Free to be Human – the “descent into infantile triviality”

Today, possession by devils is indicated by our failure to adequately worship the God of consumption; by a weird tendency to ‘deep conversations’ and serious thought…the death of our own culture can currently be experienced as a descent into infantile triviality. – David Edwards

All that matters is that nothing is too serious, that one exchanges views and that one is ready to accept any opinion or conviction (if there is such a thing) as being as good as the other. On the market of opinions everybody is supposed to have a commodity of the same value, and it is indecent and not fair to doubt it. – Erich Fromm

These two quotes are taken from David Edwards’ book Free to be Human, a curious but provocative blend of Chomsky and Herman’s ‘propaganda model’, Fromm’s political psychology and Buddhism. It’s an odd read, encompassing (amongst much else) a political theory of the media, an attack on ‘New Atheism’ and a didactic bent which at times feels like self-help. If it sometimes feels like it’s stretching, however, there is much of value to be found within its arguments. As the quotes above indicate, one aspect which I found particularly interesting was the linking of the urge towards ‘triviality’ in our personal lives to the propaganda model. Something which seems absurdly self-evident now but an angle I hadn’t really previously considered. I have previously noticed, and written about, the “common fear of being serious and/or sincere” so the placing of this within a theoretical framework as serving capitalism grabbed me. Triviality is seen to allow us to rationalise our positions in the absurd society we live in by refusing to consider it too much – and certainly by refusing to challenge its dominant ideas and narratives. It serves to isolate those who do challenge it, heretics who are quickly painted as self-important cranks. Further, in its particular manifestation as a facetious fixation on popular culture it flows neatly into consumerism – rather than thinking about what it means to be ‘ourselves’, what it means to live, we instead express both our personalities and our relationships via popular culture and consumption. I was reminded of only a few weeks ago when I  found myself complaining that so many ‘friendships’ seemed to consist of an endless exchange of references to culture and things – catchphrases from reality tv shows, shared semi-ironic ‘love’ for retro pop music, links to internet memes and so on. I had found myself considering what many of us would talk about if we were dumped on a distant island, completely removed from popular culture; wondering who we would be. It ties in neatly with the Situationist idea that “in mass-production economies all that was directly experienced has been replaced with images of itself”  and that “all social relationships are conducted through the spectacle” – our very identities, never mind our lives, seem unfathomable outside the context of modern capitalism (a fundamental aspect of Capitalist Realism).

This idea clicked with recent readings and thoughts on social media and our expression of self through it. It takes the mediating role of the spectacle to some kind of logical extreme (perhaps not as extreme as we’d like to think), removing all but the most perfunctory illusion of human interaction and instead offering the “pure, dehumanizing objectification” where “the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual”. Those links we post on Facebook? That’s ‘us’. The likes, comments, RTs etc are what passes for relating to other people and in themselves are a kind of instant panopticon where we both seek instant approval and seek to avoid instant scorn. It’s the urge to and descent into triviality gone supernova.

While consideration of ‘serious’ issues is subservient to our own ego and, as a result, subject to an unconscious (sometimes not to unconscious) self-censorship – we don’t want to be that person – an ostentatious, facile display of concern can nonetheless be deployed to our own purpose. Something like the petitions regarding gay people in Nigeria offered this in spades – it was seen to be the opposite of ‘trivial’ and evidence of a more ‘serious’ personality but the engagement was so slight that it posed no danger of alienating anyone; furthermore, it both served and fed dominant narratives and so was a seriousness which only cemented a sense of belonging to a society which was fundamentally right. In the same way, being seen to care about issues like poverty, hunger and social justice serves us well but consideration of the systemic causes (and a surely reasonable assertion that we cannot even begin to tackle these issues through social media) is jarring – it brings bad feeling and detracts from the idea that more (if different) consumption is the answer. 

That bad feeling, that desire to protect our ego, is the fundamental reason why we are so terrified of being critical (in the analytical sense). As Fromm notes above, the ‘market of ideas’ prevents this being a problem. We just project, safe in the knowledge that no-one will think about what we say too seriously and that, if they do, the fault lies with them. We can dip our proverbial toes into ‘seriousness’ and not stir the murky waters beneath, wherein lies the unknown which might demand an exchange of ideas, could lead to our questioning of previously unassailable truths about society or even ourselves. Better to nod, to ‘like’ and in the process protect not only the ego of those around us but, fundamentally, our own.

