The Creeping Cancer of “Consumerism”

Once upon a time, a “consumer” was someone who consumed/used physical goods and limited kinds of services provided by others. Today, especially in the United States, almost everything is viewed through the lens of consumerism and the old and misused mantra that “the consumer is always right.”

People used to listen to news broadcasts and read newspapers to find out the facts of what was happening. Now, they search for and “consume” the news that suits them, regardless of its accuracy or factual content.

Students now “consume” education, and to meet that consumer demand, the vast majority of colleges and universities are dumbing down curricula and providing a huge range of costly services, many of which are at best tangentially related to learning, while putting out the word to faculty not to upset the little darlings in order to keep numbers up, just like a business catering to consumers. Despite all the right-wing talk about left-wing elitism in higher education, what’s pushing the trend to coddle students isn’t primarily the faculty, but the students, assisted by well-meaning and misguided junior administrators. On the undergraduate level, education has become less and less about learning, especially learning to think, and more and more about “keeping the numbers up” and making students “comfortable.” Trigger warnings are everywhere, as if unsettling facts and theories were real bullets, instead of challenges to be faced and dealt with through thought and reason.

Politics has become consumerized as well, especially after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that essentially declared that votes were consumer goods that could be bought by anyone who had enough money and clever advertising.

Although law has always been biased on the side of the affluent, simply because the poor never had the funds for the best advocates or legislators, it’s become even more consumerized in recent years.

One of the reasons why the US has regulatory agencies dealing with food and drug safety, product safety, and workplace safety is because manufacturers of consumer products proved that far too many of them could not be trusted to turn out a safe product under safe working conditions.

Just as physical products can’t use dangerous ingredients, or parts, and make wildly false claims, why shouldn’t we require similar standards for all the new consumables?

Maybe news outlets should face fines or suspension of their licenses for airing provable falsehoods, including “commentators,” who seem able to air dangerous and blatant falsehoods. Maybe universities should be subject to “truth in education” laws. Maybe politicians should be held personally liable, with damages, for blatant falsehoods.

But… I don’t see it happening, because the United States has become largely a nation of consumers addicted to their consumables, regardless of the effects on their health, their political system, and their ability to think.

13 thoughts on “The Creeping Cancer of “Consumerism””

  1. Sam says:

    Maybe it’s more problematic now but I’m not sure that news media was ever a bastion of journalistic integrity. Individual journalists and individual publications perhaps but not the industry as a whole.

    I was just watching this decades old clip from Yes Prime Minister the other day and it highlights the perceived biases of various news media in a funny way.

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    “People used to listen to news broadcasts and read newspapers to find out the facts of what was happening. Now, they search for and ‘consume’ the news that suits them, regardless of its accuracy or factual content.”

    There was always some selective consumption going on. The broadcast TV and radio networks didn’t always speak with the same voice. There were two or more newspapers in many cities, often of very differing political leaning. And there were once nearly as many different magazines in a large news/book store as there are cable channels now. Fortune was not of the same bias as US News and World Report.

    So there was a lot to choose from, and people tended even before the Internet to select what favored what they already believed.

    Granted that the Internet makes it easier to filter or find something pre-filtered that’s all the informational equivalent of comfort food, totally un-challenging of preconceptions or already held ideology; but that’s not all on the consumer. Notice the number of times Facebook has had to reverse themselves on their attempts to filter misinformation, or in leaks has acknowledged the likely bias of their fact-checkers; and notice that newspapers and news channel websites give retractions and corrections far less prominence than the original article, and almost all of them, left and right alike, favor sensationalism over substance for ratings.

    Between consolidation and 90% of everything but talk radio being in curious lockstep with DNC talking points since at least Carter (given Nixon and a decade earlier, McCarthy as excuses, although in my opinion that probably started far earlier, like FDR, but my memory only dimly goes back to JFK, maybe the sound of Truman’s voice but that’s it), it seems to me there’s LESS choice. And therefore, arguably less chance of stumbling across something that might just awaken someone to a reality they didn’t want to hear about, along the lines of the Lord Acton quote about power, or the Churchill quotes about democracy and about capitalism vs socialism.

    Shopping to avoid being confronted with something provable or nearly so is not constructive; but short of that, there may be more than one right answer, and is certainly more than one wrong answer, and most outlets are driven at least as much by ideology as “facts” (using whatever objective definition), so some selectivity is necessary. I’ve been told that my maternal grandfather (in Germany during WWII, too old and infirm to be drafted) said that the stock market page tells the truth if you know how to read it, even if the rest of the paper tells only the official version, or something to that effect.

  3. R. Hamilton says:

    On the flip side, once upon a time, there was at least a theoretical obligation to strictly separate news and commentary, even if theory often didn’t carry over into practice.

