American Culture is a Problem: for the Pandemic and Sustainable Fashion

social distancing not working in U.S. due to ideology and individualism - American Culture is a Problem - image of the Tomorrowland arch at Disney
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American Culture is a Problem

Why are so many Americans refusing to practice social distancing?

There are many, many reasons why a person wouldn’t be holed up in their house avoiding the plague right now, and most of them have to do with class exploitation.

Service workers, fulfillment center employees, and other hourly-wage workers are left with the choice to quit their jobs, take unpaid leave (or use limited sick pay), or “toughen up” and remain in the vulnerable world of crowded gas stations, continually-busy food service, or other “essential” spaces like grocery stores.

This post is not about them.

This post is about the many, many instances of people refusing to take Covid-19 seriously, calling others “sissies” for staying home, taking advantage of Coronavirus deals at the local hamburger joint, and hosting sleepovers for their school-age children.

This post is also about how the social ills present in Covid-19 as a case study reveal ideological issues present throughout society more broadly, and particularly in the sustainable fashion sector.

My theory is that social distancing works particularly poorly in the U.S. because of a set of social values that work against collective participation.

American Ideologies

1 | Individualism

Americans are nurtured to believe that our individual freedoms come first. We are taught to do things ourselves, refuse help, and plow forward with our individual goals.

In the sustainability sector, this often manifests in people starting their own businesses instead of building collectives that address the root causes of a social issue.

2 | Anti-Authoritarianism & Conspiracy Theories

Ironically, anti-authoritarianism is one of the reasons Trump is in office right now, so this actually has paradoxical ends. Americans, high on our “revolutionary” founding stories, are taught to resist anything that smells like authority and rely on our own common sense instead. This breeds government conspiracy theories like the ones we’re hearing about Covid-19, that 1. this is just a conservative plot to keep Trump in office or 2. this is just a liberal plot to impeach Trump.

By making this merely a matter of political gain or loss, we can feel like we’re regaining control, but it has deadly consequences.

In the sustainability sector, this shows itself in consumer assumptions that smaller business are inherently more ethical, even if they don’t have the credentials to back it up.

3 | Racism

Anti-Chinese, Anti-Asian, and Anti-POC bias has run rampant in the face of Covid-19. Americans are taught to blame social ills on all non-white “others,” as if doing so will make the problem go away.

The idea that white people must remain blameless in the face of pandemic doesn’t do much to prevent the virus from spreading, and in the long run racist violence has the well-tested potential to be just as deadly as the plague.

In the sustainability sector, this shows in rampant white saviorism – a tendency among those with social privilege to believe that they can and should “rescue” the marginalized – and poor representation among brand owners and in marketing campaigns.

4 | Anti-Intellectualism

If scientists say it, it can’t be true. Playing with class and authority issues, anti-intellectualism is something I’m kind of sympathetic to. After all, well-educated people often share generational advantages of wealth and privilege that help them gain their elite status.

That being said, this has played out in dangerous ways, as we have seen with climate change and as we see now. Americans have been encouraged to believe that intellectuals are the enemy of the common people, and this is the fall-out.

In the sustainability sector, this is often revealed in food ethics, from dieting to particular arguments for and against animal agriculture that don’t take scientific evidence into account.

5 | Consumerism-as-god

Why is there a toilet paper shortage? Why is hand sanitizer out of stock when everyone has soap at home?

My theory is that Americans have become so acclimated to using their “purchasing power” to affect change that we have begun to believe that if we just curate the right “healthy” products, we will protect ourselves. This is misguided, of course, but over a century of legal, propagandistic marketing has convinced us this is true.

In the sustainability sector, this idea of change through consumption runs rampant, and it is high time that we understand the far-reaching effects of such claims. Maybe “the ends justifies the means” when the company is authentically building an ethical supply chain, but propagating a narrative that all solutions are awaiting us at point-of-purchase removes us from our real power.

Of course, I am oversimplifying the problem here. And I am aware of the fact that, despite our anti-authoritarian tendencies, good information from federal agencies and the presidential office weeks ago would have driven home how serious this issue is.

The truth is, individuals are not (totally) at fault. We are swimming in a soup of bad ideology and confused self-formation, and we’re not going to fix that with a few weeks of social distancing.

But we can try to recognize the false and dangerous ideas that separate us from social responsibility and collaboration, because they run deep, deeper than a pandemic. Recognizing them means we can work to correct them.

More in the Covid-19 series.

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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  1. Late responding here too (I have just discovered your blog). I agree entirely with this post. I also have read commentary that the US and Americans view the nation as exceptional and that it is a big shock that such a rich successful nation is not handling this pandemic well because of the lack of trust in science, the disjointed public health system and the conflict between the state and federal governments and within the branches of the federal govt.

    1. yeah, America has seen itself as “too big to fail” for at least the last 150 years and that pride is definitely catching up. Not to mention that nearly all commercial success in the US is predicated on the exploitation of others, primarily immigrants and people of color.

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