Presents

After World War I, mass production was on a roll in the United States. Assembly-lines had been vitally used for the production of tanks, planes, ammunition and more. After the war ended, millions of personal goods were able to be produced through the same efficient assembly process. Corporations were worried about overproduction.

Up until that time, the average person bought things primarily on need. Necessity, functionality, and durability. What would happen when nearly every person had all of the things they need? How would stuff continue to be sold if most everyone felt like they had enough?

Business executives realized they would have to transform the way people think in order to keep turning a profit. Paul Mazur of Lehman Brothers declared, “we must shift America from a needs to a desires culture. People must be trained to desire—to want new things even before the old had been entirely consumed. We must shape a new mentality in America. Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.”

A new desires-based culture took shape in a short amount of time. An anonymous journalist declared in 1927 that, “a change has come over our democracy. It is called consumptionism. The American citizen’s first importance to his country is now no longer that of citizen, but that of consumer.” Thanks in large part to the propaganda techniques of Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, the masses were effectively manipulated into buying things they didn’t need. It’s more subtle than ever. From Bernays to today there has been an active effort on the part of businesses, media, and others to nudge you into fulfilling desires with stuff. This is what keeps the gears of our economy turning.

Black Friday is nearly here. It’s the perfect storm of the tradition of gift-giving during the holidays and modern consumerism. You’ve probably already seen enticing deals over the last few days. In 2015, American holiday retail sales totaled over $626 billion. Whether it’s out of nostalgia, a desire to be generous or seen as generous, a sense of obligation to do what everyone else is, getting a little something for yourself, or otherwise, we all collectively spend an absurd amount of money during the holiday season.

We have allowed too much room for wants in a world of needs. We get nudged from all directions and spend without much pushback or critique. It would be banal to point out the major, persistent human problems that could be fixed with $626 billion. But I’m sure that you can think of a handful. What if we addressed some of those problems instead of keeping the consumerist machine running?

I often wonder how many people have been sucked into maxing out credit cards or the promise of layaway because they feel like there isn’t another choice but to handover hundreds of dollars this time of the year. But after a major recession less than a decade ago, with many people struggling to find full or liveable employment, who has a bank account that can keep up with the desires culture we’re tangled up in?

This holiday season, don’t be a consumer. Be a person. Consumer is too simple and loathsome for the complexity and uniqueness of who you are. The common good is not contingent on buying everyone you know something wrapped in a box with ribbon.

I love Christmas. I will shamelessly bump Christmas music at every opportunity and make and eat all of the holiday treats I can. But this season does not have to be about stuff. What are the wants on the wish list–on yours, your children’s, your significant other’s? Can we maybe indulge fewer of those?

What are the needs around you? Everyone is going through something. Tight finances, health battles, struggling to find reasons to wake up and go out in the world. Sometimes the depth of the holiday season is not the blissful cheer of cookies and carols, but the way you can humbly and simply be there for people.

Perhaps your “gift” to others this season is just to be a better human. Is there someone who could really use you taking them out to coffee and listening for awhile? Can you cook for friends or family? Can you do someone’s chores? If there’s gotta be something wrapped up with a bow, can you figure out a thing they need and will use for awhile?

If that sounds simplistic or boring, it’s likely because we’re so saturated in the culture of consuming. Being a better person is not something you can gift-wrap. Getting people things they need is not as flashy as breaking the bank. But it shouldn’t be about the extra–about “packages, boxes, or bags”. When we do holidays right it’s about the people and the moment. The extra is truly extra, and we likely could do without. If you want to show someone this holiday season that you care about them, be sensitive to what they need and come alongside them. Presence, not presents.

The Common Good: What’s Good for People?

A couple months ago, I wrote a Part I for a series of posts about the common good. It’s here if you want to check it out.

The basic idea in Part I is that our barometer for whether or not society is working for its people is too simple. That barometer is a nebulous thing we refer to as the economy. Apparently, if the economy is doing well then all of us are doing well. If the economy isn’t great, politicians and journalists start to peek at more refined measurements like new jobs created, interest rates, unemployment, or wages.

