Suburbia, an icon of "The American Dream"
By Tim Hjersted
Feb 16, 2016
A long, long time ago, an idea was born.
It was the concept of Right and Wrong.
Right and Wrong have been with us for so long it's hard to imagine life without this conceptual framework.
The idea that there is a Right and Wrong for everything is so self-evident to us that we may wonder if this method of thought is ingrained within the structure of thought itself. The question of debate then becomes, what is right, and what is wrong?
On its face, there is nothing wrong about relative concepts of right and wrong (see how easy it is to talk in these terms?). What is right for me might not be right for you. What is right for one culture might not be right for another culture. For several thousands of generations of human history, what historians curiously label 'pre-history,' human societies lived with this sense of relativity.
Then a very curious thing happened. One particular culture, in one particular part of the world, decided that their way of life was not only the right way for them to live, but that it was the ONLY right way for humans to live, and every other way was wrong.
Fast-forward 10,000 years later, after centuries of colonization and conquest, and we've arrived at the present day, where this way of thinking has come to infect and dominate 99% of the world.
Our entire society is guided by a moral compass that says there is one right way to live, and all other ways are wrong.
What are the consequences of thinking this way?
When we believe "we" are right and "they" are wrong: wars break out, slavery is born, inequality deepens, and bigotry becomes justified. It all stems from one toxic idea, one toxic meme: that there is One Right Way to live and everyone on Earth should live the way we do.
It seems there is one right way to do everything in this world and it's forced on us from every direction: from the government, from religious institutions, from social pressures, from the ad industry, from our family and friends, from books and TV shows, and even from within our own minds, simply so that we may belong in a world that demands sameness rather than a world that celebrates diversity.
Such uniformity of thought is so ubiquitous it may even be hard to know what I'm talking about, so here are a few examples from where I live in the US:
One right economic system: capitalism.
One right sexual orientation: straight.
One right country: the country you were born in.
One right relationship model: monogamy.
One right religion: the religion your parents have.
One right education system: western mass compulsory schooling.
One right political ideology: whichever one you subscribe to.
One right sub-genre of anarchist philosophy: I cry as I consider how much even our own activist movements have internalized the ideology of the systems we wish to overthrow.
One right gender binary: masculine or feminine (trans, queer, and two-spirit people are aberrations).
One right way to live: Western civilization.
One right language: English.
One right way to eat: with silverwear, obviously! ;)
One right set of manners and formal etiquette among polite society: There were books about this not too long ago!
One right role for women: in the kitchen and caretaker of the children.
One right role for men: the breadwinner, head of the household.
One right way to be an activist: militant or peace loving (there are about a hundred factions on the left with their own opinions on this and if you don't agree you may quickly find yourself "othered" by your local in-group.
One right way to change the world: I've got the solution! This is the *only* way we can change the world! My solution is best!
One right emotion to a given event: My emotional reaction is right. Your response is invalid!
Along with right and wrong, there exists a strong tendency to rank life into hierarchies of superior and inferior (which is determined by the dominant culture).
On race, here in the USA: White is superior to black, brown and indigenous.
On sex: Maleness is superior to female.
On species: Humans are superior to all other life forms.
On wealth: The rich are superior to the poor.
On power: The powerful are superior to the powerless (might makes right).
On civilizations: Western civilization is superior to indigenous ways of living, along with the 10,000 other ways of living which once existed on this planet before thousands of years of conquest and colonialization wiped out most of humanity's diverse ways of living.
Of course you can get quite petty with this mode of thinking.
Consider how many people say one form of fashion is superior to another. Or one musical genre better than another. Or one group of kids in highschool (the preps and jocks and cheerleaders being cooler than the goths and geeks and hippies).
Thanks to reading a book when I was 14, this mode of thought seemed insane to me from an early age, and yet it is the dominant mode of thought in our society and everyone within our cultural bubble takes it for granted.
It's not hard to understand how this evolved. Our schools, mass-media, and every other institution in our society have all been shaped, conditioned by, and created by people who were conditioned to believe the same. And so naturally the people conditioned by these beliefs perpetuate systems which then condition the new generation of children born into the culture.
