On responding to “withering” cultural pressure


Our parents got peer pressure all wrong.

The apocryphal “dealer on the playground” never existed, at least not in my experience. No one ever said “it’ll make you feel good” to me, and I never heard anyone I knew talk about having it said to them.

As we got older, instead of someone offering us nefarious things, it became kids trying to influence other kids to do the same. This was usually drugs (cigarettes, alcohol, whatever) but now it was someone in your peer group. “It’ll make you feel good” was still the inference, and if you resisted, you would be pressured.

But this is never how it works. What happens is more insidious. And this same kind of pressure doesn’t end when we become adults.

Passive pressure

What happens, or rather, what happened to me in all these cases, was that when something, some situation was offered to me, and when I declined for whatever reason, there was no pressure. Instead, everyone just went off to do whatever it was, and I was left by myself.

The real peer pressure is never one of persuasion, it’s that the alternative is passive exclusion.Okay cool, well, we’re all going to go off and do [X], so, see ya.

As I’ve learned with a hint of sadness, the social quagmires that we hope to escape from in childhood and adolescence never really go away, they just change. And this pressure can come from anywhere: fashion, food, technology, wherever.

David Foster Wallace knew

David Foster Wallace, who I would consider one of my favorite authors, worked in longhand.

David Foster Wallace and his bandanna of truth.
David Foster Wallace and his bandanna of truth.

Would you believe this? When he was alive and writing (he died in 2008) we were very much in the digital age, well into the age of word processors and the Internet.

I personally would find writing longhand far too slow and tedious, but that’s just me. Wouldn’t the charmingly loquacious DFW feel the same way?

Well, we can’t ask him now, but he did talk about this in interviews on a few different occasions.

From an interview with Amherst College:

I am a Five Draft man…I got down a little system of writing and two rewrites and two typed drafts…

And in conversation with Bryan Garner:

The writing writing [repetition intentional] that I do is longhand…The first two or three drafts are always longhand…I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.

I suspect that while this attitude is complete and truthful, it was not without significant pushback. While it seems possible if unpopular to believe in this way of writing in the 1980’s, it seems positively ludicrous from there.

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I suspect that he got a lot of grief about his ways. And as evidence of this, one finds a smattering of anti-technology quips and asides throughout his work. The most salient of these seems to come out of nowhere, in an essay regarding the aforementioned Bryan Garner’s work “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage”. While talking about being a “SNOOT” (a kind of “Grammar Nazi”):

I submit that we SNOOTs are just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd. There are, granted, plenty of nerd-species in today’s America, and some of these are elitist within their own nerdy purview … But the SNOOT’s purview is interhuman social life itself. You don’t, after all (despite withering cultural pressure), have to use a computer, but you can’t escape language: Language is everything and everywhere …

Note well the parenthetical aside. Because I feel like in this short phrase, good ol’ DFW hits upon a feeling that all of us share, universally, and one that behooves us to manage, lest we live inauthentically.

Not how they would have done it

I’ll admit, I do a lot of things differently. My life trajectory is not a traditional path. Whether we’re talking about relationships, career, interests, whatever, I feel like I go against the grain a lot. This is obvious by how we’re being marketed to.

And make no mistake, on some level, this hurts. I still remember the time a (now long gone) relative of mine congratulated me on my college graduation (after a few false-starts), but added with no lack of disdain, “I wouldn’t have done it that way of course, but good for you.

Just last week, I was walking down the street having just texted someone, and a woman walking by me said, “Is that a flip phone? I haven’t seen one of those in forever!” And while I shrugged it off with a grin (“I like to keep things old-school“, I replied) the extra attention wasn’t desirable. I’m not being different just to be different, to to the world “look at me!”

You’re probably the same way, albeit with your own special differences. And this path we’ve taken together isn’t going to be easy. And the temptation is going to be to give in, to relinquish your hold on how you naturally are.

Don’t. Please don’t. Cultural pressure, withering though it may be, is a force that you can stand up to. It is merely a manifestation of our collective insecurities and our search for meaning. It is the easy way out. See it for what it is.

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You’ve got a difficult road ahead. But don’t you dare give up. Too much is at stake. Let’s take back “I wouldn’t have done it that way” and have it be our rallying cry.

A page from David Foster Wallace's draft of infinite Jest. Thanks to Newsweek
A page from David Foster Wallace’s draft of Infinite Jest. Thanks to Newsweek
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