Many people are completely unaware of social injustices in their community and they are complacent towards major challenges facing the planet. They take an active role of ignorance and entitlement, and they are apathetic towards poverty, war, and climate change. They lack enthusiastic political beliefs, and few have meaningful interests or convictions. This is what it means to be socially unconscious.
This can be attributed to many different things. Working, raising children, and doing day-to-day activities consumes a lot of time and energy. Who wants to think about police brutality, racial discrimination, or homelessness after work? It is easier to find relief from unpleasant realities with cheap distractions. Pop culture, sports, shopping, and smartphones provide superficial means of escape. During the Roman Empire this was recognized as “bread and circus.” It is easier to be entertained than it is to be informed. This is not only true for middle-class Americans with disposable income, but it is especially true for those who are sick, unemployed, or have limited resources. A single mother who has difficulty finding work has very little time for anything else. It is easy to ignore problems in the community when one has problems of their own.
Social unconsciousness can also be attributed to our culture’s emphasis on individualism. It is easy to ignore social problems and the welfare of others when the primary concern is one’s own personal happiness. This is augmented by consumerism and the endless pursuit of merchandise, which encourages poor gratification delay and an overall sense of privilege. Furthermore, without meditation and self-reflection, one can easily lose track of what is important in life. And the ever increasing use of technology and social media keeps us artificially connected at best (read: it disconnects us).
Social unconsciousness is also caused by privatization, which encourages people to live separate lives and makes it easier to ignore when other people suffer. Political philosopher and Harvard professor Michael Sandel makes this argument in his book, entitled What Money Can’t Buy. He says that privatization of everything—schools, hospitals, war, prisons, security, health care, mail, space exploration, etc.—means individuals with money can buy anything, while those with modest means must rely on highly inefficient public services. As a result, people live completely separate lives and rarely encounter anyone from different walks of life. If one never uses public services and never encounters different people, he or she will develop completely different interests and their attitude about the community erodes. There is no need to be socially conscious or engage in public service when our only interactions are in the marketplace.
“White privilege” also plays a role in social unconsciousness. Many people do not recognize the unearned opportunities and advantages afforded to them because of racism towards non-whites. Most white people are completely unaware of or deny both the obvious and less obvious privileges they enjoy in education, work, and even self-perception. They simply do not acknowledge the advantages the color of their skin grants them, regardless of their actual status or income level. This keeps them unaware of the struggles that people of color experience.
Whether social unconsciousness is due to busy lives, work, privatization, white privilege, or just plain apathy, it renders many Americans unresponsive to social problem and more likely to be greedy, selfish, and entitled. It diminishes democratic values and togetherness, and encourages corporate values and separation. It also makes people susceptible to pluralistic ignorance and the bystander effect. This has a devastating impact on democracy.
Democracy requires cooperation and togetherness, and more importantly it depends on informed citizens taking action. When large numbers of Americans are unaware of the world around them, very few seek solutions to problems unless they are directly affected by them. Without enthusiastic political beliefs and the willingness to take action, one will not question authority or challenges the status quo. The more separated people are, the less they will care about the success of the community as a whole and less devoted they will be to each other. If people are not invested in the community, why should they vote, serve on juries, or do anything for the common good?
Being socially unconscious creates blind patriotism, and it facilitates the radical doctrine known as American exceptionalism—the belief that America has a special mission on Earth to spread democracy and capitalism to “uncivilized” people. Believing this myth, as Howard Zinn points out, allows our national leaders to gain support needed to wage imperialist wars all across the globe. Subscribers of American exceptionalism see American lives as more valuable than others. They can be seen crying after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, but when innocent children (whose identities are not even known) are blown to pieces by predator drones in Yemen or Pakistan, they offer no condolences or acknowledgment whatsoever. What starts as innocent national pride quickly turns into a twisted ideology that sees the death of three thousand people on 9/11 as murder and the killing of one million Iraqis as patriotism.
