V. The Truths We Live: Social Meanings and Self-Progress
How our particular form of individualism is reinforced in a way that turns us against our own values and interests
What does it mean for progress to be: self-oriented, as opposed to society-oriented, Earth-oriented, Life-oriented? These are some of the different scales on which the meaning of our actions can be judged.
Part 1: Social Meanings vs Effect-based meanings.
Social Meanings are easier to respond to. If society validates you, you are right.
Effect-based meanings are harder to perceive because we only see/feel what affects us.
When thinking of meaning in terms of effects, it should be rather simple, if a bomb is dropped and kills many people, its effect was what it meant.
Social meanings are much more slippery, because, for the same action and effect, the meaning can shift depending on how it would reflect on the individual/group.
How Self-Progress can contradict progress on higher scales, of society or environment for instance, is that the criteria for what is good and productive is not consistent as in effect-based meanings. Instead, killing can be good, lying can be good, truth can be bad, based on where the line of identity is drawn in a given moment, or ultimately, what is the criteria for progress.
Our society operates on a very simple protocol. If you do something bad, you are defined on a lower scale. For instance, if someone cuts you off in traffic, they “are”: a jerk, an asshole, an idiot. Social Meanings provide a loophole in this routine by changing the meaning of an action that would otherwise be bad, so that the action is not bad, therefore alleviating any guilt of the doer. The point of the following is not to be more consistent in labelling people, but rather to understand how being unconsciously tethered to the inconsistent values of one’s society can easily put us in conflict with our own expressed values.
Ex 1.(The Phenomenon) Abusing animals is illegal, considered a shameful act that is socially stigmatized.
Animal abuse in industrial agriculture, which is the basis for why some people don’t eat animal products, is however, through social meanings, acceptable. Benefiting from animal abuse(eating) is good, whereas not eating such animals earns negative attention. Calling attention to the problems of abuse is socially punished, and laws have even been passed to prevent people taking pictures to show what is taking place.
People in the majority will even boast, and taunt someone who abstains that they are eating bacon for instance. Without getting into who does what and how often, just calling attention to this disparity in what is the same action, in both cases, one shameful one worth bragging and being proud about, you see how societal reinforcement changes the meanings of actions that have the same effects.
Ex 2.(Responses) U.S. bombings of civilian populations during WW2 vs. “Terrorism”
In one case, hundreds of thousands of civilians of a rival power are targeted to induce terror and intimidate the other side to back down. In the other, an individual or individuals target civilians of an infinitely more powerful foe that cannot be beaten in a military sense, according to their foe, to induce terror out of hate of freedom.
Both actions have a similar effect, though on vastly different scales. One is seen as good, the other is seen as bad. In both cases, the superpower, the majority, defines what the action meant. In the second case, looking at 9/11/2001, a certain number of people caused an attack that killed over 2,000 people. In response a nation that had nothing to do with the attack but contains people of the same “type” was attacked. Over 400,000 civilians died and the nation’s infrastructure was destroyed.
At the time, it was seen as un-American or treasonous to question the invasion.
These are just examples of the fluidity and convenience of Social Meanings. In adhering to convenient definitions of who is right, who is wrong, looking specifically at 9-11 and Iraq, something far worse has developed. To put it simply, when you believe you are doing something good that has negative consequences to other people and there is a backlash, both sides believing they are right creates a war.
The particular danger here is that we absorb Social Meanings passively, so our sense of what and who is right is determined without any critical thinking on our part. Our society’s lack of awareness of its own layers of conditioning presents an enduring danger to us.
The connection to Self Progress is that progress is not something that hinges on the effect of what we do or don’t do, along the way, but is something that depends on prevailing Societal Meanings which are very often convenient, contradictory, and subject to backlash that seems to come from nowhere.
Part 2: What it means to progress
Wealth is the principle way in which Progress is defined in our society; to the extent that the ways in which one becomes wealthy may only be scrutinized in passing. It is the end that ultimately justifies everything that comes before.
Even in a time when people with the top 1% of incomes are more the subject of scrutiny and scorn than in many previous eras, wealth or the appearance of wealth is incentivized on multiple levels, anyways.
We are not a collectivist society that looks to meet the needs of the group. Rather we are oriented toward non-human entities gaining money with which to perpetuate “themselves”. Education and health costs, and stagnating wages relative to profits have made failures, as well as objectives other than pursuing maximum wealth, relatively more punishing.
Being wealthy makes one’s chances of successfully navigating entanglements in the legal system much better. Able to afford a legal strategy of attrition, a wealthy citizen can tip the scales of “justice” in their favor by bleeding the opposition dry of resources.
In times of economic insecurity, wealth makes finding a mate, independent of looks or personality, far easier. As middle class incomes become more precarious, the culture will naturally become more intoxicated by images of financial transcendence.
Our incentive structure funnels the most capable people towards the highest earning positions, and profit earned, not well-being created, is the metric by which performance is judged. Because negative impacts to other people who don’t benefit from an enterprise, are not part of what companies are expected to account for, improving one’s immediate circumstances can often meaning impinging on others’.
Our society’s sense of selfishness and materialism, as the highest expressions of rationality are mainstream economic ideas that have to an extent created the conditions they describe as natural laws. The way we want to see ourselves and be seen is strictly attached to prevailing social meanings. Our identity is not something innate within us, but rather an image we are constantly referencing with what society expects.
We are raised, seamlessly absorbing certain priorities and lack the ability to recognize both the short and long term costs of those priorities being both economically and socially entrenched.
The narrow self-focused definition of progress means we are getting positive feedback from society, while meanwhile being relatively insulated from the negative feedback our activities are precipitating in the greater context (think Wall-Street banker up to the point of the housing market collapse).
Ultimately we can only live the best way we are able. The point is that we often see bad things that happen as coming from somewhere else and until we develop the capacity as a culture to see through our society’s symbols for good and bad, meaning will continue to turn independently of the effects of actions and we will continue to channel our energies in ways inconsistent with our professed values, believing all the while that we are right, and being surprised and outraged as the world responds.