Social movements in the consumerist world

November 11, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

If I were asked to divide the world into two groups of people, I would flatly refuse. It is extremely unfair, I would argue that it would be absurd to divide humans, as ineffably complex and diverse as they are, on the basis of one quality or trait. But then again, that would just be me being politically correct. I actually believe that on some level, all of us tend of categorize people into two groups on the basis of one overarching quality. We tend to empathize with individuals who ‘have’ that quality, and believe that the world would be a better place if everyone were like them. For some this ‘vital’ quality is hard work, for others humility, and for some others, it may be looks, or a sense of style. The quality that I regard as most important is the ability to be affected by your surroundings.

I have to come to realize that I have always tended to view the world as consisting of two groups of people. The first group consists of individuals who only concern themselves with the interests of their own selves and that of the immediate circle of family and friends. These individuals do the work that is expected of them, and have no interest or concern for people who are not directly related to them. The other group, whose members I admire, consists of individuals who feel connected to and, hence, are affected by the larger environment they live in.   They take a keen interest in their extended surroundings. Some of them even have a sense of moral obligation to alleviate humanity and human condition as a whole. I term people who belong to the former group as ‘shallow’ and people who belong to the latter group as ‘humane’. Lately though, I have noticed, in many instances, an inexplicable overlapping of these two groups. Some people are so difficult to categorize into either of these groups that I have begun to question the very foundation of my system of assigning worth to individuals. Are the “humane” people of today genuinely humane, or are they merely a more fashionable manifestation of an all-pervasive shallowness?

In this context, I would like to mention two movies which dwell on moral ambiguity amidst urban decadence, the first being French film director Jean-Luc Godard’s classic 1960’s movie Masculin Feminin. A fragmented and frustratingly abstruse movie, the movie documents (and comments on) the attitudes among the French youth in the 1960’s, is universal in its significance.  The filmmaker’s thoughts are equally valid for any youth almost anywhere in the developed or developing world today. The movie is about the doomed relationship between Paul, a young, politically aware, conscientious, idealistic man, and Madeleine, a girl who is an ardent consumer of pop culture, whose conscience has been rendered inactive by the self-indulgence encouraged by the consumerist culture around her. Through most of the movie, Madeleine is shown to be an insouciant creature. An aspiring pop-singer, she generally sports a blank expression on her face, inert to almost any problem around her, and most of her time is spent in combing her hair and applying make-up.

It would be easy to think that the director uses these two characters to represent the two ends of our modern moral spectrum: Paul, as an “ideal” human being, someone whom we must aspire to be like, and Madeleine as a symbol of urban decadence, the modern automaton, devoid of soul. But that is not the case, as the director is equally critical of both characters. The criticisms levelled against Madeleine, the quintessential consumer of modern capitalism, may have seemed unique in the 1960’s, but by now are commonplace in social and cultural criticism. She is a self-obsessed, vacuous woman who, despite her lack of intelligence and talent, manages to find success as a pop star.  This woman represents the modern individualistic and anti-communal notions of success. In a striking segment of the film entitled “Interview with a consumer product”, Paul interviews a young teenaged girl who has been chosen as the face of a fashion magazine. The girl has no qualms in admitting her ignorance of almost all political events around the world. Yet, she admits she is drawn towards rebels, and dislikes ‘yes men’. The last point made by her is quite telling.

In this context, I would like to reference another movie, “Network”, directed by Sidney Lumet in 1976.  In my opinion, this is one of the greatest movies ever made. This movie shows how a crazed and deluded news anchor actually manages to stir a sentiment of anti-consumerism among the American public, by using the catchphrase “I’m mad, mad as hell, and I can’t take it anymore!” This phrase, highly appealing in its belligerence and anti-authoritative nature to a frustrated and impotent American public, catches on like wildfire, and almost becomes an anthem in the country. In this case, the news anchor paints large corporations to be the villains, and the public, blindly follows him, criticizing and attacking major corporations. The people are more interested in voicing their anger and frustration, and are willing to take up any target, it seems, as long as it allows them to scream their lungs out. Thus, while most of the Americans are on a moral crusade, very few, it seems, have taken the trouble to actually scrutinize or even actually understand the shortcomings of their targets. It seems that humans, young people in particular, are drawn towards rebels, and rebellion, but are more attracted to rebellion because of the aggression and defiance of authority involved, rather than the reason and rationality of the cause. In the American context, perhaps a large number of organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan, have thrived because they have tapped on the need of humans to indulge in aggressive and anti-authoritative activity.

