The American, individualistic dream
America has a work hard, play hard, get rewarded mentality. People grow up to become productive members of society, and contribute to our capitalistic creation — creating and spending. Those who hustle harder are said to “make it” and achieve great financial success. For a fortunate few, that’s the path to success; for the rest of us, we’re stuck slugging it out with minimal success.
We live in a deeply individualistic society that prides independent triumphs. Popular media tends to highlight and personify movements by their individual leaders. For instance, there’s an archetype of the perfect politician. The picture is someone that came from nothing, had a janitor for a father, and still made it to become a representative, senator, and/or president. That vision stretches beyond polemics and parties. Both Elizabeth Warren (D-MS) and John Boehner (R-OH) ran and won on these models of poverty to individual achievement.
The counterculture is a collectivistic society, which are common in Colombia, Taiwan, and Venezuela. These groups support shared and “other-focused” goals. Essentially, my success is less important than the success of all of us. There are few popular archetypes for collectivistic success, but the Occupy and recent #BlackLivesMatter campaigns and protests are two terrific examples. There is not a singular representative for news media to turn to; instead, they interview the loudest voices of the collective.
What failure looks like in America
Individualism and personal triumphs directly influence how we treat those who have not achieved great financial gains. These are some words that quickly come to mind: “failure,” “lazy,” “unmotivated,” “unproductive,” and “weak.” Independent people believe that an individual’s lack of success is their fault. The message is powerful enough to become an internal message for many in America. Suddenly, it’s not just others who think negatively about financial disappointments, you may begin to believe the societal script.
When someone believes this social script, and sees a homeless person, they may be more inclined to use those powerful words of denigration. It’s their fault for being homeless, alcoholics, and/or penniless. Meanwhile, collectivistic cultures seem to see a failure in their social systems and themselves; if one falters, we all fail.
Financial independence is often inversely related with interdependence. When we become personally more affluent, the financial gains enable independence. Simply, we don’t need other people as much when wealthy. Money has a powerful distancing effect on our ability to empathize with others and see the needs of the greater collective.
“I wish I had done so much more.”
American society has a deeply ingrained version of capitalistic success: make more money, and you’re more of an achievement. Money equals worthiness in society, and this mentality means that with greater wealth you should command more attention. In a post-Citizen’s United (3) world, that’s exactly what we have. Those with greater funds can lobby, campaign, and advertise for their desired candidates more than an average citizen. Thus, their voices are louder than any one person should be. In our individualistic culture, we prop up this “freedom.”
This has deep consequences for the people that cannot and will never be given an equal chance at success. I have an acquaintance that uses an electronic wheelchair because he has a severe disability that prevents him from having much of motor control. His speech is slow and difficult, and you can see the strain on his face as he tries to share his thoughts. Conversations with him are slower, and less “productive” because he literally cannot produce speech at the same rate as most people.
It was his birthday, and I asked him what his plans were. He said he’d be going to Buffalo Wild Wings. I complimented his decision, and asked how old he’d be turning. While much of his speech is slow and challenging for him, I could tell he hesitated a bit more in telling me his age. I got sarcastic, and said, “What’s that hesitation for? You’re not going to tell me?!” He gently smiled, and then his face saddened. “I’m 63,” he responded. I said, “Happy birthday! Wow, 63! Well done.” His face stayed saddened, and I asked him what he was thinking. His words cut through me, as he said, “I wish I had done so much more. I expected I’d do so much more. I feel like I didn’t do as much as I should have.”
I held back tears (as I do writing this) for about 10 minutes, and then after he left I started crying. Here’s a man who had no choice but to be in a wheelchair because of his disability, and yet he still feels and owns society’s expectations for independent, individualistic norms. Here’s a man that feels like his lack of productivity is a failure and less than he should have made for himself.
Unshackle us from capitalistic ideals
America is entrenched in this concept of success. I’m not optimistic it’ll change very soon, if at all. But as the ideals live on, we are harming those who cannot achieve in the same ways or in the same amounts. Frankly, I’m saddened we haven’t done more to move beyond financial success being the greatest measure of achievement.
Societally, we are hurting people and could desperately benefit from more collective goals. When we tell people to pull up and tighten their bootstraps, work harder, and hustle more, we are promoting a society that punishes those less fortunate — they’re the victims of our blame.
We are socially and economically stratified more than ever. The ability for people to move social classes has been reduced into a terrible caste system of poverty. Incomes are unequal, with upper management sucking up tremendous percentages of wealth. These bootstraps are broken — there’s nothing to pick up anymore. We need to repair our society, values, and believe in some collective good and goals. Until then, most will struggle and suffer under the weight of our capitalistic system.