We have encountered some indications of why the human psyche, its motivations and identity, seem more complex than most known species. Human creativity desires to fashion and refashion not only its environment but also a purpose transcending immediacies of its reality, the projections of imagination with a plasticity exceedingly liberated from attachment to instinctual drives and concrete objects. Language with its infinite generative capacity is the chassis that stabilizes growth in our relationships with the world, each other and our own selves as reflective, tolerant collectivity, so that intellectuality is not only problem-solving and self-satisfaction but sustainable as shared meaning in the context of large societies. When languages diverge, they give rise to variant customs that are more intellectually sublimated than what we find in other species, and when these languages converge and blend, they become a vehicle for orchestrating diverse thinking and behavior. Language-utilizing creativity makes collaboration and mass organization in heterogeneous communities a dimension of individual lifestyles.
The existence of Homo sapiens tends to have sociality as its focal point, with feedback from animate qualities of environments being the foremost selection pressure upon behavior, but there are some more asocial factors. First of all, the creativity of our species goes hand in hand with a measure of curiosity. Human initiative does not circumambulate long-trodden paths like the behavior and development of most species, but makes elaborate, long-term plans, experiencing hopes and dreams that at times absorb much attention. Human thinking innovates for the sake of its wants and needs, assessing causality from the vantage point of elastic abstraction, then recontextualizing its world as it derives and organizes insights, occasionally reposing in contemplation of its own nature and future, a diversion towards rendering years of experience coherent in their meaning, an integrating narrative of one’s whole life. In essence, the world and our place in it captures our prodigious imaginations, part of what it is to have a human identity under any circumstances, social or otherwise.
Together with this imaginativeness, human beings act out of inspiration, an overflowing stimulus to reasoning and emoting which arises from the psyche itself, able to occur independent of demands exacted upon individuals by their immediate environments. A self-motivating mind is not unique to humanity, as many thousands of species experience some degree of sublimated fear, anxiety, excitement or anger, compelled by memories disassociated from the present moment, but our imaginations sustain and feed into states of conceptualized affect to such an extent that they take on a life of their own, blown up to proportions that do not just influence behavior but actually change the way our worlds appear to us. Fear and anxiety ascend from avoidance behavior, learned helplessness or hopelessness to superstitions that seize the human mind, often amplified by social feedback until reality is saturated with dangers and omens, which are sometimes unempirical suppositions about the causes of events. Experiences that produce pleasure drift towards the center of a culture, including traditions for forming, reaffirming or rearranging relationships, built around feasting, hunting, sporting, dancing and storytelling. Anger can possess minds to the point of turning families or cultures against each other, setting off generations of feuding between enemies.
This highlights one of the defining features of human nature, our expectation for reciprocation in relationships and the retributive impulse experienced when standards of fairness or respect have been violated. Similar to thousands of species, humans have territorial domains, an ownership of their space and belongings, as well as systems of manners that diffuse any tension over access with symbolic gestures, all regulating status in a social group, the signs of dominance or submission which instill boundaries of superiority or inferiority in populations. Humanity is largely unique because our memories and the meaning we attach to both behaviors and the self are vivid enough to turn conflicts over what we own and our place in society into a facet of one’s identity, attached to executive functions of intention, so that transgression becomes indelibly stamped on the psyche as offense. Most intraspecies rivals diffuse these tensions with brief confrontation, usually harmless, after which harmony is quickly restored, but humans are more prone to fixate on the way they have been wronged, so that it can fester in the psyche, with feelings of disgrace remaining long after an incident has taken place, motivating us to reason our way to retaliation, or impelling us towards preemption to protect ourselves in the future. Slighting someone can ignite lasting spite, even vicious hate. With some intermittent reinforcement, grudges set off generations of divisiveness, threat or violence that put even the innocent at risk. When a human being is wronged, getting away with it is not a simple matter, and spats have repercussions that transform thousands or in the severest cases millions of lives.
Behaviors and interpretations that orbit reciprocation are a factor in many cultural outcomes. Punishment is key to the operations of society and has been since prehistory, seeming to exceed the timespan of our own species’ existence, indicated in acts performed by distant relatives throughout nature. Mechanisms of reprisal spring from a sense that pain or misfortune are the fair consequence for wrongs committed, and also concern with instating methods of deterrence. This framework of assuring that individuals get what they deserve and dissuading them from flaunting community boundaries has been the main source of authority’s mandate: consensual power in a society that is at peace has persisted at the very least to arbitrate disputes and uphold standards for behavior by force if necessary. Of course these overt conditions for legitimizing the infliction of harm are susceptible to corruption as citizens who have been granted power abuse the prerogative of their position for gratifications and advantages, activities which can be considerably detrimental to the public at large. Repeated misuse of power is liable to instigate unrest, and upheavals in response to exploitation of course occupy a prominent place in the history books. Societies always seem to be trending either towards increases or decreases in equitability as complex organization obscures degeneration in authority’s integrity, followed by backlash when citizenries get a whiff of the stench. Despite antagonisms, civilization has made much progress since early antiquity, for even those with hereditary power realized that their stature is on firmer footing if punishment is meted out according to some form of standard. Thus, penalties for wrongs transitioned towards laws elevated above individuals, then justice systems for enforcement of legal criteria, with the axe potentially falling on anyone regardless of station.
