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Feeding on a Staple Diet of Vapidity
Forward: The contents of this essay arise from much recent time spent in reflection on these issues, how they arise, the form they take, and how they can be hard to see. In particular, in discussion on pseudo-spirituality I’ve paraphrased a dear friend who has seen this culture not only from the vantage point of an observer on social media, but in relation to her own direct personal, and difficult, experience. That experience sees and feels first-hand how the fusion of faux-feminist rhetoric and pseudo-spirituality combine to create an ideal which pushes the glass ceiling of body and behaviour norms for women into a different stratosphere. How it takes a concept designed for inner work, and twists it into an aesthetic and affect-driven externalised performance. For a number of years I’ve fallen into the thinking trap of “where is the harm”, having a degree of benignity for what, on surface level, are only images and captions. In reality, the proliferation of this culture impacts the real-world experience of so many women, and slapping a label of ‘feminism’ over it with a vapid appeal to some ‘inner’ divinity does not change what it is. Sometimes we’re just not willing to see. And I owe much to a friend who have helped me to, and evolve my thinking on these issues.
It's not just noise. The steady on-screen stream of ‘content’ for our insatiable consumption. That the platforms built as temples of 'connection' are the very foundation of fractious discord is now an accepted reality. But that is just one cost.
There is another toll to be paid.
The term ‘metaverse’ has trended in the wake of Facebook going into rehab to deal with its addiction to corporate malevolence. Yet the dystopian origins of the term are, predictably, uncoupled from the exuberant prospect that we can all share in an “imaginary place”, as described in the novel which coined the Metaverse (capital ‘M’ in the book). But we are already there.
This is the toll: in this “imaginary place” where we now inhabit much of our lives, we are subsisting on a diet of ultra-processed intellectual fare. So desperate for mental sustenance, we are reduced to a mass of hungry faces behind a screen, willing to gorge on the banality of online discourse, excess consumption for little intellectual satiation.
These tools are in our hands every day. This cultivated reality has become the primary means of consumption, not only of information, but of narratives, opinions, and perspectives. Because these media champion a race to the gutter, it elevates the lowest common denominator in the conversation, and levels everything else to that lowest common denominator.
It has all of the hallmarks of ultra-processing: cheap to produce, comprised of low quality ingredients, dominating the supply chain and flooding consumers with a ubiquitous surplus. Content-dense, quality-poor. A supply of ultra-processed erudition, produced with ingredients devoid of sustenance, available for mass consumption: a cheap and unsatisfying product (sorry, ‘content’).
Mindless consumption, unquestioned. The thin veneer of ‘creativity’, based on nothing more profound than a photo outside the Burj al Arab, replete with an inane pseudo-inspirational comment. The thin veil of ‘authenticity’, as real as the filtered lens through which the insipid message is delivered.
There seem to be three broad themes which dominate this on-screen culture: the levelling of meaning, the commodification of outrage, and the commercialisation of ‘spirituality’.
The capacity for depth, nuance, measured thought, and accuracy, have been levelled to the character limits of the tools of our dialogue. The message could not be clearer: “there is no room for that kind of thinking here.” There is only space and time for subject-matter jargon. Depth of inquiry and accuracy of thought supplanted by surface-level parroting, accurate only to the standard of being seen to say or do the ‘right’ thing, whatever the Zeitgeist calls for. Soundbites have replaced facts.
Everything levelled to the true online social currency: #authentic. But when ‘authentic’ correlates only to a carefully curated and conveyed version of a person, the term is rendered meaningless. An empty euphemism in a void of vapidity for an ideal that we supposedly prize, but are willing to accept at the most vacuous face value.
When words that once had stable meaning and force become so ubiquitous, they lose all value. Levelling the meaning of words in this way makes everything interchangeable, so nothing truly means anything. The collapse of all distinctions means a collapse of sense-making, rendering us insensible to discerning, where real issues get drowned out in a sea of language soup. This is evident particularly in dialogue around social justice issues. Phrases like ‘literal violence’ used to describe metaphorically hurt feelings, or the gratuitous and historically illiterate use of the term ‘Holocaust’ to describe police shootings. Terms that should mean something, levelled to the lowest common denominator, insensitive to the real veracity of their true meaning.
The most common justification which abounds is typically “but the message tho.” This is nothing more than an empty ends-justify-means rationale, an asinine epistemic standard. The implication is that intent doesn't matter, that congruity and intellectual honesty don't matter. So when the social media platform of a narcissistic misogynist built on bullying women and dog-whistling feral fat-shaming decides to jump on supporting Tilly Ramsay, it gets accepted for the superficial veil that it is. The five years of true colours prior to this swept under the rug, and applauded as if the very substance of the person and the platform were erased in a single, pathetically cynical post. The opposite also rings true: see numerous examples of people with impeccable records who, on account of inferences out of some Tweet from a decade ago, or a book some people happen to disagree with, have their entire character impugned and eviscerated for not quite being in lockstep with the moral orthodoxy of identitarianism.
In a world where everything is on the screen, congruity, integrity, and intent matter. It has to add up. Justifying the levelling of meaning and intent to “but the message tho” is not just intellectually lazy. It's intellectual cowardice and a failure of moral courage. It's a culture that explicitly gives a green light to duplicity, incongruity, co-opting and falsity. Ends-justify-means reconstituted as ‘message-obviates-scrutiny’. Just hit the right notes. No one cares.
A game of intellectual masking. The lack of willingness to discern intent from content. This may all appear benign, but it has consequences. We lose true meaning, and we end up in a levelling that reduces every issue, no matter how important or trivial, to the lowest common denominator.
