To Be, to Have, to Seem, to Flaunt

By | 11/01/2015

In 1976, Erich Fromm published a book named “To Have or To Be,” in which he described fundamental changes that were taking place in society. Changes in cultural values usually follow, somewhat later, technology advances, especially when these advances affect most people’s daily lives. Our “habitat” has been drastically changing, most markedly after World War II. We human beings continuously interfere with our environment; then we have to adapt to changes we brought about by ourselves. Sometimes, we are even surprised by events, as if we hadn’t been their original cause!

Until the 1960s, the most important values were considered to be moral integrity, knowledge, trustworthy friendships and the capability to perform a socially useful productive activity.  Basically, the most relevant values were related to who people were, not how they looked.  People were proud to be teachers, doctors, and businessmen. At that time, “being” was more important than anything else, including remuneration for someone’s professional activity.

From the 1970s on, values began to change and the pendulum swung to the side of “having,” that is, to the amount of money people made, and what they could purchase with it. Brands became hugely important and well known; people now desperately desired to have the items they sold. Owning the “right” purse or watch became, then, a mark of the importance and social position of their wearer. These branded items were a source of respectability.

Money received in exchange for professional services became more important than the ability to perform a job well. Being rich became more valuable than being cultured, productive or even honest. Of course, many who had these old virtues became rich through work that demanded intellectual sophistication and even moral integrity. But even they attracted attention and admiration only because of what they had, not for who they were.

At a time in which having a certain watch (or bag, only to mention the most eloquent symbols of the change in values we have been observing) spoke to their wearer’s wealth, competitors began to produce inferior versions of the original items. Those who could not afford the coveted watch had to buy the copy that, from a distance, looked just like the original. In this new era, “seeming” to be rich enough to own all of those important, branded items mattered more than anything else.  More people got into this with the advent of counterfeit, cheaply made objects that are still popular, but can only fool the most gullible observers. Suddenly, neither “being” nor even “having” matter anymore: just “seeming” to have is enough!

In the last decade we were introduced to social media, a new universe of virtual relationships. In the days of “having,” there was a clear increase in showing off one’s physical attributes (back in the time of “being,” people also showed off their intellect, but in a subtler and more discreet manner.) Now, people want to “flaunt,” more than anything else. They post photos that show them in amazing places, doing fantastic things, in order to make jealous the “friends” who “like” these pictures with all the hypocrisy of someone trying to hide their feelings.

We’re becoming more and more superficial; it can be said we are moving from the yolk to the shell. Many people’s main concern now is to broadcast a wonderful image of themselves; the truth behind that representation matters increasingly less, as time goes by. The main objective now is to be admired by progressively less relevant strangers.

Tradução: Amanda Morris