Smith, Rock, and the Trivialization of Western Culture

The SlapIf Neil Postman were alive today, sitting in a bar or café with Chris Hedges, I wonder which one would say “I told you so!” first after seeing social media this past week?

The story that clogged the social media pipes this week was the slap one actor gave another on stage during the performance of the annual onanism festival called the Oscars. And as soon as it happened, even while it was occurring, a shitstorm of comments, opinions and reportage flooded social media. Every social media feed was clogged with pieces like tarry stercus and then flooded by the ongoing comments that so many people felt compelled to append endlessly. The Slap.*

It was inescapable that others among the glitterati chimed in as if their voices mattered in the rising cacophony. Every media outlet felt it their duty to weigh in with an opinion. And then publish an opinion on some other outlet’s opinion in the echo chamber of outraged support or opposition. Of course, the public had to add their comments to the media’s. And on and on and on and on the carousel went.

Meanwhile: this same week, an “alarming heatwave” was felt simultaneously in both the Arctic and Antarctic; a frightening climate change event that threatens the entire planet. This unprecedented event saw record-breaking temperatures more than 40C warmer than average in the Antarctic, and more than 30C higher than normal in the Arctic.

It received almost no attention on social media or in traditional media sources, all of which were transfixed with the testosterone-fueled Slap.

In Ukraine, Putin’s fascist Russian troops continued to target women, children and hospitals in the fifth week of their invasion. Russian troops attacked aid convoys and stole medical equipment destined for besieged Ukrainians in Mariupol. Russian troops planted banned anti-personnel mines in supposedly “safe corridors” to inflict further casualties on those civilians fleeing the city. The Russian navy planted mines in the Black Sea, threatening international merchant shipping. Russia fired cruise missiles into Ukrainian cities, targeting Ukrainian fuel and food storage facilities. We learned that Chinese hackers enabled Russia’s invasion through a massive cyber-attack before Putin’s troops moved in. Russian soldiers have been kidnapping and torturing Ukrainian mayors and others.

Putin’s vicious, ongoing, bestial attacks on Ukraine were shoved to the side on social media while impassioned attention was given to The Slap.

In the US, a Supreme Court judge’s seditious wife was implicated in the rightwing insurrection that former president Donald Trump empowered when he refused to accept his defeat in the 2020 election. Yet the judge refuses to recuse himself from cases involving his wife or the coup attempt. Politicians are calling for his impeachment. Meanwhile, a suspicious gap in White House phone records during the coup attempt suggests the former president or his supporters are colluding to hide his treason.

Those events got minor traction on social media, but merely a ripple compared to the tsunami created by The Slap.

COVID cases continue to rise in the sixth wave of the pandemic, mostly thanks to the spread of the BA2 variant, at the same time many governments are lifting vaccination and mask mandates. Public health officials blame conservative governments pandering to their alt-right base for the retreat from mandates.

COVID resurgence barely got noticed on social media while The Slap was foremost in every feed.

Russia stole hundreds of airplanes leased from Western nations in retaliation to sanctions, then ended international cooperation on the ISS. Delegations of First Nations representatives received an unprecedented apology from the Pope for Catholic Church abuses in residential schools. Several international studies proved the drug Invermectin, promoted by Trump and other Repugnicans, was useless in fighting COVID. Amazon employees in State Island opted to form a union in a historic vote.

All of these got short shrift on social media while The Slap was raging. The Slap dominated feeds and timelines. And it morphed into an endless stream of memes, exploited for every interest or cause imaginable.

What is happening? Viewed objectively and logically, The Slap was trivial, unimportant, and irrelevant when compared to other events happening around the world. At first, I assumed it was, like “reality” TV shows and wrestling matches merely choreographed for the audience reaction. A prank, or a PR stunt. Even if not, why would a minor and petty celebrity squabble matter to so many?

The answer is simple: bread and circuses.

Okay, it’s more complicated than that in the age of the internet, mass media, and ubiquitous smart devices, but not that much. It goes back to the Romans: panem et circenses, a term coined by the writer Juvenal to describe the elite’s efforts to deflect attention from them, and to distract the mob through crass appeasement: entertainment, food, spectacle. The Romans were no strangers to exploiting gossip, either.

The term implies another side to the coin: a public ignorant of civic duty, easily swayed by demagogues, uneducated in topics like science, history, or politics (a recent example would be the recent alt-right, insurrectionist truckers convoys). Both the elite and the public collaborating in a culture of deliberate ignorance. The Morlocks and the Eloi.

Juvenal’s principle remains valid today: keep the mob entertained and looking elsewhere; that way they won’t see the man behind the curtain pulling the levers. And we saw it happen this week with The Slap.

Not that this was new or unique. Every story that mentions Harry and Meagan, Lisa and Jason, Pamela and Dan, Kim and Kanye, or… pick any pair of glitterati… rockets onto social and other media to overwhelm other, more important news. Ooh! What were they wearing? What did they eat? break up! Divorce! Who gets the dog? Are there bathing suit photos? Nudies?