Likewise, people who lack social awareness never recognize the consequences their actions have on the rest of the world. They fail to learn where their cheap products are made or what the environmental costs might be. They fail to realize the terror their government carries out in their name, which gives Washington a license to do whatever it wants with no repercussions or pushback. When blowback takes place, such as the attacks on 9/11, they are left scratching their heads, wondering why. This leads to chest-thumping patriotism, which gives Washington a blank check to wage war across the globe.
Ultimately, social unconsciousness leads to perverse rationalities, and it facilitates disgust and overall lack of concern for others. Without an understanding of the root causes of major challenges, blame is put on the very people who suffer from them. Homelessness, for example, is blamed on personal characteristics, rather than mental illness or lack of community assistance. Crime is blamed on an individual’s race or culture, rather than on poverty and inequality. This lack of understanding leads to uninformed opinions and a rush to misguided solutions. Rather than looking for root causes to school shootings, for instance, the response is to arm teachers. This way of thinking leads to victim blaming, racism, intolerance, and feelings of superiority. This is intellectually and morally bankrupt.
“The Emperor Has No Clothes”
Those who are not socially aware are generally very shocked when large, earth-shattering events expose realities for what they actually are. These incidents may take place over several centuries or decades, as in the case of slavery and segregation, or they occur suddenly, such as the release of the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate scandal. They shed light on deliberate the use of terror, deceit, and corruption, and they are noticeable for all to see. In recent history, the BP oil spill and the government’s disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina were eye-opening events. Corporate abuse of power and the government’s inability to organize assistance for people suffering after a hurricane were noticeable to even casual observers.
These incidents suddenly disproved ideas many people thought were true. “The emperor has no clothes” is an expression that refers to such events. It is used after an event reveals how inefficient our government is or how corrupt our national leaders are. It is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 folktale, the Emperor’s New Clothes. In it, an emperor marches naked before his subjects and townspeople.
No one is brave enough to reveal the truth until a child in the crowd blurts out, “The emperor has no clothes!” The child is the only one who can see the emperor for what he is. On many occasions in American history the clothes have been torn off and the truth has been laid bare. However, there are relatively few events that receive a lot of attention. One must actively choose to pay attention to smaller occurrences every day. If one concentrates enough, he or she will notice police brutality, racial discrimination, and challenges associated with inequality, taking place continuously. Without the right kind of attention they go unnoticed, especially if one is not directly impacted by them. Sometimes they occur slowly, which makes them difficult to notice, or they happen so frequent they become commonplace and easily overlooked.
Those who do notice problems in society are socially conscious. Having an understanding of one’s surroundings does not have to wait for large scale, earth-shattering events. If one pays attention, he or she will recognize what is taking place daily.
Indeed, those who are socially conscious are less shocked to learn the truth when earth-shattering events actually do take place. For instance, the CIA torture report recently revealed the extent of America’s use of torture around the world, and another leaked CIA report admits the use of drones is both highly ineffective and counterproductive. These reports could easily be overlooked, but anyone paying close attention understands how important they are in exposing the brutal nature of US foreign policy. A socially conscious person will not be surprised to see an increase in anti-Americanism or another 9/11-like attack.
Given the accessibility of information, it is easy to be at least somewhat socially conscious. Countless numbers of journalists, historians, teachers, and documentarians can help one become aware of his or her surroundings. In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander discusses the effects of racial inequality and mass incarceration in America. Cornel West and Tavis Smiley’s book, The Rich and the Rest of Us, is a wonderful exposé of poverty in the United States, and everyone should read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Journalists Amy Goodman, Jeremy Scahill, and Glenn Greenwald have played a significant role in exposing the American Empire, and whistleblowers, such as Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange, have all unveiled colossal secrets. Movies can also be both entertaining and extremely informative. American History X and The Help, for example, are award winning films that provide powerful context and perspective for problems associated with race.
Documentaries, such as Food Inc. and I Am, are highly educational. And access to the internet, which is relatively affordable, provides unlimited opportunities to learn about the world. Other sources of information involve everyday people. Compared to other empires throughout history, America is unique because large amounts of literature—books, letters, diaries, speeches, etc.—come from countless numbers of ordinary people.
