Level Heads

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This is not a post about the big-game hunting cheerleader.

Sorry if that’s what you want it to be about. I know that when I shared it on Facebook that’s the image that popped up. And in the internet world, we only care about headlines and images.

You’ve seen it hundreds of times, either accompanied by outrage, or outrage at the outrage. Well, frankly, I don’t care about that story. It’s stupid and you won’t remember it by October.

This, I do not care about this. It's not important.
This. I do not care about this. It is not important.

This is a post about the much deeper issue behind that and countless other stories that we see in our timelines, on our Twitter feeds, and in our news. It’s about our society’s propensity to “level” and to present a new “head on a platter” each week. My main sources for these ideas come from three places. The first is this essay by Soren Kierkegaard called “The Present Age”, the second is an article about the #AskThicke Twitter debacle by Jon Caramanica in the New York Times, and the third is this poem by Charles Baudelaire called “Au Lectuer”.

My apologies, but this post might to take a while to read. It’s like that on purpose because so much of what we read is the quick and ill-informed answer to some mystery posed in a Facebook-shareable headline.

The idea that our society has a propensity to “level” is taken from Kierkegaard’s “The Present Age” essay in which he presents the differences between a reflective and a romantic age. I was turned on to this essay by interviews from Win Butler as he was promoting Arcade Fire’s Reflektor.  Kierkegaard’s work had a major influence on this album. At the end of the essay Kierkegaard, writing in 1846, gives what may be the perfect description of the public and it’s relationship to others and the media:

This lazy mass, which understands nothing and does nothing, this public gallery seeks some distraction, and soon gives itself over to the idea that everything which someone does, or achieves, has been done to provide the public something to gossip about. . . . The public has a dog for its amusement. That dog is the Media. If there is someone better than the public, someone who distinguishes himself, the public sets the dog on him and all the amusement begins. This biting dog tears up his coat-tails, and takes all sort of vulgar liberties with his leg–until the public bores of it all and calls the dog off. That is how the public levels.

Now, tell me that doesn’t perfectly describe this inane big-game hunting cheerleader story. The public (Facebook mostly in this case), took the view that this girl, who is not a celebrity or politician or athlete or anything higher than an average citizen, has done something to provide the public with gossip material. Because that’s all it is in the end. We are all just looking for someone to talk about, good or bad. Those insulting her aren’t insulting her because they want her to change her ways or improve her life. They don’t want a conversation, they want a victory. They’ll sic their dog on her until they’ve grown bored (bound to happen in a day or two). Nobody in this entire situation wanted to bring others up, they wanted to keep everyone down at the same level of bitterness. They wanted a head on a platter.

Which brings me to the “head on the platter”. In Caramanica’s piece on Thicke, he began by saying something that got me thinking on a much more broad scale than whether or not someone insulted Robin Thicke on Twitter.

Every now and again — almost every day, really — the Internet demands a head on a platter, and this week, it came for Robin Thicke’s.

The rest of the article isn’t really germane to my point, but this line applies across all forms of the modern dialogue. Many may read a sentence like Caramanica’s and shake their head at how we have fallen so far as to constantly demand this endless stream of “heads on platters”. Really though, we haven’t fallen anywhere. We remain exactly where we have always been. During the French Revolution, people literally demanded heads on platters on a daily basis. The Roman’s main form of entertainment involved the death of hundreds and thousands of people a day. Executions in the US were public until 1936. But, fortunately, we don’t find our entertainment in the physical deaths of others anymore. Instead, we now find it in the death’s of someone’s public life.

In the 21st century, Twitter has become our public execution grounds. If Tweets are the stones or tomatoes thrown by the crowd, then takedown pieces in Gawker or Slate are the guillotine blades dealing the death blows. Instead of newspaper write-ups explaining the hanging, we get Buzzfeed posts explaining it with gifs from Frozen.

It’s all the same mindset: Someone has done something bad and for that they must be punished. And we must take delight in their punishment, because for just a small amount of time it lets us forget about our own depravity. We can troll Robin Thicke on Twitter because we haven’t ever made a music video with naked women or very publicly grinded on a 20 year-old while married. It’s easy because he’s a screw-up. But so are we, and we will take delight knowing that everyone is focused on his screw-ups and not ours.

To that point I turn to Baudelaire. This is also something I learned about from Arcade Fire (this time from “Speaking in Tongues” off The Suburbs Deluxe). It’s Baudelaire’s poem “Au Lectuer” or “To the Reader”. Most of the poem is spent in a description of sin and it’s incredible hold on the soul. But at the end, Baudelaire says there is something even worse than the worst of sins and sinners:

C’est le ennui!”

Boredom.

Frankly, we are all profoundly bored. We desire sins often when we are most bored. When our minds are idle we must occupy them with something. And often that something is gossip. Or anger. Or lust. Or self-righteous indignation and outrage. We must find something to care about. And it’s easiest to care about something when it’s all over our Facebook wall. If all of our friends are supposedly caring about it, then why shouldn’t we? It doesn’t matter that it has absolutely no hold on our lives. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t treating others with respect because, well, I’m right and you’re wrong.

But, you see Baudelaire wasn’t done with this poem. He finishes with a twist:

“You know him, reader, this exquisite monster,
-Hypocrite reader,-my double,-my brother!”

You see, while it’s easy to read about the sins of others and even easier to write about them, we are all guilty of the same thing. You might have been reading this thinking about how awful all of these other people are for the way they overreact to everything. And I certainly have been writing it with that same mindset, but “Hypocrite reader, -my double,-my brother!”, we are just as guilty for thinking this way. It’s not right and we shouldn’t do it, but sometimes we all throw those stones and drop that blade. Sometimes, we all want a head on a platter.

 

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