Human beings place great value on land and objects, so standards of reciprocation extend to possessions, with the supplying of one’s personal items generally expected to garner a fair return. Negotiation of dispensation or exchanges of goods and labor was no doubt integral to the behavior of prehistoric Homo sapiens, and in a civilized context this developed into economies of trade, first based on bartering belongings directly or loaning them with the expectation of recompense, then quantified using currencies, a mechanism for regulating the contours of a society’s trading independent of direct agreement, by way of a decentralized balance between all the prices customers will accept, with changing supply or demand in any one location compensated by the rest of the system, moderating inappropriately high prices with inadequate buying power, and inappropriately low prices with unprofitability. Love of wealth spurred everyone to get in on the action, so that rulers levied taxes on trading to help secure control, converting authority into an even more privileged class, while still further individuals sought to innovate new products or corner markets, acquiring a bigger piece of the pie, which even in antiquity managed to integrate much of the world’s commerce, and citizens also found ways to make money from money itself, lending sums at interest in the first banking.
Relationships are of course not a mere transaction, but involve strong attachments, especially between family members and friends, and healthy associations can teach us into deference for broader society as well. While we interact with those close to us, we learn how to bond on a deep level, and shared interests progress to empathy for the experiences of others. From respect for those around us or at least the desire to be a positive influence, dowries, gift-giving, charity, and additional gestures of goodwill became a benefit to solidarity. Emotional connectedness has led many human beings and cultures to better understand each other, awakenings immortalized in the doctrines of religions, the logic of ethical philosophy, and the theories of empirical pursuits such as biology, psychology, sociology and anthropology.
Sometimes order breaks down as mob mentality takes effect in groups, circumstances where individuals display little concern for fairness, appropriateness, or thoughtfulness. On an unconscious level, when a crowd begins to surge, anything can happen: trampling or crushing are the outcome at many sporting events, concerts, and other public gatherings. When a horde such as the armies of antiquity is in action, propriety can disintegrate, so that foes and innocents alike are abused or slaughtered en masse. Collective violence is motivated by primitive social mores as focal points of solidarity, an us vs. them frame of mind, prejudices about other races and cultures that lead to the condoning of cruelty.
The forming of habits, which increase efficiency and pleasantness of our tasks by turning them into routines, can drift into the excesses of addiction, our bodies becoming conditioned to biochemical states, sometimes at the expense of practical need. Any experience of pleasure or pain can grow addictive as the unconscious pressures us to achieve a peak experience against our wills. Alterations to the chemical composition of our brains especially can transform the personality so that we recklessly or destructively seek thrills, rushes, or other sensations, inconsistent with who we were formerly, who we want to be, and sometimes our own good.
Within contexts where shared motivators such as curiosity, uninhibited affect, reciprocation of behavior and possessions, emotional attachment, mob mentality and habit-forming find expression, we are also struggling with our instincts and unconscious on a personal level, fighting a dark side in ways that are difficult and sometimes damaging to divulge. When the psyche does not have an outlet for stresses and traumas it turns inward on itself, putting the individual in a state of private turmoil. Encountering strong emotions while isolated can challenge our sanity, which is particularly true when extroverts, those accustomed to extensive social contact, and those calibrated to high-octane stimulus must transition to an immured lifestyle. If we have no peers, confidants or absorbing purposes, the psyche’s tolerance for adversity wears thin and stressors can be overwhelming. We are more likely to ruminate on problems, and anxiety remains at a higher level. If we are in persistent danger, the additional stress can quickly become traumatic, ingraining a hair-triggered reactiveness to even minor predicaments, with disproportionate anger, anguish or pessimism, as soldiers, former prisoners, or otherwise deeply taxed individuals readjusting to normal life after the most scarring experiences can attest. Prolonged exhilaration can lead to post-stimulus disillusionment when the ordinary no longer sates us.