In his 1892 essay, Democratic Vistas, the poet Walt Whitman warned of “the depraving influences of riches” whose “absence of all high ideals in character” and “their restless wholesale kneading of the masses” would lead the nation “to a destiny, a status, equivalent, in its real world, to that of the fabled damned.”

(Too, late, Walt. It’s been damned for the last century, moreso since the development of mass media. Not just America, mind you; this is the undercurrent that runs through all of Western culture.)

In 1953, Ray Bradbury’s book, Fahrenheit 451, imagined a world in which every home would have rooms where wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling TV screens played constantly; and homeowners participated interactively in the daily dramas and sitcoms like today’s virtual reality; where books were outlawed and burnt when found. Immersion in this mass-media metaverse erased public interest in reading, politics, facts, history, science, and truth.

And yet 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian novel of a totalitarian future was seen as more prophetic than either Huxley or Bradbury.

Neil Postman, in his 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, wrote that the real threat to democracy and culture was not in the dystopian vision of the totalitarian future Orwell offered us, but in a collective acquiescence to be lulled into complacency:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

Big Brother quietly became Facebook and Google with hardly a whimper from us as we happily accepted our loss of privacy, and the constant surveillance they required. Postman — a student of the late Marshall McLuhan — added,

…in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

While Orwell’s populace is controlled by the state inflicting pain on them, Huxley’s future residents are controlled by pleasure, mostly self-inflicted. The government doesn’t need to force it on them; it just makes it possible. As Postman said, “Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

And we sure do love our celebrity gossip.

In his 2013 book, Writing on the Wall: Social Media — the First 2,000 Years, Tom Standage writes that gossip is our evolved version of social grooming: we “shifted away from physical forms of grooming and began to groom each other in another way: through speech, and specifically the exchange of ‘social information.'” Standage argues that each new technology, from writing to the internet, accelerated our ability and eagerness to share gossip.**

But when did gossip become predominant over news? Over facts? Over important issues? When did it become a cultural addiction at the expense of reality? And why do all major media outlets pander to that obsession? Try to find one source —Al Jazeera, CNN, CBC, BBC, Fox, Postmedia, Vice or any of the rest — that didn’t give The Slap headline play. Or isn’t still showing something about it. I couldn’t. Mass media, as McLuhan and his disciples have frequently said, changed everything. And not for the better.***

Chris Hedges, has a darker vision than Postman, umbrated by his more recent experiences and research (Postman died in 2003, before Facebook and most other social media platforms were created). In his 2009 book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Hedges wrote,

The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal.

Hedges warned that the majority in America “…is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority – which crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected – presidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level.” He expands on his views in his sequel book, America: The Farewell Tour.

(For a long time, Canadians arrogantly thought we were above this American decay, that we were better and smarter than them. But that was easily dispelled earlier this year when the alt-right, anti-science, pro-pandemic truckers’ convoy attempted its own form of insurrection against an elected government; a fascist, racist movement supported by many among our own conservatives.)

The Slap. It wasn’t so much that it happened, but that it occupied us for more than a brief minute; that it consumed our media and social media, filled our consciousness for so long, taking precedence over reality, over actually important issues and events. And that it still takes space in our news and Twitter feeds.

The Slap was iconic of our modern culture; representative of everything that social and traditional media have become: trivial yet endlessly repeated and rehashed. It was the perfect event for the Morlocks to engage the Eloi and keep them distracted.

And that really scares me.

~~~~~

* Since we have not had cable TV for about 15 years, we have not watched the Oscars or any other show as they happened. But we do get streaming news through apps, and participate on social media, so we are aware of such events. However, I have personally long felt the Oscars were themselves irrelevant and self-serving; I stopped paying attention to them well before we cut the cable.

** Standage defined social media as “…media you get from other people, exchanged along social connections, and creating a distributed discussion or community.” On the site FutureText.org, it notes:

From propaganda tweets heard around the globe faster than truth can catch up and barrages of bots swaying elections, to a virtual tsunami of academic research texts drowning knowledge and using the notion of ‘Fake News’ to dismiss whatever doesn’t fit ones narrative, the information discussed is largely in the form of digital text.
Text is visualised rhetoric and as such it is a form of persuasion–text is seldom written without its function being to persuade the reader of its importance and truthfulness. As such, it carries vast potential to persuade in order to enlighten, to subvert or to obscure – to enlighten with knowledge, wisdom or insight, to subvert an election and to obscure knowledge through volume.
This is a case of the medium shaping the power of the message: A single sentence on a piece of paper does not hold the same power as a single sentence in a tweet and the ease of publishing vastly overpowers what was possible to print and read on paper.

*** In his essay, Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, Alex Thompson wrote:

Marshall McLuhan has two big concepts that, tellingly, make up the first two chapters of this massive text. The first is his pithy “the medium is the message,” a statement he returns to throughout to explain exactly what he means and some of the intricacies of the implications thereof. The point is that it isn’t the content of a medium which matters but the medium itself which most meaningfully changes the ways humans operate.

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