This article has been circling my Facebook wall lately. Perhaps you have read it? The author of the article discusses the ethos of irony and the archetype of the hipster that reflects our time. She argues that an embrace of silliness and ironic kitsch reflects a fear of being sincere. I want to extend this argument a bit.
I believe that the fear of making sincere value-judgments stems from two of our widespread beliefs. One of these beliefs comes from our modernist background; the other comes from our postmodernist background. The beliefs are thus:
1. Winning is everything. (We demand perfection)
2. Perfection is impossible (no one is a 'winner.')
The first belief is our modernism shining through, the latter, our postmodernism. All our lives, I and my millennial peers (I will accept the label for now) have been force fed these two beliefs, often from the same sources. Here are some examples:
Every two years we watch Olympic Games (summer and winter), which are supposedly about world peace, but are really about winning and bringing glory and pride to your country. At the end of the Olympics, and sometimes during the games, we also watch stories that scandalize our heroes, so we remember that no one is a god.
In school we introduced to the wonders of artistic expression, and then we were graded on our creative writing.
In science class we were convinced of the magnificence of science, and then we were told that we could never "prove" anything to be true.
At church we marvel at the miracle of God's love, and then we see that our religious institution has imperfections.
After all this, the only thing we are sure of is that if you try to excel at something for long enough, people will criticize, defame, and humiliate you. We want so badly to be winners, but we also know that winning is entirely impossible. So what's the solution? Don't say anything meaningful. Ever. Just resort to absurdity in all things. When in doubt, resort to sarcasm or irony.
This is the line of thinking is that the author of the New York Times Op-ed emphasized. This, she says, is the hipster's way of being.
There is one thing about this way of being that few people have mentioned. It's this:
Living without sincerity is just living like a self-conscious teenager.
Self-conscious teenagers want to be winners. They want to win so badly that they cheat, betray and give up their morals if they think that it will improve their chances. They become vicious and use one another. In the end, they are so petrified of becoming an object of ridicule that they say nothing at all except commentary on the few foolish enough to say something sincere. Their favorite events are talent shows, dances and testimony meetings, where there is plenty of sincerity to mock.
By the time we reach adulthood, many of us (thankfully) give up some of the more violent tendencies we used as teenagers. However, I wonder if that desire to win and the fear of ridicule remain, and they just manifest themselves in different ways. Instead of targeting specific individuals, we target ideas, corporations, or celebrities far-removed from us. Still fueled by a desire to win, we do the socially-accepted act of ridiculing public figures. We are much better off this way, because no one is hurt, right? And yet, at the root of this way of being rests a heart of fear and violence. In our hearts, we are still teenagers. The only sign of our maturity is that we have changed the methods for our violent acts.
Real maturity, as I understand it, is being able to reconcile and question these two beliefs that permeate our society. Is everything really about winning? If not winning, what is everything about? Is everything about anything at all? Can some people be winners? How can I be a winner, if at least someone will still call me a loser?
I accept the fallibility of the world and of myself, but I also accept that life is too important to pass without my sincere living. People are too important to let settle and rot in the sewage of destructive lifestyles. Friends are too precious to let live without knowing that I love them. I am not so naive that I aim for utopia, but I am not so afraid that I cannot see the miracles that happen when one truly loves another. What we need is not blind optimism, nor blind cynicism. We need to open our eyes with a realistic perspective toward the possibility of sincerity. We may not be perfect winners, but every now and then, we can still have perfect victories. But first we have to grow up and rediscover what maturity is all about. We have to accept risk. We have to give up fear. We have to understand that criticism does not undermine our sincerity, but, in some instances, may help perfect it.
Maturity isn't about performing our trivial acts of violence under the guise of civility. Maturity is about boldly being sincere in a world that punishes sincerity, and then metabolizing criticism in a way that purifies, rather than obliterates, our sincere actions. Obviously, maturity is also about not participating in the violence I described. Oh, and perhaps not so obviously, in many ways, maturity is basically about being like a little kid again.
God knows we need a good dose of sincerity/maturity, because who can imagine a world run by a bunch of self-conscious teenagers?