These days to be switched on and ‘hip’ is to be devoid of any idealism, to affect a dreary disillusioned scowl, which has become a cultural shorthand for intelligence. This attitude, or pose, is the most prevalent among academic people, or in the sphere of media professionals. These atmospheres have seeped into the arena of middle management and administration – the civil service and commercial office spaces where the majority of graduates work.
Among genuinely working class people, or among more courageous entrepreneurs, you’ll encounter more optimism and, ironically, more openness to dissenting views.
In a discussion among nurses or construction workers, any criticism of Islam, for instance, or any talk of the myths of feminism, will not be met with the same scorn and reproach as they will be in council offices, real ale bars or newsrooms.
It’s a curious fact that the more educated one is these days, the less able one is to deal with new ideas or competing interpretations of everyday experiences. The paradox of this is made more strange by the fact that intransigence and consensus thinking is often accompanied by a smug, affected and simplified form of irony that rarely amounts to anything more than sneering and sanctimonious self-praise.
Go to a party or a gig or any social interaction involving 20-35 year olds, and you will encounter the ubiquitous educated cynic, the foot-soldier for consumerist nihilism, the type of person who unwittingly propagandises safe, consensus thinking while deluding themselves that their acerbic, non-conservative tone of voice puts them on the vanguard of independent thinking.
Most likely this person has a passing knowledge of Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, without actually having engaged with these ideas in any deep way. Like owning a blues anthology and thinking you know everything about Blind Lemon Jefferson, this dilettantism makes people think they have the inside scoop on the folly of cultural values, regardless of what those values may be.
Everything is relative; Christianity is just as bad as Islam; America is just as bad as Russia; all love is reducible to a sexual agenda, and all beauty is a matter of opinion and most likely the product of some conspiracy of white men.
The blandness and despair concealed in this worldview is buried under the affectation of edgy scornfulness and sarcasm. The apparent irony gives the snotty cynic the sense of being cut off from the crowd – an ‘observer of people’, when in actual fact their nihilistic insouciance is an excuse for doing nothing, for conforming to the flow of consumer pressures and pop culture fashions.
This is what irony has become. As long as you pull off the odd wisecrack, and perfect a visage of imperishable non-surprise you can fool others and yourself that you are an independent thinker, without ever having to take an intellectual risk, or feel humiliated for taking an unpopular point of view.
True irony involves self-deprecation. Not the socially polite kind, but a deeply-held knowing of your intellectual limits.
Thinking independently means caring less about having the ‘correct’ views, and devoting one’s energies to the process by which those views are formed.
Disputation is not a sport. It’s not something to pass the time away, or a platform for showing off. It’s a way of making doubt and scepticism a kind of neural institution, part of the fabric of your inner world.
The real test of an independent mind is sacrifice for a higher ideal. It involves suffering. Commitment, in a word.
Scepticism is a habit of thinking, it is not an ideology in itself. If we allow doubt to become an end, rather than a means, then we start to celebrate meaninglessness.
Being a cocksure, manipulative and sneering teacher’s pet may garner cool points when you are down and out on the scene, but it also helps to cultivate a sense of moral capitulation too. Slavish nihilism is the lifeblood of the tyrant.