Toward a Nihilism of Grace - Lisa Ellen Silvestri
I grew up in the eighties and nineties. Like me, a majority of my millennial friends are currently raising children. About a year ago one of them forwarded me a list of “Nihilist Dad Jokes” from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency because he knew I was researching a current internet trend toward nihilism. He also sent them to me because he thought they were funny. For example:
Today I gave away my old batteries… Free of charge! No one wanted them, so I became angry and threw them in the yard. The battery acid now leaks into the soil, killing a colony of ants. A sparrow eats their bodies and is poisoned. Somewhere in the Serengeti, a lion devours his rival’s cubs. Then the lion is shot by a poacher and sold to an unloved rich man whose father was an unloved rich man. In five billion years, the Sun will become a bloated giant, boiling the oceans and consuming our pointless cruelties with flames. I wake sweat-drenched and screaming, staring at the visage of a faceless god. “WHAT HAVE I DONE?! HOW COULD I BRING A CHILD INTO THIS WORLD!?” But this god, like all gods, is nothing—just my son’s Wilson baseball mitt, sitting on my dresser, mocking me.
The list of eleven dad jokes, created by Alex Baia, became the seventh most-read item on McSweeney’s site in 2018. The popularity of the post inspired Baia to publish a second set of eleven nihilist dad jokes three months later. Nihilism trends in other online forums as well--A Facebook group called “Nihilist Memes” has nearly two million followers. Instagram accounts featuring “everything sucks” ideology boast hundreds of thousands of followers (i.e., @emotionalclub, @beigecardigan, @fuckjerry). Moreover, the popular news and entertainment website Buzzfeed, which serves as a useful barometer of public sentiment, created a tag devoted entirely to “nihilism” content.
Nihilism appears to be en vogue; particularly among the memeing millennial generation (according to Pew Research Center, millennials were born between 1981 and 1996). This post explores nihilism’s appeal to this age group alongside examples of some thematized nihilistic memes. If meme-making and meme-sharing are social practices (Milner 2013, Miller and Sinanan 2017) than memes-as-artifacts should tell us something about the attitudes, values, and beliefs of the participants (Silvestri 2018). Toward that end, I offer a tentative (and hopeful) interpretation of what these memes are saying about what it means to be human and how to live a good life.
A quick sketch of millennial nihilism
In true millennial hipster fashion, an old idea has become cool again. According to philosopher Michael Novak, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, nihilism, the experience of nothingness (nihil is Latin for nothing), “swept through the educated class of Europe” (Novak 1995, 2). The German philosopher most commonly associated with nihilism, Friedrich Nietzsche, considered nihilism to be a debilitating worldview, only curable by accepting life’s ambiguity and seeking contentment in the here and now.
At its most basic, nihilism represents a crisis of faith. Nietzsche describes the crisis growing from “a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity” and a symptom of cultural malaise (Complete Works of Nietzsche, p. 113). In his words, nihilism represents “the wretchedness of the human condition, whose value lay in forcing us to become aware of precisely this wretchedness” (Ibid, p. 6). Thus, for Nietzsche, a nihilist perspective involves awareness, a rigorous self-questioning that is not necessarily a bad thing. Yet, as we know, just as nihilism was leveraged by fascists in the 20th century, so too does a nefarious, reactionary form of nihilism proliferate in online communities of hate today (My weak stomach and faint heart means I only mention this in passing here with the hope that another scholar is looking into it).
Temporally speaking, the uptick in references to nihilism tracks with the last US Presidential election. The results of the 2016 election shocked a majority of American voters. Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton received 2.87 million more votes nationwide, yet Republican candidate Donald Trump registered 279 of the required 270 electoral votes to garner him the Presidency. The idea that the popular vote did not “count” inspired frustration and dissent in the days following the election. As a case in point, on November 9, 2016, the denialist hashtag #NotMyPresident became the number one trending topic on Twitter. Indeed, the 2016 Presidential election prompted a crisis of faith and Nietzsche’s “deepest self-reflection.” In the months following, titles to articles featured in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, and The Atlantic explicitly referenced the term nihilism. These publications, popular among “the educated class,” call upon nihilist thought to diagnose and explain what both sides of the political aisle refer to as “the Trump phenomenon.”
