Saturday, November 19, 2011

On the Word "Lifestyle"

The great George Carlin, following his troubles with the Federal Communications Commission, offered his own official policy on inappropriate language, in which he satirized many contemporary usages (a bit which can be found in his Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics comedy album).

One of those which stand out in my mind is the word "lifestyle," about which he remarked
you will not hear me refer to anyone's lifestyle. If you want to know what a moronic word lifestyle is all you have to do is realize that in a technical sense, Attila the Hun had an active, outdoor lifestyle.
Would that we had been more attentive. Far from being put in its place, the word has spread like the fungus it most assuredly is, becoming a meaningless catch-all for any characterization of how anyone--or even any thing--lives. Watching Nature on PBS, for instance, I have seen scientists--apparently intelligent, well-educated individuals, whose first language seemed to be English--refer to birds as having a "lifestyle."

Unsurprisingly, "lifestyle" has made a list of "Words Faculty Say They Don't Want to Read Again, Ever" at the web site of Amherst College's Writing Center, with the qualification "unless you're talking about somebody from Hollywood." (By contrast, the writers of the page continue, it "won't do at all to talk about Plato's exciting lifestyle.")

To the end of clarifying what "lifestyle" is, let us be clear that I am not speaking of the term in the sense in which Adlerian psychology uses it, which is almost never referenced, but the "marketing" sense (also listed in the OED), which has not only become synonymous with the term (as Carlin's example demonstrates), but apparently reshaped our understanding of that broader question of how people live.

That understanding would seem in deep need of correction, given that this usage is not to be regarded as identical with "way of life," which is the characteristic manner of living of a whole culture, something with which this term is often confused. Nor is it the same thing as a "standard of living," or a "quality of life," which are measures of how well or poorly people--groups or individuals--live, with the former a materialistic measure, the latter a more holistic one.

Rather lifestyle in the all-pervading marketing sense of the term refers to personal, individual choice--something not really operative when one unthinkingly abides by the way of life in which they have been brought up, in a context where other options generally do not exist. It might also be noted that one must have a certain minimum standard of living and quality of life before they can even begin to have a lifestyle--a certain minimum of affluence, leisure and personal freedom. How much? Enough, at least, to permit their accumulated choices to constitute a "style," and implicitly, to allow them to live "in style," should they so choose. Enough to permit self-examination, self-discovery, self-expression and self-realization to rank high on their lists of concerns (rather than getting their next meal, for instance).

Consequently, animals do not have lifestyles. Nor do members of traditional cultures--Medieval peasants, for instance. (Instead these may be said to have a "way of life.") Children do not have lifestyles. (If any individual's making decisions about how they live, it's their parents.) Nor do the poor. (When one does not even have sufficient food or adequate shelter, "style" of life or anything else is not high on their list of concerns.)

I could go on (think of the above list of people who do not have lifestyles as a minimal guideline), but the thing to remember is that the idea of lifestyle belongs to the modern world, and moreover, is a relevant descriptor only for a comparatively privileged minority on the planet today (such as a "somebody from Hollywood" for whom the Amherst Writing Center's list allows an exception). Our thinking otherwise is a matter of glossing over unpleasant facts about inequality and the shallowness of consumer culture and the treatment of mindless "optimism" as a default intellectual setting; a matter of our readiness to look at the homeless and see Jacobim Mugatu's Derelicte fashion line.

An illustration might help at this point. Consider the sitcom Two and a Half Men. Prior to the current season, the show's protagonist was Charlie Harper, a songwriter and musician who punches no clocks, lives in a Malibu beach house, drives upmarket foreign cars (a Mercedes at one point, a Jaguar at another), and conducts himself in the manner of a "swinging bachelor."

Charlie may be said to have a lifestyle.

His brother Alan, however, is an unsuccessful chiropractor who was ruined financially in first one divorce, and then another. He lives with Charlie because he cannot afford a place of his own, and is single not because he chooses to be, but because women find him unappealing. (Of course, as is usually the case with such figures in sitcoms--like Seinfeld's George Costanza--the show frequently contradicts this image by depicting him as involved with a succession of very attractive women, but it is the show's premise, rather than its consistency in adhering to that premise, which really matters now.)

Consequently, Alan cannot be said to have a lifestyle. The joke, in fact, is that he doesn't have much of a life.

Indeed, the characters themselves all but spell this out in the seventh season episode, "Untainted by Filth."

Considering Charlie's approaching wedding, Alan muses "Who would've figured that of the two of us I'd end up being the carefree bachelor?"

"If by carefree, you mean broke and lonely, everybody would've figured," Charlie responds.

I do not think the point can be made any clearer than this, and so while I would prefer never to hear the word used ever again, I'd settle for simply seeing and hearing it used with some discretion.

No comments:

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon