Discourse on the Vanity of Modernity

D: …I have a question for you Adam.

A: Go on Dan.

D: I recently came across Rousseau’s First Discourse, in which he argues that the arts and sciences of modernity corrupt the morals of mankind. While I find this to be a bit troublesome, I cannot help but relate our young 21st century lives to this notion. As I am sure you can agree, the need to appear virtuous and attractive have artificially replaced the qualities of actual virtuousness.

A: So what you are saying is that people have unknowingly placed vanity over virtue?

D: Precisely. Specifically in this Age of Information and computing, social media morphs into a breeding ground for those who are vain.

A: Well that seems highly pessimistic. Social media has its benefits…

D: Right, but let us get to that later. First my question: do you think modernity has led to a progression of vanity while at the same time corrupting the morals of man?

A: This question is intricate to say the least; can we clarify a few things before heading into it? First, in what way are you defining vanity?

D: Well, I define vanity as having too much pride in your own appearance and accomplishments.

A: Is being proud in oneself in itself a virtue?

D: It could be. Where vanity finds the turning point is in the innate appearance of arrogance. Excessive pride is nothing short of poison.

A: How is arrogance innate to vanity?

D: It does not need to be, but in the context of modernity, which is the underlying world we live in, and something we cannot traditionally escape, materialism manifests within consumerism and promotes itself through our first-world entertainment culture. Bear with me through this example. Each time we turn on the TV, go online, or walk down the street, material items appear to us as if we need them to run our daily lives, in a sense. Look at the yearly release of iPhones or Jordan sneakers for instance. When someone appears without using the newest electronic device or wearing the latest design, a social inequality is instantaneously born through socio-economic means. The hardest part is that it does not happen consciously, but instead supplanted by careful marketing mechanics; and through this hierarchy of socio-economic means, the hegemony will always unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, look down upon those with lesser means; and arrogance arrives. Since we live in and will always live in the meshes of modernity, arrogance will always be natural.

A: You almost have me there, but if I may counter this, I would like to defend the definition of vanity.

D: Go on.

A: I see that you are twisting the root of vanity to assume it has an innate arrogance, but fail to grasp the larger picture. Before speaking of modernity’s role in the matter…

D: But you cannot divide the context from the source!

A: You misunderstand me; I am merely trying to make the point that vanity exists outside of modernity. You define vanity as having too much pride in one’s own appearance and accomplishments, but this detracts from the form your present it as in your grand speech of arrogance.

D: How so?

A: You immediately stray away from describing vanity to discuss the framework of our modern culture. It is important to consider that vanity existed before modernity, before the Age of Information, and certainly before you or I.

D: I agree, but fail to see your counter argument.

A: My point is simple: how can you argue the progression of vanity through modernity when you immediately begin the discussion inside modernity? You want to put up the frame before laying the foundation.

D: Now I see. Let us consider the innate characteristics of vanity before or without modernity. First, I propose my previous definition of vanity be agreed upon before continuing.

A: I suppose I have a trivial remark in that I find having too much pride, in the context of the definition, seems unnecessary. Why does there have to bee too much of it for the definition, excess of anything is obviously a bad thing.

D: But you see, that is what gives vanity meaning, otherwise having pride in one’s own appearance is confidence. The excess of pride, which the Catholics regard as a Cardinal sin, takes too much away from others that deserve one’s attention. Life is not an individual process in any form.

A: So you are saying vanity is born out of selfishness, the counter to altruism.

D: Exactly. This leads to my previous point in vanity having an innate quality of arrogance; too much time focused on oneself is unhealthy. Would you agree?

A: Now I can.

D: Now we can discuss vanity with two things in mind: first is a working definition that will help guide this discussion, and second that vanity holds an innate stigma because of the definition. Lets proceed.

A: To recall the first part of your question—has modernity led to the progression of vanity—I do not think the two have any real relationship with one another. In other words, no, the progression of vanity holds little to no value with modernity. In fact, I see the opposite. I think modernity and the social media culture has a purifying effect on the vanity of others.

