Popular American (USA) Culture: A Dysfunctional and Destructive Life Context


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

We are — amidst pauses and respites for comfort from pizza, beer, shopping, TV football games, and “unreality” shows — caught in a bewildering and conflicted response to the world about us. We are aware something is wrong — unfamiliar, strange, frightening – but we cannot seem to grasp its sources.  We are aware that rapid social and technical changes are occurring in our lives, and that these changes are of such speed and proportion that they elude our understanding and control.  We are also aware that we seem to be embedded in a way-of-life that is challenging our security, safety, and survival — that we are headed for a “dreadful reckoning.”  Among individuals, there are growing and widespread feelings of confusion, fear, despair, anger, distrust, and alienation. We pursue collectives to support our identity – including gangs, hate- rhetoric groups, militaristic organizations, cults, and extremist and fanatic religions. Vilification, demonization, and retribution toward others is commonplace, and is used as a platform for advancing political, economic, and moral positions and interests.

I would like to suggest that the source of many of these responses reside in the very nature of popular American culture.  Popular American culture is creating dysfunctional and destructive life-contexts that are shaping our individual and collective lives by fostering and sustaining cultural ethos’ that penetrates and controls our (1) macro-level institutions (i.e., government, economic/financial system, and social formation, especially race, gender, and age) and (2) micro-level institutions (i.e., family, school, work, churches, and media), and (3) individual psyches. The cultural ethos’ socializing our lives, and our constructions of reality, now exists in a self-perpetuating cycle or ecology.  I have written of this before, but I feel compelled to offer these thoughts again at this perilous time in which the concentration of wealth, power, and position is both strengthening this destructive milieu and also exporting it across the world.  A colonization of minds is occurring!

In Table 1, I present twelve major popular American culture ethos’ and their opposites. Each has many nuances of expression and influence.  The ethos’ are explained, and their potential opposites are in parentheses at the end.  I encourage you to think of them as template governing our way-of-life by socializing our psyches.



Characteristic Ethos’ of Popular American Culture

1. Consumerism: The promotion of the constant and unlimited purchase of goods as a source of personal satisfaction and status. Consumerism has little concern for the consumption and exploitation of natural and human resources. (Sustainability)

2. Materialism: The belief that personal worth and well being is directly related to the acquisition of tangible goods and personal possessions. Materialism is a major source of consumerism. (Spirituality)

3. Commodification: The assignment of a monetary value to all things so they can be treated as commodities (i.e., articles of commerce or trade on the commodity market and exchange) to be considered in determining worth and value. Within this ethos, money becomes a critical arbiter of personal, governmental, and commercial decisions. (Human Worth)

4. Inequality/Privilege/Diversity: This American cultural ethos seeks to hide or disguise itself amidst spin, platitudes, and self-righteous assertions in government, commerce, media, and religion, but the harsh reality is that the very diversities we claim to support constitute sources of their absence or minimal existences. Racial, ethno-cultural, gender, sexual preferences, social class, and a host of other biases define popular culture, and are sustained by it. (Diversity/Equality)

5. Violence and Power: The impulse and tendency to use harsh and abusive force for both pleasure (e.g., football, computer games) and to achieve preferences (e.g., bullying, gangs, war). There is a tolerance of violence and, in many ways, a fascination with its expression, display, and consequences. Militarism is valued. (Peace)

6. Individual Self-Interest: A focus on the individual to such an extent that there is minimal attention to the consequences of this for the social nexus. Support for individual rights, while essential for the protection of human freedom and liberty, is often in conflict with the larger social nexus. (Social Interest, Solidarity, Gemeinschaftesgefuhl)

7. Celebrity Identification and Pre-Occupation: The attachment and concern for the lives of celebrities to such an extent that there is preoccupation with the events in celebrity lives at the expense of concern for critical issues in one’s own life and events of the wider world (e.g., People Magazine, TV shows, fan clubs, social networks). (Attachment to People and Relationships of “Ordinary” Life)

8. Competition: Competition is a defining trait of the American national character and daily life. Throughout education, commerce, entertainment, athletics, and political arenas of life, competition is considered good and to be encouraged. “Survival of the fittest” is an ingrained virtue, and there is often little concern or admiration for those who are second best. (Cooperation)

9. Financial Greed: In accord with its capitalistic system and attachment to competition in all areas of life, the unbridled pursuit of profit has turned into greed—an excessive desire to acquire money and material wealth often at the sacrifice of all ethical, moral, and often, legal standards. (Sharing)

