“Off the deep end,” is an apt description for much of life in this third decade of the 21st century. Actions and behavior that would have been unacceptable in polite society fifty years ago — or even earned one a stint in a mental health facility — have become normalized these days, to one extent or another. Of course, there’s still a line that can’t be crossed, but it’s a good distance away from where it was back in the days of greater innocence. Or more intolerance, depending on one’s point of view. Some “new normal” trends seem benign, even innocuous, while others represent danger to the entire fabric of our society.
At the less-harmful end of the spectrum is a scenario that’s becoming popular in Japan, and has gained followers elsewhere in the world as well. People are falling in love with, even marrying, anime characters (read: cartoon beings). It used to be that imaginary friends belonged in the realm of childhood, or, in the most ominous cases, in the worlds of drug or alcohol addiction. Now, however, otherwise perfectly rational, productive citizens are acquiring life-sized dolls of their beloveds, or projecting their images on walls, even carrying small replicas through their daily routines. They take the dolls to restaurants, go on double dates with like-minded friends (do the anime characters ever pick up the check?), and perform elaborate rituals and ceremonies. One man even started a business creating marriage certificates for real customers and their animated brides/bridegrooms. The people who were interviewed about this practice were not in the least self-conscious, did not think their imaginary spouses were outlandish. In fact, they cited numerous advantages to such marriages: no arguments, no extra expenses for a second person, perfect compatibility. And of course, there’s the infinite-availability factor: a man’s marriage to Ms. Hatsune Miku (a computer-generated pop singer) in Tokyo doesn’t preclude another man’s marriage to her in Kyoto; or in Nairobi or Copenhagen, for that matter. Divorce is as easy as throwing out the doll and her paraphernalia. The seriousness of these person/anime relationships is a bit disturbing. At the very least, it indicates a profound, chronic loneliness and disconnection. It’s hard to extrapolate the ramifications; perhaps the transition to bonds with AI-infused robots will be easier for those who already accept ties between humans and make-believe people.
The insanity of our times tends much more toward the tragic than the merely whimsical or absurd, however. Teens now spend up to ten hours or more each day staring at screens, whether on computers or phones. Parents in the ’60s worried that TV would corrupt their children’s minds, and many moms and dads (mine included) limited TV time, and restricted access to certain programming: The Three Stooges was too violent when I was small, because the show depicted people hitting each other. How quaint! Many teens have found work-arounds to the restrictions parents place on their computers, and even with the protocols in place, there are still sites and games so horrific that the Stooges look like flower-wielding pacifists.
Enter social media. All or most of teens’ time in front of screens is taken up with posting to and reading material on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a dozen other platforms. Too frequently, such exchanges make up most of their interactions with others. As a result, what teens see on social media often defines their ideas of self and friends to a great degree, even a frightening degree. Sometimes, it’s life and death. The New York Times recently did a feature article about the ongoing epidemic of suicide among teens. When these young people either threaten or attempt to kill themselves, parents usually rush them to emergency rooms. There are so many in such dire straits, they’re having to sleep in ER areas until places can be found for them in psychiatric wings or outside facilities. Waits of days, or even a week or two, are not uncommon. Such situations can morph into vicious cycles, with at-risk youngsters being held under close observation for a day or so, then released, only to be brought back over and over again. There just aren’t enough long-term care facilities anywhere right now.
A common thread — social media — runs through many of the teens’ stories. So influential are those platforms that derogatory posts or unfriending can send kids over the edge, spiraling them down into deep depression. Studies are being done about the relationship of screen time and depression among young people, but my money says that a strong correlation will be found between the two (caveat: of course, correlation doesn’t always equal causation).
