Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ignoring the Biggest Problem in American Society?

Why Americans’ Dependency on Subordinate Identity is probably the Root Cause of All Evils in Contemporary U.S. Society 

“The ones that love us least, are the ones we’ll die to please, if it’s any consolation, I don’t begin to understand them…”

-- The Replacements
Bastards of Young” (1984)

Many, many years ago, I had a particularly shitty office job. Through some sort of great cosmological fluke, I got a position at a small town airport, which as fate would have it, was owned by some sort of eccentric millionaire racecar-driver wannabe. One year, everybody at the airport decided to throw the owner a birthday surprise, which -- and I swear I’m not making this up -- was a custom-made golf cart. So I’m standing there, wearing my little red uniform, just looking aimlessly in front of me, while everybody else in the hangar -- also wearing their stupid little red uniforms -- sported mile-wide smiles and had jubilant gleams in their eyes. When it came time to sing Mr. Owner “Happy Birthday,” my coworkers were belting out the lyrics with the gusto of the French freedom fighters singing “La Marseillaise” in “Casablanca.” These people were genuinely enthusiastic and excited about the moment; and at was at that moment, I do believe, that I fully understood how Nazi Germany came to exist.

America, in case you haven’t noticed, seems to have a lot of problems. For the longest time, social scientists (aka, shitheads with university tenure that don’t know what they’re talking about) have looked at all of these assorted cultural problems as isolated things, with hardly any intellectual of note pinpointing an American weltanschauung as the root cause of all our social maladies. Well folks, an American Way of Life -- which completely supersedes a regional way of life, or an ethnic way of life, or a socioeconomic way of life -- does indeed exist, and if you want to know why virtually every single problem in the nation exists, from overweight kindergartners to school shooters to absentee fathers to insider trading, it all harks back to this central truth of American existence: it’s our subordinate identities, and only our subordinate identities, that fuel us as social individuals, in turn shaping our perspectives and decision-making more than any other core variable, be it religion, political ideology or even ethno-racial backgrounds.

In short? Who we are, what we think and what we do is more or less wholly dictated by how connected we feel to those who have power over us. Generally, the closer we feel to being on our boss’s “good side,” the better we feel about our lot in life, and the more we feel as if we are on our employer’s shit list, the worse we feel about ourselves and humanity as a whole. A good sub-theorem to add to the equation is this: more or less our entire personalities and core characteristics  are decided by how close we are to our respective overlords, or how closely we perceive ourselves to be to our respective overlords -- be they middle managers, rock bands we worship, or even the disassociative majoritarianism of the Internet itself.

OK, this is a lot of stuff to digest, and I know, it sounds a little abstract at first. But stick with me here; this stuff will all make way more sense than you want it to in just a minute.

Let’s begin by addressing a word we hear all the goddamn time, especially when conversations about the alleged “American Character” arise: individuality. Now, individuality is probably the most overly-romanticized (meaning “fraudulent“) ideal in human history, as the collective forces of our respective culture more or less steamroll us into uniform shapes no matter how “against the grain” we like to consider ourselves. Even the most hardcore anarchistic, militant Libertarians still live lives that are culturally enforced -- they wear clothes when they go outside, the take jobs to make money so they can by stuff the TV tells them to and they live in houses they take out loans to purchase. Sure, they may claim to be rugged individuals by proxy of their political convictions, but at the end of the day, they look, sound, and act like everybody else. In today’s America, “counter culture” is an absolute impossibility; unless you’re a complete Luddite (by religious choice, such as the Amish, or by cultural mandate, such as the registered sex offenders that have to live in woodland encampments) you are very much a part of the system, so to speak, regardless of your (relatively insignificant) sociopolitical or philosophical “principles.”

Of course, as individuals that really aren’t individuals at all, we try to come up with ways to make ourselves feel different from everybody else. If you’re a really shallow Goth kid, you might dye your hair blue or pierce your anus or something, and if you’re a middle-aged, median-income suburban dad, you might get hair implants or go out and buy a sports car. The idea here is pretty much the same; to differentiate ourselves from the cookie cutter masses, we vouch for aesthetic (and thus, easily observable) alterations that allegedly make us “stand out from the crowd.” The problem here is pretty apparent; you may look different from everybody else, but what do you know, you still sound, act and think the same way as everyone around you. Your outer shell may be different, but on the inside? You’re just the same as everybody else around you.

Naturally, this leads to the second phase of “individual” reassessment, which usually involves the adoption of some ideology or philosophy that supposedly makes one “better” or “superior” to his or her peers. If you promote any religious or political cause, no matter how asinine, this is PRECISELY what you’re doing. The quest for meaning, in a lot of ways, is nothing more than the quest for a distinct identity, and by absorbing the tenets of some pre-existing ideology -- which seeks to explain everything while positing just about every tangible and abstract construct you can think of as obviously righteous or obviously wrongheaded -- you’re basically taking the shortest walking trail to “individuality” as a cultural inhabitant. So, even though you look, act and live like everybody else around you, you are now privy to some kind of greater knowledge that makes you distinct as a cultural system member. But, uh, what happens when you find yourself among a crowd of individuals who share, vaunt and celebrate that same “greater truth” that makes you such a special little snowflake?

