Introduction by Andrew Beath
Aaron Kipnis' comments below
This article is an excerpt from Andrew Beath’s book Consciousness
In Action, the Power of Beauty, love and Courage in a Violent Time
(Lantern Press, 2005)
The elevation of consumerism to the altar of our highest values
creates social dysfunction. The American worldview of rights and
liberties promotes the idea that one should be free to artificially
stimulate unhealthy indulgences. It has only recently been widely
recognized that over-consumption causes obvious diseases like obesity—an
apt metaphor for our current values—that have high social
But there are alternative ways to
view freedom. One is freedom to engage in any type of marketing.
Another is freedom from constant in-your-face advertising and from
so many violent images in entertainment. In this make-believe world
we manipulate the social imagination that determines how we perceive
people’s attractiveness. It’s a cynical process, and
the puppeteer people who think up this Madison Avenue material are
no happier than the rest of us, because they know how artificial
the game is.
If this issue were debated in a courtroom,
the opposition’s lawyer would say, “It’s a free
country. You don’t have to consume what’s offered; you
can do whatever you want. Advertisers have their freedom to present
you with things and you have your freedom to take them or not.”
In fact, our collective psyche is hypnotized into believing we need
more in order to be more. Calculated messages from Madison Avenue
bombard us constantly, so there is little freedom from manipulation
and crass consumerism.
Acknowledging All the Children
The Columbine High School shootings, in which two teenage boys from
a small town killed twelve people and wounded many others, may have
been a harbinger of declining social ecology health. This event
occurred on one of the days the United States participated in one
of the most extensive bombing raids in Kosovo. In addition to military
targets the bombs hit a school and hospital.
In the TV news that morning President
Clinton announced the bombings. A few hours later he was back to
comment on the Columbine shootings, which happened in a white, middle-class
neighborhood. The juxtaposition of these two violent episodes was
ironic. In addition to these broadcast news events, dramatized stories
also desensitize our youth. In some respects, media shows children
how to kill.
Another irony of this situation is
that youth-gang killings take the lives of many more young people
over a few months in Los Angeles alone than the Columbine shootings,
but they almost never make the front-page news. Children shooting
children is a symptom of something deeper. Our social ecology has
lost its connection to natural harmony. But life’s web holds
us all, whether we know it or not. So the journey is to rediscover
that which has always been in our midst.
Youth Violence: A Plea for Social Transformation
Aaron Kipnis, PhD, is a psychologist, author and leader in the men’s
movement. His personal knowledge of the importance of nonviolence,
and his advocacy for boys, men and imprisoned youth stems from his
own challenged start as an imprisoned youngster. I asked Aaron to
talk about social ecology—the ways in which social functioning
could be perceived as a study of ecology. This resulted in the following
By Aaron Kipnis, Ph.D.
In my experience, once given the clear opportunity most people will
move in a life-supporting direction: towards Eros, towards life,
towards connection. It’s natural, like the heliotropic response
that causes a flower to move towards the sun. It doesn’t have
to be told to do that; it doesn’t have to be convinced, twisted,
medicated, modified, scared or tortured into moving towards the
sun. It just needs to feel the warmth shining on its skin. In social
ecology work we try the same tack in looking for solutions to problematic
social issues such as rampant consumerism and elusive freedoms.
The concept of freedom is a founding principal
of America. Two and a quarter centuries later, America still imagines
itself as a bastion of liberty and defender of the free world. Yet,
when we look internally, the lower tier of our economy exists almost
as a separate nation. Most of the two million people in prisons
and five million more under criminal justice supervision are ethnic
minorities or poor whites. Very few from the middle and upper classes
are incarcerated even for drugs, which we know all classes of Americans
use in relatively equal numbers. And there are simply no wealthy
men on death row.
