Published on July 7, 2010 in Express Tribune: The version below has been expanded from the original ET article to provide clearer explanations and illustrations of some ideas covered very briefly in the article. See also: Secrets of Happiness
As a teenager, growing up in the US in the post-Hippie 70’s, I was unaware of the broad sweep of the social revolutions taking place around me. The structure of traditional American society, which greatly emphasized family values, was rapidly changing. At the time, this only affected me on a personal level; I did not know that the choices we were making as students & teenagers were being made by everyone. These choices were to prefer individual freedom to social responsibility, and to prefer short-term instant gratification instead making long-run sustained efforts to achieve higher goals. This created the consumerism, hedonism, and individualism that characterizes modern Western societies, which have changed dramatically from more traditional Western societies in the earlier part of the twentieth century. The changes are now in their initial phases in Pakistan, and also throughout the Islamic World, as we struggle to catch up to the West. It is therefore important to look at the outcomes of these processes of social change, so that we can try to avoid their extremely harmful effects.
In one of our undergraduate classes, we read and discussed an essay entitled ‘The Virtue of Selfishness.’ The author, Ayn Rand, argued that contrary to traditional beliefs, selfishness was a good thing. At that time, the majority of the students in my class were against this idea, though there was a minority that was boldly and shockingly in favour.
This same sermon was preached from many pulpits. In our Economics classes, we learnt that man is basically selfish, and that ruthless competition leads to efficient economic outcomes. In Philosophy, we learnt the Existentialist message that man is free to choose without constraints posed by society, tradition or religion. Those who are brave and intelligent seize the opportunities offered by life, and are not bound by morals, conventions and tradition. In psychology, Freud’s message was widely understood to mean that society creates “inhibitions” against certain types of behaviour. The path to perfect happiness lies in removing these inhibitions, and learning to act according to our inner desires, even if society does not approve. These revolutionary philosophies were translated into a popular language by bestsellers like Looking out for Number 1, that argued it was our prime duty to look after our own selfish interests. Also. courses in ‘assertiveness training’ taught people how to go after what they wanted, without being polite and considerate as society demanded.
As a result of these educational trends, today the philosophy of selfish pursuit of pleasures and wealth as a philosophy of life has come to dominate the discourse. Stodgy, old-fashioned traditions have been completely routed by the modern ideas of ‘hedonism’ and ‘individualism.’ Hedonism is the idea that we do not acknowledge any obstacles to the pursuit of pleasure, power, and profits — aptly summarised as “All is fair in love and war.” Individualism encourages us to pursue personal goals even when they conflict with community and social interests.
It is impossible to cover the full effects of these social revolutions, which have impacted all dimensions of human lives. I will look briefly at just one dimension: the family unit. The nature of society depends crucially on whether children are taught to be caring, compassionate and social, or ruthless individualists. What is currently being taught is reflected in recent article in Newsweek: The Truth Is We Are All Raging Liars. Just one quote from the article: “We are a culture of liars, to put it bluntly, with deceit so deeply ingrained in our psyches that we hardly even notice we’re engaging in it.” The loss of moral values and social responsibility affects society from top to bottom; In June 2018, the Washington Post reported that Trump had made 3,251 false or misleading claims in his first 497 days in office!. Similarly public popularity of the pursuit of personal pleasure at expense of social responsibility has led to an epidemic of crime, abuse of alcohol and drugs, and other types of destructive behavior among the youth in western societies.
In the 1970’s, granted the license by society, while youngsters were busy pursuing pleasure, sober minds were aware of the tremendous damage being done. There were many efforts to ‘save the family’ by many different groups, using different strategies. However, the anti-family forces proved too strong. A recent report on fractured families states that “the fabric of family life has been stripped away” in the past few decades. There is an overwhelming evidence of the extremely adverse social consequences from this breakdown.
Statistics in the US show millions of unwanted teenage pregnancies, highest divorce rates in the world, more than half the children living in broken families, and record-breaking rates of alcohol, drug abuse, depression and suicide. The concept of marriage as a life-time commitment has broken down. Moving beyond statistics, ask yourself how would it feel to live in a society where you cannot trust your spouse, parents, or children? Legal parents are responsible for children up to 18 years, and that has become the dominant social norm — there is no one you can trust on a permanent, lifetime basis. On a personal basis, I came to know many students who either left their parents, or vice-versa, on reaching the legal adult age of 18. It is very sad feeling to know that there is no one who is ready to make a life-time commitment to you. Individualism, where everyone pursues their own goals without regard for others leads to loneliness, which creates many different types of problems. Recently UK appointed a Minister of Loneliness to deal with the spread and consequences of this problem. There are many studies of increasing loneliness and suicides in the USA.
These are the consequences of following lifestyles made to appear so attractive in Hollywood movies. The acids which dissolve communities and families are making progress in Pakistan, and all over the Islamic world. The social media make hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure, appear far more attractive than it really is. I often give my students the example of an advertisement for cigarettes, which features a man smoking, on a beautiful beach with a beautiful woman. The message the ad conveys goes directly into our hearts, without mental processing, that if we smoke, we will get to enjoy all of the great pleasures that life has to offer. The reality is that smoking cigarettes will give us lung cancer, as well as different types of oral diseases. Just like this, the beautiful imagery of the luxurious lives hides very ugly realities. It is necessary to fight these poisonous messages spreading rapidly in our societies, and the only effective tool to do so is the message of Islam, which has been translated into popular language by many poets — especially Allama Iqbal (see Reaching Beyond the Stars). We need to popularize and spread this message, as an antidote.