“Within any important issue, there are always aspects no one wishes to discuss.” —George Orwell
I. The Culture
In discussing cultural hegemony—the leadership or dominance of one social group over others[i]—we may observe that among the variety of cultures in America some concede to dominant cultural practices more so than others. This concession occurs in several forms, from consumerist trends and food-culture to lifestyle values and health habits. In America, acceptable cultural norms include: paying taxes, keeping up with news, furthering education or skills in order to be gainfully employed, following fashion trends, and more. Conversely, some cultures possess characteristics that not only are different from the dominant group, they actively oppose accepted cultural norms and are thus labeled deviants. In sociological terms, deviance is defined as “behavior that violates the norms of the social group in which the behavior occurs”[ii]. It’s important to note that being a deviant is not an inherently negative quality; deviants simply do not reflect the practices, beliefs, outlooks, etc. of the majority. Instead, they establish an identity constructed from a different set of values and customs. Many deviants are our heroes, our champions, and our pioneers—they are accomplished innovators, leaders, and entrepreneurs who’ve found success through deviant behaviors. Deviance is a highly normative aspect of culture, and many functionalists argue that it is a constructive, necessary quality of every society. However, there are other types of deviants, both individualistic and cultural, which are troublesome and antagonistic. When a culture of purely negative deviance flourishes, not the innovating heroes mentioned before—but the group of teenagers who knock down mailboxes—this has a corrosive effect on our larger systematic society.
Today, we are seeing the rise of a culture that quickly is devouring generations-worth of progress in our country. It is defiant to the greatest attributes of America’s cultural hegemony, and worse, it exploits programs designed to alleviate poverty and enable social mobility in order to pacify a stagnant, empty existence. Such a culture not only hinders the progress of our society, it actually works as a proactive agent in devaluing and corrupting many of the exceptional achievements our vastly multicultural, multiethnic, and multispiritual society shares. This culture acts as a harmful parasite whose sustenance will spread disease throughout the entire organism if it is not contained and controlled. This culture of specific deviants, the Gutter Culture, is tearing away at the social fabric of American society.
Why this title? Originally when I drafted this essay I referred to this group as the “Problem Culture”—thinking of the ways this culture deviates from and exacerbates the cycle and culture of poverty popularly studied in the social sciences. However, I believe that was an inappropriate title. No doubt there are several “problem cultures” which contribute at various levels and degrees to the compounding institutional and cultural conflicts we face today in America. The “gutter” is a common symbol not only of poverty, but also of the vulgar, the unclean, and the promiscuous (hence the phrase “get your mind out of the gutter”).
The Gutter Culture doesn’t merely dabble in it’s characteristically reproachable mentalities and practices—it makes them a celebrated lifestyle. Those within it do not desire to rise out of the gutter, but to wallow in it by pursuing a value system centered on depravity and blind selfishness. This culture views life through a distorted lens. Fueled by irrepressible propaganda and ignorance, it sees our country’s greatest values and successes as vile malpractices—as fantastic traps and cages—rather than opportunities to a better life, a life of one’s own making. Worse, those in the Gutter Culture wish nothing to do with what most call “a better life”, for this implies an opposing set of values and morals that are neither desirable nor familiar. This ultimately affects the whole of American society and manifests many grave symptoms that threaten the longevity of our success as the most prosperous nation on Earth. The Gutter Culture, blinded by ignorance and a not-it mentality, degrades the human spirit (of its followers and its external victims alike) on such a mass scale it is worthy of being labeled an epidemic.
Livelihoods are devoted to studying this culture, and there is much debate over its origins; blame has pointed to everything from institutionalized poverty, to urbanization, to the ignorance of racism—but these are anecdotal symptoms of a broader social paradigm.
In reality, the Gutter Culture thrives in all varieties of social climates; which makes it largely enigmatic and therefore difficult to define. There are no geographical, racial, ethnic, or other boundaries that constitute it. It is spread amidst the vast networks, neighborhoods, and communities of our nation. It can be found in trailer parks, on remote country roads, in the projects of metropolitan cities, and many other places where education is replaced by hate-born fury. The Gutter Culture exists amongst gaunt meth addicts, obese alcoholics, teenage drug dealers, irresponsible parents, hood rich gang members, empty-headed partiers, and those who simply sit around day after day doing absolutely nothing. Its constituents include those young and old, women and men, white, black, Hispanic, and anything imaginable between. The Gutter Culture has seeded itself in the hearts and minds of many disillusioned persons across America, however it is by far the most concentrated and harmful within the abundant poor communities of our nation. If there is one common thread that absolutely dominates the Gutter Culture, it’s that it is a culture of the socioeconomic disadvantaged.
The Gutter Culture produces an environment that promotes stagnation, and gives rise to cultural norms of violence, aggressiveness, drug/alcohol abuse and dependency, and laziness; further, these characteristics are entwined with a mindset devoid of personal responsibility and overflowing with excuses—“but it’s not my fault”. Such environments sustain a generationally degenerative effect on the quality of life of its inhabitants. Consequently, the mentality that the cultural members have no control makes it impossible for them to ascend the socioeconomic ladder. Worse, the mentality of the culture pacifies the desire to strive for these ends in the first place, making personal repression a cultural norm.
