities and offices. (By “unnatural environment”, I mean places that do not have a typical distribution of people of different ages, educational attainment and class. For example, a university contains an unnatural amount of well-educated, middle-class, young people, like me, for instance.) No-one is immune to the echo chamber, and it affects both left-wing and right-wing leaning people equally.
So, you ask, how do we go about solving all this?
Well, the first thing that must happen is that we must refocus our entire way of thinking about what constitutes successful governance. Rather than measuring success on economic growth, GDP, and stock markets, which mean nothing to the average person, governments should prioritize the well-being and happiness of their population, and the environment. Big, multinational corporations such as Facebook and Amazon, should be broken up or nationalized. Corporate leaders that have lied, bribed, and exploited for personal gain should be brought to justice, rather than idolized as the epitome of capitalist success. Corporations should pay more tax; and how much tax is paid should depend on what the business contributes to a community and how badly it damages the environment. Taxes on small business should be reduced to almost nothing.
Political parties, as they exist now, should be complemented by “People’s Assemblies”; randomly chosen representatives of our population, with a broad spectrum of political views and as many diverse voices as possible. All governments around the world should make a commitment towards dismantling their nuclear arsenals and eventually the rest of their militaries to concentrate on alleviating and eliminating climate change, poverty, pollution and disease. Rather than viewing them as “privileges”, governments should recognize fundamental human needs such as food, water, shelter, safety, personal freedom, education, healthcare, amongst others, and make providing them an obligation to their citizens.
These are big things. Things that are incredibly difficult to change. But there are small changes that every single one of us can make than help make the world a better place. We can use less single-use plastics and buy as much produce locally as possible, potentially even growing our own food. We can make a commitment to respect and consider other people’s opinions, even if we disagree with them. We can try and win them over gently, rather than calling them a “snowflake” or a “racist”, or, god forbid, a “karen”. And most importantly, we can commit to showing love, compassion and understanding to every single person we meet.
People will tell you that the world isn’t like that. That it’s hard, hostile, and unfair.
People will tell you to “live in the real world”.
Maybe they’re right. But they don’t have to be.