One of my favorite quotes comes from the late, great Eleanor Roosevelt:
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
Something that I feel has become endemic in our society is our interminable need to fill our dialogue with events and people.
While the blame ultimately lies on each and every one of us individually, it doesn’t help that we are taking in information in a manner completely distinct from the entirety of human history.
The 24 hour news-cycle that we have grown accustomed to, especially in the last decade, is predicated less on the foundation of truth and the dissemination of broad view-points than it is on flooding us with click-bate, talking-points, and sound-bites that can be easily digested, propagated, and thus converted into ad revenue for the top media corporations.
And because we’re being manipulated in this way, we increasingly find ourselves lacking the tools—the historical and intellectual depth and perspective—that we need to actually talk about the ideas that will actually push our society forward.
Instead of discussing prescriptions for symptoms (which is all you’re going to get on cable news and the internet), we should be looking at our collective problems holistically and getting down to the root of what ails us.
Until that changes, I guarantee that we will continue to get more of the same—more divisiveness and bitterness; less understanding and compassion.
No politician or laws or regulations will mitigate this; nor will the impeachment of our current president soothe these societal ills.
It must begin with each and every one of us.
We need to start talking about the things that really matter.
Listed below are 3 major problems that I have observed in our society, as well as some of my ideas as to how we can start working to fix them.
Unfortunately, they are prevalent, and, due to many years of misaligned priorities, have become inherent in our culture.
But, on the other hand, they are also highly interconnected with each other, so improvement in one area will undoubtedly have a synergistic effect in helping to alleviate the others, and vice versa—a positive feedback loop.
Yet and still, tackling these issues will nonetheless be an immense undertaking and take a lot of our collective time and energy—but, the only way we’ll ever have a fighting chance of healing these maladies is to start talking about them.
The following is my attempt to kick-start a conversation about ideas:
Problem #1: Narcissism
Having a little bit of self-confidence is a good thing: it can help us speak up for ourselves or on behalf of others when an injustice has been perpetrated; and it can also give us the strength and courage that we need to face the world head-on and work towards achieving our hopes and dreams.
However, and like many other human characteristics, taken to an extreme this virtue can easily become a vice.
Take the Dunning-Kruger effect, for example.
This psychological term defines a type of cognitive bias where people of low ability tend to over-estimate their proficiency performing a certain task or understanding a particular subject.
In laymen’s terms: those with the least knowledge, expertise, or ability, many times, tend to be those with the most self-confidence.
The irony of this is that the opposite is also true: those with the most knowledge or expertise in a given realm, because of their ability to grasp the complexities and nuances of a particular issue, realize exactly how much they don’t know, and tend to be more modest about their own level of aptitude.
While this effect is not a new phenomenon at all, social media has, I believe, injected it with steroids: those most willing to share their opinions with the world most frequently—regardless of the verity of their beliefs—are justified in doing so by the instantaneous validation they receive from their like-minded peers.
The over-arching result is an entire population of extremely self-interested, ego-driven individuals with an inflated sense of self-importance.
It also doesn’t help that the majority of popular “self-help” advice, both on the web and on bookshelves, encourages us to double-down on our strengths and forget about our weaknesses.
On the surface this advice seems pretty salient; after all, that’s the type of mind-set our highly specialized economy rewards.
Unfortunately (and sadly), that way of thinking doesn’t make us very good neighbors or citizens—because in a highly competitive, capitalist economy, our collective weaknesses usually lay somewhere in the realms of empathy, altruism, and compassion toward others.
And when you can make a lot of money being really good at just one thing, with no concern about your personal weaknesses or how your actions impact others, there really is no incentive to improve upon them.
So instead of having a healthy sense of self-awareness, and being able to acknowledge your emotional and intellectual weaknesses, you might start to believe that success in a very narrow specialty is all you need to be a complete human being—and so you cease to feel the need to learn anything new or improve yourself in any way.
And because you don’t know what you don’t know—and the media, because of the paradigm I mentioned earlier, feeds you a black-and-white narrative of a world that’s increasingly full of bright colors—you just end up picking a comfortable world-view, staying there, and never coming out of your corner.