Even in circumstances where other human beings are constantly present, individuals can be “alone in a crowd” as the saying goes, and unsatiated affect still gnaws at us. Some present an unusual profile to the public, whether eccentric in behavior, speech or appearance, and these citizens are often ostracized, which only worsens their struggle with themselves, making them more prone to addiction, stress, emotional explosiveness, reticence or self-destructive acts. The same dynamic can occur from causes more related to culture than personality, when humans adopt values or a way of life that conflicts with the beliefs and practices traditional to their communities, with individuals shunned as deviant. It is common to have plenty of relationships that nevertheless fail to meet one’s physical or emotional needs, so that many are in existential pain. Niceties required for the sustainment of accord in personal interactions constrain this turbulence, further kept under control by the shadow of the law, so that human beings must exercise caution with their restiveness in order to have a successful life.
Though regulation by governments and additional institutions is becoming more invasive, to the point of molding personalities at the national and international level, the realm of personal relationships remains quite anarchic, an interplay of subtle differences in character affecting and affected by a wide assortment of factors. But despite the free-for-all nature of the interpersonal, there are some universal categories of relational cause and effect that make even unreasonable behaviors intelligible.
Human beings take pride in their status and accomplishments, judging themselves and other individuals by drawing comparisons while they strive to actualize their own ambitions. If some feel relegated to inferiority, they may become jealous and seek to undermine the status of those who are more respected, and if some perceive themselves to be superior, they may consider the interests of supposed inferiors as less important than their own. The unconscious can be shaped by debasement from any source, so that self-esteem is diminished or thinking becomes defensive, leading to despondence, combativeness and destructive behavior. The upper echelons of society often attempt to keep those of lower status in their place, to the point of hypocrisizing laws they are supposed to uphold, and underclasses try to find ways around rule-making to gain a more secure foothold or even simply survive. Competitiveness that rivalries engender is ever-present, and we jockey with and against each other for position in ways that add fuel to the fire of our species’ inclinations towards rapacious cruelty, a fight which demolishes some personalities altogether.
Many feel responsibility for the well-being of others, a sense that helping acquaintances and often society in general is their duty. This is reinforced by the experience of guilt; when we are a cause of suffering, it can eat at our conscience, causing anxiety and regret. Everyone is striving to secure their own livelihood as well, and measures by which to achieve safety and control are upheld as of the utmost importance, commonly at the expense of some citizens. Individuals fear their own downfall, and usually that of families and subcultures much moreso, so we are constantly battling to assure protection against threats from those we believe might oppose us or undercut our aims. Much planning is consumed with predicting who is most likely to become an enemy and how to insure our standing against the risks that other humans pose. Our lives are a mixture of generosity, grace, oppression and conflict, a dissonant existence which seems to perpetuate in contradiction to all of our most utopian ideals.
Interactions between individuals can be unpredictable; some have effortless chemistry and some cannot see eye to eye no matter what kind of situation they find themselves in. Humans often like or dislike each other for petty reasons, perhaps because we are reminded of something distasteful to us, our reputation is vulnerable, or manners and mannerisms do not mesh. We all have idiosyncrasies of character, also preconceptions about social cause and effect, as well as a history of conditioning that forges the nature of both. Human beings are haunted by their unconscious, a force that can drive us to engage in antisocial behavior. If we get far enough to safely communicate where we are coming from as the deep structure of our character and rationale, which is sometimes an epiphany about even our own self, most perspectives can find compatibility, but this opportunity is rare, so stereotypes and misunderstanding run rampant.
In coping with all this chaos, traditions of leadership are of the utmost importance, for if human beings cannot agree about an issue where opposing sides refuse to compromise, someone must have the final say. Individualistic authority roles seem to have grown out of battle, for most prehistoric societies lived a stable lifestyle in predictable ecosystems so that group assent guided by an elder tradition was adequate in relation to all situations except for violent, no-holds barred confrontation. Chiefs were set apart as the inspirers of courage in war, evolving into generalship, professionals entrusted with command, the arbiters of a society’s sovereignty, usually granted some level of sway even in peacetime as a countermeasure to civil unrest and incursions by adversaries.
An example of the dictator-general is Julius Caesar, who achieved brilliant successes for Rome in battle and great popularity, so much so that he was soon assassinated by a faction who believed his power would destabilize the government. George Washington, commander of America’s volunteers during the Revolutionary War, became the country’s first president, and during formation of its political institutions could have secured disproportionate power by joining pressure for a system modeled more on monarchy than Enlightenment theory. He declined the office of autocrat, helping pave the way for an experimentation with egalitarianism by the Democratic-Republican party, and is one of the most revered figures in American history. Alexander Hamilton, also a founding father, achieved preeminence in the rival Federalist party. He was key to the country’s success in setting up strong national government with a solvent bank and stabilizing economy, but ended up on the wrong side of history as the foil of what developed into an organizational structure with lax centralization among semiautonomous states, one of the most renowned frameworks in institutional history, and his legacy is mixed. He is sometimes painted as a villain who wanted to reintegrate into the British sphere of influence, and was killed in a duel by a political enemy. Abraham Lincoln is also one of the most celebrated leaders in American history, thwarting a secession that would have weakened the country by winning the Civil War, but was unpopular with many for his liberation of African-American slaves, and assassinated by a Confederate sympathizer. The position of political figurehead is one of the most prestigious, capable of turning anyone into a legend, but ignominy is as likely an outcome as honor, and the hazards are tremendous. Many look for scapegoats when they dislike a logistical or ideological paradigm, with generals and politicians always fitting the bill.
