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On Materialism

It is what it is. If the shoe fits, wear it. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. A rose by any other name….

Our language is peppered with such phrases that urge authenticity. Perhaps Shakespeare said it most eloquently (Hamlet, I,3, 564-566) with

This above all--to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

On the one hand, political correctness would have us find the least offensive words to describe one another—pleasantly plump, not fat. On the other hand, and particularly today in an era of alternative facts and fake news, critical thinking demands that we describe the world as accurately as possible, in order that we might make the most effective decisions.

shoes of markos

Imelda Marcos Shoe Museum. Manila, The Philippines.

So, I have a problem with one of our assessments—the WorkPlace Values Profile™ (for a free tryout, ask at info@centacs.com) . This profile measures the relative importance of 16 values for an individual—things like Power, Beauty, and Relationships. My problem—one of tact vs. truth—is with Materialism, one of our 16 values. Many people just don’t like being associated with that word, in spite of answering relevant questions in support of materialism:

 

  • Having possessions that are the envy of others
  • Having really nice things around me
  • Being able to shop at the finer stores or other venues
  • Maximizing the amount of luxury in my life
  • Being seen in settings that are fashionable

When someone’s answers endorse these items, they get a high score on Materialism. Too many clients have told me that they squirmed when they saw their high score, saying “I’m not really that materialistic!” In processing their results, we review how they answered each question, yet they wouldn’t change their answers. “Compared to others,” I then say, “you are more materialistic than the norm.” That is what these statements define—materialism is an emphasis on having nice things, shopping at finer venues, maximizing luxury, being fashionable, having possessions. While they may also have high scores on values such as Relationships, Helping, or Intellect, it is as though many people feel like the materialistic label overshadows their other values, that being seen as materialistic negates other values. You can’t be true to two, they feel. You can’t value Intellect and be Materialistic. The appellation of materialistic seems to taint its bedfellows—guilt by association.

Just as “Something there is that doesn’t like a wall” (Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”), there something that many people don’t like when they are described as “materialistic.” Materialism is both a philosophical and an everyday term. In philosophy, a materialist asserts that nothing exists beside the observable, physical world. As an everyday word, a materialistic person typically describes someone who values things, especially nice things. A materialistic person in the everyday sense could also exhibit other values, such as Relationships, Spirituality, and Intellect, that might appear to be the opposite of Materialism. The often-thought opposites of Spiritualism and Materialism were conjoined in the Rev. Jim Bakker’s dictum that “God doesn’t like junk.” Monks are examples of non-materialistic spiritualists. Bakker was a materialistic spiritualist, with his gold-plated bathroom faucets.

I should say that I do see Materialism as neither a good nor a bad value. Like any other value, it can be used for good or ill. Some materialists set standards that are motivating to others, while other materialists exhibit a greed that crushes motivation. Some of my best friends are materialistic! I had a colleague once who chided me upon hearing that I was headed for Europe one summer. “I wish I had that kind of money.” “You do,” I quipped, “but you spent it on a Cadillac. I drive a VW beetle! And, I go to Europe on the difference in price.” Desire for Status drove his Materialism to have things that made others envious. My desire for intellectual stimulation took the same money and applied to travel and books.

I have searched thesauri for synonyms that would be more neutral/less offensive—worldliness, acquisitiveness, object-orientation, possessiveness, physicalism, greediness. None quite worked. One that I did like—materiality—has a fixed meaning in auditing—small discrepancies are immaterial, while large ones are material, or show materiality. I think “materiality” is the best of the words I’ve considered—the most neutral. “Materiality” suggests that something is way out of line—an egregious mistake, intentional or otherwise. Should I not be concerned about this special meaning of a word that otherwise is the most objective way of saying “Materialism”?

What do you think? Should I/we keep using “materialism” and shrug at complaints, saying, “Hey, a rose is a rose is a rose….” Or should we replace it with “materiality”? Or something else?