The infantilization of Western culture

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From MSN News:

If you regularly watch TV, you’ve probably seen a cartoon bear pitching you toilet paper, a gecko with a British accent selling you auto insurance and a bunny in sunglasses promoting batteries.

This has always struck me as a bit odd. Sure, it makes sense to use cartoon characters to sell products to kids – a phenomenon that’s been well-documented.

But why are advertisers using the same techniques on adults?

To me, it’s just one symptom of a broader trend of infantilization in Western culture. It began before the advent of smartphones and social media. But, as I argue in my book “The Terminal Self,” our everyday interactions with these computer technologies have accelerated and normalized our culture’s infantile tendencies.

Society-wide arrested development

The dictionary defines infantilizing as treating someone “as a child or in a way that denies their maturity in age or experience.”

What’s considered age-appropriate or mature is obviously quite relative. But most societies and cultures will deem behaviors appropriate for some stages of life, but not others.

. . . .

Some psychologists will be quick to note that not everyone puts their “childish ways” behind them. You can become fixated at a particular stage of development and fail to reach an age-appropriate level of maturity. When facing unmanageable stress or trauma, you can even regress to a previous stage of development. And psychologist Abraham Maslow has suggested that spontaneous childlike behaviors in adults aren’t inherently problematic.

But some cultural practices today routinely infantilize large swaths of the population.

We see it in our everyday speech, when we refer to grown women as “girls”; in how we treat senior citizens, when we place them in adult care centers where they’re forced to surrender their autonomy and privacy; and in the way school personnel and parents treat teenagers, refusing to acknowledge their intelligence and need for autonomy, restricting their freedom, and limiting their ability to enter the workforce.

Can entire societies succumb to infantilization?

Frankfurt School scholars such as Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm and other critical theorists suggest that – like individuals – a society can also suffer from arrested development.

In their view, adults’ failure to reach emotional, social or cognitive maturity is not due to individual shortcomings.

Rather, it is socially engineered

. . . .

Researchers on both sides of the Atlantic have observed how this ethos has now crept into a vast range of social spheres.

In many workplaces, managers can now electronically monitor their employees, many of whom work in open spaces with little personal privacy. As sociologist Gary T. Marx observed, it creates a situation in which workers feel that managers expect them “to behave irresponsibly, to take advantage, and to screw up unless they remove all temptation, prevent them from doing so or trick or force them to do otherwise.”

Much has been written about higher education’s tendency to infantilize its students, whether it’s through monitoring their social media accounts, guiding their every step, or promoting “safe spaces” on campus.

. . . .

Researchers in Russia and Spain have even identified infantilist trends in language, and French sociologist Jacqueline Barus-Michel observes that we now communicate in “flashes,” rather than via thoughtful discourse – “poorer, binary, similar to computer language, and aiming to shock.”

Others have noted similar trends in popular culture – in the shorter sentences in contemporary novels, in the lack of sophistication in political rhetoric and in sensationalist cable news coverage.

While scholars such as James Côté and Gary Cross remind us that infantilizing trends began well before our current moment, I believe our daily interactions with smartphones and social media are so pleasurable precisely because they normalize and gratify infantile dispositions.

They endorse self-centeredness and inflated exhibitionism. They promote an orientation towards the present, rewarding impulsivity and celebrating constant and instant gratification.

Link to the rest at MSN News and thanks to Felix for the tip.

PG routinely posts links to books that are discussed in posts, but will note that he noticed the price for the ebook being promoted by the author of the OP. The publisher is Routledge.

15 thoughts on “The infantilization of Western culture”

  1. I haven’t been referred to as a girl in decades. Husband and I carefully chose where to put ourselves for our senior years – and are happy with the decision. He’s currently doing a Strength and Balance class by zoom.

    Employees are working remotely in droves.

    And my novels have complex sentences.

    The general population may have different choices, but are still managing somehow to have and rear the next generations, as we did ours.

    Exaggeration – and setting up straw men only to knock them down – is what’s rife. Otherwise, how could you sell non(?)fiction books to college libraries?

    • Think of Patterson’s formular for writing success and the current movie market before dismissing the OP.
      (I’ll avoid the specifics in the political arena; anybody can find them easily enough.)

      I’ll mention Coppola’s and (noting the irony) Spielberg’s take on hollywood blockbuster mania.
      But from a newer generation, here’s Matt Damon:

      I doubt anything like SCHINDLER’S LIST would get any kind of market traction even if it did get made today. And yes, serious novel still dribble out and sell…but how many become mainstream perennials. And I’m not talking award winners; those rarely have endured.