Do any of those things really get to the heart of the common good? Do they get to the heart of your life and what’s good for you?

I don’t think so. There’s an underlying problem that we aren’t sure what’s good when we say common good. And whatever good is, we don’t seem to have it in common. The economy is a kind of lowest common denominator to be able to say something about whether life is going well or not. But it doesn’t tell us much about the complex lives of actual people.

Zoom in a bit closer, and what you’ll find is:

Some do put money, career, and purchasing power at the center. For them, the economy doing well probably does indicate life going well.

Others put most of the weight on adherence to a particular religion. Perhaps for them, if we were all devotees of their worldview then society would be doing well.

Still others are strong believers in maximizing individual freedoms and liberties. The fewer limitations that exist, the more we’ll find happiness in being ourselves–however we please to do so.

And some find their greatest sense of well-being in relationships–in strong bonds with family, friends, and romantic partners.

When we talk about the common good, there are many different ideas of what’s good–none of them held in common–so we have a gauge like the economy slide in. We should talk about that.

Despite our great differences as people, we actually are quite similar. Academics refer to a whole set of shared qualities called human universals. These are the things that are true of human beings because they’re human beings, no matter the place they’re born, the time they’re alive on the earth, their political party, what their favorite sports team is, how much money they make, who they want to have sex with, and everything else that makes us distinct from one another.

Behind the pursuit of money, career, religious perfection, civil liberties, and specific relationships, there are fundamental desires we all long to fulfill.

What are they?

Surprisingly, six basic needs make up the roots of all our other longings and pursuits. The list of six comes from a sociologist, Christian Smith, who’s studied human nature and society extensively. He compiled the work of several other academics into one universal grouping.

First, the endurance of our bodies: survival, security, and pleasure. What does that entail? Avoiding injury and illness. Feeling and being healthy and energetic. Enjoying the pleasures of our senses–music, sex, food, art, and the rest.

Second, knowledge of reality. It’s hard to function if the world doesn’t make some kind of sense to you. So we all have a map in our minds how what we believe and experience fit together. The mental map we establish allows us to navigate life better, even though none of us know or understand everything.

Third, identity coherence and affirmation. That’s a bit of academic-speak for what’s actually a straightforward concept. Each of us seeks to develop a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, and have it endure and strengthen through the course of our lives. Knowing who you are, and feeling comfortable with who you are.

Number four: exercising purposive agency. OK, clearly our friendly sociologist could have given us some more accessible terms. Exercising purposive agency just means you’re able to have at least some influence or power in the world when there are results or goals you want to achieve.

Fifth, moral affirmation. Each of us, on the whole, seeks to do what we think is right, admirable, or justifiable, based on a set of ethics that makes sense to us. We do what we can to avoid fault, blame, and guilt.

Finally, social belonging and love. None of us functions very well alone. We crave and require relationships of varying depth–to know others, and be known. To be welcomed, included, and cared for. In some relationships, to a depth and intimacy best referred to as love.

Together, these six needs form a kaleidoscope of basic humanity. To fulfill these needs is to live well, a state some have called flourishing.

Which allows us to say succinctly: A society that is successfully achieving the common good is a society in which every person, individually and as a community, is able to flourish.

If a society is set up in such a way that it systematically threatens someone’s safety, it’s not yet achieving the common good.

If it systematically marginalizes, discriminates, or oppresses certain people, it has not realized the common good to its fullest potential.

If a society denies or obscures aspects of reality–things like man-made climate change or racial injustice–it is not functioning for the common good.

There are a bajillion examples.

Point the lens of the six basic needs at anything in society, and the common good comes into focus.

Is survival, security, and pleasure preserved?

Does it enhance our knowledge of reality?

Does it promote self-identity and self-confidence?

Does it allow all people to have the influence or power they need?

Does it cultivate a sense of morality, justice, and admiration for what’s right?

Does it encourage strong relationships with family and friends, and the pursuit of love?

Make sense? Is that a way of understanding the common good we can all get behind? I hope so. There’s so much more depth, beauty, and potential than what the economy can fathom.

If you don’t think so, say why in the comments. And, as always, thanks for reading. More to come in Part 3.

 

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