But organizations such as the KKK are easy targets. Do other social movements, even those which have a sound rationale for their existence, attract members who are genuinely interested in their causes? Or do they tend to attract youths merely interested in angrily shouting slogans? At this point, I return to Paul, the idealistic young protagonist of Masculin Feminin. Paul has a genuine interest to better the world around him. However, he is not sure how exactly can go about doing so. Because he is not sure which cause he is to support, he ends joining his friends in protesting the involvement of USA in the Viet Nam war, by spray-painting “America Go Home” on French police vehicles. The fact is, as well-meaning as he is, Paul is a confused young man. Though he is more knowledgeable than most people of his age, the political knowledge he possesses is muddled, which he has gained second-hand sources such as friends. He himself is not exactly sure of the authenticity of his knowledge and, most unfortunately, he only has this muddled knowledge to base his actions and expressions on. In this context, I wonder how many people involved in the present anti-war movement in America have taken the effort to research the actual effect that the war is having on the American economy. If I lived in the United States right now, I have no doubt that I would be involved in the anti-war movement, but I am not sure if I would do so because of the commonly stated objections to the war.

We seem to be moving towards a society where shouting slogans and holding placards hold more interest than debates or enlightened discussions. It seems that facts and their authenticity are less important to the success of a social movement than the packaging and marketing of the movement. In other words, even social movements seem to have become products, which need to be marketed likewise.

For instance, in my city, volunteers of the environmental organization “Greenpeace” are posted in important public places, where they often approach people and explain the objectives and ideals of the organization.  They invite people to join their organization. I have noticed, however, that the volunteers usually tend to approach only young men under the age of 25.  People over the 40 are very rarely approached. They clearly have their “target audience” in mind, and perhaps they realize that young men, impassioned by testosterone and mood swings, rather than genuine concern for the environment are ideal candidates.

While democracy does exist on the premise of public participation, it rests on the assumption that this public participation is guided by reason and rationality. Have we come to the stage where social movements have to rely on an aggressive belligerence rather than reasonable rationales to attract people?

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Category: Consumerism, Culture, Films

About the Author ()

I am Sujay Prabhu, 22, living in Mumbai (Bombay), India. Among other things, I enjoy reading non-fiction, listening to podcasts, watching world cinema, watching plays, and trekking. I believe skepticism is a most vital trait, needed not only to dodge schemes of charlatans, but also to lead a fulfilling life. I live in a country where superstitions and useless rituals reign supreme, and 'miracle-men' make a fast buck spouting irrational philosophy, backing it up with laughable magic tricks to fool the masses about their 'powers'. The few people who study their surroundings, try to look beyond the obvious, and subject their own beliefs to scrutiny, are those that earn my admiration.

Comments (4)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    There are 10 kinds of people: Those who understand binary math, and those who don't.

    Glibness aside, this post reminds me of the 3½ minute Penn and Teller petition video

    Humans are joiners, followers. This behavior is basic to commercial marketing, and to the political process. Erich also recently referred to the necessity for "participation by informed citizens".

    But we are only as well informed as those we choose to follow will permit. Some people feel perfectly well-informed by Bill O'Reilly and Drudge. Others choose to listen to NPR, BBC, and also to CBN and FOX to gain a wider view. But they are still selecting their information sources by who they trust.

    I don't think that the sorry state of our electorate is due to a lack of reason, but rather a lack of understanding of our basic social reflexes.

    btw: I'm finally aged enough that Krishnas and Scientologists don't bother to approach me. But Mormons and Jehovah's Witlesses still accost me on the street.

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    There are 2 kinds of people: the kind that wants to divide people into 2 kinds of people, and the kind that doesn't.

    I tend to think that the reason political discussion is so stunted in this country is because most families don't even eat together at the same table anymore, or talk to their neighbors. It's all down to the rat race and the way our cities are built around the need to get from one place to another as quickly as possibly in a metal privacy capsule. Infrastructure tells you what to do, and the infrastructure of suburbia tells you to mind your own business.

  3. xiaogou says:

    Dan, it is interesting that you mentioned binary as most AIs are based on a ‘is or is not’ tree structure. Is it alive or not? If alive is it animal or plant? Etc. People, I hope, work on a more complex decision base, though the data is slanted to the contrary. Science tends to be more dichotomies based while art tends to be more complex. A scientist tends to put things in categories while an artist for example will say this is not quite the shade of green I want. I use ‘tends’ as I know that there are many shades of grey in people.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    xiaogau: Actually, most AI protocols that I've studied since my Prolog days use fuzzy logic internally, rather than Boolean/binary logic. In fuzzy logic, the answer to "Do you want to go to the park?" might be "70%".

    The final binary true/false answer comes out by selecting a level (50%, 30%, 90%, whatever) that the result must reach to cause a perambulation to the park, or a missile to be launched, or whatever.

    Nothing in nature is truly binary; everything has fuzzy edges if you examine it closely enough.

    Some questions, like "is it alive?" have many factors to consider, especially given the imprecise definition that even biologists have for life. Recently (as I discussed in this post in June '07) there is a movement to define as living any system that metabolizes, rather than the earlier definition requiring the ability to reproduce itself. Whether viruses are alive is as iffy with this newer definition as it was with the old.

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