Mystical or otherwise intuitional inspiration often produces a conviction in the psyche that it has spiritual purpose, a calling to enlighten or liberate communities with leadership. Plato’s characterization of Socrates stands out as a textbook instance. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates claims an oracle directed him to live for seeking wisdom, interlocuting with representatives from all the classes and occupations of ancient Greek society in order to increase his own understanding and spread truth. In The Apology, he is charged with corrupting the youth and put on trial in front of the Athenian democratic assembly. He makes an ultrarational argument to plead his case, a speech he avouches is inspired by a spirit he calls his “daemon” intending that he appeal to the intellects rather than sentimentalities of his listeners, facing danger as a valiant individual instead of the usual begging for mercy with family and friends. The atypical presentation fails and he is sentenced to death, a moment which became the proverbial sin against philosophy.
Scholars of Europe have taken great care to record the history of Christianity, and this religion provides many examples of spiritual commitments and their consequences. John the Baptist is described in the Biblical gospels as prophesying the coming of Jesus a generation before his arrival, teaching in front of large crowds and baptizing in a Christian manner, but was not appreciated by the wife of the Judean king, who had John’s head delivered to her on a platter. Paul of Tarsus was a powerful figure in the Jewish community who began his adulthood as an opponent of the Christian religion, which was still a local, blasphemous sect at the time. The story goes that he had a vision while travelling between cities, during which God blinded him and gave the instruction to promote Christianity. After more than a month, his sight was restored and he became the first international Christian missionary, advocating this religion throughout the Roman empire and architecting some doctrines. Joan of Arc was a teenage girl from Medieval France who insisted that the voice of God had commanded her to lead the region’s army in repelling an English invasion. She proved to be a competent general, apparently the only citizen of France who could defeat the English in battle. Her forces freed many occupied towns, and she was by the king’s side when the war had all but been decided in France’s favor, yet an intrigue managed to hand her over to England’s custody and she was burned at the stake. In the 20th century, Mother Theresa was notable for the miraculousness of her ministry, documented in an extremely reliable way. She was raised in Europe, and while a young nun, experienced a calling to move to India and care for the poor. She entered the country with almost no funding or connections, actually wandering the streets of India by herself while helping anyone she could, and over the course of decades built a network of nursing facilities, becoming one of the most authentic and respected philanthropists in the world.
One can easily see that leadership is closely linked with power struggle as the inspired becomes political and the political becomes schismatic. Whenever citizens end up with power or prestige, it can expose them to all kinds of complications: events do not proceed as planned, some likewise powerful individuals or subcultures envy their status and have the means to drag them down, or they get into the thick of disagreements about the course of society. The president of the United States, holding one of the most important jobs in the world, requires the country’s Secret Service to clear a mile-long path around him nearly every time he is on an unfamiliar road. Many human beings have commendable faith in their cause arising from religion and love of their country, but a list of casualties to indispensability would stretch to the moon. We can hardly blame Charles Darwin, the foremost 19th century theorist of evolution, who unlike some of his peers was not especially defensible politically nor spiritually inclined, for refusing to even attend conventions where his research was presented let alone read his papers to the audience, and insisting that not a word be omitted to fit a time slot.
The move from tribal clans of hundreds to civilization organizing populations of millions transformed the nature of relationships. In particular, power began to hold more sway over behavior. Citizens can acquire a huge impact on their societies, so that some are making decisions about policy that effect thousands of square miles, and these individuals congregate as aristocracies who can unilaterally dictate the course of history. Institutions are often designed in such a way that the interests of upper classes are given precedence, with citizens outside the loop barred from accessing advantages. Those outside the upper class traditionally lacked opportunity to empower themselves with education and high-ranking employment, and throughout most of history have had no choice but to pursue their interests by violence if conditions become so bad that mere survival is jeopardized, fomenting countless acts of rebellion.
Since the European Enlightenment and its descendant philosophies such as democracy, capitalism, communism and socialism, which have a culture of self-made citizenries more in view than classism, where all at least in principle receive equal standing, some of this exclusivity has dissipated, so that peasants exploited into squalor by early Industrialism became a middle and working class, mobilized with public education and further egalitarianism to promote their interests as well as contribute towards the intellectual resources of a nation. The paragon of this equality is the 19th and 20th century United States, which managed to avoid large-scale upheaval utilizing violence to achieve its ends for an unheard of one hundred and fifty years, since the civil war of the 1860’s, and the rigging of elections with strong-armed tactics is absent from its system, though the 21st century has seen some debate over the possibility of electioneering at high-levels.
