Monday, November 14, 2011

Wall Street's got nothin' on me...

It has... coins for organs?
Does anybody else out there have a guilty pleasure blog? You know, that one piece of perpetually updated internet writing that shouldn't be enjoyable, but it claws at your brain without your permission? Huffington Post's blog section is like that for me. I enjoy the news they offer, yes, but I've always held the belief that commentary and opinion on a news site should be avoided in general. But on HuffPo... well, maybe I can fudge a little bit on my conviction.

I read an article today by Leo W. Gerard entitled "Crash Tax: Wall Street Reparations." Mr. Gerard is the president of United Steelworkers, a sizable entity in the manufacturing sector. In his article, Mr. Gerard argues for a tax on financial transactions by businesses so as to mitigate the lack of fair tax structure when it comes to taxing large financial institutions. His point, of course, being that Wall Street is guilty for the financial instability that we find ourselves in currently. As the neo-communitarian hippie in the room, normally I'd agree with this sort of sentiment (FIGHT THE NAZI-FASCIST-TOTAL-LAMEWADS!). But for some reason, this particular article caused me to approach the financial bubble crisis in a different light.

I don't blame Wall Street. I don't blame Congress. I don't blame President Obama. I blame me. And I blame my friends. And I blame the majority of the American citizenry.

70% of the American economic structure is consumer-based. That means that the majority of all the money that flows into the monetary system is spent in the consumption of... well, for the most part, it's crap. Think about any effective advertising campaign. "Buy our product" doesn't sell goods. "Buy our product so that your family/sex life is pristine, you look cooler than your neighbor, and it goes fast" seems to be a more readily acceptable marketing gimmick.

The "American Dream," simply stated, is a house, a nice car, and a better collection of doohickery than one's own neighbor. Honor seems to be a main goal, or at least some degree of social recognition. With wage decreases being a constant in America since the 60s, Americans have had to find a new way to maintain their status. If wages can no longer support the consumptive behaviors necessary to maintain the "American Dream," then we turn to borrowing money. The banks are our friends! However, when it all doesn't go according to plan and we rack up massive amounts of debt, then the loaner becomes the evilest of evil.

Oh, sure there was predatory lending throughout the late 90s and early 2000s. And there was a lack of regulation within the financial sector as it rapidly sold the lives and well-being of millions of citizens in the forms of CDOs and unstable assets. And yes, the CEOs of these companies took home huge bonuses whilst they torched the totality of the American economy. But I don't blame them. Who wouldn't grow greedy with that sort of access to easy money? No, I blame the emotionally-driven consumptive mindset of the American citizenry.

Why do you want money? Is it to buy a new car? Or a new coat? I'm not judging, don't get me wrong. I'm just as guilty! But at the same time, I pray that we all become aware of our own mindset when purchasing things. Be aware of the fact that consuming just to look good or be better than others is rampant in our society as a whole. We are driven by emotions and the want to be worth something in others' eyes. Pandering to that is good advertising. I urge you to examine your purchasing patterns and be aware of the consequences of a country of over 300 million people buying products to feel better about themselves.

Part 2 to come,

Monday, November 7, 2011

Why it's worth stopping the act

It's Heaven... twice!
So... the Goffman post was a bit of a change of pace. I acknowledge that not all of my readers are quite as fascinated with cold, cynical sociologists as I am. Who wouldn't draw all sorts of interest from moral functionalist social theory? Ridiculous! But there WAS actually a point in posting it.

I can't help but think about my interactions with others. Sometimes being completely genuine is difficult because the totality of myself seems dreadfully boring. We each have personal reputations to maintain. Or to build. Or to hope to embody someday. And there's more to our social wants than just a reputation. We want to be loved dearly by others, to know that we are of worth in others' eyes.

To be called for coffee. That's what we want at our deepest level. Maybe not coffee, but to be called for something. It's nice to call others, of course, because any opportunity to share in a friend's company is a beautiful thing. But sometimes a person gets fed up with calling. Maybe he/she wants to be called and thought of. All of us share a desire to be worth another person's thought. That is the deepest need that God has instilled within each and every one of us as communal beings.

So I act. I wear a facade worthy of Shakespearian recognition so as to impress others, using demeanor rituals (BAM! Score one for Goffman!) to try to show how worthy I am of attention. If I am in a crowd of fellow outdoorsmen/women, I loudly proclaim my achievements and latest pieces of outdoor finery/junk. Or in the presence of musicians, you'd think I was a Grammy winner, with my ceaseless boasting and putting down of others' music. But there is one thing that I am learning, with a large degree of difficulty: Trying to show my own worthiness does nothing for my desire for the love of others.

