Like many of us, as a lonely and vaguely unhappy teenager I justified a natural tendency towards silence and social awkwardness with the thought, Why would I want to talk to Those People anyway? Those People, of course, were comprised of nearly everybody but me, all of them slotted off into easy categories I had learned from movies and sitcoms. Having read my Salinger, I was certain that most people were phony.
The fact not that I got along with so few people, but that I couldn’t talk to them long enough to even say that, was proof of my being different than most others. Rather than deal with my own insecurities and limitations, I merely concluded that nearly any form of public ritual was the height of insincerity. This stemmed from the usually intense adolescent perception that everyone has a unique identity so sharply distinct that any pretense to bridge that gap amounted to compromising one’s true and genuine self. And as a young writer whose stories and poems didn’t fit in with the kinds of activities that other kids got credit or recognition for, these accomplishments also struck me as somehow fake.
While this social anxiety lessened as I got older, I now notice that I still allowed similarly easy judgments to be thrown over other public rituals: I dismissed organized religion because of the thousands of years of personal and institutional failings and horrid violence that plague all of them; I dismissed voting as brainwashed and useless, and politics as horrendously corrupt; I never sought a major promotion at a job because of the increasingly scripted and inane interaction that becomes unavoidable when dealing with more than a half dozen people; and while I’ve lived off of the scholarship and translations of many of those employed by universities, I dismissed higher education and the rituals of academia as about as false a structure as any I knew, especially when compared to my own intense and personal and private experience of literature and history. So certain that so many areas of public life would never accept me anyway, I dismissed them before they even had the chance. When I did finally return to college in my early thirties, I felt so inadequate to the process of just filling out forms and summing myself up in a small essay, that I was prepared to fail utterly.
Which is not to say that since then I emerged from a haze loving organized religion and politics. It’s just that it seems more and more advisable to live with the knowledge of this imperfection—the knowledge that pretty much any activity undertaken outside of isolation inevitably involves difference and compromise—but to not let this knowledge keep us from participating in daily life, let alone in finding meaning in it, and its difficulties.
But more and more, our knowledge (or desire for it) does keep us from participating in all that is imperfect and incomplete. It seems that we can’t help doing this. I like to compare the way we deal with culture and religion today with how human beings acted during the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, when perhaps a third of Europe died of the disease. One bishop summed up the general bewilderment by saying, “It is not within the power of man to understand the divine plan.” As if he hadn’t even written those previous words, though, he continued by pretending to understand that very plan: “But it is to be feared that the most likely explanation is that human sensuality—that fire that blazed up as a result of Adam’s sin and which from adolescence onwards is an incitement to wrongdoing—has now plumbed greater depths of evil, producing a multitude of sins which have provoked the divine anger, by a just judgment, to this revenge.” The scale and completeness of destruction that the Black Death caused could not be allowed to exist without an equally complete explanation.
While such tendencies—coping with difficulty and ambiguity by reimagining them as not difficult or ambiguous at all—have always been the lot of humans, our technology and culture today have now multiplied those tendencies exponentially. After all, so much of our lives actually can be known with utter certainty: the ups and downs of weather, the performance of our retirement plans and credit scores, how many miles before we run out of gas, how many calories we’ve consumed, and everything online. There is not one imperfect mile, dollar, gigabyte, page, word. In the same way, everyone from advertising agencies, media conglomerates, websites, stores, and political campaigns, now have the ability to collect so much precise and irrefutable data about all of us that it is very hard to believe that we aren’t just numbers and bodies and minds filled with trackable motivations and desires. And the same with so much of practical science and medicine: whether in properly dosing a drug, or knowing the atmospheric makeup of planets millions of miles away, it seems absurd that so many other aspects of life should be so uncertain and even unknowable. And yet they are.
For while the illusory desire for cultural or religious certainty is indeed much older than our smartphones, the certainty and completeness which our digital age allows has only made us that much more desperate for it. Even if religious differences have been the source of more violence and suffering than cultural ones—at least since religion and culture became two separate pursuits—the truth claims of cultural critics, authors, painters, or directors, are not very different than those of theologians and believers: that is, they are empty of the certainty and authority they pretend to possess. (And since religious belief is on the wane in cultural circles, ostracism and humiliation for one’s cultural opinions, while nothing close to being burned at the stake, is still its own form of auto-da-fé.)
Allegiance to certain authors, bands, composers, painters, movies, genres, and religions have never been defended like a math problem, and can never be used as the final hammer their authors or admirers desperately wish them to be. This needs to be said because, for many of us, the version of religion or culture we experience on a daily basis largely assume they can.
We simply have no ability to communicate cultural, religious, political, or any other differences except in some combative fashion. In other words, our technological moment has created a culture similar to my cynical adolescent outlook: we are so obsessed with articulating the details of our own (and others’) identity, and we are so aware of every difference between us, that the best we can do is shun or judge or dismiss one another, in whatever juvenile fashion is current. For while it is assumed that so many TV channels, web pages and podcasts will allow everyone to be seen and heard without discrimination or bias, in actuality only those who excel at communicating in this self-referential and dismissive and corrosive way get any attention; and only those who effectively draw the sharpest distinctions between peoples and groups, and only those who can pretend to speak from some absolute authority, are even noticed.