      I like comic book movies and superhero stories (the two aren’t synonynous) but the most successful ones (cough*marvel*cough) are fluffy light shows and the ones that use the form to explore meaningful subjects end up mired in fan wars because they aren’t.

      Damon isn’t wrong.
      And the OP isn’t far off the mark. Back in 2006 Mike Judge made a movie farce called IDIOCRACY of the stupidest society he could conceive of. Reality is step by step outdoing him.

      Heinlein used to warn not to underestimate the power of human stupidity and time is proving him right. Anybody looking to play in the *commercial* book markets would be well adviced to consider if they might be overestimating their likely audience, in numbers, taste, critical analysis, etc.

      Again: Patterson.

      • Fortunately, Patterson is not my aim – he has his winning formula and his fans – and only has to live with his own standards for writing. I’ll not read – but I also don’t judge – and I loved Along Came a Spider, many many years ago.

        I only have to write to my standards, and then see if I can find some other like-minded people to read. My original aim was the idea of the single bookshelf next to the bed in the nursing home, and what I wanted to be able to reach for (assuming I could still read). The say to write the book you want to read, and I’m doing that.

      • Writing is just another activity. The user assigns purpose to the activity. He builds whatever he wants for whatever use he wants.

        Reading is the same. Just another activity. The reader decides his purpose, what he will read, and why.

        That leaves the perpetually chagrined in a difficult place. People are just not doing what they are supposed to do.

    • As you know, Western Culture is an extremely large collection of people and ideas for which to generalize anything regarding its upward, downward or sideways development, A.

      I don’t know if bunnies in sunglasses has even made it to the British Isles, let alone the large number of other places where Western Culture is made, destroyed, twisted, evolved, expanded or shrunk.

      But, if you’re looking for clicks, the bigger the problem, the better.

      • And the simpler the content, the larger the sales.
        That rule travels both ways. Cartoons or not.

        In content that is billed as accessibility. Which is normally good but not when it is driven to extremes and saps the value of the content. Which it is and it does.

        Homogenizing content in the name of expanding the market doesn’t always work. Some of the more enduring works figure out what audience they want and aren’t afraid of nichedom, while many that try to reach everybody touch none.

      • Bunnies selling Energizer Batteries have made it to the UK (though I don’t remember whether they have sunglasses) but I cannot see that their appearance in advertisements directed at adults has had any adverse cultural effects. I just assume that they represent the advertisers failing attempts to attract attention in a world which increasingly allows us to avoid their efforts.

        Since the only broadcast TV I watch – at least whilst it it being broadcast rather than on “catch up” or a recording – is a few sports I pretty much avoid seeing any of the adverts. (Note: the sport I watch is not structured with built in advertising breaks like the NFL).

  2. I have a somewhat different take on why these characters are used as “spokepersons.” The main reason, I believe, is message control.

    They are neutral in the present – unlike many possible humans, they have not said or done anything to enrage and/or disgust (at a minimum) one third of the potential market. (Example: Victoria’s Secret and Megan Rapinoe.)

    They are safely neutral in the future – unlike just about any possible humans, they will not say or do anything to enrage and/or disgust (at a minimum) one third of the potential market. (Example: Subway and Jared Fogle.)

  3. There is a good case to be made that Western economies have advanced over the last 500 years by eliminating transactions costs. I suppose we could apply the same idea to communication. Do we need long and complex sentences to convey complex ideas? If ideas can be communicated quicker and easier with short sentences, snippets, icons, pictograms, or whatever, so what? The sentence is the form, while the content is the substance.

    The standard objection is that content is lacking. I doubt it. Our world has never been more complex. Look down at the things we are typing on. Simple or complex?

    Perhaps we have too many long and complex sentences trying to cover up the lack of content in ideas. Strip away the complexity of form, and there’s no substance. Reminds me of writing term papers as a freshman, or reading policy papers out of Washington.

    I once banned the use of any punctuation other than a period in my organization. Communication improved overnight.

  4. I agree with Elliiot123.

    My contrarian take on the OP is that they’re talking bollocks. This creates controversy where there is none. The use of the word ‘infantilization’ is a judgement value. Nothing wrong in making judgements, but said judgements tell you a lot about the person’s character.

    In this case, someone who is rigidly fixed on conforming to social norms and controlling through the use of words like ‘appropriate.’ Not that the word appropriate is wrong, this is a situational application that I’m reacting against.

    The question really being examined here is the use of cartoons infantile? The answer is no, because (see Elliot123’s succinct answer). But, by raising the question the answer reveals the agenda, ‘I think people should be X.’

    Okay, but using this type of emotionally driven argument without evidence to support it, and more importantly in my opinion, looking at the evidence that might disprove the argument is the real failure here. A failure that social media leverages to generate revenue. Again, just in case it needs to be said for the hard of thinking, I’m not against revenue generation.

