I was looking for a song to encapsulate this post, and it wasn’t easy, perhaps because my tastes are pretty mainstream and so I don’t get a lot of gothic, death metal, or slit-your-wrist type stuff (no judgments).
Anyway, I think Don’t Bring Me Down by electric light orchestra comes pretty close to getting the flavor of this post, but its weird how most songs about the negative side of everyday life are usually about broken hearts. Another appropriate song might be the Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony (more the music video than anything, but the lyrics a little bit).
“But what is the subject of this post, and why do these songs match it?” you ask. Well, in this post I want to ask a question, which is “is everyday life insulting?” In a way, this question is kind of boring, because it could be easily run together with: is every day life lonely? Is it depressing? Is it boring? But maybe there is way to give a unique content to this question that will then make its answer a little more exciting as well. I’ve talked about insults before on this blog, and so I’ve made some tentative theoretical incursions into what an insult is, and how it works. (See here)
So first, what do I mean when I say that everyday life is insulting, well I mean many things, and I’ll give some examples. I have three that I’ve collected, but there are millions.
1. The other day I was in an airplane in which there were three types of seats: first class, middle class (extra leg room) and coach. There weren’t many people on the flight and the stewardess gets on the audio system and asks the passengers who wanted to buy an upgrade for more legroom. The problem was that everyone had a lot of legroom because people could basically spread out over an entire row. Also, once the flight got started, there would be no reason to prevent people from going to the roomier seats up front. I mean, its fine if the airline wants to try to force people to pay for more room when the flight is packed, but now that we find ourselves on the flight and there’s no people, it seems silly to try and get people to pay for something that they don’t need and can get for free. This is a theme in this post, not best exemplified here, but you get the point, which is that people try to get you to do things that you know make no sense and that you don’t want to do. The other examples are better.
2. Advertising. You see a Coke commercial (I saw one the other day) that was trying to suggest that the viewer get one’s friends (or family, this was a very family-centric commercial) and just drink coke together because that was somehow wholesome. Again, this takes the form of suggestion, which in most situations is completely unobjectionable: you tell a friend visiting some city “hey, check out this bar” but of course commercials are missing this type of sincerity. It’s not exactly that they are lying (though this coke commercial got close because I remember having it make some reference to health, which obviously has nothing to do with their product), but more that its just so patronizing. And I’m not even against coke. Something tasting good is a reason to drink it, but as with almost every commercial, there is an attempt to make a suggestion that is obviously a disingenuous and patronizing attempt at thought control. In this same vein, and maybe this is the best case, are infomercials or just ordinary companies that try to sell you something that will plainly result in a loss in your welfare. So, self-help books, marriage insurance, or airplane ticket insurance, or maintenance insurance for hedge shears (offered to me at home depot). These types of insurance are a terrible deal for the consumer and often prey on the worst types of emotional impulses. As I’ve noted on this blog many times, capitalism works really well when people are self-possessed and confident — and I’ll say it — AUTONOMOUS agents pursuing their own flourishing. But we know that this assumptions breaks down in a real hurry and you find hucksters selling all sorts of SHIT that results in a loss to everyone (to society, and to the person buying it — I guess the person selling this shit still wins).
Why is this stuff insulting? Well because, at least I feel anyway, that it mocks our attempts to be autonomous and laughs in the face of our attempts to order our lives for good. These sorts of things pierce right through our ongoing struggle to build ourselves and seem to see if we’ll slip up this one time. “Do you want this piece of garbage” they seem to be saying, and the relentless proliferation of sources for this question (TV, magazine, internet, facebook, billboards, etc. etc.) is a type of mass insult perpetrated on a daily basis.
3. On facebook, I get all these friend requests lately from extremely attractive girls who have interests like “cheerleading” and “having fun” and other ridiculous shit, which I guess some (anyone?) gullible guys are really happy to have met someone so paradigmatically feminine. The thought of these thoughts on the part of complete strangers makes me want to take a nap out of pure depression. But put that aside. Here again, there is a wider source of incentives that organizes people to make passes at me to see when I’ll break down or act weakly or give in to despair. Am I happy that I’m “single” on facebook? Well not really, because it happens to correspond to the fact that I am actually single in real life. But these hordes of charlatans and who-knows-what (how would you even describe really attractive people who algorithmically friend less attractive people on a virtual gathering place of profiles, and interests?) strike at the very heart of what I like about myself and what I like about all people — which is the dignity that comes from trying to live life each day as best as possible. A cliche to be sure, but that little source of common dignity means a lot to me and these advertisements and faux-facebook-friendings strike right at the core, just like “fag” strikes right at the core of something that a gay person may value about him or herself (even if society doesn’t agree with that judgment).
What this leads into a more abstract lesson about society, which is that politeness still has a very powerful role to play in our lives (see this post that I’ve received some compliments on). Some people think that politeness is just a system of barely disguised hierarchically mandated reactions that grew out of 19th century victorian culture, but we shouldn’t be confused because some of the origins of politeness, as in “polite society” where just ways to exclude people.
Instead, I think we should understand that politeness is simply a way of launching a thousand soothing counteractions to the thousand barbed insults that our society hurls in our direction about our consumption, our clothes, our decisions, and our identity.
One thing my dad is really proud of is that for something like 25 years, he has greeted the security guard in his building with a smile and a hello. He sounds so happy when he explains this habit to me and he usually goes on to explain how all of the guards appreciate it and that one of the long time veterans and he share talk about basketball and other little chit chat. To me, this is really good, and the goodness of it is also present when someone says “excuse me,” or opens the door for someone, or just smiles at a pedestrian walking the other direction.
But there is further room for thought here, because if I’m right that everyday life is frequently “insulting” then why would politeness be the counter? The opposite of politeness is rudeness, not insulting-ness. Maybe rudeness should be assimilated to a type of insult? Not sure, but that wouldn’t be the worst result.