I’m learning how to think again

With the looming threat of the “outrage machine,” I’d become too afraid to form my own opinions

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Kate Snyder is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

In my transition from adolescence to quasi-adulthood, I feel that I’ve existed in a state of perpetual pageantry. Every day is a swimsuit competition. Every social interaction is a high-stakes interview. Every choice I make may propel me closer to the crown and sash, or my spotlight will dim and shut off, leaving me fidgeting in the dark. Broadly speaking, for better or for worse, I have become very conscious of my personal brand, and I tend to live my life as though my choices and values serve as a kind of cloak over my person. I’m a hopeful pageant queen, the fabric of my sparkling evening gown sewn from the squares of my Instagram feed.

I’m sure I’m not alone on this stage — I recognize this compulsion for constant performance more and more in my peers. With seemingly endless platforms of social media, all well attuned to different methods of personality-broadcasting, the opportunities for exposition are endless.

In a toxic cocktail, our existences as online personalities are mixed with our current inflammatory political climate and consequently, we are inclined to react to every new development of international politics, popular culture and domestic policy as if we are hosting a press conference. We have stock in our reputations, and our ruthless investors demand gains. I live in a state of anxiety that the choices I make in how I react to even a single Trump tweet will jeopardize my carefully pruned and manicured public image, and to remain silent would be akin to admitting apathy, ignorance or worse.

The byproduct of this atmosphere, apart from a nagging hum of anxious jitters, is that I have formed a somewhat abusive relationship with media content. When a new issue arises, ripe for public scrutiny, I feel compelled to rush to every available online forum, scrolling like a maniac through the associated Google results in order to gulp down the reactions of others.

The relief I feel after scanning the articulations of passionate opinions concerning whether or not Pete Davidson’s last tweet was kind of creepy, or if Kendall Jenner’s Instagram post paints a negative image of women is like taking a Benadryl after I accidentally eat a granola bar with cashews that I’m allergic to. A wave of relief rushes over me as I finally learn what it is my opinion should be, and my tongue stops swelling — a side effect of cashew-ingestion, not social anxiety, but a similar sensation occurs in either case.

But this relief, unlike the Benadryl, only masks the heart of the problem. I find issue with the dog-eat-dog nature of our current social climate, as to misstep or ask a question is to admit some lack of personhood, and the prospect of being “cancelled” and sent into cultural exile seems to loom around every corner. By relying on the opinions of others in informing my own, I seek to safeguard myself from this fate. Consequently, as I no longer give myself time to think critically about my own opinions on a subject of debate before seeking those of others, I feel that I’ve slowly lost touch with my own nuanced values and thought processes.

I found the remedy to this problem without looking for it, as the solution came to me in the form of my English professor, Karen Chase Levenson. Last semester, I took her class entitled “Novels By Which to Live,” in which we studied stories with themes that tackled the meaning of life, man’s purpose and other topics apparently almost exclusively addressed by 19th-century Russian men.

As we finished our first book, Dostoevsky’s “The B­rothers Karamazov,” Prof. Chase instructed us at the beginning of class to write a brief statement on the book’s final page, no more than a sentence, that detailed what we felt the book’s message was and what that message meant to us. We wrote these statements, signed them and dated them, all before we began discussing the plot as a group. With this practice, I took the time to formulate my own distinct opinion — unadulterated and untouched.

Now, it is a process that I keep with every book that I read, and one that I have begun to apply diligently to my consumption of news stories. Before I allow myself to read the countless reviews and think-pieces, I take time to meditate on an issue and come to my own conclusion. I find that I am better able to keep in touch with myself, better equipped for thoughtful discussion and less passive as an audience member to the incessant spectacle of the news cycle and the associated outrage machine. Unique opinions are valuable, more so now than ever before, and I believe it essential to take conscious and measured steps in cultivating them.

Kate Snyder is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com

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