Minimalism, materialism, and morality

And now I’m going to finish the post I started writing 6 days ago (lol!)  Please forgive me if it’s a little disjointed or repetitive or something!  😉

Minimalism is the trend.  It’s not a new thing; Zen Buddhists and other cultures have been practicing it for years.  But Americans (I admit, I’m not sure about the rest of the world) have suddenly “discovered” it, and like anything else we do, especially anything new and “exotic”, we (collectively speaking) feel the need to do it to excess.  And we have this fetish for politicizing things.  Yes, including minimalism.

I would like to inject a little sanity into the wayward convo; can I get an amen?

Let’s start at the beginning.  What’s minimalism, anyway?  Well, according to The Minimalists themselves (the self-proclaimed spokespeople for the subject, although I will give them a hats-off for humor!  They’re kinda funny)…

…They don’t actually give a definition.  Not even on their “What Is Minimalism?” page.  At first, I thought they were dead serious when they said:

“To be a minimalist you must live with less than 100 things, you can’t own a car or a home or a television, you can’t have a career, you must live in exotic hard-to-pronounce places all over the world, you must start a blog, you can’t have children, and you must be a young white male from a privileged background.”

That’s a joke, but I didn’t realize it at first.  Because it sounds so realistic, at least to people aspiring to live the lifestyle.

They go on to “define” minimalism as a means to freedom, a transformative gateway to nirvana (OK, I’m paraphrasing on that one).

My reliable companion Wikipedia actually answered the question:

Simple living or voluntary poverty encompasses a number of different voluntary practices to simplify one’s lifestyle.  These may include, for example, reducing one’s possessions, generally referred to as minimalism, or increasing self-sufficiency.  Simple living may be characterized by individuals being satisfied with what they have rather than want.”

Clearer.  Good ol’ Wiki.

Commentators don’t let anybody forget about the hazards of excess materialism.  Even the very word “materialism” carries a greedy, Scrooge-like connotation and conjures up images of Monte Burns stealing Halloween candy from trick-or-treating toddlers.

I think it’s quite true–maybe even an understatement–that the American sub-psyche has been bogged down with material excess.  We’re bombarded by commercials (adverts for my mates across the pond) wherever we go.  LED billboards are the new JumboTron Lite-Brites on crack, distracting drivers and wreaking havoc on night-blindness.  We’re constantly almost-scolded for not having the latest, hottest gadgets (“get with the times!”, our “friends” chide).  We’re engineered to compare ourselves to those around us and feel “behind” or “out of the loop” (losers, basically) when we don’t “measure up”, and the yardstick usually consists of the physically visible: clothes, hair, cars, iDevices, and so on.  We probably feel subconsciously overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices at the grocery store or Walmart or on Amazon or Google.  Yikes.

I think this Rat Race of Things is collecting a toll, on elements unseen: our energy, our psyche, our selves.  We’re not free to follow our dreams because our time is spoken for: work like a gerbil spinning in its wheel in order to make money so that you can Buy More Stuff.  Always, More Stuff.  What you have is never enough; you always need Moar.

The west was trying to buy happiness, for the wrong reasons and from the wrong places.  And for the most part, it failed.

And I think that some people in our society are saying what needs to be said: “enough”.

What to Americans do when the pendulum has hit the far wall?  Why, swing back the other way, of course, and see if we can knock a hole in the opposite wall, too!  Why not?  If something is good, then more of it must be better.  (Umm, that’s the mentality that got us into this collective mess in the first place…?)

So the answer became “minimalism”, used synonymously with other Zen-like words like “simplicity” and “spartan”.

Sounds good, right?  Refreshing, resetting, freeing, and morally superior.

Ooooh, ouch.  There’s always one catch, isn’t there?

That’s the other irritating tendency that Americans have: the instinctual desire to outdo one another.  Everything becomes a contest.  We start chanting “I’m better than you” in a neener-neener sing-song voice…in kindergarten.  Or maybe before that.  Yes, that young.  The (Contesting) Force is strong in that one.  (And I think this sets us up to morph into little Greed Prodigies.)

It also sets us up to be irritating in other ways.

I’ll explain.  I’m going to Phone-a-(Wiki)-Friend here, too.

“Simple living can also be a reaction to materialism and conspicuous consumption. Some cite socio-political goals aligned with the anti-consumerist or anti-war movements, including conservation, degrowth, social justice…”

A-ha!  Did you see that?  (Social justice.)  And did you see that other thing?  (It’s not mentioned, but you already know it; you already feel it: politicization.)

Moral superiority gets involved when someone implies, “I’m better than you for having less stuff”–ironic, because that was probably the same person who acted like “I’m better than you for having more stuff or this stuff”.  There’s always a plaintiff, and there’s always the accused: the defendant.

And politicization gets involved when minimalism is automatically aligned on one end of the political spectrum, as though people on the other end aren’t eligible to enter the tree house.  It has become a “socially responsible” “cool” thing to do, and if you want to do it for other reasons, you’re somehow not “real”.

I sense an exclusive ‘tude.  Definitely not with all minimalists, of course, but with a snobby subset.  I don’t know how I sense this, but I do.

