Value: Life’s Great Conspiracy Theory

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Ok, Boomer

I love reading articles about the different ways in which younger generations are killing off entire industries. Looking around for “news” stories emphasizing the phenomenon can be a fun little experiment. For one thing, you find what I can only deem ideal examples of journalistic excellence. These informative master works consist of gems such as ‘Millenials Are Killing Applebee’s,’ ‘Millennials Are Killing Beer,’ and ‘Millennials Are Killing Napkins!’ With well-known outlets like Business Insider latching onto this idea, the problem must be quite serious, indeed! It’s easy to look at a trend like this one and classify it as a simple case of baby boomers misidentifying the foundational tenets of civil society as low-quality restaurants, social drinking, and inferior paper towels. However, I think there’s something a bit more interesting tucked somewhere in this strange phenomenon. Perhaps one might interpret this as an older generation clinging to relatively unimportant things because they’re representative of, broadly, tradition. They’re subtle markers of a past paradigm that was once quite stable, the little things that never stood out yet still felt deeply interwoven with the very fabric of an era. On the other hand, one might also respond that it would be absurd to, for even one moment, posit that Applebee’s and napkins have immense cultural importance, but I believe there are still some more interesting ideas to unpack along this line of thinking.

Older generations who bash the youth aren’t the only ones who feel as though they’re missing something. The very structure of modern society in the United States has been radically shifting over the past few decades, so now many Americans are left with a sense of emptiness. That vague yet intense emptiness is so pervasive that, for the young especially, it has taken hold of pop culture and mimetically infiltrated the collective societal consciousness, fueling an entire generation of edgy teens. One of the most interesting responses to this macro-level cultural change and emptiness is a powerful social fixation with meaning, purpose, passion, or whatever other related, abstract noun one might hope would fill that void. As Doctor of Psychology Marcia Reynolds notes: “Everywhere I turn, I read or am told I must find my purpose.” But with the way our world is changing, people are investing meaning into groups, activities, and practices that harm themselves and others.

The Push for Purpose

What drives this collective push for purpose? To start, we can look somewhere a bit unexpected. When unveiling a Facebook initiative to bring people together into meaningful groups, CEO – and undercover alien – Mark Zuckerberg pointed out something important about modern society. He said that social groups “provide all of us with a sense of purpose … that we are needed and part of something bigger than ourselves … However, there has been a striking decline in the important social infrastructure of local communities over the past few decades.” A growing number of people have stopped engaging in those social groups that have traditionally helped people find some sort of purpose or meaning in life. The reasons for this decline in social participation are varied and complex, but a line of sociological thinking popularized by Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone pins this decline on the changing structures of modern life in the United States.

In the mid-20th century, the cornerstones of American society were strong community-based networks, but since then, things have changed. The separation of areas into cities and suburbs, along with ever-growing commute times, have contributed to suburbanization and urban sprawl. As major urban areas grew, suburbs followed, separating work and home. People traveled long distances into modern, urbanized cities before returning home to suburbs. Individuals could move around more easily, but when they arrived in new places, they were not able to find communities. When they returned home after work, they encountered greater segregation along lines of race and class. Putnam found a tendency of suburbs to separate into “lifestyle enclaves” that were homogenous in terms of social status, level of education, and race. Ethnographer M.P. Baumgartner further found that, far from promoting some comfortable form of community engagement, these types of communities empirically foster seclusion, making suburban life increasingly impersonal and less communitarian. Furthermore, a rapidly growing and advancing economy put pressure on the typical family structure as, more and more often, both parents in a household worked long hours away from home. Social media and electronic entertainment such as television made leisure time an intensely private affair, disconnected from communities. As technology becomes faster and smarter and more awesome, our lives become more digitized, more atomized, and more individualized. In sum, rapid suburbanization in this country, in addition to technological progress and the intense American emphasis on individualism and self-sufficiency, made people less likely to interact with even their neighbors – to form those vital community-based networks in the first place. The changes in modern life have eviscerated the social groups that once provided us with ready sources of meaning. It is because of these changes that for the past several years, the dominant American ethos has been one of quiet isolation and self-restraint in the pursuit of a more private life.

