The False Freedom of Flippancy

Conformity Comes in Many Costumes

It is a common conception, especially among young people, that having an “attitude” of flippancy expresses independence and freedom. By “attitude” I mean a conscious opposition to social norms about appearance and conduct. What society says they should do, they do not do.

I call them the “Too Cool to Care” crowd. Whether it is being a slacker, punk, goth, counterculture, anti-establishment, or whatever, the philosophy of flippancy is the idea that by being contrary to what is considered proper, one creates an independent identity. I see this sometimes in my university students. They are too cool to care about learning or the world (of course the hardcore flippant ones are “too cool” to even go to university). They focus on themselves, what they wear, do, and say; oh, and on looking cool. Being flippant and sarcastic is cool. Or, I should say, thought to be cool, because it isn’t, it’s a dead end.

Flippancy is a False Freedom

Flippancy is a myopic world view. Sarcasm can be fun; I use it too. But if cynicism is all that you bring to the table, you’re pretty lame. You may get a laugh from a snide, flippant, or sarcastic comment, but the laughter stops pretty quickly and you’re left with what exactly? People also try to dress to appear flippant and snide. These efforts gave rise to certain fads. Punk, goth, death metal, blah, blah, blah ad nauseum, are personas of the counter-culture – identifiable norms of not being “normal.” The problem is, if you dress to identify with one of the counter-cultures to show you aren’t “normal,” how are you any different from the people who dress to identify as “normal?” Gravitating toward a counter-culture identity is fundamentally no different than gravitating toward a culturally-approved identity. They are just different costumes.

Kierkegaard figured it out 180 years ago

Support Independent Bookstores - Visit IndieBound.orgIn his book Either/Or, published in 1843, Kierkegaard wrote about the flippant mindset. Kierkegaard tells the story of a young man describing his personal philosophy of flippancy. The young man endeavors to be as unpredictable as possible, moving from one role to the next, never doing what was expected of him. In this way, he said, he was free from society because no one knew who he was and no one could say he fit into what society expected. Life is a game, the young man said, a masquerade ball of illusions and tricks.

Kierkegaard has another character tell the young man how foolish he was being:

“Life is a masquerade, you explain, and for you this is inexhaustible material for amusement; and so far, no one has succeeded in knowing you; for every revelation you make is always an illusion. Your occupation consists in preserving your hiding place and that you succeed in doing, for your mask is the most enigmatic at all. In fact, you are nothing: you are merely a relation to others, and what you are you are by virtue of relation.”

Exactly In rebelling against society, the young man still defines himself by his relation to society. Similarly, the flippant person today, in their rebellion against society, defined themselves by their relation to society. To try to be counter-culture is to be determined by normal culture. Flippancy is not freedom; it is just another role. It is consciously choosing to be contrary to societal norms. Society tells you to behave appropriately. Flippancy is saying you won’t. But both proper and improper behavior is defined by society, therefore being deliberately contrary to it is also allowing yourself to be defined by society. Being “Too Cool to Care” requires knowing what one should care about and consciously desiring to not do it.

There are, of course, frelling good reasons to be angry

The people being flippant and counter-culture often express their difference and freedom through anger. They are angry at society and at “normal” people for how they are, focusing on how the “normal” people treat with disdain the “not normal” people. Being angry about injustices, like racism, misogyny, income inequality, and so on–that’s legit. It is healthy to be angry and refuse to conform to systems of oppression. But that’s what makes flippancy for its own sake all the worse–it mocks legitimate anger about injustice. Righteous anger is not caring about what others think of you, it is caring about others.


True freedom

Freedom of self is not letting others define you. The least cool attitude is one that worries about whether others think you are cool. Anyone who is truly free does not notice and is unconcerned by what is culture or counter-culture. Real freedom begins when you stop trying to impress others and instead naturally express yourself. That means knowing yourself, which is difficult if you identify yourself as a member of any mainstream or counterculture group. Conformity comes in many costumes. The preppy and the punk are both constrained by their costumes. True freedom is not wearing any costume. Be natural; be yourself.

One comment

  1. What you write rings true about so many people I have known in life. High school especially. I wonder sometimes if these angry cool people ever grew up.

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