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Copyright 1999,
Dorian Scott Cole


Pulling apart... putting together

What is alienation? | How do people react when they are treated as aliens? | Defining ourselves | What defines us as human?Man or animal? | Does poverty define human? | Attitude | Money and self-worth | Expectations |

A related creative writing story synopsis for writing a story on alienation:  Enemies  

I said to my wife, "Everyone's a little strange except me and you, and sometimes I think that you're a little off, too." This is an old line. But in this statement, I think, lies the crux of the matter about alienation. We don't really like anyone who is different, and everyone is different. We have a difficult time repeating the Will Rogers line, "I never met a man I didn't like." The more different that others are, the more we are hesitant about being around them. I wanted to throw out all of my kids because they were... different. 

What is alienation?

Alienation is the idea that we - that is, any group or person - through separation from something very important to us, become dissociated from "it," which means we become emotionally distant, or even hostile toward "it." "It" might mean activities, such as work, or other people. We either find no meaning or purpose in "it," or we find a negative meaning or purpose in "it." Marx talked widely about alienation related to people's work and their alienation when separated from the fruits of their labor. I have already extensively covered work and meaning in the Meaning and Characterizationseries, coming from a different perspective than Marx, so work (and Carl Marx's theories) won't be talked about in this series. I'm uncomfortable with Marx, he was... different.

Other social scientists typically refer to alienation when talking about minorities: women, blacks, Hispanics, native Americans, anyone who is in a, "different" group from the rest of "us," even whites. In fact, one day we may be the alienated, and the next day the one who alienates - none of us are immune to differences. And this leads to an important point about the mechanism of alienation. We tend to note a particular different characteristic about others, and we don't look past that feature. At that point, the person becomes an object. What they are to us is their skin color, or their economic background, their looks, sexuality, culture, athletic ability, religion - any small detail that separates them from being exactly us.

The humanity of those different people is alienated from us. We see people as objects, not humans, and treat them as objects. This comes out in our attitudes and our behavior. We don't have to include "X" in our circle of friends and acquaintances, or have X in our workplace or school, or see X in our environment. X deserves certain treatment to keep X in his place - it's X's lesson for existing. In fact, when we feel like expressing our feelings about X, we can just bar X from our community, burn X's church, force X to work for lower wages or be unemployed, and drag X to death behind our pickup. We have no way of feeling what X feels - we are dissociated from X because we believe that X is an object, not a human being. If we could feel that X was human, we would be less able to do the things that we do to X. 

What we feel about people doesn't always come out in big ways. Sometimes it is the nuances that reveal that we are unable to experience the humanity of another person. We sometimes treat young adults as children, unable to realize that they have adult minds and needs. We sometimes treat women as if they were helplessly dependent with no desire or ability to be otherwise. We have a stereotyped image of what that person is, and they are somewhat less human to us because we are alienated from them by a stereotype image. On the other hand, about the time that I think I know what my wife wants, I'm wrong.

Apparently many students at Colombine High School, and many other high schools around the US, felt alienated (Opra Winfrey show). They report that other students, and sometimes even teachers, classify them in early grades or as they first meet them. Even such distinguishing things as the clothes that they wear earns them a tag. Whatever image others form becomes the stereotype that from that day forward locks them in place. Those who look at them are unable to ever see them differently, and they are prevented from ever having opportunities. What follows is often years of daily torment and physical abuse. The situation has gotten so bad that in some schools young people are required to wear uniforms.

The good news is that most of those who are ostracized often gain a much higher level of maturity than the others because of it. The bad news is that some return with guns. The sad news is that most often many who form cliques never realize that others are excluded from all circles.   

How do people react when they are treated as aliens?

What is the ultimate reaction to the condition of feeling alienated? Destruction. Depression, hopelessness, despair, and finally destroying yourself, property, or others. Alienation can lead to that final complete separation that both accepts the definition of oneself as the hopelessly insufficient individual, and as the one who is permanently rejected. In this article, to help understand the feelings of the alienated, I'll use a metaphor that we can all relate to. Money.

What is the leading reason for marital problems and divorce? Is it infidelity? Or two people who just can't get along? No. It's problems with money. (Or money becomes the symbol of what is wrong.) It leads to that time in marriage when two people become alienated from each other, and ultimately divorced. While money, marital strife, and divorce aren't the typical subjects of alienation, alienation is still what happens.

The result of problems with money can be even more alienating than divorce. For example, take a typical person who lives on a meager income. Add to that person financial problems. What sometimes happens is the person struggles for a short time and tries to "catch up." But sooner or later the problem wears the person down. Financial problems wear away at a person every moment of the day. They cause stress, and the person looks for relief. But the person is never able to have any fun that costs money, or purchase anything, or go out to eat, or do the things that other people seem to do.

