Published on November 27th, 2014 |
by Ross Arthur Griffith
Image © By Ivy Main (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Problem of “Micro” and “Macro”
I recently witnessed this exchange at a bookstore in the southern United States. An older couple (white) came in looking for How to Stop the Coming Civil War: My Savage Truth by Michael Savage (a far-right American radio talk-show host, banned from entering the UK at the moment due to the extremist nature of his ideas). The bookstore employee they wound up talking with was a young black man (the image completed by cornrows). The couple had the name of the book wrong, and they kept referring to it as “How to Stop the Coming Insurrection” (which is pretty bad in and of itself).
The employee asked them if they meant How to Stop the Coming Civil War several times, and there was a sort of mutually embarrassed confusion. At this point, the couple quickly hustled out the door, the book un-found and un-purchased (which I did not mind one bit). I need to make clear that at no point in this exchange was there any sort of explicit racism, or harsh words – nothing, except for a certain terseness in words. It as a stressful exchange for both parties; it was awkward just to watch. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the older white couple, attempting to buy a far-right ideologues’ book, just could not bear the embarrassment of being corrected by a black man over the very title of the book. And that is why the left in such a hurry, before the correct title could be verified (i.e., directly proved wrong) via computer.
I of course cannot empirically prove that this was in fact the case, I am merely using a combination of deduction (we where in the South, and this was an older white couple buying a wing-nut bestseller) and some emotional empathy. The bookstore employee was largely unfazed; one got the impression that these engagements happened with deadening regularity. If I had not been watching and listening closely, I would have totally missed the entire exchange.
My point is this: contemporary racism (or sexism, or any of the endless sub-genres of chauvinism and ignorance) takes a myriad of subtle forms. The days of explicit racism as a mainstream, every-day occurrence is largely over. Instead, there exists a deep undercurrent of implicitly racist assumptions and attitudes that go unchallenged and therefore, unquestioned, unchanged. Both white people and black people in the US seem scared to think strait about racial tension (and all the social, economic and historical baggage that comes with it). As such, there is no mechanism, no device which allows for this tension, this baggage to be processed or dealt with. Part of this is generational differences. But by the same token the unconscious assumptions of parents tend to be very efficiently passed on to the next generation.
To put it more simply: the older I get, the more I remind myself of my father. This leads me to the larger point: the difficulty of finding or seeing the relationship between the “micro” and the “macro” in our lives. These are terms associated with economics, but they work easily in many other situations. Micro is the price of a bottle of water at a corner shop; macro is climate change, or “consumer capitalism” and the reasons for why you see three different petrol stations at a particular street corner.
Social dynamics plays a role in how we act and react in these situations, for example, the social and interpersonal play of a friend buying a bottle of water, and the pressure that one has to exert to get the friend to not buy the bottle. Everyone winds up feeling awkward and right/wrong. It can also take the form of when “society speaks through you” as it where. By this, I mean when you voice the standards of society (or of the preferences of your parents) without really even being consciously aware of it. In a word: cliche.
A poignant example of this is jobs. The whole culture and logic of work and of jobs; getting one, advancing in one, the career, the endless debate between “working hard and getting ahead” versus “selling out and becoming a cog in the machine” morass. Most people have trouble emotionally connecting with macro-level facts or ideas. They are simple too abstract; too arid and remote. Micro-level situations are implicitly personal. They easily take the form of personal anecdotes, which make it far easier for people to identify with.
Let’s say you are unemployed, and not just ‘not working at all’ but rather, as is far more likely of our generation, under-employed. You might have a part-time job, but you are not in a salaried career-type job, one in which you are interested and stimulated. To what extent is your under-employment your fault? To what extent is it the fault of larger economic/social/political forces? Bluntly: are you lazy? Or is it neo-liberal economic policies and its result, the Great (Endless) Recession?
There is no easy answer. Yes, there are probably things you could have done to get a better job. Applied for more jobs of various types and combinations. Gotten certified to do various things (a programming language, a foreign language, accounting…etc). But on the other hand the macro economics that allowed for a huge and prosperous middle class a generation ago have changed. Our economic system guarantees a basic level of unemployment. So, no, it is not entirely your fault either. The micro/macro problem makes it too easy for those of us who are unemployed or under-employed to be labeled as “lazy”. In hindsight, there is always something more you could have done, some more studying or networking you could have done to get that salaried “you’ve made it” kind of job.
I would also raise a larger, philosophical point here. The UK and the US are amongst the hardest working countries in the world. So why are we so paranoid about laziness? What, after all, is the point of all this Horatio Alger pulling-yourself-up-by-you-own-bootstraps talk? In Walden, Henry David Thoreau talks about the society (“lifestyle” if you will) of ants. He compares 19th century America to ants (imagine how much worse it has gotten today). Yes, we are very busy says Thoreau. “But what,” Thoreau asks, “are we busy about?”
My answer: we are ants, and we are busy about profit, which is to say, nothing really, at all. We prefer not to think about it too much. In the macro-level picture things are not going well (global warming, chronic poverty, terrorism, dying democracy). In the micro-level in the US and the UK, things are going well. How do we get these two desperate pictures to link up? Where is the disconnect?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to mirror the question: there is a mix of individual psychology (micro again) and larger social pressures (the macro) which mitigate against individuals linking up their individual actions and thoughts with larger problems. Many large companies have implicitly based their business model on things being the way they are, which sounds obvious and inane until you think about the sort of financial clout (for example, Wal-Mart has a larger GDP than the Netherlands) that actively seeks to keep “things the way they are”. Politicians do not get elected by telling their electorate that their lifestyles are massively unsustainable nor by double crossing their corporate backers.
A further answer is that large, macro-level problems are difficult to understand, and difficult to test empirically. The modern global economy is just too vast, with far to many actors and variables and unknowns to really be able to say one way or an other whether you being underemployed is your fault or otherwise. But just because we cannot test empirically does not mean we assemble a large battery of circumstantial evidence, deployed in the light of reasonable and logical reflection.
Bringing it back to the Older Southern White Couple and the Black Minumum-Wage Employee, we can see that two quite distinct, yet fundamentally related sub-cultures clashed (both sub-cultures could be said to be formed in part by these friction-filled encounters). To those individuals, the exchange was probably “just the way the world is”. Their perception of “the Other” was fully confirmed, and we can understand upon reflection that both sides worked to protect their long-held perceptions; their way of understanding their own little universes.
Again, I cannot be absolutely sure that any of what I have just described actually took place. And yet I am sure. The answer seems to me to be a kind of double-edged answer. Individuals themselves must be better at being socially aware (one of the great tragedies of contemporary society is that the internet seems to be used primarily to confirm our own opinions, even as it simultaneously gives us no excuse for ignorance). And at the same time, people do need political leadership.
The only way to bridge the gap is to work both ways “top-down” and “bottom-up” simultaneously.
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