10. Rapid and Continuous Change: The emphasis on rapid “change” and the pursuit of the new is a valued goal and activity. This is powered by the new technology. This emphasis continually pushes the boundaries of current and conventional beliefs and activities to new limits. This is especially true for TV programs, movies, computer games regarding explicit sexuality, violence, and dress styles and fads. (Tradition, Continuity with Past)

11. Hedonism: While the pursuit of pleasure is certainly a “normal” human value and behavior, first articulated in great detail in ancient Greece, and subsequently in Western psychology (behavior is motivated to seek pleasure and to avoid pain), its pursuit in America is unhampered by the extensive freedoms to self-indulge, and to disregard tradition or convention. These views often conflict with religious beliefs that see “seeking” pleasure as a sin. The issue is not hedonism per se, but rather its experience within a context that does not harm others in its pursuit (e.g., abuse, exploitation). Enjoy! (Self-Denial, Endure, Control)

12. Transgressive Ideology: An emerging cultural ideology that accepts as normative, violations of human decency and morality by promoting illicit behaviors (e.g., violent murder, torture, rape, pedophilia, incest, pornography, substance abuse, sado-masochism) involving all ages. This is manifesting itself in literature, movies, music, and television. (Civility, Decency, Dignity, Respect)


Octavio Paz, the great Mexican poet and author, noted that “Life is diversity, death is uniformity.” Much like bio-diversity, every culture we destroy or homogenize reduces our choices and options for finding alternative solutions to the very problems we have created. Our blindness to this in the face of the obvious and apparent destructive nature and consequences of American popular culture represents a sinister intentionality. By homogenizing world cultures, the options, alternatives, and choices afforded by cultural diversity disappear, and we are left with a single, homogenous way of life that can easily be dominated by a few nations, institutions, corporations, and individuals. We are in urgent need of local, national, worldwide discussions on the implications of this situation.  We are exporting this culture across the world.  This homogenization of American Popular Culture is promoting destructive consequences associated with both cultural change (i.e., acculturation, collapse, conflict).

These twelve major ethos’ of popular American culture achieve their consequences via socialization dynamics that proceed across different levels of societal structures (i.e., macro, micro, psychosocial) as demonstrated in Figure 1.  The Figure, which appears at the end of this paper, will be slow to appear for reasons known only to my Word Program.  If you cannot download, let me known and I will try to send you a personal copy.  Please see below.

Some Editorial Reflections

Throughout human history, national cultures have emerged to promote the interests and to meet the needs of members. These cultures — rooted as they are in social, political, economic, and moral institutions and forces — have proved to be both sources of growth and development, and also sources of destruction from both within and without.  We have only to look at ancient Rome or Nazi Germany or even Victorian England. Counter-cultures within challenging existing mores and values, and antagonists arise without as counters to the perceived powers and influence of the focal culture.

Within the United States of America, a popular culture has arisen over the course of our history that now threatens to have perilous consequences for its citizens and for the world.  Many of the seeds of our contemporary popular culture were sown in the Gilded Age at the turn of the Twentieth Century in which the wealthy barons of industry (i.e., the Jekyll Island cabal) considered human lives to be expendable in pursuit of wealth and power.  The foundations that bear their names continue to be sources of influence today by impacting national and global policies.

Our cultural ethos’ need to be recognized, understood, questioned and changed.  We cannot continue to socialize our nation, nor other nations, within this context of greed, consumerism, materialism, competition, violence, and related values, especially unbridled socio-technical change.  The casualties of this popular culture are many as we are witnessing:  poverty, famine, war, and transgressive ideologies and moralities that abuse, exploit, and normalize violence as sources of enjoyment, pleasure, and self-gratification.

I am not a Luddite.  I understand change is always occurring and is the very nature of life itself responding to new demands imposed upon it.  But this does not mean that we can proceed to develop cultural milieus that are destructive and that serve to create victims among its very members.  Our government and corporate leaders are now cogs in the wheel that keep our failing culture going. Corruption, cronyism, lobbyist “demoncracy,” militarism, and political factionalism are the norm. We are in need of national renewal and reform – we are in need of leadership driven by ethics, courage, vision, and wisdom.  We are in need of a national transformation in which our very identities are not rooted within collectives (e.g., religions, states, political parties, nationalism), but rather in the simple and obvious fact that we are first and foremost representatives — carriers — of life.  There is no other – everything is connected. This recognition carries with it responsibilities to nurture, sustain, and advance life, not to exploit it and destroy it. We are, at present, a dysfunctional culture!

Figure 1:

APC Socialization Structures and Dynamics



Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a  member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at marsella@hawaii.edu.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Nov 2013.

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