Roughly a month ago, I saw one of the most common and unfortunate uses of social media in these turbulent and uncertain days. A masked elderly woman sitting just a few seats away from me in an airport lounge scoffed while glancing at what was obviously Facebook on her large phone. “They want to remove mothers from official forms,” she told her husband who sighed and sagely nodded. And that was the entire interaction. A random post said something meant to be inflammatory and outrageous, it was repeated without question, and immediately accepted as fact despite the dire need for clarifications. Who’s they? What forms? What’s the reasoning for a removal? How widespread is the change? Is a change even happening?
One would think these are basic questions one would ask to know where to direct one’s ire at the outrageous removal of a sacred field on an unspecified form, especially because so many forms today tend to ask for a parent or guardian rather than a mother and father and have for decades. But apparently that wasn’t necessary. They were bad, mothers were good, and they were slighting mothers out of their evilness. Facebook said so. It was actually sort of chilling to see such disregard for even elementary critical thinking, and this spectacle made me long for the kind of conspiracy theorists who sent angry emails and comments in response to many of my debunkings of the latest craze in far flung web forums.
Were you to try to probe the minds of the couple in the airport disdainfully shaking their heads in response to a vague social media post, you would’ve found a hodgepodge of half-remembered right wing outrage fodder and QAnon-adjacent beliefs regurgitated in spasms. Spar with them and any fact or question that challenges that loose cobweb of opinions will be dismissed, or the point you’re trying to argue instantly forgotten in favor of a new one, like some an unholy child of the Gish Gallop and borderline paranoid schizophrenic delusions that make less and less sense the more you follow them. While you try to establish a common ground, they’re having the time of their lives trolling you, luring you into playing a game impossible for you to win.
The internet is replete with stories of families finding their loved ones enthralled in outlandish, angry conspiracy theories seemingly overnight, frightening and alienating their children with an unholy zeal after developing a sudden taste for Fox News and Facebook’s notoriously far right top performing pages. Since reporters spent the last five years focused on typical diners in the Rust Belt where middle aged denizens rehashed debunked fascist conspiracies to explain their many self-inflicted misfortunes, they created a stereotype of today’s garden variety conspiracy theorists as residents of small towns or deep red states down on their luck searching for some sort of savior from change. But the reality is actually very different.
Yes, it’s true that today there’s considerable overlap between right wing populism and a belief in numerous conspiracy theories, and it’s also true that the typical Trump voter in America tends to ascribe to more conspiracies. But there’s also quite a bit of evidence that many of the loudest and proudest defenders of fake news, paranoid fever dreams, and selective outrage in public discourse are Gen Xers and Boomers who are quite far from being desperate to survive these unprecedented times, to borrow a cliche. In fact, the industry of grift, manipulation, and misery for profit pretty much demands that its marks have plenty of disposable income to survive and thrive the way it has, otherwise it couldn’t bring it the revenues it does.
Just consider that Trump supporters in the 2016 primaries made $72,000 per year — well above the then national average of $59,000 — and those claiming incomes of six figures or more voted to reelect him by a slight margin last year. Their first pathway into self-radicalization weren’t Q drops on loli hentai message boards, but overpriced wellness scams on social media by those peddling a paranoid mindset to middle and upper middle class white collar workers who had to start caring about politics and change for the first time in their lives. The elderly couple scanning their Facebook feeds for more outrage bait tailored for them by an algorithm that couldn’t care less what it serves as long as users are engaged was, again, sadly, a typical example of this.
But hold on, you may ask, why are these people putting themselves in such a mentally open and vulnerable state to liars, and grifters spewing paranoia? Why are well off professionals with advanced degrees just as likely to fall for the same conspiracies as those who barely graduated high school? We’ve explored many answers to why people fall for conspiracy theories, ranging from a lack of critical thinking, to fear of complex, uncontrolled, mismanaged change, to social media algorithms, and at their core are certain personality traits combined with a perceived lack of self-determination and control. But there appears to be one more critical component we’re not discussing. Boredom.