References to nihilist thought began circulating within underground circles as well, namely those existing on 4chan, 8chan, and Gab. In these forums, nihilism’s lack of values morphs into an insidious brand of hostility and moral indifference. As a case in point, the murderer who killed 50 people at a mosque in New Zealand referenced darkly humored “hitlerist” memes in his online manifesto. Thankfully, radical fascist nihilism remains an outlier.
Most nihilist jokes and memes reflect a benign hip cynicism that communicates middle-class angst over going to work, growing older, and raising children. Common variations involve a juxtaposition between innocence and disillusionment as in the corny “dad joke” with a depressing punchline. The image macro memes I discuss below use a similar format; a benevolent childhood icon from the 80s or 90s (think Big Bird and Bob Ross) combined with a sardonic twist. Taken together, they reflect a new brand of nihilism unique to this generation; one I call FOMO (fear of missing out) nihilism.
If nihilism is a rejection or a negation, FOMO nihilism implies rejection of fear and nihilist acceptance of missing out. An optimistic read would see FOMO nihilism as participating in Nietzsche’s acceptance of the here and now. As I discuss through examples below, FOMO nihilism is a novel brand of nihilism that finds particular salience among jaded millennials who have found adulthood rather disappointing. It is a cheeky recognition of social, commercial, and political futility; one that inspires what philosopher John Caputo (2015) calls a “nihilism of grace.”
In 2016, The Oxford English Dictionary added the acronym YOLO (you only live once) to the dictionary, signaling that the word had entered mainstream. I first encountered YOLO as a teaching assistant in 2010 while listening to student banter before class. I asked what YOLO meant, and the students responded in near unison “you only live once!” Initially, I misinterpreted the sentiment; I thought it represented a life-affirming realization akin to “carpe diem” or “que sera, sera.” However, my students quickly corrected me and explained (through anecdotal example) that YOLO stood for personal recklessness, impulsivity, and self-indulgence. The reason I bring up YOLO here is because I recognize YOLO’s implicit irreverence as an early indicator for a more despondent, nihilist view to come.
YOLO’s devil-may-care attitude is a symptom of denial. For millennials in their 20s, YOLO communicated a careless disregard for behavioral consequence. But now in their 30s, millennials have matured into adulthood. They are experiencing YOLO’s opposite: “Adulting,” or behavior characteristic of adulthood (saving for retirement, parenting, paying utility bills, and home ownership). Currently, the word adulting is under consideration for inclusion in Oxford’s 2019 Dictionary. Adulting is a way for this group to label the concrete behaviors that signal the transition from childhood to adulthood. The self-referentiality of YOLO and Adulting suggest a resistance to, or at least an awareness of, middle-class social norms associated with growing older.
The image macro in Figure 1 depicts Kermit the frog, beloved childhood character and protagonist for several of Jim Hensen’s muppet productions. He sits alone, eyes downcast with his arms wrapped around his bent legs. The image is striking. Although Kermit can be glum, he has never been depressed. For example, his hit song “Bein’ Green” addresses personal difficulties with his color, but ultimately ends in self-acceptance and celebration of his greenness. The image of Kermit curled into himself suggests despondence. The text above reads: “When your alarm goes off and you have to go to work because you didn’t die in your sleep.” The idea of Kermit preferring death to the daily grind is jarring and the source of uneasy laughter. Even Kermit, a nostalgic source of optimism for many millennials, is not immune to the trappings of adulthood.
As they raise children of their own, it’s natural for millennials to revisit icons from their youth. The FOMO aspect of new nihilism connects to lived experiences of missing out and fraught anticipation for their children’s future. A photo shared to the nihilistic Facebook page captures this anxiety (Figure 2). It depicts a dumpster at the bottom of a colorful sliding board. Playground slides are typically sources of joy and whimsy. They are designed for play and are relatively safe. The nihilistic rendering pictured in Figure 2 asks viewers to imagine the excitement of scrambling up the ladder only to experience a brief, direct slide into a garbage heap. The sentiment communicated with that image touches on lived disappointment. Like the Kermit meme, it demoralizes an icon of youthful hope and innocence.