D: How so?

A: I think the connections people make through the Internet has caused them to care less about themselves, and more for others. By making more connections possible online than in real life, the need to care for oneself decreases due to the invariable increase of time you spend with others.

D: This is not necessarily true. The progression of connections over the Internet is due more to efficiency rather than an increased unselfishness. I think that generally, people are making more connections now because of social media, but there is no substance to those connections.

A: What do you mean by substance?

D: Substance I define as the quality of that connection. Do you really think Facebook and Twitter users only follow or add their close friends and family that they care about?

A: Well…

D: How many friends on Facebook do you have?

A: 400 or so.

D: And you take the time to see or at least chat with those individuals periodically? Of course not! Just because you and an acquaintance follow each other does not make the quality of that relationship any better. It is purely a gross inflation of your perceived popularity or quality of companionship. All you see of those people are their semi-exotic travels, kids, or pets.

A: Okay, but what of your closer friends and family? I certainly think that through social media, the connection becomes strengthened.

D: You would think so, but does it really? To use part of your argument against you, I would like to point out the fact that social media requires some electronic device for it to exist. Would you agree?

A: Of course.

D: If the connections to close friends and family strengthens, that would require both members of that connection to increase the amount of social media they use, therefore creating a displacement to the amount of time they can potentially spend together in real life. The Internet conditions individuals to be content while alone, so long as they think they are connecting to others. This harks back to my previous word on the materialist nature of modernity.

A: You fail to see that interacting through social media is, in your words, more efficient. Therefore, rather than a displacement of interaction, an increase in the qualitative efficiency of the connection is made.

D: I fail in seeing how your argument is viable.

A: Let me explain with an example. Instead of having to show physical photos to people of your vacation, you can post it online to show all the people you care about at once. In this case, modernity brings larger groups of people together in order to form a more balanced measure between one’s vanity and unselfishness. You simply connect to others faster.

D: Let me explain how you are missing the point. Lets say you post a selfie of yourself with the Eiffel Tower in the background; it is not necessarily to share with those closest to you. The moment that selfie is released on Facebook, for instance, vanity is unconsciously born. You like your appearance both aesthetically, through the beauty of the Eiffel Tower, and psychologically through the amount of likes it gathers. Now think back to when you said you have 400 or so friends on Facebook; I would bet that less than 100 of those friends are actually close to you. The problem is that a majority of those friends are acquaintances. These individuals will immediately and blindly inflate the like count, causing you to feel more proud of yourself. Not to mention the fact that having a like count shows the popularity of oneself, another hegemonic mechanic. Sure, someone might comment lovely picture or I’m so jealous, but other than that, there is no substance. If those people were to physically go over to your dwelling and talk about the trip while looking at the pictures, a more genuine connection is guaranteed. The in person conversation extends far beyond the compliments paid on Facebook, while progressing the relationship between you and the friend, and all without having to inflate your vanity through likes and faulty comments.

A: How does any amount of likes contribute to some inflated ego?

D: It is all in the displacement that takes place. Not everybody has 400 friends on Facebook; some more, others less. The very fact that a number dictates your popularity and labels it as friends is damming and false. For example, the people who have thousands of friends on Facebook are only trying to make up for the fact that they have hardly a core of close friends and family, otherwise why else have that great of numbers? They vainly want to appear to be popular.

A: Well what if a person really does have thousands of friends?

D: That is too absurd. There are only 365 days out of the year. How would they have any time to reach that many people at least semi-frequently?

A: I guess.

D: I think this may be a good point to stop talking about these armchair philosophical ideas. To make one last point: there are two kinds of people on this world; those who are virtuous, and those who advertise their virtue. This advertisement instantaneously and without trepidation corrupts the virtuous and turns them into vain creatures. The problem is that it has always existed, but in a world where 400 or so friends on social media exist, that advertisement becomes painfully obvious. Those connections are just false representations of life.

A: We definitely have more to discuss another time, but the game is on in half an hour, and we still do not have food or drinks.

D: I agree, lets go…


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