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Design principles for 21st century companies, markets, and economies. Foreword by Gary Hamel. Coming January 4th. Pre-order at Amazon.


 
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Culture of Contempt, or How to Reclaim Your Humanity


Contempt is becoming a cultural phenomenon. It’s seeping into every banal aspect of our lives. Not just anger, though there’s plenty of that, too. No, I mean pure, unabashed, undignified contempt for fellow humanity. This is so important, and so toxic. The more I think about it, 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. It does this through the commoditization of practically everything, from the stuff we buy to the news we watch to the very communities in which we live.


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.


“Ending is better than mending.” Our things are literally built on this principal, meant to be purchased in a fit of buyer’s ecstasy, used briefly, then tossed away with contempt, just as an addict tosses away an empty needle when the heroin is gone. As a result of this buy and discard mentality, 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. Stoking fear and public outrage are a lot more profitable than asking hard questions and investigating real problems.


Our news, like our stuff, is designed not to inform but to be cheap, consumable and addictive – a commodity. Where it should criticize, our news only coddles. Where it should illuminate, our news only obscures. Where it should inspire dialogue, our news only ignites tempers. It flatters our ignorance, validates our prejudices, shuts down our curiosity and titillates our basest emotions. In so doing, it keeps us hooked on toxic (mis)information, fills us with fear, distrust, and yes, contempt. By shutting down our sense of inquiry and commoditizing information into easily consumable sound bites, 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, indeed welcome, big box stores and chain restaurants to invade our neighborhoods, destroying local businesses. We sing our national anthem at the opening of a Walmart, bemoan the fact that our town doesn’t have a Starbucks yet. We see homogeneity as a virtue, or at least a sign of progress.


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, corporate deserts of dead-end jobs and little hope for something better. And so we become impoverished, both economically and creatively, alienated from our own basic humanity because we have allowed our worth to be defined in terms of raw production, not potential. This alienation is rampant in modern life. It doesn’t, in itself, breed contempt, but it certainly facilitates it by breaking down our sense of community and the greater good.


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, alienated, cynical, apathetic and ultimately obedient. Contempt fills us so that we have no room for anything more. Most importantly, it diminishes the most wonderful aspects of our humanity – creativity, curiosity, empathy, aspiration. Contempt blinds us to our own potential and the idea that we can do better.


I don’t want to end here. I want to offer more than a pessimistic assessment of the way things are. So I say to you now that 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.


We can reclaim our humanity. We never lost it, really. We’re merely distracted. If you’ve forgotten, if you’re feeling cynical, contemptuous and commoditized, here are three ways to rediscover your humanity.


Play. We have a tendency to trivialize play as something worthless or diversionary, but when we do this, we are confusing play with distraction. Authentic play is deeply creative and engaged. It requires emotional labor and a genuine sense of wonder and possibility. Whether through music or art or cooking or simply being with another person in this moment right now, find a way to engage in play. Cogs in machines don’t play. Humans do.


Do something to help. There’s certainly plenty to do. I don’t necessarily mean volunteering or even donating to charities, though there are plenty of organizations out there that can use your help. I’m talking more about a way of orienting yourself in the world, of being a force for positive change. People will respond to your good will, and you just might find it rubbing off on them, too. We don’t need more cynicism or apathy. We do need people to help, in whatever way they can.


Recognize your potential. You are capable of so much. If you’re reading this right now, you have a gift and a tremendous opportunity. You have the presence of mind to think about these things and the Internet connection to unite you with like-minded people. Recognize your incredible potential. Find a way, whatever way is most meaningful for you, to honor the gift of your advantageous circumstances.


If you take only one thing away from this post, let it be this: Just be a human being. Be a human being and go create something – anything – that brings joy, soothes harm, helps someone or otherwise taps into the glorious pulse of our common humanity. If you do this, just this, it will make all the difference in the world.


Robin Cangie is a writer, thinker and digital geek who likes to wonder about things. She writes about 21st century business, sustainability and whatever is on her mind on her blog, robinoula.com. She tweets as @robinoula.


-- Robin // 6:28 AM // 4 comments


Comments:

I'm sorry to say but you sound like a spoiled child who has never had the experience of hand me downs.

I am sitting here, writing on 5 year old computer with a 20 year old mac not too far away. I think about what I'm wearing and it's all a few years old, mostly given to me by others expect for my shorts which I've bought from Nordstorm's for the last 20 years because they make stuff that fits and lasts.

I do live in big house in a nice neighborhood, which I bought 20 years ago. I do walk to nice parks, which I helped build.

I don't see the contempt you express, except in immature, spoiled bloggers who just don't get what most Americans are like.

The world is full of hope and opportunity, it is only up to us to decide that is the what we want to pursue.

Your issue with cheap, disposable goods is just contempt for the people who make them in an attempt to make a better life for themselves.

Perhaps you should grow up and understand that stuff is just stuff. What matters is how we respect each other, how we participate in our communities and how we make this a better world, without the bitching and moaning about things that just don't matter.
// Blogger AlexNesbitt // 7:18 AM
 

Alex,

Thank you for your honesty, and for your opposing viewpoint. Healthy opposition is such a crucial part of a flourishing democracy. Besides, the world would be so boring if we all thought exactly the same things!

Though we disagree about whether or not we live in a culture of contempt, I can see that we do agree on the things that matter most - as you say, respecting each other, building communities and making the world better.
// Blogger Robin // 5:33 AM
 

I think I may be missing the connection between contempt and commodities.

My understanding is a commodity is merely being something, a product or service, you can purchase.

The ability to earn something is a freedom. Simply, the only obstacle between what you want and yourself is just earning it. Reality is of course complicated with social/economic issues that need to be solved, but that is essentially what it boils down to.

No one is telling us no you can't have that, for the most part. Instead we are told you can have whatever you want, you just have to earn it.

To earn it is as simple as finding out what other people want, and since they can have whatever they earn, your options are fairly broad.

You also use cheap in a negative way, which I disagree with. Cheap is good, the cheaper some thing or service is, the more people have access to it. The more people that have access to it, the more people that have an opportunity to provide it. Which in turn allows more people the ability to work towards what they want, etc.

Commodities don't represent contempt, they represent an opportunity.
// Blogger Robert // 11:50 PM
 

Robin, thanks for writing such an inspiring and deep reaching entry. It was startling and refreshing to read. I find it accurate and awakening, told from heart and soul in a peaceful voice that seeks greater good and sees astonishingly simple ways we can all try to achieve this. In fact we owe it to ourselves as a duty. The message is loud & clear. It is this sort of questions we all should be compelled to raise and share. Have we not realized yet the way we are heading the term humanity will be meaningless? Caring is just not required nor needed anymore? Or is it?
// Blogger JAyza // 4:29 AM
 
 

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