Drowning in Shallow Waters

Amazing how much you can end up doing when you have nothing else to do. I’m writing a chapter for a new book proposal. Monday I spent four hours trying to think of a word (starts with the letter G, means growth). Tuesday was much more productive, largely because I don’t have anything else to do (no meetings, no preparation for anything). Obviously this isn’t much of a post so here’s something I wrote back in 2008, which still has some resonance I think.

In his 1955 book entitled The Sane Society, the author Erich Fromm predicted that man would move from being a robotic, all-consuming creature that was “well-fed, well-entertained…passive, unalive and lacking in feeling” towards“humanistic communitarianism”.

Similarly, Maslow foresaw a world where humans naturally switched their attention towards intellectual, spiritual and existential questions and pursuits once lower level needs such as food and security had been achieved. Intellectual activity and spiritualism are flourishing in some parts of the globe these days but triviality, superficiality, vanity, passivity and indifference are generally stronger drivers of behaviour. So has Maslow’s Pyramid of needs collapsed or is it just that the sandstorm of materialism has temporarily obscured the view of various looming emergencies?

Part of the problem is that we have somehow conspired to allow politicians and others to turn us into the consumers of various products and services. Hence keeping the customer satisfied is the name of the game and denial and confusion are the chosen weapons of mass distraction. Scepticism and enquiry are thus brushed off to the edges of society allowing the mass of humanity to wallow in shallow waters.

Some writers saw this coming a long time ago. In a 1957 essay called A Theory of Mass Culture, Dwight MacDonald argued that a “trivial culture that voids both the deep realities and also the simple spontaneous pleasures” would take hold whereby anything of substance would be repackaged to be either non-threatening, entertaining or ideally both. So is it all doom and gloom? I think not. It could be that what appear to be looming emergencies will turn out to be less of a problem than we think. Or perhaps we are naturally lazy and we are leaving our historical inventiveness to the very last moment.

Perhaps the last word should be given to Carl Rogers who, in 1961, wrote, “when I look at the world I am a pessimist but when I look at people I am optimistic”.

I couldn’t agree more.

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