Most people read something they don’t like about consumerism or social reality and immediately dismiss it so they can continue living in fantasyland. When these same people have convinced themselves that they are actually doing good for society by living in this manner, questioning them becomes a mortal sin and worthy of shouting things like ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ instead of having an open intellectual discussion about what we take for granted in life.
While I typically don’t like to play devil’s advocate with people, recently there was a case where I couldn’t resist.
One individual I know questions what I write and what I send him to read on occasion, indicating it’s more about fear than the reality I profess. So I decided to take him up on it: was he afraid of what I was sending him, projecting that fear onto me? And could I successfully question his lifestyle choices to get my point across where it hits home?
The conversation went something like this: I sent him a recent article from this site. Within two minutes, he told me it was “all bullshit”. I told him he hadn’t read it yet and dismissed it anyway; he told me everything I write and read is about fear.
So I took him up on it. What am I afraid of? To paraphrase:
Me: The article is about how technology is used in contexts that may not make the most of our bright minds. Do you not agree with that idea?
Friend: I do my own thing…
Me: Your own thing involves buying Macs, stereo equipment, and hoping the assets you’ve built during your life will yield enough income on their own so you don’t have to work much. Accurate?
Friend: Sure, but I also make good consumer choices. I haven’t eaten much outside a Whole Foods in years [note: yes, he said this], I keep to myself, and I recycle.
Me: But you still consume. No matter how much you recycle or how much organic food you eat, you’re not doing much to change anything. You’re just consuming. And now you’re all but admitting that you’re happy to do it. Are you saying there’s nothing more noble about your life than living like a monkey in a lab? HDTV and all?
Friend: Of course not. Why do you think I want to advance my education by taking full time graduate courses? When I get out, I don’t want to use the degree in a typical fashion; I want to help people…people in the third world; work for a charitable organization; the disenfranchised here at home.
Me: So you admit that you don’t do much but consume, and to feel better about that, you’re going to try helping the disenfranchised…? You could instead try to live the change you want to see in the world, so to speak. Unless that change is to have more people end up like you live now. Let’s face it, there isn’t much noble about that.
Friend: I’ll work for a government organization; they help people. What’s wrong with this country is people like you who don’t want to help anyone.
Me: I think people like me – people who work full time, pay taxes, and take care of a family – are happy to help other people with volunteer hours, charitable donations from the more wealthy among us if they choose to partake in those activities. When you say government organizations, people like me end up with their hair standing on their neck because we’re absolutely horrified of how government typically tries to “help” people.
We didn’t really come to a conclusion, but there’s nothing wrong with that – arguing for the sake of doing so in a well-tempered manner can yield great knowledge about the people you know. What’s difficult is arguing with them to begin with, because “going there” – trying to find out people’s true motives and what they want – is something few want to discuss. If you do get around to that, it gets emotional quickly and people begin speaking in generalities to take the focus of the discussion off of them.
Most people feel when one digs into issues of motivation, that they are being judged or accused of something. This defensive attitude is typical of people who can’t back up their actions (or inaction) with ideas or purpose. Floating along aimlessly, consuming, and then claiming one’s life will be useful in the form of “helping people” is all too typical of people with no real set of values or goals.
A more noble approach may be to, for example, strengthen one’s own community and help people who need it and are deserving closer to home. Just because we live in the developed world does not mean that, by default, materialism can keep us happy and our aim should be to spread that to as many others as possible.