The U.S. is stuck in patterns of self-loathing (as a nation), and we often don’t realize it. This post examines the signs of this problem and how we can overcome it.
I love many things about living in the United States; I am also greatly concerned about my country. We live in a time of significant personal and political turmoil, and there are many signs that something is amiss in our nation. The United States ranks 94th on the 2016 Global Peace Index Report, sandwiched right in between Peru and Saudi Arabia.
Since 2002, we have had the highest incarceration rate in the world. Evidence suggests that this high incarceration rate occurs because of social problems we could solve if we wanted to do so. We also lead the developed nations in deaths due to firearms. This suggests that although we are an incredibly bright and talented nation, we have not yet figured out how to solve our problems without violence. (Other countries have figured out how to do this, but we have yet to learn from their example.)
Problems of Inequality
We are the ninth wealthiest country in the world, but our wage inequality has increased significantly in the last few years. Many families in the lower and middle class are struggling just to get by. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that “the gap between America’s upper-income and middle-income families has reached its highest level on record”. Another study by the same group found that inequality is at its highest since 1928.
Economic equality is essential for a nation to function well democratically (and even morally). There are definite measures we could take to reduce inequality, but so far we have not made this a priority. The United States has so much potential as a country. However, these statistics suggest that we often struggle to understand how to manage our wealth in a way that benefits all of us. We Struggle to understand how to treat one another kindly and peacefully.
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Our individual lives reflect the unrest in our national life.
The General Social Survey, one of the longest running surveys in the U.S. found that in 2018, there was a 50% increase in people reporting they were very unhappy. In addition, suicide rates have currently reached a 30 year high. While we have grown significantly more wealthy as a country since 1950, we have not grown happier.
A 2013 Gallup Poll found that seventy percent of Americans hate their jobs, and a 2017 report on stress released by the American Psychological Association reported that “Two-thirds of Americans say they are stressed about the future of our nation, including a majority of both Democrats and Republicans.”
We are a wealthy, prosperous country with some of the most talented people in the world. We have often, although not always, been a leader in striving for peace and advances in civil rights. Why can we not figure out how to get along, be happy and live at peace with one another?
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Our Focus on Things, Rather Than People
There are likely many different causes for the problems mentioned above. One of the greatest causes is that the United States has had a long history of valuing technological, monetary, and material progress over human beings and human progress. Simply put, we are very good at loving things. We are not as good at loving people.
And we often mistakenly assume that our wealth and technology give us power, rather than recognizing that investment in our citizens and each other is what makes us powerful. This is focus on things is the dark side of our country, and it has always existed.
Our Focus on Materialism
Alexis DeTocqueville commented on it in Democracy in America when he wrote about Americans, “Their taste for physical gratifications must be regarded as the original source of that secret disquietude which the actions of the Americans betray and of that inconstancy of which they daily ford fresh examples. He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.”
While the focus on material wealth has always been a problem in the United States, this problem has escalated in the past several decades. There is certainly evidence that we are becoming increasingly focused on things. In 2002, our houses were “38% bigger…than in 1975, despite having fewer people per household on average”. We have increasing credit card debt, and since 1995, our country has seen a seventy-five percent increase in storage space rental. We have all of this stuff, and we do not know what to do with it.
As we become more focused on things than people, we become more isolated. This isolation breeds more materialism, as we buy more things to fill our emptiness. We become stuck in a negative loop. This focus on things is not just a personal focus. It is a national focus, and our economics and political policies reinforce it.
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The Consequences of Our Distorted Focus
Critical theorist Herbert Marcuse writes about this very problem. Marcuse distinguishes between two types of progress. The first type of progress is quantitative, technological progress, which is a type of progress that focuses on “dominating the human and natural environment” in order to increase “social wealth”.
But the second kind of progress is qualitative, humanitarian progress. This progress is measured by our collective freedom from “slavery, arbitrariness, oppression, and suffering.” Marcuse is concerned that historically, the United States has been focused more on quantitative rather than qualitative progress. This is unfortunate because it is qualitative progress that actually allows us to be powerful and free.
Theologian Paul Tillich calls this kind of progress “the power to be”.
Tillich argues that our power of being is only increased by human beings expressing their power of being in an equal relationship with one another. This is love, but it is specifically the kind of love that liberates other people.
If we want to increase our power of being, we must have a way to hold love and power in balance in our lives together. Justice is what allows us to do this. Tillich writes, “Justice is the form in which the power of being actualizes itself”. If justice is to allow the power of being to actualize itself, justice must work to correct imbalances of power. It must confront societal forces that treat people like objects or things. And it must also work to develop structures that support human rationality, physical and emotional health, and social development.
This is what it means to value people over things. (I have written more about these issues here.)
Teaching These Concepts
I teach Education for Social Change at Georgetown College, and the other day in class, we were discussing Jonathan Kozol’s illuminating book Savage Inequalities. We discussed problems of predatory businesses in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.
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Writing about North Lawndale, a neighborhood in Chicago that suffers from serious poverty and violence, Kozol writes, “North Lawndale ‘has one bank, one supermarket, 48 state lottery agents…and 99 licensed bars and liquor stores’.” My students pointed out that it seemed like these business were profiting off people’s misery. I asked why they would do that instead of creating business that actually added value and hope to the neighborhood. One of my students said, “That’s just the way America is. Our economy works by making the quickest buck.” The other students nodded. It seems that people learn from an early age that America values things over people.
Suffering From the Inside Out
Caring about things more than people has serious consequences, both personally and politically. When we care more about things than people, we make political discussions that prioritize quick financial and technological progress. We do this rather than investing in human capital through programs and policies such as education, health care, and raising the minimum wage to a living wage. Such programs and policies ensure that everyone in the United States can profit from our nation’s wealth.
An example of our prioritization of things over people is our prioritization of military escalation over other investments. According to a recent study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the United States has the largest military budget in the world, but we rank 14th out of 40 countries in educational achievement (and there is concern we are slipping in this ranking).
This priority on things over people weakens our country from the inside out. Our wealth and weapons will not benefit us in the long run if we do not have compassionate, thoughtful, humane people who know how to handle them wisely.
Our focus on things instead of people also cultivates an atmosphere of self-hatred in our country. When we value things over people, this constantly calls our own personal value into question. We learn to measure ourselves by how much we do. Or we measure our self by how well we achieve standards that are supposed to bring economic value—like fame, certain kinds of beauty, and wealth. Many of us spend a good deal of our waking hours hating our bodies, hating our jobs, hating our lives. And we wonder how we can be more, do more, have more. We suffer self-loathing. (I have written more about this problem and possible solutions here.)
Our True Nature
In a recent interview on On Being, Sharon Salzberg interviewed the Dalai Lama and asked him what to do about self-loathing. The Dalai Lama did not understand this word. Salzberg explained it to him and that it was actually a problem that many Americans deal with. The Dalai Lama was shocked that so many people in the U.S. struggle with self-loathing when all of us possess the Buddha Nature inside of us.
The Buddha Nature the Dalai Lama spoke of is the “sacred” nature that every human being possesses. It is our good, compassionate, beautiful, and peaceful true Self that always holds the possibility for a greater growth and expansion. While the Dalai Lama could not understand how we could hate ourselves, we who grow up in the United States can understand this.
We do not learn to value ourselves according to this beautiful Buddha Nature (or whatever one calls it). Rather, we learn to measure our self in terms of our productivity, our fame, our body’s beauty, and our wealth production. (I have written more about this problem and possible solutions here.) Measuring ourselves according to these standards means we will never be good enough. There is always someone who is better than us or has more than us.
Power Struggles and Political Loathing
This focus on things instead of people not only locks us into patterns of profound self-hatred and self-loathing. It also locks us into relationships of competition and dominance with one another.
If our main goal in life is to be more and get more, then we are going to value policies and practices in life that help us personally. And we will not be as concerned about how they affect other people. In fact, when policies and practices allow other people to gain more, we may feel threatened. We may become worried that more for other means less for us. In this way, our self-loathing turns into political loathing for one another.
