I can’t type much because the kids need attention, but I wanted to post something before life’s distractions pull me away again.
I’ve heard so much over the past decade or so about society’s ills stemming from the ease of electronic communication. I’m neither supporting nor denying the claims of things like text speak dumbing down our communication; partly because it’s more complicated an issue than I could address, and partly because I don’t have much first hand experience with the affected generation. I do, however, have some opinions about the connectivity of the world in general, and how it relates to the psyche of an individual and of society.
We live in an age where we can very easily share information, and communicate (on some level) with multitudes of people. We can effortlessly obtain items from all over the world; in fact, we often have no concept of the origins of most of our material possessions. Who made your broom, your car, your shirt, your socks, your underwear, your pencil, your lamp, your curtains, or the multitude of other items you use on a regular basis? How were these items made, what kind of conditions do the workers in the factory face, what’s the environmental impact of these things, and how long should they last before you’ll need to discard them and purchase replacements? I can’t answer these questions about most of the tangible products in my life. That’s not something I think I should feel guilty about, but it does raise some concerns. I’m not going to spend time detailing the planned obsolescence of products so prevalent in our global society; that’s rather a given in this age. I’m also not suggesting a radical shift to using mostly handmade things; machines and assembly lines make production efficient, and tend to raise the standard of living for many. I do believe, however, that living in a disposable culture has considerable effects on us.
Our valuation of items tends to decline when we live in such a culture. Rather than getting derailed by outlining the details here, I’ll post a great link here to an illustrated story I remember watching a few years ago: http://www.storyofstuff.org/movies-all/story-of-stuff/ Stuff costs more than what we pay for it at the store… but we become numbed to the real price and impact.
Our valuation of people and relationships seems to have experienced a similar decline. We no longer spend so much time in face to face conversations, where we get immediate nonverbal feedback from each other, sharing emotional exchanges that can’t translate so easily into texts or tweets. This NPR interview with Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and the founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology andSelf, brings up some of the concerns about emotional impacts of our changing methods of communication: http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=163098594 Turkle states in the interview that as we move away from face to face communication, we lose “the skills that we get from talking to each other face-to-face, which are skills of negotiation, of reading each other’s emotion, of having to face the complexity of confrontation, of dealing with complex emotion, of dealing with confrontation.” Distant types of communication allow us to be cruel with little thought; sure, we can rationally conclude that our harsh comments will likely cause pain in another human being, but because it’s not immediately in front of us, the concept of our words being harmful becomes more abstract and therefore easier to ignore. We also miss out on many good and subtle traits about people, things that could enrich our understanding and compassion for each other.
I believe that this separation of our words from emotional consequences, when combined with societal institutions which prioritize the preservation of a system far above the needs of the individuals, leads to a pathological indifference and lack of empathy for others on a massive scale. Once society becomes sociopathic, these traits are seen as normal and therefore healthy, making it more difficult for many to spot any problem at all. Public schooling is one such institution, of course (although others exist as well), and John Taylor Gatto has done excellent research on the history and impact of modern schooling. http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/chapters/15e.htm This chapter of his book The Underground History of American Education mentions some of the unhealthy tendencies that naturally result from institutions being run in a certain way, and therefore become the social norm.
Mental illness in general is still stigmatized on the news and misunderstood by most. Even as the neurodiversity movement has gained momentum, disparity between two “sides” of those who support it and those who discount the concept has increased. I would personally rather it be considered a concept than a rallying cry. Differences in the human brain are not starkly black and white, and my idealistic side would have me believe that a natural spectrum of human diversity should be a widely accepted given. I don’t think that deviation from a statistical norm should be the basis for labeling a pathology, although I do acknowledge some of the confusion may lie in different definitions for the word (one of which refers to variation from normal, rather than from a healthy or functional state). Labeling a difference a pathology, at least in my mind, should be based solely on its hindrance, not on statistical averages. A widespread trait held by the majority of a population can, in fact, be unhealthy, harmful, and therefore pathological in my book. In those specific cases, deviation from the norm would be considered healthy (in cases where the deviation led to more functionality and more health).
We all have different experiences and viewpoints. Our differences in talents and observations are valuable when we share them with others, and learn from theirs in turn. Even those who have a statistical variation that is and should be considered a mental illness (based on functionality) have valuable insight to offer. If we could interact with everyone on a more personal and emotionally respectful level, our diversity would become a stronger bond that enriches our world, rather than a divisive obstacle that hampers understanding and kindness. We could, in that same vein, become more aware of the products we buy and use, and of the diverse background of the origins of our stuff - not to feel bad about what we or someone else purchases, not to be overwhelmed with the massive impact of our lifestyle, but to simply have a better understanding of how our actions and our decisions affect the whole world.
It can be difficult to internalize the things we can’t see. That’s why I believe connection and awareness are so crucial if we’re concerned about any of “society’s ills.” The truth of the matter is that we do have an effect on each other and on the environment, no matter how blind we might be to the impact. A small impulse that we act on and immediately forget could drive another individual to tears, fund the killing of a single endangered animal, or pollute a village water supply. A similar impulse could also bring hope, save a life, or increase economic opportunity. We’ve all got a lot of stuff going on in our lives, and it’s not realistic to overwhelm ourselves with information on the effects of every one of our actions, words, and purchases. We can start somewhere, though. We can get to know an acquaintance a little more personally, smile and look a cashier in the eye, and give some supposed jerk the benefit of the doubt. We can find out where one of our items comes from, maybe learn how something is made, and even consider buying a sturdier, more sustainable version the next time something breaks and needs to be replaced. We could even consider trying to make something ourselves… not to save money (because it likely won’t, at least at first), but because it increases our connection - to the things we touch, to other people (whether in the maker community or those for whom we make an item), and to the world around us.
I’m trying hard not to quote John Donne or Leo Tolstoy here, but I want to emphasize how intrinsically we’re all connected to each other and to the earth. We can do little things to counteract the outside forces that harm those connections, and our example can encourage others to do the same. Becoming more aware and respectful of our connections leads to a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life for each of us.