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 strikes me as a companion piece to the article I posted earlier about social media and ‘close friends’, albeit one that isn’t wide-reaching enough. Because the “sharp exchange of humour, with a bias towards the jocular insult” and “shallow verbal sparring” which it describes is literally the only mode of communication that I witness in some ‘friendships’/social groups. As I’ve written before, there seems to be a mortal fear of being seen as ‘serious’ which extends to even being sincere. This is so pervasive that it infects our media, with a whole class of ‘journalist’ whose entire schtick is ‘SCREAM! I’M ONLY JOKING! EXCEPT I’M NOT! BUT I AM!’ Describing it as ” the tyranny of banter” seems appropriate as any effort to interrupt this tone and actually attribute meaning to things people say seems to be rather frowned upon. In fact it can inspire rather aggressive, shrill responses which leap to the personal rather than attempt to sincerely explain or defend what exactly was meant. Aren’t we all getting a little tired of it?

The art of banter: ‘It’s like a boxing match. It can be bruising’

Seriousness needs to be pursued and protected. It cannot be magicked into life by august committees, as each crisis unfolds in our public life. It ultimately comes down to our own individual choices and priorities.

This is quite an interesting article and ties in quite neatly with some recent conversations I’ve had about the “Age of Irony”. I don’t think this is confined to our public life (where Prime Ministers feel the need to comment on ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘X Factor’ in order to have the right image) but is woven through our whole society. Being ‘serious’ is not seen as a desirable quality. Being “too serious” is a big turn-off. It’s all about being ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ and ‘not taking yourself too seriously’, which often doesn’t seem to mean being able to laugh at yourself and your foibles but being able to discuss reality tv in great detail.

When I look around me it seems that there is a common fear of being serious and/or sincere. Entire relationships are conducted under the guise of ‘an irony that scorched everything it touched’ (as Coupland brilliantly put it) and people perform a personality for each other, contorting to make things easy for each other. Don’t break the spell, don’t undermine the performance and whatever you do, don’t be ‘serious’. It’s a superficiality which seems to pervasively overwhelm and flatten all social interactions so that absolutely everything becomes merely another way of illustrating the character. This will, counterintuitively, sometimes involve brief ostentatious and insincere touching on ‘serious’ matters as one character seeks to demonstrate that, hey, they can chat about BIG ISSUES as well as ‘The Only Way is Essex’. In the Age of Irony this is what counts as a ‘well-rounded individual’. It struck me in several of the responses I saw to Amy Winehouse’s death where people took time out from their rigid jollity to suddenly develop a very public concern for perceived ‘serious’ events that were happening in the world. This interest appeared to develop for no other reason than to berate others for earnestly responding to Winehouse’s death. This was a betrayal of the performance. ‘Hey, if you’re going to be serious, I can be more serious than you!’

Much of this thinking stems from my sitting in a bar and suddenly being aware of a very earnest discussion that was happening next to me. It was completely jarring for me to hear two people quietly chatting in public about various things with seeming disregard as to how others would perceive them or their subject matter. Some of what I heard wasn’t far off the author’s example of “I would be able to discuss human rights in Uzbekistan in the pub without being laughed at” and it struck me that so many of us have become used to a self-enforced censorship where we wouldn’t dare venture to be so earnest in general company, at least not without serially undermining what we were saying with humourous nods to the character such discussions would be perceived to ‘belong’ to. In short, it was jarring to hear two people having an exchange where each seemed genuinely interested in what the other had to say and weren’t just using each other to validate a self-image.

Politics on a personal level has been warped by this too. It fascinates me that we are all eager to be seen to have opinions but as soon as you draw links between what someone says/does and their political beliefs, this is frequently seen as going ‘too far’ and being ‘too serious’. Politics is seen as some completely separate and intensely private realm which must only be ventured into carefully and with mutual consent. Believing that someone’s political beliefs are an integral part of their personality is seen as pompous and while we will happily argue with each other about whether we like Cheryl Cole, we will keep clear of anything that could be perceived as ‘political’. Then, despite this unspoken agreement, we will attack anyone who presents a discussion of pop culture devoid of social or political context as being in any sense ‘lightweight’ as being a ‘snob’ (and there is a clear link to be made between this and the ‘Golden Snitch’ argument I made here).

Perhaps this has all come across as rambling nonsense. It’s something I’m still very much thinking through and the conversations I’ve had about it in the past week have been enormously stimulating (and perhaps those very conversations completely destroy my argument?!). If you feel you have any thoughts to contribute, please do!