Let’s be more sincere in the New Year

“Never believe that […] are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The […] have the right to play. 

They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.”

-Quote by Sartre, originally about anti-Semites

I recently came across a clip on Twitter of a new season of a Marvel TV show called What If. The premise of the show (and the premise of the comic series it’s based on) is that they present alternate realities of what could have happened in various Marvel movies, usually with an eye towards how they could have killed off some character or made two characters fight.

In this clip, they present Hela, goddess of death and archvillain, speaking to Loki, erstwhile god of trickery and villain turned hero. Hela dramatically slicks back her hair and says in a vaguely British accent, “You see, darling, I’m not most people. I’m the goddess of death.” Then, when Loki loudly swallows and raises an eyebrow, Hela hastily responds, “That usually gets a bigger reaction.”

This clip was the source of a lot of controversy on Twitter, which, Twitter being Twitter, boiled down to an argument of “What If sucks” vs. “No, you suck”. Now, while I’m closer in opinion to the former, I think both sides miss the point. This clip isn’t disconcerting (or “cringe”) because it’s a bad one-liner. It’s disconcerting because it doesn’t take the source material seriously, while it expects the audience to. In other words, it’s insincere.

Let me explain. In order for us, as viewers, to enjoy this show, we have to accept these characters live in a pantheistic world in which abstract concepts, like trickery or death, have humanoid masters. These humanoids are sometimes heroes and sometimes villains, and they fight each other on very flimsy premises. While this is not far from the beliefs that our ancestors legitimately had, the flimsiness of the premises and the ubiquity of these humanoids does mean that it’s harder for us to take these characters seriously as actual “gods”.

But that’s ok! None of us mind that. We accept these premises in order to enjoy the story. We accept that a vaguely British woman with magic powers and a silly headdress is, somehow, the mistress of death, and that she presents a very real threat to a British man with different magic powers and an equally silly outfit. Then, once we accept that, we get worked up when the vaguely British woman tries to destroy the British man with her magic powers. People who don’t accept these premises, like, say, my mom, don’t enjoy these stories, can’t get worked up about the magic battles of British-ish people, and end up not watching content about them, which is also ok.

What I dislike about this clip is that the writers of the dialogue acknowledge their viewers’ acceptance of the premises and immediately turn it around as a weapon against the viewer. Hela’s first line of dialogue, “I’m the goddess of death”, is an exciting, scary moment in the context of the show. Holy shit! It’s the goddess of death! She can, presumably, kill anyone super easily!

But the very next line undercuts it. Loki doesn’t take this reveal seriously, and, in turn, Hela backtracks, almost acknowledging that he’s not right to take it seriously. Loki has the exact same response as any reasonable person would to a random person in a silly outfit saying those exact lines, and Hela is embarrassed by it.

I’m sure the writers would see my explanation of this joke and say, “Congrats, that’s the joke,” but that’s missing the point. Loki isn’t just making a joke at the expense of Hela. He is (and the writers are) making a joke at the expense of the audience. “Haha,” they say, “you took this reveal seriously! Can’t you see how ridiculous it is to accept the idea that a British-ish woman with a silly headdress is the mistress of death?”

But of course we can! If someone said that to us at the gas station, we would respond the same way Loki did. But, we’re not at the gas station. We are watching a show on a streaming service that we paid money for in order to participate in this shared universe. And the writers know this. They’re taking advantage of our figurative and literal investment in this fictional universe in order to set up this “joke”, which is why they wrote this joke in the context of the Marvel universe, and not in the context of a random person at a gas station.

Phew, ok. That’s probably enough virtual ink spilled about a 14 second clip from Twitter for a TV show that I don’t think anyone who reads this newsletter watches. But, as you can probably tell from the quote at the beginning of this newsletter and from the title, I don’t think this rotting insincerity is limited to Marvel TV shows. I’ve been seeing it everywhere.

I see it in superhero movies every time the characters make a joke about how silly superhero names are (“Peter Parker? Are all your names alliterative?”). I see it in fantasy, when characters make sarcastic remarks about otherwise mundane elements of the world   (“Ok, so I’m talking to a dragon now. That’s normal”). I see it in videogames, when players can pay to dress in flamboyant outfits in otherwise realistic games (like the bright rainbow colors of Call of Duty). I even see it in online political discussions, when people talk like 80s bullies (“If I ever met Ron DeSantis, I’d give him a wedgie.”)

In all of these, the “joke” is the same. You, as the audience, takes something seriously, be it a superhero movie, a fantasy book, a “realistic” videogame, or politics. They, as the commentator or writer, know how seriously you take this and how you’ve invested some amount of time or money in it. So, they joke that, in fact, this is silly and you shouldn’t take it seriously.

I hate this joke. It rots. Everything good in society or in life is based around taking ideas seriously, especially if there’s no reason to do so. Take my local grocery store, for instance. It has self-checkout lanes now, which are way more convenient than waiting for the cashier and make going to the grocery store much faster. It also allows the grocery store to save on costs, because they don’t have to hire as many cashiers, which hopefully allows the grocery store to pass savings onto the consumer.

You know what the easiest joke in the world is? To look at the self-checkout lanes, and make a “joke” that it allows you to buy every item as a banana. Do you get it? The joke is that self-checkout lanes rely on some amount of honesty, because the technology can only distinguish items roughly by weight. So, you can take a filet mignon, ring it up for the price of a banana, and walk out with a filet mignon for 95% off every time. If I make that joke, I’m not giving you an idea you never thought of. I’m just making fun of you for taking the honesty part of the self-checkout seriously, and pointing out that there’s no reason to be honest about it.

And then I make that joke, and other people make that joke, and you start feeling pretty stupid for taking the honesty part seriously because nobody else does. So you start ringing up filet mignons as bananas, and then everyone else does, too, and before you know it self-checkout lanes get ripped out and replaced by cashiers, and the grocery store is slow again.

This “joke” can rot away the substrate of honesty on which self-checkout lanes are built, just as it can rot away the willing suspension of disbelief that’s inherent to superhero movies. And, just as in the Sartre quote at the beginning, these “jokes” can rot away the foundation for serious discussion that’s inherent to productive dialogue.

And, to be totally honest, I worry that, eventually, the jokes turn back on the person who’s making them. Living life forever poking holes in the things that other people choose to take seriously makes it difficult to maintain or moderate beliefs in the things that you choose to take seriously. You end up either believing in nothing, or believing in something so strongly that you’re unable to abide anyone even remotely questioning it. You throw so many stones to protect your own glasshouse.

That’s where I think we are today, actually. It’s been so long since I’ve seen a popular writer articulate a compelling, positive version of the future because it seems like every popular writer is so focused on poking holes in everything that belief in anything seems silly. So we end up living in a lonely world, one in which the only beliefs that can be taken seriously are those too depressing for it to be fun to poke holes in them.

As for me, well, I’m no innocent in this. I admit poking more than my fair share of fun. But I’m trying to change, and most of what I write here on this blog is as sincere as it can be. 

For now it is 2024, and here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life. Happy New Year!