We Are The People of the Apocalypse

Films For Action

"Psychologist John F. Schumaker reveals the grave erosion of human personality at the heart of modern consumer culture"

Films For Action, December 2018

For a culture to avoid self-destruction as it progresses, writes Henry George in his classic 1883 work Social Problems, it must develop ‘a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit’, while ensuring responsible and visionary leaders who embrace ‘the mental and moral universe’. By stark contrast, modern consumer culture barrels in the opposite direction, breeding an increasingly trivialized and disengaged strain of personhood, devoid of the ‘loftier’ qualities needed to sustain a viable society and healthy life supports.

Human personality - a crisis

While the ever-deepening mental-health crisis is common knowledge, less understood is the even more serious ‘personality crisis’ that has rendered the consuming public largely unfit for democracy and nigh useless in the face of the multiple emergencies that beg for responsible and conscientious citizenship.

In times of crisis, we turn reflexively to the ‘state of the economy’ without considering possible collapses within the general ‘state of the person’, or what psychologist Erich Fromm called a culture’s ‘social character’. By this he meant the shared constellation of personality and character traits disseminating from a society’s dominant modes of inculturation, all of which serve to forge common values, priorities, ethics, lifestyles and worldviews, and even the so-called ‘will of the people’.

Writing when he did over 50 years ago, Fromm already noticed the unfurling of a personality crisis, using the term ‘marketing personality’ to describe the one-dimensional, commodified and de-sensitized ‘eternal suckling’ that was, as he forewarned in the famous conclusion of Beyond the Chains of Illusion (1962), succumbing to a culturally manufactured ‘consensus of stupidity’ that could prove our ultimate undoing. Since then, the ‘social character’ has become so stunted, and the decline of true citizenship so complete, that some now speak of the ‘apocalyptic personality’ propelling our rush toward self-destruction. But the problem now goes far beyond an agreed-upon ‘stupidity’.

Cultural infantilism

Immaturity has joined forces, as a cultural consensus, with a growing number of social thinkers warning of the dramatic rise of ‘psychological neoteny’, otherwise known as ‘cultural infantilization’. Bruce G Charlton’s influential 2006 Medical Hypothesis article ‘The rise of the boy-genius’ detailed the cultural evolution of a personality profile marked by delayed cognitive maturation, emotional and spiritual shallowness, and diminished ‘profundity of character’ that manifests itself in a ‘child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviours and knowledge’. While these ‘unfinished personalities’ may have increased adaptability in a mercurial culture of inconstant loyalties, abbreviated attention spans and compulsive novelty-seeking, they also expose society to the rawness and limitations of youth that hamper higher-order judgment and decision-making abilities, and culminate in a ‘culture of irresponsibility’.

In his 2017 book The Public in Peril, Henry A Giroux writes about the cultural infantilism of daily life, which encourages adults to assume the role of unthinking children while simultaneously crippling the imagination of the young and destroying their traditional role as ‘the repository of society’s dreams’. Through the engineering of an infantilized society, he observes: ‘Thoughtlessness has become something that now occupies a privileged, if not celebrated, place in the political landscape and the mainstream cultural apparatuses.’ The result is a social system overly invested in ‘ethical ignorance’ and a public sphere dumbed to the value of ‘an enlightened and democratic body politic’.

In a similar vein, sociologist Christopher Swader’s book The Capitalist Personality (2013) documents the prevailing of a rudimental cultural personality featuring exploitive egoism, selfish ambition and profit-mindedness that became the psycho-social mainspring of consumer capitalism. Although bedevilled with deadly long-term consequences, the ‘capitalist personality’ was a predictable outcome of a system functionally dependent on low levels of ethical conviction, personal growth and spiritual wakefulness.

Guilt has lost its power

Of the many ways that we invite self-destruction, the climate crisis cries loudest for responsible citizenship and leadership. It is by far the greatest moral, ethical and psycho-social challenge encountered by our species. But the cultural conditions that foster collective responsibility, other-mindedness and conscience development have eroded. Guilt has lost much of its former powers of persuasion and deterrence. Character building as a socialization pathway to ethical resolve and civic commitment is virtually extinct. The trait of narcissism, as well as diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, have risen so much in recent decades that many now regard the narcissistic personality as a normal outcome of current social-cultural conditions. The same is true of the sociopathic personality.

Researchers, such as those at Essex University’s Centre for the Study of Integrity, have chronicled a deepening crisis in which people are increasingly willing to condone behaviour, both in themselves and others, as well as their leaders and institutions, that once would have been deemed dishonest, immoral, unjust and anti-social. The sociopathic personality has become integral to the workings of modern consumer capitalism. But as sociologist Charles Derber, the author of Sociopathic Society (2013), also notes: ‘Climate change is a symptom of the sociopathic character of our capitalist model.’

Adiaphora

Empathy is the cornerstone of civilization and the faculty of human intelligence upon which all well-functioning societies depend. But evidence shows it to be fading from the global ‘social character’. Using data from 127 countries and over 100,000 assessments, the State of the Heart Report (2016) showed empathy to be one of the fastest-declining components of overall ‘emotional intelligence’ (EQ). According to sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, the psycho-social workings of consumer capitalism make such moral dissociations inevitable. In Moral Blindness (2013), he uses the ancient Stoic word adiaphora (meaning ‘indifferents’) to describe the consensus of indifference that enables consumer capitalism to fulfil its operative promise of ever-growing ‘creative destruction’. As a result, he writes, ‘we are at risk of losing our sensitivity to the plight of others,’ something which applies equally to our socially sanctioned indifference toward future generations and the wellbeing of the planet.

Climate of apathy

The ruination of nature is an implicit assumption of the current capitalist system. While the terms ‘apocalypse fatigue’ and ‘doomsday fatigue’ have joined similar ones like ‘climate fatigue’, ‘environment fatigue’ and ‘green fatigue’, all these imply, not only a mature and dutiful citizenry, but one exhausted from fending off ecological catastrophe, which is of course ridiculous. In fact, around 10 years ago, an especially large drop in climate concern coincided with a deluge of high quality climate change research alerting people to the need for urgent action. In the most comprehensive study of its kind, titled ‘Declining public concern about climate change’ (Global Environmental Change, May 2012), political scientists Lyle Scruggs and Salil Benegal analysed data over the last 30 years and demonstrated that climate concern is on a downward slope, with recent years showing the most precipitous decline. ...
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