A study by Simon Gottschalk, Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas on the infantilization of western culture seems to have a connection with my own speculation of a collective mental breakdown when Trump lost the 2020 election.
In 1946, while visiting American, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss commented on the endearingly infantile traits of American culture. He especially noted adults’ childish adulation of baseball, their passionate approach to toy-like cars and the amount of time they invested in hobbies.
As contemporary scholars note, however, this “infantilist ethos” has become less charming – and more pervasive.
Researchers on both sides of the Atlantic have observed how this ethos has now crept into a vast range of social spheres.
In many workplaces, managers can now electronically monitor their employees, many of whom work in open spaces with little personal privacy. As sociologist Gary T. Marx observed, it creates a situation in which workers feel that managers expect them “to behave irresponsibly, to take advantage, and to screw up unless they remove all temptation, prevent them from doing so or trick or force them to do otherwise.”
This is exactly how companies organized the workplace to remove all privacy and even encourage workers to tell on each other if they noticed anything that could be interpreted as breaking the rules.
Much has been written about higher education’s tendency to infantilize its students, whether it’s through monitoring their social media accounts, guiding their every step, or promoting “safe spaces” on campus.
This caused many high school graduates to have a breakdown during the first or second year in college. They were unable to cope with having to prioritize and organize their lives on campus and fully responsible for their academic success for the first time. Some were hospitalized and at the same time participated in various type of therapies sessions during the day. Some even said they’d never go back to college again. They were emotionally unequipped to live in the real world.
Meanwhile, tourist destinations like Las Vegas market excess, indulgence and freedom from responsibility in casino environments that conjure memories of childhood fantasies: the Old West, medieval castles and the circus. Scholars have also explored how this form of Las Vegas-style “Disneyfication” has left its stamp on planned communities, architecture and contemporary art.
I went to Las Vegas only once and for a few days for work projects. During the free time I had, I looked around the strip and found the whole idea of Las Vegas was a scam. I failed to understand why so many people thought it was great fun to go to Vegas.
Then we’ve witnessed the rise of a “therapy culture,” which, as sociologist Frank Furedi warns, treats adults as vulnerable, weak and fragile, while implying that their troubles rooted in childhood qualify them for a “permanent suspension of moral sense.” He argues that this absolves grown-ups from adult responsibilities and erodes their trust in their own experiences and insights.
I found that most people I knew who’d gone to therapy only to find the affirmation they needed that everything that went wrong was someone else’s fault. A personal friend I knew actually kept changing therapists until she found one who didn’t challenge her and asked her what she could change about herself. Many people who sought therapy had the same goal as those Catholics who went to confession and received absolution, and therefore, move on in life with a clean conscience. Have they read the bible about King David?
Researchers in Russia and Spain have even identified infantilist trends in language, and French sociologist Jacqueline Barus-Michel observes that we now communicate in “flashes,” rather than via thoughtful discourse – “poorer, binary, similar to computer language, and aiming to shock.”
Others have noted similar trends in popular culture – in the shorter sentences in contemporary novels, in the lack of sophistication in political rhetoric and in sensationalist cable news coverage.
The whole generation of intelligent and responsible journalists we trusted and respected are gone, and insightful news reporting is non-existent these days.
While scholars such as James Côté and Gary Cross remind us that infantilizing trends began well before our current moment, I believe our daily interactions with smartphones and social media are so pleasurable precisely because they normalize and gratify infantile dispositions.
They endorse self-centeredness and inflated exhibitionism. They promote an orientation towards the present, rewarding impulsivity and celebrating constant and instant gratification.
They flatter our needs for visibility and provide us with 24/7 personalized attention, while eroding our ability to empathize with others.
Whether we use them for work or pleasure, our devices also foster a submissive attitude. In order to take advantage of all they offer, we have to surrender to their requirements, agreeing to “terms” we do not understand and handing over stores of personal data.
Indeed, the routine and aggressive ways our devices violate our privacy via surveillance automatically deprive us of this fundamental adult right.
While we might find it trivial or amusing, the infantilist ethos becomes especially seductive in times of social crises and fear. And its favoring of simple, easy and fast betrays natural affinities for certain political solutions over others. And typically not intelligent ones.
Democratic policymaking requires debate, demands compromise and involves critical thinking. It entails considering different viewpoints, anticipating the future, and composing thoughtful legislation.
What’s a fast, easy and simple alternative to this political process? It’s not difficult to imagine an infantile society being attracted to authoritarian rule.
Unfortunately, our social institutions and technological devices seem to erode hallmarks of maturity: patience, empathy, solidarity, humility and commitment to a project greater than oneself. All are qualities that have traditionally been considered essential for both healthy adulthood and for the proper functioning of democracy.
Technology advance and social media culture poisoned the minds of many of our younger generation, causing them to be disconnected to the traditional idea of morality, and personal responsibility. Right and wrong were simply a matter of personal interpretation. Such character defect prevented many of them to achieve true greatness. And I didn’t mean wealth. This is the most troublesome aspect for me. It’s as if my children are lost to me.
This also created cult like behavior for people with such defective mentality could not think for themselves. Anti-Vaxxers protested violently during a dangerous pandemic are like infants having a huge tantrum. Except that they are adults, and the way they behave is a mental and emotional disorder.