I occasionally get emails from people who find my critique of the Internet generation cruel. Last week, I got an email that said point blank "what do you want people to do?"
Let me take a detour on the way to answering that.
My friend James sent me a link to this post by Penelope Trunk. It's a pretty typical screed against grad school, of the kind that you've read before and that I've critiqued before. I could rebut it; as is typical of those sort of arguments, it's long on attitude and low on facts-- facts like median income and employment rate for those with graduate degrees, etc. But honestly, why bother? It strikes me that grad school is a bad idea for very many people and a fantastic idea for a much smaller number of people. And yet I find that notion-- that some choices are good for some and not good for others, and that there is no way to sort which is which except by living those choices-- to be anathema to both Trunk's project and our culture.
Now, I could go into take down mode with Ms. Trunk. There's a lot to mine there. You'll find Trunk is something of an archetype: the person who is Winning at Life and insists on telling you. Loudly. Page after page of her blog amounts to self-justifying and self-promoting. She has launched three successful startups! She has appeared on 200 radio stations! She used to be a professional beach volleyball player! But as I navigated the site, I just got more and more bummed out, to see a person whose entire shtick is built on projecting the confidence which no one with actual confidence ever feels the need to project. Turns out that Trunk herself went to grad school. (She can't simply disagree with those who believe grad school can sometimes make sense; she must "crush" them. What does that tell you?)
There's a single lesson that I have learned more forcefully and more completely than any other in my life.
Those who try to show you that they're strong are weak.
Strong people don't talk about their own strength. Weak people do that. Secure people don't try to convince you of their security. Insecure people do that. People who love themselves don't have to prove it. People who hate themselves try to. When you get down to the root of my complaints, why I'm so cranky about Internet culture, the thing that I object to most strongly is the refusal to let other people make their own choices. And my belief is that this refusal stems from a desperate need people feel to validate and justify their own lives. I've written in defense of monogamy many times, and one point I've made over and over again is that those who attack the romantic ideal often do so because they don't like the implied judgment of other people's successful relationships. When people say, for example, "everybody cheats," what they are in fact saying is "I cheat, and I can't countenance the implied judgment that might exist if others don't." Take that perverse logic and apply it to almost everything, and you've got something like 21st century aspirational culture.
I mean check out this post from Penelope Trunk's blog. Look at the list of what she accomplishes. I would put it to you that literally listing the reasons you feel good about yourself is a rather strong indication that, in fact, you don't feel that good about yourself. But if Trunk does it with less self-awareness than others, she is no less of a model for your typical blogger at Gawker or the Awl or wherever else. Take pop culture writing. When people talk about the AV Club, they talk about a place where people can discuss the pop culture they love. Who could argue with that idea? But when I look at the actual AV Club, I just see row upon row of people who need to let everyone know that being a fan of Community marks you as a connoisseur while being a fan of Two and a Half Men makes you a chump. Even our purely subjective aesthetic choices are not allowed to be our own anymore. If tastes are subjective and people are allowed to make whatever choices they want in the media they consume, people can't use those tastes to justify their self-conception as arty or hip or whatever. So what you get is a lot of people heaping derision on those who make different aesthetic choices. Nobody can leave other people alone anymore.
Perhaps if I thought that this all made people actually happy and fulfilled, I could let it go. But that's not what I find. I find, in fact, that the more time people spend justifying and validating themselves, the bigger gulf they feel between the self-concept they try to project and how they actually feel about themselves. It may be a cliche, and it may tiptoe up to the line of New Agey goop, but I do believe it's true: you will never achieve self-fulfillment by looking outside of yourself. Other people cannot validate you. Not that they shouldn't, but that they can't and won't. If they could, all of this manic effort to get them to would have certainly accomplished it by now. I drone on about self-pitying sci-fi fans not just because they're bullying and sanctimonious. It's also because the self-pity and sanctimony don't actually make them happy. As showy as they are in rejecting "high culture," they also yearn for validation from that culture. But that's an empty concept, and even if there were designated high priests of high culture, their approval would not make sci-fi fans happy. It comes from inside or it doesn't come at all.
If I am cruel, then I hope it is a kind cruelty, one in the service of getting past a particularly unhealthy cultural moment. For now I look out at a broader culture, made increasingly visible and explicit by the Internet, and see an army of Penelope Trunks: outwardly self-satisfied, brimming with false confidence and showy self-esteem, incapable of accepting that other people make other valid choices, terrified that someone will puncture the bubble of their self-presentation, desperate to position themselves above and apart from the same people they look to for validation, and deeply unhappy.