In the more than a few service sector positions I’ve held, I’ve interacted with people representative of a vast cross-section of the American populace. People from every walk of life, myriad ethnic and cultural backgrounds, all very distinct in their vantage points, belief sets, political opinions and social circles, but all bound by a common, new American ethos:
Complete and total panic.
If something isn’t quite right, proper protocol isn’t to step back and wonder what happens to be the problem, or take any initiative to research and figure out what might be wrong. The right thing to do is to berate and vilify the perceived source of the problem and expect said source to make everything OK. Essentially, we’ve become a nation of toddlers trapped in the terrible twos and threes. And, again, this perspective is grounded in the fact that I’ve seen it happen transcendent of apparent social status, and economic or cultural backgrounds. Glassner attributed it to the culture of fear, and he was right, but I think his case is ultimately incomplete.
Here, in ‘murica, we don’t ask the right questions; in fact, we don’t bother to ask any questions at all. We just completely lose our crap.
What is more disconcerting is that this culture of panic is only a symptom of deeper problems. People don’t routinely flip their lids the moment something is [often mis-]understood to be out-of-place unless there is something within people which justifies and legitimates such sub-human behavior. At this point, the frustration is that a ubiquitous reflex is no longer so easily pinpointed: we cannot say that reason x is why so many people respond the exact same way since we do not have access to each person and his or her story. At best, we can only venture guesses.
I have a few. (Imagine that!)
First, for better or worse, we do not fundamentally trust each other. Perhaps we never have, but I would like to think that, for the most part, we deal and have dealt honestly with each other. What else could cause a person to go from zero to crazy the moment something on a monthly statement doesn’t look right? And, even given the experience of prior dishonest dealings, why would someone default to unloading on the first person he thinks can solve his problem?
And, without a core component of trust, how are we expected to do anything? If we do not trust, how do we get married? Buy a car? Conduct business? Send a child off into the world? Save, spend and invest? Give to charitable causes? How do elected officials govern without trust in fellow legislators and officials? (Wait, don’t answer that.)
Perhaps there is no more subtle hallmark of the free society than open and forthright trust. Something goes wrong, people of good will work together to make it right. And, while resolution still happens, it only comes about not under the auspices of trust, but threat.
Second, we have completely misunderstood rugged individualism: that uniquely ‘murican quality that celebrates going it alone or, more to the point, operating under the useful fiction that one has gone it alone, and telling everyone else off. In short, individuals have embraced individualism, and have drifted toward a selfish, often unwarranted narcissism rather than working toward self-reliance. When that narrative is shaken, and the floodwaters of existential crisis begin crashing over the floodwalls of the human psyche, total freak out.
The person confident in her abilities and skill will not panic. The religious believer confident in his sense of religious identity will stand on that faith in the face of uncertainty. Instead, we have people having complete meltdowns in public places because someone didn’t know that there’s more to a credit card than merely using it, and Christians who actually thought the Mayans were right last December. Where there is confidence, there can be no room for ignorance.
Thirdly, and a synthesis of the prior two, we’re largely ignorant of the world around us. We don’t trust each other, and we’re not concerned for each other as much as we are about ourselves, so does it really come as a surprise that our mental race to the bottom can be inversely proportional to the level of anxiety and panic shared by and manifested in the culture? Should it surprise anyone that the American church is ebbing from culture and the fundamentalists lose their crap whenever the government–incidentally, and particularly, the government which is presided over by a liberal–unveils a plan to take away our liberties? Or the leftists [still] howling in Wisconsin because someone there had to put on the big boy pants and assume some level of fiduciary restraint?
The most troubling part about the culture of panic is that it’s cathartic and soothing on a primal level. Getting hysterical is liberating, like a baby soiling itself and crying until a parent comes and changes him. (Note to self: babies. And, them.) We build up all the anxieties and then unleash it in a frenzy, and that release has a narcotic effect on us. Self-control seldom, if ever, displays such an immediate sense of comfort. We see this release everywhere, and in many manifestations: the election that goes the right way, the religious revival that emphasizes all the wrong things, the sports team that wins a championship. And, because I see people from all ages and walks of life acting in similar ways, I’m concerned that this pattern has been developing for more than a while. Good work takes time, I guess.
Indeed, it is soothing, and that release is its own reward, even if it means completely obliterating someone and everyone he or she ever knew. Reminds me of the online flame wars I used to get into. Then I turned 19. (Then, 23. And then, 26. And then, this morning…which wasn’t my fault, and I wasn’t trolling [honest!], but it did serve as a great case study for each of the three aforementioned properties of the culture of panic. I’ll chalk it up to field research.) No one said I’m perfect.
The sad reality is that the culture of panic informs us that we are, ultimately, not much of a culture at all. If there is no trust, no good will and no desire to understand, there can be no shared experience and no meaningful sense of corporate identity. All we are doing is encroaching on one another’s personal spaces, waiting for the next opportunity to slip into false bravado mode to blow up the next person who dares to suggest that we might be wrong in our assumptions. This is how families are destroyed, churches ripped apart, scandals erupt, partisans increasingly polarize, schools become war zones and war zones oddly become seemingly more civil in comparison. Give a person a reason to mistrust, then enable that person to believe that he or she is more important than anyone else, and watch what happens.
Just be sure to do so from a safe distance.