A few months ago, during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Kanye West responded to a parody Kimmel conducted of Mr. West’s interview on BBC, in which West harshly criticized the fashion industry for being closed, open to only its designations of what is beautiful. To Kanye, that meant “what is white,” claiming that his artistic vision has been deemed “dirty,” or, following that logic, “black.” But, unknowingly to both, the encounter between Kimmel and West became a meta-example of the larger issue at hand: our drive to condescend and our misuse of self-awareness - which West would later call “classism.”
First, take for example, as West briefly does, the case of Paula Deen, the home-cooking star of the South, whose reputation was tarnished by terribly racist remarks she made years ago. The woman famous for her biscuits, pies and culinary gluttony called an African-American employee who worked for her when she was still in the restaurant business a nigger. And when we heard about this, her career was over faster than you can say “Southern comfort.”
It is without question that this word is distasteful, horrible, and not appropriate to use in any case whatsoever. It is also a totally validating reason for someone’s career to end, just as it is for Alec Baldwin to lose his show on MSNBC for calling someone a faggot, or Chic-Fil-A to lose customers because their CEO does not think guys should be able to marry each other. Regardless if you are offended by these sentiments or not, these people chose careers providing a service to the public realm and, therefore, are under the careful watch, and test, of the public eye. And, for that, they deserve to lose everything.
But it is the way we go after figures, both private and public, and collectively treat them that has gone disturbingly astray. An outrage explodes over Dean’s comments; she is shown on televisions across the country, crying over herself and her mistakes. Look at those tears of a racist! Look at this inferior specimen! She is nowhere near as smart as we are, for we would never call someone a nigger. Or at least not get caught doing so.
Soon enough, Deen is a zoo exhibit; a bumbling baboon that we can point at and laugh. But sometimes it seems like we’re the real animals, waiting for fuck-ups like that PR-lady-turned-racial-tweeter Justine Sacco to land on her plane in Africa so we can be set loose to rip her and each other apart, to nobody’s benefit but our own.
Once we distract ourselves like this, we lose sight of what’s in front of us, or, in the case of Ms. Deen, answering the question of just how deeply embedded this mentality of vitriol is in our culture or, better yet, Southern culture, and how fame can provide a guise for humanity’s own shortcomings. No--instead, we are left with a bullet and a target; victimization as our own intellectual masturbation.
Circling back to West: Kimmel’s parody was backwards, almost too easy. He characterized West, as so many people do, as a whiny ten-year-old, unable to listen to others and in staunch belief that he is the most important thing that happened to us, and himself. His ego is too big for a time ruled by and made for zealots of the Ted Cruz order. He is sensational and we are, too, but he is one man and we are the public. In terms of numbers, we win by default.
In this way, Kanye West becomes Paula Deen, the zoo exhibit, this bumbling baboon in a jungle of commentators. We soon forget what he was talking about--this question of racism’s roots in beauty, fashion, and commercialization--and we’re left with the digestible byproduct--an attack on his ego, which we cling to because it comes into contact with ours too often.
But we gave ourselves this hive mentality. We’ve created, and now obsess over, heightened platforms that open us up to see opinions and give them, but close us off from much else. If our society deems something right or wrong, you can retweet it, reblog it, tag it, pin it, and enter the mob. And you’re given a pedestal that grows higher with more followers. This is where the true success of positivist sites like BuzzFeed and Upworthy lies. Social media is social, but not progressive yet.
That is one of the great ironies of the Internet: it is a redefinition of free thinking, but never have our flaws and hatreds become more visually on display for everyone to share. It’s like high school again, but on Twitter; this weird evolution of discrimination from minority-targeted to majority-approved. It is a serious side-effect of over-modernization on our culture. We hold tolerance for our preferences, reserve sympathy strictly for that which falls in line with our comfortable world views.
We’ve almost become too modern, our society too open, fallen prey to over-humanization through the unprecedented amount of expressive channels. It’s as if there is a divide in reality of what we envision ourselves to be - this forward-thinking, no-nonsense society - and how we act - quick to sensationalize what’s close to us and our keyboards, even quicker to retract inwards into our fragile selves. But this is modernity: a split between our digital souls and physical beings, unable to fully approach and problem solve our problems together.
In effect, the foundations of liberalism and its amazing, beautiful strides in our culture backfire; there is such a thing as self-repression through too much liberty. We can be so advanced, but be peeved by so little, easy trivialities that disturb our modern selves. But it’s inflicting injury on how we perceive our culture by halting ourselves from solving its more complex dialectics, our consciences are as flimsy as cardboard signs through this misappropriation of our own self-imposed guilt.
It is the Great Communicator, the device with the power to connect mankind beyond his borders like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We now have the power to weave together the rifts in our societal fibers faster and better than ever, through collaborative engineering, crowd-sourced democracy, and the equalization of everything. So let’s stop wasting history’s time with our short-term insecurities, and get to work.
John Surico is the last Creed fan on Earth.