I had a revelation while looking at news footage of the Trump Tower climber. For those who don’t remember, I’ll give a brief synopsis. Back before the 2016 election, a young man scaled the facade of Trump Tower in New York using industrial strength suction cups. He made it to the 26th floor (if I remember the number correctly) before police caught him and hauled him inside the building. A massive throng of people amassed outside on the street to watch the spectacle, with police blocking off the road for traffic. Objectively speaking the man transgressed. Scaling other people’s buildings without permission is morally wrong, and potentially puts people in danger. That being said, many people cheered for the climber and wished him success in his endeavor. I’m confident that many onlookers both at the scene and on the other side of television and computer screens would have liked for the cat and mouse game to have continued, with the level of excitement increasing as he reached higher and higher.
What does this tell us about our society if we extrapolate this concept? Most people if asked would tell you that respecting property rights is important, yet many people (including many who would tell you it was wrong) cheered enthusiastically for the climber. There is a disconnect between what we know is right and what we support in the moment. Other examples of this will be illuminating. Free climbing or “parkour” videos are popular on YouTube and other video sides. The vast, vast majority of these videos are filmed at locations where the climbers obviously don’t have permission to be there. Often, they climb ridiculously high, perform stunts at extreme altitudes without safety gear or much of a margin for error. If they fall down and hit someone, the victim would be instantly killed by such a mass moving at tremendous speed. Yet, we don’t chastise the freerunners, we cheer them and click play on the next video.
Prank videos featuring pranks on innocent bystanders, store/restaurant employees and so on are also in high demand. There is a lack of empathy for the innocent party here. Some of the pranks will necessitate time and resources in order to clean up, both physically and mentally/emotionally. One egregious example is a prank done by the channel “Vitalyzd” a few years ago. In the video the pranksters pretend that a pram carrying a baby is out of control and rolling downhill, off a cliff or something similarly dangerous. Bystanders rush into action, suffering extreme mental anguish at the thought of an innocent young baby suffering severe injuries or worse. For the pranksters this is hilariously funny, but what about the bystanders?
What all this means is that our modern society is suffering from a distortion from the fundamentals we like to think our civilization is built upon. At the same time, we wish for others to be moral and conduct themselves in a respectable manner, we cheer on and support those who transgress and break the covenant of societal rules. What are we to make of this clear disconnect? While the renegade, outsider, outlaw archetype has always been popular in fiction, my experience is that we now look up to those deviating from classical norms at the expense of law abiders. We have definitely experienced a moral, sentimental, emotional and cultural shift over the last decades. In that context the recent rigid stratification of American politics and culture into distinct camps is more a symptom than independent happening.
While the worship of the outlaw can be perfectly healthy, it requires a strict adherence to the moral and law-abiding foundation that should lie at the center of ourselves and society at large. What is new is that this foundation has eroded and been replaced by widespread indifference to what is going on. Apart from the politically active on both the right and left, there is a massive blob of people in the center completely consumed by consumer culture, mindless non-challenging entertainment and a going along to get along sentiment that is detrimental to political discourse.
While I enjoyed “Breaking Bad” as much as anyone, I’m able to distinguish between the flourishing of anti-heroes in fiction and the ethical ruleset I advocate and follow in my personal life. Perhaps the hysterical soccer moms were right all along, video games, violent television programs and movies, derogatory music and so on have had a negative impact in the moral vacuum found in contemporary society. I myself am able to enjoy Grand Theft Auto without having the simulated actions spill over into real life. But in a culture where apathy, indifference, non-confrontation and hedonism rule, the consequences can be and already are catastrophic. As a society we must reclaim a healthy relationship to proper ethics, start caring again and relegate the outlaw anti-hero to his proper place, the world of fiction.