We, as the fish in water, must somehow step outside of the fishbowl. We need to stop seeing all this as self-evident to the nature of life and see instead how this very dangerous meme - that there is one right and superior way to live and be - has infiltrated all aspects of our lives.
As we go about our normal routines, let's start to notice the thousands of ways, big and small, that all of the cultural forces in our society are set up to reinforce a monoculture of ideas, lifestyles and ways of existing that are stifling the range of debate and possibility of our lives.
Now someone might say, “Hey, I can still think of lots of examples of diversity within this system. While we may face pressures to conform, we still have the freedom to choose how we want to live.” And I’d say, “Sure! You’re right, we do.” And someone might say, “There are still many cultures that exist in the world besides ours.” And I’d say, “Yea, thankfully, despite centuries of violent colonization and the globalization of Western culture, there still remains a great deal of cultural diversity in the world.”
Thanks to the tireless human rights movements that have been fighting against this homogenization of being, we’ve seen a lot of progress over the years. Being straight, white, Christian, and American is no longer considered the only right way to be. At least for a growing number of people.
The rise of Donald Trump in America is proof however that the forces of homogenization are not going quietly into the night, and a resistance to this virulent resurgence of totalitarian thinking must continue with more vigor than ever.
But beyond the obvious conflict and violence that is spurred by this belief in ‘the one right way’, there is a subtle concern I have about its effects on how we even think about solutions and alternative ways of being.
Think about any issue which is important to our lives, and more often than not, the debate is framed between options A and B. And on top of "A" usually being categorically the only "right" choice, this constraint on the range of discourse also erases from our imaginations the fact that there is a whole alphabet of possibility beyond this.
In this world of increasing and oppressive sameness, I have learned to be resistant to one driving trend that dominates our lives - it is the belief in the "one right way" - one culture, one belief system, one way of life to rule them all. This belief equals death - not just literally, as we have seen throughout history. But the death of our highest potentials and truest selves.
I want diversity.
I want to replace capitalism with participatory economics, workplace democracy, socialism, and the gift economy. I want to replace isolated, single-unit housing in the suburbs with sustainable eco-communes with shared resources, public spaces, and vegetable gardens. I want to replace the rigid gender binary with a spectrum of ways to be that allows men to embrace (traditionally labeled) feminine qualities and women to embrace (traditionally labeled) masculine qualities to the point that gender is so fluid and diverse that everyone can be themselves and no one feels boxed in. I want to replace American consumer values with tribal values. I want to replace destructive, smog-polluting cities with sustainable and healthy eco-cities created by mimicking the laws of nature. I want to replace homogenous mass-compulsory schooling with community learning centers and democracy schools and learning villages fostering autonomous, creative, and diverse educations. I want to replace a corrupt and fascist government maintained by an apathetic consumer society with a people's government maintained by the direct participation of an informed and engaged citizenry (direct democracy). I want our consolidated, for profit mass media owned mostly by 6 corporations replaced by 100,000 independent media outlets. I want the toxic meme that says "there is only one right way to live and my way is it" to be replaced by a much more powerful, universal, beautiful, life-sustaining meme: "there is no one right way for people to live."
I want people to see how there are ways of life that work, and ways that don't, but there is no one right way, and that a world where there are thousands of beautiful, peaceful ways of living is infinitely more amazing than a world where we all live the same.
The template-stamped social-life pathway dominant in Western culture is not the only way there is to live.
One day I want to see a library bookshelf filled with books chronicling the radically different life pathways available to choose by a young adolescent, and guides on how to think in new ways to make their own.
Right now there is only one book on the shelf - a one-size-fits-all life template culturally reinforced and maintained by our present worldview. Here's the chapter breakdown:
13 years mass-compulsory schooling - then either collage or skip directly to -
Get a job, make money, acquire possessions. Seek social status, fame and wealth.
Find a (monogamous) life partner -
Get married -
Buy a single family unit house in the suburbs -
Have children (2-3 average)
Keep working and spending and seeking happiness within the frame of possessions until - retirement or
Could there be another way?
You discover a new meaning to life. A new way to live.
Will you join me in creating it?