Older people are supposed to complain about the kids these days. Northrop Frye, the great literary critic, wrote in The Educated Imagination that one of the earliest written texts produced by humans said that children no longer obey their parents or honor the gods.
As you know, we humans grew up in small bands of less than about 100 people. Everyone knew everyone else. Unless we are on the autism spectrum (and even if we are, sometimes), we are all very, very good at reading other people (we’ve learned this from trying to teach computers to do what we do so easily, so naturally). We’re good at this because we care what those other people think.
Our concern about how others view us is so key to personality that psychologists long ago elevated it to one of the “six core personality traits”—agreeableness. Others find us agreeable, or they don’t, and we want to know why.
Of course, we suffer a LOT, in middle school and high school, from this desire to please others. The difficulty of doing that is one reason why almost everyone’s middle- and high-school experiences were just awful. It wasn’t just Mr. Putz’s stupid Algebra quizzes.
And it isn’t, I think, that we stop worrying about what other people think when we grow up, if we ever grow up. It’s that we get better at a) ignoring slights, b) finding partners or social circles that are accepting of us, c) asserting our own self value, and other means of coping.
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre elevates concern for what other people think of us to the status of a key determinant of our Being. We are free to do or think whatever we want, he says. But all that freedom is scary. Other people, in contrast, don’t see us as freedoms. They look at us, formulate us in a phrase, and that’s it. The easiest course is simply to conform, to be as the They want us to be, to be inauthentic and solicitous. Sartre felt so strongly about this that when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he told the Nobel committee to stuff it. I don’t do parlor tricks for approval, he was saying. Bob Dylan said pretty much the same thing when he was awarded the prize in 2016.
Eliot, in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” famously describes this being formulated (and dismissed) by others as being turned into an insect, pinned and wriggling on a wall. To myself, I am that international man of mystery, that “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” as Churchill said. Or, as Whitman put it, “I contain multitudes.” To some other person, I’m a LOT simpler—I’m that snowflake, that old guy who drives too slowly, that guy who writes the long-winded pseudo-intellectual pieces on Facebook that no one is going to read anyway. He thinks he’s so smart.
Sartre called this power that others have over us to define us casually (and often cruelly) The Look. Middle-school kids are powerless before The Look. OMG. Did you see how she looked at you?!?!?!
Social media extends this concern about The Look into adulthood. We go online and seek validation. Like my post. Please. No, love it. Give me love. I deserve it. Please. Just a little bit. You never do that anymore.
But there’s a flip side. Obviously, we shouldn’t get too wrapped up in that game. Our validation needs to come from ourselves, ultimately, and from a few close people who like us as we are and will be and are willing to be audience and amanuensis for our continued growth, flowering, flourishing.
But there IS also a positive side to social sanction. For good or ill, it is a powerful force for effecting change and keeping the worst of our tendencies in check. No, I don’t think that people are more racist today than they were, even in the age of Trump. Yeah, his sloppy spilling of grotesqueries into the public dialogue has brought a lot of racists scurrying out of the woodwork, but here’s what happens, now: someone on an IM thread makes a racist or sexist comment, someone else calls him or her out on it, and a lot of others pile on The first person reacts in anger. But he or she has learned a lesson.