Figure 3 depicts a screenshot from the 1987 Nintendo video game, Super Mario Bros. The game centers on protagonists Mario and his brother Luigi traveling through Mushroom Kingdom to save Princess Toadstool from the villain, Bowser. Text superimposed on the screen reads: “The princess isn’t in another castle. She isn’t anywhere. She is not real. Nothing is real. There is only suffering.” This meme expresses epistemological nihilism, which perceives no basis for arguing the validity of one belief system over another; these nihilists have lost faith in truth and reason.
Again we see a childhood icon from the late 1980s. Super Mario Bros. is a fantastical world where the gameplayer imagines herself as a hero. Yet the text on the screen in combination with the arbitrary game points and statistics above communicate the futility of believing in the “reality” created by the game developers. More than that, it rejects the implied moral universe.
For epistemological nihilists, “truth” and morality are nothing more than the expression of a particular community’s values. Presently in the United States, Democrats and Republicans are more ideologically divided than they ever have been before. In 2016 (in tandem with Trump’s surprise victory) The Oxford English Dictionary declared “post-truth” word of the year. Like epistemological nihilism, post-truth denotes the futility of appealing to objective facts and is used to describe a society that is experiencing fundamental disagreement over reality.
The image macro in Figure 4 depicts a hand petting a dog’s head. It’s drawn in the style of a children’s book illustration. The accompanying text references ethical relativity: “whether or not you are a good boy depends on what system of ethics I choose to apply.” The source of laughter comes from relatable frustration. Like the Mario meme, FOMO Nihilism in Figure 4 expresses parental angst about their child’s inevitable disappointment. Commonly, children’s books (and 1980s video games, for that matter) communicate a black and white moral universe. Most stories center on a clear application of principles such as fairness, honesty, justice, and respect. Like the Kermit and sliding board examples, Figures 3 and 4 revisit artifacts from childhood through the lens of disgruntled adulthood.
Figure 5 presents a colorful image of two kittens in a trashcan created in the style of popular 1990s school supply artist, Lisa Frank. The rainbow text encircling the kittens reads “We are all eating from the same trashcan called ideology.” The term ideology refers to a set of normative beliefs and values, or systems of thought.
Political nihilism rejects the ideologies that uphold existing political structures. Hence, the reference here to ideology belonging in a trash can. Splashing ideological disillusionment across a whimsical Lisa Frank-inspired image alludes to a sort of deranged optimism. That is, there’s a sense of equality if we accept that it’s turtles all the way down.
Lisa Frank’s primary audience in the 1990s consisted of middle school-aged girls, a demographic commonly imagined as enjoying another year or two before becoming painfully self-aware and experiencing a dip in self-confidence. That’s the comic aspect of this image macro.
Following the trend of political nihilism, Figure 6 depicts a screen still of the late-nineties adult animated series, Daria, which centers on the life of a misanthropic teenaged girl and her aspiring artist friend, Jane. The image shows Daria and Jane walking by a fortune teller’s tent. The text reads: “Should we get our fortunes read?”; “I’ll pass...Knowing the present is bad enough.” My memory of Daria is not strong enough to recall if this dialogue actually appeared in the episode or if it was added by the meme-maker. In either case, the meme picks up where Lisa Frank left off. The bright-eyed middle-schooler has become a cynical and sarcastic teenager. In Daria, the millennial audience remembers its own developmental disillusionment.
Nihilism of Grace
FOMO Nihilism is a sentiment distinct from common understandings of nihilism because it’s not a rejection of life’s inherent value but worry over children getting their hopes up.
New parenthood presents a critical juncture where it’s natural to reflect on your own trajectory. The childhood icons featured in these memes conjure memories of innocence and naivety. The characters represent fairness, hope, imagination, and justice. Last we saw these characters, our lifeworld appeared more concrete. Our ideas about justice were black and white. There were bright horizons ahead. Not only that, but the adults in our lives encouraged our hopefulness. They told us to dream big and never give up as they pinned participation ribbons to our chests. But we did grow up. We began adulting. And we learned that living is messy, justice is gray, and dreaming is for suckers.
The problem with dreaming is that when dreams are open-ended, people fall for society’s ideas about success. In an article penned for Medium, millennial author Jordan Service writes about the dead-end “game” of free-market capitalism and the lack of new horizons for his generation:
You see the system and can play, but seeing the system makes you hate the game. So things move faster and slower at the same time. Things have both no meaning and all meaning. ‘My job is meaningless — Yes, I’m successful creative-exec for Frito-Lay. But it’s Frito Lay — I don’t eat that shit.’
