Friday, May 10, 2013

Solving the World's Problems: Cognitive Dissonance

To elaborate on the example of the media:

Starting in the '80s, fueled by Republican rhetoric, it seemed that the worldview in the United States began to be dominated by two equal and completely opposite positions:

1. There is absolutely no value higher than the profit motive. Making money is the only thing that matters.

And 2. The biggest problem in our country is the erosion of traditional values (loosely defined as family, religion, a work ethic, etc.)

So just to pick one example that isn't any kind of life-or-death situation: sex and violence in the media.

This shouldn't be news to anyone, but the American mass media is a corporate, profit-making entity. It is officially not their job to do anything but get viewers in front of sets, for the purpose of selling airtime to advertisers. The reason there is no American equivalent of Masterpiece Theatre is because it wouldn't be profitable enough. End of story. Any argument about perceived "value" to individuals or societies of anything is a completely moot point.

When radio and television broadcasting began, there was a strong idea in this country that the technologies should in fact be used primarily for educational and cultural purposes. We know who won that argument. And from the start of my adult life (Ronald Reagan was elected President when I was 15 years old), up to the present day, conservative pundits have consistently claimed that business interests should be free from government interference. Thus, if you think a public utility, like the airwaves, should be used for anything but naked, greedy money-making, the response is: What are you, a Socialist? (In the '80s, that would have been Communist, but it's the same idea).

Okay, fair enough.

However, the second a tv show adds a sympathetic gay character, then suddenly the same conservatives who want business to be unfettered by government regulation start making a fuss about community standards and traditional family values, and the need for them to be policed. If a breast is partially exposed by accident for a few seconds, then suddenly we need all the regulation in the world.

At the same time, during the last 20-some years, I have seen much of what used to be viewed as common goods eroded or openly bulldozed. Just think: how often have you heard about a free public service "losing money"? Schools, parks, libraries: these are all institutions which explicitly exist to serve higher purposes, which are important for the continuity of our society and, sometimes, our existence on the planet. (My latest sidenote musing has been that, if people want to fund K-12 education as little as possible, and think it makes sense that only the rich and/or lucky can go to college, regardless of ability, merit, or inclination: who do we think is going to maintain all those nuclear power plants 40 years from now? The sons of the wealthiest of the wealthy? Do people think temps will be able to do those jobs for minimum wage? We need to fund education, and we need to do it now).

Before the last few decades, nobody ever expected a public school to be profitable. The National Park System wasn't created as a cash cow. What do people think?

At a time like the Depression, when many people literally had nothing, and even a middle-class family would have very little in the way of the luxuries or material possessions we all take for granted, libraries, schools, and parks were funded because they were recognized as valuable public services. It's not that, in our time, these things have become unneeded, or that they're losing more money. It's just that it was once understood that some things served a function for society that wasn't based on clear-cut profitability.

Another problem of perception arises from that general wealth of material possession. We live in a time when people have much higher expectations, and those cost money to fulfill. What I mean is, the average school I see today is unfathomably more lavish than any school I ever saw when I was growing up in the '70s. At this point, the cognitive dissonance has become a disconnect so striking as to seem pathological. Nothing is more important than our children! They must have every possible advantage, the best of everything that ... money can buy. But we don't think we should have to pay for any this. We certainly don't want to pay much to the people we entrust their futures to, that is, the teachers, even while we want children to have the best of everything material to help their futures.

Anyway: the reason is that the general orientation of our society has changed, so anything that isn't a money-making proposition is intrinsically devalued. Because of that, even if libraries and parks see more use by the public than they ever did, that's not relevant, and any funding is grudged, even in an economy where billions continue to be spent on videogames.

Read a few books on everyday life during the Depression and then think about the disposable income children in our country have available for videogames. I'm not, by the way, saying people shouldn't buy videogames. Not at all! This example just makes it obvious that the average American is far wealthier in terms of material possessions and the ability to spend for leisure activities than in the majority of this country's history, even despite the recent economic turmoil.

One of the root problems here is that there are many ways to judge the value of something: like its contribution to a safe, sane, stable society. It is a lot faster and easier to judge it on dollars, though, even when that's completely irrelevant.

Which brings me to "traditional family values." I could -- and actually will! Am! -- arguing that nothing will erode traditional family values faster than a belief system that the only thing in life that means anything is making money at any cost. How do you teach your children honor, integrity, courage, all that Greatest Generation stuff, if really it's all down to the bottom line: you got yours and you don't care about anyone else?

So, in almost every aspect of life, the only thing that matters is making money. But sometimes, arbitrarily, a mention of sexuality, lifestyles that some people consider "non-traditional," or exposure to different religions or philosophies throw the same people, ones who align as conservatives, into a frenzy of arguing that the government should, in fact, be doing more to protect children from "secular humanism" or "anti-Christian propaganda" or whatever the buzzword of the moment is.

There's a lot of room for improvement everywhere. Much government spending is indeed wasteful: almost any bureaucracy is rife with inefficiencies and possibility for corruption. Corruption, though, is based on profit-value; only people who put making money first are really in danger of being corrupted. But as long as the cognitive dissonance within our world is so strong, we'll never be able to deal rationally with the real things that we're concerned about.

1 comment:

SpyGirl said...

<3 <3 <3 You are ON A ROLL. I should just send this post everyone who needs to see it.