The Tyranny of the Majority Disturbs Me


The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me.  And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a hopeless minority.  —  Gandhi

What I remember most from the movie The Help (besides the turd pie) is the advice Emma Stone’s character Skeeter is given by an editor played by Mary Steenburgen:  “Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.” Fortunately, I’m not the only one bothered by what disturbs me.  Noah Richler articulated it perfectly in an article titled “The Tyranny of Numbers in the Digital Age”:

…as a boy in London, England, I read World of Wonder magazine and, in Canada, listened to programs like CBC Radio One’s “Ideas for ideas of things I knew nothing about — the very fact of my unknowing leading me down unexpected avenues rich with reward.

This kind of instinct was at odds with the way the mass market works.  It depended upon the “gatekeeping” decisions of intelligent others.  Nowadays, these gatekeepers have been almost categorically undermined by a pendulum of approval that has swung extremely towards that which is vindicated by the masses.  The strength of crowds has always existed, but it has been given an extraordinary boost by the technology and dynamics of the web.

We are living in a period of gross aberration marked by a giddy counting that has seen us forget other ways to calibrate our common sense.  We post a picture to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter and count the number of “Likes” and “Retweets” and “Comments” and compare.

Our aggregation into groups of the like-minded confers legitimacy through the mass of numbers, rather than by engagement with rival opinions that might enrich us.  It says, “Look how many think just like me!  I must be right and you must be wrong!” and allows us to disregard our true neighbors and the worth of their opinions and grievances.

I’ve never been part of the masses or majority.  Being naturally highly sensitive and introverted and a loner forces me into the minority.  But, I also have attitudes that push me further on the outside like avoiding anything that is popular or trendy or fashionable or cool and if anyone uses the argument “everyone is doing it” to persuade me to do something, I do the opposite.  I agree with Mark Twain who said “whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”

I’m also very cautious and tend to think (a lot) before I do anything and this puts me at odds with a culture that is about acting and spending now and thinking and paying later.

These tendencies of my mine are even more bizarre and strange in the culture as described by Richler above.  Our digital age has given more power to the majority.  Your worth as an idea, product, as a person, is determined by how popular it is and how in line with the masses you are. Your position is legitimized by the number of people who agree with you and technology has provided easy ways to measure this.  What disturbs me most is that if you question the majority, disagree with the majority, if you live your life differently from the majority, you are dismissed as an elitist or worse you’re suspected of being dangerous or even crazy.

For example, consider Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom.  He really dislikes social media.  He called Twitter “unspeakably irritating” and “dumb”.  He thinks because of Amazon’s increasing control of in the publishing industry that Jeff Bezos may be “one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse” and because of the Amazon model the most widely read books will be those created by “yakkers and braggers and tweeters” who are the best at promoting themselves, not the best writers.

A lot of people didn’t like him for this.  They bashed him for it without considering his argument.   Why?  No one bothered to stop and consider if what he said made sense and reacted instead to the fact that his opinion went against the popular opinion.

Read his more thoughtful ideas about the Internet and social media:

My position is this: the Internet is fabulous for a lot of things. It’s a fabulous research tool. It’s great for buying stuff, it’s great for bringing together people to work on communal things, like software, or people who share a passion or are all suffering from the same disease and want to find each other and communicate. It’s wonderful for that. But the Internet in general—and social media in particular—fosters this notion that everything should be shared, everything is communal. When it works, it’s great. But it specifically doesn’t work, I think, in the realm of cultural production—and particularly literary production. Good novels aren’t written by committee. Good novels aren’t collaborated on. Good novels are produced by people who voluntarily isolate themselves, and go deep, and report from the depths on what they find. They do put what they find in a form that’s communally accessible, communally shareable, but not at the production end. What makes a good novel, apart from the skill of the writer, is how true it is to the individual subjectivity. People talk about “finding your voice”: Well, that’s what it is. You’re finding your own individual voice, not a group voice.

I don’t know how anyone can disagree with that.  Or this:

I’m not convinced that I’m right about the things that I distrust in the new techno-media world. But I’m also not convinced I’m wrong, and so I’m disturbed by a rhetoric that aggressively dismisses people who are raising what seem to me quite reasonable objections—I see these dismissals a lot.

It disturbs me when someone like Franzen, whose job it is to think critically, is dismissed for doing just that.  Not just disagreed with but dismissed.  But he’s a famous, brilliant writer, and more importantly he sells a lot of books so that gives him some protection and respect.  The worse he’s called is an elitist, out of touch, a Luddite, or a technophobe.

What about the rest of us?  If you don’t jump on the social media/social networking bandwagon, your avoidance of it is suspicious.  A dating coach advises her clients not to date anyone without a Facebook page and you’re a less attractive employee to potential employers nowadays if you don’t have a social network.  I guess you’ll be a better employee if you have a lot of “friends”.

If you are different in any way you are open to attack.  Sara Maitalnd is a writer who lives alone in an isolated part of Scotland and likes it.  She’s wrote a column on how to deal with friends when you’re a hermit and want to be alone and received this response:

Given that you are obviously a person without natural affections and a grudging attitude towards others, it is probably good for the rest of us that you should withdraw into your own egocentric and selfish little world.

So nasty.  She’s not telling anyone else to choose solitude.  I don’t know why the choice to be different is so threatening to people. Maitland made an excellent point:

We declare that personal freedom and autonomy is both a right and good, but we think anyone who exercises that freedom autonomously is “sad, mad, or bad”.  Or all three at once.

Is there hope for the minority?  Jonathan Franzen got some great advice from the writer Don DeLillo that I’m going to heed as well:

(Write)… for personal freedom.  Writing…frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.

I would rather be a minority of one and a good writer than be part of the majority and recycle the same ideas over and over again and never having those ideas be challenged.  At the end of the day, it comes down to a choice between being an artist or a tech-addict, creator or a techno-consumer, a professional or an amateur.  I want to be the kind of artist, creator, professional Franzen describes here:

When I first met Don DeLillo, he was making the case that if we ever stop having fiction writers it will mean we’ve given up on the concept of the individual person. We will only be a crowd. And so it seems to me that the writer’s responsibility nowadays is very basic: to continue to try to be a person, not merely a member of a crowd. (Of course, the place where the crowd is forming now is largely electronic.) This is a primary assignment for anyone setting up to be and remain a writer now. So even as I spend half my day on the Internet—doing email, buying plane tickets, ordering stuff online, looking at bird pictures, all of it—I personally need to be careful to restrict my access. I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from. The more I’m pulled out of that, the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. As a writer, I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to. I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there.

I’m going to pay attention and listen to my inner “tyrant” no matter how ostracized and unpopular it makes me.

Related Articles

The Tyranny of Numbers in the Digital Age by Noah Richler

Jonathan Franzen on the 19th Century Writer Behind His Internet Skepticism by Joe Fassler

Why Do We Have Such a Problem with Being Alone?  Sara Maitland

4 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Majority Disturbs Me

  1. WOW, spot on. I just cannot bring myself to join facebook or twitter. I know I may reach more people possibly but I just cannot do it. I would rather reach a few and it mean something. I have found very little to read at a bookstore also that is different or interesting. I would rather read blogs like this. Keep it up!


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