And we wonder why no one can get along?
It’s because we all think we’re right, and, unless via Instagram, don’t ever bother trying to see the world through someone else’s perspective.
Now, please, don’t get me wrong.
There are folks out there who genuinely need a boost in self-confidence.
Because of a wide array of obstacles—psychological, environmental, socioeconomic—they lack the tools they need to empower themselves in our society and overcome tremendous adversity.
Many of us are a bit too self-assured, however.
We come from good families; we went to great schools; and we landed comfortable jobs.
And despite our having to work hard to get to where we are today, we mistake the privilege that we were lucky enough to be born into for superiority.
Instead of the reality check we desperately need, we keep drinking up the fantasies we’ve concocted for ourselves since we were young.
The result in our population has become crystal-clear: a society of individuals intoxicated with their own aura, lacking the emotional and intellectual faculties needed to look inwardly and assess themselves accurately.
We become harsh critics of others, and our own biggest fans.
The exact opposite of what we need to improve our current situation.
And that brings up my next point:
Problem #2: Indifference
Within the last several months, I remember asking some peers if they watched a film or program that I found deeply moving or that shed light on a particular issue, and, quite a few times, the answer I received was: “I did; but I thought it was too ‘preachy.'”
What does that even mean?
The fact that an artist or filmmaker decides to use their platform to bring some injustice occurring in the world to the forefront of popular conversation is too much of an imposition on your life?
This is another problem that piggy-backs on an increasingly narcissistic population.
When we focus on ourselves so much that even thinking about someone else’s pain is a nuisance, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain a functional society.
Most people think that the opposite of love is hate.
They are wrong.
Love and hate are two very similar sentiments; while differing in frequency, they reside on the same plane of the emotional spectrum.
The opposite of love is actually indifference.
It’s when you care so little about a particular subject that it doesn’t even register an emotive blip on your radar.
As much as the media wants to prop up racism, misogyny, and xenophobia as being the biggest problems we face in our society, the fact of the matter is that the proportion of our population that actually hates others based on skin color, gender, or nationality is very small.
Why do you think so many corporations today stand behind the values of social justice and equality across race, gender, and sexual orientation?
Because it’s morally right?
It’s because those things have become relatively popular and non-controversial.
The vast majority of Americans stand behind those principles (albeit in the most superficial sense).
Sure, it’s the right thing to do.
But corporations seldomly do things just because they are right; they do things that are right when doing so won’t interfere with their bottom line.
And when some things—like racial diversity and gender equality—reach a critical mass in popular opinion, corporations jump on the bandwagon precisely because to not do so would hurt their brand.
Unfortunately, while very few of us today walk around with deep-seated prejudice toward others, many of us do, however, benefit in some fashion from generations of a man-made system built upon a foundation of discrimination, social and political dominance, and unearned privilege.
And when you are indifferent to our not-so-pleasant history as human beings, you can become blind to many of the societal problems that linger on in the present from a previous era—this despite “equality” having become the new corporate catch phrase.
When we go through life never reckoning with this very uncomfortable truth, our collective cataracts allows us to think that our work is over, and we buy into a very popular—and dangerous—line of thinking that everyone is now officially “equal.”
Problems that require deep thought and system-wide reorganization just get superficially treated, providing us a short-term solution and pushing the underlying cause even deeper below the surface.
Meanwhile, our social etiquette continues to degrade.
I wonder why.
In the long run, it won’t matter how many “Fortune 500” companies air commercials with interracial, or same-sex, couples to sell their products, or how much they preach diversity and tolerance to their employees and in their mission statements.
If we don’t care enough to learn about, and actually address, the very real disparities that still exist among us—specifically in economic terms and regardless of skin color, where we come from, how many X chromosomes we were born with, or whom we choose to love—things will continue to get worse.
And that brings me to my last point:
Problem #3: Greed
The inevitable result of a society growing increasingly more narcissistic and indifferent toward one another is one that values money above all else.
