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Monday, 10 June 2013

The Illusion of Independence

I have posted a modified version of this post over at Daily Kos. I'd appreciate it if those who have an account there could recommend it. Thanks to everyone who suggested I properly publish this post. Your support means so much!

Today I wanted to talk about something very important to me. I call it (as the post title suggests) the Illusion of Independence.

The Illusion of Independence is something that has been carefully constructed by a lot of people over a long period of time. I would say that the start of the industrial age is probably when the first seeds were sown and it has since become a fast-growing weed that I have to beat back with a machete on a day-to-day basis.

The Illusion of Independence is exactly what it sounds like: it's the belief that we are completely independent, even though it's total and utter absurdity. Independence is celebrated, lifted up as a model of how we should try to be, and so of course we all scramble to identify as independent. Everyone from Beyoncé to the announcer on the hockey game is going to try to tell you that there is an opportunity to be independent, and you should take it.

And why am I even bothering to bring this up? Because it's dangerous to believe we're all independent. It's really, really dangerous, and for a few reasons.


The first (perhaps most obvious) reason is that it's a lie. We are not independent. We are part of a larger system--many larger systems, in fact--that constantly impact our lives and the choices we make. If it's raining cats and dogs, you're probably going to move that picnic inside. You might even say that having that picnic is dependent on sunny weather. So it's very naïve to pretend that we're the gods of our own little universes, and that nobody and nothing else has any influence on our lives. If you really, truly believe that, it seems like you're in for a lot of disappointment.

Perhaps the most scary reason it's dangerous is the reason it exists in the first place. We want to believe we're strong on our own. We want to believe we don't need anyone else. Why? Because that's what we're told is cool. We're told every day of our lives that being independent is the right thing to do. If you're still living at home with your parents, you're a loser. If you don't own the latest technology, you must be poor (and therefore unable to take care of yourself, which makes you a loser). There is a fast and furious consumer culture where we each have to have our own version of everything. Some people have even gone so far as to say that people who don't consume a lot to support the economy are bad people.

Have you ever stopped to think about why, living on a street with dozens of houses that each have lawns, pretty much every one of your neighbours has a lawnmower? Do they mow their lawn every day, three times a day? Probably not. I imagine that in 99% of the cases, a lawnmower will actually spend about 5% of its life actually being used. So then why does every person have one? Because it's convenient. At least that's what the lawnmower manufacturer wants you to believe. It's easier than having to wait in line for your next-door-neighbour, Karl, to finish using his, and besides which, it's in imposition to ask such a thing of Karl. Because, after all, with how often Karl is using it, and how often you need it, the chances of you needing it at the same time are...what, maybe 1 in 10? Yeah.

This Illusion of Independence makes a lot of money for companies. It puts a matter of pride into being able to not rely on other people. In fact, it places shame on relying on other people. I don't know if you've ever had this happen to you, but I've asked friends to stay at their house and they've been shocked that I'd be so forward. Why? Because there's shame attached to asking for help. It's considered freeloading a lot of the time (never mind that when I stay with a friend, they come home from work and a three-course meal is ready for them). The act of asking for help is shameful. After all, we need to be independent, or we can't take care of ourselves. Because, you know, we never need other people to take care of us when we get old, or when we need to have a surgery done, or when we need someone to bring us food in a restaurant...

Why is being served one thing and asking a friend for help another? Surely it comes down to independence. If you're being served, you give something immediate and tangible in return (paying for a retirement home stay, covering surgery with medical insurance and paying a tip to the waiter). In other words, it's a service you pay for, because we live in a capitalist system. But when you ask your friend to give you a lift on their way to Montreal in exchange for a batch of their favourite cookies (because you're short on cash), that's shameful. Never mind the enjoyment your friend will get from the cookies, nor the fact that you spent 3 hours making them, nor the fact that they cost you $10 in ingredients, only that you paid that money a month ago when you got your last paycheck. You're just freeloading, because there is no capital gain on their part.

