Self-interest isn’t always the best contributor to the public good

Our society certainly has an “us” and a “them.” Ever has it been so, but perhaps never as openly divisive as we’re seeing today, in large part due to technology that makes rifts more visible. Just as nationalism and patriotism  have been debased beyond what those words meant in the war years – the t

Last updated on May 03, 23

Posted on Apr 21, 22

4 min read

Our society certainly has an “us” and a “them.” Ever has it been so, but perhaps never as openly divisive as we’re seeing today, in large part due to technology that makes rifts more visible.

Just as nationalism and patriotism  have been debased beyond what those words meant in the war years – the time of the Greatest Generation – tribalism has become increasingly prevalent in our societal divisions.

Where nationalism could once be seen as a collective “us,” it’s now more closely associated with the demonizing of “them,” such as in cases of ethnic groups – white nationalism being a prime example just now.

Patriotism was long ago adopted by militaristic scoundrels, used by the worst kinds of authoritarians to stifle dissent – Vladimir Putin’s Russia and his attack on Ukraine spring to mind.

Tribalism has become more complicated in a digital world where we can go beyond geographic boundaries to identify with groups from the ordinary – cat fanciers, for instance – to the worst kind of racism and bigotry.

If as individuals we feel we have more in common with likeminded people and choose to silo ourselves with our preferred groups, that’s increasingly manageable in a depersonalized world. That becomes a problem when we start tuning out others who aren’t “us” in favour of maintaining our own version of reality.

That doesn’t require the extremes of, say, neo-Nazis to be a problem, however.

Our focus on self – an issue that goes beyond traditional notions of individualism – has seen us become one more intent on self-esteem and self-image over a collectivist sense of ourselves as part of a societal whole.

This manifests in forms as commonplace as endless selfies – narcissism being normalized – to movements that look to stifle debate in the name of protecting snowflakes from becoming butthurt by world views that don’t match their own, in the parlance of such discussions. At the extremes, our sense of self and efforts to craft our own reality lead to the villainization of others – the “them” in the equation.

That kind of binary thinking is dangerous, but perhaps an inevitable result of what began with the Boomers of the Me Generation – though an icon of 1960s, JFK’s message of “Ask not what your country can do for you …” was already something of an anachronism rolling into the next decade.

The look-at-me aspect of social media is blamed largely on the millennial generation (those born roughly between 1980 and 2000), but the technology has in many ways simply indulged the indulgence that goes back to the Baby Boomers.

That group wrote the book on self-indulgence, though it was more along the lines of cultural shifts. That was the offshoot of the 1960s and its movements, including advances in civil rights, women’s liberation, the sexual revolution and anti-war protests. In the following decade came more focus on self-actualization and the self-help movement it spawned, leading to a departure from the previous generations’ loyalty to institutions such as the church and government.

In the course of a couple of generations, we’ve undone centuries of efforts to create a society based on the common good. Much of the we’re-all-in-this-together ideals that came out of the Great Depression and the Second World War, for instance, has been replaced by relentless individualism.

Rapid urbanization whereby we no longer rely on family, friends and the broader community – indeed, we may not even know our neighbours – makes us forget just how interdependent we really are. A consumer-based society, pushed by marketing, focuses on individual pleasure. This comes at a cost to the collective ‘us,’ especially when it discussing matters of financing the common good: taxes are seen as taking money away from ‘my’ enjoyment. Increasingly, we’re encouraged to give rein to our natural tendency to look after number one. Couple that with an individual’s capacity to seek immediate gratification, and long-term planning for our collective future becomes even more difficult.

Our self-absorption and distance from traditional forms of community – nationalism in the shared values sense – makes it easier for others to use nationalism in the ethnic or racial form as a way to gain power and influence. It’s what’s happening with the massively dysfunctional U.S. system, but also the formula at play in Russia, China, Hungary and Poland, among other countries with authoritarian/neo-fascist movements.

The worst-of-humanity kind of nationalism gave us both the First World War and the second. It’s the kind that’s creeping into politics, as a certain base kind of populace is courted by those seeking to gain or hold onto power.

Many of us are oblivious to such machinations, focussed on our own lives and/or blinded by wilful partisanship/ignorance.  We’re easily distracted by bread and circuses, especially those that feed into our own interests and biases. It’s all about short-term gratification.

To alter our current path, we’ll need some longer-term, bigger-picture thinking – i.e. just the opposite of what the propaganda model feeds us today. Such thinking is not just for issues such as climate change, though we’re not prepared to tackle even that issue, despite the consequences. No, it’s all about living for today. But long-term planning is crucial for a host of issues that are clearly part of today’s political reality, encompassing all levels: long-term resource consumption, human migration, transportation demands, retirement and pensions and the like. Our failure to do so has led to rampant consumerism, environmental crises, unchecked immigration, urban sprawl, financial speculation and a host of other ills that plague our economic, political and social systems.

That we’ve been reduced to the short-term interests of the most affluent gives lie to the notion that our system of government – our democracy – is based on the consent of the governed. Government policies that run contrary to the public interest – an increasing proportion of its actions – surely are the opposite of what we’d consent to if we were paying attention.

Who is responsible for that? Certainly those who’ve benefited have fostered an unending propaganda campaign that’s been every bit as effective in sweeping aside citizenship as the corporate marketing has been in turning us into consumers. We’ve happily abdicated power and responsibility for the comforts of our lives, buying into whatever version of nationalism and tribalism are being served.

While Generation Selfie is busy taking pictures of its lunch, others are busy eating it.

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