If there’s one thing that not having a smartphone, barely using social media, and not keeping up with pop culture will earn you, it’s endless belligerence from incredulous screen addicts. Of course, doing much of anything outside of the norm will earn you much of the same, but in the spirit of documenting my slow journey into the world of slower technology, I’ll dedicate a blog post to it.
A while back I wrote about Shooting the Messenger, a related social phenomenon that happens when you encounter people struggling with guilt and cognitive dissonance who have nowhere to direct their anger but at you, the pointer-outer of some inconvenient truth. This sort of hostility is different, and likely to be encountered more often because it doesn’t hinge on having a conversation with you about an important topic: all it takes is for someone to notice that you’re doing something differently than them, by which they can pigeonhole you into a stereotype of some sort and make their accusations from there.
Recently I dealt with some run-of-the-mill belligerence with some family members who like to run their mouths – but who I love dearly, mind – and the subject of their ridicule this time was my vegetarianism. Being vegetarian, unless you get all your food from farmer’s markets, isn’t anywhere near an analog diet in any way, but the idea, to their mind, serves the same function: my choice to deprive myself of something that they couldn’t live without makes me holier-than-thou. Nevermind that I’m probably the chillest vegetarian they’re ever likely to meet – that I don’t proselytize, I don’t badmouth meat-eaters, and that I actually whole-heartedly condone small-scale livestock husbandry, hunting, and other related kinds of manual slaughter – but my live-and-let-live attitude probably makes me an easier target.
Vegetarianism, even done wrong, has a smaller carbon footprint than American-style meat-eating, and done right, can lighten the impact you have on the earth by many orders of magnitude. (Strict veganism, on the other hand, is pretty much a case of heavily diminished returns. Unless you live in a grass hut in the tropics, veganism is financially and environmentally expensive when all is said and done, and needs to be propped up by large subsidies of smug satisfaction to make it worth it.) Meat-eaters know this, which is what makes their derision so strangely obsessive.
Likewise, reducing screentime or eliminating them altogether can really do nothing but benefit the earth and in many cases, your mental health as well. It’s like quitting a hard drug. Except that everyone in our society is addicted to the drug, nobody wonders what life would be like without the drug, and nobody talks about the downsides of the drug. Given such a saturated environment, it’s no wonder that encountering someone who is not addicted to the drug, or who doesn’t use the drug at all, is such a jarring encounter.
The belligerence I’ve experienced from “downgrading” seems to have two other components: one, the sense that I’m withholding something others are entitled to have (voyeuristic glimpses into my personal life from using social media, and instant access to my attention using the same), and two, that I now need their “help” for things that I didn’t before.
These two notions together form a microcosm for much bigger trends in the way human social relationships are changing thanks to the ubiquitous use of mediating technologies. That is to say, we are becoming emotionally and materially estranged, while becoming more impersonal and fetishistic.
Someone recently posted a thread to the r/Collapse subreddit about the strange reactions friends and family were having toward his re-adoption of a landline in lieu of any cellphone at all:
I recently got rid of my cell phone and switched to a landline only. I also got rid of Facebook. Just to be clear, I am not asking or telling ANYONE else to follow in my footsteps, it is just a choice I made for myself for personal reasons. I don’t want to get into too much detail on my justification, but let’s just say the stuff I see on this subreddit doesn’t help, lol. Clearly I have not completely sworn off technology. Anyway, friends and family who are finding out all have different reactions. Some people are mild or just seem slightly annoyed that we can’t text anymore, but some people are SO angry about it. Their reaction is ridiculous and I swear it is as though they are defending their precious!!! Little golems just blinded by their need for it. One friend seemed mad cause he hates calling people but other than that people are defensive! I say I did it and they lash out as if I told them they are idiots for having phones. Which I didn’t.
Thoughts? Why do people behave this way? Is this deep attachment a sign of something to come?
The responses range from the humorous:
How old are your friends and family? 12??
