Post 245

King for Now:
Reflections on the Tyranny of Cool

Are you on Facebook? I have put myself on Facebook twice, both times believing that it would be useful to promote a given venture. (You need a profile in order to create a “page.”)

I don’t know if it’s a good idea, though, even to promote a worthy event and as a matter of fact, for my most recent project I didn’t go through with a Facebook campaign.

Some people justify Facebook use in the name of Christian evangelizing. I won’t criticize that motive, but not all tools are equally pure. Television is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It’s a tool. The internet is neither good nor bad in and of itself. It’s also a tool. The bus and the bike and the airplane: same thing. Neutral tools.

As for Facebook, I don’t know. How neutral is it? To what extent does the structure of it tend to lead people in certain directions? It features a constant news feed from all of your ‘friends’ and a system of ‘likes.’ I know that users can make some modifications, but that’s the starting point and the basic idea. To what extent does the structure provide a breeding ground for certain temptations?

I think one of the primary temptations created by Facebook is that it encourages people to judge things and people in terms of whether or not they are “cool.”

The term “cool” began to be used in this way in the 1940s.

Being a cool person means caring about things that are cool and, more importantly, it means not caring about things that are uncool. Being cool means caring about people who are cool and not caring about people who are uncool.

There are some people who do not care about what is cool. For some reason, this brings to mind my grandmother, who would pick up an empty pop bottle if she saw one while she walked along, and carry it all the way home. She was planning to collect the deposit.

What was it? Five cents? (Five Canadian pennies in 1980 would be fifteen nowadays, except that the humble penny is gone now, replaced by, well, nothing.)

But anyway, if that was cool, she certainly didn’t know it.

Having said that, you could not say that she was entirely above thinking about what people might think. When she got dressed for church, the make-up was hard to miss and she made a point of wearing her glasses. She thought she looked better in them.

Some would say that being concerned about looking nice is no different from being concerned about coolness — that it is a manifestation of the same thing — and in a general sense, it can be. Concern for one’s appearance can be another case of looking at oneself from the perspective of one’s friends, acquaintances or the stranger who happens to be paying attention. However, wanting to be seen as youthful or beautiful or wealthy or sophisticated or intelligent is not quite the same as wanting to be seen as cool.

Being seen as cool is more complicated than being seen as beautiful. Being seen as beautiful is a more straightforward process because you can see, by flipping through any magazine, that the most-photographed women have several traits in common, and although the ideals of beauty shift this way and that, there are several constants over the ages. Being seen as intelligent generally has to do with having degrees or inventing something. Being wealthy means having access to a lot of income. (Becoming wealthy, according to Chesterton, means being foolish enough to want all that wealth in the first place.) These other common and more ‘traditional’ goals are, in some ways, simple.

But being cool . . . well, that’s a little different.

The problem with coolness is that it is a trait measured very much in relation to very specific outside things. Being a musician means that you have spent many hours practicing but having cool taste in music involves nothing more than liking a particular genre or musician. Being a gemologist means that you have learned a great deal about gems, but being cool means that you like a specific style of bling.

Being cool means surrounding oneself with objects and people and activities which are, themselves, cool. For this reason, travelling appeals to many; it is a way of relocating your entire self into a world which will hopefully be perceived as cool. All is orchestrated with the ultimate Facebook photo in mind. Here is a beautiful beach. In the foreground are my legs on the lounger and my hand holding a very cool drink. Here is my (rented) bike, leaning up against a Parisian tree. It’s immersion in coolness, in theory.

Let’s take a look at some cases, sorted by severity. How do you compare?

Let’s begin with Yoo-hi. Yoo-hi is over there picking up discarded pop bottles. She almost never thinks about what is cool, but she is not immune to the standards of the world. You’ll see her putting on her big jade ring when she goes out for dinner with her friends and she dies her hair at the age of 79. Nevertheless, she does not comprehend “cool.” You would need to spend quite a while with her to explain what it is and why she should care about it.

Next, there’s Taylor. Taylor knows about coolness. He knows enough about coolness to know that many things in his life do not meet with the standards of what is cool. He tells himself that most of it is nonsense and that the real focus of one’s life should be on spiritual things. Nevertheless, he is sometimes downcast as he realizes that he is not “cool.”

Over here, we have Sally. Sally is visibly active on social media, frequently liking and commenting on the Facebook posts made by her friends, even though she privately ridicules and complains about them and their posts. Does she think about what is cool? She does, but she will fail the coolness test again and again by speaking out on issues where others would not.

By contrast, ‘under the radar’ Kate was always cool in school, being both pretty and athletic. Unlike Sally, she chooses to play it safe and be appropriately bland. She’s older now but has the financial means to surround herself with what middle-aged people consider cool. She never draws excessive attention to herself but she takes care to post photos of her life at socially-acceptable intervals to let you know that she is still doing cool things in cool places and has children who are also doing cool things.

Over there, we have Charles. Charles is obsessed with appearing cool and watches his Facebook newsfeed like a hawk. His comments on other people’s pages are crafted to reveal his own coolness.

And last, we have Dave. Dave is the king of cool and in his abundant public Facebook posts, he shows himself involved in as many cool activities as humanly possible. A trip is not a reality until it has been brought to Facebook. He writes about the cool music he is currently listening to and the cool technology he is using to listen to it (Charles quickly replies that he is using that cool technology himself, at this very moment). Dave chooses his own hobbies based on how they will round out his coolness portfolio, and he encourages his children to pursue hobbies that he considers cool enough to post on Facebook. His wife posts a photo of her tanned and nearly naked-self to show, well, nearly everything. Dave stands next to her, oiled and tanned and similarly in need of a shirt.