The factor that most differentiates precivilized societies from those of civilization is division of labor. In a social system requiring specialization, individuals do not fill a diversity of occupational roles while being self-evidently crucial, legitimized by the reinforcements of shared benefit, but rather have their whole lives engrossed in a field as a personal, one might even venture to say existential career, involving a narrow range of thoughts and actions, with a salary and some creature comforts the main source of validation, marginally actualizing. Butchers slaughter animals forty hours or more a week for decades. The keystone of an engineer’s waking life is dispassionately technical analysis. Politicians sacrifice needs of the minority for needs of the majority on a daily basis. Law enforcement trains to bully criminals when called upon as their life’s vocation. Many medical professionals spend adulthood surrounded by death, despite their best efforts and great successes. The monotonous stresses of an all-consuming line of work can take a toll, at the very least like liquid dribbling on the skin for decades, at its worst a bucket of ice cold water in the face once an hour. Modern lives find refuge in family, friends, possessions, awards, reputation, but specializing can be an unfulfilling existence, like coercing the brain and body to compartmentalize or suppress themselves, a state of vivisectioned, paralyzed soul.
In large-scale societies based on division of labor, religion has held an important place in organizing community life and uniting citizenries. The spirituality of prehistoric humans evolved with settled living into proceedings built into the architecture of buildings such as churches, synagogues and temples, rituals presided over by a priestly class. Religion reinforced the legitimacy of governments or even, as in Medieval Europe, with supreme authority. Religiosity upheld morals in a civilization, and rounded out prescientific worldviews which were so impotent to explain most phenomena, tying up the loose ends of unfledged rationality with narratives and doctrines. This sublimated barbarism by imparting self-control, contributed greatly to solidarity, imbued life with meaning, and instilled confidence in the midst of a dangerous, painful and often anarchistic world.
Religiosity brought benefits to humanity, but it was far from faultless. Its hold on the imagination made it a political force, and religions could be coopted as a tool for coercing populations into obedience with fear of supernatural punishments or promise of supernatural rewards, making citizens subservient to purveyors of doctrine, a grip on the psyche that went so far as to give spiritual authorities the clout to gather massive wealth, start wars and topple governments. While origin stories, historical myths and doctrinal notions satisfied the yearning for coherence, proof of their validity was lacking, and at least in Christendom, movements sprang up everywhere blaspheming official views with more personal convictions, which often gained cultural momentum while being equally unproven. The immovable object of homegrown inspiration encountered the irresistible force of politicized religion, and the consequence was persecution – excommunications, executions, all kinds of inquisitional terrors – that in Europe destroyed spirituality’s capacity to foster law and order.
Christian academicians attempted to compensate for the arbitrary facets of their religion by applying logic, constructing formal proofs that made doctrines more intellectually satisfying. Unfortunately, philosophy’s elaborations usually rely at some point on tenuous assumptions, such as the idea that order implies a designer, that causality requires a superordinate cause, or that morality has no basis apart from divine authority. From the Renaissance onward, assertions about realities transcending sense-perception as formulated by premoderns became difficult to harmonize with the tangibleness of empiricist rationalism, which synthesizes understandings of matter in nature with technical procedures in a mechanistic worldview. Religion’s condemnation of hypothesis and theory spurs backlash from those committed to the pragmatisms of science, so that the spiritual and mechanistic have been duking it out for centuries, creating confusion for youths especially and spilling into the arena of conscience, subjecting ethics to vituperation while leading many to reject morals altogether.
After many controversies and schisms added to acquisitiveness at high levels, Christianity’s decline in political standing began in force with the Reformation, at which time some parts of Europe split into dozens of either Catholic or Protestant regions engaging in power struggles and suppressions. Once violence settled down, rebel Protestants recognized the freedom they had achieved to craft their own beliefs, and denominations cropped up everywhere. The most unorthodox of these sects still encountered resistance in Europe, but upon settling of the New World gained opportunity to strike out on their own, forming communities accordant with nonconforming ideals.
Secular influences also increased in scope, with a subculture of academia that contested many platitudes. New discoveries antiquated Aristotle’s naturalism, calling into question facts that Christianity had leaned on to support its tenets, and acknowledgement of the vast miscellany in nature as well as between cultures led to a sense of relativism, the idea that truth is a construction varying by context. Intellectualism of both religious and secular kinds started spreading to greater swaths of the population via the intelligentsia’s effect on education, so that by the time the United States had achieved independence at the end of the 18th century, founders of its government were committed to enshrining freedom of speech, religion and assembly in the constitution, which at least in principle would provide every creed the legality to put convictions into practice, turning this society into the grandest forum for ideological experimentation the world had yet seen.
