The Intellectual Situation
Against the Rage Machine
A strange mania governs the people of our great nation, a mania that these days results in many individual and collective miseries. This is the love of opinion, of free speech—a furious mania for free, spoken opinion. It exhausts us. We are aware that to say so (freely! our opinion!) makes us hypocrites. We are also aware that America’s hatred of hypocrisy is one of few passions to rival its love of free speech—as if the ideal citizen must see something, say something, and it must be the same thing, all the time. But we’ll be hypocrites because we’re tired, and we want eventually to stop talking.
Consider September. After chemical weapons appeared to have been deployed by the Assad regime for the second time in the conflict with the Syrian opposition, American pundits took to the media to perform the fantasy of omnipotence it seems only Americans engage in: If you were President, they said—meaning, If you were God—what would you do? This was interrupted in our Twitter feed by a host of other controversies (Jonathan Franzen’s opposition to online culture; Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards; the continuing crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by the Egyptian military), and then, toward the end of the month, by the greatest controversy of them all: the 300 sandwiches.
Late in the month, our local paper, the New York Post, ran a personal essay by one of its gossip reporters called “I’m 124 Sandwiches Away From an Engagement Ring.” In the essay, the author revealed that her boyfriend told her that if she made him 300 sandwiches, he would marry her. She was more than halfway there. In the accompanying photo, we saw the reporter, strikingly beautiful and black, with her boyfriend, awkward-looking and white. The whole thing was so strange, so tawdry, so perfectly engineered to offend, that the internet had no choice but to explode with outrage. The Huffington Post, Gawker, BuzzFeed, Jezebel, NPR, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Esquire, Slate, New York magazine, the Telegraph, Business Insider, ABC News, the Week, the Atlantic, the Hairpin, Gothamist, WNYC, WBUR, Flavorwire, the Daily Dot, the Stranger, Fox, Grantland, the Daily Mail, Jet magazine, Time, the New Statesman—all had things to say about the 300 sandwiches. If the US had invaded Syria at this moment, no one would have noticed. A strategic advantage, unless the government’s hope was to be seen invading Syria, in which case it would have been a bad time. It is possible that the 300 sandwiches saved us from war.
Two days later, the author and her boyfriend were on the Today show, telling people to “lighten up.” An accompanying article on Today.com encouraged readers to weigh in. “What do you think?” the article concluded. “Tell us!” The choices were “It’s sweet” and “It’s sexist.” By the time we got there, 15,000 people had cast their votes. You were only allowed to see what they said if you voted too. So we voted. “It’s sexist!” The results were revealed to us: 89 percent had said that it was sweet.
The Right to Have a Feeling and Say It, the Right to Care, the Right to Comment and Have Your Voice Heard: you’d think this is the only right we have. When cops on TV say the Miranda rights—“You have the right to remain silent!”—they are so goading and aggressive about it, one forgets shutting up is the right. But we have a Constitutional right to shut up, as well as to speak. A right to indifference as well as to opinion.
To say “I deserve to be heard!” today is a vexed proposition. Right and left, tech corporations beg you to say your piece for the sake of content-generation, free publicity, hype, and ad sales. America’s speech is so free, it pays—just not you. Even when we don’t opine, just clicking around, we’re like cilia on the tracheal lining of some gross beast, and our small work of enthusiasm, liking or passing along or reiterating or linking, is like the wriggle of a hair, pushing the story down the throat of the culture, filling its lungs so that it may breathe. We can accept this. We are a hair. And we would quietly concede our $5 annual value to Facebook and Twitter, if only they stopped asking us what’s on our minds—if only they left us alone.
Instead, they enjoin us to care, and about so many things. Why? Our attention is both finite and worth something; we should not spend it on the VMAs, Anthony Weiner, recreational misandry, or the boilerplate opinions of others. And yet these things enrage us. We can’t live this way. We were so mad, staring at our phone, reading opinions, we just walked into a planter. Our friend calls us and says, “I need help, I think my phone is making me depressed. I want to keep looking at it when I’m looking at it, but as soon as I look up, my body lets out this involuntary sigh, like a stick yanked from the mud, like, What have I done?” We are grateful to be on the phone, so that we can’t look at our phone.
It’s not just us. The ragers in our feeds, our otherwise reasonable friends and comrades: how do they have this energy, this time, for these unsolicited opinions? They keep finding things to be mad about. Here, they’ve dug up some dickhead writer-professor in Canada who claims not to teach women writers in his classes. He must be denounced, and many times! OK. Yes. We agree. But then it’s some protest (which we support), and then some pop song (which we like, or is this the one we don’t like?), and then some egregiously false study about austerity in Greece (full of lies!). Before we know it, we’ve found ourselves in a state of rage, a semi-permanent state of rage in fact, of perma-rage, our blood boiled by the things that make us mad and then the unworthy things that make other people mad.
