The surfeit of hot takes, the bombardment of social media, and the fear of cancel culture have left us quivering wrecks, less likely to arrive at – and defend – clear ideas and evidence-based arguments
“Well, the thing about feminism is…” I started, before going swiftly blank. I was sitting in a room at what is technically known as “a wanky hotel”, surrounded by several people – including a notoriously woke female pop star and a not-so-woke soap star, who was standing in the corner nursing a whipped cream dispenser.
The silence I had caused was quickly undone by the sound of nitrous oxide piercing a balloon. I stuttered a few moments longer, but no words came out.
I couldn’t actually remember what “the thing about feminism” was. I couldn’t remember which article I had recently read that talked of the “true colours of performative Western Feminism”; I couldn’t decipher Simone de Beauvoir’s text on the emancipation of women; or decide which Marxist/Socialist/Liberal/Radical strand to adopt; or which of my sordid teenage experiences was best to bring up.
I got up and left.
At first I thought it was the wine, or the hash that had been passed around earlier. But then I realised that the problem was not psycho-chemical: I didn’t know what I thought. My mind was full of other people’s ideas, a fizzing brew from which I was struggling to distil a coherent opinion.
I asked Google, the older sibling I never had, if it were actually possible to have no opinion. The search engine answered: if you don’t have your own opinions about things, there are two possible reasons why that might be the case.
The first: you don’t have experience with (or enough knowledge about) the question at hand. The second: you’re apathetic: the subject just doesn’t feel relevant to you, it doesn’t affect your life, and your brain concludes, subconsciously or otherwise, that it doesn’t need to have an opinion about it.
But – in this case, as it happened – I did have the knowledge and experience, and the issue did affect me. I had read widely, and thought hard. If I wasn’t being apathetic… perhaps I was just being pathetic?
Next, I asked the wonderful world of Instagram: “What’s your opinion on opinions?” One account holder messaged back: “Opinion pieces seem particularly redundant in the age of twitter and the wider strata of social media.” In other words: tumbleweed, zip, nada.
Could it be that cognitive overload leads to apathy? That by trying to take on everything – from feminism, to globalisation, to the refugee crisis, to the mystery of Boris’s hair – you end up engaging with nothing?
Social media hosts the never-ending race between a limitless number of people competing to have the fastest, hottest and most click-worthy take on any subject you can imagine (and some you can’t). It is an engine of opinion for the sake of it.
Its algorithms also nurture “homophily”: that is, a digital driving-together of like-minded individuals who end up reflexively patting each other on the back for reposting content they probably haven’t read, let alone understood. It’s an open-all-hours echo chamber of insta-opinions, moulded to suit your tastes. In my case, that would look something like a car crash episode of the (cancelled) Jeremy Kyle Show – but hosted by Owen Jones.
Even the trolls don’t really believe in the poisonous substance that they spit out. Recently, a good friend of mine was targeted online by a small car – or so, at least, the profile picture suggested. After she posted some thoughts about the state of the agriculture industry, a subject she knows all about, the little car-avatar mowed her down digitally, labelling her stupid, ugly and inept.
Undaunted, she replied; correcting her automotive assailant. The result was as revealing as it was pathetic – a troll reversing into its troll garage, all bashful and apologetic. Poor little creature… it had only wanted to be seen, not even necessarily heard (and certainly not put to rights by an expert).
There is an endless debate about “cancel culture” – and one of the surest ways to be cancelled is to say the wrong thing about it. So it is no great surprise that people “virtue-signal” online preemptively – and repetitiously – in the hope of building up digital immunity to cancellation.
In effect, people become their own ethical publicists, crazily spinning what they imagine to be the “correct” line to protect their reputation. What gets lost is any sense of who they are and what they really believe: authenticity, in other words.
There’s also a dangerous delusion that all opinions are equally valid. Call me old-fashioned, but I like the Enlightenment idea that the pathway to a viewpoint should be paved with facts. The foundation of a passionately held argument should be evidence.
What’s odd about that core belief is how odd it now seems to so many people. It is more than 40 years since the American sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov lamented the “cult of ignorance” in his own country – and, in the intervening decades, the cult seems to have achieved something close to global dominion.
At the heart of the matter, as Asimov spotted nine years before the invention of the World Wide Web, was “the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’”. Were he alive today he would see that the decay has continued. In 2021, democracy can all too often mean that my feelings trump your facts. Brandish your evidence or data too brazenly in the wrong context and you’ll end up being accused of “privilege” or “microaggressions”.
And let’s not forget that bug that’s been going around. According to psychologists, decision-making in a crisis as profound as a pandemic makes the most mundane decisions feel as difficult as truly existential dilemmas.
I mean, you can experience mental paralysis when trying to choose what Pret sandwich to have for lunch. You know that feeling: your brain not distinguishing between the consequential and the trivial; a sort of “fight-or-flight” response grips you, and suddenly you’ve been staring at the sandwich counter for several minutes with Steps singing “5, 6, 7, 8” on loop in your head.
All of which has compounded the pre-existing condition of indecision that was so much a symptom of our age of anxiety well before Covid came along. It is estimated that 264 million adults around the globe suffer from anxiety, myself included. We’d love to tell you what we think, but we’re not sure we should. And when you bear that in mind, it’s a wonder that anything gets done – ever.
When push comes to shove, I have plenty of opinions, and I’m certain about some of them. I know that I think Emily in Paris is one of the worst TV shows I’ve ever seen, and that I May Destroy You should have won a Golden Globe.
I don’t believe pineapple belongs on a pizza, and I know that big corporations should pay more tax. Among my most strongly held opinions: that brands shouldn’t use mental health to sell products, and 90s combat trousers definitely shouldn’t make a comeback.
But all that aside… what was the thing about feminism? Can I get back to you on that?
Sydney Lima is a writer and podcaster
Photograph by Dave Benett/Getty Images