Imagine raising your kids without ever telling them “no”? To anyone of a certain age, that may sound outlandish, and yet, in many ways, that’s exactly where Americans are headed culturally — and it’s infantilizing us.
Unchecked, we get to rant (also known as, throw tantrums) on our Facebook newsfeeds in an avalanche of words anytime we want. We can feed our endless need for validation by publishing the most moronic posts imaginable — “Buying a bagel. Yummy, I love bagels!” — expecting our “friends” to “Like” it. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, plays directly to the fidgety, digitally over-stimulated, slightly spastic adults we’ve become. The innumerable media outlets that truncate complicated ideas and news items into packaged listicles don’t help. Even our Gchats and text messages read like gibberish: c u @ 2, k?
Indeed, social media — that stage upon which every hopeful can nab the lead part without a nay-saying casting director in sight — has increasingly allowed us to bypass “no.”
And we’re likely to regret it.
At 38, I have a long and plentiful history of rejection. My first “no” came from a feisty Greek woman who inflexibly denied most of my youthful cravings — my mother. When I’d sneak a box of Nerds or pack of Garbage Pail Kids into our shopping cart, she’d stare me down and say in her native tongue, “No, we don’t have the money.” We weren’t rich, but we definitely could afford the occasional 50-cent splurge. And yet her frugality and the regularity with which she denied my requests imparted important life lessons: I’m good at budgeting and expert at postponing — or refusing — my consumer lusts, crucial skills in surviving on a thin income.
New Yorker cartoonist Gideon Amichay, a native of Israel, also had a toughie for a mom. “The composition is, well, so-so,” he quotes her saying of his childhood drawings in his new illustrated book, “No, No, No, No, No, Yes: Insights from a Creative Journey.” But he goes on to argue that her critiques helped him flourish into the successful artist and ad man he is today.
Amichay identifies three types of “no”: The one that makes us try harder; the one that inspires us to rethink our visions; and finally, the one that moves us into a different direction. In my career, I’ve accumulated more “nos” than an out-of-work actor. But amid this stream of rejection are the editors who have said “no” with the kind of encouragement and feedback that Amichay applauds, pushing my idea to the next evolution, challenging me to think with more nuance, and, ultimately, facilitating my growth as a writer.
While I appreciate the democratizing efforts of the quintessential mediums of our time — Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, to name a few — they’ve also allowed us to regress culturally into a child-like prison of self-absorption.
Millennials, raised on self-centric, “no”- averse platforms — not to mention, coddled by over-indulgent parents — seem particularly at risk of becoming what Henry David Thoreau called “the tools of our tools.” According to a new Pew Research Institute survey, 81 percent report being on Facebook and 55 percent have published a selfie.
Sure, every Joe and Jane can showcase their writings, photos, films, special events, and quirky preferences. People are able to stay connected in ways never imagined before, and social revolutions have been catalyzed through the help of online social networks.
And yet one can’t help but feel a little cheapened and dwarfed by these technologies. I’m not pining for the old guard or elite media establishment of yesteryear. But without “no,” we are slobbering ids publishing selfies, impulsive tweets, driveling posts, and artless pontificating on current events with reckless disregard for the important stuff that necessarily slows us down — fact, truth, craft. We need editors and critics to bridle our excesses and missteps in logic. We are all better for hearing “no” once in a while, and knowing how to move on.
If the Pew survey is any indication, even millennials are getting fatigued by limitless self-expression. Nine out of 10 reported feeling like people share too much online. Perhaps that’s a sign that the tide is turning — that we are finally getting over ourselves and growing up.
Stephanie Fairyington is a New York City-based freelance writer and co-editor of Slanthere.com.