In a representative system within which any interest can exert control, the locus of solidarity switched from movements of doctrinal inventiveness organized outside legal channels to political activism. Citizens formed voting blocs such as parties in the hopes of reforming practices by utilizing the mechanisms of nationhood. The keys to this framework’s viability are twofold: leveling the playing field so millions can agitate for any possible cause, and fostering upward mobility so citizens from diverse sectors of society attain leadership positions in order to help turn their strategies into realities, commandeering cooperation from the establishment. The citizenry would ideally be able to make its voice heard by both communicating with officials and electing into office leaders of its own bent.
For most of U.S. history, the country’s emphasis on democratic freedom has served it quite well, with the enacting of progressive policies ranging from labor rights, to poverty assistance, to universal suffrage, to emancipation of some of the most stereotyped demographics in the Western world. However, this juggernaut of participation has declined some since WW2. Government budget enlarged, which at first enabled it to better meet many of the population’s needs, but eventually extended power past the point where oversight can be exacted from the base of the system, as majority opinion. Nontransparent departments proliferated, taxation became exorbitant and unaccountable, capacity of the government to stamp out movements by surveillance and force made citizens more hesitant to demonstrate, and an influx of money from corporate conglomerates eventually exceeded in power the popular vote. With a capitalism that consolidates financial organizations while isolating financial individuals, freedom of assembly transitioned into “money talks” and “speak up at your own risk”, while upward mobility dissolved into an oligarchy imposing restrictions on access to the mechanisms of authority, disengaging political influence from democracy. Similar to the decadence of Medieval Christendom, public welfare was becoming a minimal consideration in relationship to war, wealth and lawmaking.
With the United States’ loss of traditional institutions as a platform for solidarity by way of participation, the society was set adrift, offering no promise of actualization by political means. Together with laissez-faire economy, which tends to optimize profitability of goods and services by inclining towards generation of scattered, short-sighted, irresponsible business interests, which compartmentalize and often manage to short-circuit the reasoning of what amount to consumer citizens by inducing maximum and sometimes addictive spending, community integration began to decline. Interests of the rich upper class were segregated from those of the majority. Government became more of an authoritarian career track for dictating status via controlling the distribution of wealth than a forum for conscientious leadership. The population’s ability to remain vigilant diminished, capitalist value was extracted from citizens at the expense of their quality of life by pressure to work longer hours while living a shallow consumerist lifestyle, and much of the country grew cynical about its system.
Citizens began to look for values and purposes besides civic activism to fill the void. Many diverted their attention away from the powerlessness of decollectivized individuals by preoccupying themselves with staying busy, contributing to a workaholism and recreational immersion in which citizens do not have to articulate nor think deeply about the meaning of what they are doing, its impact on the public good and the future of civilization. With reduced necessity of well-crafted, demonstrational speech for reaching agreement on complex issues, the essence of healthy democracy, logical analysis of the world seems less relevant to human life than aesthetic stimulation, with culture drifting towards kitche entertainment and away from substantive ideas. As reason becomes less adaptive, the ability to critique ideologies wanes, so that communication and behavior grow less cognitively satisfying. Individuals experience revved up affect, yet making these subliminal experiences explicit and actualizing for themselves is harder, producing a vague sense of disillusionment that eats away at the American mind.
One of the conditions for an activist society is that its members have good reasons for what they do; this means they must seek to accurately observe, effectively reflect upon these observations, and communicate insights of a sometimes difficult nature so as to construct intelligent mutuality, achieving collective goals of a protracted kind. Humans can predict and prepare for the immediate future with little trouble, especially situations likely to surface during their generation’s heyday, but once the long-term fate of civilization is under consideration, spanning many decades, complications that will tax solidarity are all but guaranteed.
Atomization of a capitalist populace by financial individualism does not in itself greatly reduce the viability of moment to moment decision-making; for instance, parents can still at least in principle teach their children about drug abuse by a few admonishing conversations, then remain available as support, which would typically be enough to mitigate any issues for the duration of the teenage years. But over long periods of time, this individualistic environment causes social cohesion to break down, and when coupled to financial pressures that fix in place each more segregated stage, life becomes like every citizen’s struggle in the deep end with their personal python: no foundation, no time to think, no time for intimacy, shrinking opportunity to live on one’s own terms. Even the monetarily secure individual is immobilized more and more to collaborate in considerate and well-considered ways, until satisfaction of many exigencies can no longer be effectuated. The ascendance of technology, with its acute economic relevance and absorption of effort, has prevented the materialist aspects of American culture from falling victim to disintegration, obscurant of what is developing under the surface into an emotional collapse.
