Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bad Buddhist vs. Brouhaha

Golly, what a week on Facebook! Farewell to Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett; hello again to friction between FB and Twitter. Brouhaha abounds in the digital realm, inviting us to wonder what gets us so mightily ruffled, and why. Or, as the big B would say, what agitates us and what we cling to for relief.

Brouhaha is always an intriguing glimpse of how aversion to pain/grasping for pleasure plays out en masse. The differences between the Michael-inspired and Farrah-inspired brouhahas have been pretty illuminating. Facebookers are expressing sadness over both celebs (MJ and FF, in digi-speak), but there are subtle variations in the essence of the sorrow which bear reflecting upon.

MJ's mourners have been reliving important moments of their youth, sharing their nostalgia, and digging up as many freaky-great videos as can be found; it's as much a celebration as a bereavement. Maybe we no longer have much in common with the people we shared those formative experiences with — but here we all are, together, mesmerized by the weirdness and wonder of that face, that voice, those crazy moves. Happy travels, MJ, wherever you land in the next round of the Great Round.

The Farrah-inspired brouhaha, in contrast, seems more tongue-in-cheek, perhaps even a smidge dismissive. We remember a lot about her, but the stuff we're remembering doesn't inspire the same affection. Dan Savage's memorial post on Slog simply reads: "Dead." Ouch. A pinup girl in a red swimsuit, a hairdo, the not-the-smart-one Angel — campy fun to revisit, but that's all. Her later life made us uncomfortable (what was up with that Letterman appearance? Yikes!) and we did not approve of The Burning Bed or Extremities, even though we support rape/domestic-violence awareness programs and decry TV's habit of glamorizing violence against women. We frowned and smirked when she stepped outside the blonde-bombshell box, even though we despised the box in the first place. Like our MJ, FF was a weirdo — but not the kind we could really love. Farrah, we didn't do so well by you, but perhaps you've taught us something. Thank you.

Still, overall, the brouhaha has been fun. It's been a community experience, and a cross-community one, and perhaps even a community-building one: Facebookers who otherwise don't interact much are getting in there, mashing up the sad, the sweet, and the snarky, and it's all good — different atoms in one big chatty molecule.

Not so with the ongoing FB vs. Twitter skirmishes, which always bewilder me. A lot of folks have a lot of contempt for those who choose to tweet, and they love to agree with each other about it. The discourse feels unpleasantly hipsterish to me, a kind of tribal elitism within the safe megaclique of Facebook (of which I am part). Not that the negging is limited to any particular walled garden; here's a little blurb from The Onion, which of course is satirical, but you get the idea:
"Twitter was intended to be a way for vacant, self-absorbed egotists to share their most banal and idiotic thoughts with anyone pathetic enough to read them," said a visibly confused Dorsey, claiming that Twitter is at its most powerful when it makes an already attention-starved populace even more needy for constant affirmation.
Yes, it's hip to hate Twitter, all right — even (or especially) among Facebookers. Which is odd, because besides FB being more media-rich, what's the difference, really? In fact, one could say that FB lacks some of Twitter's potential uses and amplifies its tendency toward the banal. What's worse: writing a short tweet about one's thoughts or activities of the moment, or vacantly clicking "Send hugs to [friend]" or "I like this" or "Join This Cause" and then clicking it again for something else and again for something else? And don't both technologies feed exactly the same "look at me, look at me" craving? I personally don't think either is as dumb or as deadening as they're made out to be, but if we really need vote one off the island, well, which of the two would the Tehran demonstrators pick?

Consider the current brouhaha over Penguin's upcoming publication, Twitterature. The FB despair meter suggests that the end of literacy and of literature is nigh. And as I read the laments, I can partly empathize: I, too, cringe at the idea of Dante or Dickens or Nabokov reduced to 20 tweets — it's even worse than Cliff's Notes!

But is it? Maybe it's more like oulipo. Maybe it's a great writing exercise; we should all try it and see if we can capture theme, plot, character, pacing, style, etc., in one page. I'd be thrilled if my writing students took that on. To be blunt, these appeals to preserving the canon's cultural value strike me as cop-outs, a way to grab at some easy validation of an essentially reactionary attitude: remember the outpouring of disdain for the novel-via-Twitter? No new forms allowed — they might lead to dancing!

How odd that something so innocuous should offend us so — to the degree that we can't bear to think about its merits, its social utility, its creative potential. According to the Buddha, agitation arises from our aversion to suffering, which is usually taken to mean the big stuff like pain, disease, death. But the first discourse on dukkha gives more attention to the everyday ego abrasions that send us scrambling for refuge in distraction, aggression, and yes, even run-of-the-mill snobbery:
"Dukkha is being associated with what you do not like, being separated from what you do like, and not being able to get what you want." (Translation from The Feeling Buddha by David Brazier.)
Aha! Is that what's going on here? Being associated with something we do not like? Are we irked because all of that stuff people say about MySpacers and MMOLRPGers not having lives and being unable to connect with actual human beings might apply to us as well? Are we maybe a little embarrassed about how obsessively we cultivate digital versions of ourselves, how we love to be on display and get those cute thumbs-ups? Certainly we're different from, say, those losers over at SecondLife, obsessing over their avatars' wardrobes and face tattoos, right? Maybe not. Facebook could easily be described as a 24-hour personal PR agency that we use for all kinds of reasons we'd rather not ponder.

Not that those reasons are really so bad, though. Self-promotion is a normal, evolutionarily useful urge. Shouldn't be a big deal, but we seem to shift into a panicky sort of denial when we're caught in the deliberate construction of identity. But so what? We like to dabble in fads, in vanity, in idle amusements — why bite each other's heads off about it?

Indeed, there are times when FB's genteel manner of poking "gentle" fun devolves into a much nastier kind of groupthink. Some folks assume that no one reading will be hurt by their offhand remarks, dismissiveness, ridicule, moral condemnation, etc. This is thoughtless, like a roomful of people making fun of Mormons or TV watchers or people who still think Tom Cruise is hot: chances are that someone in that room is "guilty," or knows and cares about someone who is. It surprises me when FBers let their manners slip this way. After all, how many FBers do you suppose use both, or even make their FB posts via Twitter? For me, it's probably half of the friends I keep up with — and they post at least half of the stuff I'm glad to find out about.

FBers really aren't as shallow or junior-high-ish as their (our) quips sometimes suggest; they (we) might indulge in occasional fantasies of taste-arbitration, but generally stop short of censorship. We all have our snob moments, our puritanical streak. Sometimes it just feels good to indulge in some down-home, to-hell-with-manners eye-rolling. (I'm doing it right now while I think about the abovementioned humans who rent every episode of The Office/Buffy/Weeds and still pride themselves that they "never watch TV". Hello?)

So yes, quite a week. Lots of aversion, lots of craving and attachment, much stoking of dukkha. And, as the big B often pointed out, many missed opportunities to observe what is, instead of imprisoning ourselves in our rigid interpretive matrices. This seems like a good jumping-off point for a close look at those Four Noble Truths. It's a daunting task. I'll tackle it next time — after I update my status and check my notifications. And maybe I'll tweet it, just for a taste of life as it is on the wrong side of the tracks.

They might reincarnate wiser, but no way will they be prettier.

The burdensome nature of aversion, craving and attachment. Dude, take off the backpack! And take mine while you're at it, please...

These are for sale and might prevent people from mistaking you for a loser.


Can "snob" be reclaimed, like "queer" or "geek"?

If Marilyn Manson doesn't empower your inner snob, wearing this might. I know it's making me feel pretty badass, and I haven't even received mine in the mail yet.




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