Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Editorial: Materialism with Modern Culture

One of my favorite actors is Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I find his underwhelming style to be fantastically intriguing. From one of his earliest appearances in ’10 Things I Hate About You’ to ‘Inception’ in 2010, he has only bettered himself in the realm of acting. However, this is article isn’t about Mr. Gordon-Levitt. Its about a specific passage from one of my favorite of his films, called ‘(500) Days of Summer’. In ‘(500) Days’, he works as a greeting card writer while trying to woo a new employee. Predictably, the film is about the evolution of the main character and the ideology of love. One particular scene stands out:

Tom [speaking about greeting cards]: This is lies. We are liars. Think about it. Why do people buy cards? It's not because they want to say how they feel. People buy cards because they can't say how they feel or are afraid to. And we provide the service that lets them off the hook. You know what? I say to hell with it. Let's level with America. Or at least let them speak for themselves. Right?

It may seem like an innocuous bit of dialogue, but to me it really highlights one of the biggest problems of American culture, which is our inability to communicate. We spend so much money trying to buy our way out of mistakes that we forget how much damage that we can do. By buying our way out of things so easily, we assume that the consequences aren’t that bad, and so when those issues come to a head, we have no clue how to deal with them. I know it seems like thats a gross over exaggeration, but look at almost any movie that involves a wife being mad at her husband. He fixes it with flowers and maybe some chocolate or a card. Invariably, he says I love you, but does not explain himself nor really understand the consequences.

Perhaps you don’t see this as a problem. I mean, as long as they’re happy, then who cares, right? If that is true, then stop reading at the end of this sentence, because what I say next might just shatter that glass dream world you seem to reside in. What I have to say is that people are not happy when issues aren’t resolved unless they are a) soulless, or b) clinically retarded, and in either case its best just to be nice to them and leave them in the hands of more gracious caregivers. The materialistic fantasy that we live in (where we value money and power more than personality and intellect) is beginning to degrade society. I’m not saying materialism is a new problem; far from it, actually, considering that the exorbitantly rich and stupid (notice I said AND stupid) have been around for centuries. But its only been the last two decades or so that we really began to advance at a rate that we were not wholly prepared for, at least as far as where society is concerned. We advanced to a fully connected society in as little as fifteen years, while still retaining cultural aspects that will take thirty to fifty years to buff out. Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet, the terrible aspects of that culture (read: insufferable douchebags) have a voice so loud that it can’t be ignored. Facebook gangsters abound where ever you go on the internet, and their vile ideology is still being spread. On the flip side, the good, accepting people also have a voice, and are fighting back against traditionalist bullshit just as loudly.

Materialism isn’t all bad. Its okay to have nice things and buy more nice things. The problem comes when you value a Ferrari over gay rights, or Chanel over the environment. When a person takes ten minutes to sign up for a car raffle drawing but won’t take thirty seconds to sign a petition for civil liberties, then it is a problem. Don’t mistake my distaste for indifference for my disgust at having nice clothes and a house. Those things are fine, but they have to be earned and they above all have to be kept in perspective.

We all could do a better job at that, don’t you think?


  1. Your final point is the one that totally kills this--Materialism IS bad, and there is no good to be found in it. There's a difference between having things, and materialism.

    Materialism is the end result of capitalist ideology being so widespread and pervasive within American culture (and most cultures, honestly). The issue here is that materialism helps to reinforce the idea that buying and spending, that owning things, makes one superior to those who do not own those similar things. Materialism serves as the reason why Americans cannot communicate, why they cannot empathize, why they seem so widely spread as awful, arrogant people. Materialism reinforces social stratification, and it does so by offering 'positive' reinforcement for doing so.

