The Culture of Meanness
One of the most striking things about much of American culture is the simple meanness of it. The cruelty.
Most of this seems to come down to three feelings:
- My life sucks. I have to work a terrible job I hate in order to survive. I have to bow and scrape and do shit I don’t want to do. You should have to as well.
- Anyone who doesn’t make it must not be willing to suffer as I do, therefore anyone who doesn’t make it deserves to be homeless, go without food, and so on.
- Anybody who is against us needs to be hurt and humiliated, because that’s how I see my superiors deal with people who go against them.
“Life is shit, therefore your life should be shit.”
“What you’ve got is what you deserve.”
There is also a culture of punching down, as commenter Lisa has observed. America has a high-violence, high-bullying society. As Lisa noted you can have a high-violence society in which it is considered unacceptable to attack the weak (doing so is viewed as cowardice), but that’s not the case in America.
In American culture, the weak are the preferred target. Failure is punishable by homelessness, suffering, and death. Sick people sure don’t deserve proper pain medication. Poor people are poor because they “don’t add value.” If you’re poor, you definitely shouldn’t have good healthcare, because if you don’t have money, you don’t deserve money, and that’s because you’re a waste of space.
This appears to be a result of something simple: At every stage of American life, it’s a zero or negative sum game, and who gets ahead is decided by authority figures. Need to get into a good university? You need good grades from adults, you need to have done the right extra-curricular activities, you need references from adults.
On the job, only a few people will be promoted, and the competition is fierce. But worse, in many fields, people are often let go, and the competition to avoid getting fired or laid off is severe.
Who decides? Your boss. You’d better get down on your knees and do whatever your boss wants, because if you’re fired or let go you may never work again, and if you do hang on at a bottom-wage job, well, your life will suck.
When dealing with police, the constant American attitude is OBEY. If you don’t obey, then whatever the police do to you is justified. The police are like bosses in a way. One cop can ruin your life, even if you aren’t killed, beaten, or raped by them. A criminal record means you will never have a good job again.
On your knees, citizen.
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And as my friend Stirling once noted, the next demand after, “Kneel!” is, “On your belly, worm.”
Failure to comply means your advancement is over, and maybe your job.
Americans are desperate for the approval of those in power, because without it, they are destroyed. This is true to a lesser extent in many other Western societies, certainly in Britain.
Having learned that the right way to treat anyone who is weaker than them is with demands for acquiescence and dominance displays, to many Americans, to interpret any sign of weakness as requiring them, as a moral duty, to dominate and hurt the weak person.
People become what is required of them. They learn from authority figures how to behave.
The desperate need of certain demographics to keep, say, women or certain minorities down is part of this. These people need to know that there are some people who, no matter how degraded their own situation, are always lower than them, can always be beaten down.
Contrary what many right-wingers think, dominance structures aren’t innate to humanity. Evidence supports that, for most of human existence, we were hopelessly egalitarian. But surplus combined with scarcity changes that, as do large populations.
Still, while high-density agricultural and industrial societies are innately more inequal than paleolithic hunter-gathers, there is plenty of variation, and within that variation plenty more variation as regards to the level of meanness and cruelty–how much a culture can be defined as “bullying.” In the modern, Western world, America ranks high as a mean, bullying culture.
The effects of this cascade, and can be seen as high up as America’s constant wars, drone assassinations, and the routine torture in prisons, and as low down as cities passing by-laws that the homeless can’t be fed or the desperate competition amongst parents and school-children for those few elite university slots which virtually ensure one’s future.
The entire process makes America a far more unpleasant place to live or visit than is necessary. The structure of dominance, meanness and cruelty is palpable to the visitor, and distressing; even as it warps the best inhabitant.
I find myself without a real conclusion. Obviously (I hope), this is BAD. Obviously it should change. But it’s hard to change something that people have taken and turned into a moral imperative: Be mean to the weak and poor, who deserve their fates. Kick down, kiss up, because a failure to pucker up can have you thrown out of the charmed circle, and obviously higher-ups want to see you acting like them, imitation being the most sincere form of flattery.
It’s all very depressing, all very unnecessary, and all very much in the interests of the people who run your society. Meanness in the chattel means they can rarely get together to challenge the masters, because they hate each other more than they hate the masters.
Kindness is a revolutionary act.