I have had a vague idea, not more than an outline of a shadow for the last decade. It emerged while trying to understand why the US has such injustice, inequality, and treats human life so callously—both domestically and internationally. I was not able to progress this idea until the summer of 2013, when I began researching the Nazi concentration and death camps with Dr. David Wingeate Pike; at the time I was studying for my master’s degree in international relations and diplomacy at the American Graduate School in Paris. I was transcribing Nuremberg testimony, cross-examination, and responses from guards, administrators, kapos, prisoners, and soldiers when I hit upon a common trend: “I was just doing my job,” and “I was a soldier, I did not have a choice” kept repeating in the transcripts. I had heard these excuses and weak post-facto apologetics of self-rationalization before, but for weeks I could not remember where from. Then one day I was taking a coffee and cigarette break when my mind grabbed upon my old wispy concept and pointed out what I had heard and read from American soldiers, corporate executives, middle managers, and employees in justifying their participation in the systems and institutions which create so much suffering, treat people like numbers and their lives or time as resources to extract profit from for the lowest possible cost. It was then and there that the ether gathered into a vague outline, still a mere shadow, a fragment of a thought coalesced into an idea of how these seemingly different things connect. What follows is an attempt to explain that concept.
What is society, or a society? Why do people come together to form one? These are basic questions that the political scientist, or lay person ask themselves when they seek to understand the world around us. It is important to remember that in addition to thinking about why’s and how’s in the first place that we are in a society right now, and that influences the assumptions we make or way we think about the forming of societies. One must identify and separate to the best of one’s ability, the influences of our society from our thinking and the assumptions it inherently causes. For example, it is common to believe that the society we are a part of is naturally formed, as though destiny, fate, or human nature make this particular sociocultural arrangement of institutions and laws is simply “the way it must or should be”. But there is nothing about our particular arrangements that make them some kind of law about human nature, which societies, cultures, religions, languages, institutions, arrangements, themes, and norms survived was not a “battle of the best ideas”. The result, therefore, is not some Darwinian contest proving the rightness, betterness, or naturalness of the thoughts or ideas which we have internalized as normal. Back to my original questions, what is a society and why do people come together to form one?
First and foremost at its most basic, a society is a group of people who come together to do things they could not do alone, cooperation for the benefit of the individuals by benefiting the group. Another way of putting it is that people decide the benefits of working together can and will benefit them more than solely acting and focusing on themselves or their own benefit. It is caused by the recognition that through cooperation, they can benefit more from their labor, skills, or knowledge in common. Societies have grown on all inhabitable continents of the Earth, largely due to the innate human desire to connect more with others, to be sociable with others and the stark recognition that working in concert we can achieve greater things for one another and ourselves than going it alone. Countless times have we done this, and in as many differing ways. So, when thinking about society, you must be able to identify the ways in which you take our sociocultural norms, themes, and narratives for granted. Which means the idea that the best ideas rise to the top and over time there is the progression of society into better and better arrangements is not guaranteed. It also expresses the naive sentiment that this is somehow what a society ultimately should be and shows a complete lack of knowledge about sociocultural changes through history. Thus it is critical that in order to evaluate any societal arrangement, one must search one’s own mind for how it was shaped by the society one was raised in. Which has a massive influence on how we think, what we take for granted, our beliefs, hopes, and dreams.
Why is this so important, as a first step, when undertaking such a gedankenexperiment? It will alter what metrics you use, how you analyze those metrics, and the conclusions you draw. Additionally it helps expose present biases which would otherwise get built into a loaded-die of a thought, paper, or experiment. What we think is normal, and accept as such without thought, invariably alters the course of such a task. In order to give a more complete example of how our ideas and beliefs have been shaped by our exposure to the society in which we live, this paper will juxtapose the American sociocultural norm(s) of objective professionalism against the basic purpose of a society, and the effects even such a seemingly normal and good idea has, in fact, been one of most barbarous and anti-social norms ever seen in human history. The effects of objective professionalism on our society, thinking, and interactions cannot be understated and shall here be expounded upon to prove the very simple point I made earlier, that things don’t have to be this way, that this isn’t natural, or better, or even the best possible arrangement of life and institutions to date, and creating an undesirable world in which to live. Have you ever thought, or heard someone say “that isn’t my job” or “I do my job, the system handles the rest, and it isn’t my job to question the system”? If you say no, you are lying to yourself.
