Thursday, December 08, 2005

Rank Materialism

Dr. Bob often joins me for lunch in one of the hospital cafeterias on campus. It's rarely planned, but he has an open invitation to join me. Dr. Bob has a unique ability to express his opinion as if absolute fact. I know, you're probably thinking "What's so unique about that? Demagogues from time out of mind have done no less."

Perhaps. But often, and most times, there is a facial expression or verbal inflection that reflects the fact the person is expressing an opinion. There may even be an element of defensiveness present.

Not Bob. Bob expresses opinions like he's reciting the encyclopedia. Sometimes it's annoying. Sometimes it's fun to gently challenge him.

For example, yesterday he asked me what I was reading. I'm reading the latest issue of Parabola, whose theme is Fundamentalism. As I explained to Dr. Bob, Parabola is a quarterly journal which essentially carries on the work of Joseph Campbell; each issue centers on a theme, with reference to as many world spiritual traditions as possible.

This naturally moved the conversation toward religion. Dr. Bob is a Unitarian. He expressed the opinion that conservative and liberal Christians are fighting the wrong battle. Rather than fight each other, they should jointly oppose consumerism.

It's fairly popular to oppose consumerism this time of year. Many deride it with their lips en route to the shopping mall. But Bob wasn't just talking about the Christmas consumerist juggernaut. He was speaking of the consumerism that plagues us year round, the "keep up with the Joneses" mentality that began in the 50s, and has continued unabated ever since.

Bob's theory is we use material goods to validate our status. How will the neighbors know we are successful without our fancy car, or unless we build an addition to our home?

A word which has become popular in the past few years is "rankism", and I think this is what Bob was getting at. There's often this urge of proving we are better than (or at least equal to) others. This is accomplished by asserting our "rank" – which might be as obvious as a uniform (military, clergy, etc) or as subtle as the latest gadget.

So – is consumerism the disease or a symptom?

Conspicuous consumption certainly look like a disease. There are times, with certain personalities, it resembles compulsive behavior. People (myself included) spend themselves deeply into dept.

At the same time, the Christian ideal is that all people are children of God, each deserving of love, respect, and consideration. God recognizes each of us as individuals, down to the individual hairs on our heads.

Jesus spent some time turning this need for "rank" on its head. The Master washing his students' feet. Saying one had to be as a child in order to perceive the Kingdom of Heaven. Saying the first would be last and the last first.

Another way to apply rank is with our favored labels. I'm liberal, he's conservative. She's fundamentalist, he's evangelical.

This application of rank helps simplify life. It's the old game of dividing our reality into "us" and "them", where "they" are the enemy, or less than us. Ultimately giving us the justification to treat "them" as less than human, in any number of ways, up to and including murder.

So, if I can assert my rank with my car or my house, so much the better. With these highly visible material possessions, I simultaneously justify my existence and prove my superiority to my neighbor.

What say you? Is materialistic consumerism the problem, or is it a symptom of "rankism"?

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