Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Social media has made the outsider a threatened species


Whatever our beliefs, Christmas is a celebration of an outsider who was born in a stable and fled from a despot. In his seminal book The Outsider, Colin Wilson repositioned the outsider from being a misfit requiring reintegration to a lone seeker who often offered society important spiritual, political or artistic revelations. To do this Wilson cited the examples of cultural icons including Friedrich Nietzsche, William Blake, Vaslav Nijinsky, Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Hermann Hesse, Vincent van Gogh, and G.I. Gurdjieff. The Outsider was written in 1956 and more recently the American born Sadhu Baba Rampuri expressed similar sentiments very eloquently*:
I think it's the outsider that has the ability, or at least the opportunity, to look at things from a distance, rather than being in the midst of things, and assigning some sort of moral values, the good and bad, the good and evil, to things. So I think that many, if not most, people who have insights, who have particular geniuses in various fields, whether its music or art or literature or whatever - I think that a requirement is that one is an outsider.
The outsider is the grain of sand on which the artistic pearl grows. But today the hegemony of social networks has made the outsider a threatened species. Social media is famously predicated by the wisdom of crowds. To be wise you must be part of the crowd. Which means conforming to the dogma of the crowd by openly expressing approval - 'friend', 'like', 'follow' etc. Being a misfit has become risky: because the outsider is branded a troll who can easily be consigned to permanent exile by 'blocking' and 'unfriending'. Today Joseph would have found a room in Bethlehem on Airbnb and then 'liked' Herod on Facebook, and the rest would be a different history.

That is the American Armenian composer Alan Hovhaness above*. He is one of many fine creative figures whose reputation is jeopardised by the wisdom of a social media crowd which confuses popularity with veracity. There is only one thing worse than blocking the free movement of individuals, and that is blocking the free movement of ideas. One of the great ironies of 2019 has been the method used by online activists to condemn Boris Johnson for wanting to block the free movement of individuals. It is a great irony because the activists have expressed their disapproval by using and thereby endorsing social networks that openly block the free movement of ideas.

* Quote is from Journeys in the Kali Yuga by Aki Cederberg.
** Artwork is from Pandora Records 1981 album of Hovhaness' Symphony No. 31 and songs with conductor Louis Richmond, the Northwest Chamber Orchestra, and soprano Hinako Fujihara, with a contribution on piano by the composer.
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2 comments:

Philip Amos said...

Merry Christmas, festive and peaceful both, to you and your family, Bob. Your posts in 2019 made it a wiser year for me. Methinks I'll just quote in full the favourite, though far from the longest and most effusive, of the student evaluations I received during my professorial life: "I learned from him. What more could I ask?" All good things in the New Year to you.

Pliable said...

Philip, thank you for that. As Libby Purves told us (https://www.overgrownpath.com/2011/10/triumph-of-faith-and-idealism-over.html):

'To run radio you must be like an old-fashioned publisher, a 1930s Gollancz or Faber and Faber, working on faith and idealism and wanting to share what you yourself love. All that you can do is to make - and publicise - the best and most passionately well-crafted programmes you can think of. Ratings have to be watched, but calmly and with a sense of proportion. You have to believe that if even one person is swayed, or inspired, or changed, or comforted, by a programme, then that programme has been worthwhile.'

Best wishes to you for the festive season,
Bob