    What I think we are seeing is the unintended consequences of our technology that is hacking certain behavioural responses, which appear to be infantilizing discourse. It’s a good question, but I suspect that the belief that this is only now becoming problem is false.

    Why do I believe this? Piaget’s cognitive stages of development. I leave it for the reader to educate themselves on developmental psychology if it is appropriate for them to do so.

    TL;DR: Technology is revealing that the human condition is not what it is assumed to be by the historical power elites that control/run/guide the world.

    Namely, people’s interest in academic discourse is not a big driver in their lives.

    So called mature behaviour was driven by necessity from adverse factors like insufficient food etc.

    Remove that stressor, and et voila, we find people like to play.

    • 😀
      Fair points.

      I would suggest the OP isn’t just about communication, though, but about world view and expectations. About the power elites encouraging the growth of nannyism, resulting in learned helplessness among vast swaths of the populace.

      Children need protection from a harsh world until they mature and learn to cope with and contribute to the adult world. A growing segment of the population do neither and expect to be protected from the outcome of tbeir own choices. That is infantilism, no?

      It is encouraged because it makes the masses more tractable for the power elites and, ironically, the populist rabble rousers seeking to join/displace them. Not healthy.

  5. This sounds like the complaints that have been made for hundreds of years (or maybe thousands if we look back to the Greeks and Romans). Is it just another case of the boy crying wolf or is it different this time (as Felix seems to think)? One has to allow for the fact that the wolf eventually did turn up and that if you prophesize* often enough you may eventually be proved right.

    The difference these days seems to be that a much larger section of the population can continue to indulge their interests in childish things – and maybe stick to their childish ways – whereas in the past most of them would have been slaving away as a downtrodden apprentice or off to work down the mine or at the mill (unless they were still on the farm with too many chores to leave time for anything but sleep). And aristocrats were allowed to get away with “eccentric” behaviour because they were aristocrats and thus expected to be odd.

    However, when it comes to popular media, is there really so great a difference between now and the past? Alongside what we now remember as great literature were not most of the population reading the pulps, or earlier the penny dreadfuls, or at least the long forgotten best sellers of the day. Felix doubts whether a serious film like SCHINDLER’S LIST would have success even if they could be made today, and he has a point. I suspect that serious subjects can still be tackled and get traction but am less certain that they will originate from Hollywood (though serious with the “right” politics can still buy prestige and Oscars if not box office). For books at least, you only need to sell to a tiny percentage of the population to have a great success (assuming you think 100,000 copies is a success).

    Of course, for Christians there was a strong message from St. Paul supporting the need to grow up: “but when I became a man, I put away childish things”. Though faced with this I tend to quote another Christian thinker, C. S. Lewis who said “When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

    So I guess my question is: are we really seeing “infantilization” or simply an open acceptance that we can enjoy as an adult many of the things we enjoyed as a child? In my case, at least, I hope the latter as I long ago decided to reject the idea of a “guilty pleasure” and simply acknowledge that I like something and don’t care what others think of it. Now I must go away and play with my toy soldiers …

    * I know this should be “prophesy” but I’m a Bob Dylan fan and am trying to change the language.

    • Yes, I do think it is different because of the size of the populations, the number of external threats both natural and anthropogenic, and the scope of the efforts needed to sustain the complex world enabling the nannyism. Yes, people love to play–I enjoy RPG video games, myself–but that complexity needs constant maintenance and updating. Which is becoming harder and harder due to the divide between contributors and infantilist free riders.

      (An interesting display of the difficulty of sustaining modern complexity popped up this morning as Boeing, the one-time aerospace tech leader, once more ended up with egg on their face as they had to yet again indefinitely delay the demonstration flight of their pricey space taxi capsule because of…issues. They keep on doing what they always did and it no longer works as well.)

      The world is complex but not necessarily sustainable without constant action.

      Jared Diamond had interesting things to say in COLLAPSE:

      Sticking to the literary side, I would point out how the narrative text market has been financially stagnant all century and the consumer base shrinking despite digitalization and the rise of the Indie, Inc price points. The populace is increasing getting their entertainment from other, more “accessible” sources. A lot of the griping from the likes of LeGuin have their roots in this ongoing market shift and tradpub following the money, which is their true mission.

      I’m not railing about the kids on the lawn, just pointing out that these things are real, need to be recognized, and factored in. Otherwise one does end up railing about the world and tbe handbasket, when it is too late..

  6. Standard “old man shouting at clouds” stuff. Cartoon characters have been a routine part of advertising since advertising began. “Put a tiger in your tank” predates my birth, and I am not a spring chicken.

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