The rationale that gave rise to these outcomes over the course of generations is bewildering, for it is hard to intuit a logic that led hundreds of millions of citizens to unleash forces capable of destroying their relationships. Giving a full account of the causality involved would require consideration by the most expert of historians, but we can outline some key cultural moments, even if their connections are not firmed up in an indisputable way. Some of these events have already been touched upon by this book, but will be reiterated to serve continuity of treatment.
U.S. society underwent conservatization after WW2, probably due to anxiety arising from financial catastrophe of the Great Depression that had immediately been followed by movements of totalitarianism around the globe, nearly commencing an era of domestic spying and genocide sanctioned by governments in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, only averted by remodeling the U.S. economy for war production. “In God We Trust” was emblazoned on the country’s coinage, media programming began espousing almost saintly values, and countercultural influence was nil. Much of the territory governed by developed countries had sustained severe damage, with leveled buildings, crippled infrastructure and crumbling institutions, excepting of course the U.S., which suffered no attacks on its own soil and succeeded in revving up its GNP to optimization. At the close of the war, it is estimated that 75% of the world’s wealth resided in the U.S. economy, with the country’s political system as large and well-funded as it ever had been.
The combination of wealthiness, big government, global influence and conservative values had seachanging effects. First of all, it was the task of the United States to lead post-WW2 reorganization around the globe, and its government became involved in all kinds of foreign affairs: Europe’s reconstruction, Middle East conflicts, dealing with encroachments from communist systems that were rivals at the time, and shepherding trade in the Western Hemisphere. The average U.S. citizen’s buying power was tremendous relative to the rest of the world, so that the country’s consumption became the hub of global economy. At the same time, wage-earning Americans had been raised in close proximity to the Depression, so were shrewd budgeters, cautious with their money. Together with a renewed contribution of religion to culture, any drinking, partying and nightlife was not widely engaged in nor given publicity. At the same time, a rich populace could afford new technology, and businesses had the resources to expand their markets to more demographics, so that in the span of only a decade, probably by the mid 1950’s, everyone was connected to the electrical grid, owned a T.V. and a car, with any appliances that came out bought up by tens of millions, turning all kinds of companies into the most massive private organizations ever in a blink of an eye. The U.S. government used its vast wealth to invest in infrastructure projects, a continuation of programs undertaken to jumpstart Depression-era economy, and the country soon had an interstate highway system that heightened commerce even more. Financial empowerment, travel tourism, economic development, infrastructure, and respect for the rule of law were at an all time high.
American citizens who were more economically secure than ever used their standing to agitate for causes with speech and demonstration. The civil rights movement organized mass protests publicized by the media, ending racial segregation in America and opening the way towards a less prejudiced society. When the government drafted hundreds of thousands into the military to fight an unwinnable, mass casualty Vietnam War that was not broadly regarded as in the interests of the population, activism launched an antiwar campaign garnering substantial media coverage and succeeded in bringing the conflict to a close. Women and additional groups who were still disadvantaged at the time promulged equality and free expression, loosening the vice grip of stereotyping on the American mind and lifestyle. Eras-old forms of oppression were being dismantled.
By the late 1960’s, various strands of activism had coalesced into a countercultural force to be reckoned with, as music, T.V., literature, news, all sorts of media gave desire for progressive reform a voice. This cultural revolution attempted to combat stringent sexual mores and additional kinds of prejudice by giving individuals an artistic outlet for exacting the changes in sensibility that many yearned for but had been too inhibited by circumstance to support. If citizens wanted sexual liberation, they could buy a book about the stark realities of romance; if the rights of minorities were a concern, they could purchase books by minority authors; if peace and love were the goal, citizens could become fans of music addressing these themes. Police tried to arrest long-haired hippie motorists, some employers barred demographics from workplaces, but containing such a vast base of individualism was impractical as well as impossible.
Glorification of the individual is of huge benefit to civilization, for it makes society personally relevant so that everyone simply cares more, but as we have seen, it does not immunize humanity to degeneration. In the United States, crackdowns on activism spurred many into an antiestablishment posture, contributing to the spread of illegal drug use and resultant addictions, an angsty flaunting of traditional institutions, and eventually much nonparticipation in politics. Subversive expression was seized upon by the new corporate behemoths, refined into a media aesthetic of sensationalism until art was nearly a drug, used to manipulate public consciousness for the purpose of profitability at the expense of coherence and social consequence. Some degree of rebelliousness is only natural, but portrayals of aggression, violence, and illicit sex became so cliche that art no longer required any integrity to sell, draining the public of its capital with cheap thrills and guilty pleasures of insignificance, a banal archetyping leached of all stimulus to conscientiousness.
