May 21, 2021

In one of those strange cultural quirks that makes the world a more interesting place, in the Russian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? contestants tend not to “Ask the Audience” because the audience too often deliberately give them the wrong answer. (French audiences also do this to a lesser extent — of course.)

This is supposedly to do with the country’s history of serfdom, collective ownership and general misery and oppression. Even before Communism, life in rural Russia was very communal, and late tsarist attempts to introduce private ownership into the Russian village failed miserably. This, combined with the country’s hugely stratified social hierarchy, meant that most Russians had little chance of making it rich. When they did, their neighbours resented it and assumed that they must have done something nefarious and unmerited. Why should Ivan win a million when I’m stuck here?

In America, by contrast, audiences whoop and cheer when Hank or Chuck gets the question right because, even if they’re poor, they think that anyone can make it and maybe they will too. Historically, it’s not untrue.

The Russian view of other people’s financial happiness has its equivalent in the West today with other people’s romantic and sexual happiness. It’s a phenomenon I call “toxic validation”, because the more people make the wrong decisions in their life, the more the audience cheers.

It’s a very modern phenomenon because it’s only recently that we have seen the development of a sort of ambiguous class between celebrities and “civilians”; influencers with a medium-sized social media following who build a relationship with their audience so intimate that they one day might even control aspects of their lives.

But even people who are not influencers still routinely go online for life advice, and the life advice they receive is invariably terrible. The most popular responses will always be the worst, but more toxic still is the way that people receive validation through social media engagement.

Here, the most popular lifestyle declarations, in terms of retweets and likes, are almost always the most disastrous. They’re the ones where people tweet about breaking off workable romantic relationships over quite minor problems; ending a relationship with a family member over politics; pursuing a conflict with employers that don’t need to be pursued; even self-mutilation — all while being encouraged, praised and applauded by thousands of people.

In many cases, the validation has a political aspect, in particular with regard to sex-positivity: such as when an exploitative narcissist uses ideology to undermine his girlfriend’s natural reluctance, and she tweets “Now he’s introduced me into a polyamorous relationship and although I felt uncomfortable at first I’m doing the right thing and am so happy!” Right?

The correct answer – the American audience answer – is “WRONG! Ditch him!” The social media applauders tell people quite the opposite:  obviously not what you’d advise a loved one.

But while ideology plays some part in this bad advice, the main problem is that these sites give people an audience, and audiences rarely have our best interests at heart; sometimes they are swayed by fashion and sometimes they are just bored and want drama.

And this danger of toxic validation also applies to genuine, high level celebrities, too, especially if political fashion is involved. Just weeks after his Oprah interview, in which he basically denounced his family as racist, Prince Harry was at it again, talking about his upbringing: “I don’t think we should be pointing the finger or blaming anybody… but certainly when it comes to parenting, if I’ve experienced some form of pain or suffering because of the pain or suffering that perhaps my father or my parents had suffered, I’m going to make sure I break that cycle so that I don’t pass it on, basically.”

Prince Harry was obviously referencing the fate of his mother, but her relationship with the media was far more like that of predator and prey, although also symbiotic; the son, instead, receives toxic validation from sections of the commentariat for opening up, for tackling important mental health issues, for being modern.

“You know what, that happened to me, I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen to you,” he said of his own troubled relationship with his parents. And he’s of course right, I’m sure. It wasn’t a hugely loving environment, but then the royal family isn’t exactly famous for the whole lovey-dovey thing.

Charles’s own parents went off on a royal tour of North America when he was three and upon their return at Euston a camera caught the young Queen speaking to various family members before briefly patting her son on the head as an afterthought. There is no question that a lack of parental affection continues to hurt right into adulthood, but is Harry benefiting from the validation he gets here? The wisest advice anyone could give him would be to avoid the media as much as possible, never say anything about his relationship with his family, not mention political subjects and instead concentrate on uncontroversial good causes. Every time he does any of those things, he gets validation and becomes slightly worse off; more unpopular, more divisive, less likely to rebuild happy relationships, more likely to feel guilt and self-disgust later in life.

And yet he’s cheered on by an audience that dislikes the royal family, that dislikes the sort of people who are anti-Meghan and who believe public displays of inner turmoil are in society’s best interests. I doubt they are, but they certainly aren’t in Prince Harry’s interests — this is a Russian audience voting, not an American one.

So why do people validate other’s destructive lifestyles? One reason might be a need for chaos, but another is probably the need to rationalise their own life decisions. This is why, I suspect, so much bad advice is given out by journalists and social commentators — articulate, intelligent people who are often very bad at making life choices, and have been since the days of Rousseau and Paine.

Rousseau wrote a sort-of lifestyle guide to raising children while sending his own poor children to certain death in an orphanage; Paine wrote two of the most influential tracts on human affairs while pissing away his own life on drink. Journalists tend to have chaotic personal lives filled with debt, disastrous relationships and a desperate need for popularity, which is why you should never let them near the levers of power.

And people living distinctive lifestyles feel the instinctive urge to evangelise for that lifestyle, to gather cultural support around it, to encourage others to do the same. No one ever says: “I’ve decided I’m now X or doing Y or living with Z but I don’t particularly want to talk about it and don’t expect anyone else to go along with it.”

In the marketplace of cultural ideas everyone is selling, creating a competition in which values are inevitably changing rapidly. When social norms are ambiguous and up for grabs toxic validation can only flourish, because in the game of life no one is entirely sure what the right answer is to anything. Every question is worth £32,000 and the audience doesn’t necessarily want you to win.

To return to Russia’s cheery history, after the revolution broke out, the Bolsheviks enacted the first great sexual revolution of the 20th century. Determined to break the bonds of family, Russia’s rulers encouraged young Communists to publicly denounce family members for opposing the regime, to the approval of their peers and society’s new elites. This same thing happened in Mao’s China, where they were lauded with approval for their fervour in this time of revolutionary moral uncertainty.

Later, when it all sank in, the same people were overcome with guilt, shame and horror at what they had done. They had made a terrible choice. But then people, especially the young, seek validation from the most influential and powerful in society, not from the wisest, or those with their best interests at heart.

The Bolsheviks wanted children to turn against their family members because they saw the family as a rival to state power, but the family was also the source of common sense and folklore, the cumulative wisdom of the ages. It is a rival source of affection, and a genuine one, as Christopher Lasch called it, “a haven in a heartless world”. And it really can be a heartless world — which makes it all the sadder that the toxic validators cheer when a young man denounces his own.

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