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When I wrote about Kierkegaard and despair just under a week ago, it was intended to setup a longer discussion on the related concept of “idle chatter.” Circumstances—most notably CPNC—got in the way of an immediate followthrough, but now I’m glad I waited, since it gave my thoughts some time to gestate. Plus, in the mean time, my friend Cody Brown pointed me towards an excellent lecture delivered at West Point earlier this year. The name of it: Solitude and Leadership.
Today I want to write about the “Solitude” part of that equation, and how it relates to idle chatter. Here is how Clare Carlisle characterized idle chatter in a column for the Guardian:
He suggested that one symptom of this mass evasiveness is “idle chatter” – a phenomenon that he thought was institutionalised in the press. Whether frivolous or pretentious, tabloid or broadsheet, idle chatter is fuelled by “curiosity” and a nihilistic thirst for novelty. This superficial kind of interest can be contrasted with the existential passion that Kierkegaard identified with our spiritual life. One can only wonder what he would have made of the media in the 21st century, where “news”, “opinion” and “comment” proliferate more than ever before. Should we regard this as a sign of flourishing culture, or of spiritlessness?
Now here is William Deresiewicz in “Solitude and Leadership”:
It seems to me that Facebook and Twitter and YouTube—and just so you don’t think this is a generational thing, TV and radio and magazines and even newspapers, too—are all ultimately just an elaborate excuse to run away from yourself. To avoid the difficult and troubling questions that being human throws in your way. Am I doing the right thing with my life? Do I believe the things I was taught as a child? What do the words I live by—words like duty, honor, and country—really mean? Am I happy?
This is idle chatter by another name. And whereas Deresiewicz frames the seeking of solitude and reflection as something necessary to be a good leader, I’m inclined to make the stronger argument: that by failing to do this, all of us can at times inflict great psychological deficits upon ourselves.
Anyone who has access to this post is capable of doing tremendous self-harm. And it’s not overt, immediately recognizable self-harm, but something more akin to abusing prescription medication. And while, as Deresiewicz himself is quick to point out, this hunger for distraction is nothing new, I do think some of the new social media tools he singles out—and any number of other ones, up to and including Tumblr—is that they have gotten remarkably good at offering the illusion of something deeper. Rather than simple diversion, they offer a form of identification that less interactive mediums were never capable of. There are staggering benefits to that, sure—but some of the philosophical implications are deeply unsettling.
Before I get into that, though, I’m going to bow to the medium’s demand for concision. So more on this later.