1. The year in outrage : The day-by-day froth of social media fury in 2014
Since grumpy, indignant, outraged, or exasperated seem to be default modes at this point, it’s worth taking some time to think about whatwe are seemingly so vexed about and why. Here are 11 essays that look at what it is and how it’s shaped the last year.
We think we know what we mean by outrage. It is one molecular component of the air we breathe on social media, swirling around alongside irony and manic enthusiasm. It comes in so many flavors! Conservative outrage. Feminist outrage. Entertainment outrage. Every club has its own vexillology of outrage. And yet it’s hard to pin down exactly what outrage means—what makes it different from garden-variety pique or the simmering thirst for vengeance. Why is your blustery old uncle “outraged” by Obama saluting Marines while holding a latte, but the private incandescence of Achilles in his tent is just “rage”? Outrage, the subjective experience of being furious at something that crosses a perceived line.Outrage, the shocked or indignant reaction, spontaneous or calculated. Outrage, the pickup, amplification, and acceleration of that expression on social and traditional media. Outraged: one answer to the question of how to be in 2014.
Or is it how to seem?
1. IT SAVES YOU TIME
It looks like it’s wasting time, but literature is actually the ultimate time-saver — because it gives us access to a range of emotions and events that it would take you years, decades, millennia to try to experience directly. Literature is the greatest reality simulator — a machine that puts you through infinitely more situations than you can ever directly witness.
Literature performs the basic magic of what things look like though someone else’s point of view; it allows us to consider the consequences of our actions on others in a way we otherwise wouldn’t; and it shows us examples of kindly, generous, sympathetic people.2. IT MAKES YOU NICER
Literature deeply stands opposed to the dominant value system — the one that rewards money and power. Writers are on the other side — they make us sympathetic to ideas and feelings that are of deep importance but can’t afford airtime in a commercialized, status-conscious, and cynical world.3. IT’S A CURE FOR LONELINESS
We’re weirder than we like to admit. We often can’t say what’s really on our minds. But in books we find descriptions of who we genuinely are and what events, described with an honesty quite different from what ordinary conversation allows for. In the best books, it’s as if the writer knows us better than we know ourselves — they find the words to describe the fragile, weird, special experiences of our inner lives… Writers open our hearts and minds, and give us maps to our own selves, so that we can travel in them more reliably and with less of a feeling of paranoia or persecution…4. IT PREPARES YOU FOR FAILURE
All of our lives, one of our greatest fears is of failure, of messing up, of becoming, as the tabloids put it, “a loser.” Every day, the media takes us into stories of failure. Interestingly, a lot of literature is also about failure — in one way or another, a great many novels, plays, poems are about people who messed up… Great books don’t judge as harshly or as one-dimensionally as the media…
To care about possessions can seem like a moral failing, like if these people were enlightened enough to know what truly matters, they’d be sending in empty photo frames. The holiday season especially can make people ornery about “stuff” and the companies that encourage us to buy it. But loving objects doesn’t necessarily make someone greedy or materialistic.
There are two kinds of materialism, according to Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a distinguished professor of psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Terminal materialism is the kind typically derided as shallow and empty—wanting things for their own sake, or to impress others. What inspires someone to save something from a burning house is more likely instrumental materialism, when “the object is simply a bridge to another person or to another feeling,” Csikszentmihalyi says.
While things are, on the one hand, just things, they are also repositories for the meaning people project on them. Religious objects are obvious examples of things that transcend their thing-ness: A cross is just two pieces of wood but for what it represents to Christians; a menorah is just a candelabra, except that it’s not. Similarly do people build meaning around their possessions—a gift from someone’s mother might represent her love; souvenirs could be reminders of places close to heart but far from hand.
“Things embody goals, make skills manifest, and shape the identities of their users,” write Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton in their 1981 book The Meaning of Things. “Man is not only homo sapiens … he is also homo faber, the maker and user of objects, his self to a large extent a reflection of things with which he interacts.”
People get attached to their computers and phones because of what they can do, not because of what they are. “In these types of objects, there’s a physical part that we need because we are physical beings. And then the virtual or nonphysical part,” Afshar says. It’s the nonphysical things that would be distressing to lose—photos or music saved on the hard drive, or, even more nebulously, access to the Internet and all of its communication potential. These things are enabled by the object, but have little to do with what it physically is. “Objects of our time are not stand-alone objects anymore,” Afshar writes, meaning the nature of people’s attachment to some of their most important possessions is even blurrier.
The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege is by no means immune to hardship. As an inner-city youth, my artist mom and small business-owner dad struggled financially with no margin for luxury. Having one of the shabbiest Invisible Backpacks at private school and college gave me a complex, and I perpetually felt like “a poor boy in a rich boy’s school,” to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald.
In fact, The Invisible Backpack contains the complete works of F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the Western Canon, largely written by people with my same Backpack. In rough weather, it’s handy to have a rich literary tradition to provide a validation of selfhood verging on the grandiose. Combined with a detachable Gore-Tex underdog mentality that serves to justify the backpack’s pathological egotism, it often makes me consider writing a novel of my own. Should I choose to do so, the Invisible Backpack of White Privilege comes with the instructions and encouragement to create a writing career/funny video/indie band/online satirical essay based on various unpleasant situations experienced while wearing the backpack.