Look at how district attorneys handle their cases, don’t question the morality or ethics of the case, its effect on others, or if the outcome is just. Instead press for as many charges as possible, even if twisting the existing law, or hyperbolic flexing is required. Put as many charges at as high a level as possible and scare people into pleading guilty, because win rates raise careers, not justice, equity, or fairness. Remember that every choice a DA makes has all too real consequences, not just for the accused and their families; but, for every person who knows them, hears or reads of the case internalizes a myriad of messages which reinforce the norms, themes, and narratives they have learned from that society and culture. Society and its institutions are a reflection of our choices, they are shaped by our actions, and are neither truisms, absolutes, or inevitable, we make them ourselves every day. Currently American society has been on a nearly 60 year trajectory pointing people towards ever more robotic behavior, “do your job, don’t worry about the effects it has on others”, “take care of yourself, your career, if it is legal it is right”, et cetera. The tendency to point to existing laws and institutions as a sign of moral or ethical rightness, as a seal of approval for the consequences, an excuse from the moral responsibility we have over our actions and their effects amounts to an appeal to authority fallacy. Allow a historical example, the fruit wall. These walls were used in Europe for centuries to aid in growing fruit and food by retaining the heat of the sun, protecting the fruit, allowing for more productive trees, which eventually became the glass-encased green houses we think of today. They worked marvelously, simply, and cheaply.
While some improvements were discovered and integrated over time, the continued to perform their purpose of providing heat and a more even growing environment. Look at the history of the criminalization of marijuana, sprinkled with heavy doses of racism, xenophobia, propaganda efforts, and a thick layer of ignoring the data. Many are convinced that marijuana use and possession was made a crime, is due to some objective reason, that it ruins lives, causes people to go into psychosis, and harms the fabric of society. This is despite the fact that we have known for decades that marijuana does non of those things, while the persecution of those who use it actually causes harm and wastes resources. Yet we have wasted countless billions of dollars and man-hours, killed people, unjustly deprived them of the product of their labors, destroyed families and communities, and ruined lives in service to a law which was created to give the post prohibitionist government an excuse to continue to get funding, the facts be damned. That is the origin of the lies, misinformation, and the slew of horrors our system has created and perpetuated through the decades. Despite this… seriously… there are people who watch Reefer Madness and think it is based on science or data. This is a perfect example of what happens when you point to a rule, law, or system and use that as a justification for its rightness.
It is like pointing to how the furniture in a room is currently arranged and saying that it cannot be used for any other purpose (we are assuming here nothing is bolted down or too heavy to move), and that if that space could be used for any other purpose the furniture wouldn’t be where it is. Even though we all know that you can rearrange furniture, replace a chair with couches, change carpet for hardwood, remodel a large closet into a bathroom. The same is true of our society, institutions, and laws. We choose to make them a certain way, the furniture in a room is not some universal truth, or expression of absolute science. Even the idea is absurd, yet, it is an argument you can hear on any news station, read in any paper, hear in conversations around the country. “I do my job, the consequences, outcomes, and effects are not my problem” Sounds like a pretty weak argument to skate away from either thinking about or taking responsibility for ones’ actions now, doesn’t it? It is an abdication of moral decision making, that seeks to pretend that through our actions and their effects we create the system which we is purported to be shaping behavior.
By ending the discussion and closing your mind to the moral or ethical dimensions of the outcomes of your actions and the effects it has, you are making a choice. Your choices daily create a new culture, which guides our institutions, which influences what laws are passed. There is no excuse for claiming otherwise. In ‘just doing your job’ and not attending to the other factors you reinforce and continually recreate a system which encourages people to ignore those same factors, who use the system’s encouragement as an excuse to reinforce the system. It is a system which gives those who ignore those effects free reign to opt-out of acting in moral or ethical ways and gives them permission to not feel bad for their actions or the effects they have on the environment, other people, or society at large. In the language of economists these are called ‘externalities’, or factors outside of the scope of the study. As such our society has reinforced the notion that to be professional means to exclusively consider what is good for owners and employers, and to concern yourself with these externalities is to court the possibility of being fired, being prevented from rising in society, or the worst of all modern insults – to be labeled ‘unprofessional’.