Well, shit. You can always take the “holier than thou” approach and claim that you’ve got this super-special ideological thing right while everybody else who professes to have the super-special ideological thing right is actually wrong -- thus explaining why we have both Protestants and Catholics, to a large degree -- or you can instead find individual value within a certain hierarchical position within said group ethos that you, and ideally you alone, occupy.

And that brings us to the concept of “occupational identity,” which is really the most important identity framer we as an American peoples have. In general, the first thing we ask a person we meet is “what do you do for a living?” -- a question that seeks not to uncover what a person’s ideological beliefs or area of expertise is, but really, what his or her organizational rank happens to be. A lot of times, the response isn’t even a direct duty; for example, one may reply “I work for (insert tech company here)” instead of saying “I’m a computer programmer,” or that “I work for (insert firm here)” instead of “I’m a C.P.A.” or something along those lines. Essentially, one’s primary occupational task doesn’t matter; what matters is which organization does that person perform that task for, and much, much more importantly, what is the individual in question’s hierarchical value to said organization? I imagine conversations of the like transpiring all the time at social mixers:

Individual A: So, what do you do for a living?

Individual B: I work for AT&T.

Individual A: What do you do at AT&T?

Individual B: I’m a data management systems specialist.

Individual A: Ok.

Individual B: An assistant data management systems specialist, to be more precise.

In a nutshell, that tells you everything you need to know about that person as a social system inhabitant. Their employer denotes their line of work (which is a proxy for their socioeconomic standing and educational background), their position denotes their hierarchical company status, and -- this is the key point to all of this, readers -- their proximity to positions of power denotes the sum of their cultural import. If you run your own company, you’re big shit; if you’re an assistant to the person who runs his or her own company, you’re not as big shit, but comparably, you’re still pretty big shit. The pecking order hardly needs any elucidation: a VP is bigger shit than a regional manager, but a regional manager is bigger shit than a department manager, who is bigger shit than a staffer, who is bigger shit than the entry-level guys, etc.

This infrastructural rank has become the most important -- and in many ways, the sole defining -- element of who we are as individual Americans. All of who and what we are -- our values, our hopes, our dreams, our longings -- can hence be boiled down to simply where we stand within our respective occupational (*) bases. Anything else, the culture at large tells us, is simply irrelevant.

(*) And just to make this a little more comprehensive, when I refer to “occupational” here, I am explicitly referring to any sort of group system that an individual feels as if he or she contributes to AND derives a sense of identity from. So this could feasibly extend to MMORPG clans, message boards or any other kind of online community, in general.

In America, our work defines us. We obsess over it, we worry about it, and in many ways, our employer becomes our new parents -- our providers, our mentors, our disciplinarians. In many ways, the name of the game here isn’t to really succeed in one’s field, but to succeed in one’s company -- that is, assume some real, or some perceived, importance and then fight like hell to maintain it. Where one is, organizationally, then becomes a de facto self cause -- one’s utmost social reason for existence. That, and that alone, probably explains why so many people shoot up their workplaces; because when the workplace slights them, it’s a slight against everything they believe they are as human beings.

But let’s take it even further; for organizational rank, I think we abandon all of our core scruples as human beings. I mean, every last one of them. For a pay raise (and with it, the associated institutional upgrade), I think most Americans would have no problem performing oral sex on their boss, be it male or female. Despite all of that vaunting of the “sanctity of marriage,” I’d venture to guess that for organizational prestige, most Americans would similarly sleep with a coworker, if it meant intra-company advancement, to some degree. Trust me, there’s a reason why a term like “work spouse” even exists in the first place.

The average American cares more about work than he does his family, for sure. Of course, nobody will come out and say that, but we all know it’s the truth. Just look at Sandy Hook and Columbine; so engrossed were the parents of those school shooters in their lines of work, they were completely blinded to the reality of who their own children were. Methinks if Daddy Lanza or Daddy Klebold had spent just a wee bit more time talking to their kids instead of scrolling through spreadsheets at corporate HQ, maybe, just maybe, we’d have a few less caskets in the ground today.

Whatever identity we think we have is subsumed in the organizational identity. Like the eponymous “Blob,” our worker identity digest everything in its path, until we’re a bunch of shapeless, formless globs of animated -- yet thoughtless -- tissue. The company becomes our God, our pie in the sky. Whatever is good for it, we tell ourselves, is good for us; if that means we have to be silent when our bosses tell “nigger jokes” during lunch break, or turn a blind eye when a higher-up sexually harasses a custodian, so be it. The organization supersedes all, and all else is inconsequential to who I am as a person.

