The Enlightened Caveman


Consumerism – Status Gone Haywire

Original Post (with comments)
The last post prompted some back and forth discussion regarding the legitimacy of the Enlightened Caveman concept. I hold that there is a duality between what our genes were designed for and want and what we as conscious, sentient beings want. I also believe that the best approach to life entails having the latter control the former. But some seem to think that the more the latter controls the former, the more the world looks like a Vegas version of Pottery Barn. It’s as if the enlightenment is getting us nowhere. Well, folks I’m here to tell you that this is not enlightenment. This is caveman 101, and, if anything, it proves my point beyond dispute.

I’ve been talking lately about appearances. Why? Not because I’m obsessed with the topic, but because it has everything to do with how our world is unfolding. The idea that one should be aware of his or her appearance delta is what is known in the software development world as a work-around – it’s the best you can do with the situation. Ideally, as the world becomes more rational, and less caveman, the need to be aware of an appearance delta diminishes. Just like it is no longer socially acceptable to utter the “N” word in any city with more than 250,000 people, so should it be no longer acceptable to judge a book by its cover, to automatically cut slack to someone because they are physically, or better yet, viscerally appealing to you, or to do the opposite when someone does not make it over your bar. But to operate as if things were already this way would be foolish. It would be failing to recognize reality.

Like it or not, our genes are in command in the public at large, and this explains the Wal-Martification of America. Appearances also, particularly what we want others to think of us, play a crucial role in shaping our goals in life. It’s all about buying big stuff, expensive stuff, but it’s not our fault. Today’s mass-media world provides the general public with the most insidious of insights – what the other guy has. Everyone watches TV, and TV is a barrage of what the other guy has, the life the other guy leads, the car the other guy drives, and on and on. Conservative parrots will cry about how the growth of government has created the crisis that is the two-career home – the tax burden is so high that the wife, the one who used to be able to stay home with the kids, now has to work full time to make ends meet. The truth is that today’s families have an expectation of two $30,000 cars, private school for the kids, expensive yearly vacations, second homes, and all manner of gadgetry and conveniences, and all that costs a heck of lot more than the necessities of the 70’s. And why would they want so much? Cause that’s what the other guy has, and now they know it. The caveman is but a moth to the flame when it comes to what the other guy has.

Status, status, status. In caveman days, you had to be in the upper echelon if you expected to snag a mate…or lunch. That meant you paid close attention to what the folks with food and mates had and were doing, and you followed suit. And here we are, tens of thousands of years later, and nothing has changed. Well, something has changed – the smarts we used to master our environment eventually bit us in the ass. When we were tribal people, all we knew was our immediate environment. We knew where we stood. We paid attention to the folks with status, and we worked at moving up, but we knew where the top was and we knew, fairly well, how close we could get to it. But when we became more explosed to the outside world, when we started to find out that the guy at the top of our particular hierarchy was nothing, that the pinnacle was much higher, all hell broke loose. Things went from a local contest to a national contest quick, and the caveman is still reeling.

The quest for status, more than anything else, is driving consumerism. We want the big things, the expensive things, but we only have so much money. That means we economize wherever we can on the little things – we go to Wal-Mart. Capitalism, the best but not perfect economic system, is always replete with suppliers for demand such as this, even if the profit motive pushes them to exploitation. What we save at Wal-Mart, we spend on what the other guy has. But every time we make another purchase, we watch another show on TV. We see another guy. Suddenly, the DVD isn’t enough. Now, it’s gotta be the plasma TV. And if we can’t afford it, fucking finance it! There are all these nice people mailing us cards that tell us how we can borrow more than the value of our home because we have good jobs. Jobs that we never leave, cause if we do, it’s time to pay up. And what would people think? But why do we have to have all this garbage? Why do we have to worry about what people think? Status.
It feels good. Every time we get what the other guy has, and he notices, this calm comes over our tormented by TV caveman psyche. Our genes are saying, ahh, we’re that much closer to the top, that much more assured of our persistence for another generation. So, I cannot side with the idea that it is our culture that has created this plastic world. It is the very essence of our nature that is pushing us in the wrong direction. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that life is not about what the other guy has. But it takes an enlightened caveman to recognize that a big part of him will never accept it.

And lest anyone think me an anti-corporate type – we need not rail against Wal-Mart for satisfying our caveman desires. Just as the drug war makes no sense because it is focused on demand, so is our indignation misplaced if we insist that companies that cater to our archaic side are the problem. We must simply endeavor to understand our “shallow” side so that we may harness it and retool consumer demand to complement what makes sense in life. It happens one person at a time. One conversation at a time.

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