The notion of America as a free nation presents
an incredible paradox to me. The unique idea of America was of one
nation composed of many who came together from all parts of the
globe. Well, that’s a lovely idea that I still salute. It’s
also an ecological idea, for it perceives all the seemingly different
parts of our social environmental matrix as a unified whole –
E. Pluribus Unum.
But we’re not living up to the visions that
founded this nation. So rather than constituting anti-American activities,
as some on the Right like to paint them, I think environmentalism
and progressive movements for social change actually hark back to
the original visionary spirit in which America was founded. We want
to return to those basic ideals of liberty and justice for all.
Of course, the Constitution when it was first written only gave
voting rights to white males who owned land. Since that time we
have come a long way, but we still have some distance to go to create
Addiction to Consumption
With all the advances in prosperity for the upper
classes in America, there has been no parallel increase in their
overall level of happiness. In fact, the general degree of satisfaction
with life is widely reported as going down.
How can we feel that we have a right to the level
of prosperity that we enjoy when it is so often produced in ways
that destroy workers’ health, tear the fabric of the social
culture and undermine the integrity of communities? We know that
material prosperity and the consumer culture is not producing well-being,
happiness, or peacefulness. So, why do we continue to pursue it?
One answer is that there is an addictive quality to the consumer
culture and that its purveyors are dealers with a vested interest
in making consumers dependent on their products.
It’s just as insidious as drugs. We can liberate
ourselves from consumerism in the same way that we liberate ourselves
from drug or alcohol addiction. We don’t go out and fight
the drug companies, burn down the grape fields or bust up the distilleries.
We assist one another in liberating ourselves from the addiction.
That is part of the transformational power of 12-step communities.
The process of de-colonizing the self calls for liberating ourselves
from our addictions.
Our wealth is really the quality of our water,
the fertility of the land and the freshness of our air. Our real
wealth is a tolerant society and diverse ecology. This is the wealth
that has sustained humanity for millions of years, not money. Through
extracting and despoiling the natural wealth of the earth –
and converting it into the abstraction of money, we are not becoming
wealthier. We are actually becoming more impoverished.
Similarly, one of the promises of consumer culture
has been that it will create more pleasurable leisure time. Instead,
we have become an increasingly time-impoverished culture where even
white-collar workers function as indentured servants to an ever
more demanding corporate master.
The Pursuit of Illusion
Psychologically, a major force driving consumption is the idea that
what measures your worth is what you own, what you produce, and
whom you’re connected with. Advertising keeps telling us that
the answer to happiness is to become a more astute consumer. Our
mission – according to Madison Avenue – is to figure
out how to situate ourselves to make the maximum possible income
so we can acquire the most prized consumer goods to reflect our
true worth to others.
This can be imagined as an exteriorization of the
self—and the colonization of soul. In the same way that global
consumerism is gutting the earth’s resources, we may also
be gutting the psyche and exploiting the human libido for short-term
rewards at the expense of long term human development. Consumerism
consciously exploits people’s deepest hopes, dreams, drives
and basic needs. Advertising attempts to interject the following
beliefs into the psyche of consumers: 1) you don’t have enough,
2) you’re not attractive enough and 3) you aren’t happy
For women, a lot of the programming is around beauty
enhancement or fulfilling their traditional roles as women. For
men it’s around rewards for their production and consumption
power: “You can have this beautiful woman if you buy a Lexus.”
Women are simultaneously manipulated to feel that if a man with
a Lexus is attracted to them, then they have succeeded in meeting
the highest standards of beauty.
Many American youth today suffer from an impoverished
imagination, a virtual loss of soul. Most disturbingly, many feel
excluded from the possibility of the good life promised by the American
dream, just as people in the third world do. The American dream
is like the ideal of beauty seen on the cover of almost every magazine.
It doesn’t really exist as it is currently defined.
I live here in Southern California. I have friends
in the movie industry and we see these people up close. Most don’t
really look like their printed image, because they were made-up,
dressed up and lighted in very specific ways before being photographed.