Other problems that cause alienation are just as relentless as money problems. The group or person that is being discriminated against - made fun of, excluded from activities, even verbally and physically abused - are aware of the problem night and day. During the day they endure it or defensively avoid it, and at night they live with the memory of it and the dread of it the next day. It doesn't go away.

Does the financially distraught person grin and bear this sad state? No, at some point the pressure builds to the point that he finally goes out and spends some money. Ahhh, relief. But having spent money that should have gone for "bills," he is deeper in financial malaise. He struggles with this larger problem for a while, getting calls from creditors, bouncing checks, wracking his brain to eat and buy gas and fix the car, ignoring this disheartening problem as much as he can to maintain some state of sanity, refinancing loans, paying more money to skip payments, digging the hole deeper into his future. He may go through several periods of intense scrimping coupled with major spending binges, each cycle getting worse. Sometimes he goes for a second job, but the stress may be too draining to permit this to continue. Finally, having learned to ignore the problem, and not wanting to struggle with it anymore, he simply ignores it.

But ignoring a problem not only doesn't end it, it doesn't even take it off your mind. Stuck in the back of the person's mind is that dreaded financial nightmare that they have been living. They become tense, irritable, and depressed. Adding to this is continued financial crisis and creditor calls that continually throw the problem back in the person's face. The person reacts with frustration, anger, uncontrollable rage, and destruction of property. The financial problem is a growing black cloud of depression that hangs over the person continuously. Each day as the problem gets deeper, the cloud gets bigger and blacker. Soon there is no light in this person's life - they are continuously depressed, drinking, escaping, not sleeping, not paying any bills and somehow spending it all, and the problem grows more insurmountable with each passing day.

What happens to the people who are branded undeserving by others? They can ignore the "problem" but it doesn't go away - it is always there in the back of their minds. Their tormentors seem insatiable - they never seem to tire of making others feel excluded or subhuman, continuously putting it in the face of the tormented, whether meaning to or not. Sometimes the tormentors must "make their statement," must have a reaction to know it was heard, and will continue tormenting until they get one. Life is a nightmare that the tormented can't escape. The tormented react with frustration, anger, rage, and destruction.    

There is no hope. There is no escape. Life is an endless series of miseries brought on by too little money. There are too many crisis, no money left for anything - just keeping the electricity on most of the time and getting some gas in the car is all the person can manage. The black cloud has engulfed the person - the depression deepens, and everyone can see that the person is seriously affected. He isn't himself anymore, and no one can reach him. He is unfriendly, troubled, isolated in some way that no one can understand. He is cut off from others - alienated. Some suspect clinical depression and recommend seeing a doctor who will prescribe drugs. Drugs can help the person continue to ignore the problem. It only gets worse.

For those who are considered objects, stripped of their humanity by an unfeeling crowd, there is no hope. A black cloud of depression may have engulfed them. They find no motivation in life, wander aimlessly through a meaningless life unable to take part in what others do, unfriendly, troubled, unreachable. Drugs can help them run, but they can't hide.  

At some point, the person's life goes completely out of control. Life crashes around him like an angry ocean, buffeting him this way and that, never any rest, never any peace, no hope of ever controlling it, no way out, no hope... When people reach the point of no hope, a major crisis, they take desperate measures. They become obsessed with money, steal, run away, "cash out" of the game, or destroy others. If there are other aggravating circumstances, such as lack of friends, stress in relationships, lack of support, etc., they sometimes destroy themselves. One such man in Indianapolis, Indiana, went into a loan office, strapped a shotgun to a loan officer's neck, and took him captive, hoping somehow to get relief from his situation.

Money is a tremendously large influence in people's lives. The absence of money is one form of alienation. Some point to poverty as a cause of alienation. Some point to the growing division between the "haves and the have-nots." But are these things really causes of alienation? Especially the kind of alienation that can cause groups to riot and school kids to shoot their classmates?  

Defining ourselves

We like to think of ourselves as fiercely independent - "man islands" - uncaring what others think. Modern self-oriented psychology and our competitive culture has done little to discourage this image. We find areas where we must bend to get what we want, but this is still a very self-oriented approach.

In this - probably warped - way of relating to others, are we really all that independent? Others accept us for being the independent, but competent and likable rats that we are, especially if they have a use for us. We accept others for the same reasons, that is, likable, competent, not intruding on our turf. If we don't have a use for someone, then we probably have no use for him. We accept each other as islands - there is a definite relationship there. Acceptance. While we value independence - realizing that each of us needs to carry our own load and needs to explore life on our own - we still define ourselves through other's eyes. Turn that around to non-acceptance, and you have rejection and a loner and someone going off on a tangent to society. But rejection is a driving part of that relationship. Both we and the rejected define ourselves by others. We either identify with others, or define our identity against others - but others are one benchmark for our definitions of ourselves. 

