Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Infantalisation of Western Society

Stephen Fry recently attracted negative attention from Twitter.

He may not have noticed the attention as he has recently quit Twitter after attracting negative attention just a few weeks prior.  This time it was a reaction to unfortunate comments taken out of context from an otherwise interesting interview with Dave Rubin.

In the interview Fry decries the "infantalism of our culture", an idea he borrows from Jean Baudrillard.  He suggests that modern society is no longer able to contemplate complexity.  He asserts that people do not wish to accept a necessity of thought and that "there are one wants that, they want to be able to decide and say 'This is good, this is bad.'"

Fry's theory was proven by the reaction on Twitter to other comments that he went on to make; the furore is described by this Guardian article.  In short, the ten minute interview is reduced to a single unfortunate quote.  This profligates like wildfire and is judged to be bad by thousands who would wish that their moral outrage is proof that others should be listening to their commentary.

It should be noted that Fry is not without his own manners of reduction and self promotion when it comes to certain fields, most prominently that of technology.  I am reminded of his five minute video lecture in which he recited Free Software Foundation propaganda under the pretence of "wishing GNU a happy birthday".  On many other channels he was simultaneously advertising his love for all Apple products, a company absolutely and diametrically opposed to the philosophies of the FSF.  It was my deeply held suspicion that he had no real understanding about that of which he spoke.  It appeared to me simply an attempt to ingratiate himself with another community, an endeavour of exactly the type on which he appears to thrive. This mentioned, and despite Fry often appearing as a dilettante and serial self-promoter, he has always approached such matters with enthusiasm, positivity and a total lack of moral outrage.

His concern that adult society is becoming increasingly infantalised is valid, prescient and extends outside the confines of a reduction in the complexity of the arts.  There are many and dangerous implications, of which I would highlight two.

The first is the reduction of engineering pursuits to playing with children's toys.

There was a time when those who might have identified, probably unhappily, as "geeks" may have had a keen interest in electronics.  Or building fully operational model steam engines.  Or, as with the case of Linus Torvald, whom Fry venerated in his GNU birthday message, implementing their own operating system.  These things are hard.  They require research, study, practice and above all discipline.  They are pursuits which result in a thousand failures before any success.

Today, legions of people gleefully identify themselves as geeks because they play with Lego.

Making a Lego model has no chance of failure.  The satisfaction of success is guaranteed.  Lego is a child's toy.  Children are not allowed, in the main, to use knives, power drills, toxic glues, sharp metals, and so on.  They are reduced to playing Lego.  Adults who voluntarily reduce themselves to playing Lego are, it must be concluded, cowards.  They are driven by a fear of failure.

We are consistently told that there is a dire shortfall in so-called STEM skills.  As a society we become further and further reliant on buying these skills from abroad.  By contrast, the neoliberal pursuit of the free market has lead many to believe that these skills, in both study and application, are not for our Western sensibilities.  This is prominently illustrated by the government's attitude to our steel industry. Why should we dirty our hands with such work when the Chinese will provide it at half the price, leaving us to the more important activities of blue-sky thinking and the "creative industries"?

When China has the monopoly, when China can name its price, when China strategically withdraws its labour and resources, the answer will become clear, and far too late.

The further we withdraw from the pursuit of hard skills, the more we placate ourselves with child's toys, the weaker we will become.

The second implication I would like to highlight is the effect of infantilisation on the political mind.

Fry scolds us for watching super hero movies: "when you go to the cinema, don't go to see super heroes hitting each other.  That's for children."

A cursory glance at your local multiplex will illustrate the dominance of the superhero movie.  The demand for the genre increases year on year, seemingly without regard to quality.  Despite a critical panning, Batman vs Superman is on course to generate box office sales of a billion US dollars within a month of its release.

To recap the generic form of the genre, born of comic books, that was in its own infancy aimed squarely at children: The first act introduces good guys look that like good guys and bad guys that look like bad guys.  The second act contains a little superficial soul-searching where we are briefly asked to consider if the good guys and the bad guys are really that different after all.  The third act crashes in with a resounding answer of "Yes!" and the bad guys are pulverised.

In the same manner are the enemies of the West presented; the Taliban (who I noted in a previous post were once the good guys), Al-Qaeda, ISIS.  We are presented these villains in two dimensions and as justification of vicious bombing campaigns claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, indiscriminately, and we either buy the argument wholesale or else let it fly past our thinly-veiled apathy.

In his essay Simulcra and Simulations, Jean Baudrillard posits an extraordinary notion about the purpose of Disneyland.  He says that it was created as a childish, fictional world to perpetuate the illusion that the rest of America is, by contrast, the real world, populated by adults and non-fiction.  The trick of Disneyland is to provide a blind faith that the construct of wider American society is by contrast truthful, and ordered by trustworthy adults; adults that the infantilised masses would be natural to obey.  He makes a correlation with the illusion of prisons; that "the purpose of prisons are there to conceal the fact that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, which is carceral."

For Baudrillard, society impresses these notions upon the individual by way of an involuntary manipulation of the mind.  But in the 21st century, can we any longer be excused as passive victims?  Does "geek culture" not understand that superheroes and Disneyland are of the same mould?  Is the truth of the matter that we are complicit in the illusion?

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