It's in the other type of ritual Goffman postulated, the deference ritual, that we come to satisfy the need for others' respect and care. To review, deference rituals are acts in which we exhibit our respect (or lack thereof) for another person. In respecting others, in loving others, in being willing to sacrifice without expectation of payment, that is where we find the environment in which we can drop the act. If you want others to include you, call them first. And keep doing it. In giving your time, ear, and love to others, you will in turn be loved, even if it takes a long time to feel the results.

I can't say I've mastered this. In reality, I struggle to remember this in my daily interactions. In fact, I am in a near 100% state of not remembering it every single day. And so I pass on to you the opportunity to think about your own personal interactions. Take a peek at my post on Goffman. If reading this post first helps you make sense of it, then feel free to utilize it. But it is worth questioning and praying about how we treat others. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," is a sequential process: If you want the love of others, do unto them first. The rest will take care of itself.

Turning a cynic into a "rock on, man!"

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Society is a REALLY huge play

Goffman is not amused...
I've been up to some fascinating research lately on morality, ritual, and socialization in religion. One of my favorite sociologists, Erving Goffman, has some remarkably original insights into behavior and how different people are taught to react to situations. I would kind of dig sharing some of that with you so that each of you can maybe approach situations with new mindsets.

To Goffman, mankind is in a constant state of performance. This idea, called the Dramaturgical Analogy, presents people in a new light, namely to portray them in the guise of an actor. A good actor must be flexible (like Sean Connery or William Shatner... right?) to ever succeed in the world of acting. Goffman sees all people, or at least the ones who are socially competent, as multifaceted actors. Imagine! How would people react if you treated complete strangers as you do your spouse? Creepy, right? That, according to Goffman, is one of many reasons that each person needs multiple versions of themselves that they portray to others.

So then are we individuals, with a core concept of who we are? Are people truly independent and different from each other? According to Goffman, we crave social acceptance more than anything else. To gain acceptance, we become as actors and fulfill multiple roles. All actors are each made up of "selves," or instantly accessible personalities. Why plural? Because Goffman sees people as constantly changing these selves, depending on situations. Previous experience with a situation, mass media, or family tell us how to deal with a given scenario, and thus we have multiple reaction indoctrinated into us from multiple sources. When something happens, with lightning speed, we react in a way that is familiar to us. By doing this, we manipulate the outcome of an event. An example would be if a total stranger bumped into you on the street and proceeded to blast a juicy loogie all over your face. Gross! But why is it gross? Simply put, because we've been told, through other people or media, that loogies are gross! So your response, of utter disgust, is a self that has been developed out of previous examples as portrayed in mass media or culture.

In purposefully trying to manipulate a situation to our benefit, we create a new self that is separate from the self that we use elsewhere. When we have to purposefully maintain a self, we are (to use another stage analogy) in the Front. The Front are the environments that we get ourselves into that require us to maintain a self that is separate from the self in the Backstage, or environment where we are most comfortable, such as at home. Because culture as a whole teaches most people the same way to react to most situations, responses go from being completely instinctual to purposeful, structured ritual. Society is basically a fancy word for ritualized responses to events in which we are in constant process of creating and changing between multiple selves in the Front.

The two kinds of ritualized social interaction that we contribute to are demeanor rituals and deference rituals. Demeanor rituals are the things we do to show others that we are worthy of their attention or respect. Deference rituals are the ways in which we show our respect (or lack thereof) for another person. By mastering a balance between these two types of ritualized interactions, one can effectively master one's social environment. The socialization, or influence of our upbringing and past experiences,  of how we behave in the Front are a direct influence on the level of demeanor and deference that we show to others in a social situation. Therefore, we can see that most socially acceptable people are those that have taken the programmed responses that they have become familiar with and have learned to apply those in proper amounts of demeanor and deference behaviors with other people.

This fascinates me to no end! So if this isn't your bag, sorry about that. But I do urge you to start looking at your interactions with honesty. Are we always acting? Is there really an "I" when I think of myself? It's interesting introspection, for sure. I, for one, kind of dig the idea of not being completely socially acceptable :) Christ kind of turns that on its head. Maybe I'm just crazy!

Eluding cynicism... barely,