Am I hostage to the opinions of others?
The answer is no. I am hostage to nothing and no one. I am free to do as I like when I please with whoever I wish. But is that wholly true? Do I really operate in this world independent of the coercive pressures exuded by the hive mind we always seem to be rationalising with? As much as I like to think myself a confident and independent person, the subliminal forces of collective opinion weigh on me heavier that I first thought – and they are probably crushing my potential.
The Grey They’s
I went and bought myself a lovely salmon coloured T-shirt recently. But before I swiped my card, I gave thought to whether ‘they’ would also find it lovely. The they in this instance were multiple and many. There was a they of my close friends, a they of the attractive girls at the club, the they of strangers at a restaurant – all of whom I gave a voice in the case of the salmon shirt. Not only did I think about whether these faceless people like the shirt, but I went one step further and tried to divine whether they would like me. Was the shirt a reflective of the person I was? Did the salmon hue correctly identify my edgy aesthetic without giving way to conclusions of being too brash? Diligently I came to the conclusions that the shirt was indeed lovely and that it correctly embodied the person I wanted people to think I was.
One of my best friends, Jonty, often quoted Oscar Wilde and stated that “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”; presumably to defend his horrendous choice of clothes. Despite looking like he was sponsored by a discount bin at a thrift shop Jonty had a point; fashion is born out of the opinions of other, and that is precisely how it moves forward. The above example illustrates that something as trivial as T-shirts’ involves a quick lookup of collective opinion. But what happens when these same dynamics encroach on, and subsequently shape, our thoughts on more pressing issues such as our life goals? Are our ideas and aspirations reflective of our true desires, or, as I increasingly believe, are they more accurately a merger of aspirations enmeshed with our assumptions of what the grey masses desire of us?
As I have started producing and publishing content related to my quarter life crisis, I have consistently surprised myself at how attune I am to what people will think about me. Prior to publishing my writing, I ran on the general assumption that I had little care for the opinions of others when it came to influencing my choices. In this mindset I believed I was capable of pursuing whatever it was I wanted or believed in – even if that meant bucking a trend.
As is often the case I made these assumptions having never really bucked a trend, nor having ever really placed myself in a position where I was at risk of serious criticism. The fact that I am choosing to make public this period of my life brings with it the obvious desire for the approval of others, if only to validate feelings that, ideally, I should be validating myself. This is one of the most obvious pieces of cognitive dissonance that I think we all share – a clear understanding toward the danger of people pleasing and pursuing validation through others, yet an almost uncontrollable urge to do so anyway.
In a period of my life where I am questioning myself deeply the allure of collective opinion as a guide is immense. Recently I was speaking with my psychologist about purpose and direction. She questioned where my year in Spain was designed to take me, and my response was that I didn’t want a destination so much as I needed a heading. A destination would be far too specific and require more commitment than I was willing to offer. Alternately a heading was indicative of an unscripted journey in which I was Captain Jack steering myself toward the horizon. We both agreed that the common wisdom of the journey being more important that the destination holds true – but the question became how to derive the heading? If I were to use collective opinion and experience as my guide, I’d be sailing a crash course for office jobs, mortgage repayments, a golden retriever and three kids. Of everyone I know, bar a select few, this heading seems to be the ubiquitous ‘correct’ answer.
Everyone likes to think that they hold a compass akin to Jack Sparrow’s – one which does not point north but instead points to the thing you want most in this world. I disagree. Call it cynicism, or maybe pessimism, but I am increasingly convinced the conventional path of middle-class society is taken on an incorrect assumption – the assumption that what everyone else is doing is what I also want. That is, there seems to be little desire to break away from the conventional – even though the conventional seems to be crushing to many people, myself included. There is no shortage of conversation with people about job dissatisfaction, mental health problems, economic pressures, and unsatisfactory romantic engagements. Yet there seems to be an immense shortage of people who seem willing to tackle that problem– even if it means politely asking the collective opinion to fuck off.
What makes this ask so difficult is the backlash that inevitably comes from kicking the hornets’ nest of the status quo. To reject the accepted is to suggest you know better than everyone else, that you have somehow outwitted, outsmarted and outplayed the system everyone else is subjected to. But such criticism is misguided. To question the status quo suggests only one thing; that you have been willing to engage honestly with yourself.
A sidebar on getting Zuck’d
For my generation it has never been easier to precisely calculate where that hand of collective opinion is pointing. The ever present and quantitative nature of likes, subscribers, views, shares, and retweets exist as an arbiter of what is, and is not, worthy. Compared to our parents’ generation we are hooked into a now unavoidable global web of technology, social media, and shared experiences. Undoubtably our parents also chased social status, dopamine, and acceptance – but their compass was poorly calibrated to know precisely what options they had. Not only were there an absence of quantitative data, but the qualitive was also few and far between. If you were ‘successful' you’d be written and read about in the weekly paper, perhaps a brief TV interview too. The average person however existed in what we would now consider an information blackhole.
In just one generation I now find myself with a near endless level of data and limitless potential for comparison. As a result, it has never been easier to comprehend exactly what I am not and where I could be. I can scroll Instagram and see (in crisp HD) the lives I am not living, the experiences I am not having and the friends I am not making. As our lives have become increasingly digital our ability (and desire) to share them has also increased. Consequently, we have become attune to the reception our lives receive and we modify our behave, more so than we like to admit, in pursuit of that dopamine hit.
Electric Can Openers
To address the title: I am more hostage to the opinions of others than I would like to admit. But what is one to do about it? To me, the answer is a question of genuineness. That is, I should make an honest attempt to understand what it is precisely I want. The reason? I know exactly how capable I am of lying to myself. I also know how easy it is to lie to other people with the best intentions in mind. The consequence being that when I am asking myself about purchasing a salmon shirt, the answer I initially come to is not the one that, perhaps, is the most genuine.
Take this blog for example. I am publishing it openly and advertising it widely – why? The dishonest answer I give myself is that I want to be respected by others and assume views or likes will represent this. The dishonest answer I give to others is that I enjoy writing and want to share my thoughts. The correct answer, as it typically does, exists in the half-truths behind each lie. The genuine answer? I publish these stories because I want respect for the choices I have made in life and validation for what I perceive as a strength, my writing. Admitting this is uncomfortable; I almost feel like I have violated the sacred social rule of preaching our virtues but not out vice.
My QLC started precisely with some personal honesty – that I was not pursuing fulfillment to the extent I could or should be. As I’ve said previously, accepting this hurt and realising I was the only one who could fix it was scary. But, over time, it felt good to stop lying to myself, even if I still lied to those who offhandedly asked about my life.
I can appreciate that this line of thought starts to echo Renton’s monologue from Trainspotting about choosing life. While I am not discounting the virtues of choosing a career, compact disc players or electrical can openers, I certainly am suggesting you should wonder who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning, and, more importantly, is that person who you want to be, or is it the person you think you should be? If you decide that you are on the trajectory toward who you truly want to be then congratulations, you’re doing better than me – for now.