H sent me this post satirizing a recent article/wedding announcement in the New York Times. H found it amusing because the couple reminded her of the two us. I have to admit there are a few points of comparison. Okay, quite a few: I study theology, read P.G. Wodehouse, watch British tv shows, get in car accidents, cried at my wedding, and bake biscuits. Okay, okay, there are even more, but enough about me.
Perhaps due to these points of solidarity with the newlyweds, I thought the post nasty and mean. And then I read the comments (I know, my mistake).
I’m not sure why so many people are so eager to spew loathing and contempt at other people on the internet. Have we narrowed our emotions down to the narrow spectrum between ironic disdain and outrage? Why does an article about two people living happy and idiosyncratic lives arouse such disdain (and misogyny, and homophobia, and anti-intellectualism, and religious bigotry)?
I couldn’t resist posting a comment on the site:
Pile on, everybody, pile on. Sneering at other people’s naivete is a classic schoolyard pastime, but it doesn’t mean you’re clever. This post (and its comments) are saturated with envy and insecurity disguised as contempt. These two newlyweds sound like relatively thoughtful and kind people. Yes, they are naive and privileged, perhaps even. . .hipster (gasp). Yes, it is unfortunate that someone in the family thought it necessary to idealize their lives in the New York Times. Maybe they are pretentious snobs who disdain us all – I honestly can’t say for sure just by reading an article about them. Or maybe in a couple of years they will look back on this NYT article and laugh – or cringe – at the way they are portrayed. But I don’t see how they deserve contempt, or how public loathing of them makes the world a better place or makes anyone a better person.
Not my best work, but it was getting late and I was reacting out of emotion. So far my comment has been voted down (last time I checked it had a negative 4 rating, while the most popular comments had over 100+). Two or three other commenters have made comments similar to mine and have also been voted down. Another commenter even claims to know the guy and says he’s a “nice guy,” but has no criticism to make of the post or the other comments.
No one likes a scold, especially on a site devoted to facetious commentary for entertainment, but this post and its comments reminded me of some of the reasons I am so pessimistic about our culture.
Let us take a moment to objectively note why this couple are being ridiculed and despised:
Among the reasons the writer despises this couple:
he likes to sing out loud (opera?)
he wears hats, bow-ties, three piece suits, and orange shoelaces in fancy shoes
he studies theology
he has intellectual conversations with friends
she is introverted and he likes that about her
they like Ella Fitzgerald’s music
she wanted to read the Bible at an early age
he likes to make puns
they shop at Trader Joe’s
he listens to cds and reads magazine articles and likes to share them with others
he likes to bake biscuits
he had a minior car accident while they were dating
they watch British tv shows on PBS
they like to read aloud to each other
they like P.G. Wodehous books (highly recommended, by the way)
they like to go on picnics and boat rides
they tried to show restraint in physical intimacy in the early stages of their relationship
he said she was his best friend
he can cook, analyze medieval texts, and dance (and she likes this about him)
he proposed in a candelit chapel
they had a long Roman Catholic wedding with carefully chosen music
he cried at their wedding (particularly during the music)
some things the writer uncharitably attributes to the couple based on inference and stereotypes:
he is obsessed with the Sound of Music and his Von Trapp family heritage
he has too much energy (not sure what this means)
he wears flashy socks to get attention
in fact, everything he does is designed to draw attention to himself
he is rich (okay, probably a good guess)
he is purposefully pretentious
he has a lot of friends who sing in acapella groups (who cares?)
she goes by her middle name because she loves Jane Austen
they are pompous hipster trying to be unique
they tried to convince people they were the cutest couple ever
they tried to include trendy things in the NYT article
he is a bad driver
they watch British shows because the accents make them feel sophisticated
they drink kombucha and sing show tunes together
he is bad at sports (who cares?)
he is not really attracted to her (didn’t really want to kiss her)
he is emotionally unstable
they spent their honeymoon watching Wes Anderson films
(and again, who cares?)
To the above the list, here are some samples of attributes the commenters add:
he is gay and she is his “beard”
his father is ashamed of him
they are deliberately crafting and maintaining personas for public consumption
they are insecure narcissists trying to impress other people
their marriage has not been consummated
and the commenters hope (in some very popular comments):
that the couple gets hit by a car
or develop a meth addiction
or that one of them will murder the other
So, what’s so bad about this reaction?
Well, for one thing, when did it become culturally acceptable to indulge ourselves in petty hatreds? I realize that is one way to assert one’s identity in a world that makes one feel small and insignificant, but it’s bad for the soul. I’m troubled by a culture that makes pet peeves a badge of honor, as if only a lofty and intelligent person can afford to have them. The meanest, most ignorant, and most boring person in the world can curate a long list of pet peeves, but it won’t make them less mean, less ignorant, or less boring.
But something beyond mere mean-spiritedness seems to be at work here.
The writer and the commenters on this post take it as a given that these two people are poseurs because of what they like to do, the cultural genres and artifacts they enjoy, the way they like to dress, and the way they talk and think. Though all of these behaviors are harmless, they apparently are just a little bit too eccentric to be tolerated.
When I was growing up (generation x), my classmates and I were encouraged to explore our own interests and be our own people. Individuality and idiosyncrasy were signs of a good mind and an adventurous spirit. Now, in an age of ostensibly ever greater freedom, the social pressure to conform seems to have become more aggressive. If every expression of true individuality is presumed to be a cultivated posture of arrogance and self-aggrandizement, then the pursuit of meaningful and creative self-expression itself has become stigmatized.
What’s going on here? Is it that certain people lacking in imagination (or an inner life) have decided that anyone interested in something they can’t appreciate is an arrogant show-off? It would seem that way. I think we are witnessing the rise of a new philistinism, a boorish anti-intellectualism made more virulent through the collectivizing power of social media.
You used to have to do something egregious to get widely shamed in public. Now baking biscuits will suffice. I have been warned.