We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw.
— T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”
When many people share thoughts, speech, or conduct that is frequently repeated and becomes automatic, it is fair to call it a social habit. Such habits tend to become invisible and unspeakable. They become part of our taken-for-granted-world.
When I recently wrote an essay about hoarding – “The Last Temptation of Things,” many people got angry with me. A friend wrote to me to say: “I congratulate and curse you for writing this.” He meant it as a compliment. I took it as meaning I had touched a raw nerve and it touched off a series of further thoughts about social habits and people’s angry reactions when they are challenged.
Some people who criticized me absurdly complained that I was supporting Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum’s “You Will Own Nothing”campaign, something I have opposed from the start. Others said that I was attacking people who kept mementos and photographs, etc. and that I was advocating living in a shack. This was clearly false. Some got it, of course, and knew that I was using an extreme example to make a point about excessive saving of all sorts of things and how debilitating it is to surround ourselves with far more than we could ever use, need, or even know we have. My case study was a friend’s house that my wife and I had just cleaned out in an exhaustive case of what felt like an exorcism.
Now I see that there is a clear connection between hoarding – or whatever word you choose to give it when the saving of things is excessive – and propaganda. Both are forms of habitual clutter, one mental and the other physical, the former imposed from without and accepted passively and the latter self-created to try to protect from loss. In both cases, the suggestion that your social habits need to be examined is often greeted as a threat to one’s “existence” and elicits anger or dismissal.
Sociologists, of which I am one, have various terms for what I am calling social habits. They don’t speak the language of ordinary people, and so their lingo rarely enters into common discourse to be heard by most people. Such verbiage often just mystifies.
But habit is a plain and clear word, and social habit simply extends the meaning I am referring to. José Ortega Y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher, and Max Weber referred to it as “usage” before settling on habit. While usage is accurate, it lacks the stickiness of habit, which is the simplest word and one everyone understands as behavior that has become automatic through frequent repetition.
For example, in the inconsequential realm of clothing fashions, men are now wearing tight leg-fitting pants, and it seems normal to most, just as loose pants did in the past. It will change, of course, and a new or ”old” social fashion habit will replace it and most will go with it. Either way you choose you lose – or win – depending on whether or not you follow the fashions of dress, which mean little or much depending on whether you interpret them symbolically as signifying more than their appearances present.