“We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Walt Kelly
Innumerable surveys and polls indicate that a large majority of Americans feel that our country is “going in the wrong direction,” and express deep concerns about our future. Few however, are very specific about exactly what’s wrong, and are able to do little more than point fingers at “the government” as the major reason for their pessimism. I think however, that we’d also better take a look at ourselves.
I’m as quick as the next person when it comes to acknowledging the numerous dysfunctions in our national, state, and local governments. But in a representative democracy, the state of government is a reflection of the society in which it’s embedded. If America is indeed going in the wrong direction, “we the people” have a hand in it.
Many of the dysfunctions we see in our national and state governments are outward symptoms of problems in the populace. For starters, the majority of eligible voters don’t bother to exercise their right to participate on election days.
And yet our way of life assumes and is dependent upon the participation of its citizens in the process of selecting those that govern. The outcomes of our elections do not represent “the will of the people,” but rather a minority of citizens who actually exercise their right to be represented.
Freedom requires responsibility
The freedoms we have as Americans are the results the efforts of an intrepid band of individuals who chose to throw off the shackles of oppressive government and create a new direction. They took responsibility and assumed the risks to life and limb that went with it.
As we progressed through the 20th Century, however, the obvious connection between freedom and responsibility eroded to the dangerously low levels that we see today. Imagine the outcry, for example, if our government attempted to resume drafting its men into military service.
Many people still cherish the 1960s as a glorious phase in the development of personal freedom. Unfortunately, accompanying all of this new-found freedom were declines in the sense of being responsible and accountable.
And “accountability” is a major theme in today’s discussions of problems in business and government. Given the numbers of disasters and scandals in both domains that are ever emerging, it’s evident that responsibility is by no means a small problem in our society.
But again, I’ll argue that what we’re seeing in business and government are symptoms of deeper problems in the fabric of our society. This raises questions about how we live on a day-to-day basis.
Some disturbing societal trends
My purpose here is not to be cynical— actually, a wakeup call is all I offer. What we tolerate in ourselves is very often the key to understanding some of larger problems besetting our country.
There are some identifiable and disturbing trends in our society that may help to account for the widespread perception that we’re “going in the wrong direction.” In many ways, they might be regarded as “root causes” of some of our larger problems. Rather than regarding them as distinct and independent of one another, I view them as interrelated, as that is how social forces tend to be.
A growing sense of entitlement
I’ve already alluded to this phenomenon. The crises of the early 20th Century (e.g., the Great Depression, WWI & II) were intrusions of reality that called for serious action. Such events drove home the idea that Americans are not entitled to, but must earn and deserve the good things that life has to offer.
While still true in some circles today, this mindset is being replaced by an increasing sense that people are entitled to freedom and material comforts. We all know about the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which was much more like an infant’s cry to be fed than it was the moral revolution than it claimed to be.
Higher education, once associated with drive, ambition, and sacrifice, has proved not to be an immunization against the entitlement syndrome. In his book, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes, author Mel Levine catalogued the responses of employers regarding the caliber of recent college graduates among their employees and job applicants.
While the employers were impressed by some of these, more common were perceptions of increasing numbers of “spoiled kids,” whose skill levels and willingness to sacrifice were severely underdeveloped.
Obsessions with immediate gratification
America’s prosperity, coupled with rapid developments in technology, has bestowed upon us an incredible array of options. Among other things, we’ve engineered a society in which the terms “instant” and “available” apply to more things than at any time in history. While good in many ways, the situation we’ve created also has a dark side.
For example, people have never been more over-entertained, overfed (and probably oversexed) in the numbers that they are in America today. This has not occurred without consequences. Psychologists, economists, and historians agree that it is the ability to delay gratification that has traditionally led to progress, growth, and prosperity.
In contrast, instant gratification and indulgence have been predictive of degradation and decline in the past (e.g., the Greek and Roman empires). If we really understand history, this should serve as a stern warning to us as Americans.
Increases in self-centeredness
Humility and self-sacrifice have been increasingly devalued relative to self-centeredness and self promotion. Again, technology has been one contributor to this trend, with “cyberspace” at the fore.
Platforms such as MySpace and Facebook promise increases for opportunities for social interaction. But research consistently shows that in most cases, these interactions are characterized by greater social distance and superficiality than they’ve been in the past. In addition, cruelty and abusiveness are more common in cyberspace than they are in other domains.
Also contributing to increasing levels of self-centeredness are poorly thought out trends in education and childrearing. Psychologists warn us that narcissism has shown sharp increases in recent decades, and trace its increase to ill-conceived schemes for artificially raising children’s self-esteem (e.g., grade inflation and undeserved praise).
The results? Higher levels of arrogance and narcissism than ever, along with the predictable increases in callousness and insensitivity to others. Those who believe that high self-esteem is the answer to our social and economic problems should take note that it is highly characteristic of antisocial types such as bullies and con artists.
The “dumbing down of America”
Related to these other trends is the one I find most disturbing: A growing preference for foolishness. Television has carried the torch in terms of promoting this trend in our society, and the contents of its programming shows that America’s love of the insipid is at an all time high and growing.
Commercials are more numerous than ever and increasingly appear to be designed to do two things: (1) appeal to dumbness, and (2) to dumb the audience down even further. With a full range of digitally generated visual effects to draw on, advertisers now furiously present the viewing public with ads with little or no meaningful product information and as much silliness and unreality as their software engineers and writers can cook up. The foolishness reaches its peak levels on Super Bowl Sunday, when viewers gather to watch streams of commercials interrupted by an occasional football play.
What some viewers find inane and insulting, substantial numbers of other viewers find highly appealing and worthy of their attention. As a long-term student of social influence and persuasion, I’m genuinely concerned at the extent to which television producers have hijacked the hearts and minds of Americans. It’s influence on a scale that we’ve not seen since Nazi Germany.
Social pathologies abound
All of this entertainment, instant gratification, and self-indulgence have not made people happier. Psychologists who study life satisfaction report that depression, suicide, and feelings of alienation are more common than they’ve ever been.
We’ve managed to engineer a society in which a lot of factors that undermine self control, civility, and well being have become common and accepted fare. It’s not surprising that the vast majority of Americans perceive us as “going in the wrong direction.”
Reversing the trends
If we don’t like the direction things are going, our best bet is to ask serious questions of ourselves. To what extent do we as individuals contribute to those things we claim we don’t want?
How are the ways that we run our schools, raise our children, and entertaining ourselves contributing to the problems we see? Can we really expect “the government” to be less dysfunctional when it’s a reflection of how its citizens themselves think and act?
Few people see the country as currently being on the right track, so in that regard we seem to have reached a consensus. But all we can really change for sure is ourselves, which is doable for all of us who are truly concerned about America’s future.
According to Mahatma Ghandi, whose leadership liberated India from Britain’s oppressive dominance, “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” If we want our government to change, we’ll have to lead the way ourselves.