Friday, December 15, 2006

Reason #4—We Need Each Other to Be Ourselves

I started writing directly about Marx at a point when I was literally hurting about as bad as I’ve ever hurt. Heartbroken, financially broken and physically broken, I was pitifully spending many of my days flat on my back on codeine, nursing herniated discs and wondering just how much writing I still had in me.

One day in particular, I remember I’d put off making some doctor’s appointment because I couldn’t drive, and I happened to have a phone conversation that gave me the kick in the ass that I needed. I was talking to a friend who lived about 500 miles away, and she was alarmed by my situation. She asked me if I had called on my friends for help, and I admitted not really. I don’t remember the details that well, but the gist of it was, “You have got to give other people the opportunity to help you.”

At that moment, I realized I was a creature crippled by my self reliance. To hear people talk, especially those the most obnoxiously vocal and lacking in self awareness, you would think everyone in our society was just looking for a handout, or those who ask for a hand are just too busy enjoying their laziness to do for themselves. But I’ve found almost the opposite to be true. Most people I know would (almost literally) rather die than ask for help.

Ironically, and this is one of those perspectives that comes from being a teacher, it’s the ones who argue otherwise who you’ve really got to watch out for. The students who complains about others taking advantage of a class are the ones who time and time again ask me to bend over backwards for them. And don’t get me started about those who like to tell me about their Christianity while showing no respect or compassion for those sitting right next to them.

But I digress (never said that before, kind of fun), the point is right there at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—self actualization is almost always linked to self transcendence. When we are fully ourselves, we turn outwards. Aside from the obvious significance of this in terms of Marx’s vision of a cooperative society, I think it’s also right there in the concept of that old Aristotelian dialectic to get at the truth. We find ourselves through contradiction. We need others to grasp our reality and the reality of the world around us, and we need others to keep us from dying of pride on our living room floor.

Not long after that rear-kicking phone call, I wrote the following, also for Monsters, Marx & Music:

“Our need ties us to all humanity.”
--Headline, The People’s Tribune

Americans have a knee jerk resistance to the idea of working in groups. We joke, “If you really want to kill an idea, just put it in a committee!” We don’t like to think of ourselves as “joiners.” Other people are “joiners”; other societies are filled with “joiners.” But not us, not Americans.

[12/15/06 interruption--As I reread this, all I have to do is look out my window at the workers putting up the building next door to think how silly our myths of individualism really are. We do amazing things in groups, precious little as individuals acting alone. But still we have these myths, for better and worse, and that’s why they’re worth considering as part of reality themselves.]

A great American icon like John Wayne doesn’t “join.” He rides into town alone. He sees a problem, fixes it and then rides out again. The American lone ranger mentality is not only familiar; it’s pervasive. It is the ideal President, the action hero, the singer-songwriter-virtuoso performer. Though it may be particularly associated with masculinity, it is a more generalized notion of success that is part of the appeal of feminine icons from Madonna to Ani DiFranco to J-Lo.

And of course, this concept of individualism is deeply tied to the American resistance to communism. In American Cold War propaganda, the Russian is a person who lives a dull, colorless existence with his individual freedom sacrificed to an inhuman state. It is this sort of prejudice that General William Westmoreland is banking on when he puffs out his chest in Peter Davis’s Academy Award winning documentary Hearts and Minds and explains, “Well, the Oriental does not put the same high price on life as the Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it, life is not important.” (Davis cuts this interview with footage of a Vietnamese mother sick with grief, throwing herself atop her dead son’s coffin in his grave.)

Though Westmoreland’s racism is about as disgusting as this mindset can get, the fact that Americans pay great lip service to individual freedom is not a bad thing. We have good reason to be suspicious of groups. As any Psych 101 student learns, numerous psychological studies in the wake of World War II, particularly concerned with explaining the Holocaust, have shown that most people betray their own judgment in groups. People disbelieve their own perception about things as objective as shapes and sizes when a group disagrees with them.

I recently had an experience that brilliantly illustrated not only the reality of groupthink, but also how susceptible I am to its pressures even as I was perfectly aware of what was happening. I was on jury duty, in jury selection, for a man up on marijuana charges.

