Blog 137. American Angst Part 5 of 7: Our Social Rules

Other than continual foreign wars and the changing climate, is there a reason why Americans feel individually distressed and socially anxious? Yes. We’re threatened by each other. We each feel we’ve got to beat the competition, join a group, and distrust everyone else.

Humans are a social species, gathering in groups like flocking birds and schooling fish. Back in the stone age, we learned that group cooperation offers greater opportunity for survival than solitary existence, and every human has looked for a winning group ever since. Winning food and shelter from the environment, winning the territory from other human groups. Other than continual wars and a ruined climate, is there a downside to this penchant for winning in what has become an interconnected world? Does progress point in such an uncomfortable direction that anxiety is the new normal?

There are conflicts between the behavioral norms of today’s America.

Norm #1: Group defines identity.

Social scientists discovered that when we’re accepted by our identity group, we get a boost of natural hormones that make us feel good. Perhaps that’s why we check email (text, Facebook, Chat, whatever) when it isn’t necessary. The “alternative facts” and “blue lies” diffused by today’s ever-present social media are designed to polarize, to separate one group from the other, and to buy loyalty—wherein we lose individual identity, integrity, and the sense of being American above other group loyalties.

Norm #2: The individual is what’s important.

The American myth—that the individual is more important than the society—conflicts with Norm #1. In casual talk, we discuss one or two individual players of a basketball team. The Nobel prize honors at most three persons, no matter how many have contributed. The business news features the CEO, not the workers. American politics features the individual candidate, not the well-being of the nation. Personal stardom rarely indicates a career of contribution to the country.

In America, democracy isn’t working. In What Money Can’t Buy, Professor Sandel  says “Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life. What matters is that people of different social positions encounter one another in the course of ordinary life.”(1)  However, when we act according to Norm #1, we don’t unite as Americans. Persons, forced to be unequal, do not mingle, do not share.  Even congressmen hold party loyalty above national concerns.

Meaning in life comes from feeling that you make a difference.  Depending on the election, about  one-half to three-quarters of us feel voting doesn’t make a difference.* However, we still crave affirmation, and we attempt to get it by being on a winning side.

The winning side of what? A group of unseen people with whom we’ve shared questionable news? Winning has become a dominant rule of interaction among persons and among institutions. Individuals try to get ahead of each other. Corporations and institutions do the same thing. Even a university doesn’t want to be second place.

Winning for its own sake is an assumed ethic. However, winning neglects governance, business integrity, worker satisfaction, public well-being, and the common things like open space, air, and water. Winning is buying 51% of a small corporation, running up its debt, closing the company in bankruptcy, and firing the employees.

Is winning really significant? Are we assuming that life is a collection never-ending races just so we might be regarded as winners?

What rules guide us—in school, in sports, in jobs, in industry, in universities, in politics? The well-being of the population? No, it is winning. Somehow, we associate importance with winning. We’re running many parts of society like team sports. Bigness wins. You find few independent grocery stores, independent drug stores, independent medical doctors, independent politicians, and few universities that hire professors for teaching instead of research grants.

Winning isn’t all bad. It’s just bad when it’s the only thing that gives satisfaction, when a few achieve a monopoly. When we limit interaction to tweets and input from our group, when we check our phones during the family barbeque, we are playing the game of addictive winning—even though the net result is anxiety  For society as a whole, playing only to win loses the objectives of peace, adequacy, and sustainability..

Too much winning becomes a loss.


Next: Part 6 of this series will examine what we can do about the anxiety in our complex system.


* Only 58% of eligible citizens nationally voted in the 2016 election, whereas 64% voted in 2008. About 22% voted in the 2018 California primary election of candidates and propositions.


(1)   Michael Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2012) and others.