Culture guilt is a power used to undercut our confidence.
When was the last time you thought to yourself, 'Aw, man, I really should watch that movie/read that book/try out that TV show because I'm not some kind of uncultured swine?'
If you're like me, it was about five minutes ago, when you left the movie theater after seeing Searching and remembered that Incredibles 2 is still playing and you haven't seen it yet, and you really should, even though you were never all that into the first Incredibles movie (I know, *gasp*) and would be more interested in Toy Story 4. Or an Edna Mode spinoff.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Where does all this "should" come from? Are there really 100 classic movies you should watch before you die? Are there really 10 new Netflix shows you should know about? Are there really 20 classic Charles Dickens books that you should have read in college? (Dear god, I hope not.)
Why is there all this pressure and guilt surrounding culture, and what should we do about it? Should we do anything about it? Is it a bad thing to feel pressured to learn more?
I vote, "mostly, yes."
Millennials are the most vulnerable to this type of guilt because: a) there's more cultural canon right now than there has ever been at any point in history, and b) unlike Gen Z, people expect millennials to be adults, and, among other things, that seems to entail understanding an endless array of pop culture references and significant moments not just from our own generation, but from every generation prior. This is impossible. (Go hug a millennial. We're dealing with a lot of pressure.)
Of course, there is a big marketing component, and while older things aren't marketed as fiercely as newer ones, in this age of targeted advertising, it's entirely possible to find yourself trapped in a vortex of "classics," making you feel like you are so very far behind. With ads like: "Customers who bought this also bought" and "Also by this author," every product page you've ever visited will come back to haunt your Facebook's sidebars. Long after you've exercised your willpower and not bought them, niche products will start popping into your feed, perfectly catered to your unique obsessions. These are the tools companies use to inundate you with a steady thrum of youneedthis, youneedthis, youneedthis.
I find that dressing up as Bernie Sanders, shaking my fist, and shouting "GRRRR, CAPITALISM!!!" generally does the trick here.
That is to say, when you remind yourself that you are being manipulated by companies tap-dancing on the decision-making centers of your brain, it becomes a lot easier to say, "Nah, I don't need this." Not always easy, but eas ier.
CAUSE: Micro-Social, i.e., Your Friends
All of this shoulding has infiltrated the way we talk to our friends, the way we recommend things. We can get pretty pushy about the things we like. All too often, it's not, "I think you would like this!" but rather, "You HAVE to see this!" "You should totally read this book!" "HERE I'LL PLAY YOU THIS VIDEO. IT'S ONLY 3 MINUTES. YOU NEED TO SEE IT RIGHT NOW!" And some people take it really personally if you don't like their recommendations.
But even with non-pushy friends, who understand boundaries and give recommendations only when asked or when extremely relevant to your interests, and who do so with the understanding that you may not get to them now (or ever) because you have a life and a million other things to do, we can still feel like we're being a bad friend if we don't read that book or watch that movie or listen to that song.
Who needs friends anyway?
I kid. But remember that even if you feel like a bad friend for not watching that movie, you can be a better friend by trying not to pressure your own friends when recommending things. Try toning down the "should" language and learning to handle people not liking the things you like. Make it clear that if they don't get to your recs, or don't like them, you will not be insulted. It isn't about you, after all. I used to take it so personally when friends didn't listen to my music recommendations. But from experience I learned that there are few things worse than being forced to listen to someone else's music when you aren't in the mood. Doesn't matter what the music is or how objectively good it is.
What it really boils down to is this: we are more than our taste in culture. Your identity is more than the books you read, more than the movies you like, the music you know by heart, the clothes you carefully curate. As Tyler Durden said, "You're not your f***ing khakis." When people reject something you like, they're not rejecting you. When you reject something a friend likes, you're not rejecting them. And when you internalize the idea that the cracks in your cultural lexicon are not a reflection on you, the person, it becomes a lot easier to shrug off the guilt.
