Society is fractured. That’s likely the understatement of the year. We fight, complain, support, revere, and fight some more on nearly every issue pressing. With social media giving everyone a voice, it is clearer now where people stand on the king’s ransom of issues that have (or will have) serious ramifications on this society we all love to criticize one minute and champion the next.
We are especially aware of moments in media where these debates are ignited, when writers, producers, and directors toss a match into the oil left behind our arguments with an poignant anecdote or sharp appeal from a character we’re all supposed to love. While Aaron Sorkin is the master of such social criticism in highly-popular media, there are others who pull at our awareness just as effectively, like Sam Esmail.
In an episode of Esmail’s critically-acclaimed techno-thriller Mr. Robot, main character Elliot is asked what it is about society that disappoints him. Following the inquiry, Elliot lets loose the following tirade:
“Oh, I don’t know… Is it that collectively we thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children? Or maybe it’s that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit? The world itself is just one big hoax — spamming each other with our burning commentary bullshit, masquerading as insight; our social media faking this intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money. I’m not saying anything new. We all know why we do this, not because Hunger Games books make us happy, but because we want to be sedated. Because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards. Fuck society.”
Elliot’s “fuck society” breakdown is everyone’s “fuck society” breakdown, just with the eloquence of a television writer.
When ruminating where society has “gone wrong,” most of us look to mere examples primarily drawn from aspects of society with which we find opposition. We cite things like partisan agendas, failures in education, obsession with possessions and vanity, institutional corruption, and even our own disagreements as proof that society is circling the drain. While these things are definitely worth a stirring breakdown, it may be dishonest to truly consider them reasons upon themselves.
What if society’s flaws are greater than that? What if the problems with society are beyond cultural identities and misplaced priorities? What if the problems with society stem not from society, but from the species that creates it?
Despite some who would argue the contrary, we are domesticated animals. Our domestication came when our species made the transition from hunter-gatherer to farmer and is qualified in much the same way human domestication of certain animals is qualified.
Cheap, accessible food sources? Check.
Quick population growth rate? Check.
Friendly disposition? Check.
Easy breeding? Check.
Social hierarchy? Check.
Generally calm? Check.
Our domestication is also evident biologically, as humans have more rounded, smaller jaws compared to undomesticated animals, are more likely to be hurt or killed by disease than by physical conflict, are more childlike in appearance and demeanor (“paedomorphosis”), and many adult humans can digest milk.
Through this domestication, humans are prone to three factors that together create a positive feedback loop and may contribute to the creation of societal aspects we consider to be problematic.
Susceptibility leads to ignorance. Ignorance leads to complacency. Complacency leads to susceptibility.
We are susceptible in that we are prone to manipulation. We are a species conditioned to react to things we want and need and things we think we want and need. We react to ideas, primarily through either support or rejection. More of us are prone to follow than there are those prone to lead. We’ve even created slang to describe human susceptibility — “sheeple.”
Because we are prone to susceptibility, we are also prone to ignorance. Why do the legwork for yourself when someone has already done it for you? Being prone to manipulation, it’s easy to conform to certain ideas, especially if they’re easy to understand and emotive.
Because we are prone to ignorance, we become complacent. We put more stock in what is comfortable compared to what isn’t. We become set in our ways and hardened to change.
Because we are complacent, we can be further manipulated.
While this breakdown of human conditioning may sound like some dark conspiracy out of a dystopic fiction novel, it isn’t. It’s something many of us, if not all of us, do in some capacity. Consider religion as an example. Religions are hierarchical, with a church leader (usually a priest, pastor, rabbi, imam, etc.) projecting their interpretation of the faith to a group of people likely to take their word for it (susceptibility) and not seek out other interpretations (ignorance), thus enforcing in themselves the beliefs of another person in a spiritually authoritative position (complacency), which in turn, allows that priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam to further manipulate the beliefs of those who attend services (susceptibility).
When we’re out grocery shopping, we’re more likely to buy brand-name products over the copious generics that are shelved alongside them. Why is this? Aside from the fact that the most expensive products (which are usually brand-name products) are always placed on the middle shelf and studies have shown that placement has a profound effect on us, we are conditioned to favor brand-name products over their generic counterparts. We don’t see advertisements for Honey Nut Toasty O’s, but we see ads for Honey Nut Cheerios. The latter is the more recognizable brand, thus we seek it out (susceptibility) without considering the generic alternatives (ignorance), which are cheaper and taste the same. Then we take it home and enjoy it (complacency), only to repeat the behavior again after being bombarded with more advertisements (susceptibility).
Almost all human conditioning works this way. This cycle contributes to our views on money (“the more expensive it is, the better it must be”), us-vesus-them partisanship (“Libtards” versus “Rethuglicans”), and even “lemming” behaviors, such as being part of a trend (“everyone is doing it, so I should”). We’re susceptible to these views, we don’t consider other possibilities, we become comfortable with these views and hardened to change, which makes us even more susceptible.
The “breakdown” of society is not to blame here. Our domestication is. When we say “fuck society,” we are actually commenting on products of our domestic existence.
In Mr. Robot, Elliot’s sharp breakdown of society points out that we let these things we loathe about society happen, that we are complicit in our ideological suffering as victims of a seemingly-unstoppable machine of our own design. Perhaps it’s not so simple as that. Perhaps the things we despise about society are a product of us being unable to prevent it? Perhaps, even though we know society is caught in a maelstrom and we know we are the cause, because of certain “human-factors,” meaning products of human social evolution, we do not know how not to let these things happen?
The above explanation of human behavior is not meant to be considered authoritative. It is merely a rumination, something every single one of us does when trying to determine where society has “gone wrong.” Instead of being a breakdown of specific factors, the above argument seeks to determine if what we loathe about society is larger than society itself.
Some may disagree with it. Some may find it interesting. Some may seek to challenge it. Some may seek to expand upon it. After all, that is the human thing to do.
This article originally appeared at LiberalAmerica.org.
Featured image via Pixabay.