If the outcome of a system is wrong, if the toll it takes is not at least offset by the benefits it brings to those who pay the it, it is still right? A little history can go a long way, for those who just read their school text books, or watched the history channel, there is a lot you missed during your World War II lessons. Which is the lesson America decided to ignore from the Nazi concentration camps, that the objective professional dispatching of tasks can have horrific consequences. It may come as a surprise but the clerks whose work made the Holocaust so terrible and efficient were not chosen because they were Nazi’s, or hated Jews, homosexuals, anarchists, socialists, intellectuals, communists, or the many Germans who resisted the evil acts they were told to participate in. In fact, they couldn’t and didn’t go through a new selection process. They were civil servants, trained the same as every other clerk had been since post-industrial organizational norms came to rule business organizations. In fact, any who showed emotion around their work, passion or zeal, hatred or anger, were actually selected out, demoted, given other tasks, those who did not meet the ideal of the dispassionate professional were in fact castigated as unprofessional.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Post WWII America shunned the message that the Holocaust could have taught us about what happens when you prioritize objective professionalism as a virtue. Instead our corporations saw efficiency, increased productivity and profits; and our culture shifted from deontological ethics in business and the ‘good person’ toward the robotic professional. Now we have gone so far that we push ourselves and tutor others to more completely exploit and objectify themselves while performing their job in a professional manner. The primary virtue of professionalism is objectivity, and if you look at the way that claims of bias or unprofessionalism is used against the media, you will see that this castigation is another way of saying “ignore the moral or ethical dimensions, it makes you less efficient, it makes you say things that make me uncomfortable, or feel bad, and I don’t like it”. Rather than recoiling from the post-industrial and Nazi-death-camp-approved ideal of the objective professional we doubled down and made it a primary virtue of our business ethics and society. Now, look around at the daily horrors which surround you, take a moment, it can be overwhelming to look with open eyes at such pain and suffering, I shall not begrudge you the time.
Are you surprised that a country which put such an ideal on a pedestal and demanded workers worship it, model it, and live it treats its people (as they also treat one another) so badly? America has enabled Israel to maintain the concentration camp of Gaza, given weapons and military training to dictators, terrorists, arranged the Latin and South American death squads, undermined humanitarians, and constantly tries to scare its citizens into building ever more advanced weapons all for the sake of more business profits. The crimes of this country are so far reaching and numerous it is difficult to even consider them all. When you choose to abdicate the position of moral decision making to a system which valorizes ignoring moral or ethical outcomes in favor of efficiency, profit, and the maintenance of the status quo; can you really then say you are surprised.
Our system has prioritized callous indifference and chastised those who think that to be good at their job they must consider the outcomes and effects of their choices and actions. Choosing not to bear the responsibility for your actions, your willingness to participate or silently reinforcing that system is also a moral and ethical choice. In choosing to continue in it you are culpable for all it does with your stamp of approval and silent consent. If you choose to prioritize acting without conscience and refuse to consider the moral and ethical consequences of operating, you make a morally bankrupt choice. Society at large follows suit, it thereby becomes a moral and ethical reflection of those choices.
We decide what our society looks like, we decide the rules and constraints, our preferences become the laws (at least they are supposed to, however this has become less and less true of America in particular over the last 50 years. Please see “Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans” by Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright for a more technical deconstruction of the data). Nothing is keeping our society this way except people who say “its the law” or “its the system” or “change takes time”; these arguments amount to nothing more than ignoring the fact that there is nothing permanent about laws, they are not set, they are reflections of public opinion. Well, at least they are supposed to be, and they could be, if we stopped putting up with people and politicians who make excuses. Choosing to accept apologist excuses, refuse lethargy, we could simply choose whatever we want.