In Watchmen, a scientist who became a quantum being with godlike powers sits on a Martian rock lamenting “I am tired of this world; these people. I am tired of being caught in the tangle of their lives.” It’s his most iconic line and we’re meant to take it as the musings of an intellect far beyond ours, unwilling to be burdened by the petty problems of the masses. But what if we identify with this quip not because we all aspire to quantum godhood, but because we too are tired of the gordian knot of daily absurd, arbitrary inanities that make up our typical day? Even as we grind our teeth at work, pushing paper and navigating office gossip and politics, we ask ourselves what’s the point of all this.
You don’t have to be an entity existing outside time as we know it to see that much of our lives are governed by nothing more than temporary agreements and compromises which can change in the blink of an eye, and often do. We know that laws can be, and are enforced selectively, or are constantly rewritten. And we know that many monetary systems are set up on handshakes and structured to benefit whoever happens to throw around the most money at the right political officials. We comply with this patchwork of shifting regulations and ideas because we often just don’t have the power not to, and realize that we have to in order to maintain some semblance of a working society providing basic services.
History is full of people whose disdain for the arbitrary moods and nature of societies in which they lived overflowed enough for them to act in ways described as crazy if they were poor, or eccentric if they had money and status. Today, some academics even argue that these figures’ strange behavior was actually a manifestation of something called “hypersanity.” It’s not that they lost their grip on reality, it’s that they saw very clearly that humans refuse to follow reality when it’s inconvenient for them and come up with a lot of stupid rules and routines which, in the grand scheme of things, do little but waste time. For example, what is a “bullshit job” but the ultimate manifestation of pointless obedience to society’s arbitrary values?
Of course, hypersanity doesn’t have to be about abstract concepts like self-actualization and personal fulfilment. It can play a role in everyday problems like restaurants shutting down in a global pandemic because we refuse to rescue them based on elaborate justifications that only cite arbitrary rules with which we came up for our economy. In fact, we could have put the whole world on ice until we beat COVID, suspending all rents, mortgages, and bills, making sure all of us were safe and healthy until resuming daily life. Millions of jobs would’ve been saved, as well as hundreds of thousands of lives. Why didn’t we do that? Because our self-designed arbitrary economic indicators would’ve looked really bad, so we ruled that out as an option.
The end result was like refusing to pause a video game while your house is on fire so your kill count per hour doesn’t drop. We know that, we understand that, and we know that those in charge of the world at least have a passing familiarity with the rudimentary concept. And yet, as the public begged for a reprieve, those very people and their media mouthpieces effectively told us that if we have to drop dead so they don’t have to change a thing even in the face of a global disaster, so be it. Given the chance to rapidly and radically change the world for the better, our leaders threw ambitious plans that would benefit all of humanity in the garbage and pretty much just told us to go fuck ourselves.
Our life is a cycle of production, consumption, and sleep to power an absurd, arbitrary system in which we’re a replaceable, mute cog, as we just discussed in great detail. Work has become a pie eating contest where our only reward is more pie. Eventually, you’re simply force fed that pie until you vomit, they let you take a minute to catch your breath, have some Sprite, then back to the table you go to have more pie crammed down your gullet. And now, on top of all that, we’re seeing that the world is being ran by truly loathsome, incompetent, greedy sociopaths, and their fans are every bit as monstrous, cheering and clapping for the success of campaigns intended to undermine COVID vaccinations while rejecting the very notion of civlized society.
Now imagine what real political change looks like. Educating oneself on the issues. Attending a lot of boring sessions and meetings. Doing a lot of reading and listening. Voting in every single election for hundreds of officials who you have to research beforehand. Calling to register your opinions on bills and proposals. Slowly moving the needle over years and waiting for complex, capital and labor-intensive programs and policies to bear fruit while rejecting cheap and quick political band aids destined to make things even worse in the long term. Why, this is as boring as your already tedious existence! Why not search for something a little more… radical? Why not find that meaning and zeal you’re lacking in a link promising to do just that?