And I can hear the choruses now, saying, "But if you weren't so cheap, you'd just take the Greyhound," or, "If you don't have money, maybe you just shouldn't go." But the thing is, it's not even purely financial. Independence is bad for the environment. Why would I take a Greyhound when my friend is going anyway and I can carpool? Everyone wins--they get cookies and I get to tell capitalism to buzz off. Not to mention that both of us get good company and the chance to catch up with an old friend. And heaven forbid you should actually know that your neighbour's name is Karl, so that you can borrow his lawnmower, and he can borrow your electric mixer next time he makes brownies. Because heaven forbid we should keep an extra lawnmower and electric mixer from being sold, soon thereafter made obsolete, and then thrown into the landfill. Heaven forbid we should keep virgin resources from being extracted from the earth, just so that you can know that the once-every-two-weeks that you mow your lawn can coincide with Karl's, and you won't be inconvenienced. Isn't that worth destroying our Earth? Isn't that worth mowing your lawn even as Karl is mowing his next door, and wondering to yourself what that guy's name is, if it's safe to let your kids play out front when he's around, and whether you should feel insecure about how much more independent he's able to be than you are?

The reality is that we do need to depend on each other. When a disaster hits, it's no wonder that close-knit communities are the ones that thrive. When the economic recession hit, co-operatives flourished, while larger, "traditional" corporations took a serious hit. (Heard of
Camino? They actually grew leaps and bounds during the recession.) The co-operative model works for a reason: people actually care. You have a stake in it, and you care about the people who are going to be affected, including your customers. There is a human element to it, the sense of being able to depend on each other, and it makes you stronger. Activism would be a goner without people realizing that depending on other humans is important. When you band together, it's not a weakness; it's a strength. It's a strength to swallow your pride and go to the doctor early, so that he can detect that pea-sized tumor instead of the golf ball-sized one. It's a strength to be vulnerable enough to say, "Hey, I need a couch to sleep on," because it builds intimacy with that friend and two months later, when she's going through a breakup, she knows she can come to you for support, and you both know that she'll make it through. But of course corporations don't want you to think that way. Why would they, when instead they can be selling hotel room stays to you and expensive funeral services to your family while they're still in shock?

I know I cite
Brené Brown's TED Talk entirely too often, but she had a great point when she said this:
"We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability... The problem is...that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, 'OK, here's the bad stuff...I don't want to feel these. I'm gonna have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin.' [...] You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, and then we have a couple of beers and a banana-nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle."

This idea of independence takes out connection. It takes out any idea that we might depend on others for things like genuine love, rather than a dependency that consists of some kind of tangible benefit. It makes our parents (before we leave home) into our most convenient landlords, rather than people who we actually genuinely love and want to be around. It makes our friends into people we can negotiate with, rather than actually giving and taking in a loving and genuine way. And it makes our neighbours into strangers, just so that we can destroy the environment.

We are not independent when we go to the grocery and buy our own groceries, rather than knocking on the neighbour's door and saying, "I totally forgot I was out of eggs--can I borrow one to make my biscuits?" It is an illusion that we're independent, ever, because the reality is that we're dependent on the grocery to be there, for us to be able to buy groceries. And in a despicable but really clever move, corporations have shifted our dependence over to them so that they can tangibly profit from it. But guess what? The corporations depend on the environment, whether they will admit it or not, and when we destroy our Earth, none of us will have anything left to depend on but each other.

If you have to rely on either a corporation or a human, it seems like the decision should be clear, but it's not for so many people. There is this assumption that corporations are more reliable, sturdier than humans. Costco will always be there, after all, and Aunt Maggie will pass away eventually. But we've been so effectively trained to think quantitatively, at the expense of thinking qualitatively. Sure, Costco might be around longer (if we want it to be, I might add, and only if we do), but try having a relationship with it. Just because Costco is measurable and Aunt Maggie isn't doesn't mean that Aunt Maggie isn't adding more to your life. Does Costco greet you with a genuine smile every time you visit it? Does it come to your birthdays, and press you close to its chest when you need a shoulder to cry on?

Perhaps more to the point, not realizing we're dependent is at best denial and at worst reckless irrationality. Insisting we be independent of other humans while we don't even realize we're completely dependent on corporations and the economy makes slaves of us all.

The reality is: we need to rely on someone or something. If we don't decide what that should look like, someone else will do it for us.

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