I’m not sure how to introduce this post. My blogging skills are getting rusty from disuse. I guess that’s an expected side effect of Project Get More Education. I’m nearly a month late on my Reading Blog post but this isn’t it. There’s something else on my mind tonight, something begging me to write it.
Once upon a time I was mired in a relationship in which the ambiguous “most people” were frequently called upon in
discussions arguments about any and all topics. What “most people” do/don’t do could/can be used to justify or (smugly self-justify) any position or practice.
Sometimes “everyone else does it” sounds like a great excuse to do it too. Sometimes “most people don’t do it” make an excellent method to feel superior and self-righteous because we do do it. But either way it’s invoking (usually imagined) other people to make ourselves feel better about something we don’t want to really think about.
And I’m not quite sure how to say this but any argument that relies on “most people” (whether “most” is 50.01% or 99.99% is irrelevant) is a bullshit argument and a toxic discussion to have. Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a damn what most people do or don’t do. Spending my life worry about most people never got me anywhere other than insecure, paranoid, and pressured.
“Most people” is how we get conned into “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s how we get trapped into doing or buying things we don’t need or want and probably aren’t even healthy for us. “Most people” is a great way of selling stuff, of creating fear and paranoia, envy and greed, alienation and insecurity.
This is where all my new-fangled education comes in. Where do “most people” come from? Let’s break it down. Our ideas of “most people” are formed largely through media. We imagine “most people” based on what we see on TV, what we stream online, what we read. There’s little to no actual reality in our perceptions of “most people.” Usually we know that when we see a “middle class” family sitcom where they have an eight bedroom house that this isn’t real. But when we see hundreds of thousands of pictures of women airbrushed to appear they have no body hair or blemishes it adds up and we assume this is normal and desirable.
“Most people” is purely imaginary, it’s what we have been conditioned to assume is normal and good. It’s a construction we have in our minds. This is part of how culture is made. Culture is not and never has been something static and simple. All cultures are always dynamic, adapting and changing and influenced by a wider context. The modern assumption that culture is set-in-stone tradition is itself a recent cultural construction. Humans have always participated in exchange and change. It’s what we do.
Sometimes we have constructed our cultures with stories around the dinner fire, sometimes with written texts or pictures or dances, sometimes with TV and radio and popup internet adds. I ascribe to the idea that these media representations form a circular relationship with culture, they simultaneously represent and disseminate understandings of reality. They aren’t necessarily real but they do important work in how we interpret reality and imagine what is desirable and normal.
These cultural productions are how we learn what “most people” do, they’re a point of comparison for understanding ourselves in reference to others. Yet they often have very little to do with what “most people” actually do. And if enough of us become convinced that the things we see “most people” doing/having are things we need to do/have then these representation become reality by manipulating us into making them reality.
There’s a plethora of nasty examples of how this works in current media. Think stochastic terrorism. Somebody
says enough hateful shit uses enough hateful rhetoric and sooner or later someone internalizes and normalizes that hate into behavior. Their behavior gets wide media attention and more people emulate it. Over time it becomes a new normal, one that “most people” don’t question because “most people” are participating in it.
That might be an extreme example but it’s also a good one. An awful lot of what we think of as normal came to be normal through exactly this process. And frequently these things aren’t at all healthy or beneficial. Sometimes this effect can be leveraged for the betterment of the species and toward health, stewardship, and safety. And sometimes cultural changes are benign and superficial. But too often bizarre and violent behavior comes to be normal because “most people do it.” At different times and places this has included things like blood-letting, rib-breaking corsets, drinking and driving, infant abandonment, school shootings, crusades, invasions, and genocides.
Just because we think “most people” do it or have it doesn’t mean we should too.
What if we normalized bodies that aren’t airbrushed? What if we normalized non-coercive, non-violent conflict resolution? What if we normalized simple lifestyles based on contentment with having our needs met rather than dissatisfaction about the things we don’t have? What if we normalized genuine pluralism, justice, and equality? What if we normalized open arms and open hearts in the face of tragedy?
You see where I’m going?
I don’t want to worry about “most people.” I want to focus on what I can do to live up to my values, to live a new normal which might not be anywhere near perfect but in which I am intentional and thoughtful about where I spend my time and energy. And I want this to be a new normal.
New norms always have to start somewhere. We have to live them and we have to make the media and culture that give them life and longevity.