And when financial gain becomes the epitome of success for a community—over values such as kindness, generosity, discipline, and a moral character—civility and compassion between individuals within that community ultimately suffer.
The saying goes that men and women lie, but numbers, however, do not.
According to a 2017 Federal Reserve Report, the top 1% of families brought in almost a quarter of overall income; while the bottom 90% brought in less than half of the country’s total income.
80% of all workers make less than $60,000.
And that’s just yearly income.
Things get much worse when you factor in the wealth disparity: The top 10% of Americans now controls almost 80% (with the top 1% owning half of that) of the country’s wealth—four times the amount of the bottom 90%!
All the while, household debt has now climbed to a staggering 13.1 trillion dollars.
In Robert Sapolsky’s ground-breaking book, Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, he explains, among a host of other topics, the inverse relationship between income inequality and social capital.
Basically, as income and wealth inequality rise, the level of trust people have in one another, and in institutions, decreases—making it very difficult for society to function effectively.
As the gap between the haves and have-nots widens, the connection we feel between one another is severed, and those at the top feel less of a responsibility to assist those at the bottom.
Funding for education, public works, and social programs for the poor and elderly become less of a priority in the national conscience; and tax cuts for those who already have much are bolstered up as the recipe for national triumph.
Corporations chant “equality,” loud and proud, to the masses on one end; and on the other spend millions of dollars on lobbyists, attorneys, and accountants to help them dodge the taxes that would otherwise go to assist the very people they claim to stand up for so vociferously.
The true moral dilemma of our time.
And because people don’t understand the complexities of a system rigged against them, they start to blame their neighbors—the very people suffering alongside them—for their hardships.
And because the media is controlled by those who benefit from such a system, all we ever get are band-aid prescriptions from one election cycle to another, keeping us in a perpetual loop of division and conflict—all while our problems continue to worsen.
I was raised to believe that one should always work hard and never complain; and that if someone doesn’t succeed, that they only have themselves to blame.
This is still the mentality I hold myself to, and the ethics I lead my life with on a daily basis.
I do my work.
I don’t complain.
And if I fail at anything, I own up to it.
The thing is, though, that because of their position on the socioeconomic totem pole, some people get to make a lot more mistakes than others.
I was lucky enough to have grown up as one of them.
However, I’ve also had the opportunity to work alongside working class people for almost half of my life, since I was 18.
All around me, I’ve witnessed folks working incredibly hard for themselves and their families, but, despite this, not getting very far in terms of their finances, health, and general well-being.
The statistics show that for the majority of Americans, this is the case.
Productivity continues to increase among our labor force; but all of the economic gains continually get funneled toward the top.
No matter how hard they end up working, and not complaining, and always owning up to their mistakes, the fact remains that most Americans are fighting an uphill battle, while a privileged few take a stroll down the other side of the knoll.
Our fellow citizens deserve better.
But because there is such a disconnect between the top and everyone else, and the rich can send their sons and daughters to private schools and live in secluded enclaves, they become blinded to the harsh conditions that the rest of the populace has to deal with just to get by.
A society that continues to operate in such a manner will not sustain itself in the long run.
That’s just a fact.
Will and Ariel Durant, two Pulitzer Prize winning historians and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients, pointed out in their book, The Lessons of History, that the only four things historically to ever reduce inequality in a society have been:
- Plague and Famine
- Political Revolution
I don’t know about you but, of the four, legislation seems to me to be the most favorable.
We have it within our power to devise a system that, while still harnessing the innovative potential of human ambition and self-interest, allows for a more just and equitable distribution of income.
The thing is, no politician can force this upon us; we have to want it for ourselves—and then demand it of our leaders.
For that to happen, our values must change.
So how do we do that?
If our society has become afflicted with high levels of narcissism, indifference, and greed among its citizens, then it would seem logical to work toward fostering a spirit among us of the exact opposite traits—modesty, love, and generosity.
I’m a firm believer that the example has to be set at the top.
You can’t expect the least among us to change their behavior when they are struggling daily just to make ends meet—especially when those to whom much has been given don’t exude the ethos they preach down so vehemently at those below them.