It is in this environment that an overwhelming cultural desperation for finding a quick and easy sense of purpose has kicked into high gear. The Harvard Business Review took a look at the usage of the phrase “follow your passion” over time and found that it only began to be popular in the 1990s, and its usage has near quadrupled in the 2000s. It is in this push that the search for meaning becomes reduced to quick slogans and pithy aphorisms. In a TEDx talk titled “How to know your life purpose in five minutes,” producer Adam Leipzig spends ten minutes demonstrating to the audience that determining the meaning of an entire life requires no more than five simple questions. This video has twelve and a half million views, and it’s just one of hundreds of videos that caters to an enormous demand to find purpose in a way that is quick, simple, and easy.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a purpose. In fact, finding some greater sense of meaning in life can be incredibly valuable. As Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky puts it: “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” Furthermore, the problem isn’t the change in modern society. After all, change is often a wonderful thing. The issue is that, on a large scale, we have not adapted to these changes, and many still look to external sources that no longer exist – such as those community-based networks – to ground the meaning they feel they’re missing.

For example, take Ricky Caya, a postal service worker living in Quebec who was one of these individuals who felt that he desperately needed to find some sense of purpose. He said, “The Great social movements of the 1960s, the American civil rights movements … people today don’t have that” and that “In the end, what people want is to be united in something bigger than them.” Well, to fulfill that desire, Ricky joined La Meute, an anti-Islam hate group, through that very same Facebook initiative created expressly to help people find meaningful groups in their lives. That’s more than just a wild coincidence. Sammy Rangel, a former extremist himself and co-founder of the organization Life After Hate, argues that cults and hate groups specifically target people who are like Ricky, who desperately need some sense of purpose, because they are the most vulnerable to messages of supposed community and ideological simplicity pushed by these groups. In Rangel’s own words, “They’re becoming part of something bigger and more meaningful than themselves,” and that phrase right there is starting to sound scarily familiar – it’s the same phrase used by both Mark Zuckerberg and Ricky Caya.

The scary aspects of this societal shift don’t stop with hate groups; the pernicious push for purpose has been identified at the heart of one of this country’s most difficult problems. The United States has been facing an opioid epidemic. The U.S. consumes 99% of the world’s hydrocodone. Drug overdoses, especially involving opioids, kill more people in the United States than shootings and car crashes combined, and in 2017 alone, heroin and fentanyl took more American lives than the entirety of the Vietnam War did. Dr. Susan Blumenthal, former Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, examined the areas most affected by the crisis and found that rates of addiction and overdose always matched with decreasing strength in community-based networks – the exact societal shift that has led to people feeling as though they’re missing meaning. Dr. Blumenthal stated directly in the results of her findings that “opioid addiction has become a disease of despair and a tragic manifestation of a loss of meaning.” Looking at the broader history of addiction, this makes a lot of sense. In an excellent essay discussing the opioid crisis, Andrew Sullivan notes that the opium epidemics of the 1800s came in Britain as mass industrialization changed the social landscape and destroyed civic organization around traditional ways of life. Look now to our modern American crisis. The places where opioids have struck are the small cities and towns unfortunately left behind by progress – such as places in the Rust Belt where social life was once centered around factories, mills, and mines: now mere memories of meaningful, collective life, wiped out by rapid societal change and replaced with addiction. As people felt they were losing grasp of meaning, they reached for something, for anything, for a narcotic to fill that seemingly unacceptable void.

It can be easy for conceptual complexities to draw us away from an issue as deeply human as this one, but the consequences are hardly abstract. This is the life of the 20-year-old man who is found dead in a public bathroom because he overdosed on heroin. This is the life of Saïd El-Amari, who was shot outside his local mosque in Quebec, where Ricky Caya joined an anti-Muslim hate group. This is the life every single person who has had to deal with a loved one committing suicide after joining a cult because it provided something bigger or more meaningful. In the search for something, some are willing to give up everything. This is the life of hundreds and thousands of Americans who struggle daily with our powerful push for purpose.

