By: Matt Gordon
The other day only one contestant made it to the final round in Jeopardy!. Usually three players wager on a final question, but on this day, negative totals disqualified two contestants from making wagers—you can’t risk what you don’t have. So with $14,400, a man named Kevin stood alone, set to give a pointless answer to a question rendered meaningless.
I spent fifteen minutes on social media today. It was one of those times that it was hard to look away. I read a hundred political comments on a post someone made about voting. I then read a hundred or so comments about race relations. I then read dozens of comments about LeBron James’ standing as an all-time great athlete. When it comes to logic or civility, most of the commenters were openly risking what they didn’t have.
Open accessibility is probably a great gain, at the idea level, of online platforms. These forums lend voices to the voiceless. They invite everyone to the podium for Final Jeopardy, which, like most ideas, is grand in conception and horrendous when applied. Imagine if the studio audience of Jeopardy! all just got to join the game there at the end? They don’t have anything to wager and the risk for them isn’t actual, so the rules are changed—everyone just say what you want, how you want, and we’ll surely be able to sort it all out afterwards, right? Right!?
This is the way our world, this cacophony of voices, is trending, I fear. We have become self-anointed experts on all things and with our confidence grows the sickening amount of our wagers. We put it all on the line every single day, our very identity frothing forth from our opinions on politics and race and ethics and sports and entertainment and on and on it goes, absolutely and absolute, resolute in its own dogged rightness.
In bygone eras, matters would be thought on. Then debated. Then written on. Then challenged. Then undone. Then reforged through thought, re-debated, re-developed. Now a tweet will do. One used to study the tomes on complex notions, now one buzzes in after skimming a headline.
And the problem isn’t with knowledge or a lack thereof. It is with pride. We know everything all the time. I can’t believe some of the people I went to high school or college with who have the time to be encyclopedic experts in science, religion/theology, ethics, law, American politics, philosophy, psychology, the family, all while finding the hours necessary to have strong opinions on every show ever housed on Netflix. It is a staggering resume delivered with stark bravado at every occasion—and sometimes when there is no occasion. That or it is a great deception.
And it goes beyond the individual, like all things do at some point, and becomes societal. If enough people walk backwards that will just become the way of walking. But this trend is far more dangerous than even backwards walking—and it is far more than a trend too. Here are three quick marks contributing to the prideful idiocy of our tilted discourse:
Perhaps due to our penchant for storytelling, we’ve become masters of it. In the valleys below the HOLLYWOOD sign, we live out our little stories, treating others as supporting characters as we play the roles life offers us: hero, villain, anti-hero, upstart, go-getter, underdog, etc. This narrative nurturing embeds in our psyche and forever urges us to tell a good story. We used to fixate on living good lives, but now we can instead turn our attention walking backwards to manufacturing good ones from our pasts. My mistakes and regrets and sins, with flawless hindsight, are now choices—deliberate actions that had to occur so I could emerge from this or that cocoon. It is the story we wrench from the damp towel of experience, no matter how hard we must wring the towel. And it is the precise thing our companies do with their missteps—reverse-engineering them to shrewd, decisive actions; our politicians do—that was all part of the strategy or a reaction against an even worse ideal pressed on us by our oppressive rivals; what our country does with its history—it was all part of the virtuous, holy plan. It is made evident in every structure, born from the individual desire to avoid accountability and hide from actual growth, a type that requires humility, reckoning, and repentance. I am exactly who I am perfectly made to be from a series of perfect decisions made with thoughtful foresight. It is self-deception that has become cultural contagion of misguided pride. And hence pristine perspectives. About everything.
As the western world turned to rampant individuality in the 1960s and 70s, a rebellion against post-war (and sometimes oppressive) dependency on community and institutions, the 2000s and after have plunged further afield into hyper-individuality. Choices are individualized. Vocation is individualized. Living accommodations are individualized. Even, absurdly, truth is individualized. You do you, has reached maxim status for a reason. We all, in all things, have complete autonomy, and where it is lacking—due to a suffering family member or financial restraint—we yearn for it, fake it, or both.
With this comes the shrinking of any kind of bonded unity. As truth is contained in a lone individual it is bound to forever being individual-sized. We have no cultural zeitgeist—other than discontent and loneliness. Each of us can find a million things wrong with everything, but we cannot grasp the common narratives that bring about unified solutions and redemption. Even groups bonded by special interests are factionalized movements rife with infighting and pettiness that prevents actual progress.
There are no unifying stories because those very stories have been burned up page-by-page. We’ve pulled apart the building brick-by-brick and now stand alone in the rain surprised and dismayed at the wet, cold reality of it.
And since there is nothing to turn to we must turn inward. To ourselves. Not liking what we see, we pretend otherwise. Bucking against a raging lack of control, feigned knowledge and signaling become refuge.
–Re-established Micro Narratives
The old stories used to bring people together, be they religious or national or cultural. Now all that we can agree on is that we cannot agree on anything. Polarity is the byproduct. And isolation. I recall the old scene in the animated movie An American Tale when Fievel is comforted by the knowledge that he and his family, though apart, were underneath the “same big sky.” We’ve lassoed the moon like George Bailey, but not for love. We’ve brought it down for the threat of it, and beyond scattering the very stars, we’ve thrown ourselves apart. Loneliness is the result of all our autonomy—we live further apart and find ourselves thinking further apart too.
So our answer? We tribe up. Not healthy tribal systems—like that of many Native American tribes. These are lethal ones, brought together not by a surviving instinct to steward well together the elements of nature, but conjoined by a common hatred of the other—people, ideas, political parties, religions. Tribes are, in their very nature, oppressive. They are incessantly against. But being part of a tribe beats being left out of one, alone and isolated. It is like the choice between freezing to death or being warmed not by the fire but in it.
The language of the tribe is either/or, the misguided stepchild of timid thinking bent on conquering through division. Lacking certainty, this rhetoric is full of certitude; lacking the peace of logic born of diligence, it attacks incisively through bravado; fearing that time might prove it wrong, it flings itself at issues and opponents wildly, moving in a blur that hides its nakedness. The emperor can only be called naked if he is seen, after all. So keep moving, keep under cover of dark vagueness, and be sure to cling to the invisible, self-anointed crown.
These are not, of course, the only reasons our discourse has descended to the depths, a mere shadow of a thinking flung before it. But these simple mindsets have given momentum to the ad hominen plummet of both.
Seeing a man stand alone on the stage of Jeopardy is absurd. But we are moving toward a time when that stage may be entirely vacated. We all rush to give answer, but the madding crowd goes wrong, gets tangled up, fights over directions, and ends up quite far from the stage we so desperately crave.
Jeopardy! is a show of answers. So too have we become. Can we find the right questions?
Time has its hand on fateful buzzer, ready. Willing us to question, to pause, to think, to humble, and to change ourselves before the sun burns up our waxen wings. What will we do? The lonely stage waits.