In exploring what is wrong with the modern world, one problem sticks out that is quite prevalent; cultural materialism. Cultural materialism is distinct from philosophical materialism (that matter is all there is and there is no supernatural) in that cultural materialism is simply, “material progress at any cost.” It’s an obsession with all things fashionable, all things popular, and with people who live exorbitant lifestyles. We can call this “Sex and the City Syndrome.” I choose to use that term for a few reasons:
1) It’s humorous, so it’s easy to remember
2) Sex and the City is a show about women being rich, buying expensive items, and attempting to change modern morals (i.e. they try and show that it’s okay for women to sleep around and it’s okay for men to sleep around)
3) Sex and the City gained a huge popular following and the first movie did well, even though the series has absolutely no redeeming value (i.e. it says nothing about the deeper things of life and how we should deal with them
The show/movie exemplifies what it is to be a cultural materialist. In a materialistic culture, progression at any cost is seen as good. In fact, progression is valued as a virtue while tradition or anti-progression is viewed as a vice. To tell someone, “You’re living in the past” or “You’re using a 2,000 year-old book” is viewed as an adequate negation of a person’s beliefs. If we can show someone that his beliefs are old, we automatically think that we’ve somehow proven that our path is the correct one.
When we buy into cultural materialism, we evaluate our worth by what we have and not by who we are. In fact, we often view who we are by what we can do and what we have. This means that whoever has the most recent toys wins. In fact, there was a popular “No Fear” brand t-shirt in the late 90’s that said, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” While catchy, it completely ignored the fact that he who dies still dies. The reality is, in death all men are truly equal. You could have over one billion dollars and die in a plush bed and have a golden casket or you could die in the streets, penniless, and simply get thrown into an unmarked grave, but one constant remains; you’re still dead. Thus, “he who dies with the most toys wins” is an asinine idea.
The above shows what cultural materialism is and why it poses a threat to a stable society – it creates an unthinking, immoral, shallow society. Such a society cannot sustain itself.
What is cultural materialism?
Though somewhat defined above, a deeper view is needed. Cultural materialism is the belief that we must constantly be moving forward in our technology, in our fashions, and in our ideas. To be stagnant or rely on ancient wisdom is absolutely forbidden under such a view.
Anything that speaks against progression is automatically wrong. Whereas to begin a sentence with, “Well we should turn to Aristotle on this issue…” often lent legitimacy to an argument, today it is met with the response, “Uh, he like, lived over 2,000 years ago.” The implied argument is any justification that does not come from a modern day author or “thinker” is not a justification at all.
If an idea did not come from the here and now, then we tend to ignore it. It is a surprise to me that such a people would still choose to drink wine, for wine is the opposite of cultural materialism; wine values the old and rejects the young. Instead of relying on the tried and true ideas of the past, those ideas that have gone through the gauntlet of skepticism and survived, we simply chuck them aside for the sole fact that they are old ideas.
Why are we cultural materialists?
Much of why we’re materialists goes back to our selfishness. We like to be pleased and we like things to be about us, so it’s only natural to like materialism because it gives us toys.
The rapid progression of today’s technology almost forces us to buy new toys every other year. For instance, I have many friends who have the iPhone who are planning to dump their current iPhones for the newest version of the iPhone. One of the reasons is that it’s a major technological advancement and will make their lives easier. Or look at television. In less than a decade we’ve gone from HDTV to 3DTV. Granted, it will be another 4-5 years until 3DTV becomes common (just as it took HDTV 4-5 years to become common and it’s still in the process of becoming common), but the fact is we went from regular color televisions to HDTV to 3DTV in a matter of two decades.
With all the technological change, more toys were to be had. Of course, if people valued themselves based on who they are rather than on what they have, such progression would make little sense or have little impact. Thus, the view of humanity changes.
Whereas we used to believe that all men were created equal by the nature of being men, we now believe that we are made equal by the stuff we have. Whereas “social justice” was about making sure the poor could put food on the table or have a roof over their head, it has now morphed into this teaching that everyone needs to be materialistically equal. In other words, it’s not fair that you have a better car than me. We measure our value and subsequently our equality on what we have rather than on who we are.
With such progression and an emphasis on material goods, a change in morality is inevitable. Any moral code we disagree with we can simply set aside and use the argument, ‘Well that’s an old belief.” When such a defense won’t work, we turn around and use pragmatism in order to justify our beliefs. “Well, we need to continue trade with China because it keeps our goods at a low cost. It would crash our economy if we stopped trading with China.” Never mind the fact that China uses the equivalent of slave labor in order to keep our goods so cheap. Better to crash the economy and have a clear conscience than to live a comfortable lifestyle on the backs of slaves.
Of course, because materialism is so accepted in our nation, it’s impossible to purchase products that haven’t in some way been affected by slavery. Materialism is so ingrained in our culture that we have no choice but to use such products.
The point in all of this is to show that we take our morality and sacrifice it as the alter of progression. We want to progress as much as we can and do what makes us popular or feels good, so we forget certain moral codes or throw them out.
Finally, materialism provides endless amounts of entertainment. A great example is the show Jersey Shore, which takes a few Jersey residents who no one had ever heard of, films their lives, and suddenly the show is a hit. Even though the show has absolutely no redeeming value – other than to serve as an object lesson of what it is to throw away one’s humanity – people eat it up. So much so that the people on the show becomes some sort of guru. Everyone suddenly wants to be like them, dress like them, and act like them.
Of course, Jersey Shore will go the way of the Real World and other reality shows. Next year or the year after some new show will come along to entertain people. But in our materialism, we become entertained to death.
