I once worked for an incredibly dysfunctional company filled with people who had no business doing the jobs they had been hired to do. The head of this company, forced to deal with the endless and frustrating mistakes made by his incompetent employees, did not respond with level-headed leadership or forceful decision-making. He just yelled a lot.
Foaming at the mouth, spittle flying, veins bulging from his forehead and neck—he was shockingly good at dressing down people, and in a perverse way, probably enjoyed how much time he had to spend doing it. But on the other side of these performances was a variable missed by most observers: he almost never fired anyone. No matter how badly people screwed up, how much money they cost the company, how much bad press resulted from it, there did not seem to be a line that could not be crossed. As nasty and epic as the screaming matches with these employees would get, I hardly remember a single time that one ended with someone sent packing.
Organizationally, that translated into two lessons about human nature that have stuck with me. First, it drove a lot of good people who disliked conflict to quit, and created a culture in which very few people ever spoke the truth or told anyone what they didn’t want to hear (there just wasn’t a good reason to). But second, and most important, was what happened with the company’s most feckless employees—the one’s we would have liked to have quit. They quickly learned that if they were willing to put up with the yelling—if they could weather it like an abused pup—they could pretty much screw up as badly or as frequently as they wanted and still count on total and complete job security. The threats and the animus were empty.
Naturally, this made for a frustrating and exasperating workplace environment. One I think of often, even though I left it behind long ago, because today we live in our own version of this dysfunctional scenario. We have a media system that loves to yell and scream. It is basically its default setting. Forget deliberation and civil discourse, it goes immediately to outrage and cynical condescension, or in other cases, relentless and unprovoked shaming. And we, as the consumers and residents of this culture, have come to confuse all this noise and reaction with action. Psychologists call this the narcotizing dysfunction—when the amount of effort and energy poured into something becomes self-soothing, obliterating any notions of effectiveness or reality.
The result? Our daily nightmare. A world in which not only are truth, vulnerability and nuance completely lost—but the incompetent and the conniving in our midst are able to capture immense amounts of attention. Where not only is shamelessness the ultimate defense against any form of accountability, but where all the normal, qualified and well-adjusted people have walked away in disgust.
Watching the Sean Penn controversy unfold online over the weekend brought this trend into sharp focus. Like many of the fights I witnessed at my old dysfunctional company, everything about this story is utterly ludicrous. A Hollywood actor goes off and interviews a vicious and murderous drug kingpin on behalf of a magazine that actually agreed to give editorial approval of that interview to the psychopath they were covering. And the person who set it all up is a Mexican actress who once tweeted an open letter to El Chapo and believes the government is hiding a cure for AIDS.
Now, I’m sure the many media folks who I follow on social media thought they were helping by angrily tweeting about the story—foaming at the mouth, digital spittle flying, internet muscles bulging—but one has to ask, do you think this affects Sean Penn at all? Or the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo? Did the online condemnation of Rolling Stone’s last major bungle—the UVA Rape story—chasten them at all? Did it lead to any changes whatsoever? Of course not.
In fact, besides those two stories and the occasional, deliberately controversial cover, it’s difficult to think about the last instance anyone thought about Rolling Stone at all.
It’s about time that we come to terms with a fundamental reality of this attention economy we live in: human beings will put up with all sorts of indignities, rage, criticism, mockery, and disdain in exchange for attention. They’ve learned that if they simply wait out the knee jerk reactions and noise, they still get to stay on stage. And often, the easiest way to get on that stage in the first place is to do something dumb, out of touch, ridiculous, provocative, offensive or shameless. Especially if the attention that behavior earns can be more easily translated into money than other more rational acts.
Nearly two thousand years ago, the Roman satirist Juvenal joked, “What’s infamy matter if you can keep your fortune?” Well, that’s the question everyone from the Kardashians to the cast of the Jersey Shore has consciously or unconsciously asked themselves since the internet became the dominant medium. So have the many media manipulators we’ve interviewed in this column over the last few years. They’ve figured out that the initial internet tantrum of yelling or mockery or faux-outrage may hurt, it may make their parents embarrassed, but if they can just outlast it, by the end they’ll still be more famous than they were before it started. They’ll get to keep their jobs.
Any publicist will tell you this. A scandal is awful while you’re in it, almost unbearably awful as the headlines from bigger and bigger outlets pour in. But as time passes, whatever those headlines said begins to blur, the pointed words lose their potency and the residue that’s left is raw fame. And fame is a precious resource that most people, companies, and causes will never have but always seek.
