I must admit that this series has become predictably reactive in responding to health journalists. Every so often, there’s a new ‘crisis’ in the media. And, each time, I offer the same critique: We cannot call those things crises which are not new nor sudden but instead actively reproduced by the organization of our society.
English Professor Lauren Berlant puts this well, claiming that “this deployment of crisis is often … a re-definitional tactic” to make unusual the pain of people who’ve been “wearing out in the space of ordinariness.”
Unfortunately, many of these past crises — loneliness, depression, obesity, etc. — are only getting more ordinary. It would appear that the Newsweek empathy of a crisis can’t undo long-term, normalized suffering.
In the same vein, my tackling these issues piecewise seems futile. Yet, it doesn’t have to. They’re all intricately connected.
Two weeks ago, I noted that we avoid lasting action against socially-mediated suffering “because it requires a hard look at how we’re living.” The necessary implication is that, given their rise, something has changed about how we’re living.
Truly, I believe we’ve lost everyday social justice. That is, an embodied and active commitment to helping others.
This is a kind of social justice that doesn’t wait for a crisis nor necessarily culminate in rallies. But it’s just as righteous. The value of remedying chronic, lifelong suffering in other people is immeasurable.
And yet I am forced to wonder, where is that justice? We seem, at present, to be afflicted by a systemic apathy. Granted, some negligence towards other human beings is inevitable; we’re not perfect. However, it is by no means inevitable that the obesity rate stands at 33%, the anxiety and depression rate at 20% for college students and that loneliness afflicts people like a pervasive infectious disease.
So, something has changed our lifestyles, sapped us of our altruistic impulse. I’ll offer a usual suspect: capitalism.
Now, that word polarizes like none other. I must clarify that I am not against capitalism itself. Rather, I argue that its excess is a poor cultural influence. I ask: What does it say about our world that 8 men own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the global population? What does it say about our country that half of them live here?
No answer is good. No doubt, some will claim these men are simply valued for their ideas. But are they? Our valuation could easily stop at well-off and things would be fine; the kings’ remaining mounds of gold are not what keep society running.
Rather, they are a validating factor for capitalism’s claim that humans are infinitely greedy. In the shadow of this abhorrent inequality, the bar for all goals is set to be like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. And then people really, truly chase that. But, this is a fashioned, plastic dream which is by no means natural.
That said, to understand the fuller impact of this inequality, we must return to its roots. There have always been ultra-rich people, but the grade of inequality has never been quite so steep. Indeed, now even the top 5% is extremely rich compared to the rest.
This is a recent phenomenon. The divide really began to widen in the late 1970s, when wages stagnated for everyone but the wealthy. Oppositely, their wealth increased rapidly and continues to do so.
There’s a lot to be said about this trend. In fact, there was a whole election centered around it only two years ago. What I want to point out is its structural implications.
It should be clear that just because the bottom lines were stable does not mean things remained the same. Rather, it takes a ruthless, well-organized social machinery to consistently siphon almost all new money away from the public. More importantly, it takes an intensely self-validating corporate culture to normalize it.
That culture devalues altruistic interaction, regardless of its experiential value. As an example, domestic work is now severely under-appreciated. In the US, there is no guaranteed maternity or paternity leave. Evidently, the work of enriching an entire lifetime of human experience, is worthless.
Even in countries where there is paid leave, non-wage labor, like caring for children, is still perceived as less valuable. This suggests that the mere hegemony of corporatism discourages non-quantifiable altruistic work.
In paid domains, too, progress is being increasingly reduced to metrics. This tactic attempts (some say unsuccessfully) to maximize efficiency at the cost of worker individuality and creative opportunity.
Viewed through the critical lens of gross inequality, this makes sense. The maintenance of the fiscal divide requires workers to conform to not only mundane but also lethally ‘productive’ positions. Such a system leaves little faith in, let alone energy for, empathy.
One could take any number of examples. Yet, the most effective part of this system is the fear it incites and manipulates. No one wants to think themselves a failure, and there are many ways to be a failure in the current corporate climate.
Indeed, we seem bent on assessing our self-worth in hierarchical terms. As such, the distinction between self-promotion and ego-preservation has all but disappeared. Individual success is artificially made the key to well-being, perhaps to replace a fractured sense of common belonging.
But of course, success isn’t measured in kindness. Its units are hours, promotions, acceptance letters, and speeches. Well-defined things to quantify our personal value. Note what’s not among them: things like being a confidant, tutoring the neighbor’s kids (for free) or spending time with the lonely instead of ‘networking.’
Yet, as the cliche goes, success is relative. Elizabeth Povinelli’s analysis in Economies of Abandonment puts this a little more elegantly: “Failure is not an ideal form … Failure is instead a socially mediated term for assessing the social world.” Fortunately, we can redefine the objectives of our social world.
It starts with individual lifestyles. The issues described in this series are, no doubt, messy and painful. But, you can make an immense difference in them and thus someone’s life.
Start small. Check in with a sullen face, ask friends about their lifestyle goals. Spend your valuable time establishing warm, empathic rapport, even with mere acquaintances. This opens doors that can help fight or prevent chronic suffering.
Still, the prevention of any chronic issue requires lifestyle changes. We know of those which ameliorate social suffering, but they often require external support. In solidarity, we can choose a lifestyle which seeks social support and justice.
Finally, proactive outreach is key. The stigma of failure causes so many not to ask for help. For one, I cannot stand that in my country depression is so often thought to be deserved. But, I hate more that those suffering come to believe that and so things go unchanged.
So, I will never buy into the individualistic myth that socially ameliorable suffering is mere failure. Instead, I choose to believe it is avoidable. In fact, that it’s unjust.
Contact Noah Louis-Ferdinand at nlouisfe ‘at’ stanford.edu.