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Popular culture, celebs and values

9 February 2012

It seems, according to blogger Clarissa, that the time has come for me to be carted off to the dung-heap of existence, because I am out of sympathy with the values and aspirations of today’s youth. As she puts it Tweens and Values | Clarissa’s Blog:

I always say that the moment you experience the need to dump on the younger generation, you need to know: this is the day when you have become hopelessly, irredeemably old. If you feel like harping on the horrible values of today’s kids and keep comparing them to how much better your values were when you were their age, congratulations! You are now completely ready to be carted of to the dungheap of existence. It doesn’t matter how old you really are. A visceral dislike of younger people makes you old even if you are 25.

What are these values that I am so out of sympathy with?

According to a source quoted by a source quoted by blogger Clarissa, Being a celebrity is the ‘best thing in the world’ say children | Mail Online:

Children under 10 think being a celebrity is the “very best thing in the world” but do not think quite as much of God, a survey has revealed.

The poll of just under 1,500 youngsters ranked “God” as their tenth favourite thing in the world, with celebrity, “good looks” and being rich at one, two and three respectively.

To quote Clarissa once again, at some length, Tweens and Values | Clarissa’s Blog

What are the values that the author of this piece classifies as good and which ones does he see as negative? The “good” values are Community Feeling, Benevolence, Image, Tradition, Spiritualism, Security, Conformity, and Popularity (these capital letters make me think of the precious writing style of XIXth century damsels locked up in boarding schools who capitalized words like Love, Friendship, and Betrayal in letters to their imaginary lovers. Bleh.) The “bad” or “unhealthy” values are Ambition, Comparison to Others, Attention Seeking, Conceitedness, Glamour, Fame, Physical Fitness, Hedonism, Financial Success, and Materialism.

Now, a question for everybody. What is the main difference between these two groups of values? To me, the answer is obvious. The good values are the ones that are likely to be experienced by people who live to serve their group. People who privilege such values are usually most comfortable in heavily patriarchal societies where an individual’s interests don’t matter a whole lot because the individual belongs to his or her group (family, clan, community.)

The bad values, however, are the ones that characterize modernized societies where an individual pursues his or her own interests and does not abdicate them in order to belong. Where the first group of values insists on conformity, the second one praises comparison to others, uniqueness, personal ambition. When you stop being a slave to tradition, you can concentrate on looking for your own ways to enjoy life (hedonism), take care of your body, and be successful.

If there had, indeed, been a shift in values that is described in the post I quoted and this shift occurred along the lines of moving away from communitarian, patriarchal values to more individualistic and personal ones, then that is great news, indeed. And if you disagree with me that such shift is a positive phenomenon, ask yourself how ready you are to have your parents decide what profession you choose, whom you marry, when and if you have children, etc.

I’ve quoted it at some length because at this point I disagree profoundly with Clarissa, but I don’t think my disagreement has anything to do with dumping on the young.

To explain why I think this should be so, however, I have to go back to my own youth, though not as far as when I was 9 or 10. At that age we had no TV, no radio, and the peer pressure was all from school bullies and my main ambition in life was to escape their attention, and perhaps to be a pilot flying aeroplanes to remote places like my hero Biggles.

Ten years later, however, when I was 17-19, I read four books that influenced my approach to these values:

The first two books both quote a third book (which I have not read), called The lonely crowd, which describes three kinds of people: tradition-directed, inner-directed and other-directed. Tradition-directed people largely belong to pre-modern societies, but in modern societies one finds both inner-directed and other-directed people. Tradition-directed people base their lives and values on those inherited from a time before they were born. Inner-directed people develop and set their own goals in life, and internalise their values, from whatever source they may be derived. Other-directed people take their direction from other people — their peer group, people they admire, people they want to please, and so on.

All four books of the books listed deal with other-directed societies, and see dangers in them. The organization man deals with big business, especially in America, and the way in which firms demand conformity in their employees. Whyte sees this as a danger that would stifle original thinking. The hidden persuaders deals with the advertising industry, and how advertisers seek to control people and make them behave in ways desirable for their clients. Both were written just over 50 years ago.

The other two books are older, and are works of fiction. They envisage other-directed societies in which people are controlled by the state, though in different ways. In both, however, there is a “director”. In Brave new world there is a benevolent dictator, Mustapha Mond, who says that people are happier when they live controlled, predictable other-directed lives. In 1984 there is a malevolent dictator, Big Brother, who rules by fear. In both books there is a protagonist who is inner-directed or tradition-directed, who rebels against the system.

