THE AGE WITHOUT OPINIONS
In a social era of trial by fire, people are retreating below the surface to express their true feelings in "finstas" and group texts, so what comes next?
In the last issue of CR, I wrote that the shared collective cultural experience died sometime in the '90s and now we all live inside our bubbles inside of bubbles in the great foam of atomization. In the intervening six months, this process has only continued to accelerate. Today’s culture is somehow both mega atomized and blandly conformist, because the most interesting things that are happening are happening below the surface, out of view.
Nobody’s allowed to have opinions of their own anymore. Not on the left. Not unless those opinions fall into a narrowly prescribed range of accepted thought, or, alternatively, if those holding them are willing to be shouted down, slandered, and cried wolf at, and to have their talks protested and exhibitions canceled. Some people get a visceral–sexual even–thrill out of having such things happen to them. But most don’t. So whether you’re involved in politics, academia, the media, or the greater culture, the contemporary public sphere creates an overriding pressure for conformity of language and ideas; and the worst part is, it’s all pantomime. The problem with social networks, even more of a problem than fake news, is that everybody espouses the same views, but secretly doesn’t believe in them. Nobody says what they really think. Rather, everybody defers to an illusory accord, and this makes for a highly distorted perception of reality. The problem with echo chambers is not that everybody agrees with you but everybody pretends to agree with what you also pretend to agree with. In their GenExittrend report, published in Fall 2017, cultural researchers Sean Monahan and Sophie Secaf (BOX1824) wrote, “The internet was supposed to be a Marketplace of Ideas. Instead, it became a Marketplace of Identities.” It’s become a place where one’s identity is constructed by consensus, guided by the invisible hands of the economy of subtweets and retweets-with-comments and callouts and cancellations, without any real conviction. The Marketplace of Ideas is shuttered.
If we’re to do anything other than perform false versions of ourselves for the entertainment, or moral satisfaction, of others, we have to be willing to give voice to those words they don’t want to hear the most. Artists, writers, and thinkers are supposed to say the unsayable. Lawyer and artist Vanessa Place has just published You Had To Be There: Rape Jokes, a book of her performance in which she recites rape jokes she’s found for 45 minutes, trying to make us laugh at things we don’t want to, pulling at the boundaries of acceptability and forcing us to think about things we don’t want to. “When things get really horrible,” writes Slavoj in his foreword to You Had To Be There, “every gesture of dignity and compassion is a fake, and only humor works: humor which does not make fun of its object but bears witness to our impotence and failure to deal with the object appropriately.” Life is a tragedy and a parody, and if we’re not talking about hard subjects then we’re not doing anything to deal with them. But few of us are as brave as Place.
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Other interesting reactions have risen against this tendency toward conformity. In the field of academia, Jeff McMahan, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford University; Francesca Minerva, a bioethicist at the University of Ghent; and Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton, recently announced their plans to set up a publication, The Journal of Controversial Ideas, in which scholars can anonymously publish papers that are too controversial to safely put their names on. The journal is expected to be published this year, and nobody knows what’s going to be in it, but it’s already garnered two Guardian opinion pieces attacking it. So many opinion pieces, and so few opinions!
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Unpopular opinions must now be hidden, or else somehow disembodied. The most significant trend of 2018 among my circle was the wholesale abandonment of Facebook in favor of more private, and impermanent, forms of communication, like the group chat and the “finsta” (the “fake Instagram” on which, operating under pseudonyms, we post pictures and stories for a private audience of close friends). If you’re no longer allowed to speak openly, you might as well just go elsewhere, to places where not everything has to be taken so seriously. For years we were warned that the free Internet would be gated by corporations, but actually it’s been gated by the public. We’ve found our own ways of using networks, contrary to their designers’ intentions. The public sphere is going private. We’re building a secret Internet.
We’ve presented a troubling, misleading, and superficial image of the world and ourselves to others for the last decade or so. Right at the point when the public became the driving force behind culture, we began to pretend to be something that we weren’t and since then, our experiences have been dominated by the bright and shiny façades that so many of us have cultivated online. Lately, however, there’s been a renewed demand for authenticity: turning yourself into a glossy personal brand and posting pictures of your glamorous life is embarrassing again.
Where does identity reside now? On the main account or the hidden one? In the absence of religion, or a forgiving public space–we’re only willing to show who we really are in private. A grand unveiling of the dark mulch from which we construct ourselves is taking place across the gated communities of the secret Internet. There’s more revelry in abjection and the darkness of the unedited self. We all want to confess on ourselves. This is what we’re really made of: carousels of ressentiment, slander, candid sexual content, obscure memes, gross jokes, screen-grabs of creepy private conversations, the worst of the content we’re bombarded with daily.
Today we live in private once more, along interlocking chains of secret societies and micro-cultural enclaves, inside of which we can develop niche ideas and aesthetics among likeminded folk. In many ways this is a good and exciting development; however, like everything to do with the Internet and with or progress, it will have negative consequences in unexpected ways. While it’s good for the arts, which tend to thrive in isolation, it’s bad for politics, which really doesn’t. We used to go to the media for our news; then we had social media to point us to the media we most wanted to see; now we have group chats to point us to good, or egregiously bad, social media. Not long ago there was a lot of concern about how the algorithms of social networks create filter bubbles; now we’re actively building our own filter bubbles. We get most of our news from a small handful of friends in our group chats who are just like us, and small groups tend to foment madness.
We’re left with two distorted perceptions of reality: the public sphere in which everybody is pretending to be something they’re not, and the private in which everybody encourages one another’s worst impulses, and we’re performing different versions of ourselves in each. What comes next? We’re all growing sick of this Age Without Opinions. We all want to say what we’re thinking. Soon enough our collective repressed psyche is going to start leaking out from the secret Internet and back across the public sphere, and when that happens we’ll have a weirder, more fragmentary culture than ever. Such a large overspilling of innermost thoughts has never happened before, and could go very badly, but it has to happen. We can’t stay cut off from the rest of the world in our high-walled gardens forever. And hopefully, once we’re all revealed for what we really are—loopy, fucked-up, complicated, contradictory, and flawed beings—we’ll be able to resume talking to one another again, in our own voices, in public.