The economy isn’t a living creature, it molds to the laws and constraints we put upon it. What we choose it prioritize, it will reflect those preferences. I would argue most Americans have similar preferences: don’t spurn the poor, don’t allow people to exploit one another, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, employees shouldn’t subsidize the risk or cost of an employer, no job should make it so you can’t afford the basic things of life with a bit left over in case of emergencies and retirement, things we need to survive (medicine, doctors, water, housing shelter) should not be out of reach for anyone. But in the late 20th century the Christian community internalized a series of pro-corporate beliefs that when framed as individual responsibility, and punishment for choices, became entrenched in evangelist-fundamentalist thinking. Additionally over the past 50 years corporate America has waged a war of money, first with think tanks, then buying slots in universities and colleges for pro-corporate economists, editorializing news outlets they own, slandering people who speak up in favor of other sociocultural and political arrangements as biased and unprofessional, and more recently by funding pro-corporate ‘grassroots’ (aka AstroTurf) groups which frame the issues as individualist issues rather than social or economic in order to protect their bottom line while getting terminology into the public spectrum of debate.
Our society isn’t terrible because society is bad, it is terrible because humans are just not very good at understanding, forecasting, and understanding complex systems and their interactions. We just didn’t need that skill to survive, we are better at immediate one or two-step scenarios. As a result, we overlook, over simplify, and tend to accept fallacies in place of complex explanations of events. The question of “what can we do about it then” naturally is the next topic, so allow me to somewhat address it. It is not a simple thing to change a system, there are myriad avenues, I will start with individual actions. First, you need to stop allowing others to convince you that exploiting yourself is the way to “seem professional”. What do I mean by exploiting yourself? Well, working overtime, during breaks and lunches, accepting pay and benefits that don’t provide you with everything you need, allowing your job to become more important than taking care of your mind, engaging with others, or overworking yourself.
Look at Charles Darwin, he worked no more than one and a half hours at a time, and never more than four and one half hours per day, yet he made incredible contributions to our understanding of nature and ourselves. Additionally, to combat your inner self from bagging on you, I highly recommend keeping an eye out for thoughts that conform to modern business rhetoric, disconnect your income and productivity from your self-worth. This also means doing the same for others, you cannot blame, shame, degrade, disregard, dehumanize, or neutralize others because they didn’t end up being able to get the ever rarer ‘good job’. The explosion of social problems we have is solvable, but it should start with how we think about ourselves and others. Second you need to stop expecting others to exploit themselves, yes small businesses, you too. Just because you own it doesn’t mean you did it alone, nothing in a society is an individual effort, those people who build the infrastructure you use, the contractors and others you underpay made your income possible.
Risk is not a sufficient reason to treat other people like objects, like merely means to your ends. Paid time off, reasonable pay, benefits, and ditch uniforms unless you pay to wash them. Stop acting like a suit is somehow objectively the peak of business wear, it is a trend less than 100 years old, what we wear should reflect utility and individual aesthetic preferences, not conform to some outmoded idea of what an early 20th century man looked like. It made sense then, most people wore what we would recognize as suits for most of their day, hell even gangsters. But that isn’t the case now, and by requiring, hinting, and suggesting that people who don’t wear suits are somehow less capable at their jobs is ludicrous. It is an added expense that you as the employer should be paying for, dry cleaning, updating and repairing a wardrobe. Never have your employees demean themselves, or allow customers to degrade them, whoever said the customer is always right was an idiot.
Customers are wrong constantly, expect to be treated like royalty, and to receive exceptions for their desired rule breaking. On the opposite side, people who do “business as usual” and may as well be reading a script, if you can’t exercise your judgment, or act in ways that are in line with the situation, then why work there? Don’t allow yourself to become the tool that companies use to brush off non-conforming situations. If you choose to give up your ability to make moral decisions about how a job or task should be done, refuse the job. We need a return to solidarity, where we all just say no. By undermining each other because we are desperate we undermine the improvements we had gain, reduce our bargaining power, and subsequently get treated worse, while feeling it is somehow our own fault. To an extent, as I elaborated, it is our own fault, but not in the way we use to shame others or ourselves.