We have to watch the most popular shows because if we don’t how can we relate to people at work? Talk to them about the deeper issues in life? Ask them about their families? None of this connects us like talking about what happened on television last night. It shows that we’re in the know. In this version of materialism, we’re valued by what we know about pop culture rather than by who we are.
What does cultural materialism accomplish?
Before critiquing cultural materialism, I must say that I’m not against technological progress. Such progress does make our lives easier and can actually have great benefits in terms of learning, medicine, and other valuable things. What I promote, however, is progression within reasonable limits. Is such progression moral (e.g. will this enslave more third world citizens, or will it be one ethically and under proper wages)? If it is moral then do it. If not, then find other ways to progress.
With that said, there’s not a lot that it accomplishes that is positive. It creates a culture that lives their lives vicariously through any number of celebrities or reality show stars. It creates a culture that isn’t worth living in.
What’s wrong with cultural materialism?
The first reason cultural materialism is wrong is that it makes us dumb, that is, unable to speak on the things that matter in life. There’s nothing wrong with watching TV, buying a laptop, having an HDTV, or dressing nice. The problem is when we obsess over such things or define who we are by what we have. When we do so, we become dumb.
We’re so busy searching for the newest thing or wanting to keep up with everyone else, that we have little to no time for actual education. We look at people like William Lane Craig or Stephen Hawking who relied on technology to get their works published, but they are not dumb because they relied on technology. Instead, they know who they are as people and instead use technology to express who they are, rather than the other way around.
Now look at someone who is obsessed with reality TV or reads all the gossip magazines to know what to wear. Such a person has little to contribute to a discussion on what it means to be human. When an entire society begins to go the way of the ditz, it quickly begins to go the way of the dodo.
The second reason cultural materialism is wrong is that it makes us immoral. We look at the issue of embryonic stem cell research. Opponents are told that they’re in the way of progress, but what is ignored is that the progress comes at the expense of human lives. I will ardently declare and proudly proclaim that I do stand in the way of “progress” when human lives are used to achieve such progress.
In a society that lives in and for the now, morals must be ignored. The reason is that morality is timeless. What was moral 4,000 years ago is moral today, whether or not society 4,000 years ago or today recognizes it as such. This is why we have such a thing as “immorality.” A society might say that segregation is moral, but in reality segregation is immoral, even if society disagrees with the absolute. While our view of certain morals might change, morality itself does not change.
But because morals are eternal this also means they are ancient, and if they are ancient then a world living in the here and now wants nothing to do with them. Morals aren’t up for the “modern times.” “Well we used to view that as immoral, but we don’t today.” Well why don’t we today? Telling me that modern society doesn’t view something as immoral or moral doesn’t tell me if such a view is correct.
Finally, a society that lives for cultural materialism is a society full of empty people. We lose who we are in the pursuit to live like someone else. Because of how humans are constructed, we will all desire to live as someone else. We will have role models who’s examples we follow. That we will all emulate someone else’s life (or multiple people’s lives) is a given, but what is not given is whether we will emulate someone who has a content-filled life, or someone who has an empty life.
Unfortunately, many people choose to emulate those who lead empty lives. We emulate the rich, the powerful, and the fashionable, but ignore the flaws of such people. We say, “Well this celebrity wears this item, and I wear this item, so I’m like this celebrity. And this celebrity is popular and cool, and I’m like this celebrity, so I should be popular and cool!” Instead of following those who have led good lives, lives that match up with Reality, we instead follow those who have done little to nothing for this world other than be famous and spend money.
What is the solution?
The first thing we can do to fix the problem of cultural materialism is to realize that as humans we are body and soul. This means we are material and immaterial. Just as it’s wrong to focus solely on the immaterial side of humanity, it’s also wrong to focus solely on the material side of humanity.
This is what we call elevating the particulars above the universals. Temporal items, such as a hammer, only have value because of universals. For instance, feeding a starving man a ham sandwich is good. The ham sandwich is temporal, but the starving man is eternal. The temporal becomes good and has meaning in light of the eternal. The ham sandwich is the particular and the man is the universal.
When we recognize the distinction between eternal and temporal (which are both metaphysically equal in that they are created, but ontologically different in their roles) we begin to realize that material goods only have meaning in light of the eternal. What happens is we lift the particulars above the universals. We let our material goods define who we are and what we do, when the reality is we define the material goods and use them for our purposes.
There’s nothing wrong with temporal items, but they are particulars to the universals. This means when removed from the universals, they lose meaning. When we ignore the universals, the particulars begin to define us. Instead, when we believe the universal, “All human beings have equal value,” we begin to use material goods in light of the above.
Secondly, don’t always buy into cultural fads. Don’t let celebrities or the like be your role models unless they emulate virtue. If they don’t, then don’t live like them. Instead, find those who are virtuous, who have upstanding moral character and act upon that character, and live like they do.
Finally, realize that morals never change. The only thing that changes is our view of morality. The ancient world was not aware of the Americas, yet the Americas still existed. This means that the ancient world had the wrong view of the geographic world. Likewise, just because something is moral doesn’t mean it aligns with reality. We may say something is moral or immoral, but the opposite might be true. We should always seek out what is moral.
If our society cannot move away from its cultural materialism, then our society is doomed. At some point, a society outspends itself and becomes shallow and empty. Societies exist because they have a core view of what it means to be a human and what it means to be a collection of humans. When we lose the thinkers who can help us discover the answer to either of those issues, then society ceases to exist.
 The term “syndrome” is used tongue-in-cheek. I don’t think people have a genetic predisposition to being materialistic nor do I think it is something people uncontrollably catch. Sex and the City Syndrome is something people freely commit to, but I use Sex and the City Syndrome to describe these actions.