And then the photo was airbrushed to eliminate any flaws. So women
are spending billions of dollars consuming products to raise themselves
to an ideal of beauty that is largely unattainable without smoke
With eighty percent of the nation’s wealth
controlled by affluent families, the consumer culture’s promise
of affluence in America is similarly unattainable for the vast majority
of its citizens and new immigrants. And those who do possess the
“good life” are not necessarily any happier. But few
of the “have-nots” can really grasp this fact because
of the constant propaganda of advertisements.
Our kids are learning more and more each day that
their worth is measured by where they are on the hierarchy of the
consumer scale. Society does not value the quality of their relationships
with one another and the environment, or their cultivation of their
heart and the soul. So instead of learning to take pleasure in sports
and in the value of a healthy body, many kids today feel that if
they are not star athletes they don’t really count. Most courses
eliminated from school curriculums today are the arts, recreation,
humanities and other studies and activities that enrich young people
and give them a sense of self and self-worth. Now the focus is much
more on science, mathematics, high-stakes testing and other skills
most useful to corporations.
Kids are very savvy to the fact their schools are
the “fattening pens” that prepare them for corporate
cubicles and their place in the consumer culture. I think that this
generation is probably more sophisticated and exposed to the world
than any previous generation of Americans. Many realize that we’re
selling out their future and giving them a false bill of goods in
exchange. Education is not geared to help them become happy, individuated,
self-expressive and spiritually developed human beings.
My most progressive colleagues and I are facilitating
a confluence of liberation theology and psychology with the traditions
of depth psychology and radical ecology. And we’re learning
some very important things about the nature of the human psyche
in the process. For example, in ecology, we recognize the importance
of the interrelatedness of all things. And strikingly, the predominant
mental disease of contemporary Western culture is a condition in
which individuals don’t experience themselves as interrelated,
but rather as solitary and isolated selves.
This whole notion of an “I” that exists
independent of nature and community is a signature characteristic
of the psyche in most colonizing cultures. It is not an idea that
has defined nature-based societies throughout time. Moreover, in
a lot of indigenous cultures, a separate identity is actually an
unusual – even pathological – idea. Each individual
is viewed as an integral part of a unified being that includes all
If we want to liberate a colonized self, to liberate
our soul, we may need to start asking, “What has happened
to the wildness within my psyche? How do I treat the foxes, owls
and the rain forests of my imagination, residing in my soul with
their own special laws and habits? How do we engage our interior
life and approach the intricacy, delicacy and deep mystery of soul?
Do we come in riding the pale horse of a colonizing ego wielding
an exploitive, repressive, manipulative and utilitarian view towards
the self? Or, do we walk slowly, fiercely and tenderly, embracing
the wildness, beauty and infinite diversity of the un-colonized
Once we are engaged in the process of liberation
psychology I think our only question should be, “How can we
serve the liberation of subjugated, silenced and marginalized aspects
of the psyche?”
Canaries in the Coal Mine
I believe that in the same way we see the collapse
of certain species having an impact on an entire ecosystem, the
collapse of one segment of the social ecology presents serious potential
consequences for the entire web of community.
We’re largely looking in the wrong direction
for the source of youth violence. When those boys were shooting
up Columbine, the TV commentators were saying, “Why would
white middle class boys from ‘good’ families with all
the ‘advantages’ do something like this?” Then
the newscast cut away to the bombed-out hulk of the Chinese Embassy
on fire, and then back to the commentator saying, “Why are
boys so fascinated with guns and explosives?” And then a cut
away to a general saying with pride that, “Our laser guided
‘smart’ cruise missile systems are the next evolution
in war technology and now we can put a missile right down a target’s
America is the world’s largest arms exporter,
by far. Gun manufacturing and sales proliferate here and hunting
and target practice are encouraged as a uniquely American activity.
