When I see people break into the US Capitol over election results, or threaten school board members over masks, or hoard ammunition to defend themselves from their own government, I find myself lamenting what I see — the anguish, the disorder, the instability — and also that, yes, I recognize and empathize with their fears.
Look, they’re not wrong about everything.
Let’s start with the pressure-cooker. They’re in it. I’m in it. Maybe all of us are in it. Modern life is hot and fast and just too much. The slightest thing goes wrong and it explodes. My favorite punchline lately is “technology makes our lives easier!” That’s the whole joke, and we all laugh. I use this quip whenever I’m buying something at a store whose computer is slow or down, or helping students navigate some godawful quirk of the “learning management software” (aka “enthusiasm-for-learning elimination software”), or any other “the computer is not helping” moment — which is often! A computer glitch can derail whatever you’re trying to do, and only people old enough to remember MacGyver will be able to MacGyver their way out of it, and even then, not terribly well. It makes one feel a bit helpless.
We sense that we’re not in control of our lives as much as would be wise, and this sense permeates everything we do. Humans being humans, we search for what we can control, while, again, being humans, we nonetheless slip easily into the flow of massively multi-user online mediums’ behavioral conditioning, which shouldn’t even exist in a culture that claims to value individual autonomy and personal freedom, but, humans being humans, the profit motive drives companies and teams and whole industries to exercise their freedom to get yer Benjamins, so they craft and calculate and A/B test the crap out of every human interaction, so that an individual’s drive for truth and freedom can be monetized via bullshit and herding, and actually, we don’t control even our own thoughts.
I mean, you can be paranoid and still they’re out to get you. Even if they’re not out to get you personally, just “statistically.”
But as I’ve argued previously, in JOMO Part II:
Do I assert a division between behavior and self? Yes. In defiance of contemporary psychological orthodoxy? Yes. We are not our behavior. We have an inner self.
Our behavior may be nudged and wedged. Our behavior may disappoint us. Our behavior can sell us out for scraps.
The inner self is the self that can’t be sold. It’s the self that feels left behind, even when our behavior has gone viral and gotten 14k likes. The self watches behavior strive for attention and the self feels lonely and craves connection.
And this is why I look at the seeming-lunatics waving guns from the steps of state capitols and screaming “an armed society is a polite society!” before pissing on a photo of their state’s governor, and I think, you know, I can kind of relate to that.
Because what I see here is a body whose behavior has been conditioned by the Skinner box and continues to salivate for the jingle of attention. But inside, the self is un-free and desperate for connection; the self is ready to break free or die trying, but it doesn’t know how. I see people whose lives have been drilled like a diamond mine screaming for their autonomy and freedom.
We’ve so associated “freedom” with behavior, we’ve forgotten that, as Emily Dickinson wrote:
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and you—beside—
Three and a half years after detaching myself from the Feed That Had Me (it was Facebook, but that’s almost irrelevant — any feed has the power to subdue volition and become a habit that directs your thought), the still-most-astonishing part of the experience is that I spent ten years of my life in which my thoughts were not my own. Not because anyone stole them, but because I’d been convinced or conditioned to willingly hand them over — every thought my training had taught me could earn some “likes” I posted. Recovering from that was like a throwing open the doors of perception experience. I was able to observe my own compulsion to share, and I began to celebrate my thoughts as mine, as my own personal experiential domain, and it felt like… re-learning how to live free.
The internal self that can’t be sold is screaming, but the body — and this includes the mouth, the words, the fingers, the posts, re-posts, likes and shares, the livestreams and the memes, that’s all the body — the body adheres to its training.
And so I see people who are screaming that they’re losing their freedoms and I think, you’re not wrong. It’s not because of masks or vaccines, but you’re not wrong. I see people who scream that the media is full of lies and I think, you’re not wrong — you are living proof of media lies. The one weird trick that you won’t believe is that the object of blame is always an illusion. It’s not masks or guns or Fox News or CNN — it’s not the message and it’s not the medium either; it’s the interaction.
If you are a node in a network (and you are), your only locus of control is yourself. When you interact with the rest of the network, you’re giving a bit of yourself up. In moderation, this is not just okay, it’s healthy and necessary. As John Donne more or less put it, No one is an island, entire of themselves, we are all a part of the continent, a piece of the main. But every relationship needs boundaries. Every interaction needs to be balanced by solitude. Socrates might have said the unexamined life is not worth living, but he didn’t say the unexamined life is un-livable. You can live such a life. You can be swept up in the flow of groupthink, part of the hivemind, a piece of the movement; you can change the world and yet never really know who you are. Introspection and critical self-examination are not necessary to survival or “success” — and if your happiness is based in feeling “right” and “affirmed” by others, the hivemind movement is even a “happy” place to be.
But still inside you the inner self — the self-who-can’t-be-sold — doesn’t buy it. No matter how right you think you are, no matter how affirmed by people on your side, the inner self will always call bullshit. And you, wanting to be right and assured, go back to the herd and crush that nagging feeling with more affirmation — and your sense that you’re living in a sea of un-free bullshit ends up projected out at your group’s enemies. They are the bullshit, they are the ones making you un-free. You’re a node in a network, firing in unison with your neighbors, and the message you’re all tapping out together is that some other network of nodes sucks, because they’re a bunch of un-critical followers. And you’re tapping it out LOUDLY.
