The midterm elections have revealed that the reigning monarch of the entertainment industry is right in claiming that “America has a problem,” but not for the reason Beyonce thinks. America seems to be devolving into a nation of people who harp on issues that are largely disconnected from the concrete realities of our daily lives, turning our public personas into performances of live action role play. Our nation’s national allergy is, and has always been, nuance. Her national sport is cognitive dissonance. The Manichaean proclivities of the early puritanical colonizers continue to work their way into our public discourse and cultural fabric, rearing its head in ever new and ever divisive ways.
Much of the division between the cultural and political factions in our society is rooted in a lack of sensitivity to the use of hyperbole as a rhetorical and aesthetic device. Hyperbole can be used to highlight the potential dangers of an idea or action should it be taken to its furthest extreme…its logical conclusion. This device serves as a warning, a wake up call to the inevitable outcome should the matter not be restricted, or to morally admonish someone for a negative underlying intention hidden beneath the surface of what they are espousing.
Those opposed to allowing abortion access to be legally protected don’t care about the rights and dignity of people outside of the womb, and want to return to a culture in which women are forced to bear children and confined to homemaking. Those in favor of legal abortion access are like white gloved Nazis, spawning a culture of death that sacrifices the most vulnerable in favor of individual autonomy and material comfort.
Surely this extreme rhetoric contains hints of truth within it, but largely glosses over the complex set of convictions and lived realities that lead someone to take a position on any given political matter. Scandalized by the lack of regard for said complexities and sensitivity to the set of reasons behind our opponent’s position, we react with pain, disgust, and vitriol, determined to further distance ourselves from them.
Rather than taking hyperbolic statements with a degree of detachment, and as an opportunity to look more closely at the other’s logic as well as to examine the intentions and logic behind our own position, we either wield these statements as weapons, or allow ourselves to be crushed by them as blows. They become an impetus to blockade ourselves within our own faction, scoffing at the irrationality, hatefulness, and evil of the other, perhaps even publicly signaling through social media how much we condemn such a position and align ourselves with the “right” side.
Conservative media outlets bank on narratives that are extravagantly hyperbolic. This is due in part to the fact that they tend to envision themselves as existing in a spiritually-charged cosmos where magical thinking is commonplace, and apocalyptic events are never too far in the near future…or perhaps is due to the fact that they are losing ground in a mediascape predominately run by the left, and must use all of their power to attract potential clicks and views.
But their hyperbolic gesturing is not merely a matter of spiritual convictions or maintaining relevance–it also possesses an aesthetic value. The conservative media have (at times on purpose, at others by accident) a flair for camp, for feats of artificiality and performance for its own sake. The liberal media reacts to the hyperbolic posturing of the right, claiming to take the moral highroad and for doling out facts alone…refusing to take the log out of their own eye before pointing the finger. The left’s narratives are surely just as hyperbolic as the right’s, but are painfully boring, lacking the right’s performative flair.
Playing the same game
The left, with its pragmatism and moralism, highlights real issues, but blows them out of proportion, turning them into overarching quasi-religious metanarratives. The right, frustrated with the hyperbolic proclivities of the left, reacts, claiming that the left is delusional, and is too quick to deny the fact that there is indeed a problem at hand.
Critical Race Theory insists that racism is weaved into the fabric of the nation. The right reacts, denying there is such a thing as systemic racism. The left prioritizes the problem of climate change over matters of private morality. The right reacts, once again, claiming climate change is a farce and that the left is furthering the collapse of “family values.”
A knee-jerk reaction to so-called woke ideas, the anti-woke rhetoric popularized by politicians like Ron De Santis and media personalities like Ben Shapiro works like a mirror reflection of the ideology it claims to oppose, rendering it another version of wokeness…the other side of the same coin. As with most reactionary causes, anti-wokeness offers nothing original or novel to public discourse aside from its rejection of “pop” readings of the poststructuralist theories at the origins of wokeness.
Anti-woke figures may clamor about traditional values and objective moral truths, but its underlying logic is just as flat as that of those they consider to be their enemies. Perhaps the extravagant posturing of those who espouse anti-wokeness may be more entertaining than woke figures (albeit in an ironic way). But (unlike Trump, whose success as a troll is contingent upon his apathy) the fact that conservatives seem to sincerely believe in their “cause” renders them third rate trolls.
And so the left sets the terms of the game, and the right reacts, effectively losing the game by agreeing to play on the terms set by the opposition. They are too daft to transcend them with a different and original set of terms. In the dialectical game of action/reaction, there is little impetus for nuance and original thought.
Were one to peer beneath the facade of their own reactionary posturing, they may begin to perceive that this is all a means of dealing with (or better, evading) the awareness of their sense of interior disintegration and lack of agency…of having been uprooted from their cultural identity and traditions, from a meaningful, ordered cosmos–in which morality has less to do with one’s public “positions” and more to do with the way one responds to and deals with the set of circumstances they’ve been handed in life.