    Even the idea that 'nice things need to be earned' still means people would act a certain way only as a way to achieve a means to an end--true Altruism, the more or less complete antithesis to Materialism, is impossible to comprehend because human culture revolves too heavily upon who "has" and who "does not" to determine worth and value. It is the reason a wealthy billionaire can say, "I own a 4,000 acre estate worth 1 billion, making me superior to a millionaire who only has a house worth 3 million, better than a successful businessman with a 2 story house, better still than a middle income family with 3 bedrooms and 1 bathroom, superior to the poor family living in a single room apartment, and vastly superior to the poor man living in an abandoned bus terminal." Materialism breeds the idea that to be successful, to be happy, one needs to own things, and owning things is the only way to achieve success. It is the reason people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are scoffed at for giving away most of their fortune, because it makes them suddenly appear "less" for giving away what puts them "on top." It's the reason that the masses are more interested in what "celebrity" is buying what, or marrying who in what fantastic location, than they are about the poor, hungry, or needy. It's why more people vote in American Idol than in Presidential elections. A recent study concluded that for 16 billion dollars, the world's food sanitation problems could be solved, vastly ending many cases of malnutrition. That same study also found that 16 billion dollars is the amount American and European people spend on perfumes every year.

    Materialism is bad. There is no defense for it--the fact that you're trying to backpedal at the last paragraph is because you're still stuck in the ideology that it's somehow beneficial, but you need to separate the idea that "having things" is the same as materialism.

  2. I'm not backpedaling. Materialism isn't a good thing in many respects. But many times things like medicine have advanced solely for the pursuit of profit. While the means of getting there are horrific, if the benefits out weigh them, I can't really complain. Yes, deep down, that is hypocritical and ideologically separate from what I was preaching. But its not that black and white. A person who does good things for bad reasons has more beneficial impact than a person who does nothing.

  3. A person who does good things for bad reasons actually does very little.


    This is a pretty good realization of that fact; many people "support" things because they get something out of it, and instead of fixing the issue they just perpetuate it for a longer period of time with no solution.

    As for medicine for profit, the idea sounds nice, but those who pursue the cure for something out of the goal of getting money back from it rarely make it available to the people who need it the most. For example:


    In all, a person who does nothing does, in reality, about the same as a person who does "something," in the sense that they occasionally toss a can of food in a bin while people watch or donate because they get a free wristband. The problems they are "doing good for" aren't fixed, they're just prolonged, and Materialism plays a key point in that prolonging.

    The solution is, like Theoretical Communism, nearly impossible to achieve, because humans are by nature greedy and jealous, because they've never known a world without those things, with Materialism being reinforced everywhere from pop culture, high culture, economics, politics, and religion. Ideology being as inescapable as it is requires more impetus than hoping that people doing things for the wrong reasons will somehow right the world in the end.

    The idea of Materialism itself cannot result in a "greater good," because the fluke occurrences that come out of it are far outweighed by the damages they've caused. One key part I didn't mention is that there is 'Moral' Materialism, linked to the earlier mentioning of people who only donate or "do good" when others are watching, because it makes them appear morally superior (for the moment). All of that boils down to the systematic nature of Capitalism and Materialism, at heart, and the only way to fix the problem is to kill the beast, not to try and coax it to "do good things."

    Whether that's actually possible or not is a different debate.

  4. A child is offered money to do charity work feeding the homeless. I don't understand how you can say that isn't a win-win situation. Clearly, the child is motivated by profit, but still does good things.

    I agree that materialism is bad in many ways, but the good that it does cannot be ignored. Nothing is all bad, and nothing is all good. Materialism is a prime example of that.

    I'm not arguing for materialism, because at a core level I find it reprehensible. However, I am more than willing to accept the fact that it can do good.

    Profit is a strong motivator. Ideologically, it cannot hold a candle to altruism. But neither can capitalism to communism. Ideology rarely translates perfectly to reality. The problem with ideological differences is that they are often black and white and exclude the shades of gray.

  5. Actually, is isn't a win-win, which is what makes it bad. The child is taught only to do something "good" for the sake of making money. Their behavior is then driven to see the homeless they feed as items that produce money, objectifying them as dollar signs instead of people; once the money stops being enough, or a more profitable venture is presented for less effort, the child will leave.

    All the child actually learns is that good things should only be done when something can be gotten out of it, and doesn't learn to do good things because it is the right thing to do. Instead of learning that feeding homeless people helps the issue, they just learn instead that doing this earns them a few dollars.

    Unfortunately, the good done by materialism can be ignored because it never outweighs the bad it causes; while good things have happened, and that is fantastic, the good that could be accomplished otherwise is dramatically reduced.

    Unfortunately, you're correct in that ideology rarely translates as easily to the real world, because humans are flawed creatures, and hundreds of thousands of years of culture have established walls that are nigh impossible to reduce.