There is a Great Myth perpetuated in our culture: that somehow, hedonism and a lifestyle of self-indulgence are radical protests against mainstream society, and furthermore; pursuing this as a lifestyle (obviously, through shopping) is defiant, brave and COOL. The most clever thing about this myth is that it really has most people fooled. The psychologist and theorist Abraham Maslow‘s triangle of development of personal maturity places infantile self-gratification as the first stage in human development. Ecologist Dr. Davord W. Orr argues that advertising is aimed at keeping us in that state perpetually, which makes a whole lot of sense.
The image industries (fashion, media and entertainment) are overflowing with cliché calls-to-action (advertisements) that ask us to rebel, to revolt, to be free, not to compromise self, to Just Do It © – as if this were a novel ideal to take up as a cause when in fact, this characteristic is the main driving force of our consumer-capitalist culture. It sells products. It keeps the cycle going. It justifies almost anything in the pursuit of selfish pleasure, which in turn, makes those in power really, really wealthy and gives them a huge reason to keep us stupid and scared. Smart, no? The surface-level commitment to modern Do-Good-Ness rarely extends beyond what we can actually see first-hand.One possible explanation as to why the pursuit of knowledge is stereotyped as unsexy in our culture is because the more we know, the less pleasure we can derive from traditional consumer-capitalist activities with an unethical base that benefits those in power. AKA: shopping and consuming starts to mean something completely different when a holistic comprehension of objects and activities is pursued. It turns traditional economics on its head, and it is not ‘good for the economy’ because we might decide not to purchase something based on the story of how it came to be. This conflicts with the story-telling and economic interests of those is power, so it is best that they continually reinforce a pseudo-rebellion against an ostensible culture of do-gooders.
Things start to become less ‘cool’ when we realize that ‘cool’ is a grand plan, cleverly designed by a few monolithic entities who reap the benefits of having us run in circles to achieve some false dream of personal revolution through solipsistic hedonism. The truth is that falling in line by responding to traditional fear-based and cool-chasing advertising can rarely be a revolutionary act. It’s the furthest thing from it, because it simply reinforces the status-quo and in turn, the Great Myth. My main question for advertisers who use revolutionary terminology to sell images that sell products is this: What are you telling us to revolt against?
So, is it possible to be a virtuous hedonist? I believe that hedonism does not have to equate to solipsism. When we are aware of the consequences of our personal actions, our ability to be pleasured by those pursuits changes dramatically. Even pleasure itself changes dramatically. For example, I used to love the taste of cheeseburgers from Burger King. It was just yummy, and that was all that mattered – simple as that. Soon, I came across information about how those cheeseburgers are made, and it changed my ability to receive pleasure from eating them. Instead of being able to enjoy the piece of meat and cheese that came from somewhere out there, it became an avoidance and denial of the knowledge that the ground up flesh and cultured cow-udder secretions required the torturous confinement, exploitation and eventual messy death of a cow, the clear-cutting of rain forests for cattle grazing, human labor abuses, the displacement of indigenous peoples and the general ecological devastation. Does it still taste good? Maybe. But the net-gain of sensual pleasure is outweighed by the discomfort, or loss of pleasure associated with the transcendence of infantile self-gratification.
The first maneuver to stepping outside this cycle is to recognize other entities (people, pigeons, and petunias) as subjects of perception. In other words, advanced empathy. An acknowledgment that others can sense, and are affected by our actions – and whose will-to-live is valid, is more rebellious than any fashion advertisement. This may sound simple, but when applied to our lives we’ll see it poses a real challenge to nearly all of our current typical activities.
I will argue that an evolved form of hedonism might be rooted in the pleasure one can potentially receive from activities (and the support of those activities) that pleasures all subjects of perception. The reason this might be difficult to envision is because there is little mainstream discourse surrounding it.
What is a Discerning Brute to do? Educate yourself and evolve to a different state of pleasure-reception. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, and Animal Liberation by Peter Singer are a good place to start.