And while people have always been willing to debase themselves to get famous, this mindset has metastasized through our more important institutions—from journalism to government.
The Gawkers of this world publish the most vicious and shameful story of 2015, and as long as their writers can successfully pretend they didn’t do anything wrong, they can get right back on their high horse and blog like it never happened. A Donald Trump can make serious—even alarming—progress towards the nation’s highest office so long as he refuses to laugh at the joke of it all.
One can imagine these folks surfing a large and monstrous wave of attention. It looks dangerous and indeed it is, but they know—having been on or watched others on such waves before—that if they can just ride it out they’ll emerge intact, ever the more famous for it, since so few have.
All of this dangles an almost irresistible proposition in front of ambitious people who have nothing to lose. People who need to be talked about, like attention-hungry reality stars, delusional demagogues or radical extremists. There is nothing that you could say that would hurt the cast of Vanderpump Rules or The Real Housewives, that doesn’t help increase the amount they can charge for club appearances. And now, there’s nothing you can say that would offend Martin Shkreli and Vladimir Putin that won’t also embolden them. There’s no truth that one can print that doesn’t help ISIS recruit or PETA raise money. They need you to talk about them and to insult them, to make fun of them is to do that. You are the oxygen to the fire of their fame. They have no reputation to ruin, only notoriety to gain. They don’t care what most people think, only what will traffic with their followers.
And that is what is so frightening about these figures and our culture today. Unlike inept employees, or even old school media provocateurs, none of these people can even be fired. If someone finally gathered up enough courage to kick people like this to the curb, there’d be no mechanism for it. The only mechanisms we have are those that brace the people they are intended to weaken.
That’s what so few people understand about the media, especially the people who work in it. They sit there and criticize other people for manipulating the media but refuse to wake up and realize that a media stuck in such frozen patterns is part of the problem. Nor do they disclose how much they themselves enlarge the controversies that they also benefit from. Instead, sites like Salon or Breitbart or even BuzzFeed revel in the loads of traffic it sends their way.
I remember calling my boss at 4am one morning—not having gotten a lick of sleep because one employee had forgotten to hire security for an event that subsequently ended in a riot—and realizing that as angry as he was at this person, nothing was going to happen because of it. In a weird way, I almost admired the employee who had figured it out. He knew he was invincible and lived in what must have been an empowering, comfortable bubble because of it. (Me? When I figured it out, it just made me depressed.) And then I had to clean up the PR mess.
Shamelessness. That’s the key.
Shamelessness is what our system is actively selecting for. You might even say we’re breeding for it. You have to breed for it, when you think about it. What normal, well-adjusted person would sell their soul, exaggerate their worst tendencies, suppress their self-awareness, just to get attention? What sane person would willingly subject themselves to a system that flays and mocks and criticize and screams? Who finds being yelled at or publicly derided simply a cost of doing business (poorly)?
A shocking number of people, it turns out.
Unfortunately, none of them are the people you might hope for. The cartoonist Scott Adams, apologizing during a major incident a few years ago, wrote that “Ideas are society’s fuel. I drill a lot of wells; most of them are dry. Sometimes they produce. Sometimes the well catches on fire.” People like Adams—valuable cultural contributors—are losing the ability to take creative risks. A good person who happened to have said something dumb in an email once, or took a private naked photo, might have their willingness to drill those wells (as Adams put it) utterly destroyed, while others—due to their calculated shamelessness and delusional imperviousness—continue to operate with impunity, untouched.
Just look at Donald Trump. A Yale Professor is driven to resign over the microaggressions in an email while someone like him can stand on the national stage and spew ignorance and hate.
It’s a hollowing out of our world. The good employees are quitting and the terrible are made intractable and untouchable. The people who thrive are the ones who we wish would go away, and the people we value most as cultural contributors lurk in the back of the room, hoping not to get noticed and hurt.
At this point, everything in-between—vulnerability, nuance, truth—may as well not exist. When our culture encourages the fakeness and stupidity and trolling it is supposedly trying to rail against, there is no room for anything else.
And with these incentives we have decided to create, it’s almost certain this point will fall on deaf ears. It’s too subtle to cut through the noise.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and two other books. He is an editor-at-large for the New York Observer and his monthly reading recommendations are found here. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.