    Now, all too many journalists feel a duty to be activists, rather than just reporters; participants in some change they deem desirable rather than observers attempting objectivity. An honest journalist would feel as much duty as an honest scientist to be as candid about information contrary to their ideology or theory as they would be if it supported their preexisting position. Indeed, a really honest one of either would be _pleased_ to have their preconceptions challenged, since at least they’d be learning more that way, and helping others to do so as well.

    Not long before relativity and quantum mechanics, there were those who said we were nearing knowing everything there was to be known, at least in principle if not detail, supposing that determinism prevailed. That arrogance sometimes still emerges; but most now seem eager to find something that challenges or transforms the Standard Model that’s gotten too comfortable yet still leaves much unanswered.

    So also those of any party claiming science is on their side are wrong. Maybe they’re genuinely more (or less) on it’s side…today; that could change tomorrow in the corridors of power, and even scientists don’t always follow the science. But if too many manipulate and spin and sound-bite, who will actually know?

  4. Lourain says:

    A major problem would be: Where do you draw the line? What falsehoods are egregious enough to warrant punishment? Some are obvious. “Inject bleach to cure Covid-19!” Others less so. “Use ivermectin to cure Covid-19!”
    Would universities have to prove the their programs actually taught students to think critically? All students? Hah! What percentage of students?
    Worthy goals, but in today’s climate difficult to achieve.

  5. Darcherd says:

    I actually agree with many of R. Hamilton’s points (an unusual experience, I admit) when he notes that even in the days before news via the internet, there was a wide variation in the political biases of different news magazines. However, I fail to see how “90% of everything except talk radio is in lockstep with DNC talking points”. Surely he’s not lumping in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist, US News and World Report, and Fox News (the #1 TV news network in America) as being mouthpieces for the Democratic Party. Sure, many national newspapers and networks have political orientation to the left of Fox News, but please don’t try to maintain that the conservative viewpoint is somehow underrepresented in American media.
    And it is also useful to bear in mind that newspapers striving for a “balanced” or at least middle-of-the-road political viewpoint only occurred during a relatively brief historical period, from the availability of high-speed printing presses until the modern prevalence of first cable, then internet news. This was because in order to succeed, they needed to appeal to the widest possible audience, which usually meant being centrist in political orientation. But prior to that, newspapers were notoriously biased and no more scrupulous about fact-checking than a modern internet blog. Check out some of the newspapers published during the first century of America’s existence if you don’t believe me. Most newspapers were deliberately established to propound the owner’s political viewpoint.
    Teaching people to think critically is the only long-term solution, but I, too, despair of that happening any time soon.

  6. R. Hamilton says:

    I grant that the sources you mentioned aren’t DNC parrots, although to my mind, US News looks like it’s still trying to be centrist (something I view as too much compromise but more principled than simply leaning left) compared to something like the Washington Times, which is not centrist but WILL go after even those on their side if they find something to go after. In US News’s favor, it looks at least at first glance a bit more substantive than some news magazines, although that may be because it seems to favor the financial and the practical rather than sensationalism of either flavor. In that respect, it’s sometimes more informative than Fox, which does have some lean toward the sensational, to the point of becoming repetitive.

    On the other hand, the two other cable news networks and three other broadcast networks don’t even pretend to be centrist anymore.

  7. Joe says:

    I agree there is a problem, particularly with respect to academia. A modern technological civilization cannot persist if the next generation is not taught science or engineering properly.

    However, I disagree with your solution. We have no oracle of truth. If we did, we wouldn’t need Science to discover the truth. One must remember that many commonly accepted ideas today were heresies yesterday. Only 150 years ago, Semmelweis was even committed to an asylum for daring to suggest that doctors should wash their hands before delivering babies.

    It is important to maintain a society where heterodox ideas can be heard: progress depends on it, and there is no reason to believe that many of the ideas we have today won’t be considered ludicrous by our descendants.

    Therefore I disagree that we should fine people for saying things that go against accepted truth. What we need to do is ensure enough of the population is able to think critically. Which brings us back to education. Students, who are in education to learn, don’t yet know enough to determine what Academia should be teaching them. Therefore the consumer model for universities is misguided. Instead, academia’s primary responsibility is to society: to mold a next generation which can ensure our civilization persists.

    That is one reason why education should be paid for not by “consumers”, but by society. However, being accepted into a university should be highly selective: only those who actually have the drive to advance our civilization should be given a place. Another reason is to avoid elite overproduction which causes societal instability.

    1. I agree with most of what you say, especially about education. But I wasn’t advocating an oracle of truth. What I did suggest is that public figures be held accountable for verifiable and blatant falsehoods.

