We Americans pride ourselves on being rugged individualists. We are independent, free thinkers, wary about marching along with the crowd. Our political system is both built upon and attempts to preserve the freedoms of the individual.
But if we are such individualists and free-thinkers, why do so many of us fall into the same fads? Why do tens of millions of us absolutely have to crowd into theatres during the opening weekend of Hunger Games? Why do tens of millions own, or aspire to own, exactly the same cell phone?
In previous posts I have written about “shadow values,” things and ideas that are valued in our society but which are rarely claimed as values. For example, we love pleasure and self-indulgence: We can’t get enough fatty foods, we want luxurious homes and cars, etc. But if you ask an American what their values are, they are not likely to mention pleasure and self-indulgence. Rather, we are likely to point to our official values: integrity, honesty, hard work, etc.
Our official values reflect the worlds of work and family. Our shadow values , on the other hand, are related to consumption and leisure. In fact, our society needs both of these sets of values to function. We need to work hard and sacrifice for others in order to produce goods, services, and healthy children. However, our economic system also requires us to pursue selfish pleasures: it is people’s consumption of fatty foods, entertaining activities, and luxurious products that keeps our economy humming. Both sets of values are necessary, but they are not equally acknowledged. We prefer to keep the values of consumption in the shadows, out of sight. We live by these values at the same time as we claim to look down on them.
We also have official and shadow values when it comes to our very selves. I’ve already spoken of the official version of what we are, the rugged individual part. The shadow version of what we are goes like this: We have to be flexible selves. This makes us responsive to the suggestions of advertisers and is the very basis of our enjoyment of entertainment. For our entertainments require us to imagine ourselves as vampires and brave detectives and beautiful women and superheroes and all sorts of other beings. We can’t read a book or watch a movie and keep thinking about who and where we really are. Rather, we have to be able to use our imaginations to enter different worlds and become other people.
Thus our society tells us that we are rugged individuals with a firm sense of just who we are while requiring us, day in and day out, to suspend our sense of who we are as we indulge in the pleasures of fictional worlds. Most people seem to have no trouble doing this. However, it is interesting that over the last half century or so—a time of rapid growth in the entertainment industry—we have seen some significant changes in the nature of mental health problems. In particular, we have seen the rise of many disorders in which the sufferer seems to lose track of his or her own identity or action.
An obvious, and much written-about, example is what used to be called multiple personality and is now called dissociative identity disorder. These are people who unintentionally act out different identities, and this diagnosis was virtually unknown 50 years ago. Or consider the proliferation of addiction: Although rates of drug addiction have probably remained stable over the last century, it is only fairly recently that we have faced an epidemic of people who say they cannot control their appetite for activities such as gambling, sex, food, games, and so on. Some of us rugged individualists seem to also have strong tendencies toward suggestibility and conformity.
I am not saying that these new mental health problems are not real, they are very real and they cause great suffering. I am, however, saying that a society’s culture influences the sorts of mental disorders that occur in that society. And I am suggesting, for purposes of discussion, that in our society there are important mental health problems that are related to our shadow value of the flexible self.
For more information, please visit Peter G. Stromberg’s website. Photo by Mark Heard.