Sunday, June 19, 2011

In Defense of Regret

Despite Andy Warhol's famous pronouncement that in the future everybody would be famous for 15 minutes, and despite the emergence of mediums that he couldn't have even imagined, we are still a long way from realizing such a vision. In a nation of 300 million, a minuscule percentage of individuals ever speak to an audience in the thousands, much less millions. And most of those who do get an opportunity to address mass audiences, such as celebrities or people in position of power, are well prepared for the task. But a minuscule percent of the minuscule percent of those who are given fame and attention, however fleeting, are people plucked from obscurity. And a fair number of these people are mentally unbalanced, criminals or social misfits who are given attention only because of an abnormal action that they have committed. And a fair number of others are given attention only because of some kind of victimhood, commanding attention only because they have survived a particularly unusual form of trauma, an experience that most likely gives them a unique perspective on life. So it is only a handful of individuals who truly represent something resembling a "common person's perspective" who are given a spotlight.

I suppose it is arguable whether Traci Nobles can be considered a "common person," as it is not a common thing to have an online sexual relationship with a congressperson. But then again it's really only the last word in the previous sentence that makes her actions particularly uncommon. She still does not have a Wikipedia page, but for about two minutes last week, she was given an audience of millions. She appeared on the NBC Today show to discuss her online relationship with now former U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner (interview starts at 3:07 in the clip below).

I can only imagine how surreal it must be to go from a typically mundane life to having one's words broadcast for millions. I would imagine the experience to be so psychologically overwhelming that one's self-awareness would be at a minimum, particularly since these interviews usually only take place in the immediate aftermath of an event, when there has not yet been time for honest reflection and analysis. So I suspect that in an interview setting, even with a few hours (or at most days) of preparation, the answers that a person gives will be superficial and instinctual, which is to say representative of a worldview or mindset that exists among the culture at large.

I think this was very much in evidence during Nobles' interview. She repeated the cliched tautology "It is what it is," not once but twice, indicative of the fact that she wasn't particularly interested in finding any meaning in her experience. When asked what she would say to Weiner's wife, she made a statement both understandable and totally irrational: "I don’t even like to think about that, really, because at the time I didn’t really think about his wife." Obviously, she means "I don't like to think about that because the fact that he is married is inconvenient," but the construction she uses is fascinating. In effect, she is saying that because she willfully ignored the situation in the past, she is more or less condemned to follow the same path accordingly, for as long as is required. She cannot answer that question because she is blocked from thinking about his wife, since that is simply the entrenched status quo.

Though Nobles was tentative and hesitant at point during the interview, she does not hesitate one second when answering whether she regrets anything: "I don't regret it. I don't regret it. It's part of my life, it's changed me in some way or made me who I am today, so I don’t really regret anything." Note how vague the changes have been ("in some way"). This is actually a common sentiment that I've seen or heard multiple times before, paraphrased as follows: "I can't regret any experiences, because I am the sum total of my experiences, and to want to change prior experiences means that I would somehow cease to exist." But such a belief does not admit for the possibility that one could acquire any perspectives without direct, first-hand experience, a position that I can't imagine a reasonable person holding.

So why would people hold such a contradictory mindset? Part of it might be our natural human tendency to want to avoid accepting guilt for wrongdoing. But part of it might be even deeper. Notice what all three of these sentiments have in common: "It is what it is...I can't think about that now because I didn't think about it then...I can't regret anything because it's part of my life." The common undercurrent is a kind of fatalistic determinism. In a sense it's a denial of free will, a belief that events and occurrences are outside of our responsibility or control. I don't think this is an attitude that one acquires in the immediate aftermath of a dramatic life event, but one that had been present long before, perhaps even helping contribute to the occurrence in the first place. And in a nation where hardly any of us become famous enough to attract attention, even for fifteen minutes, perhaps it becomes easier to be lulled into thinking that we don't act, that we are acted upon by forces that are what they are.


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