Why Don’t Americans Care About Each Other?

How Societies Based on Rivalry Become Lord of the Flies

Here’s a tiny question. Does a society prosper, mature, develop, grow? By people pulling themselves up?

Today, high school students across America are walking out. But let’s remember exactly why. Because their elders have allowed gun massacres at schools — and appear totally unmotivated or unmoved to change it. Hence, it’s left to the vulnerable — kids — to fend for themselves. Pull yourself up!! How Lord of the Flies.

So. Why don’t Americans care about each other? After all, that high school students have to walk out en masse to demand, well, they don’t be massacred is a pretty good indication that Americans don’t.

(But perhaps you object to my question. Very well, let’s consider it in a number of other ways. Americans won’t give each other working healthcare, education, media, transport, safety nets, retirement, mobility, stability. The result is lives like pressure cookers — boiling with stress, mistrust, despair, and rage. Hence, opioid epidemics, loneliness, depression, anxiety, anger. America is above all renowned today for being something like a new Rome: for its cruelty. But all that is just another way to say that Americans don’t care about one another.)

I think that the reason is hidden in plain sight. Americans have been taught to see one another as rivals — because the idea was that way, everyone would pull themselves up. Rivals, everywhere, in everything. Whether at work, in life, or at play. It is something like the most rivalrous society that has ever existed. But that led to a catastrophic outcome: people forever pulling each other down, instead of lifting themselves up. And a society, economy, and democracy cannot function that way. There are better ways.

Let me give you a small but telling example. My friend recently got her “performance review”. It was full of sniping and bitching and pettiness: “negative feedback”. Now, she’s great at what she does — really. She’s never once had “negative feedback” in her life — she was shocked. But that’s because she’s from Canada. I had to explain to her: this is just what Americans do: they have learned how to game this system of “review” by constantly being savage with one another — instead of being honest, it’s better to talk down everyone else, and get ahead that way. And so these “review” systems quite obviously don’t work in America — its leaders are nothing of the kind, of the lowest calibre imaginable, whether in business, politics, law, or media.

Do you see my point? Let me make it clearer.

What happens in the end if we make rivalry the fundamental principle of society — the one great ideal that orders and defines it that people see one another as bitter rivals to defeat? American thinking suggested the following outcome: that people would compete to pull themselves up, and that way, everyone would rise.

But it forgot one crucial detail. There are two ways to compete. By pulling yourself up — dragging others down. Now, which is less costly — which one requires less effort, time, imagination? Which only takes brutality, muscle, and cunning? Pulling others down, obviously. You can pull people down with a tug or a punch. But lifting yourself up? You have to fight gravity. You have to find a foothold. You have to look up and be blinded by the sun. In other words, you need empathy, compassion, grace, and courage. How much easier to just pull down. The economics are simple: pulling others down is much less costly than lifting yourself up, and that is the fatal mistake American thought made, but still hasn’t learned yet.

And so the result is now. A society of people forever pulling one another down, just like crabs in the proverbial bucket, each one trying to escape — but only ensuring none go anywhere. Lord of the Flies — remember?

When life becomes rivalry, the result is that relationships get blown apart, that institutions — which depend on genuine relationships — erode, that norms of decency and humanity corrode. An atmosphere of cruelty is produced when life becomes rivalry — but nothing can really function amid such absolute cruelty, not even basic things like performance reviews, let alone democracy, society, or the economy.

Democracy depends not on rivalry, but on a sense of cooperation, of people standing together. But because life is rivalry in America, the only people who stand together anymore are the extremists. Society depends not on rivalry, either, but on people crafting a fair and expansive social contract, that provides everyone some minimum level of well-being — otherwise, a society is broken by definition. And you think an economy depends on bitter, bruising rivalry — that’s what American thinking says, after all — but you, and it are wrong: an economy depends on people being able to work together, for one another’s real human benefit, on things of genuine worth, accomplishments that matter. In genuinely transformative ways — not just those that please a Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk or Zuck’s quarterly profit imperative.

So America is profoundly broken because rivalry has made stunted its democracy, society, and economy — they do not have the raw materials they need to really elevate human lives anymore: concern, passion, imagination, empathy, creativity, authenticity, trust, beauty, and truth.

What has all that been replaced with? Well, what is a life of such constant, intense, bitter rivalry like? Well, it means that everyone in your life is an adversary, opponent, or enemy — though you might call them your colleague, peer, coworker, classmate, they are really just your rival. So you don’t really friends — hence, “frenemies”; you don’t really do work of service, your primary goal is to compete; that you measure yourself by how many people you have defeated, bested, and thrown down — not by how meaningful, rich, and worthwhile your life really is. A life of rivalry is full of stress, pressure, fear, and misery. One quickly becomes paranoid, fragile, bitter, and toxic.

How funny. How sad. How terrible. American thinking does not yet understand that rivalry does not work as the ordering principle for society because it is always cheaper to pull someone else down than lift one’s self up. To be cunning, ruthless, and deceitful is always easier than being compassionate, gentle, courageous, and strong.

But none of that is even the real tragedy.

It never considered the third possibility at all — the greatest one of all. That people do not have to lift themselves up, or pull each other down. That they can lift each other up, too. That is what happened elsewhere — in nations that developed expansive social contracts, with healthcare, education, retirement, etcetera, and now live vastly longer, happier, saner, healthier lives. Remember those poor high school kids, left to fend for themselves? Exactly.

Let us hope they learn this lesson.

March 2018

Why Don’t Americans Care About Each Other? was originally published in Eudaimonia and Co on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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