Everyone should have the mentality of wanting to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps;” however, a lot of people are walking around without boots, while those of us with 3 and 4 pairs condescendingly wag our fingers at them.
What many of us need is a change in outlook.
Without viewing the bigger picture every now and then, we might fall into the trap that inevitably lays at the finish line of the rat race. (Hint: there is no finish line.)
I’m born and raised in Miami, Florida, a major American city considered a national “playground,” known especially for its glitz, glamour, wealth, and decadence.
I also have the privilege of getting to live and work in the heart of downtown, right in the midst of it all.
Looking around me, and if I’m not careful, it can become quite easy to focus on what I don’t have: the brand names, designer clothes, and foreign timepieces blanketing the bodies of some of the most beautiful people on earth; the exotic cars speeding down Biscayne Boulevard with no regard for the speed limit, music blasting for all to hear; the yachts gliding to and fro across crystal blue waters on brilliant, sun-filled days, bikini-clad beauties sunbathing atop their bows.
Perspective is a powerful thing.
And when you make a choice to open up your frame of reference, you realize that the picturesque facade painted above is not real life.
$60,000 per year and you are making more money than 80% of all Americans.
$90,000 annually, and you are officially in the top 10% of earners.
Viewed in this way, you might realize that—while by no means all peaches and cream—your life isn’t as bad as you thought it was.
So, you start to loosen up, and become more grateful for what you have, instead of envious of those around you.
And appreciation, when practiced daily, over time inevitably leads to modesty.
Modest people, no matter how successful, don’t take things for granted.
When they accomplish something, they are slow to take the credit and quick to point out those that helped them along the way.
They are brutally honest with themselves, and acknowledge their shortcomings as forcefully as they do their strengths.
If they see a weakness in themselves, they attempt to improve that flaw instead of pretending it doesn’t exist.
They drop their ego and look toward others for direction and enlightenment.
That is why modesty ultimately leads to curiosity—about others, and about the world you live in.
You start to think about issues more deeply, dropping any preconceived notions you might have carried without an honest investigation.
You start to see the complexity in the world, and stop accepting the black-or-white narrative (literally) our politicians and pundits offer us.
You stop viewing the world through a zero-sum prism, and you realize that a rising tide indeed lifts all boats.
You start talking to other people, instead of pushing them away because they don’t think exactly like you.
If you consider yourself a liberal, you focus less on identity politics and a little more on uniting people—because even though there are still racists and sexists out there, the vast majority of us aren’t. What we are is indifferent toward each other, because, regardless of color or sex, most Americans are struggling. So instead of lecturing, you choose to start listening.
If you consider yourself a conservative, you wrestle with the hard truth that maybe 40 years of “trickle-down” economics hasn’t panned out the way we thought it would for the majority of Americans, and you start opening your mind up to an alternative method.
No matter what, though, you lead with love.
You realize that no matter how big or small, everyone you come in contact with is fighting a battle that is worthy of your empathy and understanding.
If we all make a concerted effort to become more modest, and to let love guide our actions, I guarantee that we will become a more generous society.
If we can achieve this, our problems—the incivility, the intolerance, the shootings—will start to diminish.
It won’t be easy; but we have to try.
We owe it to ourselves to do so.
Just like no man is an island, no thought exists in a vacuum. The following books and documentaries, in one way or another, helped shape the views shared in this post:
A People’s History of The United States, by Howard Zinn
Who Stole The American Dream?, by Hedrick Smith
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert Sapolsky
The Lessons of History, by Will and Ariel Durant
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond
Age Of Anger: A History Of The Present, by Pankaj Mishra
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari
The World Is Flat: A Brief History of The Twenty-First Century, by Thomas L. Friedman
Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen
We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg
How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities, by John Cassidy
Capital In the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty
Class Divide (Documentary)
Becoming Warren Buffet (Documentary)
The Republic, by Plato
Politics, by Aristotle
The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr
The Road to Character, by David Brooks
Man’s Search For Meaning, by Viktor Frankl