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BUILDING A GENUINE SOCIAL IDENTITY:

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Al Qaeda itself has in fact aired specific grievances against America which, if resolved, they say, would move them to call off any further attacks on our homeland.   The grievances cited include our military bases throughout the Middle East, our one-sided support of Israel in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, our intrusions and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our historical support of repressive Arab dictators, and our exploitation of natural resources in Muslim lands.   It would seem to be in our enlightened self-interest, and in accord with all principles of peace and justice, to address these grievances and seek whatever accommodations we can to resolve them. 


Meaningless Group Attachments in America

No two countries could be more different by any of the touchstones of civilization than America and Afghanistan.   Yet, like recruits to the Taliban and al Qaeda, American young people too are now increasingly drawn to group attachments that do nothing to develop their inborn talents and capacities for insight and compassion.   As might be expected in our consumer society, the attachments of American youngsters are hedonistic, in ironic contrast to the puritan attachments of Taliban and al Qaeda recruits.   But, in their predicament, our American young people also require the enlightened, compassionate help of society to get them back on track to a genuine social identity.  

In an article in the Jan./Feb. 2010 Tikkun, entitled "Celebrity Culture and the Obama Brand," Christopher Hedges discusses the growing tendency of much of American youth to seek its sense of social identity in the easy but meaningless visibility and connectedness available through Facebook or Twitter -- or, perhaps, if they're very ambitious, he suggests, through the fleeting celebrity of fifteen minutes of TV fame.  

This development seems hardly surprising.   In the face of a decaying educational system, an economy that no longer supports a continuing stream of good jobs with upward mobility, and eroding family and community support, it is understandable that young Americans are taking advantage of social connections made readily available by today's communications technology to seek out an alternative social identity.

Hedges catalogs many of those fraudulent, or meaningless, connections in "Celebrity Culture."   They include: faith in self-appointed "experts" whose books and TV pitches promise to lead us to riches, physical attractiveness, self-esteem, and happiness; infatuation with the many forms of hedonism and wealth paraded on popular TV shows; endless consumption of fantasies in TV commercials; and the adrenalin rush of Reality TV shows that present life as constant competition -- as about nothing more than the strong and the weak, winners and losers.   To add to Hedges's list, one might also note the epidemic of tribal body piercing and tattooing in recent years, which seems to reflect an especially desperate need to ensure the acceptance of peers.  

"Celebrity culture plunges us into this moral void," Hedges insists.   "No one has any worth beyond his or her appearance, usefulness, or ability to "succeed.' The highest achievements in a celebrity culture are wealth, sexual conquest, and fame. It does not matter how these are obtained. These values, as Sigmund Freud understood, are illusory. They are hollow. They leave us chasing vapors. They urge us toward a life of narcissistic self-absorption. They tell us that existence is to be centered on the practices and desires of the self rather than the common good. The ability to lie and manipulate others, the very ethic of capitalism, is held up as the highest good.""

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To put Hedges's views in the context of the meaningful/meaningless group attachments developed in this essay, one could say that the media-based seductions of our American popular culture lure our young people today into a social identity that is both inauthentic and harmful.   Those who succumb to the seductions not only fail to build up a sense of self from the genuine foundation of inborn capacities, but are likely, in their frivolous ego manipulations, to incite differences with others that foster division and loneliness.   Moreover, the fabricated identities achieved will almost certainly be vulnerable to the intrusion of realities that will cut them short.  

In his article, Hedges only illustrates the problems America's celebrity culture creates for its young people; he doesn't offer solutions.   It would seem, however, that an important first step would be an effort to generate a renewed sense of community in America.   Re-establishing connections between young and old in a common culture might well help to draw young people away from their fixation on mere appearances and inspire them again to discover, develop, and apply their own talents to make a difference in the world.  


Salvation at Walden Pond?

In the cases examined here, it seems clear that meaningless, or undeliberated, attachments to value-based groups can lead to group-think and demonization of the Other, and so put at risk inborn human capacities for creative self-expression, intellectual and moral insight, and empathy for others.   If we can also assume that the deepest satisfaction available to human individuals is the free exercise of these very capacities, we might logically conclude that the surest way to an authentic life is to live, as it were, alone at Walden Pond.  

For all but a Thoreauvian few, however, such a choice is both impractical and self-defeating.   It is impractical for several reasons: because man is by nature a social animal; because he must earn a living as part of an integrated economy; and because society provides both a physical infrastructure for personal security, and a diversity of institutions, technologies, values and activities that compose civilization and make it possible to live a life that is distinctly human.   Avoiding group attachments is also self-defeating, since, despite the risks of dehumanization they entail, they are essential to achieving the sense of social identity that is a central human need.   
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The real question then is, How can individuals be attached to groups that espouse particular views and aims, or practice particular professions, or compete with other enterprises in the commercial marketplace, in a way that gives them a distinct role in society, but does not suppress their personal creativity, critical judgment, or humanity? To my mind, there is only the one way I have already suggested.   It is to first determine one's own inborn talents and ways of looking at things, then to attach oneself to educational, creative, business, professional, or value-based groups that offer the best opportunities to develop those capacities or to apply them constructively in society.  

As has already been proposed, the group attachments made to achieve a social identity can be either meaningless or meaningful.   The meaningless attachment is one that is made merely as a matter of convenience, emotional impulse, or hoped-for financial or social advantage.   Such an attachment might be characterized as "expedient."   For example, a man may earn a master's degree in English and, though inclined by nature to pursue the creative opportunities of a journalist or teacher, take a job in a public relations firm simply because it is immediately available or seems to place less stringent demands on personal responsibility.   He may then join the Republican Party because of family tradition, or because it is socially advantageous in the community in which he lives or professionally advantageous in his line of work.   Of course, none of these motives has anything to do with finding a rational match between his own talents and insights, and groups that offer the best chance to develop them fully and encourage their constructive expression.   The attachments made, therefore, can well lead to a meaningless immersion in group-think and the creation of what might be called a "false" social identity.

A second, more meaningful, kind of group attachment can be characterized as "discriminating."   It might be illustrated, for example, by a man who owns his own small business and chooses to identify himself as a Republican because he believes his entrepreneurial skills are best supported by a political theory that stresses the importance of limited business regulation and low taxes.   Because such an attachment is consistent with the individual's own talents, views and aims, he can find in it what might be called a "genuine" social identity.   At the same time, he adds value to the Republican Party as a whole.   To the extent that his own discriminating attachment is amplified through the full body of its adherents and officials, the party can avoid the tendency to a polarizing group-think.   Instead, it can contribute rationally to the national political debate and keep its energies focused on the creation of objective value -- of right solutions -- for the general good.  


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Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, Bob has continued his work as a (more...)
 

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