A sense of belonging is probably the biggest thing that defines us, and defines us as human beings.

What defines us as human?

There are a variety of things that we cling to in life to try and define what it means to be human - and of course what it means to be alienated and less than human. We look at being deserving, belonging, individual rights, economic level, and control over our lives. I will add to this the role of attitude and expectations.   

Man or animal?

We get very caught up in drawing a line between man and animal. We need that differentiation, I guess. It is another way that we attempt to define ourselves. I have declared the difference on other pages on this Web site. We especially site our superior intellect, and the ability to do such things as worship God, or get depressed and take our own lives. Perhaps, biologically there is a continuum, and in reality there is biologically very little difference between humans and some animals.

I don't know if being less human, or less deserving, means being an animal or not. We tend to permit treatment of animals that not even animals deserve, and animals certainly don't deserve to be treated the way that some humans are treated. I think that being "less than human" actually means something else - not being an animal. It must mean, "undeserving of good, and not to be respected - worthless."    

If we deny that there is a special class of humans who are worthless, then we have to accept the premise that we are all worthy of respect and good. Does that mean that we should not alienate others? This could be a terrifying idea in many parts of the world. We seem to have this paramount desire to separate from us anyone who is different. Perhaps separation is as instinctive as animal groups staying together and not mixing with other animal groups. Perhaps separation is as innocent as people with similar interests or characteristics just being attracted to each other. 

So it may be that people are naturally exclusive and seek out friends who are like them. But that isn't the end of it in our world. We all deserve respect and good, and we are all interdependent economically and for security. We can ill afford to cut each other off. More importantly, we can't survive if some groups or individuals continue to force others away, or torture them. Those that we ignore or ostracize today may be tomorrow's conquering enemy. Those that we befriend are tomorrow's allies.

It isn't that accepting other's differences can't be done. Millions mix with others every day - those with different skin color, religion, culture, sex, politics, financial level, interests, and abilities - and think very little of it. In some countries there has been so much intermarrying among the races - native peoples, Blacks, Hispanics, Whites, Asians - that there are few cultural lines or race indicators. But regardless of other's successes, many of us insist on emphasizing differences and using them to define ourselves and determine our level of acceptance of others.

Does poverty define human?

If I am poor, does that make me less human or deserving? If I am poor, does that mean that someone should give me money or material possessions, and feed me? I used lack of money in this article as a metaphor for alienation. In reality, money is often used to define the cause of alienation. Those people who are without money, we theorize, are unable to take advantage of life as the rest of us do. They are alienated from what the rest of us can do. The world is divided into "haves and have-nots."  

On the other hand, some look at money as the curse affecting all of us who "have." Poverty, it seems, builds character and emphasizes relationships, not things. Is poverty related to alienation, and those who have should feel guilty and ashamed? Or does poverty lead to character, relationships, and spirituality that is the exclusive domain of the poor? Would we all be better off to take a vow of poverty?

Like Tevya, the poor peasant father in the movie Fiddler on the Roof, most of us in our moments of financial distress ask God if we really need to be so richly blessed with so many problems. If we had some money, what could it hurt? And we probably feel this way regardless of our economic level. A recent survey of American women asked if they had a choice of three things that they could improve, their career, their sex life, or have more money, which would they choose. Two-thirds to three-fourths chose money. (I'm not vouching for the quality or accuracy of the survey.)

On an excellent ABC News Special, The Mystery of Happiness, John Stossel took a hard look at money and its relation to happiness. He found some interesting things. For example, lottery winners usually are no happier a year later, than they were before winning the lottery. Money doesn't guarantee happiness. I suppose you can infer that it doesn't make people feel more deserving, or human. He also reported that the majority of Americans see themselves as happy, but the Amish, who do much more manual labor and refrain from much of the modern time savors and frills that we all take for granted, are even happier than the rest of us. The question is, does money have anything to do with our being deserving or being human?

The Amish make denying yourself sound like a path to happiness. If so, should we all set our sights on poverty? There are some very good examples of people who have turned their backs on material possessions and wealth, and seemed to have been the happier for it.

Socrates was well respected and admired as a philosopher, and could have had a grand and powerful life in politics. He lived into his seventies, but had no shoes or coat even in the winter. He knew that compromising with others over material things would have given others leverage over his principles. He seemed to be happy without money. What defined human for Socrates probably had nothing to do with material things, and a lot to do with how one lived.  