During the same period I took a sociology course at university, which was heavily based on the functionalist model of sociology, and the underlying assumption was that man was made for society, and not society for man. I once asked one of the sociology professors, G.K. Engelbrecht, who was speaking about how the church could help youth to adjust to society, what would happen if society was wrong, and youth could see that the emperor had no clothes. His response was a very emphatic “Youth must adjust!” and I almost expected his right arm to jerk up, Strangelove fashion, in a Hitler salute.

Now it seems to me that blogger Clarissa is saying, in the piece I quoted above, that values such as Ambition, Comparison to Others, Attention Seeking, Conceitedness, Glamour, Fame, Physical Fitness, Hedonism,  Financial Success, and Materialism are not bad, but good, and that they are good because they are inner-directed. And I disagree on both counts.

First, I disagree that they are good. I won’t go into that here, but I wrote about it recently as part of a Synchroblog on Extreme Economic Inequality. And the values she mentions are not, in my view, signs of being inner-directed, but are rather carefully inculcated by the hidden persuaders.

She writes of children watching TV shows, as if these reflected the values of children, but I doubt that that is so. They reflect the values that adults wish to inculcate in children, in order to make them obedient subjects of the consumer society. Millions of children can’t all be celebs when they grow up, but they provide a wonderful marketing opportunity for people who sell celeb-related merchandise, and the hidden persuaders who create the demand for them.

I can never forget the day I bought my first pair of Levis.

It was on 8 January 1963 and I bought them at Haldon’s in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, the only shop in South Africa that sold them. Jeppestown was a run-down slum then, and it probably still is today, unless it has been gentrified, which I very much doubt. It was an old-fashioned outfitters, with glass counters and wooden drawers with things like detachable collar studs. They never advertised, and certainly didn’t advertise that they sold Levis. One learnt that by word of mouth.

The Levis were in a pile, flat, stiff as boards. The shop assistant told me to buy a pair two sizes too big (“They shrink, you know.”)

They were rough and tough and real working jeans, and lasted for ages and ages and ages. They shrunk to fit and faded over the years.

They were the kind of thing the hidden persuaders hated. As Packard (1960:140) put it:

One ambitious and significant effort to tamper with out living pattern was a multimillion dollar campaign by the men’s clothing industry to make men pay more attention to stylishness in their clothing. It seems that men were much too easily satisfied when it came to clothing. They wore suits for years upon years. Men’s clothing sales stood still while other lines of enterprise were forging ahead. Several years ago the executive director of the National Fashion Previews of Men’s Apparel Inc., diagnosed the trouble. ‘The business suffers from a lack of obsolescence.’

And so they made Levis what they are today, and advertise them silly in an effort to get kids to desire them and despise those who wear other brands. So who’s other-directed now?

I wouldn’t be seen dead in a pair of Levis today.

Does that mean I’m dumping on kids and their values?

No, because back in the 50s and 60s some kids were inner-directed and some were other-directed, just as they are today. Some were dedicated followers of fashion, while some bucked the trend, just as they do today.

And, according to that survey, what do kids today think is bad? Being a celebrity is the ‘best thing in the world’ say children | Mail Online:

Meanwhile “killing” and “wars” head the list of the “very worst things in the world”, followed by drunks, bullies, illness, smoking, stealing, divorce and being fat. Dying is in tenth place.

The research, carried out through schools and online, was by Luton First, sponsors and organisers of yesterday’s National Kids’ Day.

Asked what rules they would make if they were king or queen of the world, the number one response from the under-10s was to ban knives and guns. They would also put a stop to fighting and killing, telling lies, drugs, bullying, drunks, and smoking.

I’m cool with that.

If you really want to know my thoughts on the younger generation and their values, you can read about them here: The youth of today, and yesterday | Khanya.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 9 February 2012 3:44 pm

    You are forgetting, Steve, that these are not the values of the young people. These are the values the author of a blog post (who is not a young person) ascribes to the young people. The idea that all 11-year-olds in the world have some shared set of values they identify with makes no sense. Hence, the only real issue here is what motivates the desire to ascribe “bad values” (or, actually, any values) to all these completely different kids.

    “She writes of children watching TV shows, as if these reflected the values of children, but I doubt that that is so”

    – I never did anything of the kind. I said very specifically that the study of the TV shows had nothing to do with kids. The study was very tendentious and unreliable and its only goal was to stoke the “today’s kids are so horrible” panic.


  1. Izikhothane: a new word for an old fashion? « Khanya

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