      1. Joe says:

        How would you define “verifiable and blatant falsehoods” in a way that does not lead to a slippery slope and the banning of heterodox and unpopular views?

        A difficulty is that many “facts” are just opinions most people agree upon. For instance, it was a fact that the earth was the center of the universe, until it wasn’t. (Which is not to say that there is no objective truth. Only that what we believe and what is do not necessarily coincide.)

        There are many authoritarian regimes on the planet. I’ve lived in a few. I’d prefer it if the West didn’t devolve into yet another. I don’t think it is as far fetched as people who have only lived in the West might presume.

        1. I’m not talking about opinions. How about claiming that an election was stolen, when even the officials of the losing party say it wasn’t? Or saying that a child porn ring was operated out of the basement of a pizza parlor that has no basement? Those kinds of facts can be litigated.

          Even Thomas Jefferson said that without order there can be no liberty. From what I can see the current polarization is leading us closer and closer to anarchy — which is even worse than authoritarianism. And, usually, anarchy is followed by authoritarianism. If you have a better and more workable way to change the situation, I’d like to hear it.

          1. Joe says:

            I have what I suggested before: educating people to think critically. This can be done in Universities, or through newspapers as occurred during the industrial revolution in the UK.

            I’m not aware of any other option that doesn’t lead to some people gaining authority because they get to decide what the truth is. After all, controlling truth is how the Catholic Church dominated Europe for over a millennium.

            That is why I am so disturbed by the “quality” of education and by the fact politicians get votes by lowering standards. Without good education, democracy is not possible.

            Order can come from below, as I am advocating. Or from above. In the former case, those who wield it are many and it is to their advantage for it to be used in a way that does not transfer well-being away from them. In the latter case, it is to the advantage of those who wield it to use it to transfer well-being to themselves, for instance to gain more power.

            If another option can be found which cannot be manipulated into transferring well-being to those who control it, I would consider it.

            As to your specific points, I think there has been ample evidence that elections in the US need cleaning up. Every single election some problem or the other arises. It’s ridiculous. Building trust is important in a democracy.

            As to Pizza Gate, yes, it’s insane anyone believes it. So was burning witches, or the red scare. It suggests to me that the media has lost the nation’s trust. That trust needs to be rebuilt: the media must ask people in power embarrassing questions, stop only talking to people who support the status quo, criticize the specialists who got it wrong, hold people including journalists to account. Of course this won’t be easy because the reason our media has such uniform opinions is that it is run by few companies, whose leaders are enmeshed in other power structures such as military contractors or medical companies. Just one example: The head of the Thompson-Reuters foundation is on the board of directors of Pfizer.

          2. There’s one big problem with your solution. The majority of Americans see a college education as the “ticket” to the good life, and they’ve been pressuring politicians [who control virtually all the public colleges and universities in the U.S.] to make higher education “more accessible.” Combined with student evaluations of professors, and the twitter “ambush culture,” this has translated into dumbing down curricula and attacking professors who are “too tough” or who insist their students need to think. I ran across an article several years ago that pointed out that the annual number of graduates from MFA programs in creative writing effectively exceeded the the total number of fiction writers who make a living wage from writing. From what my wife has calculated, the number of students graduating annually with advanced degrees in classical vocal performance exceeds the total number of paying jobs in opera and similar venues, by at least ten to one. These are not cheap degree programs.

          3. Joe says:

            I agree. But the view that university is the ticket to a better life is no longer true. It’s the result of a successful advertising campaign to sell a product, a university degree, to consumers, students.

            The result is two-fold. Firstly, that you can have a PhD and end up with a job serving as a bartender. Secondly, that companies are rejecting MIT engineering graduates because they lack problem solving skills. It’s profoundly unfair on students since they go so badly into debt. And it’s a waste of time and energy for the rest of society.

            I recall a video of a student complaining to a professor: “We pay for all the points to get our degree, and then you take those points away from us”. Nothing illustrates more clearly to me the profound misunderstanding of the function of university. Unfortunately it’s not a new phenomenon. One already encountered it three decades ago.

            However I wonder whether there is not change in the air. As a result of COVID, children have been attending school over Zoom at home, and their parents seem to be taking more of an interest into what they are learning. Secondly, people are not getting jobs in their chosen fields.

            Simultaneously, it seems that men are dropping out from attending university. Soon 2/3 of all university students in the US will be women. Perhaps an alternate structure which assigns more value to merit will emerge. People who graduate from such competitive structures may find it easier to get jobs. And men, who tend to be more competitive, may find themselves more attracted to such structures.

            It is not a given that Universities are considered the best of the best. In France, for instance, that honor goes to the “Grandes Écoles”. For Math and Science, that would be “la Polytechnique”, also known as “l’X”. The same stratification might well occur here.

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