Viktor Frankl, a physician who endured imprisonment in the Nazi concentration camps, was among millions who had every hint of humanity taken from him. Prisoners were separated permanently from their families, and even their familiar clothes were exchanged for the worn out rags of executed prisoners. They slept on bare boards, were forced to do heavy labor with little food, rest, and clothing, and were beaten and abused. Forced to vie for food and necessities, they could survive maybe by taking life from others. The specter of death hung over them from moment into moment into years from the day they were dragged from their homes. Death did not define life. Poverty did not define life. Many managed to hold onto some glimmer of meaning and humanness - finding these in a glimpse of art, music, a pretty day, a memory, or an act of human kindness. What defined human was not material possessions or poverty.

Jesus Christ and his followers, like many other religious figures in many religions, walked the earth doing good for others, and took no possessions with them. Living day to day on contributions and what little they might earn, wealth was not their motives. Possessions were typically seen as obstacles to doing this kind of service, and to spiritual growth.

So if we can be very happy with nothing, why are so many of us striving so hard to make more and more money? Why do some point to poverty and say it is alienating?      

I remember that during the 70s and 80s, there were many who felt that what the world needed was another great depression. I hope that those people got what they wanted. Having had difficult economic times, all that I can say is that while some may genuinely need them for growth, for others there seems to be nothing to be gained from financial struggles. Life brings it, and you endure it.

To cite again the Stossel report, reporters looked at societies that live in poverty and they found that those people genuinely are not happy. Poverty, it seems, is not a guarantee of happiness.

Neither having money, nor lacking it, seems to much to do with being happy. In fact, I would say that if having money or lacking money is related to happiness and feeling human and deserving, the more extreme the measure the more unlikely the person is to feel human. The bell curve probably rules.

The most significant note, to me, in Stossel's report was about a simple study done with babies. Babies were given a mobile with two objects that they could reach for. They were content with this. Then they were given a mobile with ten objects. They were even happier. Then they were again given the one with two objects. They were no longer even interested in such a mundane toy.

One can glean from that study that everything is relative. We look at the world around us and assess our situation, and that is our set-point. We measure everything from this set-point. This is no doubt true, and a very salient point. But to me the baby reactions also speak about human growth and living at one's potential. It tells about human expectations. When human beings (and many living creatures) see potential, we want to pursue it. It is in our nature. We expect that we will be able to improve our situation and ourselves. We naturally feel deserving that we can pursue those things that we think will benefit us.

In contrast, it is when expectations are denied, and we are left feeling undeserving, that we feel alienated. It is when we have the ability to fit in, or to play sports, or do a job, earn a living, go to college, etc., but we find a barrier to doing it, that we feel alienated. Why aren't we as deserving as another? Sometimes it is our own inability that prevents us from doing things. Sometimes it is a barrier that others erect. Sometimes it is just our own attitude getting in the way.


The idea of money and self-worth - deserving? 

In the previous series, on meaning, I touched briefly on the idea that when we focus on "worth," we begin putting a price on our heads, and on other's heads. Attaching prices to others and ourselves, cheapens human life. "If that person disappeared, it would be no big loss." We see others as "what they can do for us." We sometimes ask if criminals can have any "value to society." We limit the field of human values to a very narrow set of things. We value what is useful to us, and what we can measure by an external standard, such as money.  

Our sense of self-worth inflates with our usefulness or the value of our possessions, and deflates when we feel less useful or have less wealth. Even though I think that "valuing" people is false, I think that it is perfectly natural in today's world that we do this. It is as natural as having to build an ego, even if an ego is probably a false construct that only gets us by until we have a good sense of ourselves. The downside of dealing with self-esteem at all is that we absorb this measure of humanity. We measure ourselves by it, thus we are the victims of our own measuring device. In my opinion, self-confidence in our abilities, gained through experience, is a much better tool for moving forward through life.

What if I don't have what others have? No money, no car, no brains, no sex appeal, no abilities - wait, I may be describing myself here - let me go look in the mirror. Ah, the mirror drew a blank. Does the lack of these things make me less deserving? Does it make me less "valued" to others, and ultimately to myself? Certainly, to some it does. But if we were to stop encouraging self-esteem as a standard, would we all be better off?

The person who had no money, that I used as a metaphor and example, ultimately considered suicide. He accepted the definition of himself that he deserved nothing better. Should we chock this up to survival of the fittest? Are we different from animals, or like them? Does being human mean ignoring other's desperation, or does it mean assisting others?