But peer pressure is still a thing. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with your friends being invested in sharing their favorite movies, books, shows, or music with you. We all mean well by it; nobody is recommending things in order to make you miserable. But if they're creating a problem for you, hey, make it their problem too. If they keep recommending a book, tell them, "I will only get around to it if you literally put that book into my hands." If they're horrified that you've never seen Dirty Dancing (*cough* completely fictional example *cough*), tell them to arrange a movie night where you can watch it together. There's even this cool chrome extension called Netflix Party that allows you to sync Netflixes and watch a movie at the same time, so you don't even need to be nearby. Put the pressure on them too!
See, I'm not saying you should create more pressure and guilt; I'm just saying you should spread the guilt around. Guilt shared is guilt halved.
CAUSE: Macro-Social, i.e., Everyone Else
The world can be a hostile place. It's less than welcoming on the best of days. Knowledge is a form of armor. No one gets to question your credentials as an adult, a nerd, an English major, an intellectual, a fan, or anything else if you have all the knowledge. Some communities, especially cultural ones like fandoms, can be incredibly snobby about tiny, insignificant character details or storylines or statistics. Those fandoms require extra armor, and when there's a gap in your knowledge-armor, you're vulnerable to gatekeeping, to being not considered a "real fan/cultured person" to someone whose identity is all wrapped up in how much they know about this one thing.
Naturally, there's also the feeling that you're missing something. A last step on the staircase, a brand new meme that no one's explained but everyone seems to get, a joke that isn't actually funny but everyone appreciates due to a context you know nothing about. There's the feeling that you're missing key insights into the way the world works, or how it got to be the way it is, and that you'd finally understand if you just read that book or saw that film.
You're never going to get all the jokes. You're never going to absorb all the insights. Even if you watch all the movies and read all the books, there's always going to be something that stays locked away. For example, if you're watching and reading the classics out of sync with the time that they were made for, you're probably never going to really feel what they truly meant to the people who experienced them as they were released. You'd have to do research to really even get an inkling of it. And that's a lot of work for something that you don't really care about to begin with.
I suggest talking to the people who actually do care. Find out what the fuss is all about before diving in. Confession: I can't really stand most of the
Hamilton soundtrack – I find it repetitive and annoying, and it just doesn't do anything for me. *lowers blast doors* But I want to understand Hamilton, the phenomenon, so I talk to friends who are obsessed, and now I can appreciate what a groundbreaking thing it was to have a Broadway show with rap music that cast diverse actors for historically white characters, and how cool it was that Lin Manuel Miranda managed to make all that clever wordplay work. I can hold my own in most conversations about it, without having to make myself listen to the soundtrack or see the show.
This one's a doozy. It's really hard to feel like you're qualified to do something professionally when you know you have gaps in your knowledge. It's hard to create cultural artifacts of your own when you don't know what's been said or done before and can't tell if you're just rehashing old cliches.
Step 1: Find successful creative people. Step 2: Ask them what is one cultural artifact in their field that they're embarrassed not to have read/watched/heard/etc.
I guarantee you they have those gaps. And yet they can succeed. I personally have read an infinitesimal amount of Young Adult fiction, and yet I have sold YA fiction stories. I've never managed to slog through more than half of any Charles Dickens novel, even the shorter ones. But people paid money for my completely unqualified works of fiction. So yeah, familiarity helps, but overall, chill out.
None of this is to say that culture doesn't matter or has no value to offer you, or that you shouldn't try out new aspects of culture, even ones that don't initially seem appealing. Being open to pleasant surprises is one of the things that makes life interesting. One of the worst ways you can deal with your own culture guilt is to overcompensate and turn against culture in an anti-intellectual crusade. But go easy on yourself. You can be open to culture's best surprises without all that guilt. Searching was great, by the way. You should see it.
Sarah Meira (SM) Rosenberg (@FloatingSpirals) is a writer and copy editor who took a brief detour as an auto mechanic before returning to the written word. Her commentary and fiction can be found on her blog and at Amazon.
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