Climbing the ladder of success, we neglect everything around us; our parents, our girlfriends, our best chums. Our organizational identity gets us to view those things as mere side stories, as nothing more than weekend background static compared to the 40 hours of our lives that actually count each week. The more we are invested in our work, and especially our perceived organizational identity, the less attuned we are to our true humanities. Everything that we hold dear as individuals -- things like conscientiousness and ethics -- we more or less have to rid ourselves of in order to succeed in the dog-eat-dog, post-Industrialist global economy.

So what do we do when we realize that everything we are is a lie, and all that money in our bank accounts can’t help us reclaim our souls? Well, drugs and alcohol are a good start for most folks, and maybe even hyper-religiosity or hyper-politicking as a less physical -- yet brain numbing, all the same -- home remedy. Or you can cheat on your spouse, or beat up your kids. Or maybe even leave your wife and kids altogether, with only your job remaining as the sole vestige of you past life. Violence -- spectacular, cable news-baiting violence -- is usually a last, last resort, and exposes the hilarious Catch 22 of the whole scenario: being an organizational zombie (yet maintaining that oh-so-valuable workplace identity) saps you of all semblances of humanity, but not being an organizational zombie (and therefore, losing that oh-so-valuable workplace identity) makes you want to kill everything in the world.

You know, maybe that omnipresent connectivity to our organizational identities is what drives us to do all of the evil shit we do. I mean, after all, we’re stuck in a vacuum that, on one hand, is totally destroying us emotionally, yet at the same time, it’s providing us with all our social wants. Not that being completely confused, befuddled or conflicted -- in addition to being placed in a position we consider inescapable altogether -- would ever, EVER get us to behave erratically or destructively. Ever.

And yeah, I know what you’re thinking: “But Jimbo, if organizational identity and an obsession with the workplace is really the soul-destroying thing you tell us it is, then how come Japan and China -- arguably the world’s two most industrious nations -- have among the lowest rates of depression in the world?

Well, it’s different, because American depression is different than Asian depression. Japanese dudes don’t open fire on school children when they’re feeling blue, they just suck on some chlorine gas and make sure their windows are sealed tight, to make sure nobody else is inadvertently killed. Since Japan and China are true collectivist nations -- indeed, the large urban populations in both countries pretty much necessitate an all-encompassing sense of social cohesion, just as a survival mechanism -- you could argue that one’s workplace identity really isn’t all that far removed from his or her societal identity. But in America, where we’re INDIVIDUALS, GOD-DAMN-IT, there’s a distinct rift between our organizational personas and our personas as social system inhabitants. We’re forced to be two different people in America, whereas in Asia, who you are as worker and overall human being is pretty much the same thing.

And so, this natural conflict goes on for a couple of decades, until we kill ourselves, kill somebody else, or completely squelch our humanity altogether and become lifeless globs who don’t even realize it when people run over our toes with shopping cart wheels. And then, retirement comes along, and one afternoon, we have to sit down in our reclining chair and reflect on what we’ve done with our lives, and suddenly, we realize we haven’t really done Jack Shit for ourselves. Sure, we may have kept the company up and running, but we know we’ll be forgotten. Once we’re dead, nobody will give a shit about our organizational identities: a shame, really, because in America, that’s usually our most pronounced persona, if not the only one we elect to present to the world at large.

But in the meantime, our organizational identities protect us from the inevitability of our own cosmological unimportance. It allows us to sell sugary, fat-loaded foodstuffs to already-overweight kids, basically as a skeleton key to exonerate us of guilt. “We’re just doing what our superiors want,” we’ll say.  It allows us to turn a blind eye when some creepy-ass, under-parented child goes on another soon-to-be-forgotten homicide spree, and it’ll get us to forget all about deadbeat dads and the unavoidable statistical outcomes for those who live fatherless existences. Those of us who tend to think we’d never commit violent crime would cook books, shred documents or take a bullet ourselves for our bossman; if he goes, our sense of self goes with them, we’ll tell ourselves. Corporate crime, surely, has to be worth that.

Hannah Arendt called it the "banality of evil." Daniel Goldhagen explicitly referred to it as the primary catalyst for the Holocaust in "Hitler's Willing Executioners." In terms of an American framework, Ward Churchill kinda touched upon it in his miscellaneous screeds against technocracy, while the main character in "Thank You for Smoking" somewhat alluded to it by calling the universal excuse of one's outstanding mortgage the "Yuppie Nuremberg Defense."

No matter what you call it, though, the things I’ve seen fellow Americans do, all in the name of maintaining organizational rank, is absolutely blood chilling. These are people that are genuinely aroused by the sight of a man receiving a golf cart, after all. If they’ll do that, there’s a pretty good chance they’ll toss you into a furnace, too.


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