As a reward for her attempt to depict the consequences of online commenters, Gwyneth Paltrow has become their latest victim.
In a now-infamous impromptu speech, Paltrow told a tech conference… well, something about online hate and real-life war.
“[I]t’s a very dehumanizing thing,” she lamented. “It’s almost like how, in war, you go through this bloody, dehumanizing thing, and then something is defined out of it.”
It was the analogy that launched a thousand flame wars. In her sheltered, celebrity ignorance of the peril of metaphors and similes, Paltrow has played right into the hands of the outrage machine.
And someone needs to take her defense. This isn’t just about protecting a celebrity from mockery and scorn—although at some time in our lives pretty much all of us need that kind of support. It’s about taking a stand for the integrity of language and the possibility of real communication.
To be sure, some of Paltrow’s critics have taken the opportunity to make a good point that bears little relation to vein-popping word policing. Cindy McCain, for instance, has offered to introduce Paltrow to some Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, the better to talk face to face “about what really goes on.”
Too many of us, not just celebrities, are too walled off from the real-life experience of warriors, including our own. The effect is doubly demented. First, we become even more over-sensitive than we already are. We take offense at anything and everything, and savvy media folks shout along all the way to the bank.
Second, however, and even more to our discredit, we live in denial over the way that our endless venting of online outrage is a convenient way for us to feel embroiled in violence without actually having to risk life and limb to confront our enemies face to face.
And this—hard as we strain not to admit it—is what Paltrow told her audience. It wasn’t something she tried to tell them; it wasn’t something she awkwardly voiced without an adequate, lawyerly array of disclaimers and qualifiers.
It was what she said: the process of being hated online, day in and out, by strangers who act like enemies, is almost (i.e., not literally) like (that is, somewhat akin to, in a certain way) the process that takes place in organized political violence (a.k.a. war).
Two things should be completely obvious to everyone. First, communication in our culture has taken on not just the rhetoric of war but the psychology of battle in a particularly degrading and modern sense—totalistic, hate-soaked, viciously othering, and massively xenophobic. Second, it is not bad to say this is so. Instead of a virtual punch in the ovaries, Paltrow should get a round of applause. But we are so deranged that we won’t even give her what 90 percent of everything on the internet gets—a half-nod half-shrug, and a click on to the next fluffball of ephemera.
Alas we look on celebrities with such envy, disgust, and contempt that we’ll take any excuse to attack them. And as everyone knows, in this regard many celebrities are doing themselves no favors. God knows I would expect to be hated daily if I invented GOOP. Nevertheless, the burden is not on them not to care about expensive food and design elements. The burden is on us to deal with them with dignity.
Even more unfortunately, we find it so hard to bear this burden because of the times in which we live. A hallmark of the modern age is literalism in all things. Things are so bad that we do not even realize that literalism itself had a different meaning in past epochs. St. Augustine, for instance, did not believe the Earth was “really” created in seven “actual” days. In ancient times, the realm of wisdom and truth freely commingled with the realm of mythos, metaphor, symbol, poetry, allegory, and dreams.
Not today. Today, long since the end of hierarchical honor culture brought passed-down authorities crashing down, we trust public opinion more than anything else, and hardly trust that.
We say we trust the experts, but fight tooth and nail over what true expertise is, struggling to discredit one another’s experts like the unhinged amateur attorneys we’ve become.
Constantly in motion, constantly torn between ambition and fear, constantly unsure of our relative status and our future security, we have no time for calm, considered, and above all patient reflection on the edifying subtleties of non-literal texts that so enrich the heart, the mind, and the soul.
Literalism has turned disagreement over religion into one of the most bloody fronts in the culture war (metaphorically! for now). Literalism has turned debate into an all-or-nothing game. Literalism has left us with no alternative mode of thought but a sadly deracinated zone of emotionally paralyzed vagueness, where we feebly gesture toward things that are “very sort of” this way, or give us some thin “sense of” that feeling.
In a world where equality is accelerating so fast that our president devotes time in his big foreign policy address to warn of the menace of the rising global middle class, the mania of competition among relative equals routinely, ritually does violence to the very possibility of forbearance. Our default mode is to expect that words are acts of violence. Speech becomes literary, literal coercion.
Congratulations, America—you’ve weaponized communication.
And you think Paltrow is the one who ought to apologize.