by Quinn O'Neill
In a recent advertisement for Nike athletic shoes, basketballer Kobe Bryant gives us some pointers on how to achieve new extremes of success. He reveals his system for over-the-top success before an elite audience, including rapper Kanye West and billionaire Richard Branson, at an event that's like a hybrid of a Masonic ritual and a TED Talk. “How do you know when you're in the Kobe System?” Bryant asks. “Look at your feet.” Naturally, they’re all wearing Nike shoes.
So you’ve got prestigious awards, you’re a Chinese megastar, and maybe you own outer space – certainly, that means you’re successful. But perhaps we should keep in mind that success depends on accomplishing whatever goal we set for ourselves and not whether the goal is worthy or not. Some of the most brutal dictators in history could be considered successful in the sense that they were effective leaders, but they’d hardly deserve to be placed on a pedestal. The pinnacle of success, I think, is achieving the worthiest goal, not the most elusive.
If owning outer space isn’t the worthiest goal, then what is? I think it might be health, in a very broad sense, like that suggested by the World Health Organization: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” I think this is really the best any of us can hope for.
The worthiness of the goal isn’t the only thing that decides whether success should be celebrated or not. The means of attaining the goal is also important. If you lie, cheat, steal, or murder your way to success, you shouldn’t be lauded for it. Your methods must be moral. They should be fair and not cause harm to anyone else. If you actually improve the well-being of others along the way, even better.
The goal that we should strive for then, in my opinion, is health, and the most laudable way of accomplishing it would be one that also improves the health of others. As luck would have it, many of the factors that determine our own health also determine the health of others, so the end and the means work well together. Taking your bicycle instead of a car means exercise for you and (slightly) cleaner air for everyone. Anything you do to make your community healthier (create a new social group, plant trees or flowers, work to reduce poverty or decrease crime, etc) will help others too. When health is the goal and improving the health of others is part of the method, then anyone’s success is everyone’s.
Yet, as the Nike advertisement reflects, this generally isn’t the sort of thing the media would have us strive for. Often, advertisements, television, and cinema leave us wanting for things like SUVs, junk food, and fame, and striving for unrealistic standards of beauty and body weight. Some movie makers would have us think that James Bond is the epitome of cool – a character that Matt Damon aptly described as an “imperialist, misogynist, sociopath who goes around bedding women and swilling martinis and killing people.” As Damon explains, “The movies have a formula, they stick to it, and it makes them a lot of money. They know what they are doing and they’re going to keep doing it.”
The media doesn’t just shape our desires and our standards of coolness and beauty, it influences how we define success and the sorts of goals we set for ourselves. It directs the course of our social evolution, and in this sense, it functions as a kind of leadership.
This leadership, though powerful, isn’t at all democratic. The media is largely controlled by people who are primarily concerned with making money. It often doesn’t serve the interests of the people who are subjected to it and may even be harmful. Media influence is also insidious; it tends to evade moral and rational scrutiny, leaving us desiring a product or thinking in a different way without even noticing that we’ve been affected or questioning the effects.
The harmfulness of advertising really ought to bother us more than it does. If I were to promote a sugary mouthwash with the sole intention of causing widespread tooth decay, I’m sure most people would agree that this would be immoral and unacceptable. But if a company markets the same product as a beverage for the purpose of making money, somehow we see this as okay. Commonly advertised soft drinks have effects that are every bit as destructive and predictable as those of my hypothetical mouthwash. In addition to tooth decay, they also contribute to obesity and diabetes, and some factories deplete vital water supplies in their host countries. Shouldn't we be outraged that we're being encouraged to drink this stuff?
The media is functioning as a faceless, unelected leader and it's taking Western society to ever greater heights of materialism and inequality. It has us working toward goals that won't make us happier or healthier and buying products that no one in their right mind should want to consume. Maybe it's time to demand some democratic control over the media and harness its power to serve our interests. If we don't, it will continue to be used to reinforce a dysfunctional consumerist system that's detached from reason and morality. How do you know you’re part of this system? Look at your feet. Were your shoes made in a sweatshop?