By many accounts, 2014 was a bad year for masculinity. Bill Cosby, Elliot Rodger, Ray Rice, Hank Baskett, Stephen Collins, Justin Bieber…the list could go on, but there’s no sense in extending it. Considered in historical context, rather than as data points in some short-sighted year in review, 2014 was probably a much better showing for masculinity than 1916, when millions of young men died in World War I, or the entire 13th century, when Mongol hordes rampaged across Asia.
“The world,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “is the totality of facts, not of things.” The year in review, by contrast, is not even the totality of facts–it is just a bunch of them, selected more or less at random, that purport to provide the reader with a panoramic view of the previous 365 days. And I suppose it serves a function: easy-to-write filler copy at a time of the season when most journalists are taking it easy, battling with their significant others during the holidays as well as with the various illnesses that accompany the onset of winter.
Perhaps year in review entries—which capture almost nothing about the lived past—are what we are hard-wired to seek out.
In an age when almost everything is clickbait and few concepts are held in the mind longer than however many parsecs it takes to get enraged about them, the year in review is a necessary evil. Will the leading story of 2014 be that Olympic legend Bruce Jenner underwent the first stages of gender-reassignment surgery? Will it be the even more absurd fact that more than 500,000 words (a conservative estimate) were spilled in response?
In the absence of a year in review, is anyone likely to remember that feminist video game critic Anita Sarkeesian received death threats for her relatively mild critiques of gender tropes in video games? I mean, that contretemps occurred so long ago (mid-2014) that even I had forgotten that I had written something about it, which apparently I did. Not that I’d know that or you’d know that, because heck, we’re both probably in the process of forgetting this essay, which is unlikely to capture either of our limited attention spans for more than a handful of sentences given that there’s no link to a catchy video or a tone-deaf claim about some current crisis appearing no more than two lines under the header (which itself is hopefully tone-deaf and clickbait-y).
My students show up in my freshman U.S. History from 1865 to the Present class having spent 12 years responding to questions such as this one:
The Cree Indians subsisted primarily on a diet of:
c) Chicory root
The answer to that multiple-choice query, says whatever state board of education happens to be administering this all-important End of Grade (“EOG”) examination, provides compelling proof of whether our children is learning. If they marked choice B, they’re prepared to enter the world, and we wise stewards of the future can take solace in their ability to bubble in one answer or another vis-à-vis some terms that appeared months earlier on a study guide. This is the year in review as assessment of learning; clearly a person who can’t distinguish between the Battle of Midway and the Battle of Guadalcanal isn’t fit to work at the fast-paced call centers and Wal-Marts that are representative of the rewarding white-collar positions available to everyone in this 21st century “Knowledge Economy.”
But maybe I’m wrong in my condemnation of this sort of thing, or at least wrong for equating year in review articles and EOG exams. Heck, maybe both provide the valuable service of compressing our complicated epistêmê into a few choice and easily regurgitated sound bites. Maybe this really is the future.
Perhaps these bits and pieces–blog entries skimmed hastily or not at all, online education courses consisting of hundreds of tedious but minimally taxing assignments, year in review entries that capture almost nothing about the lived past–are what we are hard-wired to seek out. As of this sentence, I’m at 660 words and counting—and what intrepid reader could be expected to progress this far when there are so many YouTube videos to half-watch while simultaneously skimming 140-character “@” tweets from a friend?
In a short piece in The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova profiled author Jonah Berger, who has written extensively about why certain posts “go viral” on the Internet.
“We see top-ten lists on Buzzfeed and the like all the time,” Berger explained. “It allows people to feel like there’s a nice packet of useful information that they can share with others.”
Useful information, eh? It’s all useful information in some sense, I guess. Alas, complaining about it amounts to little more than beating against the current. Innumerable jeremiads have been written about the declining intellectual quality and attention spans of previous generations, only to see life continue much as it had before (“things ain’t what they used to be and they never were,” goes a quote attributed to various wits, most notably Will Rogers).
It’s regrettable that one out of four Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun–but how many ever knew this? There are still plenty of intellectually courageous young people who are grasping and clambering toward a deeper understanding of life, the universe and everything, and perhaps they’ll get further than I have. Ill-conceived and hastily prepared articles about 2014 having been the year of the men behaving badly will do little to deter their progress.