I say, try not to make a “thing” of it. If you were poor enough not to be able to afford these things, your real friends wouldn’t blame you for being poor. You shouldn’t have to justify it to anyone.
But get used to the derision as you make other, more substantive changes.
To the piercingly observant:
- You made it less convenient for them to get what they want from you.
- Your actions telegraphed to them that you don’t fear (overall) losing access to what they think you should want from them.
- Your rejection of your cell/Facebook causes them to question: ‘should I quit too?’
Someone else drew the same comparison with vegetarianism/veganism as well:
same effect as stopping eating meat and mentioning it to people. vegetarians / vegans get the same sort of backlash. its just because of cognitive dissonance etc in people who are living partially examined lives
The ‘partially examined life’ concept intrigues me, and I think it’s a pretty good explanation for most of this kind of behavior. Different ways of doing things is generally no real threat to the unexamined life – that sort of person takes everything for granted and doesn’t question what they or other people are doing. The examined life usually reacts in kind, because that person has likely done the mental legwork of putting themselves in somebody else’s shoes and come to the conclusion that there is possible a multiplicity of motivations, questions, and answers in life. What’s the partially examined life, though? To me, it seems like that sort of person had come into questioning, gone looking for answers, and then stopped when the answers threatened to upend what they held to be true. They are the most keenly reactive to the whims of their ego and identity, because they’ve caught a glimpse at the shaky foundations they’re built on and have chosen to ignore the truth. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too – this is cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, making someone aware of their cognitive dissonance is almost always a dangerous, losing game.
I’m thinking also of the couple behind This Victorian Life, who have routinely received hate mail and even death threats over the years for choosing to live the way they do.
Of course its a threat response: when you see others happily choosing to do without that which you’ve deemed a bare necessity, what does that say about you? Moreover, while marketing buzzwords like “luxe”, “designer” and “chic” dominate our consumer-driven lives, nobody wants to be accused of being extravagant. It is, I suppose, the modern loophole around our culturally-learned sense of Protestant ethics, without actually having to live up to those ethics. For workers of yesteryear, for example, it was more socially acceptable to brag about how little you had to work for your high salary, but not anymore. (In spite of steadily declining rates of office worker productivity, as well.) It’s a competition to appear that everything you have has been hard-earned, well-deserved, and morally justified. Yes, even that $50 water bottle. Because you worked so hard for it, and it does its job of holding water so well, right? And besides, we all need to “treat ourselves” sometimes. Even if “sometimes” actually means “every day”.
The question, though, is simple: how to deal with others’ cognitive dissonance? In the wake of the 2016 election, it seems that all options have been rendered moot. There are no discussions now, only arguments; no arguments, only ad hominems and death threats.
My method of dealing is to just try and avoid such conversations in the first place. Just as I now avoid giving unwarranted advice (nobody wants it), and avoid pointing out major flaws in someone’s reasoning, I generally just avoid pointing out hypocrisy for the simple fact that everyone’s a hypocrite in some way, and that, again, those conversations never end well. I figure that if someone is open enough to the idea that they might be wrong about something, then they’ll find out sooner or later on their own.
That’s not to say that you can’t defend yourself, though. It takes having a thick skin, but so does doing anything that goes against mainstream values. Other ways to avoid heated confrontation:
- Say your choices are purely personal and have improved the quality of your life: “I just don’t like ____.”
- Say that your choices are financially motivated. Playing the frugality card is often a safe bet.
- Among the somewhat-environmentally-informed, you can frame it in terms of your carbon footprint.
- Turn the awkward moment into a joke. Play dumb, misanthropic, or elusive. I’ve done all three.
At the end of the day, dealing with incredulity at doing things differently than ‘everyone else’ is just going to be par for the course. And when it does happen, it helps to keep a level head: nobody wants to be preached at, told that they’re stupid, or hypocritical. And ultimately nothing comes of those kinds of heated discussions except a bad mood at best, or a ruined friendship at worst.