We’re fascinated with weaponry and military might. Understandably,
children mimic the behavior they see in adults. We have the world’s
highest handgun mortality rates for our youth. If we see that the
microcosm reflects the macrocosm, then instead of asking what’s
wrong with our children we begin asking what’s wrong with
us? What’s wrong in our economic system? What’s off
in our educational system?
Those who make and enforce most of the laws don’t
seem to realize that something is desperately wrong with America’s
children. Despite technological advances and the tremendous wealth
of our nation, many American children are lacking something essential
to life. Turning them into good consumers of disposable goods does
not really satisfy them.
America’s Collective Imagination
I believe we are all linked in collective consciousness,
just as the seabed beneath the ocean joins all islands. Moreover,
it appears to me that at the subsurface level of the link, there’s
a disruption in the collective imagination of America.
When we suppress, isolate, incarcerate, behaviorally
modify, manipulate, medicate and literally force increasing numbers
of people out of the wild ecology of psyche into a narrowly defined
sense of consuming normalcy, we may also be doing damage to our
social ecology. If so, then individual, seemingly senseless behaviors
like school shootings may be as much a product of a disturbed national
psyche as it is the actions of a few “bad boys.”
There is a parallel between the way resources are
extracted from wild places without concern for consequences and
the way people are guided by many mental health professionals to
fit into the dysfunctional culture rather than to discover, explore
and express their own untrammeled nature. Clearly, there is something
happening in the collective psyche and youth are particularly sensitive
to it. They are the most sensitive members of the human ecosystem
and they are sending us messages through their failure to thrive
– similar to the way a canary passing out in a coal mine alerts
the miners to bad air.
We may need to look at the increase of autism,
attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities, acting
out behaviors, defiance and rage in our children as more homeostatic
than strictly pathological. That is, we can view dysfunctional behavior
as unconscious strategies to bring a malfunctioning system into
When we look at it from this point of view, then
youth violence doesn’t seem so senseless. Youth aren’t
necessarily out of control, evil or even bad. They may simply be
trying to draw our adult attention in the same way that pain and
disease draw our attention to the body. We can either try to make
the symptoms go away – take painkillers and not feel the symptoms
as our health gets worse – or we can pay attention to the
pain of the disease and take appropriate action so our health can
When we lock our children away in institutions,
censor them, and increasingly subject them to behavioral medications
and manipulation, we are essentially killing the messenger and ignoring
the message. We are also dragging our children further away from
the wildness and passion of their interior lives – the mystery,
magic, richness and artistry of life. To really tend to their pain
inevitably means looking at the duplicity of the culture they inhabit.
Social Disruption and Dislocation
Middle-class consumer culture is also incredibly
impoverished in the same way that white bread is stripped of vitamins.
White consumer culture lacks soul in its nourishment of children.
For boys who are violent, the most powerful technique for change
is not incarceration or medication. It’s not in trying to
scare them straight, modify their behavior or perform psychosurgery
on their brains.
Real transformation happens when we can find a
way to make a relationship with them. We have to create within ourselves
a willingness to meet them just as they are – to not see them
as simply bad, evil or flawed the way most of the penal system does.
Maybe what they did was very bad; something that’s repugnant
to us. But if we can make a connection with their soul, and establish
a meaningful relationship with them, then transformation can occur;
for this allows them to see the ‘other’ as a part of
If you see the environment as part of yourself,
you are less likely to destroy it. If you see other people as connected
to you, then to hurt them would be to hurt yourself. So that’s
why discovering our interrelatedness – this idea that ecology
has brought to us about the interconnection of all things –
is as essential to solving our social challenges as our environmental
What I’m suggesting is that we each ask ourselves
what we are dedicating our lives to. If we are not dedicating ourselves
to beauty, to the nurturance of our healthy connection to the earth
and other beings – and if we are not endeavoring to help others
to become free to enjoy their lives in harmony with our natural
and social environments – then what are we really about? What
is it on a personal level that each of us is pursuing that is more
important than this?