Ironically, one of the supposed hallmarks of a cool person is the cool person’s disinterest in seeking the approval of others. The cool person is supposedly so self-assured and so confident that he does not need external validation. The notion is that the cool person is looking forward and ahead, and happily oblivious to what his admirers and followers are thinking.

What’s the emoticon for a wry smile?

In theory, the cool person would never check to see how many ‘likes’ his recent Facebook post got. In theory, the cool person would be so busy pursuing cool things that he wouldn’t have time to upload photos of himself doing cool things. In theory, coolness is about a rather ambivalent and easy-going attitude.

The truth is that the people who bring themselves into the spotlight in order to showcase their coolness are excessively interested in the approval of others. Social approval is their sustenance; it is their drug, and they hunger for ‘likes’ the way a druggie craves another hit. They check repeatedly and with avid interest to see if anyone has sent a thumbs-up their way and they are more interested in reading the comment that their ‘friend’ has posted than in hearing the comments that their children are making in the same room.

Seeking coolness is bad enough; seeking cool things in the context of Facebook is worse. This is because Facebook is constant. In the past, your opportunities to impress others were limited by your ability to show up here there and everywhere. There was, of course, the telephone, but you had to brag to your friends one by one. Nowadays, the domestic goddess Athena can show her kitchen renovations to one hundred people at once, provoking others to suddenly covet the latest back-splash tiles and counter-top surfaces. Nowadays, Aphrodite can show herself smiling at a party wearing this dress with that hairdo and those new eyebrows to people who aren’t even there. And of course, the more friends you have, the more messages you will get: Jennifer got a (cool) new job, Dave is going to Holland, Jane is looking trim (and cool), Marty’s daughter made the (cool) team, Dave is going to Spain, Megan is starting a (cool) new business, Jordan got a (cool) car and Dave is going to Cuba. Each message causes a reaction, pulling and pushing the recipients. Facebook amplifies the noise in all users’ lives.

But even without the accelerating and compounding effect of Facebook, the preoccupation with coolness is detrimental to our well-being and our interpersonal relations.

Seeking coolness prevents us from knowing our true personality. In particular, a preoccupation with appearing cool tempts us to hide our real thoughts, emotions and feelings. We do not want to reveal that we care deeply about various issues and as a result, conversation and relationships become empty and superficial. We do little self-examination to examine what we really think about the people and situations in our lives, and why we think the way we do.

Seeking coolness prevents us from becoming the person God intended us to be. We have innate talents and unique interests that harmonize with those talents. Worrying about being cool prevents us from looking inward to discover our genuine gifts and interests. We waste our time in pursuits that we secretly find to be ho-hum when we could be excelling in a lesser-known area of life. We’re so busy playing basketball when we could be playing the bagpipes like nobody’s business.

Coolness is one of the most fleeting standards in an already-fleeting world. What changes faster than what is cool? Yesterday, that actor and this band and that fashion and that area of psychology or science were the very cutting edge of cool, but today, you are embarrassed to admit you ever liked those nineties tunes and wore jeans that looked like that. Blink once, however, and that singer’s face is on all the magazines. He’s popular like never before because he’s dead.

As a result, staying on top of what is cool requires vigilance and time. Much of modern conversation consists of sharing one’s opinion about what is cool. “I saw such-and-such at Costco . . . There’s a new kind of camera . . . Have you seen this show? . . . That new restaurant . . .” In my books, such conversation quickly runs out of steam because it endlessly skims the surface, flitting across it like a water bug. Can we get some depth here?

Parenthetically, the antithesis to what is “cool” is generally what is traditional and tried-and-true. Although token tribute is sometimes paid to aspects of earlier times (Cararra marble counter-tops, anyone?), for the most part, what is cool is synonymous with what is newly popular. By contrast, tradition is about what has been popular with people over the ages, to adapt an idea from Chesterton.

Staying on top of what is cool involves avoiding, for the most part, what is controversial. The cool person knows how to avoid touchy topics at all costs, because falling on the ‘wrong’ side of an issue is too easily done when the population is known to be divided. For this reason, politicians become vaguer and more prone to platitudes as they rise in popularity, as Chesterton has pointed out. Taking a firm stand is akin to welcoming a breeze near a house of cards. Who knows what the fall-out will be when the cards are shown to the voting population? The politicians want to play it safe; speaking vaguely and infrequently is a surer method to retain whatever popularity they have.

Turning to the average person, however, the circles are far smaller; most people have audiences that are more homogeneous and predictable. In that context, they willingly take a firm stand against the agreed-upon enemy and wait for applause. Yet there is no heroism in speaking against abortion when all your friends are pro-life. There is no risk in speaking against President Trump when the audience is full of show-biz folks. And it’s not bravery to Stand with Wisdom when that’s what your friends are doing. However, it is a risk to speak against the king when you’re Thomas More. It’s a risk to speak against the hypocrisy of the Catholic elite when you’re Pope Francis and it’s a risk to speak against the Pharisees when you’re Jesus. But sadly, being cool means playing it safe and honouring the views of your social circle while avoiding or even silencing those who challenge those views.

So whatever the theoretical definition of “cool” may be, practically we could define the cool person as someone who is aware of what is popular (especially newly popular) and is incorporating as many of these things into his life as possible while shunning anything that has lost or is losing its popular appeal. The goal in the coolness game is to detect, as early as possible, what is popular. The elusive prize is the respect and admiration of those in your circle.

Have you got it?
Are you sure?
Maybe you’ve lost your touch.
Or maybe
Maybe you never had it in the first place, hey?

Stay on your toes and stay ahead of the curve.

Be the first to realize that Ed What’s-His-Name is cool. Is he?
Be the first to realize that turmeric is a hit. Is it?
Be the first to realize that picking up trash is where it’s at.
Hey man
Oh man
Are you as eco as that?