Enormity

In a recent mini-blog post Seth Godin makes the following observation:

Enormity

Enormity doesn’t mean really enormous. It means incredibly horrible. 
The problem with enormity in marketing is that it doesn’t work. Enormity should pull at our heartstrings, but it usually shuts us down.

Show us too many sick kids, unfair imprisonments or burned bodies and you won’t get a bigger donation, you’ll just get averted eyes.

If you’ve got a small, fixable problem, people will rush to help, because people like to be on the winning side, take credit and do something that worked. If you’ve got a generational problem, something that is going to take herculean effort and even then probably won’t pan out, we’re going to move on in search of something smaller.
Not fair, but true.

I thank Seth for bringing this to my attention, this is a social reality, something we need to deal with, something we need to take into account.  As I’ve thought about it, after first being angry at the messenger, “Those damn marketers!”  I realized the problem goes much deeper.  Sure marketing, a profession built up over the last four or five score years to become a leading force in shaping how we see the world and orient ourselves to it; has long been busy finding ways to usurp basic human drives, and sell the resultant insights to those who want to take advantage of us; but even that is just another human drive, an expression of humanity prevalent during a particular kind of extremis.

Enormity.  It doesn’t “sell.”  Yet enormity is what we’re facing, on many levels and from all sides.  That’s what happens at the end of an Era, at the start of a new one.  No one likes to have to accommodate to unpleasantness.  It’s like getting bad news from the doctor, “I don’t have time for that now, I have plans!”  If we haven’t been there yet, we can all imagine it, have seen it happen to relatives, friends….  It does no good to demonize people for this kind of reaction, placing blame, working up guilt will not help the situation.  No one is at their best when they feel attacked.  How do we expect ourselves, or anyone else, to rise to Enormity if we try to motivate by piling on layers of bad-feeling, remorse,  atop the, well, the Enormity we face?

Of course, marketing has long used a similar cycle to manipulate us for their bosses.  Point out reasons for dissatisfaction with the status quo – within very narrow and lucrative parameters – and develop a sense of crisis, make us feel that without an answer – the answer they’re selling – our lives will be tragic, shallow and meaningless.  This last part has been abbreviated into expressions like “relevant,” “current,” even simply “happy.”  By placing us in ever-heightening cycles of dissatisfaction, an ever-more hyper search for easily purchased appeasement of our anxiety by buying something, a soda, a car, a war(?); these habits have left any normative sense of harmony by the wayside, and made this dynamic perhaps THE driving social force today.

This genie has been let out of the bottle.  The corrosive effects of this mega-dynamic has been a leading force behind the failures of governance, of most of our institutions today.  When we have all developed such deeply infantile habits that we’re unable to see our own deeper self-interests, even our own self-preservation as a greater value than being continually condescended to.

I keep thinking what it would have been like if Paul Revere, on stepping into the saddle, had stopped to wonder if he’d worded his message properly.  “The British are coming!”  “Hmm… is that a bit harsh?”  “I mean, how will people take it?”  “I don’t want to be a downer….”

Neither did he feel the need to couch his warning as a chance for his “audience” to vicariously feel part of some stirring fantasy with echoes of some relentlessly hyped mass-entertainment.  He didn’t say, “I’ll be back!” or “Do you feel lucky?”  He simply warned a citizenry of a fact, “The British are coming!”

Countless examples could be taken from any slice of world history that show a similar disconnect between the way people have always faced threats to the way we now expect to be treated.  Before, perhaps, people on-the-whole were no more or less realistic, they have always had myths and fantasies to insulate their self-image, their sense of vulnerability and cope with forces beyond their control.  But rarely did these coping mechanisms fail  us as badly as they are failing now, certainly never on such a broad scale.

The Aztecs on meeting Cortez; countless native North American Nations on meeting the British, French and later Americans; had similar melt-downs.  The Aborigines in Australia…  But all of these were long standing cultures facing changes to their circumstances far outside of their previous experiences, leaving them precious little room or time to adjust…  Hmm…

How did they respond?  Briefly, and with brutal abbreviation, the Aztecs decided they were meeting one of their gods come to earth, conveniently a god of destruction, Cortez was eager to accommodate them on that account.  Many of the native North Americans went through catastrophic epidemics leaving them reeling before falling into long, or short, retreats, defensive actions.  In the end, too many had too few resources left to do more than either retreat into fantasies of a return to their spirit world, or just short-circuit into alcohol and drug abuse.  This has been the tradition in North America for displaced and marginalized peoples ever since, a tradition now extending to many of those one would have thought of as among the privileged classes, as a look into suburbia with its locked down schools, meth labs, and chronic alcoholism will attest.