Willa Cather has this really great story of two young artists — one a singer, seeking celebrity, the other a painter, seeking revelation. In the story, while the great singer would go to all the parties and absorb all the applause, “she did not guess that her neighbour would have more tempestuous adventures sitting in his dark studio than she would find in all the capitals of Europe.” This story, “Coming, Aphrodite!” is as much about two sides of humanity as it is two career-crossed lovers. Part of us may seek the limelight, but another part recoils, and the part that recoils is the part free to live, while the star on stage might as well be in a cage.
An entire economy has harnessed the human desire for attention, and processed it into addictive feeds. That economy incentivizes and normalizes a desire for fame; it also undermines and pathologizes the desire for freedom — not freedom of behavior, because doing extremely “free” things with your body can gain you lots of attention — but freedom of the vast unknowable mind, where we can have “tempestuous adventures” of thought and creation for ourselves, and share them with no one, or perhaps with just one or a few special someones, who won’t share it with the world either. A smaller network in which we play a bigger part enlarges our humanity. But to have this, we must not be watched by the whole world.
Now, so many of us have so exposed ourselves — made ourselves visible and observable via our online lives, we barely remember how to have adventures on our own, and how wonderful they are. We have left ourselves privacy-deprived, which makes us lean on other people for our mental well-being, and if they are kind and generous, that might work out great, but if they are not, we will be miserable.
In that state of misery, we cannot recognize the problem and so instead of just drawing the shades, we seek another mood-boosting fix of “attention” — we become like children whose would-be “private” lives, from bathroom to bedroom, are under the forever-surveillance of caretaking adults, and like them we lash out in frustration, seeking any shred of “freedom,” even if it’s freedom to harm ourselves or wreak havoc on our home.
We do not need “attention.” We need time to ourselves, to know ourselves, possess ourselves entirely. We need time outside the consciousness of caretakers, so we don’t reflexively lash out at all caretaking. No one here is an enemy. But when we have no privacy, everyone who peers at us and can’t pass for our reflection seems a mortal threat.
We do not need to be alone. We need to have rights over the time we spend with others. They should not be able to photograph us without permission, nor broadcast our likeness to the world. They should not feel free to detail our innocent doings, our conversations, moment by moment to their audience, nor report afterwards a summary of our time together. And we, too, show them respect by holding our casual, daily, innocent interactions private. Other humans are left out of it. It’s none of their business.
But then, they say, “you must have something to hide!” Well, is it so terrible to want to hide, to want privacy, to want time alone with one’s own thoughts? Too often we speak of time with our thoughts as “rumination” and suggest that it can only be negative — but that is only so when we chew on ideas that frustrate us, not cud, just a rubber ball. What of the ecstasy of time with one’s happiest thoughts? One’s joyous memories? To re-laugh at humorous happenings from long ago? To re-imagine the landscape of childhood in all its wonder? To re-flutter at a remembered first kiss? Or simply to spend time thinking about the things that matter to us — knowing who we are, what we want, and in what small way we wish to leave the world better for having known us.
“Rumination” of the negative sort, comes, in my experience, only when I find myself mired in complicated and unpleasant social traps. When I find myself re-analyzing what they said and what I said and what I should say. But these kinds of thoughts are not the whole of thought. And in fact freedom comes from distancing oneself from what other people think. It’s not that we should not care at all about the opinions of our fellow humans; it’s that we should consider others’ opinions in possession of ourselves, so we can even try on their ideas to see how they feel, without fear we will be swept up in them.
Yes, our values were born in, and influenced by, the social network into which we were born, but that doesn’t mean we accept them unconsidered and unaltered by our individual, personal experience, the people we meet, and our own judgment and considered thought. Without that time to ourselves, without privacy, we are pulled with the tides. I’m not suggesting every one of us should be “a rock,” but we are at least fish, who can slip from the current, find shelter and safety in a tidal pool, and enjoy moments of solitude. The fish who holds position in the vast shoal being drawn by the tide is not living its best life.
A society of people living their best lives would be a democracy of philosopher kings, too ideal to hope for. But at least we can try to acknowledge that we need, to stay sane as human beings, to own our own thoughts, to have dominion over our own experiences. We need community, but the purpose for which we need it is to feel a calm sense of belonging in this world among our fellow humans; we do not need “community” to take over our lives, replace our volition, plunge us into competition, to arm us and aim us like missiles towards an offending enemy.
Here’s how to know you’re being exploited. First, the entity (it could be a website) who wishes to take advantage tells you not to trust others. Then they tell you to trust them. Example: you can’t just get in a car with strangers! Uber instead!
You will know you’re losing dominion over your own mind, your private self, when you realize that you must profess the correct opinions or you will be punished. Unfriended, attacked, even mobbed. And so you keep it to yourself; maybe you even change your mind. You accept that this is the correct opinion now.
You will know that you have lost yourself when you join the mob out of a sense of duty. When you find yourself trying to explain why you did that violent, destructive thing, why it was for the greater good, why you were justified.
If you continue down this path, you will sacrifice your life to the cause, but by the time you do it, there is no “you” left. You will be a single drop in a wave of drops, dissolved by your desperation to be seen.
This is not an inevitable process. Every person has the power to be still and reflect. Every person has the power to make the one single flesh-and-blood human being you’re talking to be the most important person in the world to you right now — the whole of your network, the only “audience” that matters. Every person can, with effort, ignore the call of The Feed and instead direct their own thoughts — not through a path of maximum engagement, but through the path of the things that matter most.
We only live once. Let’s not fuck it up.