We’re familiar with the engines of the rage machine: “click bait” in publications, fearmongering in official political statements, the “scandalous” in mainstream performance, the “problematic” in academia and art. These are fury genres, inexhaustible genres, genres that will always drum up attention. It is understood that a reader’s emotional investment in any of these will produce a “contribution,” which circulates the subject of conversation and keeps it, and its platform, relevant and therefore alive. Under these conditions, caring becomes a liability. We pity the suckers who fall for the rager of the week, those mad-for-a-day people who can’t see how much the latest outburst is “news” but not news.
We pity them, and we are them. We are also, at other times, the minds who suffer worse: the people whose passions and priorities, as real and relevant without the news peg, become fodder for the rage machine whenever there’s a slow day at Buzzfeed. We’ve been caring about this stuff for years, we think. Where were the angry people then? Of course this is the stupidest rage of all. It’s embarrassing and regressive, like teenage possessiveness, as if our favorite group just got picked up by a major label. We cared about Pussy Riot when they were still a band! But it’s not so hollow as that, since the music does get worse: the debate stales, the emergency fades. Everyone grows bored but us, and we feel used.
Always pick sides! Team Aniston!! The internet demands it, even if it’s only half-thoughts it wants, thoughts like, “This, just this” or “This is everything.” “This” is not a sentence. Nor is “Best. Thing. Ever.” Nor “!!!!” But worse than inchoate enthusiasm is the “think piece” at the other end of the spectrum, a form of recreational sophistry usually in the service of some bullshit. Was Proust a Urologist? Girls, Not Bloomberg, Evicted Zuccotti Park. Does Breathing Make You Smarter? What Breaking Bad Teaches Us About Building Brands. What Breaking Bad Teaches Us About the War on Drugs. What Breaking Bad Teaches Us About Toxic Relationships. (Those last three are real.) It makes you appreciate the listicle’s honest hypoambition; it’s the true slacker of internet forms. “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is a good listicle. It announces up front how little of your time it will waste.
We assert our right to not care about stuff, to not say anything, to opt out of debate over things that are silly and also things that are serious—because why pretend to have a strong opinion when we do not? Why are we being asked to participate in some imaginary game of Risk where we have to take a side? We welcome the re-emergence of politics in the wake of the financial crash, the restoration of sincerity as a legitimate adult posture. But already we see this new political sincerity morphing into a set of consumer values, up for easy exploitation. We are all cosmopolitans online, attentive to everything; but the internet is not one big General Assembly, and the controversies planted in establishment newspapers aren’t always the sort of problems that require the patient attention of a working group. Some opinions deserve radical stack (like #solidarityisforwhitewomen), but the glorified publicity stunts that dress up in opinion’s clothes to get viral distribution in the form of “debate” (Open Letters to Miley Cyrus) do not. We ought to be selective about who deserves our good faith. Some people duke it out to solve problems. Others pick fights for the spectacle, knowing we’ll stick around to watch. In the meantime they’ll sell us refreshments, as we loiter on the sideline, waiting to see which troll will out-troll his troll.
We talk to a friend from Los Angeles. She gets mad at us for saying this. We sound like reactionary people who hate the internet for no good reason. She says the problem isn’t that people care too much, it’s that they care about stupid stuff. Most people don’t know about Syria! she says, the last drops of iced coffee gurgling in her straw as she sips. “What everyone cares about is dumb. Everyone cares about mercury contamination in the Pacific Ocean and that’s only because they fucking love sushi.” She sips violently. This is news to us. The point here is not that people in California don’t care about Syria and do care about sushi. The point is that there are microworlds of controversy everywhere—as regionally specific and pervasive as gossip, but bizarrely impersonal—and they torment everyone, and we’re all unhappy, drinking too much iced coffee, hating the haters, meta-hating.
Truth is not an imperative, but something that must be discovered. Unlike liquid opinion, truth does not always circulate. It is that which you experience, deeply, and cannot forget. The right to not care is the right to sit still, to not talk, to be subject to unclarity and allow knowledge to come unbidden to you. To be in a constant state of rage, by contrast, is only the other side of piety and pseudoscience, the kind of belief that forms a quick chorus and cannot be disproved. Scroll down your Facebook feed and see if you don’t find one ditto after another. So many people with “good” or “bad politics,” delivered with conviction to rage or applause; so little doubt, error, falsifiability—surely the criteria by which anything true, or democratic, could ever be found.