While helping a HISET student understand the themes in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye the other day, the term “social conditioning” came up, begging definition. If you don’t have the humbling privilege of mentoring millennials you may not realize how disconnected from American history so many of them are. How do I explain social conditioning in the 1950s to students who never saw the show Happy Days? Who haven’t yet read The Valley of the Dolls or Brave New World? How do I illustrate a subconscious sense of global post war insecurity prompting an almost visceral cultural conformity? How do I suggest that through conformity we can choose a false sense of safety? How do I explain that social conditioning means making folks focus on one thing so they don’t think about another? And then I had it. “Okay…think ‘Syria’ [sad face] versus new releases on Prime [happy face]” I said and the student understood immediately. Oh….but do you?
As a history nerd I have a tendency to consider terms like “social conditioning” as belonging to the world of the academic; a label, an abstract, something I explain to a student not something I am living. How naive of me, how ridiculously blind. Because even if Holden Caulfield refused to conform to the perceived notions of how a 1950s middle class white boy should act, think and hope it doesn’t mean the attempts to socially condition the average American stopped when Mr. R said “tear down that wall.” Social conditioning is not some abstract notion of the past. It is the cultural norms and mores of society in hyper-drive; it is the manufactured consent that we bleat day after day, week after week, year after year.
For most of us without realizing—without being consciously aware of our involvement in the experiment—we have been socially conditioned to conform. And yet, in our post post post post war American society, we, now, this current moment in history, we have been conditioned to ignore conflict and consume products.
And I say enough is enough. As I pile garbage bag after garbage bag around the trashcan in the post holiday fervor of the procrastinating mom’s ‘deep clean,’ I am disgusted, abhorred, horrified by the amount of useless crap going to the landfill. I am equally horrified by the amount of useless crap already replacing it on the already cluttered walls and shelves of my home. We are drowning in products we don’t need, made in countries we’ve never heard of, by people treated like slaves while wars rage, democracies crumble, minorities are decimated and big business consumes the hope of the 99 percent. And what are we doing? Adding another TV series to our watch list, talking to our friends about how cold winter is and flicking through the January sales ads as we drink our $7 dollar coffees while reposting a meme about the design on the coffee cup. What. The. Hell. There is a spectre haunting America-the spectre of consumerism.
This abundance of the unnecessary is not creating long term jobs, stable home lives and steady economies. This wasteful consumerism isn’t making society better here or abroad. It is crushing the spirit of humanity. But between big business, big media, big government and the invisible puppet masters we are met with a daily barrage of consumer mind control, meant to distract and deter us from free thought; meant to make us believe the hype, emote at the commercial and condition us to BUY BUY BUY.
Now buying things we need is not the problem here. We all need things and we must admit we live in a society whose economic system works in a certain way. I mean the useless, pointless, wasteful, distracting, deceptive consumerism that takes the hard earned money of the average American worker and throws it into the landfill. Big business doesn’t care about your medical insurance premiums, your child care costs, your college debt or your retirement dreams. They don’t want you to make enough money to save, just enough to spend. Think about your hourly wage. Think about the cost of the last piece of useless crap you bought. Translate that cost into hours worked. The real cost of unconsidered choices becomes apparent very quickly.
Consumerism is consuming the consumer.
January is the time of planning, goals, to do lists and the classic New Year’s resolution. Well this year, I have resolved to revolt. I refuse to buy any more things I don’t actually need. No more ‘that’s cute,’ no more ‘just ones,’ no more ‘well it’s the weekend why nots.’ I’m saying goodbye to BOGO, clearance and sales ads, to flash sales, mark downs and latest products. I’m telling impulse buys to hit the road. The ‘cost’ of the product is not the cost of the product. Just because it’s a good deal does not make it a good deal even if the commercial’s corporate sponsor tells me otherwise. I resolve to buy what I need. I resolve to buy local. I resolve to buy from sustainable companies. I resolve to open my eyes and be an informed consumer. I resolve to revolt against the penetrating persistence of the invisible hand. Stop the useless crap ride, I want to get off.
Won’t you join me dear readers in this positive resolution to make our world a better place? To boost our Wyoming economy, strengthening and diversify local job opportunities? To make sustainable choices, informed choices, choices based on reason not price tags or product placement? We must resolve to overthrow this detrimental hyper-consumerism that is literally destroying lives around the world and emptying souls and pocket books right here at home. Buy what you need not what you want. It’s not a violent revolution, it’s a sustainable evolution. There is still time to fix all of this. Consumers of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our useless crap.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of West Winds Magazine or its affiliates.