Screening the jury, the prosecutor asked how many in the potential jury thought that marijuana should be legal. There were at least 50 of us in the room, and not one hand went up. Now, I have no firm opinion on this (and if I were to get into why, it would be nothing more than a distraction), so it was fairly easy for me to wrestle down the bad taste in my mouth as I kept my hand down. But I was surprised because, from my experience teaching English and hearing semester after semester what people have to say about these issues, I would assume a sizeable number, privately, would say that the drug should be legal but regulated.

Then the prosecutor asked how many in the room felt that too many people were in prison on marijuana charges. Now, I do have strong opinions about this. It is injustice, plain and simple, that half the people in our prisons are there on marijuana offenses when well-heeled professional people (perhaps this prosecutor himself) get away with a toke before bedtime on a regular basis. But I noticed no hands going up, and I hesitated, and then I began to rationalize. Should everyone with half a brain that believes these laws are unfairly enforced risk being thrown off of this jury? Sure, we were sworn in, but is this really the elimination of bias or an attempt to guarantee a bias against the defendant? I didn’t raise my hand, but now I knew I was lying.

Then the prosecutor asked how many in the jury pool felt that marijuana should be legalized for medical purposes. 6 hands out of 50, mine included, shot up. What I think is most remarkable about this is not that several hands shot up when one, whoever the leader was, shot his or her up, but that it was only 6. Again, in talking over this experience with my students (and I’ve told it to every one of my classes since it happened), I have not yet heard one person make an argument against the use of medical marijuana, yet only 6 in the jury pool raised their hands. We were all thrown out of the jury within an hour, and my mind reeled over the implications regarding the court system.

Despite the occasional 12 Angry Men scenario, in which a brave individual (again an American hero) challenges the tyranny of the group, this experience drives home the greatest irony of American individualism: the very myth of individualism is groupthink itself. While individuals make very important contributions in this world, a pure individualist is about as desired by the system as the Unabomber. The myth of individualism is little more than a useful form of divide-and-conquer social control.

That’s why our political censors, the politicians--from Joe Lieberman to Jesse Helms, who repeatedly argue that movies, TV, popular music and video games are bombarding our children with too much sex and violence--never speak out against the most insidious, dominant theme in our media, the idea that the path to happiness is individualism. All of these varied means of artistic expression come wrapped in advertising, and that advertising--just like the advertising for everything else we own--almost always has the same message. Buy this SUV, wear this kind of running shoe, visit this website, and you will be happy and free like the actors and models on TV.

Many have attacked various advertising icons, the Marlboro man and the Virginia Slims woman, as examples of the immorality of the tobacco industry--selling mythic American individualism as the outcome of smoking. But the underlying message is not so readily questioned--individual fulfillment as an individual goal to be purchased. Our entire advertising industry sells one message--the American dream is to buy your own happiness. Tough luck if you can’t manage it. Buck up, and remember that philosophy filed under “Plan B”—success is only a state of mind.

To understand our trap, we have to take a close look at our ideal of individualism. Webster’s defines individualism, first and foremost, as “the leading of one’s life in one’s own way without regard for others.” Without getting into the specific doctrines this logic suggests, let’s contemplate that essential philosophy for a moment.

Who really lives his or her life without regard for others? It is a dead end, and it is not even heroic in terms of our culture. This is Ebenezer Scrooge, who lived an isolated life without caring for anyone or anyone else caring for him. Even the mythic John Wayne (or even more pointedly, Clint Eastwood) cowboy took risks to protect a vulnerable township from the malevolence of a band of black hats. Of course, they can and do ride away….but is that their greatness or their tragic flaw?

Among humanity’s most basic impulses (beyond our animalistic instincts) are to love and be loved. In fact, most of us would give up eating a meal or two or sleeping a night or two (or any of our basic drives, including self preservation) for the sake of those we love. We have confused the need to be our own uniquely fulfilled persons with the need to divorce our concerns from the concerns of others. The popular saying that “to love another one must first love one’s self” is no doubt true, but to love one’s self only, to the exclusion of others is a miserable existence. Virtually all of our religions and philosophies counter this idea vigorously with martyrs and teachers who give their lives for the sake of others. In the end, what things heroic or noble come from our individuality unless there is some benefit to others….

No comments: