Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Fashionable Despair

Flannery O'Connor once wrote in her own penetrating way that, “At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.”* She was writing in the middle third of the twentieth century when this observation was made, before the extensive outlets of media that are available today even existed or had come to maturity. The world was not the globally connected place then that it is now; there was no mobile internet (no internet at all, actually), no streaming video, no up-to-the-minute news. Only radio and, later on, television. And yet how true her words still ring, even more so now. We have the power of fantastic technology at our fingertips (created by 'searchers and discoverers'), and yet in spite of all of those things we are possibly even more despairing than Miss O'Connor's generation. 

Our generation has truly 'domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily.' And yet we do not call it despair. Despair is an ugly word that demands action of some sort, whether it be soul-searching or suicide or both. No, we must call it something else if it is to fly under the radar of our modern consciences. Our modern despair must become a fashion item worn as easily as one would wear a watch or a necklace. It must in the end seem like a good thing in order to remain unnoticed and unchallenged. The bad news for us is that we have indeed discovered how to do this, discovered a phraseology that suits our purpose, a term to displace the ugliness of the word “despair.” The term is “skepticism.” Or alternately, “social critique.”

Except that what we really mean by “skepticism” and “social critique” is more often than not cynicism.

A cynic, according to the definition provided by, is “a person who believes that only selfishness motivates human actions and who disbelieves in or minimizes selfless acts or disinterested points of view.”** If modern mass media is to be used as some gauge of where we are as a society, this definition applies to a disturbingly large percentage of popular programming. Take the TV show Family Guy, for instance.

The opening titles of Family Guy are a perfect example of this cynicism in action. The main title theme song laments that movies and television are plagued with obscenity, violence, and a lack of traditional family and social values. It then holds up the title character of Peter Griffin as a different sort of fellow, a solution to the problem, a breath of fresh air. As soon as the main body of the show opens, however, we find out that Peter is just another Homer Simpson, except that he makes Homer Simpson look tame in his crass behavior and obscene remarks. The show's content ranges from the family dog trying to make out with his master's wife, to Peter shaking one of their infant children to death and making snarky comments about it at the funeral. The show always seems to wrap up with an ending that mocks the “what was the lesson learned here” format by giving the reformed behavior of the characters a nasty and selfish spin, rather than allowing the new behavior to ever spring from actual goodness.

Sound like cynicism yet?

Equally at fault in this regard are The Simpsons and American Dad, both also dealing with dysfunctional families of two parents and 2-3 children. The children in all of these shows are many times the worst part, as they are less individual characters and more ideological archetypes (e.g. think Lisa Simpson as the stereotypical feminist activist.)

And the most frightening thing? All of these shows are primetime, easily accessible to adults and children alike, and containing an unacceptable level of both language and violence. They are all mainstream. And this trend is not limited to animated primetime television shows either. Elements of it exist in other shows like The Middle and Modern Family, both of which also deal with family and parenting issues.

There is a common denominator of all these shows, besides the fact that they all deal with families: they also all land squarely in the humor category. Everything is held up for mockery and given equal time as a punching bag. There seem to be two reasons for mocking something: one, because you hate it, prompting you to tear it down at every opportunity, and two, because you have despaired of it and no longer care anyway. I don't believe that the studios producing these shows actively hate the institution of the family, so I am compelled to chalk up the mockery to the second reason. The producers of these shows observe man's current state of existence in this country and conclude that we cannot and will not ever change. The writers tackle their scripts from the angle of a cynic and soon enough, mockery quickly follows, parading itself as “social critique” and handily getting away with it.

Ultimately there is no use in putting problems on display without ever offering a solution. The bumbling behavior of Homer Simpson may be good for a laugh now, but he will never change because the people who write his lines firmly believe that he will never change. Thus the “social critique” offered by the show falls flat because the creators of the show are tenaciously bound to the idea that man (and men in particular) have nothing else to offer the world than stupidity, ennui, empty promises, and scatological humor.

Despair, as I said, is an ugly word and must be disguised. So if despair is such an old concept, then it must be given a fashionable facelift every century or so. Cynicism then is our generation's embracing of this ancient concept and putting our own palatable spin on it.

*Flannery O%27Connor. (n.d.). Retrieved October 16, 2011, from Web site:

**cynic. (n.d.). Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved October 15, 2011, from website:

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