The west side of my face is an August backyard. Across my jaw stretches the outline of an old slip n’ slide where nothing much grows in the way it’s supposed to. On several occasions I have interrogated my father about the timing of his beard, hoping to find some precedent for my adulthood stuck on buffer. Alas.
And there’s a despair, deep and sinking, that comes with the thought of the profile picture that 15 percent more beard might afford me. I could be week-old stubble, sitting calmly in a well-staged coffee shop where a good friend would snap 35 candids on their Cannon DSLR. On my laptop, which would surely rest on the small table in front of me, would be a handful of topical stickers, casually signaling my liberal credentials. Yet for psychological rather genetic reasons, this too is a fantasy. An unhealthy fear of commitment makes any kind of permanent sticker simply untenable.
I often feel a peculiar impulse, which is best captured by the profile picture I do not have, to do 20-something liberal in a much more stylish way. In its most obvious form, it is mostly an affinity for a certain social media persona. A Twitter, perhaps, that hashtags its advocacy, or fires off some well-timed support for So-And-So or condemnation of The Other One. You will know, I’m sure, whether that Snapstory was at a rally this afternoon. It might have a more manicured Facebook profile, the kind with the deliberate look of somebody trying to sell you something. At its core, though, it is a character that projects its cool through the glazed LED image of its politics.
To be clear, the sort of aesthetic politics to which I have been drawn does not only manifest itself on social media, although that is where it is most often on display. The use of buzzwords is the linguistic equivalent of a filter on a profile picture. It demonstrates neither an understanding of, nor a commitment to, the issues that the words originally describe. Instead, things become problematic, and systems become neoliberal, not so much because they are, but because observing that that they might be says something about the speaker; that is, that they are on the right team. There is, of course, value in solidarity and common language; however, reflecting with the right amount of honesty, I find that my motivation can be a bit more self-interested than I am often willing to admit.
In the royal blue world I inhabit, there is a lot of value to be found in having the proper ideology. Due in part to circumstance and accumulated social choices, my community of peers is remarkably ideologically homogenous. Maybe it’s unremarkable. Regardless, this context of general agreement creates an incentive to present my politics in a certain way. It isn’t a trivial preoccupation with likes or retweets, but the need to find affirmation that I am, in fact, good.
I can’t claim to know what drives anyone to speak or act in the way that they do. Presumably it has something to do with a dizzying swirl of intention and impulse that occasionally coalesces into the doing of things. Surely, though, it is guided by some set of internal incentives, of reward and punishment that is not reflected in material conditions, but in our personal valuation of our self. We do things because it makes us the sort of person who would do those things. Crucially, these incentives are almost always up for popular input. We grant our peers the power to guide the way in which we value ourselves, and the things we do to attain that value.
Thus there is a genuine terror, which I believe to be absolutely common, that my community might not think that I am the way I ought to be. This fear, I think, is at the heart of the aesthetic preoccupation that often drives our campus politics. Rather than being driven by a deep desire to better the world around us, or to affect meaningful change, we mostly just play Double Dutch in chalk outlines of the better people we would like to be.
And it’s just so hard to work that way. There is an immense amount of time and energy spent on inch-deep displays of affection. Yet the folks doing hard work in this and other communities rarely get the support that our collective volume would indicate they probably should. There truly are dedicated students who apply themselves to bettering the conditions around them, to pursuing the better world they believe to be important. But if they are to be successful, if our ideology is to hold any merit, we cannot content ourselves with the social reward of looking like the right kind of person.
Rubin Danberg Biggs is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Common Table appears alternate Mondays this semester.