As with the list of dead rock & rollers, this list of marginalized and displaced cultures unable to cope and adapt, all met fairly banal, stereotypical ends; apathy, and a retreat into displacing, self-destructive behaviors.

An irony may be that as we enter the new age dawning, members of  these earlier displaced groups will be more likely to find hope, and a recognition of the connections with deeper realities than those who have prospered on the graves of their ancestors.

The reason for this might be that they were overtaken by the same storm that is now about to ravage us all.  A storm that was able, temporarily – yes a few centuries count as temporary, even fleeting, in a human experience spanning several hundred thousand years – to roll over their more modest accommodations to reality; but this juggernaut has lost its ability to continue.  The historic coincidence of a virulently exploitative culture combined with a copious, but one-time abundance of copious and accessible energy; allowed it to drastically, dramatically overshoot the fundamental planetary economy – the planet’s abilities to sustain any particular set of circumstances given the actual limitations of its resources and systems.

Enormity again.  I feel like someone trying to help a victim of overdose.  They just want to nod out.  Why must I keep bothering them?  They probably chose this path to oblivion anyway.  Why can’t I honor their wishes to be left alone?

Why indeed.  First, let’s make a few distinctions.  None of what I’m talking about is a call to survivalism, or some desire to wallow in apocalyptic visions.  This isn’t about hunkering down, one against the many, or about raining down fire-and-brimstone on sinning masses.  Those reactions are variants within the stereotypical symptomatic reactions to societal collapse.  They’re not useful responses, just aspects of the pathology that got us here.

Like the drunken “Indian,” the freaked-out rocker, or even the furious and fed-up Weimar German, we are all in some state or another of toxic shock, and in need of a path through the painful symptoms of withdrawal from the addictions that got us where we are today.  We need to be careful not to exacerbate the difficulties of withdrawal, that could lead us into even weaker states, that would put us farther and farther from being able to face reality as it comes up to meet us.  “The last thing I remember was a rush of air past my cheek, as my face hit the floor…”

This has taken us around the conditions we need to be aware of.  That this is a circuitous route is one of its virtues, as surprising as that may seem.  We are so accustomed to having experts take us succinctly to the “cause of our problems,” and deftly lay out their “solutions” in some “Bold Initiative!,” or Twelve Step Plan.”  This kind of fragmented thinking led us here, allowed us to ignore the warning signs, “Ugh, let’s see, Is slavery a bad thing?  Is it OK to wipe out whole regions of the earth’s existing flora and fauna and native populations?  Does it make sense to spray poison on our lawns, fertilize the hell out of them, and then cut them with a gas mower once a week?  Did I forget about the sprinkler?  In Nevada?”

A small, skewed sample of the litany of warnings we’ve blithely ignored on the advice of those who’ve been so adept at compartmentalizing the world and being able to combine unprecedented abilities to affect outcomes with mind-boggling faculties of self-blindness to the outcomes.  As a vaunted economist now spearheading our “Recovery” only recently said in answer to wether it would be prudent to consider the earth’s physical systems and their limits when making decisions about our economy was able to smugly and with a straight face say, “That’s not the right way to look at it.”

Enormity, a Marshal Foch, leading French troops into battle in World War I had an eerily similar certainty concerning what the “problems” were, and what the “solutions” should be.  “Send them over the top!”  We’ve had waves of this kind of deeply ignorant hubris from all varieties of leaders over the intervening century.  This has been yet another symptom we have so far failed to heed. We’ve tended to make excuses.  “It’s only human nature!”  “How could anyone have known…?”

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11 thoughts on “Enormity

  1. […] This is an example of a dive we all need to take, to get past our terrified aversion to look at what’s going on around us and begin to take in what’s at stake. I’m devoting my energies to finding how to do this without our being crushed by the pressure. I want to help find ways to combat the “Bends” that threaten us as we try to come up from these deep dives. There is a space between blissful ignorance and bottomless despair. In this space we can make a life, even in the face of such enormity. […]

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  2. […] Creatures are adaptable. Resilience is a trait of anything that persists. These capacities are not in themselves virtuous. The way we have embraced destruction as an ethos, contrary to all that is fundamental to life itself, is a sign of just how powerful these forces can be. Even when the result clearly leads to catastrophe, to enormity. […]

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