We are cynical.
I hesitate to say that the internet has made us cynical, because it hasn’t–cynicism has always been there. But social media has made it easier to find other cynical attitudes and build upon them.
There are two ways I see it happen most frequently.
The first, is whenever a tragedy happens. A school shooting. Violent conflicts in other countries. Natural disasters. As soon as breaking news hits, there’s a race to be the first person to post about it on Facebook. And then once it’s out there, there’s a competition to be the most sympathetic to someone else’s plight. Who can make the most poignant comment about the deaths of children? The most profound statement about an act of war?
And almost immediately, there are the cynics. Someone who posts the everyday statistics of gun deaths followed by “why do we only care when it’s a mass shooting?” Someone who links to places you can donate money to help organizations in the trenches, fighting to make change when nobody is watching, with a smart-aleck comment about how sad Facebook messages aren’t going to change anything. The people who post off-topic conversations and then draw attention to how they aren’t caught up in the trend of talking about [said tragedy here.]
I’ve been both. More often than not, the cynic.
I think it’s all a search for authenticity, personally. That’s a much broader topic than I care to cover here, but ultimately, no matter your social media response, I think it’s a desire to express to the cyber-aether that you know something has happened in a way that isn’t just parroting what the person before you said. Maybe because what happened is too horrifying. Maybe because you feel helpless. Maybe because you don’t really care all that much but don’t want to appear heartless. (Or maybe because you don’t really care and want to make that known). But the sympathetics and cynics alike are all trying to acknowledge awareness, in whatever way seems best for them at the time.
The other cynicism I see isn’t as much a product of social media, but of academia, and that is the idea that pop culture is the numbing of society, and that if you’d rather play a video game than read a history book, watch a tv show than spend time in a research library, that you’re–whatever it is they say. Weak-minded. A drone. Something about False Idols.
I haven’t been there as often. But I have. Sometimes. It’s okay to obsess over a TV show, but only a smart TV show. I’ve struggled to make peace between the fact that I am a raging fangirl and the fact that I read non-fiction for fun, grow some of my own food, and look up to people in academia who dismiss fandom as trite and unenlightened. I have frequently referred to the “____ and Philosophy” books as ‘Pop Philosophy,’ and admitted they are enjoyable reads, but dismissed them as having no academic merit.
Maybe it’s a way of shutting millennials out of discussions about climate change, terrapsychology, philosophy. Maybe it’s a hipster thing, for millennials who want to sound like they are above their peers who go to see movies on opening weekend, and flock to twitter after a season finale to flail about a fictional world. That discussion is also for another time though–a time that talks about Jung, Lewis, and Campbell, about archetypes and myth.
This discussion is about Robin Williams, and the complete lack of cynicism I’ve seen on social media since the news broke of his passing.
I haven’t seen people clamoring for the best eulogy, or trying to break the news in an authentic way. I haven’t seen the predictable commentary on the cause of death (unless you count the outpouring of support for mental illness, the genuine messages of hope and love for people fighting a similar battle, and the links to places to find support). I haven’t seen the cynics, mocking people for getting upset over the loss of somebody they never knew, while children are dying in the streets overseas.
I’m not saying those posts aren’t out there–but they’re not nearly as vocal as they normally are.
What I see, are people talking about the impact his movies had on their lives. People bonding over which one of his films were their favorites. People remembering the laughter he brought to their childhood. People connecting.
I remember, back when I was in college, defending Theatre as my major. I remember having conversations about making the world a better place, and feeling a degree of shame that here I was, learning lighting design, and costuming, and how to create art, while elsewhere in the world there was genocide, deforestation. That bees were dying and the oceans were rising, while I climbed up and down ladders dropping colored gels into lighting instruments that cost more than a huge number of American families make in a week. A month. My defense was always: people needed to escape. They needed to smile. They needed to feel. That art as a craft might not do much for world hunger, but that it served humanity, and that it might bring humanity to the people who could do something about world hunger. That if I could be a part of something that made people smile, they might go back to their lives a little more willing to focus on something bigger.
It felt like an excuse. And maybe it was. Maybe it was my own way of justifying my disappointment in myself that I wasn’t protesting in the streets, or joining the Peace Corps, or focusing all of my energy into research that would help people on a more quantitative level.
But if anything, I think the response to Robin Williams’ death shows how important art really is. That no matter who we are or where our priorities lie, that no matter the helplessness, heartbreak, or cynicism we might feel at things out of our control, that we need those things that unite us, connect us. That we need common ground. That we need to laugh.
The world is so divided. Politically, culturally, idealistically, financially.
But one thing we all have in common is the amazing depths of emotion we are capable of. And art brings us to that.
And today we lost an artist who could tap into that, and remind us that whatever else was going on that it’s okay to cry, but especially that it’s okay to laugh.