Friday, May 12, 2006

Some Misanthropic Thoughts

The current media unrest brought about by the rising cost of gasoline painfully reminds me how many Americans are willing to whine about anything they don’t like. We pretend that Americans in general are rugged individualists, who eschew government intervention in favor of private initiative and gumption. Somehow, it seems that the more prosperous we become the more frequent we whine over the smallest things. It’s already widely agreed that as a society grows wealthier, the experience of depression and other kinds of mental illness become more frequent.

Along with this development, I sense that our prosperity leads us to lose perspective on what is truly important. I’m not necessarily referring to the common critique against the corrupting effect mass consumption and materialism has on the individual soul. Rather I find that richer we all get, the less intellectually responsible we become. Somehow we forego the exercise of really thinking through what we believe and why we believe, and how it connects to how the world works. We become lazy in evaluating cause and effect, how a decision made earlier will affect the outcome later. Thus we have no trouble in articulating what we’re for, but few of us are capable of explaining what should precisely happen when we implement our desires. This disconnect infers the Law of Unintended Consequences, where certain unforeseen results discredit a policy’s intentions. Why do these things happen?

Because taking responsibility for your positions is a lot of work and fraught with the fear of being proven wrong, one the most terrible things to happen to a person raised in a culture of self-esteem. As our concerns turn from matters of self-preservation and survival, which were very real to all generations born before Baby Boomers, we younger generations have had the luxury (or dread) to focus on our own emotions and psychological needs. The cult of self-esteem is an inevitable result of this introspective shift, one that has had the side affect of valuing knowledge as it pertains emotional needs.

The survivalist mentality of prior generations required a sense of perspective of the world around, as one needed to cooperate with others to get the things one needed to survive on, from food and shelter, to the emotional support of the community. Most people then were too busy worrying about their next meal to instead wallow in isolation meditating on what one’s purpose of life should be and who one was as a special individual. Transcending self-preservation has unfortunately not freed many of us to seek knowledge about the outside world leisurely. Rather, we become more obsessed about our inner world while we cut ourselves off from understanding how we fit with the world at large.

This isn’t to argue that most people in the distant past were more informed about the world beyond than we are today but I get the sense that to be ‘worldly’ was an aspiration to all who could. Nowadays the desire to know about how the outside world works is seen as un-necessary if it doesn’t relate to one’s job. To educate oneself about irrelevant subjects is seen as being a geek or unnecessarily wonkish, and much suspicion is made of dilettantes. But somehow, there is no limit to how much one should contemplate about feelings, relationships, and determining what makes one happy.

If there is any knowledge about things beyond one’s private life, it’s often
celebrity gossip, which conveniently serves a mirror to the concerns and interpersonal squabbles that consume most people. Celebrities’ flaws and personal tribulations are frequently identified and compared to by people everywhere, as if one’s sense of worth is determined how much better off they are compared to someone who is much more famous. Call me strange but I find few people that I can identify with in terms of personality and behavior. Somehow I prefer to understand the ways I fit into a broader system of relationships, whether by politics, economics, or history. Probing my connection to the various mechanisms that govern the outside world I live in is a lifelong endeavor. Meditating introspectively arrives quickly to a dead end and bores me as a result. Like Relievedebtor, I’m not terribly interested in what Self-Help authors have to say and Oprah and Dr. Phil seem to rehash simple truism about finding happiness in life it feels like a waste of time.

I know there will be few takers to my suggestion, but I wonder how many people will achieve greater personal contentment by embarking exploring history, economics, philosophy, the cosmos, or even general sciences for laymen like basics geology, astronomy, or ecology. My suggestion relates to the common advice of taking up a hobby to relieve boredom. But it entails a bit more than creating or collecting something of delight. It demands one to develop confidence in dealing with outside forces that will affect his or her life and to distinguish what information is important and which reaction is appropriate or not.

When I see how our politicians in both major parties stoke emotional reactions towards the high price of gasoline, I realize it’s only natural since their constituencies seem to respond in the same way. Whining, which is now considered a healthy way of letting go of one’s bottled up frustrations, has now become a trigger response to anything that doesn’t go our way, whether it’s gas prices, the state of the Iraq war, or on own economic well-being.

Whining is a self-centered activity, in which the whiner casts him or herself as the victim or makes victims out of others to assuage one’s own guilt on an issue. This self-centeredness often blocks one’s attempts in understanding issues abstractly, apart from one’s own personal experience with the issue at hand. For example, instead of finding out how gas prices (or prices of any commodity) are determined, many Americans have the propensity to first complain that gas is unjustly priced, and quickly assume that prices are arbitrarily created in order to make you a victim.

I notice that beliefs in conspiracies has a lot to do with an emotional perspective on a problem, where it isn’t about random cause and effect as it is about arraying a system to precisely cause hurt and pain to others. Somehow the oil companies go out of their way make life as difficult as possible to its customers for the simple fact that oilmen are nasty good ol’ boys. I’m struck by how little is said about the huge number of individuals, each with their own values, hopes and fears, who work for these oil companies for their livelihood, and who simply want to do the best job they can regardless of what market prices are for gasoline. These people don’t work monolithically for a common corporate purpose to simply screw as many customers as possible.

Whining also implies a person’s sense of entitlement. Victims naturally require some form of restitution. Thus if one complains that high gas prices are unfair, it follows that he or she is entitled to better prices by virtue that he is less able to consume as much gas as he used to. I suspect such feeling of being ‘owed’ something is tied to high self-esteem, that you matter to such a high degree that open dynamic phenomena like economic cycles, prices, and even the weather should somehow make a special effort fit your needs. Thus one is so self-absorbed in trying to soothingly explain how a problem affects them personally that they fail to actually identify the problem by itself, and neglect to figure out rational solutions over useless emotional band-aids. The current rhetoric on all sides regarding gas prices is embarrassingly vacuous, each political pitch designed to exacerbate emotional tensions in the public, with little mention of the way gasoline is made where the price comes from.

But what can I expect when knowledge in basic macro and micro-economics and civics is woefully missing among the majority of Americans? The ignorance supposedly ‘educated’ young people of the way the broader world works is staggering. They can’t find Afghanistan on a map nor can they explain the concept of supply and demand, but they sure can tell you all about how great they feel, what they own, and numerous ways to spice up one’s sex life.

The most dangerous thing about whining is that it is infantile. Children, having no ability to solve problems, only know that complaining or crying will somehow change the situation for the better. When adults whine, they too are incapable of solving a problem realistically, but yet know that by doing something, even if it isn’t evident that such a thing will work, is better than doing nothing at all. Children have the excuse of not having yet the cognition to understanding why something is wrong, but adults do not. Children put all of their trust in an authority figure (their parent) to sort out the problem for them. Should infantile adults do likewise with their political leaders in the face of serious problems? After all, dictatorships often consist of a political authority treating their subjects as children, complete with privileges that can be arbitrarily taken away and the main decisions of your life being made by the care-taker government with little personal involvement. Dictatorships thrive more on people’s emotions than on their intellectual sophistication. I fear that the emphasis on emotional well-being in our culture bodes ill to our ability to make prudent decisions in the future on the job of governing.

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