Our public performances of morality serve to project our own personal psychological wounds as well as our existential dread…our ambivalence toward being atomized individuals who lack a sense of integration with ourselves, other humans, and the world around us. We scream out proclaiming our tribal belonging, desperate for the illusion that we truly belong, that we are living for something that is substantially Good and True.
We are victims of our own cognitive dissonance. We are desperately afraid of looking at the gaping void between our so-called moral positions and the way we live. We signal our identities to the public without knowing who we really are and what we are truly living for. We are terrified of the possibility that our unexamined lives are not actually worth living. We follow the scripts prepackaged for the tribal group we’ve decided (“freely”) to identify ourselves with, spouting off lines we’ve heard from media pundits, or reposting an infographic from our preferred activist influencers. Concerned more with signaling our moral righteousness (read, tribal belonging) than with confronting the nuances that make up the complex issues facing our society, we outsource the imperative to develop original thoughts to global elites, to an algorithm, relieving us of the arduous work of cultivating virtue–both intellectual and moral.
Scarce are those who dare to take up a position while acknowledging–and even having reverence for–the logic of the other side. Rarely do we find someone like Camille Paglia who is intransigently pro-choice, while acknowledging the moral superiority of the monotheistic argument in favor of protecting the dignity of all human beings, or like Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, who is severely pro-life, while collaborating with pro-choice feminists who–like her–hope to create more social and economic agency for women. In a time where the Manichean impulse to condemn the other side as inherently evil, rather than regarding them as logical people whose conclusions we disagree with, such figures are true gems.
Unbeknownst to ourselves, we aspire to become professional LARP-ers. The neoconservative shock jock who calls out the left for denigrating American family values has been divorced three times. The gender queer Twitter afficionado who decries the intolerance of TERFs can’t tolerate engaging logically with ideas that don’t wholeheartedly align with theirs. The radtrad Latin Mass attendee condemns the postmodern concept of gender identity and the moral laxity of pride parades, while indulging in a quirky brand of postmodern performance art of their own, rooted more so in their “pride” than in humble obedience to God’s will.
Like reality TV stars, we approach our lifestyle choices and interactions as do actors, performing for the approval–or revilement–of an audience…in either case, eager to boost our ratings. We appropriate manufactured personas and engage in artificial experiences, branding it with the facetious label of being “real.” Social media usage models the substanceless “real life” of reality TV, concocting scenes and postures that serve up a manufactured version of our lives to our followers. The way we depict our relationships, parties, values…even our bodies, is calculated.
Take the phenomenon of thirst traps, which takes its cues more reality TV than from pornography–which at least has the decency to call what it’s producing “acting” or (if you’re generous enough) “art.” Posing on the beach or in the gym bathroom mirror with bedroom eyes has the audacity to parade itself as an authentic snapshot of one’s glamorous everyday life, while in reality it’s a shard of our manufactured life, disintegrated from our less than sexy reality. Reality TV, social media, thirst traps, are facetious feats of artifice–the epitome of the diabolical–presenting that which lacks substance as if it were real, and that which lacks integration as if it’s woven into the fabric of our daily lives.
The virtue of irony
What would it take to foster authentic intellectual and moral virtue? It would be an arduous task indeed, to learn to appreciate a diverse array of cultural paradigms and to comprehend a variety of schools of thought…that thoroughly understand a logic, a worldview that one does not agree with…and to develop the humility, the willingness to assume the best intentions in one’s opponent, and to recognize that their intrinsic dignity alone makes it worth engaging in civil conversations with them. It would require us to confront our puritanical fears of being contaminated by associating ourselves with, showing charity to, the “other side”…and to develop a sense of internal integration that is not fragile enough to be shattered by the possibility of public scandal, of being associated in any way with that which is evil. Perhaps it’s time we make the inclusion of philosophy and debate courses mandatory in public school curricula.
Until we are ready to collaborate on developing a coherent vision of how to foster moral and intellectual virtues, our only resort for now may be to approach such hot button issues obliquely, with a Wildean sense of ironic humor. The pervasiveness of cognitive dissonance and drought of moral and intellectual virtue makes it nearly impossible to comprehend sincere discourse, and can only be challenged with reverse psychology…with arguments that sneak in through the back door. In post-Enlightenment cultures, the platonic insistence on the primacy of ontology and aesthetics over politics and morals has been reversed. We have been deprived of the chance to establish any commonly held foundation when debating matters political and ethical. We have regressed into our puritanical past, harping on moralistic issues without understanding the essences from which said ethical principles proceeds.
Until we find ourselves in a position to engage with each other with more realism and nuance, it’s time for the pendulum to swing back to the other extreme and balance out the playing field. Decadent, irony-pilled aesthetes who eschew ethics in the style of Wilde (think the likes of Slavoj Zizek, Anna Khachiyan, Dasha Nekrasova, and Trump) may be problematic in their own regard, but they are the necessary (even if only temporary) fix to the vertiginous condition of our age. As Wilde once said: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” In times like these when we are hard pressed to find genuinely interesting and original personas, charm might be our only antidote to the tedious overabundance of “goodness.” Professional trolling ought to be a vocational prospect of serious consideration.