Agency

Something that came up in this book with regards to “the pressure to consume” is that affluent people in certain social or professional circles expect a certain standard of living. Even when they know that the tokens of this standard has ill effects financially, ecologically, or psychologically, they will persist in the pursuit of them.

If lawyers, for example, are supposed to drive SUVs, then you — as a lawyer — have to drive one too. If university lecturers must be surrounded by books, then you — as a young academic — must start building your expensive private library post-haste. It’s not the innate function or beauty of SUVs or books to which you’re attracted, but the social mobility (or at least in-group access) that you perceive to come with it.

In the book, some sound top-down political measures are offered as ways of curbing this problem: forcing a reduction in advertising; making it harder for advertisers to manipulate the instinct to keep up with the Joneses; introducing certain kinds of consumption tax. Sensible suggestions but my inner psychologist remains concerned by the root of the problem:

Don’t these people have agency in the world? Are they really so manipulated by advertising or peer pressure that they’re unable to resist the tractor beam of want? Don’t they have a smattering of free will or ability to go against the grain? Is the fear of difference, of appearing marginally eccentric, really so great?

The alternative to keeping up with the Joneses is not to swing to the other extreme. Nobody is asking you to live on the street or walk absolutely everywhere or to wear hair shirts. Be the lawyer who cycles to work. Be the minimalist academic. Your peers will not reject you. You might even stand out as someone who has integrity, who ploughs her own furrow. You might even be admired for being different.

As one who prefers to grant the benefit of the doubt, I don’t like to think that so many people (educated professionals at that) are so stupid or weak that they would crumble so easily in the face of peer pressure. But that’s dangerously close to the Ad Man’s defense: “maybe we do encourage people to buy pointless tat, but they don’t have to listen to us. People are free to make their own decisions”.

But are they?

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About

Robert Wringham is a humorist and the editor-in-chief of New Escapologist.

2 Responses to “Agency”

  1. Education might be the best answer. Not education as a lawyer or a dentist, but education as a self-reliant human being. If the schools *or* the parents *or* other peers don’t do this job, the advertising industry will. The results shouldn’t surprise anybody.

  2. Drew says:

    I have two things to say on this issue.

    First, people are generally able to recognize “right” when they see it, even if they don’t actively practice “right” in their own lives. So, in the case of someone adopting a more minimalist lifestyle, even though their friends, family and peers may not be minimalists, they’ll “get it” and often they’ll offer praise or even express envy…”wish I had the balls to do what you’re doing”.

    Second, if others really don’t “get it”, then to hell with them. Why would you care what they think? Gravitate to a new circle of associates.

    In most cases, I suspect you’d find more supportive people than not, especially if you are truly confident (but not snobbish) about your choices. You might even influence one or two people along the way.

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