Trivialising Ourselves to Death
We've incubated a trivial culture, just as Aldous Huxley and Neil Postman feared.
The late American critic and writer, Neil Postman, deserves to rank among George Orwell and Aldous Huxley as one of the most prescient thinkers of the direction of our societies and cultures in the 20th Century. In his 1985 book, ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’ (from which the title of this essay tips the cap to) Postman provided a salient distinction between Orwell and Huxley’s premonitions:
“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 it has transpired, and as Postman himself went on to articulate in support of Huxley, the mescaline-loving English gentlemen was ultimately correct. However, in our contemporary culture it is Orwell that is most commonly referenced by all sides of the political divide, each convinced the other is heralding in an Orwellian dystopia of their own mould. Yet if we parse the succinct delineations of Postman’s passage, above, it should be obvious that Huxley’s perceptions more aptly describe our current reality.
We are a trivial culture, in the Anglophone world. Although in some contexts our culture is characterised by a vindictive politically-motivated censoriousness, censorship isn’t nearly the most pressing issue. Rather, we are drowning in an ocean of irrelevant and distracting information, which is far more insidious. While the term “post-truth” has been a popular adjective for our culture over the past decade, it doesn’t quite capture the defining feature of our trivial culture’s relationship with truth: that “truth” is relative. And if truth is relative, reality is what you invent for yourself.
Huxley may have been surprised, however, at what tectonic plates have shifted to create the triviality and relativity of our culture; the unlikely marriage of anti-capitalist postmodernism with corporate hyper-individual neoliberalism. The postmodernists replaced truth with hyper-relativist realities of ones own linguistic making, and neoliberal hyper-individualism served up the marketplace of “truths”, with multiple iterations available for consumption and Friedman’s “invisible hand” of self-interest guiding the choice. A marriage of free markets and Foucault. You’ll find the neurodivergence in aisle 5, ma’am, we’ve got a fantastic new range of labels for you, just in from Tumblr.
And so together they came, reducing us just as Huxley feared to passivity and egoism. Funny how the private sector conglomerates and tech monopolies that uphold our neo-feudal economy also happen to be the most obsequious at the altar of identity politics, all sycophantic corporate knee-bending and rainbow flag-waving while handing out zero-hours contracts. Yet those living in their hyper-relativist, manufactured identity bubble can’t even see, so beholding to their egoism as they are, that they’re useful idiots for the capitalism they profess on Twitter to detest; such is the vapidity of their “Leftism”. “Social Justice” politics is U.S. market neoliberalism in drag.
The two philosophies merged into a distinctly Hyper-Americana culture; a buffet of trash and triviality for the Anglophone world to consume. And just as we’ve been conditioned to gorge on Beverley Hills 90210 and Burger King, our hedonic responses overrode our better sensibilities. Then 2020 came and catalysed American liberals into Supersizing their relativity and feelings into a globalised crusade of cultural imperialism; the McDonaldisation of the minds of anyone desperate not to be brandished a bigot. But the tide is turning, at least in the UK; as it happens, we just can’t eat as much shit as they can without eventually feeling sick.
What could allow such trivialities to propagate? In ‘Amusing Ourselves to Death’, Postman highlighted that the danger of a medium through which we engage with truth and reality was most when it “...presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations.” Our medium is the internet, with it’s dominant currency of clicks and likes. Postman relayed a message crucial to our own dominant media:
“You are mistaken in believing that the form in which an idea is conveyed is irrelevant to its truth.”
The endpoint of triviality was predetermined by the advent of the attention economy, a clickbait race to the bottom where social media platforms acted as the pacemakers, and everything from mainstream media, once-respectable broadsheets, and scientific journals, all followed. And as the medium is relevant to the truth of any idea conveyed, the race to the clickbait bottom of the internet could only be won by progressively discarding the weight of truth, facts, and diligent inquiry, to satisfy the promiscuity of our destitute attention spans.
Postman astutely diagnosed that the problem isn’t triviality per se; plenty of activities in the ordinary course of life are trivial, at least at face value. The issue is when a culture claims the trivial as significant; the danger arises when high aspirations are held for trivialities. And so while schools are falling apart and kids go hungry and homelessness explodes and real wages plummet, McDonaldised Minds must instead focus on whether Shakespeare was “anti-Black” (not sure what the implications are for Richard III), the Guardian’s resident laughing-stock Arwa Mahdawi feels compelled to ask; ‘Is your home constantly set to a ‘sexist’ temperature? You’re not alone’; while the populist “anti-woke” crusaders at Spiked-Online lament ‘The unbearable dullness of The Little Mermaid’.
In this triviality, and without recourse to any objective yardstick of truth, a culture of feeling gives primacy to relativist, subjective value-based evaluations over what should be reasoned, considered, fact-based investigations. The triviality at the core of our culture is a direct consequence of the imposition of relativist values above reason and discourse. And the flourishing of this relativist triviality into a globalised brand reflects its distinctly American capitalist characteristics and champions. An unserious culture convinced of its seriousness. Charles Bukowski provided the perfect synopsis:
“We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”
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