These usually come from rulers, generals, and clergyman, but today there is a huge collection available for everyone to read. Howard Zinn’s book, Voices of a People’s History of the United States, is an assortment of work by regular people. Reading about individual stories of struggle and discovering the amount of courage it takes to challenge authority is extremely empowering. These are just a few of the sources available to help one learn about the world from a distance, but firsthand experience is enough to learn about one’s environment. A counselor understands the harsh effects war has on a soldier. An inner city school teacher understands educational disparity better than anyone. A child born into poverty on the south side of Chicago has a certain level of social consciousness through direct experience with poverty, crime, and gentrification. A Walmart employee understands how difficult it is to survive on minimum wage.
Whether one becomes socially conscious through books, firsthand experience, or both, the more aware one is of his or her surroundings, the more sensitive he or she will be towards social injustice. This will manifest into a strong sense of responsibility for social problems and increase the likelihood one will look for solutions and take action. The first step towards change is becoming socially conscious.
Yet, even if one is socially conscious and willing to take action, it is easy to become disillusioned with social and political activity. Considering the massive challenges we face, not to mention the difficulty of maintaining one’s own personal life, it is easy to develop a defeatist attitude. Any attempt to enact change through violence is not only morally reprehensible, but it is also suicidal. The state has far too many police and prisons at its disposal, and violence does not guarantee positive change. And many people are disillusioned with nonviolent resistance, as well. They contend it is merely symbolic to protest because it does not lead to fundamental change.
The vast majority of Americans accept these viewpoints, which explains why so many people are not interested in political activity whatsoever. They believe that presidents, generals, and wealthy capitalists are the ones driving history, which leaves everyday people feeling powerless. However, rich people are still very politically active, but why is this the case?
In an interview with Michael Moore, the late Tony Benn (1925 – 2014), a former member of the British parliament, explains the situation perfectly. He said power exists in the marketplace, which means money is the primary force of change in society. Corporate elites and millionaires spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns and politicians, giving them access to all three branches of government; elections, debates, candidates, laws, budgets, courts, and foreign policy are all under the influence of a few privileged individuals and corporations. It does not matter how many voters show up, because power does not exist in the ballot box. Money is the only thing that matters, which is especially dangerous in an age of unprecedented inequality. The wealth income gap is higher than it has ever been since the Federal Reserve began keeping track.
With money as the primary source of power and with large numbers of people either socially unconscious or completely disillusioned with social change, corporations and millionaires have seized the opportunity to hijack our government. Democracy has been hallowed out to the point that it is used as propaganda against us. We think we live in a democratic country, but we actually live in a corporate oligarchy.
Yet, there are still people who resist. They have been marginalized and pushed underground, but they still fight back. Hundreds of thousands of people, who collectively possess very little wealth, create change through direct action and public service. They bypass both the government and the free market to solve social problems. They protest, rally, boycott, strike, and do whatever it takes to increase awareness and challenge policymakers. Many of them enact change through their profession. They are teachers, social workers, artists, students, librarians, and nurses. They work to change the hearts and minds of people by raising consciousness and empowering others. This is participatory democracy, and it is a powerful weapon that paralyzes even the most corrupt corporate states.
Participatory democracy depends on socially conscious citizens taking action. Its fundamental principles of can be found in the Port Huron Statement written by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962: We would replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity.
As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.
Greater political and social action by everyone strengthens democracy and puts people at the foundation of power, not corporations. But none of this is possible without social awareness. Without exposure to new information and experiences, people will have the same limited view of reality. This is Plato’s lesson in Allegory of the Cave. A shift in awareness must take place through independent media sources, books, documentaries, and new experiences. It will take time and a considerable amount of effort, but it is possible. There have been many silent generations in the past that have spawned the greatest revolutionary periods in history. The 1950s were extremely passive, but a simple action by Rosa Parks inspired the nation to question the status quo, and Martin Luther King motivated people to take action. While many people seem apathetic today, it does not mean change is not possible. The health of our democracy—and the entire planet—depends on it.