Sunday, July 16, 2017

A thirst for significance in a mass society.

From Everyday Snowflakes by Theodore Dalrymple.

Dalrymple tackles an interesting phenomenon, what he calls a "thirst for significance in a mass society." The factionalized trans movement, the intersectionalists, the identity obsessed critical theorists, the piercers, the fuzzies, the People of Tattoos, all are examples of small, even minuscule, groups of people who demand attention from everyone else. Ostensibly they want attention to right some civil rights wrong but their actions and behaviors are usually totalitarian. They are not interested in civil rights so much as they are interested in everyone else giving them what they want. And that usually, as a minimum, includes attention.

It is easy to look at these advocates and see them as gramscian activists seeking to subvert the classic liberal world by holding it to impossible standards of accommodation. And there is almost certainly some of that occurring.

It is easy to look at these advocates as hustlers, seeking personal financial and status achievement by political blackmail. And there is almost certainly some of that occurring.

It is easy to look at these advocates and see them as suffering some form of mental unsettlement. That has been my perspective. They seem, to me, to manifest some form of sociological equivalent of Munchausen syndrome. Munchausen sociological syndrome (MSS) perhaps - Feigning victimhood, psychological trauma, sociological marginalization, sociological exclusion or some other condition to draw attention, sympathy, or reassurance to themselves.

That is the thrust of Dalrymple's article:
Most men, observed Thoreau, live lives of quiet desperation; or perhaps one should say, once lived lives of quiet desperation. What has changed is not the desperation, but the quietness with which men now live it. The ability to give public voice to dissatisfaction in all its myriad manifestations has increased out of all proportion to the reasons for it, thus giving the impression that we live in the worst of times. But even the idea that we live in the worst of times has its consolations, for man is a natural seeker after superlatives and does not want to experience the merely average.


I suppose that the mania for giving publicity to one’s own life arises from the feeling that what is only private cannot be of any importance, a feeling that is promoted by the publicity given to the supposedly intimate details of the lives of celebrities.


A religious sensibility (which is now utterly alien to us, thanks to the belief that progress is illimitable) would protect us from the harmful illusion that anything less than having all our desires satisfied simultaneously is anomalous or unjust. And our demand that incompatible desires be met at the same time imposes strange obligations on others.
Dalrymple has a particular insight, upon which he does not elaborate:
But, of course, in reality we don’t want everything to be known about us: We want only those things about us to be known that we want to be known about us. We want our cake and to eat it, or as the French put it, the butter and the money for the butter. This desire is impossible to fulfill, but it is profoundly human. Which is one of the reasons, among no doubt many others, that human life will never be perfect or entirely satisfactory. We want six impossible things before breakfast.
This insight is valuable in that it is at the heart of the tension between the desire to shape a personal digital brand, as it were, and the hunger of global technology companies seeking complete access to all your information in order to fulfill your needs, shape your perceived needs, and otherwise monetize your informational existence. The struggle between privacy and publicity.

You want to provide some information but not other information because personal brand management is valuable to you. Corporations want to access all your information because that is valuable to them and others. As individuals, we want both privacy and publicity and we want only ourselves to determine what information is public and what information information is private.

We don't have much of a good philosophical framework to resolve these tensions. Creating personal ownership of personal information is an alluring approach, but the weakness is almost self-evident. The posturing of civil disobedience and edginess of your eighteen-year-old self is putting into the public domain that which your twenty-five-year-old self has to address. Your personal brand at 18 is not often concordant with the personal brand you wish to project at 25. Shakespeare captured this in his All the world's a stage monologue, recognizing that "One man in his time plays many parts." Even if you own your personal information and can protect it from others, you cannot easily protect yourself from yourself.

Or as Dalrymple puts it near the end of his essay:
To be merely the same as others is a wound to the ego in an age of celebrity, and yet we are herd animals who do not want to wander too far from the herd.
A tension exacerbated by the fact that our herd has a tendency to change at different stages of life. And exacerbated by our thirst for significance in a mass society.

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