With daily temperature records being broken across the world, drought-prone areas burning as Europe and China flood, every step of the COVID pandemic either mishandled by the bumbling muppets in charge or undermined by rabid zealots no one seems able to control, and a yawning chasm of income inequality continuing to exponentially increase, it absolutely feels like nothing short of radicalism will do. Our system is desperately broken but we continue to prop it up even as the act of doing so becomes more and more absurd and damaging. Politicians and oligarchs calling the shots no longer see us as fellow humans, so drunk on wealth and power that their brains are literally altered. It seems more insane to aim for anything less than a revolt.
As we’ve discussed many times before, modern life is boring and its focus on making money for the sake of making money, without a grand adventure for us to pursue, or something bigger and better to be a part of to inspire the next generation, leaves us feeling hollow and frustrated. With enough time and money to get some sleep and really think about it, people are starting to snap and look for narratives that justify their ever-simmering sub-surface rage. Right now, it’s the far right providing the necessary outrage fuel and a steady stream of clearly defined opponents and actions to feed that justification, and those highly motivated to take their rage out at something or someone, follow in tow.
Sadly, the end result of the white nationalist utopia preached by the far right isn’t going to deliver solutions to any of the problems we described. As we’ve seen first hand, right wing governance is now nothing but trolling and performative assholery and cruelty. There are no plans to actually fix anything or give people aspirations beyond feeling good about themselves based solely on the color of their skin and place of birth, and scaremongering grift. A lot of grift, just an obscene amount of it in every direction you look because right wing populists only see their fans as easy marks, which absolutely includes Trump himself. Your only reward for following them is the open encouragement to be your worst, angriest, most bigoted self without consequences.
But at the same time, this is now the closest to a meaningful pursuit or great adventure most of us are going to get in the foreseeable future, taking down imaginary enemies, poisoning what’s left of our minds with toxic paranoia, and casting ourselves as “digital soldiers” fighting in the trenches of cyberwarfare — which is, yes, also a right wing grift — against an evil secret cabal of Satanic pedophile cannibals. All of this happens from the comfort of home. No need to actually train in grueling conditions, no one will be asking you to run a mile and a half, then knock out at least 50 pushups and crunches, or judging your marksmanship. You won’t get shot or bombed. The worst that will happen is that people like me will call you a lunatic on Twitter.
This is why QAnon is referred to as a LARPing exercise and why following the Fox, Facebook, and Newsmax addicted crowd into Ron Watkins’, err, Q’s loli dungeon is the political equivalent of masturbation. By the time it’s over, all you made is a mess and only a select group of people enjoyed watching the process. And that’s the grand adventure you’re being offered. To do that forever. To be mad forever. To find new enemies forever. To have your credit card charged by yet another grifter waiving a flag while foaming at the mouth forever. In a quest for meaning, you were sold a spot on a hamster wheel, all because you were bored and needed a hobby.
Unfortunately though, all this self-soothing through LARPing with grifters has consequences. As clearly illustrated by Brexit, there’s dire blowback to becoming a country where reason goes to die. As you fight imaginary foes and give all your discretionary income to the scammers feeding you false hope and purpose, real problems go unaddressed and the nation rots from the inside out. People who can leave head for the exits and those who had no choice but to stay become pawns of ever more depraved authoritarians and plutocrats. It’s possible to recover, of course, but at great political and economic cost as trust is lost, debt is accumulated and downgraded due to massive dysfunction, and skilled, productive workers leave en masse.