These are truly fascinating and potentially profound considerations. They take something as ubiquitous and impulsive as the sharing of a cute cat video or the dominant tone of discussion with our friends and ask us to critically examine what they mean, where they come from and what they serve. I think any such examination is an inordinately useful one. Indeed, while it is wide-ranging, for those of us who spend a lot of time on social media it is an absolutely essential one.

This is very interesting and worth a read. Clearly it gives cause for reflection to all of us, particularly those of us who push our writing, photography etc on social media. Yet the most interesting aspect for me is the addressing of the ‘spiritual ego’:

…I discovered that some of the planet’s most difficult and arrogant people have devoted their lives to ‘making the world a better place’. They claim to be driven by compassion, but their harshness and hatred of criticism (as though their very souls have been scalded) suggest otherwise. Yes, they want to change the world, but their ego’s concern is to be a recognised ‘mover and shaker’, to be seen and remembered as ‘important’.

I have lost count of the number of conversations about this I’ve had in the past 18 months or so. Certainly Johann Hari and his acolytes sharply exposed the self-serving nature of much righteousness, where ‘truth’ and a moral good is pursued only as and when it reflects well on the individual(s). It’s something I also encounter working in the third sector, where people are ostensibly ‘doing good’ and are rarely criticised as a result despite it sometimes being clear that they have very self-serving motives. The final sentence of that quote particularly resonates as there are many people drunk on their altruism while obsessing over being paid more, achieving more, being more noticed, than their peers.

Behaviour related to this is also discussed in the article, where people cravenly flatter the egos of their ‘superiors’ in the hope that they will garner attention. When I read the description of how:

We approach the retweet ‘stars’ humbly, heads bowed, hoping to garner more followers and enhance our self-esteem: ‘Hi @justinbieber…’ oblivious to the fact that, all the while, our bellies are sliding along the floor. They look down at us past long, well-followed noses.

I was instantly reminded of a recent edition of ‘Question Time’. Yet I was also reminded of my own sharing of Glenn Greenwald’s articles and wondered why I often copy him in when I do so. It hit home. Recognising ego is surely the first step to ‘getting over yourself’ but it is far from the only one. It’s a constant thing and sometimes it takes a piece like this to give you that slap across the face and remind you that sharing other people’s work is not necessarily doing much of anything, and certainly not worth feeling superiority over.

The piece is certainly timely in that it was only Sunday evening when I was most recently discussing the idea expressed here: namely, how we deal with the realisation that our lives are pretty ordinary and mediocre and we’re not anything special. I’m at the age now where it’s an issue common in my life, both personally and in people around me. How people deal with it is hugely important in terms of achieving some kind of lasting happiness.

Where the piece stumbles, I think, is in its conclusion that:

The ego is above all characterised by seriousness and self-control – it demands respect and admiration. It is constantly fearful that a tiny slip will expose the self-seeking reality. The egotist feels uncomfortable and vulnerable in the presence of self-ridicule and humour.

It’s actually far more subtle than this. Just as ‘spiritual egotism’ requires a rather sophisticated sophistry, many afflicted by it are very well-versed in the appearance of being humorous and unserious. They can make the right noises about not  taking themselves seriously and will take pride in their ability to speak about things which they really think are beneath them (witness the scorching irony around discussions of most reality tv.)  No, the real ‘weakness’ of this egotism is, as with all kinds of egotism, the inability to handle criticism which hits home. We can all laugh at ourselves when it’s done on our own terms. It’s not so easy when it involves questioning the aspects of ourselves which our ego is based on. This is particularly noticeable when combined with other aspects of the piece: so people will be fiercely dismissive of serious criticism from those they clearly consider to be beneath them or people will respond to criticism with the line quoted, “all you can do is carp!” The appearance of humour and self-ridicule is quickly dropped and the brittleness beneath is exposed. So humour alone is definitely not enough to characterise the ‘truly compassionate’ – indeed, in many ways it’s actually just another aspect of this peculiarly modern kind of egotism.

Cogitation: ‘The Special One’ – Celebrity, Comedy And Spiritual Egotism