And we become stuck in our ego, and we define ourselves by clearly demarcating ourselves from others. As a result, we primarily refer to each other through labels– like liberal, conservative, rich, poor, immigrant, winners, losers, religious, atheist, etc. (We turn each other into things instead of viewing each other as people.)
We do all we can to gain the most power so that we can get what we want.
And we fail to realize that we are all people with a profound ability for compassion, wisdom, and creativity. These power struggles do not help us or making us feel more confident about our country. Rather, we feel increasingly disillusioned and disgusted.
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When Distorted Doctrine Foster Self-Loathing
This attitude of self-loathing and competition even pervades areas that we might expect to act as a counter-balance, such as our religious institutions. When our religious institutions function in a healthy manner, they foster our connection with the Divine and with one another. And when they function at their best, religious institutions become powerful catalysts for building a more loving and just society. They act as a counter-balance to dehumanizing societal forces.
Too often, though, churches become places that are concerned with building bigger buildings. Or they become battle grounds for doctrinal or ego skirmishes. They focus on defining who is “in” and who is “out”. In other words, too often our religious institutions mirror the exact focus on things and exclusionary power from which our larger society suffers.
When they do so, they also become breeding grounds for personal and political loathing. This does not mean that religion has failed. Rather, it suggests that when we view all of life through a focus on things, rather than people, it infects all areas of our life, including our religious and spiritual views and practices. (John Pavlovitz has written eloquently about this problem.)
Is There Any Good News?
All of this so far is the bad news, but there is good news. I believe that the severity of our current problems invites us to realize that we need a different way to view the world both personally and politically.
We need a new sensibility and a new philosophy. In the second part of this post, I discuss some of the key characteristics that I believe such a new philosophy might have. I do not have all of the solutions to these problems, but I wish to be part of the solution. And I believe we can address the problems in our nation, and the more people that discuss these matters lovingly and respectfully, the more likely we are to find long-lasting solutions.
 There are probably many reasons why we are increasingly focused on things, rather than people. One reason may be the ubiquity of technology and media in our culture. These cultural forces constantly pressures us to consume. Herbert Marcuse has written about this problem in One-Dimensional Man in which he argues that in the United States, “A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress” (pg. 1). This mindset is facilitated by a society in which “commodity production and productive exploitation—join and permeate all dimensions of private and public existence” (pg. 12).
 Herbert Marcuse. “Progress and Freud’s Theory of Instincts”. Five Lectures. Jeremy J. Shapiro and Shierry M. Weber, trans. Beacon Press. Boston: 1970, pg. 28
 Paul Tillich, pg. 56
 Jonathan Kozol, pg. 51
 I should note that my students were not suggesting that this was right or moral; they were merely acknowledging that this seemed to be the current state of affairs.
 In order for us to improve our education in the United States, one of the primary things we need to work on is funding schools equally. It is only when we fund schools equally that all students have access to high quality teachers. This is one of the educational measures that brings the greatest educational improvement. Right now, schools in America receive funding unequally through property taxes, and there is no current plan to remedy this situation.
 It will likely come as no surprise to many people that something like eighty percent of women say they hate or are dissatisfied with their bodies. This body loathing has led to higher rates of eating disorders in the United States (and other western countries). Body hatred is becoming more prevalent among males as well. This is one very common indication of the way in which people have learned to view themselves as things rather than as people.
 Other religions refer to this as our Atman, our light, or the image of God in each of us. Non-religious ethicists might refer to it as our humanity, our transcendence, or our ability to express compassion.
 I have been a practicing Christian for almost my whole life, and my faith has been a great source of strength to me. It has helped me to be a more loving person, concerned with justice for everyone. Nevertheless, I am often troubled to see the way that churches often uncritically replicate American pathology instead of shining a light on it.
Kozol, Jonathan. Savage Inequalities. Random House. New York: 1991.
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Beacon Press Books. Boston, MA: 1991.
_____________.“Progress and Freud’s Theory of Instincts” from Five
Lectures: Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Utopia.
Tillich, Paul. Love, Power, and Justice. Oxford University Press. New York: 1954