As a society that sets values on people, when we refuse to help others, the question jumps out at us, "are we validating their view that they have no value?" I suspect that as each person turns away from an individual that needs help, we confirm for the individual that he has no value.

On the other hand, on the side of the individual, what is he to think? He lives in a relative world. People who lived before him had fewer possessions and scrimped for money - paupers and slaves by today's standards. People who will live after him will probably have more possessions and fewer of his sort of problems. The past and future are irrelevant. The people around him that stick in his mind are those average people who have few problems and live comfortably. He has a set-point - a yard stick to measure himself by. If he could just "get his act together," he could be like them. If he could just get the right breaks. If ;fewer problems would come his way... But they don't. So what is he to think? That the deficiency is in the world - everyone else is crazy? Thinking like this is a sure sign of insanity. No, he thinks that he is the one who is defective or undeserving. He is the one who is worth-less. Or is thinking like this insane? Who is insane?

We look around the world and see what others have, how they are treated, what opportunities come their way. That is what we want and expect - it betters our situation. We don't expect to be handed this on a silver platter. We do expect that with the right effort and maybe a little good fortune, that we can do the right things and attain these things for ourselves. Our attitude becomes one of expectation.


Expectations . I think that expectations are the key to alienation. We see what can be, and we want it, and when barriers are put in our way we begin to feel undeserving, cutoff, and finally emotionally distant or hostile - alienated.

In a place of work, job opportunities and wages appear to be available to all. Trying for a job and not getting it because you are unqualified can be disheartening. But when minorities - women, ethnic groups, others - expect to get the job but find that it is simply unavailable to them, they feel alienated from the others.

In a school system, students see what is available, and expect to have opportunity to try for what is available. Fitting in with some of the other students in some activities is expected. Having others torment them and prevent them from taking part is alienating.

What can we do? Some things can't help. We can't give valuable things to others to make them feel valuable - this isn't what they want or need. Having things given to you often makes you feel insulted. "I didn't do anything to deserve this, so why are you giving it to me? I'm not helpless." People want to feel like they are due what they receive. They want to feel the same as others in every way. They deserve a job, a place in life, and an honorable wage. If they don't have these things, then they sometimes can feel that they really don't deserve them - alienated.

Other things can't help much, but are better than nothing. In some ways, maybe it is necessary to use the ego structure of self-esteem, and pump people up. But this too doesn't last. You need to take an ego pump and pump up the ego balloon every morning.

People can't always have what they expect. Learning to control your expectations is just part of life. But all of us expect to have a place in life, expect a certain level of acceptance by others (a sense of belonging, not alienated), expect to not live in fear and not be regularly tormented, expect to have a share in things that are supposedly offered to all, expect a decent chance at earning a living, and expect a few opportunities to come along in life.

Turn this around, no place in life, no acceptance, living in fear and being tormented by others, no share of things others have, no chance to earn a living, no opportunities, and we feel alienated.

Can we solve anything by legislating all this into "human rights?" Can we create laws that will assure people a place in life, assure acceptance by others, assure freedom from bullies, assure a share of what others get, assure a chance at a living, assure opportunities? Can schools systems simply declare that "these kids shall not be tormented?" Can we make ethnic groups accepted by others?
Next topic. Alien Rights and Control

Disagree? I hope so. Write a better one. Comments are welcome and won't be published. Contact Primary Contact.

- Scott


Series Contents

A related creative writing story synopsis, Enemies, can be used for writing a story on resolving alienation. The story is designed to be written by one person or by opposing individuals or groups.

A note about this series

For a reference text, I tried to choose a book as like-minded in approach as myself. That is, a book that takes a very wide view of the subject, that is not reactive or driven by a separate agenda, and not mired in past research yet cognizant of the value of past research. I chose Alienation and Social Criticism: Key Concepts in Critical Theory, 1994, Edited by Richard Schmitt and Thomas Moody. But this series isn't a book report. I chose the book as an authoritative reference that would not only guide me with a reasonably extensive framework, but would mostly stimulate my thinking by my reacting to it.* The subjects that I am writing about are intentionally beyond the scope of the reference book. 

As usual, the intent of this series is not to teach anyone anything or to assert my opinion, but to stimulate creative thought and interest through a thorough exploration of a timely subject about the human condition. The hope is to encourage stories (creative, nonfiction, journalism) that are better informed. My own bias is simply to ask, "What kind of world are we creating for ourselves?"

* In the previous series, Finding Meaning in Life and Characterization, I found myself studying three to five reference books for each article even though I had outlined the content of the entire series in advance. While worthwhile, and maybe necessary for that series, that was a tremendous drain on my time. I hope to keep this series to only a few references, as this site gets only 4-6 devoted hours of my time each week.

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