An Old Exploration of a New Experience

Residents of the United States in the 21st century are most certainly not the first people to experience a phenomenon like this one. Well over one hundred years ago, Europe was facing a somewhat similar problem. In Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, he analyzes how large swathes of European society descended into nihilism during his time. He found that the traditional sources of value, such as religion or societal moral standards, began to disappear after being thrown into question by major scientific discoveries and Enlightenment philosophy. Without those ready sources to provide people with meaning, many Europeans felt that meaning in life simply did not exist, and this type of nihilism is a straightforward negation of the will to live. Nietzsche argued that people must arrange their lives to affirm living life, and in his view, one can do that by treating value the same way people treat works of art. Specifically with fictional stories, humans enjoy discussing and arguing about events that occur in the plot while still fully aware that the events of the story have never existed. He prefers thinking of values like this, a sort of honest illusion, because it means that we can choose our own values and orient them in any way we want. Even when our knowledge of the empirical world changes or when our faith in religion fades, the values that we choose can still affirm living life.

I think that much of what Nietzsche said about Europe so many years ago holds true in the United States today. In the same way that Europe was then losing the institutions which once grounded meaning, the United States is now grappling with the broad changes which have restructured society. This environment provides an opportunity to examine the way that I find meaning in my own life. After reading On the Genealogy of Morality, I found that Nietzsche’s argument about creating one’s own values matched deeply with my own experience. Specifically, I found that I could invest my own sense of value and meaning into the rituals that I engage in throughout my daily life. From my morning routine to the little mental process I always re-enact when I’m preparing to perform in front of an audience, seemingly mundane actions can ground me in something consistent from which I might create meaning. Modern psychology actually somewhat confirms this. Traditionally, people used to think that meaning came from actions having a point, that is: some broader sense of externally defined and located purpose. However, research by University of Missouri psychologist Samantha Heintzelman suggests that for far too long we have been overlooking another facet of meaning, something that can come from within ourselves – those coherent factors of daily life. Simple actions such as keeping an organized schedule, taking the same route to work every morning, and having daily traditions like family dinner empirically helped people realize that they were living unified and meaningful lives. Looking back to Nietzsche, I found that I could imbue all the little rituals that surround my life with my own sense of value. Even the simple things affirm the value of living life every day.

An Amazing, Apophenic Proclivity

This sentiment of mine, although extremely optimistic and positive, brought with it its own fearful questions. If everything can be life-affirming, then why is anything special at all? If the source from which people derive serious value could jump from religion to Enlightenment rationalism, to community engagement, to hate groups, to a heroin needle, or to a simple daily ritual, then what really is meaning supposed to be? What separates my optimistic standpoint on finding value in the little things from mere apophenia, the tendency to perceive connections or meaningful patterns between unrelated things – a phenomenon sometimes associated with creativity, delusions, and conspiracy theories? To the cynic, the idea that, through near excessive introspection and analysis, everyday occurrences become foundational for something so immense and powerful as a value to life seems somewhat ridiculous. From that frame, the project of finding meaning sounds like a conspiracy theorist drawing lines from one experience to the next connecting every moment with even the slightest appearance of importance. Such a task seems exceedingly arbitrary and, ironically, meaningless in nature.

To that cynic, I might reply: perhaps it is the greatest conspiracy theory of all time that in a world of such massive scale, where a single life is no more than an infinitesimal blip, an individual might somehow come to affirm his or her own existence as valuable. The fact that the project of imbuing one’s world with meaning is arbitrary does not matter. No person has epistemic access to a perfect, platonic form of reality, and every person’s engagement with the world must necessarily be arbitrary. As such, it makes sense that a human’s individual conception of value would be arbitrary, as well. To make sense of the world, the only tools humans possess are the fuzzy, contingent phenomena of experience. Humans engage with the world in ways that are sometimes logical and concrete but also sometimes entirely aesthetic or completely irrational.

So, yes. Maybe my hope that I can weave meaning from the various threads of my experiences is fundamentally an act of creating fiction. Perhaps finding broader meaning requires engaging with some Nietzschean honest illusions. I think that’s just fine. Life feels a lot more beautiful when I decide to believe that it can, in fact, contain value and meaning.