Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A(nother) Nation of Materialists

The United States is frequently attacked for being too materialistic, that is, valuing the acquisition of property too highly and missing the point that all that stuff is just…stuff. Living here in Germany has certainly confirmed that we are more willing to view life as a sequence of purchase opportunities. As a college graduation present, an American friend of mine received a new cell phone and new computer not because she needed either goody, but because her parents figured “why not?” It’s not bad logic since the new gadgets work well and make her happy, but yes, they were completely unnecessary.

In contrast, Germans hold on to their possessions, including technology, for longer. Many households have appliances in them that are “really old” by American standards, for example ancient TVs or radios, because they still somehow function and there is no apparent reason to replace them, no matter how outdated they may be (or look). In comparison, when I was growing up my parents would routinely throw out any appliance that couldn’t compete with the latest model—which, as it turns out, was most things. This is not a complaint or criticism; like most American kids, I took it for granted that getting new stuff all the time is a pretty neat lifestyle choice. In other words, I was raised as materialistically as the next.

However, materialism doesn’t always revolve around the constant and competitive consumerism the world associates with the US. Materialism can also be of a less physical type, what is called “intellectual materialism.” The kind of materialism is concerned with the accumulation of knowledge, or even spiritual experiences, in order to be better. This sort of drive to better oneself is discussed for example in Buddhism, which describes intellectual materialism in much the way as physical materialism: equally characterized by the feeling, “if I could just have something more I’d be whole; with that extra thing I don’t yet have, I’d be good.” For intellectual materialists, the pursuit to be worthy revolves around the baggage they carry in their head rather than the things in their living room.

Intellectual materialism is a characteristic of German society. Just as the attitudes of American materialism are clearly visible in advertisements that convince one s/he’ll be sexier (read: a more worthy human being) if s/he gets the new cell phone, Germany’s print media and advertising world hammer home the message that acquiring more knowledge makes one not just more knowledgeable, but better. Advertisements for encyclopedias abound here—no, really, they do---breathlessly describing the newer, better edition now available. They make encyclopedias look as exciting as sport cars.

Book reviews are also a huge feature of the newspaper media, more so than in the US to the extent they are not ghetto-ized in special sections but rather get front-page billing in culture sections or blurbs on the paper’s headline page. The language used in these reviews is meant to instill desire: if the reviewer liked the book, s/he will describe how its ideas will improve one’s awareness, expand one’s thought process, truly open one’s eyes like no other book until on this subject could have; in short, with this book, the reader will become better and closer to being a whole human being. The magazine and publishing house Der Spiegel’s advertising campaign says it all: “Readers know more.” These three words are appealing enough without explanation: to know more is to be better.

The picture painted is that the average member of society here ought to work on acquiring as many facts as possible in order for self-betterment, kind-of like how US society is frequently encouraged to acquire as many new shampoos/sweaters/cars/cell phones etc. to be cool, timely, smart, sexy, in short, worthy. The difference in German is that worthiness is measured differently: by the abstract yardstick of knowledge.

This is a pretty subtle attitude and one many would deny—ask an American if they think buying the new iPod makes them a better person and they’ll probably say “no.” Ask a German if reading an extra newspaper per day makes them a better person and they’ll also probably say “no;” however, if they say yes, it’s because intellectual materialism is so easier to defend. To a certain extent, its would-be defenders are right: it is generally better to know more than to know less. And the watered-down version of intellectual materialism is simply valuing a cosmopolitan worldview informed about politics and the ways of different countries. As the cliché runs, many Americans know very little about the rest of the world, and I’ve found this to be true, although I can’t produce any statistics that substantiate the overwhelming sense of ignorance one sometimes senses in the US. It would be nice if we emphasized understanding what’s going on in other parts of the world a bit more.

But let’s examine more deeply: is reading the latest published diary from the Nazi era going to teach the reader more tolerance, political awareness, world savvy, or any of the other things promised in the book reviews? Probably not. The root source of the values that Western liberal society holds dear—democracy, human rights—is the belief that everyone is equal, in other words, that there are fundamental similarities across humanity that make us all worthy, whether or not we have the latest sexy new encyclopedia or race car. The highest value of the Western world is a deep understanding of other people as just as worthy as oneself, and this is a concept both rational and emotional learned from family and environment. Each nation, regardless of how often they read a new encyclopedia or go shopping, has the opportunity to figure out how to transmit this message to the new generation. This value can’t be taught by buying a lot or reading a lot; it comes from a good upbringing in a healthy society. Meanwhile, after the most basic lessons are taught, the belief that knowing more equals being better is incorrect. (As is the American belief that buying stuff equals being better.)

We all have a lot more in common than we think—we all want to feel good about ourselves in whatever form of materialism our culture values. It bears mentioning that consumerism in the US is an offshoot of our Protestant work ethic: since works makes us good, when we spend the money we earned at that work, we see physical proof of our worthiness. And let’s not forget that the United States is a country founded on the idea of equality, which is why so many Europeans flocked to it rather than stay in oppressively hierarchical societies. Their descendants are now those ignorant fat people at the mall. So next time I hear the US casually dismissed as a nation of materialistic morons, I am going to suggest the speaker direct his/her energy towards seeing Americans as long-lost cousins: perhaps weird or annoying, but in every way as worthy.


eremi said...

I think another reason why "intellectual materialism" is easier to defend is that it's much more socially and environmentally sustainable than regular "American-style" materialism. That is, if the world had infinite resources and an impenetrable ozone layer, I'm not sure American consumerism would be considered such a bad thing. I agree with you that the psychology of consumption, be it of material objects or abstract concepts, is essentially the same; but I think the problem with regular old materialism isn't its psychological aspects as much as the waste, indifference to climate change, sweatshop labor, culture of debt, etc, that often accompanies it.

Anonymous said...

Buy more. Think less. The world is scary and full of bad people. Just stay in your bubble and distract your mind with social media. Meanwhile you just a keep on working that job to pay off the neverending debt youve accumulated.

Hows that for american ignorance. Remember your society is based on money as well.