Service’s lamentation reminds me of Playwright Arthur Miller’s warning that measuring yourself against external value systems leads to dissatisfaction. In his 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, the protagonist Willy denies his talent as a builder to pursue a career in sales, a more prestigious profession. When Willy finds the path difficult, his friend Charley offers financial help. Willy rejects his outright generosity only accepting a loan under the condition he will pay it back. The financial crossroads offered Willy an opportunity to reconsider his pursuit of becoming a salesman. But instead, he decides to double down and commit to sales anyway, which ultimately leads to a life of drudgery and disappointment. After Willy’s death, Charley declares that he “had all the wrong dreams.” The difference between Willy’s character and Service’s hypothetical Frito-Lay anecdote is that Service recognizes “the game” for what it is and suggests a longing for an alternative way of life—a new dream. For nihilist millennials, it’s not a question of leaving behind the economic world but of finding a way to loosen its stranglehold.
The FOMO nihilism I sketch above has to do with recognizing “wrong dreaming” (or “adulting,” if you will) and not being sure what the right dream is or if there even is a right dream, and how to keep their children from making the same mistakes. The good news is that waking up in the middle of the wrong dream and having the audacity to look nihilism in the eye enables a type of dignity that Caputo (2015) calls a “nihilism of grace.” Caputo (2015) writes, “This nihilism not only dares to think, which is the Enlightenment’s audacity, but dares to hope” (p. 44). More than that, he adds, “It dares to smile” (p.44). Smiling, in this sense, does not imply a lack of seriousness. To the contrary, a nihilism of grace takes seriously the question of what it means to be human and how to go about living well.
Figure 7 depicts a meme posted to the “nihilist memes” Facebook page. I’ve included it here as an example of a nihilism of grace. The image shows Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood at an easel drawing with a red crayon. Two types of font suggest two different voices. The first voice appears above the image and asks: “How’s Life?” The response, in a different font superimposed on the image, replies, “I’m not very good at it. But it doesn’t matter.” Visually it appears the response is meant to be the voice of Mister Rogers. Like the Daria meme, I can’t say for sure whether this is the episode's closed caption.
It’s significant that Mr. Rogers is the voice of validation here. He is a cultural touchstone for many millennials. What would Mr. Rogers think of our job at Frito-Lay? Is this the dream he had in mind for us? Is this the dream we had in mind for ourselves?
Recently, hashtags associated with living well (i.e., #liveyourbestlife, #bestlife, #lifegoals) have begun cropping up beneath Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter posts. Offputting evangelicalism aside, these posts imply a certain level of self-awareness. Maybe it’s not Nietzsche’s “deepest self-reflection of humanity” but it’s a self-reflection nonetheless; One that contributes to recent findings that millennials are living with more social anxiety than any other generation causing them to support progressive activist causes (Milkman, 2017). Perhaps the millennial response to a lack of horizon is to direct attention to the here and now and try to make life more meaningful, and thereby, more livable.
Thus, instead of seeing nihilism as symptomatic of a Nietzschean crisis of faith, perhaps we should consider it an opportunity to ripen our faith. Seeing and confirming the void’s existence and saying yes (with a smile) to our shared condition marks a triumph of actual faith over conceptual faith. Finding praise for the mutilated world invites a new form of nihilism—a nihilism of grace.
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 Again, someone should be analyzing this. Here are some sources to get you started: On the process of radicalization (Kelly 2017, Powers 2014,), the role of disinformation (Albrecht 2016; Bennet and Livingston 2018; Marwick and Lewis 2017; Wardle 2017 ), the decline of productive political communication (Bennett and Pfetsch 2018, Hartzell 2018), irresponsible content moderation (Gillespie 2018) and the negative social consequences of communication platforms (VinDick 2018; Tufekci 2017).
 For Socrates, the good life involves the pursuit of truth and wisdom. For Aristotle, it is living virtuously.
 For Rogers’ intergenerational appeal see: Alexandra Castro Klaren, “‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’: Intergenerational Dialogics in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Viewer Mail,” Communication Quarterly 65.1 (2017): 60-79.