To begin dissecting this social system, one must first look at what values dominate the culture. A value is defined as “a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.”[iii] which therefore suggests values can be measured by the observable characteristics and actions consistent of a person or culture. All cultures have problems and weaknesses, but the truly destructive elements of the Gutter Culture lie in the normative values which exacerbate and accept destructive lifestyle conditions as normal, inescapable, and even rationalize such statuses as decent. Not negating that indeed the poor suffer many hardships of economic disadvantage, and are therefore predisposed to various forms of conflict that are often overlooked and undermined, it is important to note that many people who are poor and who do have hardships do not ascribe to the GC. We all know people who’ve dug out of the trenches of poverty, and they did this because they did not ascribe to this culture’s values.
These values include:
- Excessive Pride
- Sexual Promiscuity
- Financial Ineptitude
- Familial Negligence
- General Aggressiveness
- Excessive Drug/Alcohol Use
- Deceptive Extravagance (Colloquially known as the slang term “Hood Rich”)
- Pack Mentalities
To those readers who are thinking, “Well, many if not all of these values are inherent in every socioeconomic class”, this would indeed be correct. The difference is, unlike those fortunate few who are born into a cushion of financial stability, or may rely on others for such prosperity, the poor have much more at stake when following such lifestyle practices. When persons struggle to meet basic necessary expenditures such as grocery costs, electric bills, rent/mortgage costs, etc. facilitating the drug use, promiscuity (and accompanying pregnancy), purchase of designer purses, etc. contributes to a destructive environment which ultimately affects the whole of the community.
The Gutter Culture thrives in an environment that one can only describe as utterly despairing. In such spaces a man may look at his dilapidated life with hopelessness and apathy, and turn to escapism to ignore the realities of his lifestyle. Rather than pay the rent, members of the GC spend the little money they have going to the club. This kind of behavior is celebrated in songs that currently top the music charts in our country, which shows there is obviously a growing consumer market that identifies with its messages. A person not only chooses to be irresponsible in this environment—she is encouraged and rewarded for doing so. Members of the GC often resent successful members of society and attribute the prosperity of such people to superficial means. Perhaps this is a tool of the Gutter Culture used to reinforce their status as the victims of institutionalized injustices against them; or perhaps it is simply a coping mechanism born out of the incredulousness required to accept their sad state of affairs for which they will not take any responsibility. These types of perceptions are necessary in order to rationalize lifestyles free of burdens such as financing, career advancement, time management, disciplining and raising children in a psychologically healthy environment, moral accountability, and seeking higher status or other attributes of self-improvement. These basic life inadequacies produce a self-inflicted, inescapable cycle of socioeconomic stagnation that passes from one generation to the next.
These values trickle down into two elements that, in a nutshell, explain why the Gutter Culture suffers such severe and longstanding hardship:
- There is little personal responsibility and accountability for living a grotesquely destructive lifestyle, and
- There is a cultural lack of respect for the authorities and institutions that have been established by the dominant population as having legitimate sovereignty over widespread cultural practices and values.
Both of these elements are the result of an institutionalized set of radically deviant values. When coupled with other identifiable elements of cultural degradation such as the Broken Windows Theory, a failing public education system, a large portion of citizens who will not speak grammatically correct English (or English devoid of curse words), and other qualities, it creates an environment of disorder, mistrust, and hopelessness.
Each one of us, every single human being on the planet, is indoctrinated with the belief systems and norms of the culture we are born into. When this occurs in areas where the Gutter Culture dominates, their debilitating qualities indoctrinate entire communities in values of selfishness, hedonism, egotism, and non-commitment. This begins at birth. It is no wonder such destructive cycles are so deeply rooted within the Gutter Culture.
In the United States, those who are at an economic disadvantage have more available resources at their fingertips than ever before. Consider this list of available free resources for those in financial hardship:
- Food (Food Stamps & SNAP)
- Cell Phone (Obama Phone)
- Housing (HUD)
- Electric (LIHEAP)
- Income (TANF/Welfare)
- Healthcare (Affordable Care Act)
- Insurance (Medicaid & Medicare)
- College (America’s College Promise)
- College Scholarships (Federal Student Aid)
- Social Security
Obviously nothing is “free”, it is paid for by the dominant American culture, who, for the most part, want better for the poor of our society. The American people have made these programs accessible options for those who need them, regardless of any outlier’s personal opinions about their nature, effectiveness, or otherwise. The dominant culture wants better. Furthermore, seeing as the above list of resources covers the majority of living costs, it seems almost unimaginable that those who have access to them cannot eventually find their way into a higher, more stable socioeconomic position.
