Our Cognitive Chickens Have Come Home to Roost
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and it’s finally time that I write it down. I’ve said it in a number of different ways, but I’m here today to publicly say that for the first time in my life, I can truly say that today, I am NOT proud to be an American. I’ve been hinging on this sentiment for a very long time. Why is that you ask? Please, let me explain.
Historically, we all know that that the roots of the American Revolution run deep with scofflaws and don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-you’re-not-the-boss-of-me types. Understandably, folks on this side of the pond, took issue with being subject to laws in which they had no say. Moving quickly forward though history, the American West was explored and ultimately “settled” by white folks who believed it was their destiny to tame the land, eradicate anyone unlike themselves, and whom were woven thick with “rugged individualism,” which further deepened the “Don’t Tread on Me” mindset in large swaths of the American populous. Of course, on top of this, today we have runaway capitalism which continues to fuel the self-centered idea that every person is special, deserves a trophy just for showing up, and is going to someday be a billionaire…just because.
In Utah, we get other flavors lingering from our unique heritage. Utah itself was founded with the full intention of being a slave state. Brigham Young’s stance on slavery is well-documented and this was occurring at a time when much of the country had collectively rejected the idea of slavery after the Civil War. The Book of Mormon itself begins with a story about a young man who kills an evil local leader to obtain sacred plates. This very story creates an “ends justify the means” narrative that runs deeply in many of Utah’s faithful LDS residents. This dissonance is most evidently seen in local politics and when paired with the prevailing American mindsets I mentioned above, creates a particularly toxic brew of belief-driven behavior. Local leaders are terrified to create public mandates; rather, they offer “suggestions” that Utahns “should” follow, mistakenly believing that local residents “sustain” their political leaders in the same way that the LDS-faithful sustain their ecclesiastical leaders and thus, will follow suit. This style of governance clearly belies a true lack of understanding of the American Psyche in that people who believe the rules don’t apply to them, need much more than suggestions to be compliant.
I’ve been helping run a non-profit substance use disorder treatment organization for the better part of the last decade. In doing so, I have seen some of the very best and some of the very worst human behavior. I have worked with people who are seriously mentally ill and today, when I look at world leadership, I see stark examples of the exact thinking and behavior that I once helped treat. Any student of human behavior is familiar with the idea of “cognitive distortions.” We call them “thinking errors,” “stinking thinking,” and other things. No matter what we call it, one thing is for sure: most cognitive distortions emphasize a disproportionate view of self in relation to the rest of the world. Helping people overcome crippling anxiety, substance use disorders, and other conditions usually means helping them realize that their thinking is what is in need of correction; this, and one other thing: they are not special and unique snowflakes. After all this time, I’ve learned that I’m not that important; I’m not a big deal. Often, my job is to help others realize this too. I regularly teach my clients and the staff I oversee that they are not that important and guess what? Neither are you. Oddly, in doing so, people get better and live happier lives.
“I’m not that important; I’m not that big of a deal…and guess what? Neither are you.”
You see, for far too long, Americans have believe that we as individuals actually mean something. Cultural messaging about the importance of self runs rampant in the US. Sentiments such as “You deserve this” and “the power of you” are a dime a dozen on the billboards that line US highways. Americans today focus on obtaining prosperity and bounty while failing to see the bounty and prosperity they already enjoy. Modern media doesn’t help either. Beautiful nobodies make a living pimping products while trying to prove their worth to the world through glamorous and unrealistic portrayals of their lives (at great financial and ecological cost, no less). As a people, we memorialize stories about the power of the individual who overcame first-world hardship and worship the Capitalist demagogues who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps” (which is truly the most ironic of all American ideals as one literally cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps). In all of this messaging, there is an abject denial about the conditions that created such individual prosperity. NO ONE in America today got where they are because of their own hard work; not at all. Anyone who has made a name for themselves or a comfortable living in America has done so because of the systems of privilege that support even the underprivileged and the work that was done long before they were born. Sadly few people seem to be aware of this because if they were, much more interest would be paid to the welfare of all rather than that of the individual. It would seem today that many an American’s worth is based on how much privilege they have enjoyed, not the quality of their works.
I needn’t name the all of the numerous examples of the kinds of behavior I’m talking about, but I will mention a few. From refusing to “wear the mask” to unsafe driving to laws that allow fireworks celebrations in the middle of densely-populated cities of the drought-stricken American West, our individual cultural cognitive distortions are clear: I’m so special that I can’t be told what to do, even if it literally saves the lives of others; rules don’t apply to me; and bad things happen to other people, not me. It is thinking just like this that has brought us to where we are today: leading the world in deaths from COVID-19 while having almost NO current response, witnessing the revealing of long-hidden overt racism, and reeling from the effects of climate change (even if we don’t feel it). Continuing to espouse the fallacy of “rugged individualism” will not solve these problems and we are far behind the countries who are working to solve them; even behind some of our stated “enemies.”
In truth, I don’t want be around this collective of cognitive crucifiers of the “we” any longer. I do not wish to be part of a country in which selfishness is the rule and in which my rights as a person are less important than yours. Nope! Fuck that! I don’t want to be part of a country that places the well-being of a select few – who, again, DID NOT earn what they have without exploiting others and the systems that have supported them – above that of the many and a country in which the leaders of the land cannot be held accountable for the deceptions and tyranny they cause, all while a good portion of the masses follow blindly because somehow, in their heads, the ends justify the means even if they personally condemn the very behavior they refuse to speak and act against. That kind of dissonance is not sustainable and unless something changes quickly in our collective mindset, I fear this country may not be sustainable.
Sadly, today, I yearn to be part of a society that cares for one another; that looks out for other another; a society in which “we” matters more than “me.” Sadly, I don’t think such a trait can be realized in a place the size of the United States. Let me explain further.
Since my early twenties, I have chosen to work for small, local businesses and non-profits rather than large corporations and conglomerates. I prefer the sense of closeness and unity that is often found in the former settings. Remembering this preference this morning got me thinking that I may be living in the wrong place, because America today is truly the antithesis of the small, highly-functional, and caring society in which I dream of living. America today has beens shown to be everything we were taught it wasn’t: hateful, closed-off, xenophobic, and selfish. It has revealed itself to be a bastion of narcissism and dogmatic perversion of what was once a real dream of liberty and justice for all. Though I want to fight – and fight hard – to help us realize all of the dream that could be, I don’t know who will join me or where I’d even start. Utah will not change so long as the Zion Curtain remains in place and the Religiouslature calls the shots. So, it would seem my starting point may not be here.
Though I feel compelled to end my thoughts today on a positive note, I will not. I know few people will read this post, but it doesn’t matter. To those of you who do, I hope that you take a few moments today to think critically about the state of our nation and our republic as it is under greater threat today than ever before as we face an internal enemy: ourselves. If you truly believe in the dream of the United States, then you will act in electing public servants who will work towards the benefit of the whole while lessening power of those who would otherwise exploit our systems, rape our lands, and pillage our people. If you don’t, well…I would offer that you are, sadly, part of the problem and if you don’t think there’s a problem, then perhaps we could have a different conversation.