This is something I’ve touched on before, but it just keeps nagging at me. Somewhere, somehow it became morally and socially acceptable for each of us to live comfortably in the centre of our own universe, with everything else out there revolving in lockstep around us.
We’ve been allowed to live inside a belief system that says it’s OK to consider everything through the lens of our own self-interest.
Elect a government based on what “it will do for me.” Make environmental choices based on what suits our own particular whims — dump your trash on a dirt road because the garbage is in your way and you don’t ever have to go down that road again and see the mess — and the list goes on.
Our own personal needs are paramount, and as a result, we can legitimately disregard even the basics of the conventions that make civilized society work.
I probably would be considered a bit of a freak to suggest that this kind of me-ologism shows up in everything from voting choices to driving habits — except, strangely, that’s exactly what I think.
People don’t bother with something as simple as a turn signal because the havoc caused by unsignalled turns primarily happens behind them after they leave the scene. People text or talk on cellphones while driving because their particular need to stay in a distant conversation is more important than the safety of the rest of us who share the road.
Simple things, yes, but both are an example of individuals putting their own interests ahead of society — in this case, the society of those who actually obey the rules of the road.
Listening to social commentator Fran Lebowitz, a guest on CBC’s “Q” on Wednesday, brought the whole concept back to me again.
Lebowitz was talking about the general failure of manners in Americans in particular (and others in general).
Her argument was that people are so insular that they fail to recognize that anyone else has any kind of societal need.
People walk along the sidewalk, three abreast and talking, because they have no awareness that there might be others who also need the sidewalk, and that they need to move faster than a meander. (The irony in her argument, however, was that she also contended that the closest thing to good manners would simply be to behave the way she does — in other words, the world would be a better place if everyone interpreted it on her terms. I’d argue that’s the problem, not the solution.)
Lebowitz put the growing world of bad manners down to a lack of self-awareness.
I don’t think a lack of self-
awareness is exactly the problem.
A lack of any awareness outside the world of me — now, that’s the problem.
Looking at the world through the filter of “what’s best for me personally” has a tremendous downside for that strange and ever-more-
foreign concept known as “society.”
Take something obvious: we’re a great big country with millions of citizens, but effectively only a handful actually live near the sea and fewer still make a livelihood from it. If everyone focuses strictly on themselves and their own needs, there’s no need to protect either the sea or the fish that live in it.
Focus only on your own needs, and things like labour standards, medicare and environmental stewardship only matter to the extent of, at the most, the reach of the end of your arm or the fence at the back of your property.
They only need help when you’re one of them, or perhaps when they marshal a majority of votes.
Cut everything back — unless it’s the pavement on your own street or the complement of teachers at your children’s school.
But remember — society, and living in groups, isn’t just for convenience. It lets us do things we can’t on our own — home surgery, for example.
So where did this society of one, this worship of self, come from?
Well, perhaps from rise of blunt consumerism and the concept that we deserve the most, and the newest, stuff; the need to be the first to have things, regardless of cost or value.
The guts of the commercial world are certainly where you see self-centredness at its worst, from huge corporate salaries and benefits, right down to the bottom rung on the commercial ladder.
As one sales clerk told me bluntly last week, “If you really want to see ‘the world of me,’ work in retail for a few months.”
I believe it. You can get a glimpse of it at pretty much any checkout, where the lords and ladies belittle the serfs behind the cash.
The world of me may work well for the time being, when you’re strong and fast and earning money.
It is a unique kind of world view, and an extremely destructive one.
But perhaps we don’t really have to care. Perhaps we’ll be long gone before those chickens come home to roost.
It is a kind of warped existentialism, and one you may not enjoy any more when, oh, you’re not strong, and not fast, and not earning money anymore.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.