Sure, it may be hard to believe that simple boredom is indirectly killing millions while changing the world order, but then again, boredom is a powerful weapon. Ask an expert and they’ll tell you how important downtime and boredom are to human creativity. Give humans time to daydream and long for adventure and purpose and fulfillment, or worry about incoming challenges and threats, then tie their hands behind their back because some reactionaries and plutocrats are happy with the way things are, and watch all the energy boil over into something hideous and destructive. This is exactly what happened and we’re now paying an ever-escalating price for our neglect of our own humanity every day.
At this point, it may be tempting to blame our failed leaders and corporate robber barons who think that the idea of work-life balance is “debilitating” — because wage slaving for them should be the only thing workers think about — for basically driving people crazy with their greed, laziness, and incompetence. But although they deserve a large portion of the blame, there’s also a very significant element of personal responsibility at play. It doesn’t matter how much you want to have an adventure or feel like you’re fighting for something noble, you still need to use critical thinking and learn peer-reviewed, scientific and historical facts on issues that got you bothered instead of trusting some random contrarian grifter on YouTube.
We still have the obligation to be sane, skeptical, demand evidence for big claims, and know what it would take to change our minds on an issue instead of posting the same delusional and ignorant screeds already debunked by everyone and their grand-gerbil in law twice removed as if just chanting something we want to be true makes it so. Between climate change, corruption, aging infrastructure, automation, artificial intelligence, cyberwarfare, and the need to modernize our militaries, we have more than enough real problems to solve, villains to fight, and goals to accomplish without resorting to imagining new ones while giving professional trolls and assholes our credit card numbers so they can live comfortably off our self-indulgent ignorance.
Looking at boredom as a root cause for sudden self-radicalization may give us new tools to fight the onslaught of self-destructive conspiracies and misinformation. When we are confronted with yet another foaming at the mouth rant about secret cabals of baby-eating Reptoids running the world from the shadows through “Cultural Marxism” or some other Bircherite bugaboo, instead of arguing, you can try to tackle all that misspent energy. “Ted, are you really that bored? Is this really the best you can do with your free time? Do you not have hobbies or friends that you have to worry about space lizards some guy on YouTube stole from another scammer? What would you be doing if you didn’t spend your whole day on this?”
Get them to talk about real, tangible issues. Agree with them that the people in charge are idiots because, as we mentioned time and time again, many of them obviously are, but ask them what they think a better, saner politician or executive looks like. Ask them how they would fix some of those pressing problems if they didn’t have social media, because for all intents and purposes, if you don’t have tens, if not hundreds of thousands of loyal followers on social media, it’s useless as a tool for positive change because you won’t have the algorithmic momentum. And trust me, with an average Twitter user having only 200 followers, they’re more than likely not social media celebrities. If they were, they’d be the grifters gleefully mining their fans’ wallets.
Don’t worry about debunking everything they say. They’re not that attached to those claims in the first place, unlike the traditional conspiracy theorists of yore. These conspiracy casuals are chasing an emotional high from being a part of something, out of deluding themselves that they are secret soldiers and spies and heroes fighting for what’s right, and they’re highly motivated to find any justification to keep chasing that high. Our goal shouldn’t be to fact check them but to redirect that zeal towards something positive in a sort of sociopolitical jujitsu. If they’re looking for a cause, don’t we have a dozen good ones to offer? And if they want change, why not use all that time on social media to demand it from politicians?
Just imagine if all the zeal put into parsing the tsunami of bullshit shat out by Q and right wing outlets met all that time being glued to fermenting said bullshit into destructive delusions and was channeled towards something genuinely positive like clean air, green jobs, and going after real sources of government waste like overpriced, vulnerable, and useless weapons, and evil stooges refusing to let tax services collect money owed by wealthy cheats. So, ask disciples of Q, or Alex Jones, or Tucker Carlson whether they want to fight for real changes and educate themselves on what’s possible with 21st century ideas rather than mid-to-late 19th, or if they’d prefer chasing after ghosts for a monthly fee. Their answer will tell both of you quite a bit…