Although I’m 47, my ears seem considerably older, the result of decades of playing drums and sitting next to amplifiers. It’s the cumulative effect of nerve-damaging volume, a kind of callusing of the ears. It’s an accelerated version of the hearing loss that afflicts many guys as they get older. (Lawrence Block suggested that the deafness of older men may be God’s way of keeping them from killing their wives.)
It’s not a major disability — I still enjoy music (although I wear earplugs to gigs these days, conserving what’s left), and my students, friends, and family learn either to repeat themselves or to wait until there’s no background noise (or both) so that I can understand what’s going on. But it’s present, and I know I lose things here and there. One of the warning signs of this problem is what’s called threshold shift, which my friends and I jokingly called “blankethead” — a temporary deafness after a concert, canceling out certain frequencies or attenuating perceived volume, so that until the condition fades, sound must be sharper to pierce the blanket.
At The American Scholar, Pamela Haag suggests that our culture may be experiencing an emotional equivalent. A tide of sentiment has swept through our lives, marked by the panoply of colored ribbons meant to express some emotional allegiance, the reliance on punctuation marks to do the work we no longer expect our words to do (Look at the exclamation points here!!! I must be really sincere!!eleventy! [Behold the meta-punctuation.]), and the rise of a shrill class marked by their ability to go from zero to OUTRAGED at the drop of a disagreeable metaphor. It’s a kind of world summed up by a phrase from e e cummings: “since feeling is first”. We see this emotional inflation in other regards as well, Haag observes:
The firewall around a private life of intimacy and emotions is now membranous at best. We let it all hang out. Participants on reality TV shows profess their love for each other after one episode.
I scan the friends in my Facebook account. Many are acquaintances from earlier lives to whom I’ve maintained an abstract loyalty and affection but no actual contact. Some are friends-in-law that Facebook thought I should meet; I dutifully obliged, but I’ve never met them. And yet I know minutiae of their daily domestic life. I once friended a man by accident because he shared a name with a true friend of mine. He accepted my misled offer, and now I read updates on his ups and downs as a single dad.
Facebook has created presumptive, default closeness among casual acquaintances where we once had presumptive, default formality, and I don’t know that it’s such a bad thing. I’m a social media agnostic. I’m also wary of sounding like, say, a middle-aged crank, nostalgic for a prelapsarian face-to-face social life that she most likely found strange when she was actually living through it as a young person. New forms of connection get invented, and an Elegy for the Private Man in the Privacy-Loathing Age told in dismayed rumblings doesn’t preoccupy me.
But what do we call this chimera of being closer—in each other’s business—yet not at all intimate? On Facebook we call it being friends. It’s harmless enough. We all know that there are gradations of intimacy and that there is a friendship deeper than a Facebook friend. The lucky ones among us have people with whom we are genuinely close: those who will help us in an emergency, whom we could call at midnight with a problem, with whom we feel mutual obligations, who provide us with social identity and place, and without whom our lives would be tangibly compromised. Facebook and the like promote intimacy lite.
And where a cheap emotionalism is the order of the day, we see it at both the positive and negative ends of the emotional spectrum. Disagreement becomes vituperation; a desire for toleration becomes a demand for embrace; and yes, pity for a victim can carry an invitation to become Nemesis.
In an emotionally blanketheaded culture, we can’t hear the quiet voice of reason, or even the louder tones of controlled emotion. We can only recognize the shrillness of even larger blasts of sentiment. The threshold shifts, and we grow deaf without recognizing it.
A tip of the Mondo Mortarboard to Kathy Phillips Nanney, via Facebook.