What’s different about 12-to-20-year-olds in 2022 versus their predecessors 50 years ago? Much less face-to-face interaction among peers, for one, in favor of texting and posting. Parents working longer and longer hours, as well, I think. In general, much less engagement with the real world, and much more absorption with the ether and fantasy worlds. In such a scenario, teens lose perspective, and the importance of a “thumbs down” becomes grossly exaggerated. If a kid has a group of friends physically near to lend support, hugs, and just their very presence, the “downs” in teenage life can lose their sting. But for a 15-year-old sitting alone in a bedroom late at night, negative comments can become points of obsession, and then feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness are overwhelming. We have teens cutting, slashing wrists, taking overdoses because some other teens dissed them in cruel and graphic terms, possibly over something very minor in the scheme of things. Once the negative feelings take hold, it’s almost impossible for parents to counter them, because what the kids are reading on their phones is more tangible to them than what exists around them. As with the anime lovers, there’s an over-preoccupation here with imaginary existences or the unreal.
The most dangerous level of the insanity spectrum houses people like Payton Gendron, the shooter in Buffalo last week. Gendron has espoused the so-called Great Replacement Theory, which states that non-white people are intent on replacing whites, especially in this country and in Europe. This belief underlies right-wing positions on immigration and abortion, naturally. If the brown people are let into the country, or white women are allowed to abort fetuses, then the white majority could disappear, and that outcome is unthinkable. Without going into the holes that make Swiss cheese of this concept, it’s sufficient to say that such thinking is rubber-room worthy. And even if “replacement” actually was a legitimate concept, so what? Are those who are frothing at the mouth over it afraid that non-white people will treat whites as POC have been treated for centuries? That thought is scary, indeed.
Those considerations aside, how is it anything other than batshit loco to think it’s acceptable to grab an assault rifle, gear up in body armor, and broadcast oneself going into a neighborhood grocery store to shoot people? I’m not saying that Gendron should be able to skate on an “insanity” plea; such legal defenses are reserved for those who don’t know what they’re doing: they live in fantasy worlds removed from the normal plane. Gendron knew exactly what he was doing and why. His plans show logical steps, carried out in logical order. He doesn’t hear voices. He didn’t think the people in the store were space aliens. He simply thought they were less worthy people than he is. His behavior is so far out there that most of us can’t wrap our heads around it; it’s the product of bone-deep racism, fired up by violent extremist examples. But his thought processes were cold and calculating. Competent, efficient methods of killing, motivated by whacko beliefs instilled in a gullible mind that recognizes reality — a sad testimony to the craziness that has overtaken our society.
What’s missing so far this century is common sense, the ability to think critically and reason, and the willingness to be grounded in reality, to, “…look things in the eyes as we call them by their right names,” as Rhett said. There has to be a blanket realization that adversity comes to everyone; no one goes through life unscathed. Unfortunately, we as a culture (especially in the U.S.) seem to have raised a couple generations of children to believe that life is all roses and sunshine, and if it turns out not to be, well, it should be. Just among my very limited acquaintance of mothers, two of them deliberately tried to shield their children from any hint of negativity. Not enough money for a big Christmas? Don’t tell the kids; instead, let the house payment go so they can have everything they want. At the other end of the scale, let my high-school kids ride the bus? They shouldn’t have to do something that low-rent; instead, we’ll lease them BMWs to drive to school. And then we’ll rent them apartments for college, ’cause dorms are just so tacky.
In short, we’re failing to instill a core of strength in our children. When typical incidents happen at school or on the playground, they have no coping methods. As kids, they have no perspective to begin with, and as it’s a fine line to walk between supporting them but letting them see reality, and distancing them from life’s ills, many parents choose to cocoon their children. We seem to have reverted to the Victorian view of each child as a special little angel, never to see anything ugly. We’re not doing them any favors if they grow up to be so averse to loneliness OR doing the work to sustain relationships that they prefer imaginary spouses. Or they’re so torn apart by critical comments that they attempt suicide. Or they develop enough hubris to believe that they have the right to choose our population make-up. Or to espouse and promulgate some of the off-the-scale nutjob ideas that pass for political positions in the 2020s.