Sunday, November 30, 2008

Society is the Spice of Life

Many Thanksgivings ago, my father told me something that has stayed with me ever since.

“Society,” he decreed, “is the spice of life.”

First, some context: Dad made this declaration in response to a story I was relating, one of my “life as a teacher” chestnuts involving a pedagogical pet peeve of mine: the tendency of high school students to heap all worldly ills onto the hump of an amorphous entity known only as “society.”

According to my students, “society” is the root of all evil. In their essays and during class discussions, they rail about how “society” dictates what we all wear or buy or listen to. (Don’t worry: teens still wear and buy and listen to these things. But some of them, at least, resent it.)

Gender stereotyping, conformity, ozone depletion, telemarketers calling during dinner—my students pin it all on “society.”

And sometimes it gets personal: as a student once ominously wrote, “I was betrayed by society.”

And yet, teenagers aren’t the only ones guilty of slinging the “society-blame”; adults do it all the time. Last fall, for example, two Michigan teens, Jean Pierre Orlewicz (17) and Alexander James Letkemann (18), murdered, then burned, then beheaded a 26-year-old man named Daniel Sorenson. Responding to the brutality of the crime, prosecutor Kym Worthy said, “It makes us think and ask a lot of questions about our society.”

Well, yes… but shouldn’t it first make us think and ask a lot of questions about Orlewicz and Letkemann?

“Society-blaming” has become so pervasive, it even got parodied on NBC’s The Office. The show’s September 25th premier treated viewers to this exchange, between dumb boss Michael Scott and dumbfounded employee Jim Halpert:

Michael: “We are here because there is something wrong with society.”
Jim: “See, you’re always saying there’s something wrong with society, but… maybe there’s some wrong with you.”
Michael: “If it’s me, then society made me that way.”

Does an array of factors influence our actions and decisions? Absolutely. But using “society” as a fail-safe scapegoat for every aberrant behavior smacks of laziness. And even more insidious than that: society-blaming, to me, somehow exonerates the people who actually do bad things. No one person does anything wrong anymore, because seemingly everyone does everything wrong. And if we blame everyone, aren’t we effectively blaming no one?

So, just what is “society,” anyway, and why does it always seem to cultivate such nasty behaviors? And who lives in “society”? Me? Do I live there? And if so, what does that say about me?

I haven’t ironed out any real answers, but as far as I can tell, “society” is inhabited by “they”—you know, that ambiguous “they” who serve as the go-to source for all the day’s pressing issues. (“You know what they say about ‘Tag’? It ruins kids’ self-esteem.”)

While living in this “society,” “they” seem to spend a lot of time doing “research” or conducting “studies,” which no one has actually read but everyone can reference (e.g. the “studies” that say bacon is good for you).

Moreover, “society” seems to be run by the “government,” an untrustworthy, Big-Brotherly system that keeps us in the dark about bad guys in our midst or earth-devouring black holes.

But even more powerful than the “government” is the “media,” an insidious network that basically forces the good citizens of “society” to buy products they don’t need and vote for candidates they never respected.

Finally, what can’t be blamed on the “government,” the “media,” and all those “studies” can always be chalked up to “human nature”—a convenient card to play whenever you want to defend questionable behavior.

Incidentally, even as I’m saying this, I am fully aware this diatribe against generalizations is sort of generalization in itself. And even a not-so-astute Dunder Mifflin employee could accurately point out that, by suggesting my students have picked up their society-condemning tendencies from adults, I’m blaming their fascination with “society” on (for lack of another term) society. Which brings me to two final points about society-blaming:

(1) It’s scape-goating, an easy way to avoid asking hard questions; and

(2) Like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving night, it’s really hard to resist. (Spice of life, indeed!)


Brian said...

While some on principles baptized
To strict party platform ties
Social clubs in drag disguise
Outsiders they can freely criticize
Tell nothing except who to idolize
And then say God bless him.

While one who sings with his tongue on fire
Gargles in the rat race choir
Bent out of shape from society's pliers
Cares not to come up any higher
But rather get you down in the hole
That he's in.

Mr. Dylan is guilty of the same crime here...but "It's Alright" spends numerous paragraphs and the Bard himself has spent forty-plus years defining the object(s) worthy of condemnation.

Anonymous said...

FYI The Quotable Bob Dursin Shop seems to still be around.