Monday, July 9, 2018

We're All Individuals

Amusing essay by Steve Lagerfeld about one of the perennial paradoxes of the modern age, our insistence that we are all outsiders who hate the mainstream. He begins with a Satanic church event at a nighclub, where
ten speakers lined up to spell out the issues in a series of bullet-point pronouncements. “To invoke Satan is to invoke rebellion, and also to question authority,” declared the first. It is to invoke “the struggle for equal justice and equal rights for everyone,” said another. Others announced the temple’s support for science, the right to “claim your body as your own,” and free inquiry. One spoke of “satanic revolution.” The last speaker sounded the evening’s big theme: “We have each embraced the life of a pariah, cast out for being different. Yet here we are together, hundreds of us gathered in one place. Insiders upending the old paradigms.”

It was a shrewd piece of marketing. Somebody in the Satanic Temple brain trust had plucked the signal from the noise of the American scene. The thing to be today is an outsider, an underdog, a moral outlier and exemplar, a defier and disrupter of the established order. It’s an identity that has never been far from the surface in American society, and it is now reasserting itself in a new form. It doesn’t matter if, like the Los Angeles Satanists, you have thoroughly conventional ideas. Or if, like the nation’s Trump supporters, you number in the tens of millions and have put your man in the White House. One of the more compelling claims you can make in America today is that you are proudly and defiantly outside the mainstream. That you are a contrarian. It’s the claim not just of populists but of professors who style themselves as iconoclasts, climate change deniers, radical environmental groups, libertarian seasteaders bent on creating autonomous floating cities, countless alternative-values and lifestyle groups, and many others. The farther you position yourself from the mainstream, the better. Conservative Christians and their rationalist-humanist adversaries in groups like the Satanic Temple seem to vie for the distinction of being the most unwelcome group in American society.
Once upon a time, Lagerfeld says, you had to actually be somehow different from the mass of Americans to claim this status, for example by refusing to take a corporate job. But now "outsiderness has been democratized," and millions of ordinary-looking suburbanites with ordinary jobs proudly proclaim themselves outsiders.

And why do we do this?
The contrarian’s great temptation is moral vanity, and what a sweet one it is. . . . For some of us, there is nothing like the joy of being a pariah.
Right. To be superior to the herd is one of the most pleasant and powerful fantasies.

I've been wondering for some time we moderns are so obsessed with our petty rebellions. Maybe our society is just so huge that it's very hard for people to identify with. Maybe it's the absence of neighboring tribes bent on carrying off our cattle. Maybe it is the degree of difference within the culture, in terms of tastes and opinions. Maybe we're just bored.

I write about this from time to time mostly because it is the mass social tendency I feel most powerfully in myself. I am aware of how foolish it is for me to feel great superiority over the masses, but I can't help myself; nothing makes me feel smug and happy like thinking I am different from and closer to being right than the mass. Which just proves all the more what a typical citizen of our age I really am.


Unknown said...

Interesting that none of the Satanists in the quote claimed that Satan was, you know, a powerful otherworldly being who can provide boons or insight in exchange for worship. Did any of them at least say they wanted to join Satan in his rebellion against God? That's some pretty serious rebelhood right there.

G. Verloren said...


Most Satanists don't believe in a literal Satan - they just employ Satan as a symbol, useful as a way of giving name or reference to concepts and feelings that are a bit convoluted or esoteric.

Satanism is far more of a literary and philosophical tradition than it is a religion. There's a lot of variety among Satanists, but in general they're very likely to have grown up in a toxic Christian religious setting and sought to escape it through rejection of its norms and an embracing of intellectualism, rationality, and general questioning of authority.

There are Satanists who are extreme Anarchists, and there are Satanists who are just ordinary people who are annoyed at religious fundamentalists. The biggest thing they all have in common is a sort of shared disappointment in the failure of Christianity to live up to its potential for good, and the amount of evil done in its name.

That and a certain flair for the dramatic and a certain theatricality.