The problem is not that resources are not available—this much has been reasonably ascertained. The greater issue is: this abundance of resources—purposed as temporary tools to enable socioeconomic mobility—has been misappropriated and exploited because those in the GC have no desire of changing. They do not care about sustainability or financial progress. They care about their next high, their souped up Oldsmobile or truck, and getting laid—and they don’t have to care about anything else because they know they will always be taken care of by Uncle Sam. Consequently, this enables the Gutter Culture to continually find excuses and manipulative methods to inappropriately utilize these resources not as tools, but as facilitators of otherwise non-sustainable, destructive lifestyles.
There are many people outside the Gutter Culture who stand ready to defend it, disbelieving this systematic abuse of resources occurs on a large scale. Yet, if any person were to spend just a short amount of time in the “projects” of a metropolitan city, she would quickly witness the startling reality that she has been educated to disbelieve. She would find that from one housing unit to the next, on and on, a culture has been cultivated amongst its inhabitants—a way of life where the principle object of the resource (i.e. temporary housing) is the antithesis of its actual use. We know of many occasions in history where such idealistic visions for society appear beautiful on paper, but fail miserably when implemented into an interactive network of real human beings—especially those who’ve been indoctrinated their entire lives to be selfish, nihilistic, and greedy.
What do these resources actually serve to do in the context of such a culture?
They encourage young women to have children when it is not in the best interest of either mother or child, simply so the mother does not have to work yet receives a living wage by the government, which is more often than not used to smoke, drink, waste away in front of a television, become obese, and to then utilize further financial resources for the incurred medical expenses that support this gruesome, miserable existence. Children who are fostered into the Gutter Culture develop understandings of life and reality that fall in line with those unhealthy values of material and physical gratifications, irresponsibility, and non-commitment. Further, without proper guidance and discipline from their parents (remember—they’re too busy going to clubs with rent money) children develop to have little discipline and they become educated in drug use, sexual promiscuity, criminal activity, and the methods of exploiting institutions—not to mention their lack of interest in a formal education.
This cycle repeats indefinitely, and exacerbates itself with each successive generation. The dismantling of the family structure, which is arguably the direst consequence born of the Gutter Culture, has become normal in poor communities.
IV. The End of Acquiescence
If you rewarded an animal every time it did something bad, do you believe the bad behavior would ever wane? Would it not grow? Why do we mistake human beings to be so infallible—as if work ethic, integrity, discipline, and benevolence were inherent principles of our species? Indeed, I wish such an ideal was in fact truth, but it is not. Rather, just as positive values and characteristics are learned, so too are the qualities of the Gutter Culture. For those who erroneously disregard and infringe upon the fabric of our principled American society, the only methods of their retribution are strict sanctions and uncompromising consequences.
The presence of a culture comprised of these qualities provides absolutely no benefit to society, and acts as a parasitic environment where a disproportionate amount of crime, immorality, and indulgence occurs and is promoted. When we do not hold those beneficiaries of our financial benevolence to the standards that are appropriate of such privilege we are reinforcing and promoting the inexcusable Gutter Culture. As a society, we have created these programs and resources with cause for the integrity of opportunity and the fidelity of growth for all. This is a great system that should not be abused, and its abuse should not be tolerated. The multitude of federal and state-provided aid must be regulated and overseen with constructive scrutiny and responsible oversight. Such stipulations are the only true path for implementing equity on a grand scale for the socioeconomic disadvantaged in our country. Similar to that of power, with great opportunity comes great responsibility—as opportunity is power.
The systems we have implemented into our society for the poor are not working, and in fact are working against us. This stagnant culture of dependency and destructive values is quickly leading us to moral bankruptcy. Rather than facilitating institutions for socioeconomic mobility, we have cultivated a cyclical machine of generational poverty that has given rise to the Gutter Culture—perhaps the greatest domestic threat our country faces. Just because the Gutter Culture does not yet thrive in the suburbs does not mean the ill effects of the GC are not wearing down on our society. Not only an important matter of principles, this issue may have grave consequences on the structural integrity of our society if left untouched—it is the dominant culture who funds and supports this culture. This isn’t an issue that is staying put—it’s invading the newest generations who are idolizing the GC lifestyle.
This mentality, this support of the Gutter Culture though idealization of its values and financing of its lifestyle is untenable. We must not exonerate or otherwise dismiss accountability for those within the Gutter Culture; by focusing on politically driven narratives that the GC’s presence and continued growth is driven primarily by external forces, we do exactly this. Socioeconomic mobility requires discipline, work ethic, and persistence—three things severely lacking within the Gutter Culture. We must not let our means of supplying relief overshadow the responsibilities of implementing that relief with due regard for the integrity and wellbeing of our neighbors, our children, and our communities. We have the potential to forge cultural institutions of progress or cultural institutions of destruction. We have seen how exponentially prosperous our nation has become since the age of our forbearers. Imagine the wealth of good we will cultivate when we have succeeded in abolishing the Gutter Culture to give rise to a culture of productivity, benevolence, discipline, and positive values.
[i] Hegemony. 2015. Retrieved March 24, 2015
[ii]Deviance. 2015. Retrieved April 11, 2015
[iii] Value. 2015. Retrieved March 24, 2015