In the latter half of the 20th century, the country was also facing logistical challenges. Immigration by races that had traditionally been discriminated against in the U.S. increased, with these new citizens sometimes finding it difficult to surmount poverty and all the crime, exploitation, danger, nihilism and broken sociality that accompanies it. These discontents radicalized into a culture of those marginalized by stereotypes vs. aggressive law enforcement, leading to an expanded penal system, more violent neighborhoods, and antiauthority sentiment. Corporate media, which had already succumbed in full to the temptation towards selling products with violence and sex, assimilated class and racial conflict into consumer culture, and values of the nation in general, especially among youths, began to similarly radicalize.
At the same time, corporations had grown rich enough to organize international ventures, which freed them from the legal regulations of any particular country, meaning that nations had to pander to private business rather than the majority opinion of citizenries with their tax money if they wanted a share of the world’s wealth sufficient to vouchsafe economic interests and political leverage. In the U.S., government represented the population less and big business more, with participatory politics dismissed by many as a facade for oligarchical authoritarianism, and activism frequently regarded as futile.
Upon the lessened relevance of political life and its traditions of discourse, upsurging violent and sexualized radicalism quickly conquered culture by capturing the imaginations of youths in particular, and media-fronted corporations built around exploitative profit models positioned themselves to capitalize on these new values. Corporations focused their marketing of nihilistically subversive attitudes and imagery on teenagers. Media of all kinds followed suit, arrogating the mediums of countercultural progressiveness that had been so crucial in the fight for equality to shock viewers into undivided attention and obsession using depictions of libidinous and self-destructive behaviors, stylized as unflinching immoralism, an incorruptible corruption.
This effort to exploit immaturity for profit made schools the epicenter of disintegration, as the prevalence of bullying, drug abuse, delinquency, promiscuity and disrespect for even sensible rules increased. Schooling became less about preparing students for adult success in the workplace and more of a struggle to contain this beast of immorality that had been unleashed by nihilism gone mainstream. With all the bad examples provided by a media so deeply rooted in American lifestyle, sense of obligation to common decency waned. Families found themselves in turmoil, students became more likely to underachieve, the compromising of safety and sanity by popular behavior skyrocketed.
Rise of the internet left almost no American citizen untouched by media, so that commercial exploitation along with nihilistic expression and behavior swamped the country completely. Subcultures hijacked internet communication to harass, intimidate and destroy proponents of any belief system that stood against them. Anticommunity, antiestablishment and antiauthority activity could sabotage the communications grid to achieve its ends. Cybercrime stole the data of hundreds of millions by cracking encryption of computer networks, which could severely damage companies and citizens financially. Government was enlisted to monitor websites and correspondence for security, pushing the society towards invasive surveillance by political institutions that had already become largely unaccountable to individual opinion and inimical to activism. The culture was in danger of turning into an exploitative monster, with free speech and assembly no more than a wistful memory in the minds of the aging.
Threat of crime, as well as violent and sexualized imagery, antagonism between subcultures, and manipulation of the young all took a psychological toll. Mental health issues became more common: individuals suffered from affective disorders and negative thought patterns. This increased the incidence of ‘resentiment’ – outward projection of antisocial sentiments – so that petty conflict, hate speech, relationship chaos, divorce, domestic abuse, random violence and suicide were much more prevalent. The battle for cultural preeminence instated neurotic aggression as its choicest method for strong-arming enemies into submission, which both hardened much of the population and induced self-medicative behaviors such as drug abuse and promiscuous sex that led to severe addictions, causing ruination of many lives. In the 21st century, an undeniable decline in emotional well-being and the quality of social life was in effect. It was far from clear how a country with an economy utilizing this deterioration as its main source of financial profit and memetic leverage was going to pull itself out of the cultural quicksand it had stumbled into.
It seems the contemporary United States is seeing a glimmer of hope for finding its way out of these difficulties. The internet can do a lot of harm by aligning mob mentality against minority groups and individuals, but civility and safety of online communication might be on the upswing, and its potential to function as a vehicle for positive change is tremendous. Corporate leadership is showing signs of assuming larger responsibility for the well-being of society, on the cusp of investing gigantic sums in civic development. Nevertheless, American life seems to have been disconnected from the historical momentum behind its institutional framework, losing touch with centuries of intellectual discourse and careful reflection by geniuses throughout the world. Yet we still teach ethical philosophy in the American school system as if there is something to learn from values of the past. Is studying traditional morality and complementary reasoning a mere novelty for history buffs or those who predilect veneers of classiness, some kind of formality not quite dispensed with, or does society still have something of substance to learn from the contemplations of earlier eras?
A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below. Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.