A Crucible of Extremes

There’s a remarkable sequence at the end Black Mirror’s Nosedive episode where the main character, driven mad by her quest for higher social media status, winds up in a jail cell, bedraggled, makeup smeared, staring at motes floating in the fluorescent overhead lighting. Bereft of what gives her validation in her outside life – streams of Likes and an ever-fluctuating social media score – she glances at a fellow prisoner across the block who seems to be staring at her. She makes a gesture with her hand as if she’s swiping his social profile away on a non-existent cell phone.

They then engage in a verbal battle. Paraphrased:

“What the fuck are you looking at.”
“I was wondering the same thing”

“I don’t like your brassiere.”
“I don’t like your mustache.”

“You look like an alcoholic former weatherman.”
“You sound like a lost little lamb who just got told there’s no Santa Claus.”

This escalates into a rapturous screaming match. She’d been living with the need for social validation for so long that every interaction she had in the outside world was constricted by a perma-smile. The bridled conversations, the obsession with appearance and hierarchy – all gone in the confines of her jail cell. She can finally scream at her neighbor without fear of getting downvoted.

In an odd way, even though this represents a future dystopia, it feels totally relevant to our current social and political situation. Trump – it’s fair to say – unleashed the screaming matches which permeate our social dialogue today. The best way I’ve heard the Trump phenomenon described is that society before him was already fractured, and, just like when one goes to the doctor with a fractured bone, sometimes they’ll need to break it completely in order to reset it. By doing so, the bone can grow back cleanly. Trump is the complete break of society.

Before his election, the so called “social justice” movement on the left was pushing society to extremes, something akin to what we see in the beginning of Nosedive – a society of people tiptoeing around each other for fear of offending each other. The term “snowflake” was coined to describe people whose sensibilities are so delicate, you almost never know what is appropriate to say around them. This of course angered many people, and culminated in the election of Trump, whose crass remarks and vulgar displays of greediness represented the antithesis of this hypersensitive movement. Once the shock of his election wore off, society moved on to a few months of denial, and finally to anger. Twitter and Facebook are Orwell’s “Two Minutes of Hate”. And now you have “snowflakes” on each extreme. The rightwing keyboard warriors versus the leftwing social justice warriors, screaming at each other in a demented feedback loop.

This has permeated into art, unfortunately, where leftwing activists start social media crusades against anything deemed as cultural appropriation, or not gender or racially diverse enough. There’s always something to nitpick. Major studios and financiers, beholden to stakeholders and ever-increasing return on investment, are terrified of negative social backlash. Everything is run through corporate committees of wooden-faced executives.

Can you hear that hissing sound? It’s the sound of life being sucked out of the room.

Then on the right. They have their precious snowflakes as well. Whining about the racially diverse cast of the new Star Wars movies, even imagining a sinister pansexual agenda when one character seems to be romantically attached to a robot. It’s a joke, and they’re getting their panties in a bunch about it. There are liberal conspiracies around every corner. Hollywood is one big propaganda machine for a cabal of liberal elite!

So now you have people screaming back and forth across a void. Meanwhile the entertainment purveyors – only worried about the bottom line, despite lofty proclamations of standing for social justice or truth – are obliged to create material that’s inoffensive, immune to 24-hour social media shitstorms.

If we keep going in this direction, all of this will result in bland, predictable fluff – an apotheosis of mediocrity.

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