Our ADHD culture only survives off such 'scissor events'
“Basically, I’ve been bored ever since 9/11”, says one shallow, selfish character to another in an episode of Peep Show, first aired in 2012. “Yeah that was good news” replies the other, “not good news, obviously, but good news.”
Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars isn’t good news, but it is good news. It has it all: race, gender, sex, celebrity, and a two minute clip (“uncensored!”) to be joyfully shared, clipped, screen-shotted, and commented upon. It’s what the blogger Scott Alexander calls a ‘scissor’ event, in that it invites wildly divergent interpretations which inevitably generate their own controversy. And, best of all, it’s stupidly trivial: no one commenting on the slap actually cares about it one bit.
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When I woke up this morning at 5:30am London time and reached (as I do, always) for my phone, the hot takes were already flying fast. Was Will Smith defending his wife Jada’s honour, given Chris Rock’s ill-mannered joke about her alopecia? Or was he expressing his own toxic masculinity? Was Jada the real abuser? Or was Hollywood to blame? Could it all have been a set-up? “The debate over that slap and the joke and the apology is gonna consume the next three weeks of discourse” tweeted the Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt. “You’re gonna hear takes you can’t even imagine yet.”
Hiatt is right, with the exception of one detail: it won’t be three weeks, it will be more like three days. The ADHD news cycle could barely manage three weeks of sustained attention in response to the greatest security crisis in Europe since the Second World War. The Russian invasion of Ukraine began just four and a half weeks ago, and already is beginning to slip down the ‘top stories’ and ‘trending’ lists generated by news and social media platforms. This morning, 80% of the stories recommended to me by Twitter related to the Will Smith slap while news of ongoing Russian and Ukrainian negotiations barely feature.
Remember the US retreat from Afghanistan? That was “good news”, but only for about a week. Afghanistan is nowhere to be seen now in Western media. The Covid-19 pandemic remained “good news” only through frequent pivots from one culture war theme to another, plus a heavy dose of ‘panic porn’. That’s the nature of the social-entertainment-news media complex (and yes, I know, I’m commenting from within it). Everything that happens in the world — whether it be as unimportant as a slap at the Oscars, or as consequential as the Russian invasion of Ukraine — is eventually spat out as profitable entertainment, to be shortly forgotten.
In a 2003 essay about 9/11 as a television event, the critic Mary Ann Doane wrote of this impulse in the media to turn everything into a spectacle, including tragedy:
Roll on the next bit of “good news.”