The emoji we need right now
The worst thing about being surrounded by fanatics is that it makes our zeitgeist utterly and insufferably predictable. We're stifling legitimate curiosity with a never-ending buffet of mental comfort food.
Emoji (or do we say emojis?) may leave a lot of matters up for dispute, but they are a convenient way of integrating feelings into what otherwise might be misconstrued text. Thus, an upside-down smiley face represents sarcasm or "frustrated resignation", while the thinking-face emoji can stand in for the user's skepticism or bemusement. Emotional texture like this makes the language more useful and vibrant, especially in public forums like social media, where character limits and social norms discourage us from writing out what we mean in greater detail.
■ Yet even as we approach an official emoji catalog numbering nearly 2,000 entries, there is one emoji we still need above all: One that says, "You're exhausting. Do you realize that?"
■ We are surrounded by too many fanatics, and the Internet is rocket fuel for most of them. This is neither a partisan nor a sectarian point. It is merely an observation that, objectively, too many among us obsess about too little, and the resulting narrowness of debate and discussion impoverishes the public square (such as it is in the Internet Age).
■ It is not just that our worst obsessives cannot have vigorous discussions with people who disagree with them. It is not only that there are assumptions of bad faith everywhere that discourage good people from engaging outside their comfort zones. It is not merely that some people cannot help but see every event as a moment to try to score another point on some vast cosmic argument scoreboard.
■ No, even though it is all of those things, the worst thing is that it makes our zeitgeist utterly and insufferably predictable. We're stifling legitimate curiosity with a never-ending buffet of mental comfort food. We live in the most advanced, most prosperous, most complex moment in human history -- yet how often do people with national audiences and giant platforms truly seek to surprise? Life should be abundant with serendipity, and yet there is little that will ever surprise the consumer of cable television news, major daily opinion pages, syndicated radio programming, or even the infinite stream of commentary on Twitter. So much of the public discourse is so predictable that there's little sense in indulging in it.
■ Part of the problem is, of course, partisanship -- and perhaps negative partisanship even more than that: It's easier to speak up when you can expect the usual suspects to call you names while an amen chorus rises to your defense. Part of the problem is credentialism: If the experts on a given subject work hard enough, they can clear the space of any curious outsiders who might try to venture a new opinion that crosses out of "their lane". Part of the problem is the devolution of politics into team sports: If social acceptance is preordained by your membership in a tribe, why would you ever venture an original idea outside of the canon, lest you be distrusted on all sides?
■ Consequently, with most everyone -- including, perhaps especially, the smartest among us -- afraid to be wrong, be original, or be curious outside the bounds of what "everyone's talking about", we're not so much amusing ourselves to death as we are boring ourselves to death. A small number of fanatics commit themselves to hijacking every discussion and routing it back to familiar battlegrounds, and it scares away people of more moderate temperaments. It's a quasi-industrial outrage complex that crowds out nuanced and complex original thoughts.
■ It happens nationally, it happens locally, and it even happens among friends and family. It's the Facebook friend who won't stop sharing anti-vaccination tirades, the local blogger with a vendetta against an elected official, the radio host who still provides a platform for election misinformation, and the columnist whose only beat is martyrdom.
■ It's deathly boring, and it's keeping us from thinking beyond a carefully-rehearsed set of opinions on a tiny handful of subjects. We need to know better than to get trapped in the familiar intellectual cul-de-sacs, and we need to be willing to transgress among our own supposed friends and allies to remind the obsessives: "You're exhausting. Do you realize that?"