Funny thing is, minimalism as it is contemporarily understood and “practiced” in our present-day western culture isn’t minimalist at all.  The homeless not withstanding, the poorest of North Americans typically have way more stuff and enjoy a much higher standard of living than the average John Doe from India, Russia, Pakistan, or Central America.  We wouldn’t know what Zen was if it bit us in the ass.

The other funny thing is, this whole “minimalism” movement has been co-opted, repurposed, and packaged into a neat little product: yet one more thing that yuppies can buy.  Bonus: they feel better about themselves.

(Guys….it’s an artificial contentment.  Here we go again, trying to buy contentment.  It’s fake.  It’s an illusion, a magician’s sleight of hand.  Seriously.)

But wait–the irony gets even thicker…

The judgment heaped upon those who don’t subscribe.  “Still bogged down in our stuff”, they say.  “Still clinging to materialism”, they scold.

The truth is, this westernized “minimalism” thing is 1) a watered-down version of an illusion that bears little resemblance to real minimalism and 2) rather elitist, because it’s typically reserved for those with an overactive (superficial) conscience who have the luxury of thinking about it, as opposed to worrying about how they’re going to buy groceries, fuel up the truck, or pay rent/mortgage on time like everybody else.  It’s the pure luxury of spare time and having the option, the choice, to consider doing away with material items.  What normal person has the time or energy to contemplate this?  Who comes home from slaving away at work and says, “I’m just not feeling Zen enough; I think I’ll go minimalist today”?

Worse yet, there’s a slight staring down the shaft of one’s nose at those of us who do slave away so that we can dream of having that second car or replacing that 4-year-old smartphone that has begun to lag on the network, or maybe even saving for a house or something.

It’s not necessarily an emphasis or goal of becoming more minimalist and less bogged down with material items that is bad; the sand-line-drawing kicks in when it’s used as a one-upmanship bragging tool to demonstrate the so-called moral superiority in doing so and coincidentally implying that others are morally inferior for not undertaking this project.

A fellow blogger (who is bloody hilarious and I recommend following her blog!) says it much better than I.  Having come from a humble background, she’s all, “screw it; I grew up poor and now I enjoy material comforts and there’s no friggin’ shame in that”.

The “I’m better than the materialist peons” attitude is rather classist toward people like her (and the rest of us who aren’t part of the coveted top socioeconomic tier).

My intent is not, and never has been, to start any class wars.  That’s Marxist bullshit, a prelude to creating a problem that doesn’t exist so that the powers that be can introduce a “solution” that nobody needs, and only further screws things up even worse in the process.  My intent isn’t to pit the Haves and the Have-Nots against each other.

My intent is, however, to provoke thought and illustrate (however clumsily, over the course of 6 freaking days) alternate points of view and perception, and to encourage anyone who reads this (poor souls) 😉 to connect thought-dots beyond the point at which we might otherwise have stopped.

And that is all 😉





11 thoughts on “Minimalism, materialism, and morality

  1. My idea of minimalism is to get rid of things because I have no need for them. Although from what is described, it sounds more like the case of getting rid of things because this is what minimalists do, because minimalist is the trend, I must follow and beat them to it. Humans… really strange, aren’t they 😂 👽 👾 🎃

    1. Yep, you nailed it!! Minimalism itself is awesome. Simplify, declutter, unload that which no longer serves a purpose in your life; bonus points if it can serve a need in someone else’s 😁

      Yeah the problem I have is only when it’s done for the wrong reasons–the deep-down materialistic people pretending they’re not and once again pretending that they’re better than everyone else because they’re “above all that stuff”. *Sigh* lol 💗💗

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I enjoyed them.

    I have seen some irony in that happiness or contentment, rather than being found in owning “more” things is found in owning “less” things; either way it’s in things.

    I think that, whether more or less, one can learn contentment; it shouldn’t depend on things at all, no matter the quantity or quality of those things.

    The idea of “enough” is…enough!

  3. One description I read of minimalism defined it as something richer people can afford to do – because they’re the ones who can afford to throw away stuff, knowing they can afford to buy a new one. For example, that person working to upgrade their 4 year old smartphone will probably keep their old phone in a drawer in case the new one gets in an accident or something. A richer person will throw away the old phone, calling it “minimalism” but knowing they could actually afford to buy a new one at the drop of a hat…

    1. Yep 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. You nailed it, my friend 😊. Precisely and elegantly 👍🏼💖. It’s more of a choice for them. I have a theory that piggybacks on our points 😁…

      …that, the richer peeps have already tasted luxury and excess, and have already been there and done that, so now they’re choosing to scale back, whereas the middle and lower range peeps never quite have enough money to get ahead, so we’re still accumulating and saving what we can, mostly for the reasons you eloquently expressed in your example: we can’t just replace things on a dime if we find we need it after all. But since they have already experienced the “good life” and could acquire those items again if need be, they can definitely afford to get rid of the old. I imagine that’s why I keep hanging onto clothes and whatnot. I already have it, already spent the money on it, don’t necessarily need/use all of it right now, but I couldn’t afford the expense (or the time, since I work until I’m wiped) it would take to buy it again, so I keep it around. Excellent example 👏🏼👏🏼💚💙

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