If levelling breeds an apathy to intent, swing the pendulum to the other extreme to witness to commodification of outrage. These platforms breed a dichotomy, as easily pleased and placated by mundanity as outraged and incensed by absurdity. Outrage has been reduced to an on-screen performance. Because of its location, the outrage that plays out is often not even directed at the most pressing issues in society.
Rather, this ersatz outrage amounts to a demonstration of what psychologist Rob Henderson calls “luxury beliefs”, i.e., beliefs worn like designer fashion items which confer status on the privileged, while inflicting costs on the disadvantaged. ‘Defund the police’ provides a classic recent example of luxury beliefs, plastered all over social media by middle class, often White, university-educated people in an outrage-display, divorced from the actual intent and wishes of community activists in low income areas.
Outrage becomes social currency, a means to demonstrate moral purity to the tribe. But this commodification of outrage also comes with a similar levelling effect to meaning, only instead of championing the lowest common denominator in meaning, intent, and authenticity, it breeds another disturbing outcome: false equivalence. Screen-time dominated by outrage over the names of buildings or presence of an inanimate statute hijacks airwaves, attention, and emotional capital, while the cement on draconian legislation limiting the rights of individuals to challenge government, limiting women's right over control of their bodies, or eradicating long-standing human rights for refugees, gets left to dry.
Lost in a cacophony of meaninglessness. The consequence of when the conversation gets hijacked into a performance of luxury beliefs worn by a bored bourgeoisie.
It's said that being a good person is not virtue signalling. But this is circular obfuscation; to virtue signal is to be deemed a good person, and to present as a good person on a screen merely requires a performance. That statement may only be true in real life, but we're no longer in the realm of real life, we're in the realm of the manufactured, commodified self, shielded from scrutiny by the simple deployment of pseudo-profound and pseudo-spiritual jargon.
Commodified outrage may provide the means to display moral purity, but the highest social currency of all in the health, fitness, and wellness space is the performance of ‘spirituality’. But this is not spirituality as an expression of true inner development, it is spirituality as an aesthetic. The emphasis is on affect, the outward spiritual portrayal of an aesthetic ideal masked with the language of ‘authenticity’ and ‘empowerment’.
This vapid #spirituality places the emphasis on the superficial, on external ‘manifestation’, when what is manifesting is not any deeper grasp of the self, but conformity to an aesthetic ideal. It's less about values, more about a visual. Something to present to the world, not a genuine reflection of deep internal work. It is a look, not a state of being or quality of intention and attention. It says to the world, “this is what being spiritual looks like”, a Goop-esque concept that implies that external beauty flows from aligning inner chakras.
It is a staging of performances, rather than a set of practices, #spirituality as a euphemism for self-absorption. To even a rudimentary understanding of any of the teachings of the religious and spiritual practices coopted by this gutter-level McMindfulness, this culture stands in diametric opposition to those concepts. Ego-centric rather than ego-dissolving. Narcissistic, not altruistic. Cavalier, rather than careful, about unintended consequences. Performed, not practiced. A grotesque performance of pseudo-spirituality, self-focused and self-interested, the rhetoric of ‘empowerment’ packaged with a veneer of profundity. Just scratch the surface and it is revealed for what it is: a collection of words in a syntactically correct sentence of otherwise vacuous gibberish.
There is a gendered element to this culture, the “boss babe” fusion of narcissism cloaked in Brené Brown quotes, selling a culture of faux-feminist and pseudo-spiritual jargon to vulnerable women. And the “optimised bro” valorising of six-packs and success, still selling the four-hour-work-week with Gary V quotes. Both equally hollow; the epitome of neoliberal self-serving individualism, packaging a material aesthetic as a spiritual journey. So divorced from, and devoid of, the genuine intent behind inner purpose. Where growth was once deemed to be inner, this culture measures growth as an email list, following, and bank balance, and just layers a superficial coat of self-actualised rhetoric over it to make it seem as if this outward material gain is consequence of this “mindset”, rather than the camouflage for it.
This is precisely what this culture of self-indulgence is communicating when it co-opts and bastardises the concepts and language related to the inner self: that the attainment of material external displays of ‘success’ is a reflection of some alignment with internal ‘growth’. It is diametrically opposed to any of the teachings, whether secular interpretations or the religious texts themselves. Yuppie culture dressed up in sun salutations, neoliberal material consumption as a personal “truth”.
And where applauding the levelling of meaning is always defended with “but the message tho”, pseudo-spirituality is defended with “just helping people tho”. But this reveals the narcissism behind it all, because if there is collateral damage from the performance of certain ideals, bodies, beliefs, then this is just deemed as the cost of doing business. This pseudo-spirituality comes illuminated by gaslighting, a strategy on full display in relation to multi-level marketing schemes and marketing in the health/wellness industry, because any scrutiny can be deflected as an issue in you, not an issue with the nonsense being disseminated. Criticism can be waved off with a trite “you have your truth, I have mine”.
Only in a society with an unfettered ability for the wealthy and healthy to indulge every material want could we develop a culture that generates a grotesque cabaret-on-screens of the pseudo-profound.
To wrap this up, there is a quote from psychologist Hillary McBride which feels apt. Although the context of the quote is body image, McBride's speciality discipline, it is equally applicable to this entire performative and reductive culture:
“...because it's not ok that this is the reality that dictates what makes a human valuable or not...and we are all participating in it... we can't say culture is over there, and then not look at what we do on our own smartphones....we should feel a sense of responsibility to participate in changing the tide in what images are seen and viewed and proliferated, because it impacts our experience, and it also impacts the experience of everyone viewing those images and what we perceive as being normal and valuable...”