A few days ago, I wrote about the disturbing way that contempt is seeping into every banal aspect of our lives (you can read the post here). This is so important, and so toxic. The more I think about the burgeoning of contempt in our culture, the more I know that this is not an accident. We live in a society that is manufacturing contempt, both deliberately and as a by-product of the way we live today.
Our stuff is built to be discarded. Look at what you’re wearing right now. How much of it was purchased in the last year? The last 2 years? How about the last 10? How old is your computer? Your TV? Your furniture? Your toaster, for God’s sake? We buy something and expect it to rapidly break or become obsolete. We even want it to break, so we can buy a new one as soon as possible. The rush of buying something new is addictive, and the fact that our stuff wears out so quickly compounds the addiction.
Our things are literally built to be treated with contempt. Our design (with a few notable exceptions) is not focused on beauty or purpose but on building commodities that can be produced cheaply, break quickly, and are, unfortunately, worthy of the contempt with which we treat them.
Our news encourages us to fear and distrust one another. I watched a few minutes of CNN at the gym one day and tried to count the number of times I saw the words “death”, “kill”, and “terrorist” appear in the ticker. I lost track after 20 seconds. So I tried to count the number of non-negative headlines I saw instead. In 2 minutes, I saw one headline that was not overtly negative. One. It was about oil reserves in Iraq.
Our news, like our stuff, is designed not to nourish but to be cheap, consumable and addictive. It flatters our ignorance, validates our fear, shuts down our curiosity and titillates our basest emotions. In so doing, it keeps us hooked on toxic (mis)information, convinced that everyone is out to get us. By shutting down our sense of inquiry and commoditizing information into easily consumable sound bytes, our news is literally and deliberately manufacturing contempt.
Our communities are self-centered and isolating. In the United States, we mistakenly equate freedom with privately owning things, and our communities reflect this in a very toxic way. We have too many big houses and cars, too few parks and walkable neighborhoods. We spend our money on things, not experiences. We allow, indeedwelcome, big box stores and chain restaurants to invade our neighborhoods, destroying local businesses.
In short, we’ve commoditized not only our consumption and our news, but our very communities! A suburb in Kansas looks the same as one in New Jersey. Small towns in Oregon have the exact same stores and restaurants as small towns in Florida. These kinds of communities breed economic decline, undermine local diversity, stifle creativity and alienate us from one another. The alienation of modern life doesn’t, in itself, breed contempt, but it certainly facilitates it by breaking down our sense of community and the greater good.
I hope it’s obvious that commoditization is the common thread throughout this post. We have commoditized practically everything in this society, thus creating a culture in which contempt is easily manufactured, amplified and manipulated. This contempt keeps us materialistic, fearful and alienated. Contempt fills us so that we have no room for anything else. Most importantly, it blinds us to the idea that we can do better.
We can do better. We can work toward a future where we create things that are valuable and meaningful, where we embrace the world and build vibrant, healthy places to live and work.
Consumerism, commodities and contempt won’t get us there. Compassion, creativity and community will.